Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)
Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson
Release date: November 20th, 2014
Running time: 123 minutes
Best part: The grimy visuals.
Worst part: The love triangle.
Let me stress this to film-goers and Hunger Games aficionados everywhere: this latest instalment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, is a mixed bag. Following in the Harry Potter, Hobbit, and Twilight‘s footsteps, this first-half feature is purposefully messy. Ok, that’s unconfirmed. However, it sure seems tangible. The movie’s central action sequence solidifies this theory.Teenage warrior Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), eyes down an enemy bomber, takes a deep breath, and fires her bow. Despite the awesomeness, it’s the one time she uses her signature weapon here.
Jennifer Lawrence & Liam Hemsworth.
Setting everything up for Part 2 (coming mid to late 2015), Mockingjay – Part 1 constructs an obstacle course for itself. Spinning several plates at once, the story wobbles violently before its rescue. Part of another undeserving and needless trend, this instalment should have only been one 150-minute feature. However, to make an extra billion in box-office revenue, Lionsgate screwed the pooch. The story, such as it is, hurls us back into the desolate landscapes of Panem. Thankfully, this entry takes a wholly refreshing departure from the Games. Katniss, having survived the world-shattering events of Catching Fire, is on rebellion leader President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee(Philip Seymour Hoffman)’s watch. Applauded by Districts 1 through 12, she’s become the symbol of rebellion and hope. Previously unaware of District 13’s existence, she learns of several mind-numbing truths. Pulled into the resistance/Capitol war, her efforts spark significant unrest. Worried about friend/admirer Peeta(Josh Hutcherson)’s safety, she focuses on protecting her loved ones. Despite volunteer soldier Gale(Liam Hemsworth)’s long-lasting affections, Katniss’ resolve reaches breaking point. Armed by previous Games winner Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Katniss and Gale become the children of the revolution.
Philip Seymour Hoffman & Julianne Moore.
Similarly to Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn, Mockingjay already suffers from studio interference. Almost always, splitting one narrative into two causes major structural flaws. In no other instance would this tactic be acceptable. So, why does this multi-billion dollar industry do it? Beyond the monetary gain, mass fandom influences these decisions. The fans, infatuated with Suzanne Collins’ original material and/or these adaptations, form a tight-knit community. Predictably, despite the cast and crew’s efforts, this installment doesn’t work by itself. It’s wafer thin narrative yields overwhelming major and minor flaws. The first half, specifically the painfully dour first act, explores our distraught lead’s psyche. Aided by former Hunger Games victor Finnick O’Dair (Sam Claflin), she flips between rousing anger and teary-eyed remorse. The movie unevenly plonks certain sequences next to one another. Though emphasising the consequences and stakes, it’s repetitiveness and bloated narrative are repulsive. The story leaves little but charred corpses, random set-pieces, and heavy-handed rants to connect with. The Capitol, however, still comes off like the Empire. The tension builds whenever moustache-twirler President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) appear. Sadly, this instalment takes the arrow away from the bow. Katniss, by focusing entirely on Peeta and Gale instead of the world around her, becomes yet another love-struck Young Adult heroine. Slipping from Catching Fire‘s grit to Divergent‘s distasteful pandering, this instalment never establishes its love triangle. Katniss, the only well-developed and charismatic character of the three, almost becomes Bella Swan here (but could still kick her ass!).
“You will rescue Peeta at the earliest opportunity, or you will find another Mockingjay.” (Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1).
Despite the complaints, Mockingjay – Part 1 is still a worthwhile installment. Here, Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water For Elephants) becomes this series’ David Yates. Displaying a bright infatuation for the franchise, his earthy direction – previously bolstering Catching Fire – grounds this expansive universe. Ditching the original’s shaky-cam/washed-out aesthetic, Lawrence’s cinematic flourishes boost this otherwise haphazard entry. Luckily, the movie’s last third builds significant tension and thrills. In addition, the political subtext overshadows its threadbare story. This installment examines the resistance’s larger-than-life propaganda machine. A camera crew, led by punky director/Capitol escapee Cressida (Natalie Dormer), follows Katniss and co. around whilst surveying the despair and destruction. This time around, popular characters Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) butt heads with revolution big-wigs over Katniss’ fate. Forget 3D and IMAX – this instalment launches its convoluted agenda from all angles. Katniss, forced into advertisements and viral marketing schemes, goes through several peculiar situations. Judging by just a few expressions, she’s more comfortable murdering small children than reciting lines and trying on fashionable military attire. Lawrence, switching between indie-drama experiments and major franchises, connects with the crowd-pleasing material. Amplifying the character’s physical and emotional transformations, the 23-year-old mega-star – displaying exceptional singing skills in one vital scene – displays more class than her more-experienced co-stars. New additions Moore, Dormer, and Mahershala Ali add gravitas as vital resistance players.
The major problems with Mockingjay – Part 1 have little to do with its actors, screenwriters, or director. Similarly to the Capitol, Lionsgate’s overbearing gaze affects everything involved. The infamous split-in-two decision sucks this instalment dry. Katniss doesn’t help either: becoming a shrill, unfavourable, and indignant YA trope. Fighting only for herself, her barely defined family members, and two bland super-zeroes, the Girl on Fire is now extinguishing her own flames. Sadly, the Mockingjay is struggling to take flight. Let’s hope Part 2 drops the attitude and picks up the bow.
Verdict: Half a Hunger Games flick (for better or worse).
Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver
Release date: October 23rd, 2014
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 103 minutes
Best part: The dynamic cast.
Worst part: The tedious gross-out gags.
Hollywood’s latest home-for-the-holidays venture, This Is Where I Leave You, strives to speak to, and for, the masses. Promising relatable situations and interesting characters, this big-budget dramedy strains and creaks whilst grounding itself. Crafting a slicker-than-shoe-polish version of reality, these movies, despite their commendable intentions, never convince. How can they be realistic, anyway? They feature ultra-wacky set pieces and ultra-popular celebrities. Even character-actor Corey Stoll, seen in the background of several recent movies and TV shows, has more money than everyone in Kansas combined.
Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll & Adam Driver.
Fuelled by Kings of Leon, American Authors, a relatable concept, and a starry cast, TIWILY‘s egregious marketing campaign highlighted the broad appeal. Given these actors’ big-and-small-screen successes, the formula seemed destined for positive results. The poster, plonking each big-name next to one another, sums up modern entertainment’s pros and cons. Sadly, the words “formula” and “conventional” linger throughout the final product. The movie, the latest in a series of familial dramedies, isn’t any better or worse than August: Osage County or The Judge. Like the aforementioned celluloid distractions, this dramedy’s reach drastically exceeds it grasp. The story kicks off with a wholly fantastical version of New York City. Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is a radio station manager living the dream. Coming home early from work, he’s shocked to discover his wife Quinn(Abigail Spencer)’s year-long affair with Judd’s favourite shock-jock/boss Wade (Dax Shepard). After three months of excessive remorse, heartache, and beard-growing, the newly divorced Judd is informed of his dad Mort’s passing. The Altman family – rounded out by matriarch Hilary (Jane Fonda), Judd’s sister Wendy (Tina Fey), older brother Paul (Stoll), and youngest Philip (Adam Driver) – come together for the funeral. As per Mort’s last request, the family must sit Jewish mourning custom Shiva. Stuck in their old home for seven days, the Altman’s past and present quarrels collide. Amongst the chaos, several key players show up to further elevate or deflate each family member.
Jane Fonda & Debra Monk.
Based on Jonathan Tropper’s book of the same name, TIWILY feels like an all-too-literal adaptation. Handing screenplay duties over to Tropper, the movie seemingly utilises every page to fill its 103-minute run-time. The original material, perfect for novel length, is lugubriously laid out across this cumbersome script. Like many dramedies, there’s way too much going on. Throwing in more sub-plots and characters than needed, the narrative’s top-heavy structure wains half-way through. The quiet parts, despite straining against the movie’s glorious sheen, deliver subtle and genuine moments. Certain character interactions, bolstered by its engaging cast and witty dialogue, are almost worth the admission cost. Several sequences work efficiently, depicting insults and stories thrown between troubled by fun-loving people. However, crushed under the narrative’s immense weight, the central plot-strands lack emotional weight or sustenance. Bumping into school friend/manic pixie dream girl Penny (Rose Byrne), Judd’s story-line is predictable, soulless, and tepid. Drowning in an ocean of A-listers, montages, and clichés, Bateman explores yet another sad-sack character. This dramedy – lacking the class, bravado, and cockiness of Arrested Development – adds to the comedic actor’s post-TV slump. However, thanks to quick-wit and charisma, the nice-guy lead delivers a measured performance. In fact, Judd, despite his conflict’s tiresome twists and turns, is the most likeable and intriguing character. The surrounding family members, defined by specific traits (new breasts, baldness, immaturity etc.), are mean-spirited and one note.
“It’s hard to see people from your past when your present is so cataclysmically screwed up.” (Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), This Is Where I Leave You).
Director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum series, The Internship) applies his hack-and-slash style to this subdued dramedy. Levy – whose filmography includes Cheaper by the Dozen, the Pink Panther remake, and Real Steel – isn’t known for intelligence, verve, or sensitivity. Touching on adultery, familial strife, and religion, its concepts construct only silly scenarios and corny ramblings. Despite the premise, the family’s Jewish heritage is picked up and dropped without warning. Certain sequences, despite the lack of consequences or emotional resonance, deliver big laughs and nice moments. Getting high in a synagogue, Bateman, Stoll, and Driver’s characters deliver comedic and dramatic shades. Also, Fonda’s ever-lasting figure is given significant attention. Playing an open-minded writer/therapist, Fonda charges through the role. The movie serves to boost its actors’ career trajectories. Fey, known for writing and leading better comedic material, excels despite her underwhelming and manipulative sub-plot. Contending with old-flame Horry (Timothy Olyphant) (suffering permanent brain damage from an accident several years earlier), her character’s conflicts deserve more development. In addition, Phillip’s sub-plot – fighting to keep his relationship with older girlfriend/therapist Tracy (Connie Britton) going whilst fighting off former conquests – serves to kickstart slapstick gags and wild misunderstandings. Furthermore, Paul and his zany wife Annie(Kathryn Hahn)’s attempts to conceive yield even-more-implausible set pieces. Despite the misjudged material, character-actors Debra Monk and Ben Schwartz get enough time to shine.
Biting off much more than it can chew, TIWILY is hindered by a lackluster filmmaker and tiresome screenplay. Tropper, despite handing his own material, misjudges the adaptation process. Crafting too many story-lines, characters, and twists, the book-to-film translation lacks joy, weight, or warmth. Despite the distasteful, A-listers-pretending-to-be-normal phoniness, the cast succeeds. Bateman, despite playing yet another down-on-his-luck loner, is charming and affable. Meanwhile, Fey, Stoll, Fonda, and Driver craft entertaining moments. Ultimately, this self-conscious effort never surprises, inspires, or even convinces. Welcome to Hollywood!
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine
Release date: November 6th, 2014
Distributors: Paramount Pictures, Warner Bros. Pictures
Countries: USA, UK
Running time: 169 minutes
Best part: The mind-blowing visuals.
Worst part: The exasperating length.
Whenever a Christopher Nolan feature is released, two distinctive camps wage war. One group, known simply as the Nolanites, strives to elevate the acclaimed British filmmaker’s status. Convinced he’s cinema’s biggest game-changer, this cult pushes internet comment sections to breaking point. The other group directly clashes with the Nolanites. Convinced he’s another Michael Bay or Brett Ratner, the group causes a stir before, during, and after each movie’s buzz-time. His latest monster,Interstellar, has crafted the decade’s boldest cinema-related feud. Inexplicably, it’s a behemoth ripe for praise and parody.
Matthew McConaughey vs. the universe.
So, how did Interstellargarner said backlash? Oh boy, where do I begin?! There are many reasons behind said divisive reaction. Hot on The Dark Knight Rises‘ heels, it had a fascinating production history. Passed from Steven Spielberg to Nolan, the production undertook several exponential changes. Working from brother/writing partner Jonathan Nolan’s original script, Nolan crafts a concoction of weighty concepts, directorial ticks, and peculiar casting choices. Indeed, Spielberg’s version would have worked. However, Nolan’s version is a scintillating yet flawed epic. The story is…seriously, where do I begin?! This extravaganza follows mankind’s journey to infinity and beyond. Former NASA test pilot/engineer turned corn farmer Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) leads a bland life. Born into a warring world, he’s pushed through food wars, social obliteration, and his wife’s death. This widower, fathering Tom (Timothee Chalamet) and Murph (Mackenzie Foy), treats his job and father-in-law Donald (John Lithgow) with contempt. Humankind, regressing into an agrarian society, must contend with blight, dust storms, and economic/political/social/cultural failure. In fact, its schools teach children about phony, propagandistic space programs and 20th-century “excess and wastefulness”. Murph, convinced a ghost haunts her room, asks for Cooper’s help. Thanks to gravitational anomalies, it outlines a binary message listing nearby coordinates. Finding NASA’s underground station, Cooper is chosen for a humanity-saving mission. Aided by astronaut Amelia (Anne Hathaway), physicist Romilly (David Gyasi), geographer Doyle (Wes Bentley), and artificially intelligent robots TARS (Bill Irwin) and CASE (Josh Stewart), Cooper searches for life-sustaining systems and multi-tiered dimensions.
Interstellarbares several overwhelming positives and mind-numbing negatives. Wanting to have its cake and eat it too, the movie reaches for the stars but just misses. As notoriety and power rushes to these siblings’ heads, their latest aims higher than the Dark Knight trilogy and Inception combined. Despite Chris’ majesty, his reach still exceeds his grasp. So, with this in mind, why the high rating? The well-renowned filmmaker, switching from mind-bending blockbusters to unique drama-thrillers (Memento, Insomnia) to outside-the-box surprises (Following, The Prestige), still deserves immense credit. His style, delivering blockbusters no one else can compete with, deserves meticulous study and discussion. Interstellar, despite being a lesser effort, is born from full-blooded ambition. Unlike previous efforts, light, space, and optimism solidify its core. Fuelled by intriguing ideas, multi-layered plot-lines, and major themes, each act delivers significant twists and turns. Standing out from the second-two thirds, the opening 45-60 minutes weave through parenthood, global degradation, and spirituality. Despite the leaps in logic, the first third delivers touching moments and picturesque flourishes. Ripping up/burning down corn fields, poetic happenstances, and far-fetched ideologies, its less-is-more approach switches between apocalyptic-actioner tropes and ponderous dream-weaving. After Cooper’s run-ins with Dylan Thomas poetry aficionado/Earth saviour professor Brand (Michael Caine), Nolan hurls us into the stratosphere. Pulling us into his galaxy-hopping journey, the second-two-thirds obsess over quantum mechanics, wormholes, potential home-worlds, black-holes, physics, and relativity. The convoluted screenplay, spilling vital details through exposition, becomes a miasma of theoretical physicist Kip Thorne-approved science mumbo-jumbo, plot-holes, needless plot-strands, and contrivances.
“We used to look up at the sky and wonder at our place in the stars, now we just look down and worry about our place in the dirt.” (Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), Interstellar).
Jessica Chastain & Casey Affleck.
Sadly, Interstellar‘s egregious run-time is inexcusable. Exhausting his audience, Nolan’s latest is too dark for too long. In the last third, its grand-scale messages send it into a crash landing. Flipping between hard science and love-and-fate-conquer-all posturing, Nolan becomes lost in his own tumultuous labyrinth. However, its smaller moments add emotional resonance, awe, and stakes. Nolan’s uncompromising visual flourishes are worth the admission cost. Wearing its central influences – 2001: A Space Odyssey and The Right Stuff – on its sleeve, it laps up the universe’s wondrous creations. Lapping up our solar system, Saturn has never looked so appealing! Also, the black-holes/wormholes are vast, awe-inspiring obstacles. The planets – constructed of water, ice and sand – are imaginative constructions. Shooting on anamorphic 35mm film, Hoyte van Hoytema’s cinematography paints with delectable strokes. Nolan’s world-building – depicting space’s weightlessness, silence, and claustrophobia – delivers edge-of-your-seat thrills. Nolan’s process – utilising practical effects over CGI – improves over each set piece, visual flourish, and extended take. Capturing space travel, human endeavour, and astronomy’s overwhelming merits, his style crafts engaging dreamscapes. Hans Zimmer’s organ-based score, coming in at opportune moments, amplifies the movie’s atmospheric glow. Throughout the middle-third, cross-cutting between space-and-time-tearing adventures and Murph(Jessica Chastain)’s and Tom(Casey Affleck)’s sibling rivalry, its overly insistent momentum swings wildly. However, the action – including one set piece connecting a shuttle to a damaged spacecraft – amplifies Nolan’s glorious style. Also, McConaughey elevates this monolithic sci-fi extravaganza. Crafting new inflections and ticks, the Oscar winner solidifies his immense worth.
Swinging for the fences, Interstellar attempts to deconstruct blockbuster cinema and create ground-breaking celluloid playgrounds. Despite the polarising screenplay and directorial choices, Nolan’s ambitions deliver several heart-breaking moments and wondrous flourishes. Delivering 2014’s ultimate movie-going experience, his willpower and attention to detail overshadow other action-adventure filmmakers’ styles. Aiding Nolan’s grand-scale project, McConaughey and Hathaway are flawless in beautiful roles. As an enthralling concoction of Cloud Atlas, Sunshine, and The Grapes of Wrath, this is true big-budget spectacle. However, Gravity achieved much more in half the length.
Verdict: A flawed yet invigorating sci-fi extravaganza.
Writers: Peter Landesman (screenplay), Gary Webb, Nick Schou (books)
Stars: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt
Release date: October 10th, 2014
Distributor: Focus Features
Running time: 112 minutes
Best part: Renner’s enjoyable performance.
Worst part: The exhaustive exposition.
Back in 1996, San Jose Mercury News investigative journalist Gary Webb changed the game for budding reporters, veteran editors, and everyone in between the world over. He published several articles condemning the Central Intelligence Agency’s treatment of specific Los Angeles communities. At this time, conspiracy theorists weren’t paid close attention to. Pushing the truthers into the background, society was much less jaded and skeptical…at least I hope so, anyway. Kill the Messenger strives to meticulously dissect the material.
Kill the Messenger, despite the intriguing narrative and starry cast, primarily illuminates politics and media’s current relationship. Despite the original story’s grit, the movie – based on Webb’s expose Dark Alliance and Nick Schou’s book of the same name – strives to reach mass audiences. Heads up journo students, fully fledged reporters, and editors: this movie takes the profession and tares it to shreds! Throughout, that “I can’t believe this actually happened!” feeling lingers in the consciousness. Thanks to this, everything hits hard! If you can’t stand a history lesson, get out now! The story revolves around Webb(Jeremy Renner)’s clashing professional and personal lives. After completing one of the year’s biggest stories, exploring the confiscation of homes from on-trial drug-running suspects, our subject becomes one of San Jose Mercury News’ biggest hitters. Known for his go-getter attitude and revelatory writing style, his hunger for truth and ratings turns novel ideas into hit stories. Keeping a close relationship with his editors, Jerry Ceppos (Oliver Platt) and Anna Simons (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), his nice-guy persona nabs him front-page leads and keen-eyed sources. At home, despite he and wife Susan(Rosemarie DeWitt)’s marital quarrels, his family is happy and tight-knit. He receives a call from Coral (Paz Vega), girlfriend of a notorious, on-trial cocaine trafficker. The man, prosecuted against by Russell Dodson (Barry Pepper), is rumoured to have worked with the US Government in the 1980s.
Renner, Mary Elizabeth Winstead & Oliver Platt.
Finding the link between the CIA and Nicaraguan anti-communist rebels, Webb unearths disastrous wrongdoings and their effect on LA’s African-American community. Throughout most of Kill the Messenger, we follow a David vs. Goliath tale of professional line-drawing and personal justification. This docudrama, exploring the decade’s biggest journalistic investigation, depicts an note-worthy rise-and-fall tale. As the investigation continues, it explains each step and tidbit. Given a notepad, interesting sources, and momentous revelations, Webb succinctly tugs each thread. The turning point, hitting during Webb’s interview with incarcerated drug kingpin “Freeway” Ricky Ross (Michael K. Williams), establishes the movie’s immense tone and purpose. Throughout the first half, as the fact vs. perspective feud simmers, his mission attracts lawyers, criminals, and crime lords. Despite the meaty material and searing relevance, it’s afraid of exploring the political, ethical, and social ramifications. Some sequences, depicting heartening interactions between our characters, outline the movie’s immense value. Sadly, others stretch its believability to breaking point. Telling and not showing, the narrative – switching from intriguing journo-drama to vague corporate-thriller – skims over vital details. The second half – depicting Webb’s conflicts with the CIA, editors, and rival media outlets – delivers broad characters and a mind-numbing anti-climax. Whilst interviewing Norwin Meneses (Andy Garcia), Webb’s dilemma – choosing whether or not to publish this information – is highlighted obtusely.
“American kids did die and are still dying, just not the ones you care about apparently.” (Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner), Kill the Messenger).
Renner, Michael K. Williams & Tim Blake Nelson.
Worthy of consideration, Kill the Messenger‘s subject matter remains timeless. Director Michael Cuesta – known for TV dramas including Homeland and Dexter – obviously loves the material. Despite his love of the facts, the independent filmmaker struggled to tell them. Leaping between major twists and turns, this docudrama – unlike All the President’s Men and The Insider – distorts enthralling details with underutilised plot-threads and weighty exposition. Aiming at a specific demographic, it expects us to know everything about these events. Despite its many facts and viewpoints, the movie never crafts an interesting agenda. As Webb is attacked mercilessly by the government and media, the broad storytelling and free-wheeling tangents muddy its points. Also, it never examines LA’s drug scene or Nicaragua’s ever-present issues. Telling a straight-forward version of events, Cuesta’s inexperience comes across. Shaking the camera and dimming the lights, his style carries several TV-drama-thriller traits. Examining modern media’s moral and commercial well-being, this docudrama captures the link between conspiracies, government actions, mass culpability, and journalistic integrity. Thrust into a dangerous world, Webb is a fascinating and likable subject. Renner, hopping between blockbusters (The Avengers, Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) and drama-thrillers (The Hurt Locker, The Town), delivers a shades-of-grey turn as the notable journo. Injecting scorn and charisma into the role, this underrated A-lister deserves immense credit.
Studying the nihilistic, dog-eat-dog world of professional journalism, Kill the Messenger tells a story worth exploring further. Despite the promising conceits, it jumps awkwardly between fact and fantasy. Giving its supporting players only one-or-two scenes each, Renner’s hearty performance carries this docudrama. Stripping away his Tinseltown glow, the forty-something actor returns to character-actor roots for this grueling role. Truth be told, he deserves much more than Hawkeye and Hansel.
Stars: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe
Release date: October 30th, 2014
Distributors: Lionsgate, Summit Entertainment, Entertainment One, Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 101 minutes
Best part: The hyper-violent action.
Worst part: The ethical issues.
What do the Matrix trilogy, Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, Dangerous Liaisons, and The Lake House have in common? Yes, they’re all destructive in various ways. They’re also led by one of modern Hollywood’s most polarising and ripe-for-parody performers. Actor/director/producer Keanu Reeves was one of the 1990s’ biggest names. His star power – raking in millions for some of the decade’s biggest actioners, dramedies, and horror-thrillers – seemed destined for eternal prowess. However, after 2008 mega-flop The Day the Earth Stood Still, his leading-man status fizzled out. So, how does one make a successful Tinseltown comeback? By completing multiple projects simultaneously.
Keanu Reeves kicking ass!
Blood-drenched actioner John Wick is one piece of a career-saving puzzle. Fresh off renowned documentary Side by Side and Martial arts extravaganza Man of Tai-chi, Reeves returns to studio-driven schlock. Of course, there is nothing wrong with that. Plenty of big stars (Liam Neeson, Denzel Washington) are riding this wave. Hoping to attract audiences and boost box-office numbers, Reeves has learned from these no-nonsense veteran stars. Similarly to Taken and Man on Fire, John Wick excels thanks to its lead character. Wick (Reeves), pulled through his wife Helen(Bridget Moynahan)’s cancerous death, feels completely lost. Struggling to get out of bed, his empty existence brings out the worst. Shortly after the funeral, he receives a package containing a Beagle puppy. Being his wife’s last gift, Wick learns to cherish his new four-legged friend. Two nights later, Wick is attacked in his home by three Russian criminals. Led by Losef (Alfie Allen), the gang kills the dog before stealing his ’69 Mustang. Losef, son of notorious New York mobster Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), messed with the wrong guy! Reaching out to veteran hitman/mentor Marcus (Willem Dafoe), Wick reaches into his blood-soaked past to destroy Viggo’s syndicate.
Michael Nyqvist & Alfie Allen.
Seriously, what was the last interesting and re-watchable action flick? Shrouded in stupidity and budget-related shortcuts, the genre is typically defined by disasters like A Good Day to Die Hard and Taken 2. If the genre was city, hacks like Luc Besson and McG would be the mafia dons talking down to us average folk. John Wick, dispelling the Expendables franchise’s ‘winning’ formula, is a glorious and engaging return to form. In fact, it’s a return to form for its actors, Hollywood action, and the genre. Giddily so, it gives everyone something to do and the filmmakers a chance to prove themselves. Stunt coordinators turned storytellers David Leitch and Chad Stahelski have worked tirelessly for decades. Known for boosting Reeves’ physicality and Hugo Weaving’s prowess in the Matrix trilogy, our dynamic duo utilise everything at their disposal. Handed a simplistic screenplay and tiresome premise, Leitch and Stahelski come close to polishing a turd. Dealing with retribution and deep-seeded emotion, the premise explores several intriguing and well-intentioned concepts. However, the script merely skims over them before distracting itself with action and chaos. Forced into small slithers, its greater themes are hissed out through monologues. Despite the simple-yet-effective plot, the movie doesn’t notice its own disturbing undertones. Letting Wick off the leash, the movie wholeheartedly supports his psychopathic nature. In the 1980s action-hero era, this would be awesome. Today, with gun control a major issue, it’s wholly insensitive.
“John Wick isn’t the Boogeyman. He’s the man you send to kill the f*cking Boogeyman!” (Viggo Tarasov (Michael Nyqvist), John Wick).
Fetishising guns, grenades, and guts, John Wick almost becomes ethically repugnant. Like most action flicks, overt masculinity, raw power, and lethal skills define its characters. Taking away Wick’s wife, muscle car, and dog in quick succession, the plot charts its leads’ journey from existential angst to full-blooded justice/vengeance/psychotic breakdown. Similarly to Dolph Lundgren/Steven Seagal/Jean-Claude Van Damme vehicles, budget and style clash throughout. Despite the strong action and hyper-kinetic style, this actioner works best within humble locations and small spaces. Taking the fight to nightclubs, hotels, houses, and car parks, John Wick utilizes everything within its world. As experienced badasses, Leith and Stahelski understand filmmaking’s complexities. Released in the Post-Raid era, John Wick – creating an immense body count – casts a huge shadow over Hollywood. Whipping Reeves and co. around one another, the choreography and cinematography illuminate its fantasy aura. Taking on Besson, John Woo, and the Wachowski siblings, their direction kicks the plot into overdrive. Wick, shooting almost every victim in the head at point-blank range, cements his status as: “the man you send to kill the f*cking boogeyman”. Throughout this hyper-kinetic bloodbath, Reeves establishes his simple-yet-effective merits. Speaking through gritted teeth and a peculiar accent, the 50-year-old A-lister crafts a charismatic glow. The supporting cast, including esteemed character-actors Nyqvist, Allen, Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Dean Winters, John Leguizamo, Ian McShane, and Lance Reddick, does valuable work.
Pulling Reeves back into the spotlight, John Wick is one of 2014’s biggest surprises. Leith and Stahelski, boosting their and Reeves’ careers, elevate its silly premise with zany flourishes and ballsy action. Despite the ethical conundrums, the movie crafts wholeheartedly divide reality and fantasy. Released in the post-Summer/pre-Oscar season void, this action-thriller should satisfy most audiences. Hopefully, Reeves can now forget the horrific 47 Ronin.
Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton
Release date: October 31st, 2014
Distributors: Open Road Films, Entertainment One, Elevation Pictures, Madman Entertainment
Running time: 117 minutes
Best part: Gyllenhaal’s mesmerising turn.
Worst part: The detective sub-plot.
No, Hollywood’s latest attack against Western Civilization – scintillating crime-thriller Nightcrawler – isn’t an X-Men spin-off. Almost certainly, this crime-thriller won’t resonate with average film-goers. In fact, those waiting for said superhero flick may shrug it off. From its casting choices to its viewpoints,the movie rallies against everything comfortable and wholesome. However, in this business-over-artistic-value era, few movies pack the one-two punch of creativity and intelligence.
Several recent movies have dissected capitalism, Western prowess, and modern media. Crime-dramas including Maps to the Stars and Gone Girl tear through the wool over our eyes. Nightcrawlerseeks to uncover the lowest rung of humanity. However, from a production standpoint, it appears unaware of its own hypocrisy. Despite attacking media, culture, and society, Hollywood’s allure still shines through. The cast and crew live financially and culturally rich existences. What would they know about lower-class suffering? So, with such people leading the charge, how does Nightcrawlerget away with it? By being accurate, determined, and so damn entertaining! The premise, though charging into several big questions and themes, revolves around one bizarre man. Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is an unemployed twenty/thirty-something with his eye on the prize. Desperate for cash, he resorts to stealing and trading metal from industrial complexes. Attacking and stealing from innocent people, his disturbing behaviour never pays off. One night, after pulling over to watch TV-news cameramen (nightcrawlers) film a fatal car crash, he concocts a get-rich-quick scheme. Obsessed with money, power, and respect, our unqualified and unstable lead becomes lost inside his uber-calculated conscience.
Arming himself with a cheap camera, a police scanner, and unemployed sidekick Rick (Riz Ahmed), Bloom aims for industry success, adrenaline rushes, and recognition. Certainly, Nightcrawler is an ambitious and opinionated crime-thriller. Ambitiously, it strives for the action-thriller and Aaron Sorkin crowds. Tackling major endeavours within a taut 117-minute run-time, certain sequences eek under immense pressure. Rushing towards its resolution, the movie struggles to define its points. Delivering a crash course in 21st-century living, director Dan Gilroy – acclaimed filmmaker Tony Gilroy’s brother – throws everything at us. Obsessed with its snaky lead character, the movie’s ethical and emotional current crafts a punishing and relentless swell. Throughout the first half, this crime-drama seems intent on following Bloom’s rise to success. Examining its slimy go-getter lead, the opening scenes deliver several nasty surprises. Contrasting Bloom’s home and work life, it becomes a unique thesis on the American Dream. Watering his one plant before hitting the web, our near-nocturnal lead pours blood, sweat, and tears into his journey. As the second half rolls through, he transitions into a murderous, selfish psychopath. Post dynamic station manager Nina(Rene Russo)’s introduction, the movie becomes a schizophrenic struggle between right, wrong, and modern civilization. The narrative, examining what Network expounded upon decades earlier, obsesses over delivering harsh truths.
“What if my problem wasn’t that I don’t understand people but that I don’t like them?” (Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal), Nightcrawler).
Gyllenhaal & Riz Ahmed.
Nightcrawler‘s nihilism may repel some viewers. Set in one of America’s most violent cities, its anti-capitalism agenda unfolds spectacularly. Presenting a pro-TMZ/anti-ethics world, the movie worships this seedy underbelly of vile men and lifeless machines. Bewitching those around him, Bloom’s ultra-slick business speak describes everything about him. Like a self-help speech, he communicates in lists, statistics, jargon, and tiresome cliches. His actions, proving pictures speak louder than words or morals, discusses this era of citizen journalism, the cameras-on-everything craze, and matter-over-mind media. Feeding TV stations with graphic images and exclusive/first-on-the-scene accounts, there is nothing he can’t, or won’t, do. Credit belongs to Gyllenhaal’s complete career-180. Following up star-defining vehicles Prisoners and Enemy, his Oscar-worthy turn tests each tick and inflection. Russo, fresh off a long-term screen hiatus, excels as Bloom’s shadowy game’s central victim. Gracefully, Ahmed and Bill Paxton provide chuckles as Bloom’s personality-driven distractions. Gilroy, like our lead character, creates show-stopping, unshakeable thrills. Several set pieces – depicting everything from shootouts to car accidents to home invasions – deliver edge-of-your-seat fragments throughout. The car chase, set up by our icky ‘protagonist’, boosts the scintillating and gruelling last third. Bolstered by Bloom’s Mustang, this sequence distinguishes itself from everything else.
In Nightcrawler, the City of Angels plays host to spiritual, emotional, and psychological demons. As Bloom crawls under our skin, the drama accelerates whenever he’s on-screen. Chronicling a slick rise-and-rise-and-rise story, this pulsating crime-thriller revs with force, meaning, and consistency. Similarly to Collateral and Drive, LA becomes a mix of crime, grime, and slime. Despite the sickening blackness, the grey areas keep the reviews flowing and ratings soaring.
Writers: Nick Stafford (play), Michael Morpurgo (novel)
Stars: Jack Monaghan, Nicholas Bishop, Andy Williams, Nicola Stephenson
Premiere date: 2007
Best part: The puppetry.
Worst part: The exhaustive story.
Broadway and the West End are the dreamscapes of aspiring theatre actors, directors, and playwrights. As theatre’s most prestigious hubs, they light up the night’s sky with billboards and prowess. Productions including Les Miserables, Wicked, and The Lion King have garnered huge profit margins and critical acclaim several times over. Nowadays, the world’s biggest cinema and theatre industries have a helluva lot in common. In fact, said theatre productions drastically overshadow the industry’s smaller players.
Joey and Albert Narracott (Jack Monaghan).
War Horse is a prime example of big-budget theatre’s stranglehold over New York, London, and everywhere in between. Despite its immense power, the play is only one minuscule part of a multi-billion dollar franchise. The play, based on Michael Morpurgo’s 1982 smash hit children’s novel, turns a modest fantasy tale into an exhaustive and overwrought epic. Originally, Morpurgo thought the adaptation was a bad idea. Now, as the royalty cheques flood in, he’s keeping his mouth shut. See, even the world’s most prestigious entertainment hubs are wrought with opportunistic business dealings. No one is innocent! Today, though Steven Spielberg’s misjudged 2011 cinematic adaptation flew in one ear and out the other, the play still works. Just remember, as you walk up the New London theatre’s winding staircases, this adaptation was never considered original or revelatory. The narrative, sticking close to the original story, covers multiple time periods and character arcs. Under the guise of our equine hero, the story depicts war, love, chaos, and heartache. Bought at a Devon auction by alcoholic farmer Ted Narracott (Andy Williams) for 39 guineas (a baffling amount for a poor man in the early 20th century), the horse becomes his son Albert(Jack Monaghan)’s best friend. Named “Joey” by the young farm-hand, the horse is heavily scrutinised by Albert’s mother Rose (Nicola Stephenson) and Ted’s wealthy brother Arthur (Nigel Betts). Trained to plow, the horse becomes the family farm’s lifeblood.
One of many war scenes.
Premiering at the National Theatre in 2007, War Horse is a long-lasting theatre staple. Drawing mass audiences to London’s busiest district, the premise resonates with multiple demographics and tastes. Fit for action junkies, youngsters, criers, and frustrated parents, this production crafts the perfect recipe for appeal. It’s fit for every king, queen, soldier, and stable boy across London. Defined by immense storytelling and technical precision, the production is worth every penny. Despite the positives, War Horse gallops into many deathtraps before reaching its heartbreaking finale. The flaws, carried over Morpurgo’s original material, nearly trample this page-to-stage experiment. Playwright Nick Stafford crafts a similarly indulgent and treacle adaptation. Despite dodging Joey’s point of view, the non-human characters cause several unfortunate foibles. Being one of modern literature’s most nondescript and manipulative characters, our lead only carries so much, ahem, horsepower. Stretching to fit the monstrous 160-minute run-time, the narrative darts into several meaningless and hokey directions. After winning over the farmland and town, Joey is sold to Captain Nicholls (Nicholas Bishop). What follows is an egregious war-drama depicting slaughter, prisoners of war, sacrifice, and raw courage. Switching from comfortably comedic and viscerally bleak, the topsy-turvy story is untamable. In the transition from humble page-turner to sweeping epic, the story’s emotional impact and thematic weight becomes wholly diluted.
“We’ll be alright Joey. We’re the lucky ones, you and me. Lucky since the day I met you.” (Albert Narracott (Jack Monaghan), War Horse).
The production true majesty.
Forcing us to care about its sorrowful characters and dour narrative, War Horse is blindingly manipulative. The second half, following Albert into World War I after Joey, delivers several fine twists and turns. However, the human characters – given little development – serve only to admire our equine warrior. Despite the weepy moments, the story never solidifies Albert’s affection for Joey. However, despite the story and character foibles, the production itself elevates the material. Galloping between set pieces, story-lines, and characters, the show saddles up the beast, brushes it clean, and shows it off to the adoring public. An example of style and spectacle over substance, it works in fits and starts. In fact, certain set pieces deliver many thrills and chills. Delving into magical realism, the production crafts a balance between sprawling wild fantasy and gritty conflict. Aiming for David Lean’s signature story tropes and visuals, the production survives on technical achievements and wholehearted direction. One scene, examining the story’s true potential, delves straight into the war. After Joey is trapped in barbed wire, a British and German officer work together to free him from a bloody demise. In this scene, the equine and human characters exude enough empathy to captivate a modern audience. Most importantly, the Handspring Puppet Company deliver unparalleled compositions. Handled by three puppeteers (listed as the head, heart, and hind), the horse puppet is a meticulous creation. Constructed of an intricate wire frame, the horse characters are much more fascinating than their human counterparts.
Reaching for its own stellar reputation, War Horse crafts seminal moments and value-for-money entertainment. Thanks to stellar direction, puppetry, and performances, this soulful drama reaches a wide audience. Predictably, this is one of the West End’s most awe-inspiring productions. However, carrying major story and character flaws, the production never capitalizes on its premise. For all the crashes and bangs, the play is as manipulative as the titular creature.
Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall
Release date: October 24th, 2014
Distributor: Cinetic Media/eOne Films International
Running time: 94 minutes
Best part: Kent’s direction.
Worst part: The creaky CGI.
Horror and romantic-comedy, the only two genres with long-lasting demographics, keep Hollywood in operation. For generations, adolescents have made a habit of catching (sneaking into) the latest celluloid bloodbath. Thanks to their buying power, the studios don’t need to try. Seriously, why do you think we keep getting Friday the 13th remakes and Paranormal Activity sequels? However, several movements and industries, residing well outside the studio system, still seek to change the game.
Australian horror cinema – existing since the industry’s beginnings – revolves around irking grimaces from film-goers and commendations from critics. Connecting with Ozploitation buffs, horror freaks, and each demographic in between, break-out frightener The Babadook loudly asks the question: Why aren’t Australians watching Australian movies? Despite the lack of transforming robots and superheroes, Aussie industry does deliver worthwhile entertainment. In 2014, The Rover, Predestination, and Son of a Gun grasped tightly onto worldwide acclaim. The Babadook, despite the limited budget and small scale, is the David to Hollywood’s Goliath. Blitzing Kevin Smith’s Tusk at this year’s Fantastic Fest, the movie has more supporters than slip-ups. How did this happen? Well, the story makes for gripping and intelligent horror cinema. In the first scene, the movie establishes its tone and never lets up. Amelia (Essie Davis) is pregnant with her first child. En route to the hospital, her husband is killed by an oncoming vehicle. We jump seven years, and Amelia is a single mum struggling to juggle responsibilities. Her precocious son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), makes dangerous contraptions and causes trouble in the school yard. After pulling Samuel out of school, our widowed lead is soon hounded by her employer, her sister Claire (Hayley McElhinney), the next-door neighbour Mrs. Roach (Barbara West), and social services.
Obviously, calling attention to spoilers would be unnecessary. Despite modern horror’s cash-grabbing, made-by-committee aura, each entry deserves credit. Tackling one of cinema’s most subjective genres, The Babadook enters the underdog and emerges the deserving victor. Void of jump-scares, debauchery, and unlikable teenagers, it dodges almost every horror trope. Despite touching upon The Shining, The Exorcist, The Ring, and Carrie, this Aussie fright-fest holds up to criticism. Its story takes a peculiar turn after Amelia and Sam find a disturbing pop-up book in his room. Reading it together, they unearth a nightmarish, Nosferatu-esque figure dressed in hipster threads. Similarly to Sinister‘s film-reel and The Conjuring‘s Annabelle doll, the titular children’s book causes enough scares to have an asylum named after it. Complete with bleak colour patterns, distressing imagery, and threatening messages, it’s an unholy creation. Set to be released as a collectable, the question must be asked: Who would want this thing?! Writer/director Jennifer Kent, expanding upon her notable 2005 short, enriches each momentous frame. As our mother/son duo flips through the book, Kent stretches the stakes and tension to breaking point. Setting paranoia upon its characters and audience, multiple threads are let loose. Is it a supernatural force or a stalker? And why is this happening to them, specifically? Throughout this gothic freak-out, her directorial flourishes and commendable intentions fit each twist and turn.
“If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” (Amelia (Essie Davis), The Babadook).
Aussies vs. ghosts.
Relishing in its smaller moments, The Babadook crafts terror, suspense, and, subtext. Kent’s visuals – turning wholesome settings into labyrinthine deathtraps – elevates conventional material. Utilising a muted colour palette, sweeping cinematography, and haunting shadows, her direction lingers on terrifying imagery without indulging in blood. Holding the scare tactics back for extended periods, this frightener knows when and how to bump in the night. Fuelled by purpose and reason, the story examines many common familial and social issues. The central conflict, kick-starting after Samuel’s excision from school, sinks into the skin. The story, possessing each character with realistic personalities and emotional currents, carries a human touch. Examining lower-middle class issues, the central dynamic overshadows the spooky creatures. Pitting spirits and ghouls against emotional demons, it delves intently into Amelia’s psyche. Tackling grief and loneliness, she’s a fascinating protagonist. Amelia – fighting against Samuel’s troubling condition, the world around her, and household scares – is worth siding with. Tackling the school system, parenthood, and mental instability, its agenda integrates with its blood-curdling scenarios. Davis, known for remarkable TV and theatre appearances, is one of Australia’s most consistent actresses. Switching between innocent mother and psychotic disturbance, her searing turn elevates the material. Wiseman’s wondrous performance, jumping from manic glee to shrieking chaos, elevates the drama.
Sticking to story and character over box-office receipts and target demographics, The Babadook terrorizes the competition. Peering over big-name horror filmmakers’ shoulders, Kent delivers enough game-changing sequences and stylish flourishes to stand out. Beyond the narrative and technical achievements, Davis and Wiseman elevate the material. As 2014’s biggest sleeper hit, this horror-thriller/psychological-drama boots Australia’s film industry. This year, genre cinema was stolen by a nation of convicts.
Stars: Andre Benjamin, Hayley Atwell, Imogen Poots, Andrew Buckley
Release date: October 24th, 2014
Distributor: XLrator Media
Countries: UK, Ireland
Running time: 118 minutes
Best part: Andre Benjamin.
Worst part: Ridley’s direction.
When handling a true story, the producers, writers, directors, actors etc. involved have momentous duties to uphold. As Hollywood’s taste for docudramas and biopics grows hastily, we’re getting more true stories than ever. Attracting specific audiences (those learning about the subject matter and those already aware), these movies are designed to accelerate ongoing discussions. Jimi: All Is By My Side is the latest docudrama to aptly cover a well-known musician. So, why the average rating?
Andre Benjamin as Jimi Hendrix.
There are several factors keeping me from loving Jimi: All Is By My Side. Despite Ridley and co.’s affections, its flaws are more irritating and obvious than a narc at Woodstock. Like an old Republican yelling “get off my lawn!” at a drum circle, the movie breaks up the party before the cool stuff happens. In all fairness, the cast and crew aren’t to blame. In fact, the studio executives – normally responsible for on-set turbulence – let free will and bright ideas take control. Picking through enthralling facts and details, the movie crafts a spirited yet inconsistent take on Jimi Hendrix’s life. The movie kick off in a lowly, New York jazz club in 1966. Chronicling one year of Jimi'(Andre Benjamin)’s existence, the opening scene holds the cards and plays them succinctly. As a sideman to several forgettable acts, his career looks to be heading nowhere. Refusing to take anything seriously, the younger Hendrix lives a hazy, simplicity fuelled lifestyle. One night, he catches the eye of Rolling Stone guitarist Keith Richards’ girlfriend Linda Keith (Imogen Poots). Despite being mistaken for a groupie, Linda’s street-smarts and moxy pull people into the spotlight. After Hendrix’s discovery, aided by The Animals’ enthusiastic manager Chas Chandler (Andrew Buckley), the mesmerising musician turns friends, lovers, and record label executives against him.
Benjamin & Hayley Atwell.
Despite the true story’s value, Jimi: All Is By My Side‘s production issues overshadow the final product. Criticised by Hendrix’s former flame Kathy Etchingham (Played by Hayley Atwell here), its agenda is cause for concern. Also, writer/director John Ridley, lacking permission from Hendrix LLC (Hendrix’s estate), couldn’t use any of the singer/songwriter’s phenomenal tracks. Hindered by these restrictions, this biopic opts for a more subdued and modest approach. Ridley, having tackled story and screenplay duties for everything from Undercover Brother to 12 Years a Slave, lends a strong-willed touch to this project. Avoiding most musical-biopic cliches, Ridley dissects the guitarist’s love of music, women, music, philosophy, music, weed, and music. Infatuated with the subject matter, Ridley’s project explores the under-the-surface elements. This biopic, capturing the ins and outs of Hendrix’s identity, examines a time before the fame, fortune, classic tunes, and copycats. Avoiding America’s bright-lights music scene, its microscope-like, small-scale focus on the London years delivers several invigorating sequences and enthralling revelations. Set before revelatory first album Are You Experienced‘s release, and the Monterey Jazz Festival, the year-long storyline never hinges on his current, long-lasting notoriety. Utilising cover songs (Benjamin’s ‘Wild Thing’ cover is used twice) and extensive guitar riffs, Ridley’s glowing affection hits like reverb and pot smoke.
“I want my music to inside the soul of a person. For me it’s colours, I want people to feel the music the same way I see it.” (Jimi Hendrix (Andre Benjamin), Jimi: All Is By My Side).
Benjamin & Imogen Poots.
Despite avoiding the ‘greatest hits’ structure of Jersey Boys and Get on Up, Jimi: All Is By My Side resembles fantasy wrapped in docudrama’s bright clothing. Dodging any discussion of civil rights, the movie – like its subject – lacks clear vision and purpose. Presenting the rule-makers and rule-breakers evenly, Ridley’s 1960s is as disarming as Hendrix’s stash. Unceremoniously, the third act relishes in Jimi’s abuse of music industry practices, weed, and women. Certain sequences, including one featuring Jimi bludgeoning Kathy with a phone, rift against its hallucinogenic flow. Sadly, Ridley breaks his stings well before the climax. Having written for Steve McQueen, Oliver Stone, and David O. Russell, his style is a frenzying but overcooked mix of visual flourishes. Affectionate for this specific time and place, the archival footage, elaborate production design, and magnetic score alleviate the tension and existential crises. Unfortunately, Ridley’s direction – smashing together sound-bites, freeze frames, cut-aways, and jump cuts – rifts against the production’s restraints. Despite the visual and narrative incoherence, the performances save it from obscurity and unoriginality. Benjamin, known as Andre 3000 of RnB group Outkast, its scintillating as one of music history’s biggest hitters. Blitzing previous performances from Four Brothers and Semi-Pro, his overt charisma elevates this stagnant effort. Poots and Atwell, two of Hollywood’s most underrated women, deliver fun turns in intriguing roles.
Despite lacking ‘Foxy Lady’, ‘All Along the Watchtower’, ‘Voodoo Chile’, ‘Castles Made of Sand’ etc., Jimi: All Is By My Side swaggers and spins around production issues. Thanks to Ridley’s quiet reserve and spirited style, the movie appeals to Hendrix aficionados and average film-goers. If anything, it will attract more people to the master’s discography. Hell, it may get some hooked on ganja! However, despite the ambition and allure, Ridley overworks several gimmicky flourishes. Too bad Hendrix’s Estate isn’t as laid-back.
Stars: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena
Release date: October 24th, 2014
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Countries: USA, UK
Running time: 134 minutes
Best part: The tank battles.
Worst part: The machismo dialogue.
Considering his current critical and commercial acclaim, It’s hard to believe actor/producer Brad Pitt was once considered one of Hollywood’s most irritating personalities. Back in the early 1990s, general audiences and film aficionados beat his reputation into submission. However, within just two years, the hat-trick of True Romance, 12 Monkeys, and Se7en hurled him into the stratosphere. After this ball-busting trifecta’s release, people saw a thespian instead of a dumb-looking pretty boy.
Brad Pitt & Logan Lerman.
In Tinseltown’s latest war-actioner, Fury, his character’s introduction asks a valuable question: Seriously, what would the world be like without this spirited performer? Guiding this flick through the trenches, the 50-year-old mega-star throws everything at the intriguing material. Thanks to his cool persona, fun sense of humour, stunning looks, and immense physicality, he is exactly who men want to be and women want to be with. So, beyond my overwhelming man crush, is Fury worth saving from tyranny or destroying with a big f*ucking tank? Thankfully, it falls into the former. The story delivers a horrifying take on World War II’s battlefields and mass graves. It’s April 1945, and the Allies have snatched the European Theatre of War from Hitler’s Nazi Germany. The narrative is, remarkably so, constructed by one extended take. The first shot depicts a Nazi officer straddled atop a white horse. Striding through a smoke-and-blood-stained war-zone, the mounted superior is ambushed and murdered by a beige-covered soldier. This murderous man is battle-hardened US Army Staff Sergeant Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Pitt). Wardaddy – holding up the 66th Armour regiment, 2nd Armoured division – commands a M4A3E8 Sherman tank called, you guessed it, “Fury”. We meet his crew – gunner T/5 Boyd “Bible” Swan (Shia LaBeouf), driver CPL Trini “Gordo” Garcia (Michael Pena), and loader PFC Grady “Coon-Ass” Travis (John Bernthal) – mourning their assistant driver/bow gunner’s gruesome demise.
Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena & Jon Bernthal.
Having toured together since the North African Campaign, the crew despises everything. Recently enlisted typist PVT Norman “Machine” Ellison(Logan Lerman), having zero warfare experience, becomes a major obstacle during the team’s latest mission. Guided by CPT “Old man” Waggoner (Jason Isaacs), the squad pushes straight through the Fatherland. These events, taking up the simmering first third, develop Fury‘s heart and soul. Introducing the team and tank within the opening shot, Fury defends this loyal squad the way Wardaddy defends his Macklemore haircut. Playing to his strengths, writer/director David Ayer (Street Kings, End of Watch) ditches the mean streets of Los Angeles for the meaner landscapes of 20th-century Germany. Ayer proves himself to be a better story-teller than screenwriter. Guided by egos and wavering accents, the movie approves of its characters’ despicable behaviour. In fact, it may prove too much for some liberal-minded viewers. Developing a 134-minute dick-measuring contest, its ‘badass’ lines and brutal images craft a relentless take on WWII. Throughout the narrative, as the team surges from one battle to the next, the team serves to talk down to, then pick back up, Lerman’s character. Ayer’s story and character tropes – brotherhood, death, masculinity, existential angst – are lathered on thick. Pitt, LaBeouf, Pena, and Bernthal’s characters are given little development. However, the team itself tugs Fury‘s emotional threads. Analysing their broken-down psyches, the movie fights for our blood-stained anti-heroes through the worst.
“Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” (Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), Fury).
The gang of Fury.
Essentially, Fury is an intensifying concoction of Saving Private Ryan, Lone Survivor, and Inglorious Basterds. Sheltered within its dour and morose middle-third, one sequence delivers a slice of humility. Wardaddy and Norman find two pretty, blonde women in an apartment. Despite their positive-role-model personas, they carry out a bizarre form of statutory rape. Soon after, the entire team argues around the breakfast table. This standout sequence, upping the tension and pathos, marks Ayer’s evolution from adrenaline-fuelled pyro-head to seasoned, mature filmmaker. Beyond the invigorating character moments, the action sequences are worth the admission cost. Resembling the Call of Duty video-game franchise, these sequences put several clunky vehicles to the test. As guts, bullets, and emotions fly, the movie’s technical precision and gravitas match that of the year’s biggest blockbusters. The tank battles, ascending in quality, deliver edge-of-your-seat moments and magnificent visual flourishes. In addition, the last third’s 300-style, few-against-many set piece delivers an exhaustive roller-coaster ride. Most importantly, Roman Vasyanov’s uncompromising cinematography fuels Ayer’s vision. Diving into the filth, his precise camera-work and muted colour palette bolster the movie’s aura. Like most Ayer efforts, the performances overshadow the screenwriting and directorial flaws. Pitt, using his Lt. Aldo Raine voice, is powerful as the all-encompassing leader. Shedding his pretty-boy persona, his charisma tares through flesh and bone.
Hurling us into the hot seat, Fury creates enough surprises, thrilling moments, and heart-breaking performances to fire on all cylinders. Carrying its strong-minded agenda, the movie delivers more gravitas and emotional heft than expected. Crafting one of 2014’s biggest surprises, Ayer’s action-direction and attention to detail overshadow his screenwriting foibles. Pushing the tension and violence into overdrive, this war-actioner ranks among the year’s brightest blockbusters.
Stars: Robert Downey, Jr., Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D’Onofrio
Release date: October 10th, 2014
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 142 minutes
Best part: The winning performances.
Worst part: The underdeveloped sub-plots.
In one of legal drama The Judge‘s many courtroom scenes, our ‘antagonist’, Judge Joseph Palmer (Robert Duvall) delivers a line which proverbially sums up the movie. Dealing with a deadbeat defendant refusing to pay child support, the second-billed character takes away the keys to his new pick-up truck and gives them to the pregnant, white trash plaintiff. As the man complains, Judge Palmer stops him and says: “You’re standing in one of the last great cathedrals in this country, built on the premise that you and you alone are responsible for the consequences of your actions”.
Robert Downey, Jr. & Robert Duvall.
Oddly enough, this momentous line encompasses The Judge‘s positives and negatives. On the one hand, there has been a lot of love poured into the movie’s production and distribution. Shortly before its release, critics and audiences were given hope. With each new image and trailer, our anticipation levels grew over the prospect of Duvall and Robert Downey, Jr. earning serious Oscar contention. In addition, Downey, Jr. and Duvall made for interesting interviewees. So, how does the final product compare to our overwhelming expectations? Sadly, not so well. Compared to 2014’s other Oscar hopefuls, The Judge doesn’t do enough to guarantee statuettes. However, if judged on its own, the movie delivers enough positives to scrape by. The story, despite being encapsulated by Duvall’s character, does not centre around the veteran performer. Instead, we get Robert Downey, Jr. playing Tony Stark playing a whip-smart lawyer. As one of Chicago’s most valuable defense attorneys, Henry “Hank” Palmer (Downey, Jr.) knows the ins and outs of the judicial system like no one else. Dodging morally-sound prosecutors left and right, this big-shot lawyer – whilst defending an infamous insurance scammer – gets the shock of his life. After learning of his mother’s death, he packs an overnight bag and heads straight for the modest town of Carlinville, Indiana. Juggling a messy divorce, a young child, and a valuable case, Hank doesn’t plan on staying too long after the funeral.
Downey, Jr. & Vera Farmiga.
The Judge‘s central conceit revolves around an ethically-inconsistent, big-city lawyer and his law-abiding father. Joseph, known to everyone in town as “Judge”, is a friendly citizen and true professional. At the wake, everyone gives Joseph a big, ol’ hug. Hank simply shakes his hand and slips back into the shadows. However, after Joseph becomes a hit-and-run murder’s prime suspect, Hank agrees to stick around. So, why do they hate each other so much? This question should have been the movie’s biggest concern. With two talented A-listers at the helm, the movie hinges on their stellar reputations and likeable personas. In fact, aided by their spirited back-and-forths about the past, present, and future, the movie excels whenever they drop their guards to shout at one another. One scene, in which Hank and Joseph conduct a shouting match whilst a record-breaking storm screeches through town, is worth the price of admission. However, I’m going to give Hollywood some advice: for the love of God, make shorter movies again! Pushing The Judge to a ridiculous 142-minute run-time, director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers, Shanghai Knights), makes several easily avoidable mistakes. Like Wedding Crashers, most of drama revolves around meaningless and peculiar sub-plots. Here, the plot-threads include Joseph’s fight against cancer, Hank’s mentally-challenged brother (Jeremy Strong) and his Super-8 camera, his older brother(Vincent D’Onofrio)’s ruined baseball career, Hank’s re-connection with an old flame (Vera Farmiga), Hank butting heads with a local lawyer (Dax Shepard), the prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton), and a questionable hook-up (Leighton Meester).
“Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in a hot tub” (Henry “Hank” Palmer (Robert Downey, Jr.), The Judge).
Downey, Jr., Vincent D’Onofrio & Jeremy Strong.
Throwing intriguing ideas across multiple story-lines, The Judge reeks of desperation, self-consciousness, and carelessness. Throughout its hodge-podge story, the tone drastically switches every few minutes. Stalling its own momentum, the movie fails to add up to the sum of its parts. In addition, the movie doesn’t know what to say. Despite criticising Middle America’s wholesomeness, the movie unfairly condemns Hank for following making a living in the urban jungle. This Oscar-baiter, revelling in cliches, is an unremarkable concoction of A Few Good Men, Up in the Air, and Garden State. In fact, a wily filmmaker like Jason Reitman, Alexander Payne, or Jon Favreau would yell “objection” at its inconsistent pacing, undeveloped supporting characters, and irritating sub-plots. However, Dobkin makes several succinct directorial choices. Its visual flourishes – including Janusz Kaminski’s light-and-shadow-fuelled cinematography, Thomas Newman’s uplifting soundtrack choices (ranging from Willie Nelson to Bon Iver), and Mark Livolsi’s fluid editing – bolster certain moments whilst crafting an approachable glow. Like Jerry Maguire, the movie aptly centres around its most interesting character. The Judge – the first production from Downey, Jr. and wife Susan Downey’s production company, Team Downey – comes from good intentions. Downey, Jr., crafting one of Hollywood’s most successful comebacks, is charismatic as the cynical and pithy lead. Duvall, crafting one of Hollywood’s most inspiring careers, is brilliant in prick mode. Meanwhile, despite the lack of attention, Farmiga, D’Onofrio, and Strong deliver powerful turns.
As a homage to Hollywood’s best courtroom battles and familial dramas, The Judge strives to be relevant and award-worthy. Despite the gravitas, the story is summed up in one line: “Everyone wants Atticus Finch until there’s a dead hooker in a hot tub”. In fact, Downey, Jr. and Duvall do trim some fat. So, why is the movie still so long? As studio-driven Oscar bait, it unyieldingly becomes its own judge, jury, and executioner.
Verdict: A enjoyable yet inconsistent courtroom-drama.
Writers: Gregg Araki (screenplay), Laura Kasischke (novel)
Stars: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez
Release date: October 24th, 2014
Distributor: Magnolia Pictures
Running time: 91 minutes
Best part: Shailene Woodley.
Worst part: Shiloh Fernandez.
Hollywood, over the past few years, has waged war against optimism, relationships and marriage. In seeking to connect with modern/cynical audiences, big-budget cinema seemingly exists to criticize these well-intentioned, life-altering decisions. According to Tinseltown, life post-proposal is nothing but broken promises and empty souls longing for the “till death do us part” scenario to become reality. Following up Gone Girl and Men, Women & Children, White Bird in a Blizzard strives to put the final nail in the coffin.
Shailene Woodley & Shiloh Fernandez.
In all honesty, despite seeing the positives of marriage, this socially recognised union is not my thing. In fact, White Bird in a Blizzard could spark many wide-ranging viewpoints about marriage, adolescence, and life. The movie, though intent on forming its own analysis, longs for multiple discussions about its story, themes, and characters. Writer/director Gregg Araki (Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin) has studied, and adapted to, this film/film-goer interaction throughout his career. So, does his latest feature stand up to criticism? As it turns out, White Bird in a Blizzard fits comfortably into his controversial filmography. The movie crafts itself around 1980s suburban America’s pros and cons. Its story follows promiscuous high school graduate Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley). Preparing herself for a degree at Berkeley, the youngster – despite her loving family and friends’ support – feels cut off from the rest of the world. Aided by her confident father Brock (Christopher Meloni) and detestable mother Eve (Eva Green), Kat’s life resembles that of your average adolescent. However, after Eve’s mysterious disappearance, Kat must pull herself back from the brink whilst asking the most important question of all: What happened to mum?
Christopher Meloni & Eva Green.
Based on Laura Kasischke’s best-selling novel, White Bird in a Blizzard takes on several genres and messages within its hurried 91-minute run-time. Exploring out-there stories and characters, Araki’s on-set intentions and off-set demeanour define him as one of American cinema’s most unusual auteur filmmakers. Known for his New Queer Cinema movement entries, he – similarly to Gus Van Sant – isn’t afraid of proclaiming his sexual orientation and significant viewpoints. Faced with fearsome opposition, his movies seek to destroy prejudice, conflict, and status quo. His latest effort, discussing societal norms and the studio system, has a helluva lot on its mind. In fact, like previous features, White Bird in a Blizzard depicts horrific events with subtlety, verve, and intelligence. Sticking to Araki’s independent roots, the narrative wears the veil of American Beauty whilst hiding many masochistic undertones. Harking back to Sam Mendes and Todd Solondz’ earlier works, this drama-thriller depicts a love-is-a-lie version of middle-class existence. Tearing his story-threads and characters apart, each sickening twist and turn further enlarge the central conflict’s cracks, tears, and erosion. Kat, pointing out her family and friend’s overt pretentiousness and transparency, becomes the knife slicing through society’s grand illusions. Our existentially frazzled lead, despite her boyfriend/neighbour Phil(Shiloh Fernandez)’s nice-guy nature, seeks primarily to destroy his booming reputation. Several scenes – featuring fluffy conversations between her and friends Beth (Gabourey Sidibe) and Mickey (Mike Indelicato) – strive to elevate our ‘protagonist’ above everyone else.
“The beautiful woman she once was…became a phantom wandering away in a snowstorm.” (Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley), White Bird in a Blizzard).
Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe & Mark Indelicato.
Araki, not one for subtlety or objectivity, designed White Bird in a Blizzard to obliterate suburbia. Despite the approachable set-up, the movie thrusts deep-seeded emotions into the spotlight. Commenting on our evolution from 20th-century patio culture to 21st-century liberalism, the narrative revels in its views on feminism, masculinity, class warfare, gender politics, and relationships. Through flashbacks and dream sequences, we see a nightmarish insight into the Connor household. Eve, close to grinding glass into Brock’s dinner, appears stuck in a mind-numbing and lifeless void. Slipping into a booze-and-loose-clothes-addled depression, she leaps from glorified mistress to independent nightmare. Turning the tide throughout, the movie further examines its own disturbed, philosophical recesses. Biting off more than it can chew, it even tackles current young-adult, mystery-thriller, and relationship-drama trends. Crafting a Lovely Bones-esque switch from marriage to mystery, the narrative pokes fun at its whodunnit twists and turns. Whilst seducing Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), Kat openly calls her actions into question. Picking apart modern literature heroines’ weaknesses, it’s really an indictment against popular entertainment. She even has two good-looking guys fighting over her, outlined by her roommate’s “I’m Team Oliver” comments. In particular, Woodley’s casting illuminates Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars‘ misgivings. However, her sweet-natured performance, out-classing Meloni and co., highlights her immense dramatic talents.
Though Araki’s reach exceeds his grasp, his ambition and style cannot be faulted. Throwing bright colours, comically appealing narration, a kitsch soundtrack, and soap-opera-esque lines across his 11th feature, the writer/director Araki is one of few big-names crafting efforts of lasting effect and whip-smart attitude. White Bird in a Blizzard – thanks to its non-linear structure and self-aware humour – creates a thought-provoking contrast between reality and ‘reel life’.
Writers: Josh Appelbaum, Andre Nemec, Evan Daugherty
Stars: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner, Whoopi Goldberg
Release date: August 8th, 2014
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 101 minutes
Best part: The mountainside action sequence.
Worst part: The by-the-numbers plot.
In 2004’s comedy gold-mine Anchorman: the Legend of Ron Burgundy, Steve Carell’s character Brick Tamland screams: “I don’t know what we’re yelling about!”. He hurriedly follows it up with: “Loud noises!”. This moment of slapstick genius, raised by Tambland’s borderline-mentally-challenged persona, sums up almost every modern blockbuster. For every Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, a turgid mess like Transformers: Age of Extinction escapes from hell soon after. So, how much worse could it get? Well…
Further damaging hack director/producer Michael Bay’s critical reputation, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the latest big-budget extravaganza to shoot through theatres diarrhoea style. Causing more suffering than Ebola, ISIS, and Manchester United combined, this reboot/remake/prequel experiment delivers significantly more foibles than fun moments. A kitchen-sink-like basin for clinical blockbuster tropes, the latest TMNT instalment is as bland, banal, and boring as…this franchise’s other instalments. Destroying the original live-action trilogy’s good will, this cinematic hiccup/burp/fart concoction elevates the preceding entry(2007’s misjudged animated effort)’s status. The story, such as it is, is as damaging, slick, and sleep-inducing as a tranquilizer dart. Thanks to a clever opening animated sequence, the movie immediately delves into our favourite heroes in a half-shell(spoiled for choice, really)’s origin story. Four turtles and one rat, having escaped a life-threatening situation, fall into New York City’s sewers, become exposed to radiation, and mutate into bizarre human/animal hybrids. Looked after by Master Splinter (Motion-captured by Danny Woodburn, voiced by Tony Shalhoub), our evergreen team – Leonardo (mo-capped by Pete Ploszek, voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Donatello (Jeremy Howard), and Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) – places itself in harm’s way to protect Manhattan’s citizens from crime and corruption.
Megan Fox & Will Arnett.
Scouring the city as ruthless vigilantes, our team searches for infamous terrorist group The Foot Clan. TMNT, born from Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird’s black-and-white comic book series, has inspired TV iterations, toy lines, celluloid-driven fumbles, and pop-rock bands. Despite the immense success, there’s one thing everyone’s forgotten: the original concept was satirical. Warped by marketing strategies and contrasting generations, this franchise is commercialism’s unholy nadir. Despite the stellar 2D animation, the aforementioned opening sequence sums up everything wrong about this reboot. Recycling obvious, well-known information, the movie drops its guard and surrenders to creativity’s biggest villain: The Man. Bafflingly so, the movie focuses primarily on several uninteresting and annoying human characters. Inexplicably, we follow eager TV reporter April O’Neil(Megan Fox)’s journey to find our reptilian renegades and discover the truth about her past. Pulling plucky sidekick Vern Fenwick (Will Arnett) and suspicious plutocrat Eric Sacks (William Fichtner) into this lazy adventure, the narrative is a laboured collection of superhero origin tropes, franchise reboot cliches, and set pieces stolen from similar popcorn-chompers. In addition, the story’s coincidence-driven mythology is as believable as, well, weapon-wielding terrapins fighting robot samurais. Bringing April’s dad into the mix, the movie’s comparisons to the Amazing Spider-Man series rest in plain sight. Despite replacing ninjutsu with shootouts, this action flick starts kissing the asian film market’s behind before you can say: “cowabunga!”.
Never delving beyond its slime-covered surface, the story pushes its titular team into the background. Restricted to a fleeting sub-plot, defined by overworked comic-relief tropes, the turtles’ battle with arch-villain shredder is picked up and dropped sporadically. This entire project reeks of studio desperation and a lack of enthusiasm. Delivering another nostalgia-drenched franchise kicker, this – like many before it – is ruined by a shoddy director. Jonathan Liebesman (Battle: Los Angeles, Wrath of the Titans) shell-shocks blockbuster fans and TMNT aficionados. Turning a lucrative idea into disposable dross, the South African filmmaker’s hack-and-slash style doesn’t deliver satisfying or even disarming entertainment. Unaware of the core demographic, Liebesman’s adaptation lurches from laugh-less jokes to punishing violence to overt sexual references to dreary warrior speeches about honour, fate, and destiny. Made strictly for financial gain, its ingredients allude to other, more successful, studio efforts including Transformers and G. I. Joe. Causing a Steven Spielberg/Tobe Hooper-esque debacle, Bay lays his overbearing style on thick throughout. Lathered with product placement, lens flares, useless slo-mo, and non-stop camera movement, his style resembles a teenager on Red Bull and uppers. The action, despite the heavy CGI and occasional impressive moment, is wildly hit and miss. The mountainside set-piece, reminiscent of the Morocco sequence from The Adventures of Tintin, provides a slight reprieve from surrounding dross.
Labeling this a ‘product’ would be playing into Bay and his production company(Platinum Dunes)’s desires. TMNT, thanks to its cringe-worthy narrative and personality-free style, might mark the high point of blockbuster fatigue. Stripping the franchise of wit, charm, or life, this entry turns this series into a shell of its former self. Driven by lacklustre performances, exhaustive direction, and a derivative story, this isn’t worth anyone’s free time. Save your movie and pizza money for something less…shell-fish.
Stars: Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Vanessa Redgrave
Release date: November 14th, 2014
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Running time: 130 minutes
Best part: The impressive performances.
Worst part: The underutilised female characters.
Every so often, Hollywood creates an effort of unconscionable grace and virtue. These achievements, from well-orchestrated winners to surprise hits, are preserved for present and future generations to admire. More often than not, these admirable efforts are composed of memorable scenes, quotes, and performances. Many classics are defined by people you’d least suspect. Turns like Judi Dench in the Bond saga, Heath Ledger as the Joker, or even Chris Tucker in Silver Linings Playbook can elevate anything.
So, how does this apply to 2014 Oscar contender Foxcatcher? Surprisingly, stunt casting solidifies the movie’s flawless execution and award-worthy glow. Suffering from crippling production and distribution issues throughout the past decade, the movie was almost closed off from humanity. Discarded from the public’s view, the movie – despite the stellar cast and intriguing story – struggled to find some attention. However, this year’s film festival circuit delivered a well-deserved boost. It may not appeal to everyone, but this crime-drama is worth the admission cost. A talking point across the world, the story, set in the 1980s, chronicles one of the past century’s most shocking true stories. depicting philanthropist John Eleuthere du Pont’s brutal murder of Olympic wrestling champion David Schultz, the movie depicts the harsh roads taken toward said horrific events. Throughout this docudrama, we follow blue-collar wrestler and lost soul Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum). Stranded in affectionate older brother David(Mark Ruffalo)’s shadow, he is ignored by his family, the Olympic committee, and the public. One day, after a solid training session with his sibling, he receives a call du Pont’s Foxcatcher estate. The du Pont family, known for a long-standing empire and inherent waspishness, boost Mark’s life. John (Steve Carell) tasks him with forging a top-shelf wrestling program.
Channing Tatum & Mark Ruffalo.
Throughout the 130-minute run-time, Foxcatcher sticks to true events and never shows mercy. In the opening credits sequence, Director Bennett Miller (Capote, Moneyball) crafts a microscope-level examination of the du Pont family. This sequence, depicting archival footage of the Foxcatcher farm in Pennsylvania, alludes to the dynasty’s desire for ‘Britishness’. Their colossal mansion becomes this drama-thriller’s pristine backdrop. Shown to train horses and raise hounds, this docudrama casts an eerie fog over events. Delivering another unforgettable cinematic thrill-ride, Miller’s style courses through frames like blood cells through Tatum’s muscles. Capote showcases an acclaimed writer’s analysis of a horrific crime, while Moneyball depicts America’s infatuation with one of its most popular sports. Foxcatcheris a visceral and haunting concoction of Miller’s previous features. Fusing said concepts succinctly, it depicts a balletic dance between patriotism, obsession, power, and betrayal. Relating his situation to Mark’s, John yearns for power, victory, and masculinity. Avoiding typical docudrama tropes, Miller establishes himself as a keen-eyed observer – setting up the camera and watching confounding events unfold. The first half, focusing entirely on Mark and John’s eyebrow-raising dynamic, carefully dissects their discomforting mentor/protege relationship. Showcasing wrestling’s role-models and cash-cows, its sport-as-religion agenda hits stupendously hard. Revelling in an unrefined pastime, its wrestling sequences elevate the tension. Throwing themselves – literally and figuratively – across the mat, this resonant sports-drama steadily transitions into a potent psychological-thriller.
“A coach is the father. A coach is a mentor. A coach has great power on athlete’s life.” (John du Pont (Steve Carell), Foxcatcher).
Tatum & Carell.
Evolving beyond the central plot-thread, Foxcatcher transitions into a thought-provoking cautionary tale. Shifting to David and John’s professional relationship, the narrative – similarly to Mark – transforms into a touchy and unpredictable beast. Building to a heartbreaking conclusion, this crime-drama thrusts each expression, outburst, and comedic interlude. Breaking into John’s disturbing worldview, Foxcatcher crafts a fascinating antagonist. In one scene, John, snorting cocaine on his way to a fundraising event, forces Mark to practice his speech. Introducing John to the guests, Mark practices his pronunciation of three valuable words: ornithologist, philatelist, and philanthropist. In these select moments, Miller presents the creepy sports enthusiast as a belligerent child wrapped in blinding arrogance. Alluding to John’s damaged childhood, the movie constructs a meticulous and terrifying puzzle worthy of consideration. Whilst acquainted himself with Mark, John asks him to stop calling him “sir” or “Mr. Du Pont” and instead call him “Eagle”, “Golden Eagle”, or simply “John”. Blinded by an absurd sense of entitlement, John’s grand vision of the future and gaping insecurities led to his immense downfall. Atop a pedestal, John’s jingoism and artificiality depict only small shreds of his psyche. However, the movie presents John’s mother, Jean (Vanessa Redgrave), as the major obstacle John never shrugged off. Despite the invigorating narrative, the female characters obtain little screen-time – relegating David’s wife, Nancy (Sienna Miller), to the background.
More so than touching story-telling and subdued visuals, Miller’s determination enhances this gripping and intelligent docudrama. Like with Philip Seymour Hoffman in Capote and Jonah Hill in Moneyball, Foxcatcher‘s peculiar casting choices succeed wholeheartedly. Carell, Tatum, and Ruffalo – earning Oscar nominations in well-crafted roles – enhance their comedic chops and charismatic personas. Like our lead characters’ mentor/student conflicts, this experience wrestles with harsh truths and deep-seeded emotions.
Verdict: A magnificent and gruelling Oscar contender.
Stars: Josh Lawson, Bojana Novakovic, Damon Herriman, Lisa McCune
Release date: September 25th, 2014
Distributors: Entertainment One, Hopscotch, Magnolia
Running time: 96 minutes
Best part: The invigorating performances.
Worst part: The last scene.
Despite the consistent quality and commendable intentions, the Australian film and television industry is stuck in a critical and commercial pot-hole. Allowed few resources, many productions use out-of-the-box ideas to impress audiences. Today, film-goers gravitate more towards spectacle than story or character. Sadly, our cinematic accomplishments are either ignored or brushed off. Despite the heavy subject matter of entries like Somersault and Animal Kingdom, there are brighter efforts out there.
Josh Lawson & Bojana Novakovic.
This year, our industry has steered itself in a whole new direction. Analysing specific demographics and trends, genre flicks like The Rover, Predestination, and The Babadook received enough attention for wide release distribution. Now, thanks to talented comedic actor Josh Lawson, modern sex-comedy The Little Death is tickling us in all the right places. This romantic comedy figuratively – literally, depending on your tastes – explores our many sweet spots. Examining sex’s natural and unnatural elements, this project gives new meaning to the term: “down under”. The movie discusses sex, romance, death, marriage, taboo, and everything in between. In fact, given its out-there premise, I’m surprised it didn’t explore the terrors of taxes and insurance claims. Don’t be afraid, this local effort is actually a breath of fresh air. The narrative juggles several peculiar story-lines and characters. Dealing with multiple couples, the story touches on many life stages. We are first introduced to an attractive couple, Paul (Josh Lawson) and Maeve (Bojana Novakovic), in full cuddle mode. Maeve, afraid of her emotions, asks Paul to fulfil her rape fantasy. Meanwhile, Dan (Damon Herriman) and Evie(Kate Mulvany)’s marriage counsellor tasks them with conducting role-play to spice things up.
Damon Herriman & Kate Mulvany.
In addition, Richard (Patrick Brammall) and Rowena (Kate Box) must adjust to a loved one’s sudden death. Bafflingly so, Kate’s libido kick-starts whenever Richard cries. Propelling the narrative from light-hearted fluff into unadulterated overdrive, Lawson elevates said three plot-threads above everything else. Connecting each strand, we see a middle-aged man, Steve (Kim Gyngell), informing his new neighbours of two things: he bakes Golliwog cookies and is a convicted sex offender. The three central story-threads, despite the exposition-driven set-ups, are almost worth the admission cost. However, Lawson, handing himself the lead role, lends significant attention to his and Novakovic’s plot-line. The other two, despite the positive vibes, are given little personality. Beyond our central story-lines, we get several underdeveloped and listless strands. One sub-plot, involving a loveless marriage between desk jockey Phil (Alan Dukes) and ball-busting housewife Maureen (Lisa McCune), goes nowhere. The intricate narrative, born from Lawson’s hyper-snappy mind, is The Little Death‘s biggest flaw. Despite the ambition, Lawson’s talents don’t stretch to fit the feature format. Introducing story-lines and character arcs at random throughout, Lawson’s screenplay resembles a brainstorming session gone horribly wrong. Despite the intriguing premise, none of its plot-strands connect succinctly. Despite the occasional meet-ups, restricts our characters to their specific threads.
“Whatever happened to good all fashioned, run-of-the-mill sex? People have to complicate it with all this kinky shit.” (Glenn (Ben Lawson), The Little Death).
Whilst promoting The Little Death, Lawson landed himself in controversy by slamming the Aussie film industry’s dark side. Putting his first feature on a high pedestal, Lawson’s high-minded promises aren’t fulfilled. Having achieved recent success with TV corporate-drama House of Lies, the export’s vanity project lands with a whimper instead of a, ahem, bang. Introducing, picking up and dropping sub-plots and character arcs without warning, Lawson’s feature – busy riding mainstream and indie tropes – never develops a satisfying through-line. Thanks to the movie’s disparate structure, it becomes a series of skits, pratfalls, misunderstandings, and miscommunications. Its skittish story-telling tropes – used to expand the wafer-thin narrative – overshadow the more alluring ideas and scenarios. These sketches, despite the pitch-perfect comedic timing, amplify the screenplay’s lack of charm, guile, or emotional resonance. Despite the flaws, the movie bares several positive aspects. The dialogue, alleviating the tension, elevates certain sequences. In addition, its talented performers elevate the mediocre material. Sadly, Lawson’s commentary on suburbia and relationships is startlingly condescending. Focusing on good-looking, upper-middle class people, the movie alienates a significant portion of its audience. With first-world problems guiding the narrative, most of its conflicts become cold-hearted. Lacking resolutions, Lawson’s daring vision never pays off.
The Little Death, almost reaching crying-after-sex disappointment, is saved by its…climax. A sign language translator, Monica (Erin James), is caught between a deaf man and a phone-sex operator. Interpreting their horrific words, the translator gains a firm understanding of the world around her. This scene pumps blood towards the movie’s heads. However, despite Lawson’s ambition, his first feature goes hard and fast for only short bursts.
Writers: Nick Hornby (screenplay), Cheryl Strayed (book)
Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman
Release date: December 5th, 2014
Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Running time: 115 minutes
Best part: Reese Witherspoon.
Worst part: The frustrating flashbacks.
Any movie placing the word ‘wild’ in its title – no matter how big, small, good, or bad – is taking a major risk before release. Tackling one of cinema’s most popular adjectives, this word is a cliche not worth tripping over. Though fulfilled heartily in The Wild Bunch and The Wild One, movies like Wild Hogs, Wild, Wild West, and The Wild highlight this trope’s overt simplicity. Oscar-hungry drama Wild, grappling wholeheartedly with the cliche, appears wholly obvious and generic.
Despite the title’s simplicity, there’s a saying everyone should cling onto before seeing Wild: you can’t judge a book by its cover. In fact, the movie’s poster is surprisingly simple. Presenting its lead character, the American wilderness, and neat stylistic choices, the poster promises everything audiences expect nowadays from small-budget performance pieces. Fortunately, despite its many flaws, this walkabout is worth taking. Just make sure to see it with an open mind and a box of tissues. Wild delivers a story drenched in heart, heartache, and heartbreak. Our poster-hogging character is thirty/forty-something traveller Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon). After a string of poor choices, disappointing outcomes, and failed reboots, Strayed decides to venture down a well-known, well-worn path. Walking the United States’ notorious, over-1000-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from the US-Mexico border in California to the US-Canada border in Washington State, Strayed fashions her three-month trip as the ultimate jumpstart. Having divorced nice-guy husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), Strayed reflects upon her adulterous indiscretions and addiction problems. Along the way, we see – via flashback – Strayed interacting with optimistic mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and snarky brother Leif (Keene McRae).
Witherspoon’s haunting artistic journey.
On her tumultuous trip through America’s unrelenting mid-section, Strayed meets several bright and enthusiastic characters serving as significant bursts of energy. In recent cinema history, survival-thrillers/road-trip flicks have relied on roller-coaster-like pacing, visceral gore, blockbuster storytelling tropes, and CGI-driven worlds. Dodging Life of Pi‘s visual stimulus, Tracks‘ sweeping scope, and Cast Away‘s volleyball/Angry Tom Hanks sequences, Wild carries is tried-and-true formula across the windy, dangerous path less taken. Shifting gracefully between major plot-points and interactions, director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) bolsters this ombre tale with a real-world approach. Similarly to The Way, the movie’s grounded narrative analyses one of history’s most sumptuous activities. Despite Hollywood and the general public’s lack of interest in the PCT, this drama – based on Strayed’s real-life memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – makes a compelling argument for travelling, spiritual guidance, and self-worth. Across the vast stretch of land, the movie falls for Strayed’s gripping adventure. learning whilst doing, our hero seeks human interaction, core strength, and re-birth. Finally, another well-intentioned female character! Proving the journey is more valuable than the destination, the story, revolving around her intensifying character arc, is worthwhile. Despite this, the heavy-handed symbolism – outlined by Strayed’s run-ins with a poorly-rendered creature – adds little to the story or message.
“I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here.” (Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), Wild).
Witherspoon pleading for more Oscar buzz.
Infatuated with the Western world’s untouched landscapes, the European filmmaker fuses its gut-wrenching story with a thought-provoking agenda and sterling comedic jaunts. Like with his preceding effort, his style draws life from generic plot-points and characters. Trudging the arduous dirt path, as the movie switches from lively road-trip flick to dour relationship-drama/character study, Vallee, Witherspoon, and screenwriter Nick Hornby hold our interest throughout the 115-minute run-time. In the first scene, we get an uncompromising glimpse into Strayed’s cruel world. Strayed, stranded on top of a rocky hillside in an undisclosed location, pulls off her sock, rips off an infected toenail, before watching one of her boots tumble down a steep hillside. From there, Vallee and Witherspoon’s project pins us down and never lets go. Obviously, credit belongs to Witherspoon for shredding her starry persona. Grappling with a reprehensible character, the A-lister attacks each scene with award-worthy bravado. Despite its overwhelming positives, its story-telling and technical flourishes distort the narrative. Giving its supporting players little screen-time, the movie’s cold, lifeless flashbacks paint broad strokes. In addition, its pro-feminism message renders many the male characters mute and/or abrasive. However, it difficult to avoid the movie’s crisp, unrelenting locations. Yves Belanger’s wondrous cinematography – along with the immense scenic vistas – develop a momentous sensory assault.
Honouring its succinct title, Wild tells a haunting and visceral tale of man, nature, and existence. Valle, following up his 2013 Oscar contender, moulds an impactful and wondrous drama out of this profound true story. Aided by Witherspoon’s heart-breaking performance, the movie’s comedic moments and emotional resonance overshadow the minor flaws. Like our lead’s topsy-turvy career, the movie surges fourth despite the odds.