Writer: Eric Heisserer (screenplay), Ted Chiang (short story)
Stars: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg
Release date: November 10th, 2016
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 116 minutes
Best part: Adams’ compelling performance.
Worst part: Some dodgy CGI.
In Hollywood, aliens typically come in two forms. Sometimes, they are tentacled monsters hell-bent on obliterating humanity (Predator). Other times, they remind us about peace and love (ET: The Extra Terrestrial). The movies either resemble popcorn-fuelled blockbusters or more calming fare. Arrival undoubtedly falls into the latter category.
Arrival leaps away from stereotypical alien-invasion material. The movie, vying for critics’ recognition over box-office dollars, is worth the largest audience imaginable. It’s worth extended hours of discussion and contemplation. The plot follows university linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) stranded in the present. crushed by her daughter’s loss and ex-husband’s neglect, her cynicism reaches breaking point. However, on a seemingly normal day, twelve extraterrestrial spaceships hover over key sites around the world. Nicknamed ‘shells’ by the US military, the ships do little besides open their doors every eighteen hours. Their reasons for landing are wholly unclear. Louise is recruited by US Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) to form a team to clarify the aliens’ intentions. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), the team studies a shell hovering in Montana.
Besides 2014’s Edge of Tomorrow, viewers must travel back to the 1970s and 80s for a truly engaging and interesting invasion epic. Arrival resembles the type of cinematic masterpiece seldom replicated by filmmakers or seen by audiences today. Director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario) and screenwriter Eric Heisserer grasp short story author Ted Chiang’s original material (Story of Your Life). The two deliver the year’s most thought-provoking blockbuster; a movie with enough to do and say simultaneously. Villeneuve and Heisserer’s shared vision immediately kicks into gear. The deliberate pacing and tone may deter wider audiences looking for shootouts and explosions. Here, conversation and action are equally important. The story explores the values of incisive decision-making and processing. Louise and Ian, continually entering the ship and contacting aliens ‘Abbott’ and ‘Costello’, craft a plan to understand the otherworldly language. Its professionals-doing-their-jobs narrative is utterly compelling.
Villeneuve’s atmospheric direction delivers some of 2016’s most compelling sequences. His version of time travel works wonders. Unlike similar fare (Interstellar), the leaps in time and space are never distracting. Louise, experiencing flashbacks to her daughter’s slow demise, sees a puzzle forming in her mind. By the third act, she compellingly connects the dots to find her way. The movie develops several well-rounded perspectives. Along with Louise and Ian’s glowing optimism, we see wise alien beings, careful military types (led by Weber and Agent Halpern (Michael Stuhlbarg)), fearful, right-wing soldiers and foreign military prowess. Like his previous works, Villeneuve draws phenomenal performances from Hollywood élite. Adams, with this and Nocturnal Animals, earns serious Oscar contention as the movie’s heart and soul. Renner and Whitaker deliver likeable turns in smaller roles.
Villeneuve and co.’s vivacious approach separates it from all other 2016 blockbusters. Arrival is a bleak yet optimistic dissection of humanity. Right now, like the movie’s events, the world is on the brink of anarchy and despair. If there was ever a need for intelligent discussion, it is now.
Writers: Derek Cianfrance (screenplay), M. L. Stedman (novel)
Stars: Michael Fassbender, Alicia Vikander, Rachel Weisz, Bryan Brown
Release date: November 2nd, 2016
Distributor: 132 minutes
Countries: USA, UK, Australia, New Zealand
Running time: 132 minutes
Best part: Fassbender and Vikander’s chemistry.
Worst part: The exhaustive run-time.
American writer-director Derek Cianfrance is one of Hollywood’s most idiosyncratic creative talents. His breakout hit, Blue Valentine, threw Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams into a nightmarish journey. His relentless style makes for limited repeat viewings. However, The Place Beyond the Pines is one of the past decade’s most underrated treasures.
Cianfrance turned said dark and gritty dramas into major talking points come Oscar time. Now, he returns with romantic-drama The Light Between Oceans. The plot fits with that of his earlier work. It follows introverted World War 1 veteran Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) travelling to a foreign land after dischargement. Sherbourne is hired as a lightkeeper for an isolated lighthouse on Janus Rock, off Western Australia’s South West coast. His physical isolation makes life difficult. He and local girl Isabel (Alicia Vikander) form a budding relationship during his brief periods on the mainland. The two, after marrying several years later, look to start a family and everlasting life together on the island. Of course, what goes up must come down.
Hollywood romantic-dramas range from sweet and playful to downright soggy. The Light Between Oceans, based on acclaimed author M. L. Stedman’s best-seller, provides its workhorse writer-director with plenty to chew on. Cianfrance’s screenplay develops two wholly fascinating lead characters. He paints a detailed portrait of Sherbourne’s physical and emotional torment. His narration reveals every major and minute shade. With each high and low, Cianfrance strands us by Sherbourne’s side. Sherbourne, planning to leave for another endeavour, is continually interrupted by fate. The audience and Sherbourne are immersed in windy nights, gorgeous sunsets and sadness. Fortunately, before becoming dour, the movie shifts focus to Tom and Isabel’s relationship. Like his other films, Cianfrance seamlessly combines fantasy and reality. Their journey feels wholly authentic. The discomfort reaches critical levels after Isabel’s second miscarriage in just three years.
Cianfrance delivers an old-fashioned story with world-class execution. Before the tone plummets even further, The Light Between Oceans takes several interesting turns. After multiple tragedies, Tom and Isabel discover a dead man and live baby floating off shore in a dinghy. Compassion pushes them to break legal and ethical boundaries. Morals are questioned after the dead man’s wife/baby’s real mother Hannah (Rachel Weisz) comes into frame. Like David Lean’s works, whole sequences explore character and scenery over plot and pacing. Cianfrance develops Tom and Isabel’s points of view. Whereas Tom sticks by honour and truth, Isabel sees the baby’s arrival as inspiration. Sadly, the movie’s 132-minute running time hinders everything. By the third act, the romantic interludes and mournful exchanges are overbearing. Nevertheless, Fassbender and Vikander’s connection, leading to a real-life romance, is palpable. More so, cinematographer Adam Arkapaw effortlessly captures the picturesque coastal setting.
The Light Between Oceans illustrates Cianfrance’s obsession with character, story and scenery. The cast and crew ride the material’s soaring highs and crushing lows. However, this tearjerker may strictly be for older audiences.
Stars: Andrew Garfield, Vince Vaughn, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer
Release date: November 3rd, 2016
Distributor: Summit Entertainment, Icon Film Distribution
Countries: USA, Australia
Running time: 131 minutes
Best part: The battle sequences.
Worst part: The CGI vistas.
Over the past decade, actor, director and trainwreck Mel Gibson has had massive highs and lows. His homophobic/sexist/racist/anti-semitic comments and unapologetic attitude destroyed his reputation. However, to quote South Park: “Say what you want about Mel Gibson, the son of a bitch knows story structure”. The controversy magnet is back in the spotlight with war-drama Hacksaw Ridge.
The once-great leading man was the king of 1990s and 2000s action-drama. 1995 Best Picture winner Braveheart, adding to his preceding successes, paved the way for A-list actor/directors like Ben Affleck, George Clooney and Jodie Foster. His other directorial efforts, Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto, were also major talking points. Hacksaw Ridge a necessary jolt of adrenaline for Gibson’s career. This war-drama covers a shocking true story. Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), after a violent incident involving brother Hal years earlier, lives a peaceful life in Lynchburg, Virginia. Desmond and Hal’s father Tom (Hugo Weaving) is haunted by World War I. The boys’ religious Mother Bertha (Rachel Griffiths) bares Tom’s wrath. The boys, much to their parents’ disdain, enlist to fight in WWII. Desmond falls for local nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer) before being shipped off for military service.
Hacksaw Ridge develops multiple unique and intriguing identities. Screenwriters Andrew Knight and Robert Schenkkan provide solid groundwork for Gibson and the cast. The narrative itself is split down the middle. The first half develops Desmond as both lover and fighter. Gibson depicts Des’s home life with short, heart-wrenching moments. Des, essentially, is middle America’s more content side. Whereas Hal jumps at the opportunity to leave, Des contemplates everything and everyone before making fateful choices. His relationship with Tom is utterly necessary. That all-important decision – whether to join up with his comrades or leave other young Americans to fight – defines their dynamic. Our hero (despite being your average white, religious young protagonist) is never cloying or irritating. He is a blank canvas for everyone to project their views onto. Unlike many Hollywood-ised war-dramas, Des and Dorothy’s budding romance never jars with the tone.
After the brisk first half, Hacksaw Ridge takes swift turns throughout the second. Gibson and co. keep the politically-and-socially-charged fires burning. Throughout basic training, Des’s religious, anti-violent beliefs – as a conscientious objector following the Sixth Commandment of the Old Testament – rustle many feathers. In particular, Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Jack Glover (Sam Worthington) seek to eject him on psychiatric grounds. Gibson’s handling of tension and drama is sublime. He gives each party their due whilst fleshing out Des’s training and court proceedings effectively. Also, interactions between Desmond and fellow soldiers are tightly wound. The movie soars during its Battle of Okinawa recreations. Each set-piece is shockingly violent, throwing buckets of blood and guts in our faces. Within seconds, machine gun fire and grenades obliterate whole battalions. Gibson fills every frame with stunning practical effects and stunt work.
Overshadowing 2016’s slew of bland blockbusters, Hacksaw Ridge provides genuine chills and thrills. Gibson is let off the leash here. Thanks to his command, the drama, comedic moments and action never distort one another. Indeed, his cast and crew bring their A-game to every scene. This could win big come Oscar time.
Stars: Ben Affleck, Anna Kendrick, J. K. Simmons, Jon Bernthal
Release date: November 3rd, 2016
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 128 minutes
Best part: Affleck’s subdued performance.
Worst part: The third-act plot-twists.
The Accountant is the latest in the never-ending line of middle-budget action flicks. It – Like John Wick, Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher – lives in bigger-budget movies(superhero flicks, space-operas etc.)’s shadows. At best, they deliver cheerful call-backs to 1980s/90s action-thrillers. At worst, they seem cheap and desperate. This year’s Bourne and Reacher franchise extenders resemble the latter.
The Accountant, unlike Jason Bourne and Jack Reacher: Never Go Back, is still a good movie. The marketing and movie itself revel in A-lister/talented filmmaker Ben Affleck’s renaissance. This is his second action-hero/intelligent savant role for 2016 after Bruce Wayne/Batman. Of course, despite the flaws, this is Citizen Kane next to Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. It follows highly functioning autistic and small-town accountant Christian Wolff (Affleck). Head of strip-mall firm ZZZ Accounting, he lives a secluded existence in suburban Illinois by day. By night, he un-cooks the books for assassins, drug cartels, money launderers etc. His latest mission may be his most puzzling. Living Robotics’ accountant Dana Cummings (Anna Kendrick) finds irregularities in the company’s finances. Wolff monitors executives Lamar Blackburn (John Lithgow), Rita (Jean Smart), and Ed (Andy Umberger).
The Accountant is the busiest and most complex of 2016’s action-thrillers. The central plot-thread is difficult to crack or even explain. Bill Dubuque(The Judge)’s screenplay throws together lists of names, dates and figures associated with said fictional company. In the second act, as the whodunit mystery unfolds, the scripts opts for confusing jargon over clear explanations. More so, the financial-decoding is never cinematically appealing. Even Dubuque loses interest, adding multiple plot-strands and characters around it. On top of said industrial espionage, the script includes a buddy-cop sub-plot led by Treasury Department director of financial crimes Raymond King(J. K. Simmons). His story-line – blackmailing analyst Marybeth (Cynthia Addai-Robinson) into tracking down Wolff – leads nowhere. Meanwhile, an assassin (Jon Bernthal) is hired to dispose of Wolff. The eight-movies-at-once feel hinders an otherwise engaging premise.
The Accountant, although not succumbing to blockbuster fatigue, still feels dated and formulaic. Along with said meandering subplots, director Gavin O’Connor (Warrior, Jane Got A Gun) wrestles with flashbacks to Wolff’s childhood and dealings with jailed accountant/fixer Francis Silverberg (Jeffrey Tambor). By the third act, O’Connor struggles to pull everything and everyone together. Plot-holes emerge as the set-pieces and revelations kick in. However, like with Warrior, O’Connor’s rustic, gritty aesthetic pays off. His peculiar camera angles and movements provide nuance, while the action sequences are fearsome. Thanks to Affleck’s committed performance, the autism spectrum disorder angle never feels forced. The character’s professional and personal lives are well fleshed out. The movie’s stacked cast give unique turns in generic roles. Bernthal, deliciously over the top here, is the breakout star.
The Accountant, like many of 2016’s blockbusters, delivers maximum potential and mixed execution. O’Connor and his cast enthusiastically grapple with the material. However, 128 minutes is simply too long for this story.
Stars: Chris Pine, Ben Foster, Jeff Bridges, Gil Birmingham
Release date: October 27th, 2016
Distributor: CBS Films, Lionsgate
Running time: 102 minutes
Best part: Pine and Foster’s chemistry.
Worst part: The two-dimensional female characters.
The western has experienced several overwhelming highs and lows. In Hollywood, the genre thrived on manliness and simplicity. Later on, it turned to existentialism and revisionism to illustrate its points. More than any other genre, western fiction reflects fact. Hell or High Water is only one shade away from reality.
Hell or High Water is a rare gem: a 21st-century western. 2016 has delivered a couple to mixed success. The Magnificent Seven was a fun but flawed action extravaganza. However, Jane Got A Gun threw its prominent director and cast under a stagecoach. This movie’s promotional material seemed entirely samey. The independent-drama feel marked it as ‘yet another’ straight-to-Netflix project. Indeed, Chris Pine’s Star Trek Beyond paycheque is probably worth double the budget. It follows brothers Toby (Pine) and Tanner(Ben Foster)’s pitiful existences in middle-of-nowhere Texas. Toby, a divorced dad, lived with their mother throughout her fatal illness. Tanner, fresh off a ten-year prison sentence, always finds trouble. With the house in reverse mortgage, the two must find cash before Texas Midlands Bank carries out foreclosure.
Hell or High Water immediately launches into the action. Rather than building to it over the first act, writer Taylor Sheridan (Sicario) hurls us into their first bank robbery. His script is an ode to good ol’ Hollywood’s western/crime filmmaking style. Here, unlike with most heist set-pieces, everyone acts and reacts like real people. Hilariously, their first robbery is almost bungled by poor timing and preparation. Like classic western/gangster flicks, the movie evenly develops the cops and robbers. In reality, Toby and Tanner’s actions are despicable. Here, however, they are rebels with a cause. Toby, discovering the family’s land has struck oil, pushes to support his ex-wife and kids. Tanner, with nothing better to do, simply wants to help. Of course, Texas rangers Marcus Hamilton (Jeff Bridges) and Alberto Parker (Gil Brimingham) view the brothers’ antics as detrimental. Dutifully, Sheridan never makes us side with either party. His approach unveils both parties’ wants and needs throughout a tight cat-and-mouse game.
The movie’s fusion of western, crime-drama and heist-thriller elements flows. It handles several conventions (the ranger close to retirement, the partner with a target on their head, the criminals fighting against the system etc.) with slight twists. Playing with Sheridan’s sparkling dialogue, director David Mackenzie (Starred Up) could be Hollywood’s next talent goldmine. His style balances dark-and-gritty and enjoyably comedic. Thanks to the talented ensemble (in front of and behind the camera), each scene delivers intensifying moments. Whenever the brothers’ quarrels reach critical mass, Bridges comes along with a witty retort. However, its few female characters resemble nagging ex-wifes, one night stands, and sassy waitresses. Mackenzie and cinematographer Giles Nuttgens capture an unenviable plethora of one-horse towns and indian casinos. Furthermore, Nick Cave and Warren Ellis’ score is nightmarish yet addictive.
Hell or High Water delivers more substance, thrills and laughs than most of 2016’s major releases combined. The marriage of cast and crew works wonders. Pine, Foster and Bridges showcase leading-man charisma and character-actor class simultaneously. This throwback proves some still make films the way Hollywood used to.
Beach-reads and airport novels are central to the literature business. The genre, packed with international best-sellers, cater to multiple audiences and basic desires. They are simply easy to indulge in – throwing in debauchery and plot twists willy-nilly. Romance, crime and drama have gotten the beach-read/airport novel treatment. Crime-thriller The Girl on the Train is…yet another one.
The Girl on the Train, written by Paula Hawkins, became an overnight sensation last year. The best-seller got movie-adaptation honours mere months after release. The book was revered and criticised for its twisty-turny narrative and gender politics. The movie version tries to reach those grand heights. It chronicles divorced alcoholic Rachel (Emily Blunt). She spends every second in a booze-fuelled rage, taking the train from the suburbs to New York City and back. Whilst on the train, she peers into two particular homes. One belongs to her ex-husband Tom (Justin Theroux) and new wife Anna (Rebecca Ferguson). The other belongs to sexy married couple Scott (Luke Evans) and Megan (Haley Bennett). One day, Rachel flips out after seeing Megan having an affair with her psychologist Dr. Abdic (Edgar Ramirez).
The Girl on the Train resembles several much-talked-about erotic-thrillers. Basic Instinct,Fatal Attraction and 2014 smash Gone Girl provide intriguing set-ups, unique characters and unsettling twists. Sadly, this novel adaptation lacks the finesse of said movies’ writing and direction. The movie lingers on Rachel’s misery in the first third. Her repetitive lifestyle is fascinating and sickening simultaneously. Her actions – bumbling in front of concerned train-goers, filling her water bottle with vodka etc. – fit standard full-time-drunk tropes. Her dynamic with frustrated roommate Cathy (Laura Prepon) gives the character added depth. However, the novelty eventually wears off. Of course, Megan becomes a missing persons case. As Rachel delves into the mystery, plot turns and red herrings keep popping up. Screenwriter Erin Cressida Wilson makes every character creepy and decrepit. The ‘drama’ merely involves women crying while the men grunt and scowl.
Director Tate Taylor(The Help, Get On Up)’s po-faced adaptation makes conventional choices at every turn. Thanks to the limited number of characters, it becomes obvious who the culprit is. The character’s sinister entrance and peculiar behaviour make it all too clear. Pointless flashbacks and exposition further dilute the plot. Despite the predictable structure and lack of thrills, it delivers a fine commentary on alcoholism. Rachel’s plight is arresting. However, with a better script and director (David Fincher, maybe?), it could have been so much more. Blunt’s performance is the standout element; rocking gently between drunk mess and sincere being with aplomb. Ferguson and Bennett re-introduce themselves to modern audiences in underwritten roles. Character-actresses Allison Janney and Lisa Kudrow provide valuable performances. Theroux and Evans are still completely lifeless!
The Girl on the Train lacks the keen-eyed direction and whip-smart writing of similar fare. Despite Blunt’s solid performance, the movie’s ultra-serious tone and bland performances distort an otherwise intriguing premise. The all-too-predictable narrative makes it yet another 2016 disappointment.
Stars: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney, Anna Gunn
Release date: September 8th, 2016
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 96 minutes
Best Part: Hanks’s reserved performance.
Worst part: The occasional flashbacks.
Two-time Academy Award winner Tom Hanks is a national acting treasure and all-around nice guy. Since the late 1980s, he has mastered roles of immense passion and of varying genres. His down-to-earth attitude and raw charm engage audiences across multiple generations. In an age of brand recognition over movie-star prowess, the 60-year-old still delivers results. His work in Sully is no exception.
Sully centres on a story about an American hero, told by an American hero whilst starring another American hero. Hanks teams up with Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood for this 21st Century tale of hope. It details the events before, during and after the famous ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident. On January 15th, 2009, Airline pilot Captain Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger began his day at work like any other. He and First Officer Jeffrey Skiles (Aaron Eckhart) boarded US Airways Flight 1549 from LaGuardia Airport, outside New York City, with ease. However, three minutes into the flight, a flock of geese tore apart both engines. Unable to make it back to LaGuardia or to any other airport, Sully and Skiles made a forced water landing on the freezing Hudson River and saved the 155 souls onboard. Witnessed by New York and the world, the rescue efforts included the pilots, cabin crew, passengers, ferry/coastguard crews and police.
Docudramas generally involve war, conflict, and heartache to create drama and begin discussion. So, how could anyone make a Hollywood feature out of said good news story? Sully resembles a detailed and fascinating piece of investigative journalism. Eastwood and screenwriter Todd Komarnicki, adapting Sullenberger and Jeffrey Zaslow’s book about the event, capture the biggest and smallest details. The pair raise the tension and stakes with every new detail. Eastwood’s directorial filmography includes several hits and misses. The 86-year-old filmmaker and outspoken Republican puts everything aside for ol’ fashioned authenticity. His previous directorial efforts, from docudramas (Letters From Iwo Jima, J. Edgar) or character pieces (Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino), steadily portray the ins and outs, from go to woe. Here, he crafts a peculiar non-linear sequence with painstaking intensity.
The opening scene is a twisted dream sequence. Setting the audience on edge, the scene hurls us into the hero’s inner turmoil. It leaps between the incident, Sully’s loneliness, the air crash/insurance investigation, his wife back home (Lorraine (Laura Linney)) and flashbacks. Sully could have been a long and meandering mess preying on basement-level fears. However, the movie sways gently between intensifying dread and hope against the odds. Eastwood and co. present the incident itself from multiple points of view (a mother and daughter, golfers late for the fight etc.). The entire set piece makes for, arguably, the year’s best movie moments. This flawless recreation proves truth really is stranger than fiction. Hanks may get his latest Oscar nomination. Prone to playing nice guys and real-life heroes, the legend provides raw passion and cutting humour.
Sully showcases some of Hollywood’s best in fine form. Eastwood’s silky-smooth direction pays off tremendously. Meanwhile, Hanks and Eckhart bounce off one another with ease. Like its titular hero, the movie is a tough, powerful and interesting ode to human spirit.
Writer: Todd Phillips, Stephen Chin, Jason Smilovic
Stars: Jonah Hill, Miles Teller, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper
Release date: August 18th, 2016
Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures
Running time: 114 minutes
Best part: Hill and Teller’s chemistry.
Worst part: The derivative structure.
Director Todd Phillips exists in the same realm as Michael Bay and Zack Snyder. He began his career with adult-comedies Old School and Road Trip before delivering smash hit The Hangover. However, with the Hangover sequels and Due Date, his career fell over. Now, he’s back with something completely different and exactly the same.
War Dogs provides more meat to chew on than his earlier works. This docudrama, black comedy, war, crime flick chronicles one of the 21st Century’s most baffling true stories. Based on Guy Lawson’s Rolling Stone article and book – Arms and the Dudes – its follows twenty-something layabout David Packouz (Miles Teller) being put through the ringer. David is a disappointment – spending maximum time smoking pot and tending to rich clients as a massage therapist. After quitting his job, his one-man bed sheet business fails spectacularly. At an old friend’s funeral, he reunites with former partner in crime Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill). Diveroli is also a pot-smoking loud mouth. However, he is also a gunrunner/arms contractor for start-up AEY with ties to the US Government and troops overseas.
War Dogs resembles a blender with all-too-familiar ingredients thrown together. This sloppy and inconsistent mess is slow-moving-car-crash fascinating. Phillips, evidently, idolises Martin Scorsese and the Coen Brothers. Similarly to Bay’s 2013 sleeper hit Pain and Gain, it’s an assortment of excessive visual flourishes and questionable decisions. With any docudrama, ethics and moral quandaries come into play. Phillips – along with two other screenwriters – beef everything up for cinema purposes. The frat-boy humour and serious material never congeal. It follows the rise and fall narrative structure at every turn. Of course, the first half depicts the dynamic duo’s transformation from slackers to successes. Phillips becomes indulgent, even borrowing whole sequences from The Wolf of Wall Street, Goodfellas and Boiler Room.
Compared to the genre’s aforementioned big-hitters, War Dogs struggles to keep up. Phillips floats between admiring and despising the lead characters. Seriously, what does his movie say about these events? Does it salute young entrepreneurs slipping through the cracks? Or condemn Cheney’s America and the military-industrial complex? Nevertheless, he makes no apologies for their behaviour. Packouz, despite being the audience avatar, starts off as an unlikable schmuck and gets worse. He either blindly follows his crazy business partner or lies to his pregnant girlfriend, Iz (Ana de Armas). Despite the first half’s many fun moments, the second trudges towards the predictable dénouement. If anything, it proves Teller and Hill are charismatic enough to escape with their reputations in tact.
War Dogs is the gym junkie of rise-and-fall movies – tough and mean with little depth. Phillips’ latest places him on thin ice. This, essentially his version of a ‘serious’ effort, is The Social Network and The Big Short evil, immature brother.
Writers: Taika Waititi (screenplay), Barry Crump (Novel)
Stars: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby
Release date: May 27th, 2016
Distributors: Madman Entertainment, The Orchard
Country: New Zealand
Running time: 101 minutes
Best part: Dennison and Neill’s chemistry.
Worst part: Some forgettable minor sub-plots.
Australia and New Zealand’s film industries have danced around one another since their inception. Playing around with the medium, 1980s and 90s Aussie comedies including Muriel’s Wedding and Kiwi dramas like The Piano broke the mold simultaneously. Nowadays, with heavy Australian dramas in full effect, NZ filmmaker Taika Waititi is delivering some of modern cinema’s most captivating comedies.
Coming off critically acclaimed Boy and What We Do in the Shadows, Waititi’s latest, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, has already set NZ box-office records for highest-grossing opening weekend and highest-grossing first week for a NZ film. Based on Barry Crump’s novel Wild Pork and Watercress, the movie centres around troublemaking city kid Ricky Baker (Julian Dennison) being sent by child welfare services to live on a farm with new foster carers Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Hector (Sam Neill). Hector, forced to track down Ricky after an escape attempt, fractures his ankle in the green, lush wilderness. As a country-wide manhunt begins, the duo spark-up an odd-couple dynamic.
Hunt for the Wilderpeople, similarly to road-trip comedies like Thelma & Louise, effectively sticks by its familiar premise. Throughout their journey, the rebellious youngster and cranky uncle’s budding friendship provides heavy doses of drama and comedy. Waititi’s abstract sense of humour and unique style separates his vision from that of even Hollywood’s most talented comedic elite (Adam McKay, Judd Apatow etc.). Waititi expertly develops every detail, giving our heroes and those chasing them significant depth and personality. Even the movie’s wacky side characters – including tough-but-misguided social worker Paula (Rachel House), bumbling officer Andy (Oscar Knightley), and Psycho Sam (Rhys Darby) – add to its thematic and emotional heft.
This coming-of-age dramedy is not perfect, with minor sub-plots hinted at but not fully developed. However, amongst the witty lines and slapstick gags, it includes several heart-breaking moments and plot-twists you won’t see coming. Unlike most big-budget comedies, it combines laugh-out-loud humour with messages about paedophilia and mental instability. The movie explores Ricky and Hec’s motivations – running away from the past, present, and future for different reasons into an abyss. Dennison holds his own against Neill, helping us side with an otherwise petulant and unlikable character. Similarly, Neill’s comic timing boosts the character-actor’s most fleshed-out, charismatic role in decades.
Despite the wacky premise and neat cast, Waititi is Hunt for the Wilderpeople‘s shining light. The writer/director’s next project is a small, independent jaunt called Thor: Ragnarok. Let’s hope Kevin Feige and the Marvel Cinematic Universe lets him off the leash.
Stars: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr., Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan
Release date: April 28th, 2016
Distributor: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures
Running time: 147 minutes
Best part: The airport showdown.
Worst part: Minor leaps of logic.
Let’s face it, the Marvel Cinematic Universe has eclipsed everything DC Comics/Warner Bros. could possibly hope to achieve. In its 13-blockbuster run, this franchise has set the bar for every other studio now clamouring for their own extended universes. With Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice turning from promising idea into jumbled, obnoxious mess, Marvel is still going strong. Can you believe it’s been eight whole years since Iron Man came out? Neither can I, neither can they.
Captain America: Civil War looks set to be the most fulfilling blockbuster of 2016. The movie succeeds on every level, delivering on its promises and refusing to show fear or cynicism. The plot itself is more intricate and meaningful than your average MCU installment. Following up from the events of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and The Avengers: Age of Ultron, Civil War opens up with the new, unique Avengers squad on its latest mission in Lagos. Tracking down weapons trader Brock Rumlow/Crossbones (Frank Grillo), their efforts end with multiple civilian casualties.
The world looks set to turn against our troupe of sexy, spandex warriors, convinced humanity is better off without them. Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie), and Wanda Maximoff/Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) are scalded by US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) for their shocking collateral damage, aiming to push United Nations sanctions into effect. Whereas the team feels justified in their actions, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), James Rhodes/War Machine (Don Cheadle), Vision (Paul Bettany), and Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) side with the government. After Steve’s frenemy Bucky Barnes/Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is blamed for a catastrophe, Cap goes on a one-man mission to find answers.
Directors Joe and Anthony Russo along with long-standing screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, coming back after The Winter Soldier, have successfully taken the reigns from Joss Whedon. Their latest provides a sense of balance most blockbusters either avoid or can’t quite grasp. Its plot, unlike most cluttered superhero epics, follows one streamlined path from beginning to end. From the prologue and opening action sequence onwards, its character turns and narrative twists remain steady. Like the original Civil War storyline in the comics, the UN bill – titled the Sokovia Accords here – starts a ticking time bomb to the team’s obliteration. The conflict splits the story between both sides evenly – fusing its narrative, thematic, and emotional resonance throughout the exhaustive 147-minute run-time.
Team Cap and Team Iron Man have significant points of view. Cap and co. believe it’s their responsibility to protect the world and bring justice to anyone on the wrong side of the law. Cap – divided between the worlds of yesterday, today, and tomorrow – believes a bit of ‘ol’ fashioned’ goes a long way in this paranoid, surveillance state era. Stark’s troupe, however, points out the mass casualties already caused. The former weapons/tech. giant turned humanitarian warrior puts his foot down, outlining the escalation in worldwide violence and shady bureaucratic border-hopping. Both agendas are reasonable, literally and figuratively tearing the franchise’s two most beloved characters apart.
The Russos take on the monstrous task of following on from previous installments and setting up new ones. The pre-established characters and talented performers are given their due, with all sub-plots fitting together like intricate jigsaw pieces. Threads including Steve and Sharon Carter/Agent 13(Emily VanCamp)’s dynamic, Natasha’s diplomatic work, Sam and Bucky’s quarrels, Vision and Wanda’s impending relationship, Stark and Rhodes’ everlasting friendship and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) and Scott Lang/Ant-Man(Paul Rudd)’s involvement make for numerous light-hearted gags and soul-crushing moments simultaneously. It even throws in new characters including vengeful Wakandan prince T’Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), spunky youngster Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and scheming, sympathetic human villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) with textbook precision.
This globe-trotting, ambitious adventure delivers some of the MCU and modern Hollywood’s most inventive action sequences. The much-talked-about airport set-piece marks the franchise at its absolute peak. This impressive sequence brings our 12 major superhero characters together with aplomb, showcasing the astonishing array of fighting styles, abilities, and personalities. Pouring gravy onto this already hearty steak, the opening sequence, car chase, and heart-wrenching finale provide some ass-kicking delight in between the political discussions and character-driven interludes.
Captain America: Civil War successfully highlights Cap’s never-ending conflict with the 21st Century and The Avengers’ struggle to reassure the human race of its importance in the universe. Thanks to esteemed direction, a stacked cast, fun character-actor cameos, big laughs, and even bigger emotional rifts, this is the franchise’s most mature and momentous installment yet. Fingers crossed Infinity War Parts 1 and 2 can live up to our ridiculous expectations.
Verdict: Another rich superhero epic/fulfilling MCU installment.
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: 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.
Writers: Jason Reitman, Erin Cressida Wilson (screenplay), Chad Kultgen (novel)
Stars: Rosmarie DeWitt, Adam Sandler, Jennifer Garner, Judy Greer
Release date: October 1st, 2014
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 119 minutes
Best part: The dynamic performances.
Worst part: The heavy-handed message.
In the age of…whoa, whoa, whoa! There is no way, in the name of God and Mother Nature’s big, blue Earth, I can or should start a review of ‘indie’ dramedy Men, Women & Children with that cliché! Such clichés, used throughout most ‘perils of social media’ articles/news stories etc., sum up everything wrong with modern entertainment/journalism. News and entertainment media, from big-budget schlockers to the independent idea mills, should always be divorcing themselves from convention.
Rosemarie DeWitt & Adam Sandler.
Sadly, no one informed Men, Women & Children‘s cast and crew of this. Hoping we’ll look up its release date and/or wait anxiously for the next trailer’s release, the marketing campaign tries to lure us into its conventional worldview. Obsessed with the zeitgeist, this dramedy honestly believes it’s delivering the last word on the subject. It expects everyone – from top-tier critics to average film-goers – to sit up and listen. The movie – examining the dangers of social media, pop-culture, and sex – wants us to look in the mirror at judge ourselves for everything we’ve done wrong. Unaware of its flaws, the movie is a virus no contraceptive or firewall could ever hope to destroy. This blunt and irritable mess starts off with a symbol floating through another symbol whilst drifting past more symbols. In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 into the endless void of space. Blaring cheery greetings in 57 languages, smooth jazz sounds, and animal noises, astronomer Carl Sagan’s recording was designed to communicate with extraterrestrials. Explained via sprightly, useless narration (Emma Thompson), the movie falls back down to Earth. It then flicks through multiple story-lines. Inter-connecting through friendships, relationships, and coincidences, these stories craft a never-ending narrative about the digital age’s pros and cons.
Dean Norris & Judy Greer.
Despite the amount of story-lines and characters, Men, Women & Children is about as lifeless and mechanical as The Cloud. The movie handles dating divorcees (Dean Norris and Judy Greer), first loves (Ansel Elgort and Kaitly Dever), promiscuous teenagers (Olivia Crocicchia), porn-obsessed youngsters (Travis Tope), paranoid parents (Jennifer Garner), and much more. Before I bin this dramedy and press ‘Empty Trash’, allow me to activate my newly devised ‘Angry Critic’ app and explain why I hate it. Here’s what you should know before seeing Men, Women & Children – the title is plural for a reason! Each story-line, featuring several flawed characters each, gets a significant amount of screen-time. One particular story-line – involving married couple Rachel and Don Truby (Rosemarie DeWitt and Adam Sandler)’s debaucherous, internet-fuelled indiscretions – should have been the central conceit. Unfortunately, this over-long and simplistic black comedy’s remaining story-lines needed more time to install, run, and update. The first third, designed specifically to introduce each plot-thread, is chock-a-block with meet cutes and dilemma-causing scenarios. Meanwhile, the last third lives to resolve said preposterous, cynical, and inconsequential strands. This leaves only middle third to solidify each thread’s existence. Flipping iPad style through each sub-plot, character arc, theme, issue, and conflict, not one story-line is successfully developed or treated with care. Several threads, including the Truby’s oldest son’s porn addiction and one cheerleader’s eating disorder conflict, are worth erasing.
“I think if I disappeared tomorrow, the universe wouldn’t really notice.” (Tim Mooney (Ansel Elgort), Men, Women & Children).
Ansel Elgort & Kaitlyn Dever.
Set primarily in suburbia and high school, the movie longs to examine ‘relatable’ and ‘ordinary’ people. However, writer/director Jason Reitman (Juno, Up in the Air) – adapting Chad Kultgen’s novel – talks down to the public throughout this unrealistic and overbearing cautionary tale. Stepping into Sam Mendes and Todd Solondz’ worlds, Reitman’s snark and smarts dropped in favour of a discomforting tone and laboured pacing. The thirty-something filmmaker – following up confused romantic-drama Labor Day – crafts shallow depictions of monogamy, bulimia, obsession, temptation, infidelity, existential crises, celebrity, familial issues, and (anti)social media. Fusing this mean-spirited narrative with this overt sentimentality, it’s a peculiar mix of Dazed and Confused, Crash, and Parenthood. Highlighting the obvious metaphors, Reitman’s aggressive agenda infects his visual style. Throwing text messages, chat windows, and URL bars across the screen, this useless technique overcooks the convoluted story. Highlighting each character’s indiscretions, the director’s techniques send shivers down the spine. The performers – a mix of A-listers, character-actors, and up-and-comers – bolster the underdeveloped roles. Sandler, making a major career switch, elevates his introverted character. Garner, Greer, and Norris are worthwhile distractions in this debilitating after school special.
Men, Women & Children‘s poster sums up everything about the final product – it’s ugly, misjudged, and features recognisable people hidden by a bevy of smartphones and smart-asses. Despite the ambition, this suburban dramedy – from 1% completion to 100% – mistakes convolution for complexity. Reitman, fusing indie sensibilities with Hollywood prowess and minor studio interference, delivers his second consecutive foible. Despite the flaws, the performers admirable tackle the material. In particular, hearing Thompson say: “titty-f*cking cum queen” is almost worth it. LOL, smiley emoticon.
Stars: Kristen Stewart, Peyman Moaadi, Lane Garrison, John Carroll Lynch
Release date: October 17th, 2014
Distributor: IFC Films
Running time: 117 minutes
Best part: Stewart and Moaadi.
Worst part: The irritating supporting characters.
After the 9/11 terrorist attacks in New York City, the United States of America, considered to be the most stable country on Earth, did everything it could to respond. Sadly, what happened next crafted a chain of events the world is still unable to break. Along with the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and 2003 overhaul of Iraq, America struck the Middle-Eastern world with indescribable force. In addition, as highlighted in independent drama Camp X-Ray, one particular issue reshaped the world’s stance on the West.
Guantanamo Bay, created specifically to house persons of interest, was a torture chamber shadowed by the US Government. With several horrific cases making the news, something needed to be done. Thankfully, this place is no longer a problem. Why am I examining this topic? Well, because everyone deserves to gain a thorough understanding of our world. Camp X-Ray, despite only scraping the tip of the iceberg, is a fine example of cinema’s raw power. Ambitiously, the movie depicts one Army private’s brief stint in this nightmarish facility. Despite the questionable premise, it’s the people involved that push viewers in the right direction. In the opening two scenes, we get a brief glimpse into the events of 9/11 and Amir Ali(Peyman Moaadi)’s day-to-day existence. Ali, a lonely and humble simpleton, doesn’t seem like much of a threat. However, whilst in Salat (Islamic ritualistic prayer), he is abducted from Germany and moved halfway around the world to Guantanamo. Treated like an animal, he spends eight years in confinement. We then meet our other protagonist, Private First Class Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart).
Thanks to a subdued marketing campaign and well-earned award contention, Camp X-Ray is one of 2014’s most alluring indie releases. Refusing to boast its lead actor’s stardom, the movie aims for film festival crowds and strictly adult audiences. In fact, I doubt Twilight fans would be willing to watch K-Stew be kicked, spat on, or covered in excrement by vicious detainees. Interestingly enough, the title only refers to one part of the compound. Whilst watching this stirring drama, many viewers’ jaws will drop uncontrollably. Throughout the 117-minute run-time, the “I can’t believe this actually happened!” thought became lodged in my skull like a rogue piece of shrapnel. The narrative, crafting a slice-of-life account, drags us through each stage of Guantanamo’s gruelling processes. Graphic designer turned writer/director Peter Sattler, despite the fictional story, gathers enough research to make each frame feel genuine. Following Cole’s potent story, from her discomforting initiation to tender bond with Ali and more, Settler’s purposeful style illuminates our lead characters’ words and actions. In most sequences, Sattler’s less-is-more approach cranks the tension up to 11. Capturing the most mundane parts of Cole’s job, the movie never attempts to manipulate us. Oddly enough, despite the aforementioned faeces incident, Sattler’s succinct screenplay is more about telling than showing. The quieter moments, defined by searing dialogue and charming comedic jabs, cement this prison drama as a muted mix of The Shawshank Redemption and Zero Dark Thirty.
“It’s not as black and white as they said it was going to be.” (PFC Amy Cole (Kristen Stewart), Camp X-Ray).
Life in Guantanamo Bay.
Despite lacking the aforementioned movies’ prowess, Camp X-Ray delivers many heartfelt moments, cracking lines, and thought-provoking viewpoints. Powered by Sattler’s tell-don’t-show approach, the supporting characters serve to summarise his agenda. In fact, these caricatures’ cruel words and disgraceful actions become overbearing. However, among the existential angst and political jabs, Camp X-Ray‘s central dynamic steadily turns this political-thriller into a fascinating and sweet pseudo-fairytale. As our lead character’s time runs out, varying conflicts and complications play out with maximum effect. Yearning for masculine qualities, our lead warps and twists herself around the system. Afraid of consequences and responsibilities, Cole’s arc delivers an emotionally resonant experience. Beyond Sattler’s profound character development, credit belongs to Stewart for shedding her persona and becoming something else entirely. Ridding herself of the ongoing backlash, this ambitious project illuminates her immense magnetism and range. Utilising her slender figure and distinctive facial features, Stewart adapts to every situation and flourish. Stuck primarily in close up, she and Sattler’s intimate style bolster this meaningful journey. Aiding Stewart throughout, Moaadi – known primarily for breakout Iranian drama, A Separation – is blindingly charismatic as a sorrowful victim hidden deep within hell. Adding comedic hints when required, his bountiful performance elevates this sombre character study.
Despite switching between ever-so-slight Left and Right viewpoints, forcing Camp X-Ray to apologise on behalf of the US Government whilst applauding its stance on terrorism, the end result deserves our immediate attention. Telling a heart-breaking story about the West, Middle-East, and everywhere in between, this prison drama delivers a full-strength assault on the heart, mind, and senses. As a performance piece for one of Hollywood’s most underrated actresses, this is a sure-fire indie-drama highlight.
Stars: Julianne Moore, Mia Wasikowska, John Cusack, Robert Pattinson
Release date: September 26th, 2014
Distributors: Entertainment One, Focus World
Countries: USA, Canada
Running time: 112 minutes
Best part: Cronenberg’s direction.
Worst part: The dodgy CGI.
Certainly, the sunny labyrinth of Los Angeles – sheltered by the Hollywood sign and supported by the Walk of Fame – wields many sights worth exploring. Indeed, anyone living outside the City of Angels has an idea of what’s on offer. As the hub of commercial entertainment, us Westerners rely on Hollywood to keep us engaged and relaxed. However, those who live in or have visited the landmark town know its many filthy secrets. Every inch of LA, from Compton to Santa Monica to Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards, is covered in a layer of scum. This is reflected in Tinseltown’s latest bout of self-deprecation, Maps to the Stars.
Julianne Moore & Mia Wasikowska.
With Maps to the Stars, a big-name director, commendable screenwriter, and several A-listers got together to kickstart the project. Despite the cast and crew’s immense buying power, this satirical-drama holds up on its own. Combating all forms of criticism, it’s difficult not to applaud the movie’s raw pride. This crime-thriller, taking on everything and everyone around it, breaks off into several valuable strands. Its narrative follows the Weiss family’s peculiar lifestyle. As one of (fictional) Hollywood’s most prestigious and ballsy families, the Weiss’ represent the archetypal Beverly Hills dynasty. The husband/father figure, Dr. Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), is a gutsy self-help guru/psychotherapist making his fortune from TV appearances and manuals. Obsessed with book tours and reputations, Stafford turns away from chaos and despair. The wife/mother figure, Cristina (Olivia Williams), is her thirteen-year-old son’s manic-depressive manager. Suffocating her child with pills and diet plans, her fragile frame of mind threatens to hurriedly destroy everything in her radius. The aforementioned son, Benjie (Evan Bird), is a mega-successful sitcom star bouncing back from a recent stint in a drug rehabilitation program. At the worst time possible, the daughter, Agatha (Mia Wasikowska), leaves a Floridian sanatorium to reconnect with her family.
John Cusack & Evan Bird.
Why was Agatha situated so far away from her family? What happened to the family before we met them, exactly? Why is she covered in horrific scars? I can’t tell anyone, as it would ruin Maps to the Stars‘ immense enjoyment factor. Inhaling The Shining, Sunset Boulevard, American Beauty, and Mulholland Drive, the movie fuses self-reflexive humour with confronting drama-thriller tropes. From the first frame onwards, writer Bruce Wagner – apparently on a hell-bent mission to skewer Tinseltown left, right, and centre – outlines his viewpoints and ideologies for the audience. In doing so, Wagner – basing his screenplay on his experiences whilst comparing it to Paul Eluard’s poem ‘Liberte’ – allows us to shape our own analyses. Adding obvious titbits to each line, Wagner illuminates the puzzle pieces throughout. The narrative, pieced together in varying ways depending on one’s knowledge of the industry, comments on modern showbiz’s pros and cons. Examining Hollywood’s cynical business decisions and shallow inhabitants, the narrative evenly spreads itself over several intriguing plot-strands and character arcs. Despite the compelling material, Maps to the Stars never establishes a lead character. Early on, Agatha worms her way into Beverly Hills through a friendship with limo driver/actor/writer Jerome Fontana (Robert Pattinson). Thanks to her Twitter-based attachment to Carrie Fisher, this bizarre character becomes ageing actress/sexual abuse victim Havana Segrand(Julianne Moore)’s “chore whore” (personal assistant). Havana longs for a remake of a feature originally starring her deceased mother (Sarah Gadon). This satirical-drama, giving its characters many physical, spiritual, and psychological afflictions, waits for its subjects to unravel like a faux-Gucci outfit.
“On the stairs of death I write your name, Liberty.” (Agatha Weiss (Mia Wasikowska), Maps to the Stars).
Flipping between plot-strands, this psychological-thriller relies on its severe, agenda-setting methodology. Despite Wagner’s piercing dialogue and searing commentary, credit belongs to renowned Canadian director David Cronenberg (Videodrome, The Fly) for keeping everything under the surface. With each passing second, the master filmmaker supports Wagner’s argument by examining at his overwhelming viewpoints. Eclipsing his anti-establishment bottle flick Cosmopolis, Cronenberg hits a nerve most avoid like the plague. Like his 2012 limo-set drama, his cold, distant direction matches the agenda at every turn. Despite the tonal inconsistency, the filmmaker leaps between sub-plots with ease and determination. Sending shivers down the spine, his style amplifies the disgusting things our characters say and do. Learning from experience, his direction throws us normal folk into the chaos. His studio meetings, filmed entirely in medium close-ups, comes off like interrogations. Grappling with temptation, obsession, and greed, Cronenberg’s visual flourishes amplify the intensity. Amplified by Howard Shore’s piercing drum-lines and Peter Suschitzky’s mesmerising cinematography, the movie’s many climaxes and revelations hit like rejections. Unlike his more recent efforts (A History of Violence, A Dangerous Method), Cronenberg’s touch, like plastic surgery, rests on and under the surface. Tearing down egos and backstabbers, our talented performers capture a soap opera-like aura impeccably. Moore examines her searing role with gusto and vigour. Meddling with a despicable character (celebrating after a fellow actress drops out of a role due to tragic circumstances), she strips everything down to the bare essentials.
Within Hollywood’s bright lights, gorgeous landmarks, and raging parties, a disease – turning fame and fortune into despicable traits – seeks to destroy everything. Causing LA’s dirt-covered veneer, this scourge of reality TV and tabloid media has severely degraded the glamour. Despite the overbearing agenda, Maps to the Stars has the cojones to bludgen Hollywood with its own golden statuettes. Thanks to scintillating performances, pithy dialogue, and kinetic visuals, this satirical-drama is Cronenberg’s best effort since Eastern Promises.
Verdict: A compelling and confronting satirical-drama.
Writers: Andrew Bovell (screenplay), John le Carre (novel)
Stars: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright
Release date: September 12th, 2014
Distributors: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, Entertainment One
Countries: UK, USA
Running time: 122 minutes
Best part: The electrifying performances.
Worst part: The monotonous pace.
Over the past thirteen years, filmmakers and studios have milked the proverbial zeitgeist teat. Though major political, economic, and cultural events have been re-enacted previously, the 21st century’s biggest issues are being flogged for our entertainment. United 93 and World Trade Center re-created America’s darkest day, Zero Dark Thirty depicted the hunt for Osama bin Laden, while The 25th Hour tackled the saddest New York imaginable. However, spy-thrillers like A Most Wanted Man face the nitty-gritty of post-9/11 paranoia.
Luckily, A Most Wanted Man takes the high road throughout. Looking into a distressing magic 8-ball, the movie refuses to offend anyone. However, it still tells an effective and meaningful tale. Adapted from acclaimed author John le Carre’s recent novel, this spy-thriller honours the legendary writer whilst taking a different path. In addition, the movie efficiently tackles the War on Terror. The title cards, layered over an arresting shot of the ocean crashing into a dock, inform us of important historical events. After learning Islamic extremist Mohammed Atta had planned the World Trade Centre attacks in Hamburg, Germany, the US Government developed a task force there to destroy future potential threats. In this fictional account, we meet the people in charge. In its latest mission, lead espionage agent Gunther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) tasks his team – bolstered by Erna Frey (Nina Hoss) and Max (Daniel Bruhl) – with tracking illegal immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). Working off the local Muslim community and CCTV footage, Gunther’s team finds Karpov in a decrepit housing complex. Simultaneously, the team tracks Muslim philanthropist Dr. Faisal Abdullah(Homayoun Ershadi)’s suspicious activities.
Robin Wright taking time off from House of Cards.
Despite being Europe’s most prolific counter-terrorists, Gunther and co. must make their case before German security official Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) and American diplomatic attache Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) take over. Obviously, A Most Wanted Man is devoid of a James Bond or Jason Bourne. Lacking gadgets, lavish vistas, or explosions, the average filmgoer might reject this intricate and claustrophobic effort. However, its narrative grips the viewer from the first to last frame. Its surprises, lacking the typical action-thriller bombast, are hearty breaths of fresh air. The mystery, placing professionals in realistic yet unpredictable situations, never relies on standard tropes. Standing alongside its competition, the story – aided by Andrew Bovell’s meticulous screenplay – rests on its characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Fuelled by intensive conversations and chases, the spying is as mature and concise as our characters. However, the story – depicting Gunther’s team forming alliances with distressed lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and renowned banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) – never delivers enough emotional resonance. Avoiding major thrills, the movie occasionally tests the viewer’s patience. Based around political conflicts and slow-burn espionage, some may beg for fistfights or shootouts. The first-two thirds, though peppered with harsh truths and tense sequences, won’t raise anyone’s blood levels.
“Every good man has a little bit of bad, doesn’t he? And in Abdullah’s case…that little bit might just kill you.” (Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), A Most Wanted Man).
Rachel McAdams making major career strides.
Despite the minor flaws, A Most Wanted Man‘s positives make for pitch-perfect sequences. Fuelled by witty lines and surveillance jargon, this glacially paced drama soars when required. The last third, driven by a heart-wrenching climax and bitter resolution, delivers 2014’s most gripping moments. Director Anton Corbijn (The American, Control) applies his strengths to each frame. Known for uncompromising flourishes, his style rescues certain sequences from tedium. Dodging The American’s immaculate sheen, his depiction of Hamburg is worth the admission cost. Enlivening each setting, he revels in the city’s architecture, grit, and history. In addition, Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography highlights each scene’s viscera and value. Beyond this, Hoffman delivers one of the year’s most profound performances. In his penultimate feature, Hoffman injects vigour and malice into this invigorating protagonist. In particular, one scene solidifies Hoffman and his character’s immense worth. After drifting out of bed, he rolls his eyes, downs a shot of whisky, then plays several notes on a piano. In this few-second scene, Corbijn cements Hoffman as one of this generation’s greatest talents. The supporting characters, though serving to boost Hoffman, further propel the story. Wright and McAdams bolster certain plot-threads with energetic and potent performances. In addition, Dafoe’s core strengths saves his plot-device role.
Delivering a fresh take on post-9/11 paranoia, A Most Wanted Man is an entertaining and comprehensive discussion of the past decade’s biggest issues. Blitzing similar pot-boilers including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Body of Lies, and Syriana, this spy-thriller embraces the simple to tackle the complex. More importantly, Hoffman’s scintillating performance highlights a remarkable career cut short. Like with his character, the movie’s nuances draw the line between success and failure.
Verdict: An intelligent and well-crafted spy-thriller.
Distributors: British Film Institute, Nordisk Film Distribution, Madman Entertainment
Running time: 97 minutes
Best part: The chilling final third.
Worst part: The lead character.
Shuffling into varying release dates across the globe, Denmark’s latest cinematic hit, The Keeper of Lost Causes, is merely carrying the torch of a remarkable cinematic hot streak. This past decade, though marked by big-budget behemoths, has delivered several sleeper hits and international gems. Kicking off with 2009’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Scandinavian crime-thriller trend has ascended significantly higher than expected. Borrowing from the aforementioned Swedish thriller’s playbook, this adaptation is, despite the occasional misstep, worth scouring for amidst the bevy of ultra-dumb actioners and childish comedies.
Our two cop leads gunning for redemption.
Being a new release designed specifically for adults, The Keeper of Lost Causes connects with the target audience before beating us into submission. Despite this concept’s overwhelming severity, the process makes for an intelligent and thought-provoking cinematic experience. Thanks to its crime-thriller novel roots, the movie seeks out a higher form of film-goer. This particular viewer type – one wholeheartedly familiar with breakthrough Scandinavian crime fiction – is already accustomed to the genre’s lightest and darkest ideas. Indeed, this whodunnit, adapted from high-profile author Jussi Alder-Olsen’s first Department Q novel, is far more rewarding than most. The story revolves around the day in, day out life of hot-shot detective Carl Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). In the opening sequence, Carl’s preemptive side takes charge. In disrupting a crucial stakeout, Carl strides straight into the target’s lair. Getting one partner murdered and another terminally paralysed, our Maverick cop is sent, by his pragmatic chief, down to the basement. Whilst sorting through cold cases, Carl’s withdrawal symptoms begin to destroy him. Soon enough, however, after aligning with department outcast Assad (Fares Fares), Carl delves into his new department’s most horrific case. Shut down years earlier, the assignment examines the mysterious, five-year disappearance of noble politician Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter) from a passenger ferry.
Sonja Richter as kidnap victim Merete Lynggaard.
Trudging similar territory to airport novel heavyweights Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, Alder-Olsen’s notoriously visceral works have placed him on a high pedestal. With bookworms pining for future releases, his novels have birthed several intriguing and note-worthy genre tropes. Inexplicably, The Keeper of Lost Causes aims for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series’ look and feel. Drenched in misery and anger, the narrative transforms Alder-Olsen’s material for the modern audience. However, with film and TV tackling similar material of late, this crime-thriller comes off as stale in comparison. Dealing in archetypes and a by-the-numbers story, certain plot-points and twists become visible from a mile away. In addition, the investigation itself lingers unnecessarily throughout the first half. Stalled by cop-thriller cliches, the first-two acts develop a confused and sluggish mystery-drama. Thanks to Carl and Assad’s good cop/bad cop dynamic, the main plot-line halts early in the second act. In fact, with potent dramas including Luther and Broadchurch throwing stronger punches, this movie may cause significantly more yawns then gasps. However, when separated from its rivals, this low-four-star whodunnit delivers the meat and potatoes. Adding enough depth when required, the narrative’s brightest spots lay in the tissue surrounding the bone.
“Do me a favour…if I get murdered…don’t investigate my case.” (Carl Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), The Keeper of Lost Causes).
Just one slither of this mystery-thriller’s dark side.
Light on exposition, the movie spends enough time examining, then taring apart, Carl’s personal problems – including his uneasy relationship with his step-son – and Assad’s backstory. Despite the generic whodunnit narrative, the second half transforms this conventional crime-thriller into a visceral and confounding thrill-ride. Switching this gritty experiment from Along Came a Spider to Prisoners, this spirited effort’s central conflict reaches darker, and more emotionally resonant, depths with each turn. As Merete’s never-ending struggle reaches breaking point, the movie’s Buried-esque dramatic shades deliver several heartbreaking peaks. As our two central plot-lines intertwine, director Mikkel Norsgaard (Klown) injects magnetic flourishes into its all-encompassing flashbacks. As the final third unravels, his vignettes tell haunting tales about our Buffalo Bill-like antagonist. More Daring and thought-provoking than most modern film noirs, this adaptation pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, TV detective dramas, and even its competition. Like the sharp direction, the performances wholeheartedly elevate the predictable material. Lie Kaas spices up his tiresome role with levity and malice. Despite his character’s smarmy personality and frustrating code, our lead’s passionate performance grounds this obtuse crime-thriller. In addition, Fares delivers some much-needed levity as the concerned ally. Richter, confined to one morose setting, bares all for her fascinating character arc.
From Easy Money to Reykjavik-Rotterdam, Scandinavian crime cinema is making transcendent strides toward long-lasting worldwide acclaim. The Keeper of Lost Causes – one of many recent, top-tier film noirs – comes agonisingly close to reaching its more commercially-viable counterparts’ successes. With strong performances and profound twists, this whodunnit eviscerates the soul before busting the case wide open. Unfortunately, like most similar crime-dramas, the movie boasts a story we’ve seen too many times before.
Verdict: A disturbing and intensifying mystery-thriller.
Writers: Elan Mastai (screenplay), T. J. Dawe (novel)
Stars: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis
Release date: August 20th, August
Distributor: Entertainment One
Countries: Canada, Ireland
Running time: 101 minutes
Best part: Radcliffe and Kazan’s chemistry.
Worst part: The slapstick gags.
Some actors, introduced to Hollywood at an early age, find it difficult to stray away from certain character types. Several hard-yards youngsters have tried and failed to stay relevant whilst transitioning from childhood to adolescence. Over the past decade, one ambitious British actor has radically transformed the stigma surrounding him. Daniel Radcliffe, known for the mega-successful Harry Potter franchise, is leaving the boy-wizard aura behind thanks to ballsy entries including The Woman in Black and Kill Your Darlings.
Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan’s blistering chemistry defeats all!
From a distance, cheerful romantic comedy What If looks like the right ingredient for cementing his leading-man status. Backed up by pulpy horror-fantasy Horns, he, his agent, and publicist seem to be making all the right moves. On track to be the next Hugh Grant or Colin Firth, his ambitious acting style is an ever-changing experiment in itself. In this heartening rom-rom, Radcliffe channels everything into he and his leading lady’s dynamic. Wholeheartedly, our leads bolster this likeable effort. The narrative revolves around twenty-something nobody Wallace (Radcliffe). Having caught his unfaithful girlfriend in the act, our medical school dropout can’t seem to move on. After a year of sorrow and rejection, Wallace searches for anything to cheer him up. One night, at his roommate/best friend Allan(Adam Driver)’s house party, he meets quirky dame Chantry (Zoe Kazan). Stuck in a rut, our leads might just work perfectly together. However, there’s always a catch! Out of the blue, Chantry reveals her close-knit relationship with Ben (Rafe Spall). As per the Hollywood rom-com code, Wallace is no match for Chantry’s significant other. Agreeing to be friends, Wallace and Chantry’s bond grows with each chance encounter and coffee-driven meet up.
Adam Driver and Mackenzie Davis lending a helping hand.
Every 3 to 90 year old knows the ins and outs of big-budget rom-coms. From the posters alone, often depicting our leads leaning on one another, it’s easy to decipher every plot-line and character arc. With fantasy overshadowing quality, these movies rely on desperate singles and eager couples giving Hollywood enough cash to produce more of them. Surprisingly, What Iftakes several rom-com tropes for a spin before beating and leaving them for dead. Sure, this may seem shockingly morbid. However, the movie wants us to feel this way. Looking down upon sensitivity and artificiality, this movie asks the age old question – can men and women ever be friends? Throughout most of this enlightening rom-com, the answer appears to be “yes”. In fact, when Wallace and Chantry act like buddies, the movie crafts its best moments. Indeed, despite the unending meet cutes and fun montages, the movie’s first-two thirds follow a refreshing and respectable trajectory. With the narrative reaching peculiar peaks and troughs, the first-two thirds linger in the consciousness. Unfortunately, the final third, Fuelled by more cliches and contrivances than a Valentine’s Day Drive-in marathon, the climax falls flatter than expected. Throwing in airports, taxis, time limits, confessions of love, and first kisses, the movie drops its realistic glow in favour of studio-driven sappiness.
“99% honesty is the foundation of any relationship.” (Allan (Adam Driver), What If).
Megan Park as the loud mouth sister.
Credit belongs to director Michael Dowse (Goon, Take Me Home Tonight) for crafting a Canadian rom-com with US flair and a dry British sense of humour. Brewing a (500) Days of Summer and Ruby Sparks concoction, What Iftakes a hefty bite out of typical genre conventions. Shocking audiences with its mean streak, the movie throws in much more expletives and sex talk than expected. Thanks to Chantry’s promiscuous sister Dalia (Megan Park) and Allan’s girlfriend Nicole (Mackenzie Davis) inclusion, this rom-com is unafraid to get down and dirty into hard-earned truths. Discussing sex, loneliness, infidelity, and relationships, the movie earns points for not sugar-coating everything of relevance. In fact, as the sub-plots rise and fall immeasurably, its message makes several must-hear points about love and loss. Sadly, influenced by Michel Gondry and Marc Webb, Dowse’s style adds little to the final product. Repeatedly stating the obvious, his animated flourishes and editing techniques outline already-established points. In addition, running gags and improvised lines extend the running time beyond merit. However, overshadowing its minor quibbles, Radcliffe and Kazan shine in the spotlight. Radcliffe, losing his Potter sheen, is enrapturing as the good egg cracking under pressure. Carrying the movie’s slight shade of optimism, Radcliffe radically bolsters his intriguing role. Meanwhile, Kazan’s inherent charisma and awe-inspiring enthusiasm save certain cliched sections.
Blasting through rom-com cliches and archetypes, What If, for the first-two thirds, is a charming and visceral meet-cute-ridden distraction. Radcliffe and Kazan, proving to be alluring lead actors, elevate every second of screen time. Whether they’re together or apart, it’s difficult to take your eyes off them. As action-horror flicks fester August and September, this romp provides the perfect reprieve from everything around us. In fact, if Radcliffe can escape Harry Potter, we can leapfrog Into the Storm and catch this enjoyable smooch-fest instead.
Stars: Guy Pearce, Robert Pattinson, Scoot McNairy, David Field
Release date: August 15th, 2014
Distributors: A24, Roadshow Films
Running time: 102 minutes
Best part: Pearce and Pattinson.
Worst part: The leaden pace.
For the past decade, Australian cinema has hidden in the darkest depths of Hollywood’s monstrous shadow. Despite several attempts to increase the Australian Film Industry’s popularity, our cinema continually fails to make valiant strides toward critical and commercial success. However, some home-grown dramas, avoiding labels like “boring” or “depressing”, garner significant acclaim the world over. In fact, 2014’s ambitious, dirt-covered crime-thriller The Rover might just fuel our industry for another few years.
Guy Pearce as Australia’s last badass.
The Rover, despite the minor flaws, makes several effecting and applause-worthy leaps toward critical and commercial success. Hitting harder than most of 2014’s celluloid offerings, this crime-western places itself on the right pedestal. With much more guile and heart than the average ‘Summer’ tentpole, it’s a shame this is being passed up in favour of conventional Superhero extravaganzas and nostalgia-driven actioners. Elevating the overt sparseness and attention to detail, its worth resides in its desire to be different. Without looking down upon its competition, the movie depicts one of 2014’s most confronting and alluring narratives. This crime-western follows vicious loner Eric (Guy Pearce), as he pushes himself through Australia’s outback wastelands. Close to giving up on his aimless existence, he and his car hurtle down dirt roads in search of salvation. However, his plans change during a routine petrol stop. After a robbery gone wrong, Henry (Scoot McNairy), Archie (David Field), and Caleb (Tawanda Manyimo) dump their damaged getaway vehicle and steal Eric’s. On a mission to track down his car, Eric comes across Henry’s injured brother Rey (Robert Pattinson). Holding Rey as collateral, Eric hunts down the robbers across dangerous heartlands. Along the way, run-ins with military personnel and anarchic citizens pull our two lead scumbags together.
Robert Pattinson in career-reviving form.
Back in 2010, crime-drama Animal Kingdom boosted the AFI’s box-office stature and its immaculate cast members’ careers. Its writer/director, David Michod, hit the ground running with a grand vision and noble intentions. Here, Michod ventures into a vastly different genre. Mining the same ground as George Miller and John Hillcoat, Michod’s latest effort comes off as a wondrous ode to classic crime-westerns from the past 50 years. As a spiritual continuation of the Mad Max series, The Rover crafts similar tire tracks and bullet wounds. However, with a stripped-back aura in tow, Michod’s writing and direction separates it from true-blue exploitation. Of course, based around an unholy economic collapse, Michod’s story hurriedly veers into darkness. Becoming the next Andrew Dominik, Michod’s rough-and-tumble storytelling highlights valuable moments within dour surroundings. In fact, The Rover‘s twists and turns are bolstered by unique flourishes and profound dialogue. Igniting intensifying shootouts and car chases throughout, this crime-western takes opportunities at pitch-perfect intervals. Uninterested in genre clichés, Michod’s screenplay – aided by Joel Edgerton’s Story credentials – is more modest and meaningful than most of its type. If a threat arises, the screenplay lingers on it like a sniper eyeing down a stationary target. Thanks to a near-wordless first five minutes, the lead character’s actions are worth jotting down for later reference.
“You should never stop thinking about a life you’ve taken. It’s the price you pay for taking it…” (Eric (Guy Pearce), The Rover).
Two men, one economic meltdown.
Despite Michod’s mesmerising stranglehold, all crime-westerns of this magnitude suffer similar flaws. Bordering on pretentiousness, the second and last thirds’ wordless sections threaten to drain depth out of the intricate narrative. In addition, with cynical dialogue spattered across vital sequences, the movie’s blisteringly misanthropic outlook almost stalls this otherwise poignant and visceral crime-western. In some instances, Pearce’s lines come off like brutal concoctions of Cormac McCarthy writings and Jim Beam. However, Michod’s direction is worth the admission cost. From the opening sequence onward, his style bolsters this discomforting drama-thriller. Holding his camera steady throughout, his earthy tones throw his follow-up feature into a whole other realm of ingenuity. In certain sections, it’s clear Australia’s latest cinema icon is infatuated by our big, brown land. Switching from bright, desert-laden vistas to blackened mining strips, his ticks heighten the movie’s sensory impact. The score also bolsters Michod’s near-flawless execution. Juxtaposing between the past and present, the indigenous-industrial notes add depth to the meandering plot. However, the lead performers turn Michod’s vision into reality. Pearce, on a career turnaround with a string of Hollywood hits, reels in every emotion and mannerism for this heartbreaking performance. In addition, utilising specific physical and psychological traits, Pattinson’s scintillating turn establishes an immense hunger for worthwhile roles.
In the vein of The Proposition and The Road, The Rover is a crime-western with the right amount of sass, class, and vigour. Continually breaking new ground, Michod’s latest pushes wider audiences toward Australian genre cinema. Here, his atmospheric direction cements a ground floor for like-minded filmmakers to use. Elevated by powerhouse performances, volatile outback vistas, and prescient storytelling, this crime-western, despite rubbing against the pop-cultural grain, is worth the time, energy, and money.
Verdict: A worthy effort from Michod, Pearce, and Pattinson.
Stars: Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek
Release date: August 23rd, 2013
Distributors: Cinedigm, Demarest Films
Running time: 96 minutes
Best part: The powerful performances.
Worst part: The minor contrivances.
It may be a cliche, but, more often than you’d think, laughter really is the best medicine. However, eclipsing this sentiment, a concentrated mix of emotions is a sure-fire cure-all. By that token, dramedy Short Term 12 pleases anyone who submits themselves to its aura. Along with laugh-out loud moments, the movie contains more emotional twists and turns than previous dramedies of it type. Based on writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s own 2009 short film, its engaging characters, heart-warming narrative, and powerhouse performances will make even the toughest men cry throughout the blissful run-time.
Brie Larson & Keith Stanfield.
So, with indie-dramedies serving specific and profound purposes, how does Short Term 12break away from the pack? These dramedies all sport similar promotional material – commendable actors look sad, the soundtrack sets the mood, and title cards exclaim the movies’ true merits and potential. With movies like Short Term 12 bursting to life at film festivals across the world, these modest productions become small gems hiding amongst major trendsetters. Thankfully, Short Term 12 is currently blossoming outside the festival circuit. Examining powerful social and psychological issues, Cretton’s dramedy contains more emotional force than all of last year’s blockbusters put together. The previous statement may be extreme, but it’s difficult to disagree with. Sitting in the near-empty theatre, the movie’s awe-inspiring momentum enveloped me. The movie focuses on the titular foster-care facility in an unnamed sector of middle-class America. Its head supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) looks after several under-privileged children. Thankfully, she is not alone. Grace, aided by long-term boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and newcomer Nate (Rami Malek), values her life’s work. The movie also examines a handful of these under-privileged children. Defined by varying genders, races, personalities, and problems, these characters draw memories, advice, and emotions out of their trustworthy carers.
John Gallagher, Jr.
Shy troublemaker Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is two weeks away from turning 18. Forced to leave the facility after reaching this age, Marcus’ crippling confidence issues threaten his and Mason’s personas. Flying under Hollywood’s all-encompassing radar, Short Term 12 takes controversial and potentially saccharine material and transforms it into a compellingly dramatic creation. In need, and deserving, of major critical consideration, this dramedy wholeheartedly delivers an accurate and dense depiction of America’s neglected citizens. In a better world, young audiences would ache for a drama like this. In fact, the movie becomes a mirror for this infamous demographic to peer into. Grappling touchy subject matter, Short Term 12 speaks to young people of all mental, physical, and occupational statuses. In particular, the movie touchingly deliberates on the problems facing teenage girls. The story kicks into gear after one person’s introduction. Welcoming troubled minor Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever) into the facility, Grace meets her emotional match. Unlike most institution dramas, the subjects and carers exist on similar and familiar planes of existence. We sympathise with these characters whilst relating to every twist and turn hitting their valuable lives. When one character breaks down, another relates to, and then elevates, their crippling condition. Grace, putting her arm around certain characters whilst listening to their every word, is the narrative’s emphatically likeable core. Despite coming close to Girl, Interrupted and Precious’ levels of dreariness, Short Term 12 balances out its heavier moments with sharp and humorous sequences.
“It’s impossible to worry about anything else when there’s blood coming out of you.” (Grace (Brie Larson), Short Term 12).
Highlighting important moments with witty lines and appealing character traits, Short Term 12 takes necessarily deep breaths. From the opening scene – involving Mason delivering a sweet yet peculiar anecdote about his most embarrassing incident at the facility – this story delivers organic links between lost lives, tangible existences, and wounded souls. Speeding toward the potently affable finish line, the narrative delivers emotional and psychological gut-punches and heartfelt surprises. Short Term 12, relying on morally ambiguous and straight-laced characters, breaks boundaries despite its small-scale setting’s bleak confines. Refreshingly, no one comes off like an antagonistic hindrance. Even the facility’s head supervisor Jack (Franz Turner), whilst arguing with Grace about Jaden’s stability, adequately outlines her situation’s more alarming details. Realistically, protocol and evidence stand above impulsive decisions and commendable intentions. Despite falling into visceral revenge-thriller territory in the final third, the empathetic and conscionable characters guide this poignant tale. Cretton’s screenplay, despite lacing each role with distracting contrivances, never trips up this talented ensemble. Larson, improving upon her terrific 2013 in cinema and TV, tackles her tumultuous role head-on. With Grace fending for herself throughout a tough emotional spiral, Larson’s performance works wonders for the movie’s ambitious aura. Playing the ultimate nice guy, Gallagher Jr. stretches his acting muscles beyond Aaron Sorkin’s perplexing dialogue (The Newsroom). As the voice of reason, his character provides levity for several heartbreaking scenes.
Thanks to lasting appeal, powerful dramatic beats, and fresh-faced performers, Short Term 12 becomes a strong breath of fresh air compared to the past few months’ big-budget flops. Here, we see the evolution of a diminutive genre. This movie doesn’t simply burst into life; it delivers original ideas and emotionally gripping moments unlike any previous micro-budget drama. This optimistic character study, much like its teenage subjects, deserves some much-needed credit and attention.
Stars: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Steve Zahn
Release date: February 13th, 2014
Distributor: Focus Features
Running time: 116 minutes
Best part: McConaughey and Leto.
Worst part: The obvious symbolism.
Today, the first world looks to Hollywood for inspiration. Despite being an easy target, film and TV industries deliver symbols and heroic figures. Thanks to grand illusions, we forget that celebrities are people too. These awe-inspiring figures aren’t simply high profile people collecting giant paycheques while posing for photographs. It’d be easy for celebrities – bombarded with blissful opportunities, temptations, and fan-bases – to make simplistic choices. The late 1990s and early 00s housed laughing stock turned celebrated actor Matthew McConaughey’s extraordinary ascension. Falling into the leading man slot, he picked roles based on giant paycheques and mass marketing campaigns. However, he’s recently proven his worth within the ever-shrinking A-list club.
Fortunately, McConaughey’s slew of award-worthy movies – forming the aptly titled ‘McConaissance’ – has bolstered his once-declining filmography. With his star shining brighter then ever, low-key docudrama Dallas Buyers Club hurls this dynamic actor into serious Oscar contention. However, despite the praise, one mind-boggling performance doesn’t make for a wholly compelling docudrama. Continuing this Oscar season’s trend of fusing darkly eclectic docudramas with powerful performance pieces, the movie relies entirely on the courage of its convictions. The movie chronicles rebellious loner turned dilapidated pharmaceutical figure Ron Woodroof. We meet Woodroof during awkward yet eye-catching circumstances. Woodroof, a serial womaniser and irritable misanthrope, leads a repetitive and tiresome existence. Gambling over rodeo bull rides and card games, his insatiable lifestyle reaches critical and disastrous conditions. With his ‘enviable’ lifestyle delivering countless surprises, his identity shifts violently after an industrial accident. At his local hospital, he is diagnosed with HIV/AIDS. Taken aback by his condition, his existence is turned upside down. With his friends’ prejudices pushing him away, Woodroof finds solace through drugs and alcohol. At this point, the movie becomes a familiar yet likeable drama aching for attention. Beyond McConaughey’s physical, mental, and emotional transformations (losing 18kg for the role), the movie’s sterling attention to detail and spiritual weight launches it into overdrive.
My praise for this significant actor can’t be undone. Over the past three years, McConaughey – gracefully embodying ruthless yet sympathetic criminals (Mud), middle-aged strippers (Magic Mike), honourable and vicious hitmen (Killer Joe), and straight-laced professionals (Bernie, The Paperboy, The Lincoln Lawyer) – has become Hollywood’s most dexterous actor. Graciously, the Texan artist saved his best performance for this potent and Oscar-worthy docudrama. Though not quite reaching The Wolf of Wall Street and Killer Joe‘s standards, Dallas Buyers Clubdelivers heartwarming and confronting qualities. Based on this extraordinary true story, the movie blissfully and honourably explores American history’s most taboo subject. The AIDS epidemic, explored in major releases like Philadelphia, hits like an impactful gut-punch. Despite informative and controversial subject matter, the movie never asks for sympathy. Unlike similar medical dramas, the movie never looks down upon its morally driven characters. In fact, for the most part, the movie refuses to sit patiently in a hospital waiting room. Emphatically immersing us in Woodroof’s journey, this Erin Brockovich-like docudrama becomes a love letter to Middle America’s unique inhabitants. Thankfully, Woodroof and his enlightening journey are insatiably empathetic. Despite his brash personality, this character arc becomes a tangible and exhilarating thrill-ride. Driving through an entrancing time period, this movie’s 20-year production history, coming from a loving place, touches on this and last century’s most debilitating issues. Despite its obvious flaws, the movie’s immaculate relevance pushes it into Oscar territory. The story’s parallels chart Woodroof’s shocking transformations. In comparing Woodroof’s pre and post diagnosis lifestyles, the movie’s cliches stick out. In the first few scenes, Woodroof is the pinnacle of manliness. Snorting cocaine, throwing around dollar bills, and setting up saucy threesomes, certain traits telegraph Woodroof’s overt transformation. Pushing him into the country’s gay, lesbian, and transgender community, this homophobic and anger-fuelled man’s journey is eye-rollingly overt.
“Let me give y’all a little news flash. There ain’t nothin’ out there can kill f*uckin’ Ron Woodroof in 30 days.” (Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey), Dallas Buyers Club).
Comparing Woodroof to animals and rodeo clowns, the movie’s heartening screenplay throws awkward moments into enthralling sections. Guided by his own middle finger, Woodroof’s abrasiveness and tenacity almost distort this otherwise heart-wrenching docudrama. Despite its overwhelming richness, Dallas Buyers Club‘s sappy moments and manipulative lines distract from profound narrative. With Woodroof’s transgender friend/business partner Rayon (Jared Leto) becoming a cognitive part of the Dallas Buyers Club, the movie’s touching relationships should’ve provided a well-rounded perspective. However, despite Woodroof’s commendable intentions, the movie delivers two dimensional discussions about major pharmaceutical companies, the American Medical Association, and the Food and Drug Administration. Depicted as insultingly villainous, the movie’s antagonists highlight its forceful agenda. Due to an ethically questionable screenplay, Dallas Buyers Club presents broad sub-plots and characterisations without delivering a textured viewpoint. Condemning experimental AIDS drug AZT, the movie hypocritically dishes out awkward side effects. However, director Jean-Marc Vallee(The Young Victoria)’s unique visual style elevates the questionable material. Hurling bleak colour patterns and practical effects across the screen, Vallee’s infatuation with this true story becomes evident. Thanks to the movie’s sickeningly dark turns, this mature and nuanced style amicably suits the material. Beyond Woodroof’s prowess, the performances bolster this conventional anti-hero character study. McConaughey’s turn is simply jaw-dropping. Adding confronting mannerisms to his sycophantic turn, MConaughey’s commitment is thesis worthy. In addition, Leto, known for Requiem for a Dream and Lord of War, fits comfortably into his bizarre and heartbreaking role. Leto’s first acting gig in six years places him in strong contention for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. Unfortunately, the supporting characters are sorely underdeveloped. Jennifer Garner’s character, Dr Eve Saks, is a single minded and inconsistent plot device. Despite these gripes, Garner performs admirably in this middling role. Expanding her range, Garner’s inherent charm pushes her through the emotionally impactful final third.
Dallas Buyers Club, despite its niggling flaws, is an enjoyably manic docudrama. Thanks to his scintillating transformation, McConaughey shows that big-name actors aren’t just in it for the thrills. He, despite his peculiar reputation, is systematically changing the game. Like Woodroof’s work, McConaughey’s process expands our ever-growing universe. Along with Leto and Garner elevating mediocre characterisations, the movie’s intelligent messages, acute sense of humour, and shocking twists elevate it above Oscar-bait territory.
Verdict: A taut, thought-provoking, and touching docudrama.
Writers: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce (screenplay). F. Scott Fitzgerald (novel)
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
Release date: May 10th, 2013
Distributors: Warner Bros. Pictures, Roadshow Entertainment
Countries: Australia, USA
Running time: 142 minutes
Best part: The dynamic performances.
Worst part: Luhrmann’s direction.
Australian director Baz Luhrmann is certainly not one for subtlety. Luhrmann, whose credits include Romeo + Juliet, Moulin Rouge, and Australia, is one of the most polarising directors working today. His handling of well-known material has caused controversy in the past, and his latest effort, The Great Gatsby, continues this trend. This cloying and shallow romantic-drama is yet another one of his films that relies entirely on both a glorious aesthetic and marketing power.
This Great Gatsby adaptation has many positive elements. However, there are many directors who could’ve done a much better job with source material of this magnitude. The story, from the mind of legendary author F. Scott Fitzgerald, tells a story about the 1920s in its heyday. Ambitious and optimistic writer/stockbroker Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) is enjoying his busy life. Situated in a small cottage (hidden away by the giant mansions surrounding it), Nick is curious about those who live in the surrounding estates, and how they achieved their vast riches. He is then invited to the home of his cousin Daisy (Carey Mulligan) and her rich husband Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton). Their pampered existences are then rocked by the mansion across the bay. The mansion’s inhabitants hold elaborate parties that shake the foundations of their upper-class neighbourhood. After being invited to one of these parties, Nick discovers that he has been chosen to help mysterious and handsome aristocrat, and the mansion’s owner, Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). However, Nick soon finds out that Gatsby is much more than meets the eye.
Luhrmann has clearly had a significant amount of exposure to the enviable bourgeoisie lifestyle. The flamboyant director is obsessed with his own eye for both film-making and culture. His style has been the most troubling aspect of all of his big-budget productions. I see him as a cynical film-maker too afraid to trust his audience. Audiences always turn out in droves to embrace the latest Luhrmann production, and I have no idea why. His obvious, excessive, and melodramatic style always overshadows the culturally-important stories he has chosen to tell. His latest film has these same problems, but they aren’t as irritating here as they were in the nigh unwatchable Australia. His interpretation of the ‘Great American Novel’ casts a giant shadow over the original text’s seminal themes and poetic narrative. The story’s most valuable elements are there, but they are either underdeveloped or brought up and cast aside immediately. It is difficult to detect Luhrmann’s intent with his adaptation. The text’s condescending yet intelligent view of the American dream is nowhere near as important to Luhrmann as the material things that he can bring into this story. He is obviously in love with some of Hollywood’s most inspired creations. Here, elements of Sabrina and Sunset Boulevard are alluded to. However, this adaptation only proves that Hollywood doesn’t make movies the way it used to.
The visuals, though fun, quickly suck this story dry and turn it into a husk of its former self. Luhrmann seeks to give every shot its own personality, and then put them sequentially next to similarly elaborate shots. The first half hour contains a colourful miasma of Luhrmann’s many zany ideas. Shots transition suddenly from beautifully clear to nostalgically grainy, the camera sweeps around characters and through settings, and contrasting colours and elaborate costumes (created primarily by Luhrmann’s wife Catherine Martin) are bashed together to create many wacky compositions. His in-your-face style is confusing at points. It is difficult to tell whether Luhrmann is using his style to embrace the original novel’s satirical edge, or whether he is simply making everything pretty for no significant reason. Thankfully, his style isn’t as jarring and excessive as it has been in the past (good luck trying to sit through Moulin Rouge!) After Gatsby’s impressive introduction, the pacing and flair is drastically toned down. Despite the film’s refreshing focus on character in the following two thirds, the pacing wavers throughout the film’s exhaustive running time. Luhrmann’s love of anachronisms explains one of the film’s best elements. The Jay-Z-produced soundtrack brings life to this otherwise emotionless movie. The magnificent parties and gentlemen’s club scenes contain a pulse that was desperately needed throughout the rest of the film.
“I knew it was a great mistake for a man like me to fall in love…” (Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio), The Great Gatsby).
The movie’s female characters metaphorically represent the film itself; pretty to look at, but as shallow as a decorative fountain! The characters come alive in the heated dialogue sequences. Luhrmann loves his actors’ stunning faces. Wacky facial expressions, plastered across the screen at every turn, add to the film’s already exuberant style. I will say there are some inspired choices peppered throughout. It is rare to see verbal sparring sessions as lengthy and tense as the ones in this otherwise dull character study. The exciting performances save this film from being a costly disaster. DiCaprio commands the screen with poise and charisma. His commitment to the awe-inspiring titular role lends depth to an already fascinating character. Gatsby is part smooth-talking hero, part desperate fool, and part dangerous capitalist. Maguire is surprisingly charming as the ‘third wheel’ in this ever-twisting story. We first meet Carraway in a sanitarium, recovering from both alcoholism and the events of this story (a useless narrative device that was not in the original text). Carraway’s words are scrawled across the screen in some scenes, while his narration discusses his damaging experiences in others (yet more excessive stylistic choices). Edgerton is enthralling as the old-money, moustache-twirling aristocrat whom refuses to let Daisy go. Edgerton creates a slimy and vindictive portrayal without ever becoming a caricature. Other Aussie actors, including Jason Clarke, Isla Fisher, Jack Thompson, and Elizabeth Debicki, are effective in underdeveloped roles.
Luhrmann has a keen eye for pretty things, but still hasn’t learned the basics of convincing storytelling. The eye-popping visuals and pumping soundtrack are able to lift scenes that could easily have been dull. Without the movie’s stellar performances, The Great Gatsby would’ve fallen, and become another one of Luhrmann’s impressive failures, faster than you can say “Old sport”.
Verdict: A visually-stunning yet hollow adaptation of the ‘Great American Novel’.
Stars: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, William Shimell
Release date: October 24th, 2012
Distributors: Artificial Eye, Sony Pictures Classics
Running time: 127 minutes
Best part: Powerful performances by Trintignant and Riva.
Worst part: The film’s monotonous pace.
Events such as death and taxes are inevitable. But when they hit it’s hard to control their wrath. The negative aspects of life are important to Austrian director Michael Haneke. His latest, Amour, depicts a story about how even the most fulfilled people can strenuously suffer in the end. Amour is a poignant drama that, unfortunately, takes too long to reach its inevitable conclusion.
Former music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) live a quaint existence. They spend their retirement in a small apartment overlooking Paris. They still love the arts and frequently spend time out on the town. That is until Anne’s health starts to cause them problems. One morning, she sits down to eat breakfast with her husband. During their conversation she spaces out and falls into a catatonic state. She eventually succumbs to multiple strokes and partial paralysis. Confined to her bed, Anne is taken care of by Georges. Georges must ease Anne’s pain before her life reaches its painful end. Films about the elderly are either up-beat or dour. Amour definitely fits into the latter category. Haneke’s body of work is filled with movies that both amaze and anger. With his cult-hit Funny Games, he depicted a home invasion whilst pointing the finger at the reality-TV-loving viewer. Cache(Hidden), on the other hand, explored both stalking and domesticity. The pacing and thematic issues of his other films are also inAmour.
Riva & JeanLouis Trintignant.
Amour has good intentions. There is no denying that this love story is both personal and affecting on many levels. This is a realistic situation that is hard to discuss. However, it also discusses an issue that doesn’t have enough energy or tension to be presented on the big screen. Without any cinematic depth or investment, it becomes a very tedious and, at points, confusing film. It’s baffling that this film has garnered so much acclaim. The fact that it won the Palme d’Or (best film) at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, let alone that it’s nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, is a real eye opener. It fits the stereotype that a lot of ‘popular’ foreign films fall into. A Beautiful Mind discusses both mental illness and relationships in a much more enthralling manner. Haneke’s style is this film’s hindrance. Haneke loves breaking the fourth wall. Not in a glaring way, but in a much more subtle and profound fashion. His camera becomes a fly on the wall. His contemplative and discomforting direction may seem like an optimum choice. But it slows this film down to a crawl. Many scenes are overly long. For some reason, he loves both the intricacies of reality and life’s slow pace. Despite his issues, it’s rare that a well-known director can be anywhere near this subtle. The camera stays still throughout the film’s excessive 2 hour and 7 minute run time. In some scenes, his cinematography is atmospheric and beautiful. Only one or two shots are used for every scene. It’s a touching choice that allows the viewer to objectively view this story.
“Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.” (Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Amour).
Trintignant & Isabelle Huppert.
Despite the lack of tension or thrills, it’s still an immensely rewarding experience. Unlike a lot of films made today, Amour never falls off balance in any way. It’s witty when it needs to be whilst building to its inevitably depressing finale. It’s a dialogue heavy yet profound narrative. Georges and Anne manage to charmingly reflect on their lives. George’s description of a friend’s funeral service, for example, is both hilarious and identifiable. The film, however, never goes into great detail about relationships. Their relationship is never given any back story. Haneke’s slice-of-life direction only paints a detailed yet narrow portrait of their current situation. What works about this film, above all else, is the characterisation. Haneke and the actors have created a heartening character study. Georges is man blinded by determination and obsession. His moral and ethical codes lead him to make seemingly immoral decisions. Marriage is the only positive part of his life. In this situation, it’s understandable that he would irritate everyone around him. At one point, he slaps his bed-ridden wife. Not to be unlike-able or abusive, but because he is angry about her debilitating condition. Interactions between him, Anne’s nurses, and his daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) become frighteningly realistic. The only part of Amour worthy of an Oscar nomination is Riva’s breath-taking performance. Embodying every stage of Anne’s condition would’ve been a monumental task. Riva’s charming personality shines through every alienating and claustrophobic scene.
Amour is a confusing, dull yet profound film. Its interesting premise is let down by the execution. Haneke’s signature and controversial style has already enraptured critics. But the film’s lack of dramatic intensity most definitely won’t be for everyone. Sadly, the narrative isn’t interesting enough to be placed on the big screen.
Verdict: A potent yet tedious love story/character study.
Stars: Denzel Washington, John Goodman, Don Cheadle, Bruce Greenwood
Release date: November 2nd, 2012
Distributor: Paramount Pictures
Running time: 138 minutes
Best part: The plane crash sequence.
Worst part: Some awkward religious preachings.
Remember the events of January 15, 2009? US Airways Flight 1549 departed from New York City’s LaGuadia Airport. Shortly after take-off, fortuitous circumstances forced the pilot, Capt. Chesley Sullenburger, to ditch the plane into the Hudson River. Flight depicts a similar story of a brush with death and destiny. It’s a stirring achievement, capturing every detail of a startling and emotional narrative.
Thankfully, this particular story is fictional. The idea of capturing a disastrous event from one person’s perspective is certainly an alluring one. Here, the pilot of a fateful flight is put on the chopping block. Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) wakes up early one morning with a raging hangover, bottles strewn all over his hotel room and a naked air hostess, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), waltzing out of his bed. After an angering phone call, he snorts a line of cocaine and makes his way to the airport. His decrepit state is no match for flying, but he does it anyway. Obtaining a wink of shut-eye and tiny Vodka bottles on the flight, his fun times are disrupted by a heart-wrenching jolt. Rolling the plane in mid air before crash landing in an open field, his miraculous actions save 96 out of the 102 souls on board. Despite being labelled a hero, his issues are far from over. Whip must then collide with various ‘acts of god’ and the demons of his past, before incriminating evidence sends him into a deeper emotional spiral.
Washington & Kelly Reilly.
Flightis a profound and engaging film that is definitely not for the faint of heart. This character study, sure to anger some and scare others, is a truly vital experience for anyone used to being under the influence or in over their heads. This story of temptation is one of many to deal with mental instability and intoxication. It succeeds due to its compelling story of faith and well-being. Washington’s intense performance adds poignancy to his already solid character. Whitaker is clearly a troubled individual. The outcome of this investigation rests almost entirely on his behaviour. He never means to fail, yet alcohol and illicit drugs continually draw him back into making the same pathetic mistakes. Every time he looks into a bottle he sees a shining light which briefly takes him away from his gruelling problems. As a man without a family, hope or true identity, his story is about acceptance more so than finding a miraculous cure. Issues concerning trust and father/son relationships also become part of this heart-wrenching journey. He must find freedom before the press and airline officials take it away.
This story deals with faith in a way that never talks down to religion nor elevates it. This ‘act of god’ is merely a sign of something much greater for Whitaker. It allows him to make up his own mind about faith and humanity. But the film is not without its over-bearing moments. At one point, a cancer patient hammers home preachings about fate. It’s a funny scene, but one that could’ve finished with a much less abrasive conclusion. The accident helps Whitaker find solace through other individuals. Sub-plots, though effective in establishing Whitaker’s emotional complexity, fail to develop beyond a certain point. At one stage, he becomes intimately acquainted with a down-on-her-luck addict, Nicole (Kelly Reilly). The first half-hour provides a window into her degraded existence. She struggles to pay rent, frequently injects herself with illicit substances and almost falls into pornography. It seems she may become a much more important character. However, her involvement ceases when Whitaker is depicted in a more enlightening manner.
“Hey, don’t tell me how to lie about my drinking, okay? I know how to lie about my drinking. I’ve been lying about my drinking my whole life.” (Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington), Flight).
Washington, Bruce Greenwood & Don Cheadle.
Director Robert Zemeckis is, arguably, one of the most versatile directors in film history. He has gone from classic action-adventure (Romancing the Stone, the Back to the Future series), to uplifting drama (Forrest Gump, Cast Away), to imaginative motion capture-driven animation (Beowulf). Flight combines Zemeckis’ talents into a moving and thought-provoking experience. The plane crash sequence is one of the most vertigo and tension-inducing set pieces since Cast Away (his last live-action film). Zemeckis smartly concentrates on the emotions flowing through this unpredictable event. It should leave any viewer biting their nails or tightly holding the arm rest. This claustrophobic sequence, ironically, launches the film sky high. The supporting cast is vital to this personal drama. Bruce Greenwood is his usual charismatic self as Whitaker’s frustrated friend. Don Cheadle is an enlightening presence as Whitaker’s determined lawyer. In their first film together since Devil in a Blue Dress, Washington and Cheadle create a comfortable dynamic here. While the ubiquitous John Goodman steals the show as Whitaker’s vulgar and hilarious hippie-esque Drug dealer. He breathes a sigh of relief into an otherwise dark narrative.
Washington has delivered his most ground-breaking work in years. Flight is an electric and potent story of hope and redemption. Denzel, delivering his best performance since Training Day, grapples his A-list statues and never lets go. With so many intimate elements, Zemeckis’ new film is flying high.
Stars: Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Aaron Paul, Nick Offerman, Octavia Spencer
Release date: October 12th, 2012
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Running time: 81 minutes
Best part: Winstead’s naturalistic performance.
Worst part: Underdeveloped sub-plots.
Everyone, at some point in their lives, is exposed to alcohol. Alcohol is seen as a brief escape from reality. Temptation and redemption are the focus of Smashed. It’s a film that discusses an issue that is normally left alone. Alcoholism destroys lives in multiple ways, but this film is brave enough to delve into one person’s 12 step journey. Smashed is a balanced and thought-provoking study of how anyone can change.
Mary Elizabeth Winstead & Aaron Paul.
The film documents the rehabilitation process of Kate (Mary Elizabeth Winstead). Her marriage to Charlie (Aaron Paul) is made up of a love of sex, music and alcohol. Every day is spent drinking like a fish. Their inept decisions lead to unacceptable incidences such as bike-riding crazily through the streets. This inappropriate behaviour, however, changes when Kate lies to, and throws up in front of, her class of 3rd grade youngsters. Dealing with her increasingly offensive husband, her class, and her own internal issues, she decides to become sober. With the help of Vice-principal Dave (Nick Offerman), the 12 step program should hopefully change everything for the better. However, Charlie is actively against everything in this healing process.
Winstead & Nick Offerman.
Smashedpromotes an alarming message about the effects of alcoholism. It’s a sweet, witty and honest tale of survival against all odds. This realistic issue is delicately emphasised as Kate pushes herself away from normality. From the beginning, the film illustrates Kate and Charlie’s fascination with the deadly substance. Whether she’s drinking in the shower or taking a swig before teaching, Kate is bluntly depicted as a troubled individual. We, however, are never allowed to judge the characters, as they must learn to accept and solve their own issues. It takes an embarrassing convenience store incident for Kate to realise what her affliction is doing. Smashed also smartly depicts why alcohol is seen as, as Homer Simpson puts it, “the cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems.” It’s lightly comic touch relieves the heavily dramatic weight of this identifiable issue. The laughs come from Kate and Charlie’s increasingly stupefying actions. When she wakes up under a bridge after a big night out, even she knows what has to happen with her life. Her perspective is illustrated with visual flair. Jarring at points; constant focus pulls, handheld camera work and cuts to black depict the heavy distortion created through consumption.
Winstead & Paul.
A heart-warming and important experience, Smashed also discusses how people are drawn together. Whether they are causing the problem or wish to help, the characters are suitably realistic. Her relationship with Charlie is a sad exploration into how her problems started. This couple celebrates their own inappropriate behaviour. Charlie sits at the back of the bar cheering on his drunken wife. As she belts out a hit song, both her and this appalling issue are placed in the spotlight. Unfortunately, their relationship is barely developed. This is mostly due to the lack of depth given to Charlie. He is simply the ‘enabler’. Smashed unconvincingly focuses on the struggle between husband and wife, with every revelation being predictable or disengaging. The film succeeds, however, by establishing the importance of Kate’s journey. Studying her broken childhood, cynical mother and care-free attitude, this enlightening story of hope is based on redefining these vital elements of her existence. Several sub-plots fail to develop throughout. This slice-of-life story of survival and repression presents some key relationships but fails to explore them. Maybe this is a necessary decision; leaving us to question where Kate’s story may, or may not, end up.
“I like knowing that every little fuck-up I make is going to be a topic of conversation with a woman that I don’t know.” (Charlie (Aaron Paul), Smashed).
This grounded version of Leaving Las Vegas is supported by likeable performances from its ensemble cast. The actors filling these roles deliver a necessary amount of charisma. Mary Elizabeth Winstead (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, The Thing) is an energetic presence on screen. Providing equal amounts of sassiness and sorrow, Winstead delivers in an already solemn role. Her character is a likeable and strong-willed individual lost to temptation. Her humanistic turn is what propels the narrative as she constantly questions the people around her and her own life. Aaron Paul (HBO’s Breaking Bad) delivers in an underdeveloped role. Giving freelance writers a bad name, his character is a sympathetic yet problematic part of Kate’s life. He may be to blame for his marriage’s problems, but he becomes increasingly and sadly unstable without the love of his life. Nick Offerman is essentially playing a toned-down version of his character Ron Swanson from TV series Parks and Recreation. As easily the film’s smartest character, Offerman provides a needed sense of wit and jerkiness. Academy Award winner Octavia Spencer (The Help) turns her two dimensional role into a memorable part of this story. Her character’s down-trodden past compels everyone around her.
The first step of overcoming any addiction is admitting you have a problem. Kate’s unforgivable actions lead her to become a likeable and realistic character. Smashed examines the human soul while facing a controversial subject head-on.
Verdict: A humanistic and clever independent drama.
Stars: Joaquin Phoenix, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Amy Adams, Laura Dern
Release date: September 14th, 2012
Distributor: The Weinstein Company
Running time: 138 minutes
Best part: Dynamic performances from Phoenix and Hoffman.
Worst part: Amy Adams’ underused role.
With religion a major part of our current social status, the debate of fact versus belief is regularly explored and discussed. Religion has been one of the past decade’s biggest talking points. Whether it is the positive words of a controversial celebrity follower or the criticisms of a sceptic, modern organised religion will always fight an uphill battle against the media. Influential director Paul Thomas Anderson(Boogie Nights, Punch-Drunk Love, Magnolia)’s film The Master explores the creation of one of the world’s most controversial institutions. He has created a touching, opaque, delicate yet explicit character study from the outsider’s perspective.
The story follows embittered WWII veteran Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), an inappropriate, angry and immoral man suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. He seeks to expel his demons through alcohol, violence and sexual encounters. His ongoing troubles inadvertently lead him to nuclear physicist, spiritual leader and family man Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Leading a tour across America, Dodd brings the fractured Quell into his home, hoping to change him for the better. Joining his controversial cause, Quell’s detailed initiation process will either make or break him for good. Encountering Dodd’s unimpressed wife Peggy (Amy Adams) and sceptical son Val (Jesse Plemons), his dreams of a life away from war and sickness will hopefully cure his violent quarrels.
Phillip Seymour Hoffman.
The Master is a subtle and meditative look at the birth of religion and the tenuous process of induction. The story is supposedly based on the exploits of Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard. Anderson has found a way of objectively discussing the differences between religion, cult and freedoms associated with democracy. Quell is a symbol of a United States that has left its veterans behind. Drinking concoctions made up of film chemicals, medicine and missile fuel, Quell is a seemingly immortal man lost to the temptations of power, hormones and alcoholism. His initial downfall effectively illustrates the harsh problems associated with both the military and organised religions. Finding a temporary yet uncomfortable solace through violence and day labour, Quell is a lost soul eager to change for the better. He is a disgraceful yet colourful character, journeying toward breaking the bonds of a bleak establishment. His character however never truly believes in the science-based practices of Dodd. He never seems to change throughout the course of significant events, despite his desire to settle back into Middle America. The Master sadly fails to create a satisfying character arc for this lost soul and twisted individual. Phoenix however delivers an Oscar-calibre portrayal of a common man poisoned in more ways than one. Providing a return to form after his controversial run of incidences, Phoenix places his body on line with every word straining to escape his crinkled facial features and gangly figure.
Phoenix also provides a mix of sensitivity and intensity in many scenes, providing the same alluring presence as he did with his portrayal of Johnny Cash in Walk the Line. Anderson creates a strong and almost homoerotic friendship between Quell and Dodd, a theme prevalent in the majority of his films. Similar to Daniel Day Lewis and Paul Dano’s relationship in Anderson’s previous film There Will Be Blood, Quell and Dodd represent the positives and negatives of control, capitalism, and self-assured freedom. Both characters reign over others, but to differing degrees of effectiveness. Whereas Quell lashes out at people attacking Dodd’s word, Dodd is a deranged character determined to keep his unstable side locked up. Hoffman’s turn as the Untrustworthy yet charming leader proves why he is currently one of Hollywood’s best actors. He is enrapturing and unnerving as the enjoyably boisterous patriarch of his own special family known as ‘The Cause’, while suitably intense in many of his interrogation scenes with Quell. Quell, obsessed with picturing naked women in certain situations, is a character in desperate need of a stern father figure. His relationship with Dodd may become is saving grace, trusting a man all too eagerly convincing the world of his own strange practices.
“If you leave me now, in the next life you will be my sworn enemy. And I will show you no mercy.” (Lancaster Dodd (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), The Master).
Hoffman & Phoenix.
The supporting cast however is underused in pivotal roles. Adams is effective as both the icy queen of Dodd’s feuding household and cautious follower of his work. Plemons is charismatic in his few scenes, providing a thought provoking stand against a man who considers himself a god. While Laura Dern is a suitable presence as one of Dodd’s most important followers, believing every word of Dodd’s theories regarding past lives and time travel. Anderson has continually proven how to depict a cynical yet detailed look at Middle America at its most vulnerable. Effectively capturing the steamiest part of America’s sex life in Boogie Nights and There Will Be Blood‘s oil tycoon blinded by arrogance and a lack of self-control, Anderson here develops every possible opinion in a 1940s America beginning to evolve past WWII. Anderson’s unflattering look at humanity, captured through multiple shots of average faces, illustrates an aura of disgust with certain individuals looking down upon the mentally unstable or anarchic. Illustrating the subtle yet noticeable differences between religion and cult, Anderson’s detailed discussion of unusual practices and preachings is a profound insight into the vast differences between truth and personal belief. One blackly comedic scene reveals Dodd’s disgust with anyone openly disagreeing with his peculiar religious statements.
Verdict: A thought-provoking and visceral religious discussion.