This Is Where I Leave You Review – Family Foibles


Director: Shawn Levy

Writer: Jonathan Tropper (screenplay & novel)

Stars: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Jane Fonda, Adam Driver


Release date: October 23rd, 2014

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes


 

2½/5

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.

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).

Rose Byrne.

Rose Byrne.

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!

Verdict: A charming yet cloying dramedy.

Interstellar Review – The Space-Mind Continuum


Director: Christopher Nolan

Writers: Jonathan Nolan, Christopher Nolan

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


 

3½/5

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 Interstellar garner 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.

Anne Hathaway.

Interstellar bares 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.

Kill the Messenger Review – Publish & Prosecute


Director: Michael Cuesta

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

Country: USA

Running time: 112 minutes


 

4/5

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.

Jeremy Renner.

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.

Verdict: An intelligent and well-acted docudrama.

John Wick Review – Rampaging Reeves


Director: David Leitch, Chad Stahelski

Writer: Derek Kolstad

Stars: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe


Release date: October 30th, 2014

Distributors: Lionsgate, Summit Entertainment, Entertainment One, Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 101 minutes


 

3½/5

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).

Adrianne Palicki.

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.

Verdict: An enjoyably manic actioner.

Nightcrawler Review – L.A. (Not So) Confidential


Director: Dan Gilroy

Writer: Dan Gilroy

Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton


Release date: October 31st, 2014

Distributors: Open Road Films, Entertainment One, Elevation Pictures, Madman Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time:  117 minutes


 

4½/5

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.

Jake Gyllenhaal.

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. Nightcrawler seeks 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 Nightcrawler get 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.

Rene Russo.

Rene Russo.

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.

Verdict: A zany and zippy Oscar hopeful.

Theatre Review – War Horse @ New London Theatre


Directors: Marianne Elliott, Tom Norris

Writers: Nick Stafford (play), Michael Morpurgo (novel)

Stars: Jack Monaghan, Nicholas Bishop, Andy Williams, Nicola Stephenson


Premiere date: 2007

Genre: Drama


 

3/5

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).

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.

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.

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.

Verdict: A flawed but sumptuous production.

The Babadook Review – Domestic Demons


Director: Jennifer Kent

Writer: Jennifer Kent

Stars: Essie Davis, Noah Wiseman, Hayley McElhinney, Daniel Henshall


Release date: October 24th, 2014

Distributor: Cinetic Media/eOne Films International

Country: Australia

Running time: 94 minutes


 

4½/5

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.

Essie Davis.

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.

Noah Wiseman.

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.

Verdict: The decade’s best horror flick.