Sing Street Review: High Note


Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney

Stars: Ferdia Walsh-Peelo, Lucy Boynton, Jack Reynor, Aidan Gillen

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Release date: July 21st, 2016

Distributor: The Weinstein Company, Lionsgate

Country: Ireland, USA, UK

Running time: 105 minutes


4/5

Best part: The musical numbers.

Worst part: The parents’ subplot.

Two of cinema’s most polarising genres are the musical and the dramedy. Both tug at specific parts of the brain and heart, they relish the freedom of fantasy and, most importantly, they light up the screen and our lives. However, their high-on-life energy and emotional-rollercoaster stories repel people. Sing Street is a very rare gem – bringing both genres together with class and textbook precision.

Sing Street is 2016’s beacon of hope for independent cinema in the big, wide world of movies. Film buffs everywhere are praying it receives the attention it deserves. Come awards time, it could be this year’s Brooklyn. This Irish musical-dramedy takes us to south inner-city Dublin in 1985. The Lalor family, lead  by Robert (Aiden Gillen) and Penny (Maria Doyle Kennedy), is falling apart. The film’s protagonist, youngest son Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo), is thrown from private school into a rough public institution. Sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) eldest brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) are difficult to connect with. Worse still, Synge Street CBS is the new hell. Conor’s run-ins with bullies, rules and mean catholic headmasters play out before he, Darren (Ben Carolan), instrumentalist Eamon (Mark McKenna) and several other rip-roaring youngsters form a rock-pop school band.

Writer/director John Carney has had an interesting career; Once gave the indie-drama a new face lift. However, Begin Again was a mushy, middling dramedy saved by its cracking cast and soundtrack. Make no mistake, Carney refuses to stray from convention here. His script follows similar plot, character and emotional beats as his previous efforts. Like the aforementioned flicks, Sing Street sees a white man struggling with his psyche and emotions, meets a pretty girl (Raphina (Lucy Boynton)), creates some music before getting his groove back. His focus on words over action recalls the early days of Woody Allen and Cameron Crowe,  without leaning too heavily on them. Its subplots and side characters elevate it above similar musicals and dramedies. Conor’s interactions with Raphina have a refreshing, bittersweet glow. However, he and Brendan deliver the movie’s most light-hearted and witty chunks.

Carney’s frenetic and captivating style overwhelms the screen. Every rhythm, beat and flourish highlights his palpable affection for music. The drama leaps effortlessly between the band’s rise to prominence and the family’s swift decline. Lingering sequences move through every aspect of songwriting, recording, music video producing and touring. However, his dialogue is a little too on the nose – prophesising like a hippie at Woodstock. References to Duran, Duran, Spandau Ballet and everyone in between showcase his  glowing sense of nostalgia. In fairness, the period detail, settings and costumes light up every frame. The young cast members also add to the movie’s gripping comedic timing and pure enthusiasm.

Sing Street is, from go to woe, is a comfortable, optimistic jaunt between two genres. Carney, for better or worse, has a style and philosophy worth considering. His latest effort delivers a stack of youthful performers, luscious visual flourishes and 80s numbers.

Verdict: A boisterous musical-dramedy.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople Review: Kiwi Komedy


Director: Taika Waititi

Writers: Taika Waititi (screenplay), Barry Crump (Novel)

Stars: Julian Dennison, Sam Neill, Rima Te Wiata, Rhys Darby

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Release date: May 27th, 2016

Distributors: Madman Entertainment, The Orchard

Country: New Zealand

Running time: 101 minutes


4/5

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.

Verdict: A charming, light-hearted dramedy.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Review: WTF, indeed.


Directors: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa

Writers: Robert Carlock (screenplay), Kim Barker (memoir)

Stars: Tina Fey, Margot Robbie, Martin Freeman, Alfred Molina

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Release date: May 12th, 2016

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 112 minutes 


2½/5

Best part: The fun performances.

Worst part: The bizarre sense of humour.

Since sitcom 30 Rock‘s ultra-successful run came to its fitting conclusion, actress and writer Tina Fey has splashed out on intriguing big and small screen projects. Despite mixed critical and commercial success, the Saturday Night Live alumni is commendable for breaking down boundaries for women in Hollywood. With that said, I still can’t recommend her latest gamble Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.

This war-dramedy covers the shockingly true events from American international journalist Kim Barker’s memoir The Taliban Shuffle: Strange Days in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It begins with a swift, cutting dissection of life for white journalists stuck in Middle-Eastern countries. A loud, debaucherous party halted by a bombing in downtown Kabul during Operation Enduring Freedom. The story then jumps three years backwards. Kim (Fey), covering fluff pieces and writing transcripts Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrotfor newsreaders, becomes fatigued by the desk-jockey lifestyle in New York. Called up by her superiors, she jumps at the opportunity to report breaking news stories on the other side of the globe. Struggling to balance her war correspondent role and long-distance relationship with Chris (Josh Charles), Kim delves into Kabul’s hypnotic environment.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot has a cornucopia of interesting and groundbreaking concepts at hand. True, the idea of following woman in a man’s world has been tried and tested (Zero Dark Thirty). However, the movie aptly attempts to compare the world’s view of feminism today with that of 13 years ago. Also, a story about 21st Century journalism’s ever-transitioning trajectory is always intriguing (The Newsroom). Sadly, it cannot decide what it wants to do with, or say about, such weighty subject matter. Robert Carlock’s screenplay aims for a dark, deeply personal struggle of job stress and life adjustment. However, directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa – known for genre-bending comedies including I Love You, Phillip Morris, Crazy Stupid Love, and Focus –  vie for a blunt, blackly comedic jaunt.

The movie turns into a confused and jumbled mix of war-docudrama and quirky dramedy tropes. Stretched out Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot-2016-Movie-Wallpaper-24-1280x844over an exhaustive 112 minutes, Kim’s interactions with bouncy Australian correspondent Tanya (Margot Robbie), Scottish photojournalist Iain (Martin Freeman), and guide Fahim (Christopher Abbott) play out perfunctorily. Its unique third-act plot twists and biting allure don’t make up for its jarring tonal shifts and lack of depth. Ficarra and Requa’s peculiar sense of humour tars every character with the same brush. The duo’s penchant for out-of-place gross-out gags and unlikable personalities overshadows its arresting premise. Even the US Marines, led by grizzled commander General Hollanek (Billy Bob Thornton), are offensive stereotypes.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot makes a mockery of its war-torn setting, depicting all Afghan citizens as irritable and antagonistic. Worse still, vital Afghan characters including shady government figure Ali Massoud Sadiq (Alfred Molina) are played by British and american actors. Like with Bad Neighbours 2, the drama and comedy rely on the cast’s inherent charisma and commitment. Fey is one of Hollywood’s most likeable performers, with her trademark sarcastic wit elevating the movie’s most whiskey_tango_foxtrot_SD2_758_426_81_s_c1trite moments. Robbie relies on her gorgeous allure, struggling to emote through a patchy British accent. Freeman, coming off several blockbusters, fits comfortably back into his quaint, nice-guy persona. Thornton and Molina are charming despite questionable roles.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot marks the dramedy at its most obnoxious and mundane. Fusing your average war-docudrama with a run-of-the-mill Fey project, the movie combines several great tastes that don’t go well together.

Verdict: An underwhelming vehicle for Fey.

Looking For Grace Review: Australian Beauty


Director: Sue Brooks

Writer: Sue Brooks

Stars: Radha Mitchell, Richard Roxburgh, Odessa Young, Terry Norris

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Release date: January 26th, 2016

Distributor: Palace Films

Country: Australia

Running time: 100 minutes


 

4/5

Review: Looking For Grace

The Voices (Home Release) Audio Review: Ragin’ Reynolds


Director: Marjane Satrapi

Writer: Michael R. Perry

Stars: Ryan Reynolds, Gemma Arterton, Anna Kendrick, Jacki Weaver

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Release date: April 30th, 2015

Distributor: Lionsgate

Country: USA, Germany

Running time: 104 minutes


 

3½/5

Review:

Dope (Home Release) Audio Review: High on Life


Director: Rick Famuyiwa

Writer: Rick Famuyiwa

Stars: Shameik Moore, Tony Revolori, Kiersey Clemons, A$AP Rocky

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Release date: June 19th, 2015

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes


 

4/5

Review:

Mississippi Grind Audio Review: Two Kings


Directors: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Stars: Ben Mendelsohn, Ryan Reynolds, Sienna Miller, Analeigh Tipton

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Release date: September 25th, 2015

Distributor: A24 Films

Country: USA

Running time: 108 minutes


 

4/5

Review:

Manny Lewis (Home Release) Audio Review: Romantic Tragedy


Director: Anthony Mir

Writers: Carl Barron, Anthony Mir

Stars: Carl Barron, Leeanna Walsman, Roy Billing, Damien GarveyManny_Lewis_poster


Release date: March 12th, 2015

Distributor: Studio Canal

Country: Australia

Running time: 89 minutes


 

3/5

Review:

Ballers Ep. 1 (Pilot) Review: Scraping In


Creator: Steve Levinson

Channel: HBO

Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Omar Benson Miller, John David Washington, Rob Corddry

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In 2004, HBO franchise Entourage delivered the ultimate frat-boy, rags-to-riches fantasy. The show, delivering vicarious thrills via babes and big houses, became a trendsetter of gargantuan proportions. Today, with equality the aim of the Hollywood game, the show and movie have become a sad indictment of mid-2000s idiocy and greed. Sadly, for Dwayne Johnson more than anyone, HBO sports-dramedy Ballers simply cannot escape Entourage‘s soul-sucking shadow. However, thanks to its charismatic lead actor, it still has enough potential to step up with all guns blazing.

Ballers, despite significant flaws early on, has enough potential to become one of the year’s most entertaining shows. The pilot sets up season 1’s intriguing premise, but fumbles before reaching the end zone. American Football is now drenched in controversy. The NFL, refusing to take responsibility, has seen some of its biggest stars commit atrocities including rape and domestic violence. Less importantly, on-field incidents including Deflategate have made NFL a laughing stock. Stuck between Any Given Sunday and Jerry Maguire, the series focuses on former player turned sports agent Spencer Strasmore (Johnson), pushed by financial advisor Joe (Rob Corddry) to “monetise” his ‘friendships’. His early retirement, at the hands of crippling concussion, has affected his health, psychology, and finances.

Like Maguire, Ballers covers a handful of ego-driven superstars on the brink of wasting such unequivocal potential. Ricky Jerret (John David Washington), leading a debaucherous lifestyle, may soon lose his roster spot for the upcoming season. Vernon, however, cannot help but throw money at family members and friends. Meanwhile, similarly to Spencer, Charles Greane (Omar Benson Miller) is a nice-guy former athlete searching high and (painfully) low for his future career path. The pilot gave us a taste of future conflicts, with top-tier sports agent Jason (Troy Garity) and Miami Dolphins executive Larry (Dule Hill) popping up at opportune moments.

The pilot attempts an out-there fusion of over-the-top bromantic dramedy (Entourage) and in-depth character study (Jerry Maguire). Despite the bright, fun imagery and cool cast, the episode’s tonal shifts leave cause for concern. Its oil-and-water trajectory – between brash comedic moments and maudlin soul-searching – hit like a defensive lineman. However, even on shaky ground, its core ingredients make 30 minutes fly like Russell Wilson. Spencer, crushed by his former teammate’s death, is more likeable than most HBO anti-heroes. Balancing out the sex and pill popping, his guile and charm elevate the show’s slower moments.

ballers02Mainstream hot-shot Peter Berg, having worked with Johnson on Welcome to the Jungle over a decade ago, revels in the high-class lifestyle the show’s lead characters take for granted. The pilots run-time is packed with sex scenes, nightclub sequences, and stilted camerawork gazing longingly at multi-million dollar mansions. However, Berg never forgets to highlight professional sport’s indestructible dark side. The episode’s many ups and downs, from Jerret’s out-of-control behaviour to Spencer’s first few successful meetings, illuminate one key aspect – humanity is essential to any industry.

Ballers‘ first episode, though an awkward kick off, showcases enough potential to deliver one of contemporary TV’s most lively and enjoyable dramedies. Johnson and Berg, overcoming Entourage‘s suffocating and dated allure, provide solid groundwork to get their latest creation off and running.

Gemma Bovery Review: #Progress


Director: Anne Fontaine

Writer: Pascal Bonitzer, Anne Fontaine (screenplay), Posy Simmonds (book)

Stars:  Fabrice Luchini, Gemma Arterton, Jason Flemyng, Isabelle Chandelier

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Release date: May 29th, 2015

Distributor: Gaumont

Countries: France, UK

Running time: 99 minutes


 

2/5

Review: Gemma Bovery 

The DUFF Audio Review: High School Hiccups & Terrible Teens


Director: Ari Sandel

Writers: Josh A. Cagen (screenplay), Kody Keplinger (novel)

Stars: Mae Whitman, Robbie Amell, Bella Thorne, Ken Jeong

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Release date: February 20th, 2015

Distributors: Lionsgate, CBS Films

Country: USA

Running time: 101 minutes


 

3½/5

Review:

Top Five Audio Review: Rock Solid


Director: Chris Rock

Writer: Chris Rock

Stars: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union, J. B. Smoove

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Release date: December 12th, 2014

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 102 minutes


 

 

4½/5

Review:

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) Audio Review: Bowing to No One


Director: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu

Writers: Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, Nicolas Giacobone, Alexander Dinelaris, Jr., Armando Bo

Stars: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis

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Release date: October 17th, 2014

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 119 minutes


 

4½/5

Review:

Theatre Review: Wake & Bake @ The Cheeky Sparrow


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Review: Wake & Bake @ The Cheeky Sparrow

Pride Audio Review: Loud and Proud


Director: Matthew Warchus

Writer: Stephen Beresford

Stars: Bill Nighy, Imelda Staunton, Dominic West, Paddy Considine

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Release date: 12 September, 2014

Distributor: Pathe

Country: UK

Running time: 120 minutes


 

4/5

Review:

Review: St. Vincent (Rotunda Media)


Review: St. Vincent (Rotunda Media)

St. Vincent Review (Colosoul Group inc.): Bill’s Blues


Director: Theodore Melfi

Writer: Theodore Melfi

Stars: Bill Murray, Melissa McCarthy, Naomi Watts, Chris O’Dowd

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Release date: December 26th

Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Country: USA

Running time: 102 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: Murray’s charisma.

Worst part: The heavy-handed messages.

Review: St. Vincent (Colosoul Group inc.)

Verdict: A quaint yet transparent dramedy.

This Is Where I Leave You Review – Family Foibles


Director: Shawn Levy

Writer: Jonathan Tropper (screenplay & novel)

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


Release date: October 23rd, 2014

Distributor: Warner Bros. Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 103 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: The dynamic cast.

Worst part: The tedious gross-out gags.

Hollywood’s latest home-for-the-holidays venture, This Is Where I Leave You, strives to speak to, and for, the masses. Promising relatable situations and interesting characters, this big-budget dramedy strains and creaks whilst grounding itself. Crafting a slicker-than-shoe-polish version of reality, these movies, despite their commendable intentions, never convince. How can they be realistic, anyway? They feature ultra-wacky set pieces and ultra-popular celebrities. Even character-actor Corey Stoll, seen in the background of several recent movies and TV shows, has more money than everyone in Kansas combined.

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll & Adam Driver.

Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll & Adam Driver.

Fuelled by Kings of Leon, American Authors, a relatable concept, and a starry cast, TIWILY‘s egregious marketing campaign highlighted the broad appeal. Given these actors’ big-and-small-screen successes, the formula seemed destined for positive results. The poster, plonking each big-name next to one another, sums up modern entertainment’s pros and cons. Sadly, the words “formula” and “conventional” linger throughout the final product. The movie, the latest in a series of familial dramedies, isn’t any better or worse than August: Osage County or The Judge. Like the aforementioned celluloid distractions, this dramedy’s reach drastically exceeds it grasp. The story kicks off with a wholly fantastical version of New York City. Judd Altman (Jason Bateman) is a radio station manager living the dream. Coming home early from work, he’s shocked to discover his wife Quinn(Abigail Spencer)’s year-long affair with Judd’s favourite shock-jock/boss Wade (Dax Shepard). After three months of excessive remorse, heartache, and beard-growing, the newly divorced Judd is informed of his dad Mort’s passing. The Altman family – rounded out by matriarch Hilary (Jane Fonda), Judd’s sister Wendy (Tina Fey), older brother Paul (Stoll), and youngest Philip (Adam Driver) – come together for the funeral. As per Mort’s last request, the family must sit Jewish mourning custom Shiva. Stuck in their old home for seven days, the Altman’s past and present quarrels collide. Amongst the chaos, several key players show up to further elevate or deflate each family member.

Jane Fonda & Debra Monk.

Based on Jonathan Tropper’s book of the same name, TIWILY feels like an all-too-literal adaptation. Handing screenplay duties over to Tropper, the movie seemingly utilises every page to fill its 103-minute run-time. The original material, perfect for novel length, is lugubriously laid out across this cumbersome script. Like many dramedies, there’s way too much going on. Throwing in more sub-plots and characters than needed, the narrative’s top-heavy structure wains half-way through. The quiet parts, despite straining against the movie’s glorious sheen, deliver subtle and genuine moments. Certain character interactions, bolstered by its engaging cast and witty dialogue, are almost worth the admission cost. Several sequences work efficiently, depicting insults and stories thrown between troubled by fun-loving people. However, crushed under the narrative’s immense weight, the central plot-strands lack emotional weight or sustenance. Bumping into school friend/manic pixie dream girl Penny (Rose Byrne), Judd’s story-line is predictable, soulless, and tepid. Drowning in an ocean of A-listers, montages, and clichés, Bateman explores yet another sad-sack character. This dramedy – lacking the class, bravado, and cockiness of Arrested Development – adds to the comedic actor’s post-TV slump. However, thanks to quick-wit and charisma, the nice-guy lead delivers a measured performance. In fact, Judd, despite his conflict’s tiresome twists and turns, is the most likeable and intriguing character. The surrounding family members, defined by specific traits (new breasts, baldness, immaturity etc.), are mean-spirited and one note.

“It’s hard to see people from your past when your present is so cataclysmically screwed up.” (Judd Altman (Jason Bateman), This Is Where I Leave You).

Rose Byrne.

Rose Byrne.

Director Shawn Levy (the Night at the Museum series, The Internship) applies his hack-and-slash style to this subdued dramedy. Levy – whose  filmography includes Cheaper by the Dozen, the Pink Panther remake, and Real Steel – isn’t known for intelligence, verve, or sensitivity. Touching on adultery, familial strife, and religion, its concepts construct only silly scenarios and corny ramblings. Despite the premise, the family’s Jewish heritage is picked up and dropped without warning. Certain sequences, despite the lack of consequences or emotional resonance, deliver big laughs and nice moments. Getting high in a synagogue, Bateman, Stoll, and Driver’s characters deliver comedic and dramatic shades. Also, Fonda’s ever-lasting figure is given significant attention. Playing an open-minded writer/therapist, Fonda charges through the role. The movie serves to boost its actors’ career trajectories. Fey, known for writing and leading better comedic material, excels despite her underwhelming and manipulative sub-plot. Contending with old-flame Horry (Timothy Olyphant) (suffering permanent brain damage from an accident several years earlier), her character’s conflicts deserve more development. In addition, Phillip’s sub-plot – fighting to keep his relationship with older girlfriend/therapist Tracy (Connie Britton) going whilst fighting off former conquests – serves to kickstart slapstick gags and wild misunderstandings. Furthermore, Paul and his zany wife Annie(Kathryn Hahn)’s attempts to conceive yield even-more-implausible set pieces. Despite the misjudged material, character-actors Debra Monk and Ben Schwartz get enough time to shine.

Biting off much more than it can chew, TIWILY is hindered by a lackluster filmmaker and tiresome screenplay. Tropper, despite handing his own material, misjudges the adaptation process. Crafting too many story-lines, characters, and twists, the book-to-film translation lacks joy, weight, or warmth. Despite the distasteful, A-listers-pretending-to-be-normal phoniness, the cast succeeds. Bateman, despite playing yet another down-on-his-luck loner, is charming and affable. Meanwhile, Fey, Stoll, Fonda, and Driver craft entertaining moments. Ultimately, this self-conscious effort never surprises, inspires, or even convinces. Welcome to Hollywood!

Verdict: A charming yet cloying dramedy.

Men, Women & Children Review – Social Melodrama


Director: Jason Reitman

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

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


Release date: October 1st, 2014

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 119 minutes


 

2/5

Best part: The dynamic performances.

Worst part: The heavy-handed message.

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

Rosemarie DeWitt & Adam Sandler.

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

Dean Norris & Judy Greer.

Dean Norris & Judy Greer.

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

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

Ansel Elgort & Kaitlyn Dever.

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

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

Verdict: Reitman’s second consecutive failure.

The Hundred-Foot Journey Review – Artificial Colours & Flavours


Director: Lasse Hallstrom 

Writers: Steven Knight (screenplay), Richard C. Morais (novel)

Stars: Helen Mirren, Om Puri, Manish Dayal, Charlotte Le Bon


Release date: September 5th, 2014

Distributors: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Dreamworks Pictures, Harpo Films

Country: USA

Running time: 122 minutes


 

2/5

Best part: The pristine cinematography.

Worst part: The laboured pace.

In The Hundred-Foot Journey – Hollywood’s Richard C. Morais adaptation idea turned passion project – one scene illuminates everything wrong with modern filmmaking. This particular scene, fuelled by clichéd dialogue and irritating character traits, points to the rotten core festering the dramedy rulebook (or, in this case, cookbook). In this scene, snooty restaurateur Madame Mallory (Helen Mirren) asks her new trainee chef:  “Why change a recipe that is 200 years old?”. The chef then responds by saying: “Maybe 200 years is long enough”.

Manish Dayal as noble chef Hassan Haji.

Manish Dayal as noble chef Hassan Haji.

Here’s The Hundred-Foot Journey‘s greatest stumbling block – it wants to have its cake and eat it too. This bitter slice of irony, served up by the flawed execution, points to a common issue. Filmmaking, like cooking, relies on the script (recipe) and the director guiding its journey (chef). The recipe for Tinseltown success almost never delivers 100% results. It’s a sad truth, but this cumbersome dramedy is a prime example of quantity over quality. Before I continue, I must introduce the aforementioned game-changing chef. This key player is Hassan Haji (Manish Dayal). Despite the pitiful marketing campaign, the narrative revolves around his life story. Telling his version of events to a frustrated customs officer, Hassan recalls the tale of his family’s search of a better life. After shifting through Rotterdam and London, the Kadam family – lead by spirited patriarch “Papa” (Om Puri) – crosses into the alluring vistas of France. Braking down in an unnamed french Village, the Kadam’s find solace within their surroundings. Buying a property opposite Mallory’s esteemed venue, Papa battles Mallory for the locals’ hearts and minds. Fighting for critical and commercial glory, Mallory, her chefs, and the Kadams might just learn from one another.

Helen Mirren and Charlotte Le Bon creating the perfect dish.

Obviously, The Hundred-Foot Journey is not your average Hollywood release. Designed for counter-programming, the movie aims at middle-aged and elderly crowds. Despite the commendable intentions, the movie ends up becoming crazy-cat-lady chow. Re-heating one of modern literature’s most tiresome plots, this foodie flick talks down to its target demographic. Despite the harmless allure, the movie pours a bucket of salt into its efficiently crafted premise. Obliterating everything of merit, its ethical and moral obstacles hit like a chilli-induced heat wave. This is 2014’s second big-budget charmer – after sports-drama Million Dollar Arm – to insult India’s people. Disinterested in cultural fusion, this globe-trotting romp sullies the country’s spirituality. Presenting a near-laughable version of India, the stereotypes and clichés come thick and fast. As the bright colours and spices fly, the Indian characters are given wholly uninspired arcs. The familial drama, copied and pasted from Bend it Like Beckham, follows a borderline offensive formula. Blame rests with distribution giant Disney for painting everything with broad strokes. Avoiding substance, this production – flip-flopping between familial quarrels, slapstick gags, racial tensions, and twee romances – never crafts drama, stakes, or thrills. Thanks to Steven Knight(Eastern Promises, Locke)’s by-the-numbers screenplay, this broad distraction delivers telegraphed moments, contrivances, underdeveloped sub-plots, and unintentionally laughable dialogue. Lacking charm or elegance, this comfort-food-like effort leaves a bad taste long after the credits roll.

“If your food is anything like your music, then I suggest you tone it down.” (Madame Mallory (Helen Hirren), The Hundred-Foot Journey).

Om Puri absorbing Hollywood's warm embrace.

Om Puri absorbing Hollywood’s warm embrace.

Further hampering such turgid and predictable material, director Lasse Hallstrom (What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Chocolat) fails to cook up a storm. Known for Nicholas Sparks adaptations including Dear John and Safe Haven, the Swedish director’s exhaustive storytelling tropes aim to please. Following Chocolat‘s appealing recipe, Hallstrom’s melodrama and monotonous pacing blanche this appealing concept. Here, the Sparksian sub-plots, structure, and revelations overwhelm the product. With Steven Spielberg and Oprah Winfrey stepping producing, the movie makes for a note-worthy case against the studio system. In typical Oprah’s Book Club fashion, this romp delivers sap without balance. However, like with Hallstrom’s earlier works, his visual style elevates the poor material. A. R. Rahman’s score, though resting on familiarity, delivers gut punches at proper moments. In addition, newcomer Linus Sandgren’s cinematography – turning the most plain situations  into wondrous moments – heightens each shot, setting, and serving. Graciously, the movie’s prestigious cast dives into this multi-course meal. Dayal, following in Dev Patel and Suraj Sharma’s footsteps, delivers a passionate performers as the plucky lead. Despite an undercooked romance with fellow chef Marguerite (Charlotte Le Bon), his enthusiastic aura saves certain sequences. In addition, the Hollywood legend/Bollywood pairing works wonders. Mirren and Puri infuse joy, energy, and vigour into their characters’ misguided adventures.

Some advice for those seeing The Hundred-Foot Journey: don’t go in on an empty stomach! By the power of curry and duck a l’orange, the movie might just birth Indian and French fusion dishes. Sadly, however, this archaic dramedy does little but pander to middle-aged women and bickering elderly couples. Somehow, hampering the plentiful flourishes and winning performances, a spoonful of mediocrity overpowers this banal dish. Mixing a meandering story, dated archetypes, and manipulative moments together for over two hours, this concoction has too much sugar and nowhere near enough brains or heart. Hell, chopped onions are less manipulative!

Verdict: A dish made without love or care.

Boyhood Review – Live Long & Prosper


Director: Richard Linklater

Writer: Richard Linklater

Stars: Ellar Coltrane, Patricia Arquette, Lorelei Linklater, Ethan Hawke

boyhood


Release date: July 11, 2014

Distributor: IFC Films 

Country: USA

Running time: 165 minutes


 

5/5

Best part: Coltrane’s naturalistic performance.

Worst part: The antagonistic husband characters.

The film production process takes a helluva lot out of the directors, writers, actors etc. involved. Usually, these important people plan and execute a major Hollywood feature within roughly 7-13 months. Following this, the stars sit in chairs for extended periods as film journos ask them the same questions over and over again. However, in the case of coming-of-age experiment Boyhood, the process went a little differently. This dramedy sports one of cinema history’s most fascinating and exhaustive production schedules.

Ellar Coltrane & Lorelei Linklater.

Documentaries like the Up series develop time capsules marked by iconic moments and interesting subjects. Beyond Boyhood‘s behind-the-scenes allure, the movie itself suggests, then proves, that the journey is far more important than the destination. As per the Hollywood code, this dramedy is easy to understand so as to attract a larger audience. However, the movie’s development goes beyond the words of this or any other review. This is an experiment of monumental proportions. As you can tell from my manic hyperbole, I mark Boyhood as a game-changer for filmmaking, modern entertainment, and pop-culture. So, what is this movie about? Well, it’s difficult to explain within such a short space. Going beyond belief, the art of storytelling is flipped and switched here. The narrative chronicles the uneasy life and times of two youngsters. Mason Jr. (Ellar Coltrane) is a child fascinated by everything and everyone on Earth. As a child, his lifestyle revolves around causing trouble and discovering the world. On the other side of the coin, his sister Samantha strives to fit in with the pack. Their story hits several snags, as their mother Olivia (Patricia Arquette) is forced to shift and turn to suit everyone’s needs and desires. Living in a single-parent household, Mason Jr. and Samantha are forced to put up with a slew of drunken step-dads, empathetic step-children, and dramatic events. Despite the obstacles, they’re fuelled by their infatuation with Olivia and biological father Mason Sr. (Ethan Hawke).

Patricia Arquette.

Over this extensive timeline, the narrative points to, and fires at, everything the title suggests. The journey from childhood to adolescence, despite delivering a wondrous sense of freedom, is defined by major downsides and punishing conflicts. Surprisingly, for humans between 6 and 16, questions far outweigh answers. Boyhood extensively, and sensitively, examines this particular period. Director Richard Linklater (School of Rock, The Before trilogy) is America’s most invigorating indie-drama director. Covering the 1990s and 2000s, his succinct style and note-worthy agenda bolster everything he produces, writes, and directs. Putting his head and heart in the right place, this 12-year project is his most prescient and gripping creation. Intending to tell history’s most relatable narrative, Linklater’s latest effort marks specific moments and ideas. As the years collide, Linklater hurls us into this pacy and sumptuous 3-hour experience. Focusing on Coltrane and his own daughter, the acclaimed filmmaker’s style speaks wonders for the cinematic dreamscape and all its benefits. His goals and viewpoints, though unsubtle, elevate a potentially tedious story. With realism defeating fantasy here, Boyhood covers two people’s worlds and life’s tiniest details. Thanks to the poignant narrative, each character’s triumphs and tribulations hit home. Transitioning between milestones and significant others, our leads stay connected to one another despite the momentous hurdles.

“You don’t want the bumpers. Life doesn’t give you bumpers.” (Mason, Sr. (Ethan Hawke), Boyhood).

Ethan Hawke.

Of course, like with his previous efforts, Linklater’s agenda is pushed upon us unlike any other filmmaker’s. Set during and after the George W. Bush era, our democratic characters face off against a Republican-fuelled Middle America. Stepping into Mason Sr.’s shoes, several monologues are reserved for Linklater’s ultra-ambitious political beliefs to take flight. However, these viewpoints never become tiresome. Touching upon Barrack Obama’s pre-election promises, the movie even takes the time to point out the country’s most ecstatic and misjudged democrats. In addition, this family flick pays homage to Linklater’s immense, 12-year learning curve. Touching upon Dazed and Confused‘s subject matter in the third act, Boyhood chronicles this director’s ascension from indie sweetheart to determined professional. As the years go by, we see Linklater’s style adapt to its surroundings and improve immensely. From the School of Rock era to the Bernie period, the movie depicts his interests and pet peeves across an epic timeline. In addition, his idiosyncratic camerawork and pitch-perfect soundtrack choices develop a world of possibilities for the movie’s courageous narrative. Most importantly, Coltrane’s performance, by mimicking normalcy, soars above and beyond expectations. Tapping into his own identity, this effort examines this man’s mind, personality, and heart.

Most of the time, indie-dramas slip through the cracks to be left for elite cinephiles to lap up. With big-budget features casting a gigantic shadow over the industry, we’ve made a habit of complaining about these issues. However, every so often, breakout hits like Boyhood shine a light on the problem and bring people back to the theatre. These movies, delivering joyous surprises and winning stories, give us a warm, refreshing feeling every time. This achievement, blitzing filmmaking’s varying restraints, is the work of people in love with cinema.

Verdict: Linklater’s coming-of-age masterpiece. 

Begin Again Review – Music & Lyrics


Director: John Carney

Writer: John Carney

Stars: Kiera Knightley, Mark Ruffalo, Adam Levine, Hailee Steinfeld

Begin-Again


Release date: June 27th, 2014

Distributor: The Weinstein Company

Country: USA

Running time: 104 minutes


3/5

Best part: Knightley and Ruffalo’s chemistry.

Worst part: Levine’s bland performance.

Back in 2006, which now seems like a millennia ago, the world was introduced to a mass distribution of iconic indie-dramas. I know, this seems like a rough estimate of this phase’s beginnings. However, most importantly, the world’s core shook uncontrollably when it first heard the sweet, soothing sounds of Irish romantic-drama Once. To me, this kicked off the transcontinental mix of cinematic touchstones and life-altering tales that would continue to this day.

Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo.

Recently adapted into a major theatre production, this Oscar-winning indie darling tells a heartbreaking story about second chances, sticky situations, and songwriting. So, why am I talking about one of the past decade’s most ambitious cinematic experiments? Well, it’s a matter of principle. Here, Once‘s writer/director John Carney has turned his attention to Hollywood’s intricate systems and obvious appeal. His latest effort, Begin Again, certainly has the right amount of guile and charm. In fact, these traits might push this dramedy into many critics’ Top 10 lists. However, for those who have seen Once, the similarities between these movies come off as trite and convenient. For instance, the narrative takes several predictable and contrived turns toward its inevitably cheerful denouement. In the first scene, we are introduced to scornful singer/songwriter Greta (Kiera Knightley). Slouched into the corner of a popular New York nightspot, Greta is forced into the club’s fear-driven spotlight by Steve (James Corden). Despite failing to impress the hipster-centric crowd, one bizarre attendee stands up and cheers audibly for her sultry stylings. This crowd member, despite not looking the part, is a major record producer on the l0ok out for inspirational music. Dan (Mark Ruffalo), having been fired earlier that day by long-term business partner Saul (Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def), is one step away from packing it in.

Maroon 5 singer Adam Levine.

As you can tell, the narrative is a superfluous mix of conventional and ineffectual plot-treads. Pushed away by his estranged music-journalist wife, Miriam (Catherine Keener), and advantageous daughter, Violet (Hailee Steinfeld), Dan’s drunken antics eventually hurl him into Greta’s equally-treacherous path. So, with my complaints rising to the surface, why do I like it so much? After leaving the theatre, my enjoyment levels hurriedly elevated like Knightley’s transitions between notes. The narrative, divided into two definitive parts, becomes comfort food for the senses. Greta, having been dumped by deceitful rock-star boyfriend Dave Kohl (Adam Levine, delivering a nod to John Mayer), is the movie’s most scintillating ingredient. Pitted against Ruffalo’s husband-and-father storyline, her arc becomes infinitely more watchable. Aiming to distract his audience, Carney’s style comes off like a twee exterior covering up a near-rotten core. the first third, charting Dan and Greta’s meeting point, moves at an unnecessarily sluggish pace. Pinpointing a particular scene, the story follows a Nick Hornby-like structure toward the second-two acts. Carney, following a familiar pattern, sticks too close to his previous effort. With Hollywood success looming over him, his generic follow-up never takes shape. In fact, Begin Again feels like it’s missing a final third/quarter needed to wrap-up certain story-lines and round out certain viewpoints.

“Musicians, for the most part, are monosyllabic teenagers who really don’t have a whole lot to say.” (Dan (Mark Ruffalo), Begin Again).

timthumb

RnB icon CeeLo Green.

Despite the false notes, the movie’s endless magnetic streak, gleeful optimism, and array of Voice judges eclipse the aforementioned quibbles. Carney’s direction, pulling Once above the pack, dives head-long into the limbo-like area between realism and pure-and-unadulterated fantasy. Here, with style and substance performing a profound duet throughout the taut 104-minute run-time, Carney’s bigger-is-better shades come out swinging. With A-listers, a much more alluring city, and vastly different genres to play with, the story’s blissful pace and consistent tone create heart-wrenching moments to bounce off of. Creating an outdoor album with the tools at their disposal, Dan, Greta, Steve and co. take to Manhattan’s wondrous streets to escape their humdrum personal lives. These sequences, in which Greta’s songs covet the screen for elongated takes, display Carney’s knack for fusion and visual flourishes. His camerawork refuses to stay still for extended periods. Racing through even the most tedious of moments, there’s always something to pick out of Carney’s highly-stylised compositions. In addition, much more so than anything else, our attractive performers add ever-lasting gravitas to this otherwise harmless affair. Breaking out of her period-piece stigma, Knightley shines in this strong-willed role. Charting their swift rise-and-fall stories, Knightley and Ruffalo’s chemistry bolsters several corny and heavy-handed sequences. Sadly, Levine’s first acting gig yields transparent results.

Sitting comfortably between Inside Llewyn Davis and Jersey Boys, Begin Again delivers enough laughs and smile-worthy twists to skate by with minimal effort. Ruffalo, Knightley, and Steinfeld – leading this cute-and-kind-hearted cast – bolster this mostly repetitive and needless venture. With similar story and character beats to Once, Carney’s latest strums to an all-too-familiar tune. If anything, this will become a musical whose soundtrack eclipses everything around it.

Verdict: A soulful and eclectic dramedy. 

Frank Review – Band Recognition


Director: Lenny Abrahamson 

Writers: Jon Ronson, Peter Straughan

Stars: Domhnall Gleeson, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Scoot McNairy, Michael Fassbender


Release date: May 9th, 2014

Distributors: Element Pictures, Magnolia Pictures

Countries: Ireland, UK 

Running time: 95 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Fassbender’s manic performance.

Worst part: Gyllenhaal’s lacklustre character.

Some movies, whether they deliver momentous scores or pop songs designed to sell albums, use music to accelerate their effect. Blaring through each cinema’s sound system, a song, or even an entire compilation, can worm its way into our heads. British indie dramedy Frank utilises this concept to build upon its funky and potent core. Accentuated by out-there performances and manic directorial ticks, Frank delivers a fun, insightful, and momentous insight into music’s effect on human beings.

Domhnall Gleeson & Michael Fassbender.

Screening for festival fanatics and steely critics at this year’s South by Southwest festival, Frank had a high note to reach to impress these auspicious crowds. Sweeping through the circuit, this dramedy throws caution to the wind whilst its characters try to conquer their burgeoning issues. Pressing against typical festival-dramedy tropes, the movie’s inner-peace is repeatedly disrupted. The narrative, when not looking into an ever-so-slightly unhinged trajectory, follows the mediocre existence of Jon (Domhnall Gleeson). This struggling keyboard player/songwriter, stuck in a depressing office space, dreams of hastily escaping his tragic existence. Everyday, Jon draws up the soundtrack to his monotonous life. Taking inspiration from the most mundane of occurrences, Jon’s life halts when he witnesses a man trying to drown himself. The man, keyboarder for popular grunge group ‘Soronprfbs’, is deemed unworthy of future gigs by the band’s eccentric manager Don (Scoot McNairy). Invited to play at their next gig, Jon watches on as the group crashes and burns on stage. However, Jon, invited to their cosy recording-studio abode, draws inspiration from misanthropic percussionist Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and electrifying lead singer/songwriter Frank (Michael Fassbender).

frankstraws

Experimenting with music.

The word ‘predictable’ doesn’t belong in any context, or review, of this peculiar romp. Over several weeks, Jon learns from everything he sees and each bizarre personality he runs into. In each scene, little surprises and jokes reside to amp-up this already impressionistic creation. Working with a creative screenplay and boisterous cast, director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did) takes aim at Ireland’s ever-lasting cultural stamp, the world’s music scenes, and genre clichés. Here, Abrahamson looks to his bubbly characters for ideas. Looking through the pages of this enjoyable material, his bright direction searches for and develops eye-catching gems. For the most part, Frank sticks to its promises by staging itself in affable and quaint locations. Stuck together in the recording studio, the drama relies on discomforting personalities and interesting ideas. The brightest moments revolve around the band’s quaint jam sessions. By using epiphanies and spiritual practices, this eclectic bunch seeks to conquer the alternative-rock game. Pushing past everyone around him, Frank – wearing a large, paper-mache head – holds his group together with charm and everlasting appeal. Without turning conflicts into melodramatic exchanges, the narrative takes several sharp and mood-altering turns towards darkness and disparity. Punishing its opportunistic new keyboard player, the group’s antics keep Frank above similar fare. Heading to SXSW itself, the movie’s fish-out-of-water-esque humour throws our ensemble into the heart of pop-culture. Aided by Twitter and Instagram, Jon’s social media coverage may draw a line between the band and its comforting surroundings.

“You play C, F, G?” (Frank (Michael Fassbender), Frank).

Maggie Gyllenhall.

Playing off revelatory music-dramedies like Almost Famous and This is Spinal Tap, as well as renowned TV personality Frank Sidebottom, Frank examines music’s affect on pop-culture and social quarrels. Experimenting with varying tools and sounds, Frank’s recording techniques are peppered throughout joyous montages. Alarmingly, pushing its characters to breaking point, the movie delivers an insightful commentary on philosophy and mental health. Blaming one another’s questionable antics, its characters test one another without being condescending or complacent. In the final third, as Frank’s intentions become clear, we see the downfall of a potential genius. Jon and Frank, as their bromance reaches a crux, reflect upon music, life, and escapism. Describing each other’s facial expressions, their alluring mannerisms lend heart and brawn to this ear-drum-strumming farce. Unexpectedly, Jon’s confidence-fuelled efforts do more harm than good. Drawing fame and fortune towards this quirky group, Frank’s personality becomes increasingly unpredictable and concerning. Credit goes to Fassbender for bringing a charismatic glow to this difficult role. Suited to blockbuster fare, Fassbender, like his character, reaches outside the box to deliver extraordinary quirks. In addition, soon after his heartbreaking performance in About Time, Gleeson delivers a likeable turn as the audience avatar and the group’s most opportunistic member. Made whole by Gleeson’s whimsical accent, his charm and wide-eyed glory ground this abstract feature. However, despite her best efforts, Gyllenhaal fails to overcome her nasty character. Thankfully, at opportune moments, McNairy comes along to lighten the darkest moments and deliver genuine thrills.

Similarly to Fassbender’s performance, Frank is an engrossing, enlightening, and intelligent commentary about the world around us. With music being Frank’s guiding light, the movie maintains its optimistic glow and heartening motifs throughout. Looking for new sounds and compilations, the band reflects the movie’s will to succeed by looking beyond the norm.

Verdict: A charming and unique dramedy.

Chef Review – A Hearty Meal


Director: Jon Favreau 

Writer: Jon Favreau

Stars: Jon Favreau, Sofia Vergara, John Leguizamo, Scarlett Johansson

chef-movie-poster-2014


Release date: May 9th, 2014

Distributor: Open Road Films

Country: USA

Running time: 114 minutes


 

 

Best part: The unending food porn.

Worst part: The excessive length.

Review: Chef

Verdict: Favreau’s affable return to form.

The Grand Budapest Hotel Review – Wild, Wild Wes-tern


Director: Wes Anderson

Writer: Wes Anderson

Stars: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe

 


Release date: March 21st, 2014

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 99 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: Anderson’s direction.

Worst part: The unnecessary bookends.

Words like “hipster” and “pretentious” are thrown around far too often nowadays. Intended as insults, these words are too often taken out of context and placed into judgemental analyses. Unfortunately, these words are often directed toward writer/director Wes Anderson (The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom). Sure, his style stands out from every other big-name filmmaker out there. But why should we criticise him for being different? This year, Anderson has pursued a new and improved form of critical and commercial acclaim.

Ralph Fiennes & Tony Revolori.

Simultaneously lampooning and embracing his distinctive style, Anderson’s new feature The Grand Budapest Hotel reaches out to newcomers and long-time fans. Here, this near-rabid fandom is what Anderson strives for. In  this delectable dramedy, his bold visuals, deadpan performances, and relevant themes are dissected and meticulously placed back together. To introduce readers to Anderson’s universe, I’ll describe this labyrinthine plot. In one timeline, a girl places a key on a statue before diving into a novel named ‘The Grand Budapest Hotel’. We are then introduced to the novel’s narratorial force. The author (Tom Wilkinson) describes one significant event in his tumultuous life. From there, we meet the author’s younger self (Jude Law) residing in 1968. Meeting the hotel’s elderly owner Zero Moustafa (F. Murray Abraham), the author enquires about Moustafa’s past. We then examine Moustafa’s younger self (Tony Revolori) whilst learning of the Hotel’s former glory back in 1932. This timeline, set in the fictional Eastern European country of Zubrowka, deals with countries and businesses during wartime. As a lobby boy, Moustafa becomes friends with the hotel’s favourable concierge Monsieur Gustave H. (Ralph Fiennes). Over the years, Gustave courts several rich, elderly women whom come for the hotel’s reputation and stay for his “exceptional service”.

Adrian Brody & Willem Dafoe.

Heartbroken over his lover Madame Céline Villeneuve Desgoffe-und-Taxis(Tilda Swinton)’s death, Gustave, after acquiring prized painting ‘Boy With Apple’, is pursued by her son Dmitri Desgoffe-und-Taxis (Adrien Brody), assassin J.G.Jopling (Willem Dafoe), Deputy Vilmos Kovacs (Jeff Goldblum), and Inspector Henckels (Edward Norton). Honestly, it’s difficult fitting this expansive, starry-eyed cast into this synopsis. In true Anderson fashion, commendable lead and character actors fill each role. Here, Anderson’s auteur status ascends to a notch above transcendent. Embracing narrative tropes and visual flourishes, Anderson takes full responsibility for each detail. Conquering screenwriting and directorial duties, this masterful dramedy icon embellishes what others fear. Idealistically, fun concepts are explored in this sprawling tale about hope, love, age, loss, and survival. The Grand Budapest Hotel, escaping Anderson’s conventional familial-drama confines, delivers an investigation into an entire country’s peculiar inhabitants. Despite including one-too-many timelines, Anderson’s deft touch and focused direction delivers an honest and fruitful idea of humanity’s lighter and darker shades. The author’s timeline fuses with Moustafa’s in a tricky yet purposeful fashion. As a showcase for renowned performers, The Grand Budapest Hotel is chock-a-block with impactful moments and hearty surprises. In fact, around every corner, characters, laugh-out-loud gags, and clues reside to bolster this quirky tale. In addition, the movie throws gunfights, murders, and tension into this whimsical concoction. Thankfully, the movie never becomes quirky for quirky’s sake. Gustave’s journey never becomes corny or materialistic. Instead, this harsh yet intelligent narrative explores Anderson’s most enigmatic ideas. 

“Keep your hands off my lobby boy!” (M. Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), The Grand Budapest Hotel).

Jude Law & Jason Schwartzman

Of course, generating fans the world over, Anderson’s signature visual style eclipses this narratorial thrust and opinionated viewpoints. Beyond being the all-knowing creator of prescient dollhouse-like universes, the mis-en-scene, from the ground upward, builds glorious interiors and kitsch exteriors. As Gustave compliments people on their artistic merits, we can see Anderson applauding his own identity and style. Here, his universe becomes more wondrous, idiosyncratic, and gargantuan than anything a modern blockbuster can, and would, deliver. As blockbusters for the indie crowd, Anderson’s features exclaim more than expected each time. Overcoming obvious and ill-conceived preconceptions, his attention to detail almost becomes a cure for a conquering bout of Hollywood-itis. Overcoming the cynicism, his near-symmetrical compositions, clashing colours, stylistic experiments, and blank-faced characters develop near-wordless conversations. Here, his glorious style interacts with over-arching messages. Paying homage to everyone from Ernst Lubitsch to The Marx Brothers, Anderson uses hallways, elevators, cramped spaces, and lobbies to accentuate the story’s manic energy. Fitting its entire cast onto a bevy of key hangars, the poster reveals only a fraction of the movie’s content. Despite the vagueness, these performers, whether they be new to or accustomed to Anderson’s flourishes, admirably reinforce this tale’s enthusiasm, vision, and ideology. Fiennes breaks from tradition to embody this unhinged and comedically-charged role. Tapping into his slapstick chops, the iconic British actor jumps into each scene with charm, maliciousness, and reverence. Newcomer Revolori is also a standout as Gustave’s naive and witty number-two. Bolstering their already esteemed reputations, supporting players like Norton, Goldblum, Brody, Saoirse Ronan, Bill Murray, and Harvey Keitel stand above this immensely talented ensemble.

Eclipsing Anderson’s best efforts, including Rushmore and The Fantastic Mr. Fox, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an effervescent and efficient love letter. In addition, it outright refuses to become a sorrowful apology to Anderson’s detractors or even average filmgoers. Anderson, now reaching critical and commercial acclaim, holds his head up higher than even the most respectful hotel staff member. Ideally, it’s worth making reservations for, and checking-in to, this hysterical and dexterous dramedy.

Verdict: Anderson’s most gleeful and nuanced effort yet.

The Monuments Men Review – Stuck in Trenches


Director: George Clooney 

Writers: George Clooney, Grant Heslov (screenplay), Robert M. Edsel (book)

Stars: George Clooney, Matt Damon, Bill Murray, John Goodman

monuments_men_xlrg


Release date: February 7th, 2014

Distributors: Columbia Pictures, 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 118 minutes


 

2/5

Best part: The fun performances.

Worst part: The dreary pace.

What ever happened to the concept of ‘classic Hollywood’? The Golden Age of Hollywood was defined by artistic efforts created by influential and enviable crusaders…I presume. Having researched this part of entertainment history (I know, I’m a nerd), I’ve come to a predictable yet apt conclusion – Hollywood doesn’t make movies the way it used to. Literally and figuratively, this statement sports several obvious and subtle traits. Modern Hollywood, continually compared to what it was, doesn’t stand up to criticism. So, who better to boost Hollywood’s wavering reputation than national treasure George Clooney? From Tibet to Timbuktu, everyone knows who he is.

Matt Damon & George Clooney.

In fact, Clooney’s latest effort, The Monuments Men, strives to make gigantic and awe-inspiring leaps of faith. Unfortunately, the movie trips and falls more often than not. Tellingly, this movie contains the right ingredients. In particular, not to be overlooked, the movie’s A-list performers have boosted some of the past decade’s greatest works. However, this saccharine docudrama’s reach exceeds its grasp. Embarrassingly, the movie keeps reaching for Clooney’s previous efforts’ level of quality. His immense star power and determination fight to bring classic Hollywood back. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men comes off like an elaborate dress rehearsal. Needing one-or-two final look-overs, this mawkish dramedy fits great assets into awkward places. Admittedly, this is an inspirational and unique story. Based on Robert M. Edsel’s literary account The Monuments Men: Allied Heroes, Nazi Thieves, and the Greatest Treasure Hunt in History (had me at the title alone), this kooky adventure flick can’t decide what it wants to do. Here, multiple characters take this troop’s intentions across harsh lands to all corners of Europe. Set during WWII’s final moments, the movie picks up with the Nazi’s retreating to Berlin. Stealing priceless artefacts and destroying cities and communities, Adolf Hitler’s forces are taking everything to hell with them. Noticing their disgraceful actions’ impact, Lt. Frank Stokes (Clooney, of course) presents his findings to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. 

Cate Blanchett.

Given the all-clear, Stokes recruits representatives from Western Civilisation’s brightest sectors. After throwing Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon) back into the action, Stokes invites a gaggle of veteran soldiers to take-on Germany’s fiercest armies. Honestly, I’m trying to make this movie’s intricate plot seem more interesting than it is. Though their names aren’t important, the supporting characters are boosted by a plethora of acclaimed performers. Soon enough, Manhattan architect Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), sculpter Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman), painter Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), theatre director Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban), and Lt. Donald Jefferies (Hugh Boneville) join Stokes. Gathering intelligence proving Hitler’s Fuhrermuseum to be in development, the group infiltrates  Europe to such retrieve artefacts as the Van Eyck Altarpiece and Michelangelo’s Madonna and Child. Sadly, despite the immense talent dousing each frame, star power and attention to detail don’t distract from The Monuments Men‘s crippling flaws. Obviously, the premise is boosted by these esteemed actors. It’s invigorating seeing these actors collaborate and crackle on screen. Unfortunately, from the twenty-five-minute mark onward, this rambunctious crew splits up to take on different missions. The narrative, separating into several under-utilised and tedious parts, exhaustively plods. Within the first third, the movie’s jarring tonal shifts and underwhelming turns stick out. After their separation, Granger meets up with disgruntled museum curator Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett). With Simone key to the mission’s success, Granger’s intentions become distorted. At least, that’s what I thought his story-line was about. For this subplot highlight’s the movie’s biggest flaw – cluttered with convoluted arcs and under-utilised concepts, the movie’s underdeveloped plot-lines are disjointed and meaningless deviations.

“Stop, stop. Stop. I seem to have stepped on a land mine…of some sort.” (James Granger (Matt Damon), The Monuments Men).

Bill Murray & Bob Balaban.

Beyond Clooney’s hubris blinding his gaze, his and long-time co-writer/producer Grant Heslov’s screenplay lacks depth, charm, and consistency. Steering away from emotional impact, the exposition-and-cliche-driven story-lines lack definitive resolutions. Considering Clooney’s greatest works (Good Night, and Good Luck, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), he should know how to fuse relevant, politically-driven narratives with eclectic, period-piece settings. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men‘s broad, bloated sub-plots distract from Clooney’s grand vision. With plot-strands switching from blissfully lighthearted to disturbingly dark and vice-versa, this homage to classic Hollywood already feels wholly dated. Irritatingly so, Clooney’s influences and viewpoints rest close to his heart. Like with The Ides of March, Clooney uses his democratic, no-nonsense agenda to kick this movie into overdrive. Thanks to the true story’s significant profundities, the movie almost  becomes socially and spiritually involving. Commenting on art’s effect on culture, the search for Weapons of Mass Destruction, and the first world, Clooney’s fiery viewpoints reach breaking point. Amongst Clooney’s feisty attacks, the hit-and-miss gags also distort his intentions. Injecting slapstick humour into heartbreaking sequences, The Monuments Men awkwardly  connects contrasting genres and influences. Beyond the kitsch opening credits sequence (honouring The Dirty Dozen), Clooney’s overt sense of humour hinders this heavy-handed docudrama. Thankfully, Clooney’s visual style elevates this otherwise underwhelming dramedy. Along with the movie’s sumptuous and electrifying mis-en-scene, Phedon Papamichael’s cinematography is jaw-dropping. Overcoming Clooney’s tonal transitions, the visuals are far more substantial than his overwhelming opinions. 

I hate to criticise Clooney’s work. For an entire generation, his scintillating screen presence and immense talent establish him as one of Hollywood’s greatest treasures. However, The Monuments Men, despite the commendable intentions, is an uninspired, confused, and weightless dramedy. Hampered by Clooney’s agenda and affection for classic Hollywood, his ambitiousness and profile prove costly. Somehow, this WWII docudrama lacks dramatic tension, laughs, and genuine thrills. Despite Clooney and co.’s involvement, its clear why Brad Pitt didn’t show up. 

Verdict: A lively yet disappointing WWII dramedy. 

Nebraska Review – Colourless Flavour


Director: Alexander Payne

Writer: Bob Nelson

Stars: Bruce Dern, Will Forte, June Squibb, Stacy Keach


Release date: November 15th, 2013

Distributor: Paramount Vantage

Country: USA

Running time: 114 minutes


 

 

3½/5

Best part: The eclectic performances.

Worst part: The discomforting tonal shifts.

What exactly defines a director’s ‘body of work’? A signature style? A high-minded agenda? A rise or fall in overall quality? Simple answer: all of the above. This energetic term refers to a director’s all-encompassing works becoming cognitive parts of a much larger odyssey. One director sporting a stellar and eclectic filmography is Alexander Payne. Since I fondly appreciate his acclaimed works, I refuse to make a dim-witted pun about his last name. In fact, despite his rich and irritable cynicism, his movies speak the truth about monumental issues. Payne, with Nebraska, takes a wild detour back to his old stomping grounds.

Bruce Dern & Will Forte.

Thankfully, 2013’s Best Director nominees have charged head-on into informative and alarming topics. From Spike Jonze’s scintillating work in Her to Steve McQueen’s transcendent efforts in 12 Years a Slave, these filmmakers transformed a humble crop of dramas into the past decade’s greatest Oscar nominees. Payne, shooting previous Oscar seasons into the stratosphere, knows how this process works. Gracefully, the likeable and vague director writes love letters to his younger self. His movie’s personal touches hint at gargantuan promises and immense surprises. Thankfully, they all work to his movies’ advantage. Here, Payne places his heart on the line, and is almost willing to stomp on it himself to prove a point. The move follows a disgruntled family aching for change. In the opening scene, a decrepit and alcoholic old timer, Woody Grant (Bruce Dern), is caught wondering the streets of Billings, Montana. Brought into the local police precinct, Grant is convinced he’s hit the jackpot. Carrying a sweepstakes scam letter in his jacket pocket, Grant strives to retrieve his staggering $1 million ‘winnings’. With Grant’s frustrated son David (Will Forte) forced to pick him up and drop him back to his lively residence, Grant’s literal and figurative demons become abundantly clear.

June Squibb.

Prodded by his wife Kate (June Squibb) at debilitating moments, his anger ever-so-slowly rises to the surface. Despite Grant’s bizarre  behaviour, David, running away from his own problems, drops everything to take his unhinged father on this mind-boggling journey. Payne fuses modernity and tradition in this kooky dramedy. In creating this dreamscape, the priceless director reaches into his ol’ bag of tricks. Nebraska instills his electrifying filmography’s more distinctive kinks. Like Sideways and The Descendants, the narrative rests its transformative quirks on one quaint road trip. Obsessed with road trips, deceptive schemes, and irritating family units, Payne’s style is brought to the forefront of this ageless and touching familial drama. However, despite my intentions, ageless may be the wrong word. This Best Picture nominee, like Philomena, examines people of vastly different age groups. Commenting on cliches and hearsay, the movie quashes any preconceptions about the elderly community. Yes, the elderly characters in Nebraska do yell at younger people and regale family members with tiresome tales. However, they choose do so because of hard work and free will. First time feature writer Bob Nelson gives these retirees distinctive traits and empathetic shades. Tugging at heartstrings and brain cells, Nebraska‘s fruitful narrative comments on an era as old as the movie’s lead character. Convinced this shade of Middle America could become obsolete, Payne’s emphatic direction hurls the movie’s issues into the spotlight. Pushing against the grain, the movie’s gritty conflicts and resolutions inject observational comedic moments and intriguing personalities into the sprawling narrative. Contrasting personalities, defined by life-altering decisions and brash revelations, add emotional depth to this otherwise discomforting tale.

“I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!” (Kate Grant (June Squibb), Nebraska).

Stacy Keach.

Unfortunately, whilst returning to familiar territory, Payne doesn’t delve into anything original. The story, reminiscent of Planes, Trains, and Automobiles and Paris, Texas, builds a cavalcade of overtly sentimental moments and tiresome cliches. Heading back to Grant’s hometown of Hawthorne, long-dead conflicts, long lost loves, and caricatures come out to greet him. Buying into Grant’s peculiar antics, the vultures – led by Grant’s old business partner Ed Pegram (Stacy Keach) – circle the unenthusiastic and ignorant lead character. Payne, refusing to sugarcoat certain situations and details, oddly embraces and rejects nostalgia and lower-middle class America simultaneously. This multi-millionaire – commenting on small-town America and economic turmoil – indulges in his perfunctory material. Aged care, family values, and the American dream are small fragments of Payne’s shattered perspective. However, despite the overwhelming agenda, Payne’s startling visual style and attention to detail stand above the conventional screenplay. Ambitiously shot in Black in White, Phedon Papamichael’s glorious cinematography lends poetic beauty to this cynical dramedy. Embedding itself into the consciousness within the first few minutes, the black and white photography turns a simplistic melodrama into a multidimensional character study. In addition, the quirky and efficient score lends gravitas to this comforting road trip. Plunking away, folk-blues sounds waft over certain sequences like none other. Hats off to Payne for that choice. Fortunately, the performances, more so than the visuals, hurls the audience into this darkly comic tale. Dern, an indie drama darling, establishes his immense prowess. Despite being the outsider in this year’s Best Actor list, his enigmatic and subtle performance elevates every scene. Saturday Night Live graduate Forte delivers his greatest performance as the miserable and amicable David. His character – picked on by sex-offending cousins, steely-eyed enemies, and rambunctious elderly relatives – is a step above most in this nostalgic romp. Squibb excels in her disarming role. Pushing her relatives to breaking point, her character becomes a terrible person doing commendable things. Meanwhile, Breaking Bad‘s Bob Odenkirk nicely rounds out the cast as the family’s more successful son.

Nebraska, despite the quaint charm and ingenious performances, is far from your typical comedic farce. Payne, not one to hide from the truth, places his thoughts and ideas in full view. His frankly modest perspective makes his characters walk that fine line between chaos and control. With Dern, Forte, and Squibb’s charisma saving all-important scenes, this eclectic road-trip dramedy transitions into a potent and thematically relevant adventure. Though not deserving of its Best Picture nomination, the movie, like its main character, is crazy in the sanest possible way.

Verdict: A cheerful and modest road-trip dramedy. 

Inside Llewyn Davis Review – Friendly Folk Flick


Director: Joel & Ethan Coen

Writers: Joel & Ethan Coen

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman


Release date: January 16th, 2014

Distributor: CBS Films

Country: USA

Running time: 105 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The memorable soundtrack.

Worst part: The abrupt resolutions.

Movies about music, due to an artist, movement, or genre’s immense popularity, regularly take on lives of their own. Launching cult classics, trends, and modern re-inventions, these movies range from musicals (Dreamgirls), to dramas (Walk the Line, Ray), to comedies (Oh Brother Where Art Thou!). Despite aiding specific movies’ soundtracks, how exactly does music launch certain big-budget efforts into the cultural stratosphere? Tapping into pop-culture’s infatuation with nostalgia and popularity, Inside Llewyn Davis chronicles one genre’s immersion into the public’s line of sight. Folk music’s long-awaited return to the spotlight is illuminated in this hysterical, insightful, and charming dramedy. Kicked off by chart-topping groups like Of Monsters and Men, Mumford and Sons, and Passenger, folk music’s resurgence has boosted the once-neglected genre’s range, influence, and relevance.

Oscar Isaac & cat.

Despite being a polarising genre, folk brings ageless intricacies and nuances to this kinetic slice-of-life character study. Here, music, love, life, and regret interweave to form an eclectic and meaningful rhythm. Inside Llewyn Davis, bolstered by ingenious performances, poetic directorial flourishes, and, of course, a catchy soundtrack, becomes one of the past decade’s most distinctive dramedies. Touching upon music’s profound social and cultural impact, this movie speaks to the toe-tapping samaritan inside us all. This purposeful narrative chronicles insatiably irritating yet well-meaning simpleton, and former merchant seaman, Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac). After his musical partner’s catastrophic suicide, Davis struggles to make ends meet. Crashing on friends’ couches or random periods, job prospects run afoul of Davis’ abrasive personality. With downtown club ‘the Gaslight Cafe’ keeping him afloat, burgeoning crowds and unique musicians frustrate Davis. Davis finds a new partner after his friends’ cat escapes from their cluttered apartment. Davis and his feline companion scurry across New York looking for shelter and company. Keeping out of the cold, Davis soon finds sanctuary in his musician friends’ apartment. Briefly staying with Jim (Justin Timberlake), Jean (Carey Mulligan), and their other guest Troy Nelson (Stark Sands), Davis witnesses Jim and Jean become Peter, Paul & Mary-esque Gaslight celebrities. However, Davis, thanks to his irritable agent Mel (the late Jerry Grayson), sleazy Gaslight owner Pappi Corsicato (Max Casella), and friend Al Cody (Adam Driver), hatches an ambitious plan to travel to Chicago. Reaching for a ground-breaking opportunity in the windy city, Davis comes across Johnny Five (Garett Headlund) and crippled jazz extraordinaire Roland Turner (John Goodman).

Carey Mulligan.

Though writer/producer/director maestros Joel and Ethan Coen need no introduction, I’m going to give them one anyway. The Coens, ever since Blood Simple shocked film-lovers across the world, have drenched themselves in blood, sweat, laughs, existential angst, and Middle America’s most unique musical movements. The dynamic duo’s range, richness, and tenacity are evident in every project. The Coens, leaping from westerns (No Country for Old MenTrue Grit), to hardened gangster flicks (Millers Crossing), to sickeningly dark comedies (Burn After ReadingThe Big Lebowski), to frenetic dramedies (A Serious ManFargo), place their hearts, souls, and perspectives into each narrative. Their polarising yet compelling efforts, despite the cloying moments, launch horrifying sequences and ambiguous characterisations into the consciousness. Fusing classic and modern Hollywood cinema conventions, their honest direction and ambitious writing tropes shine throughout Inside Llewyn Davis. Giving bluegrass roots a heaving kick-start with Oh Brother Where Art Thou!, the Coens apply their talents and wisdom to the opportunistic folk scene. Fortunately, despite the dour marketing campaign, this slice-of-life drama, from go to woe, is a winning, thought-provoking, and modest examination of the human condition. Pitting man against the cold weather, lacklustre employment prospects, fate, and the future’s ever-looming uncertainty, the Coens inject heart into this comedically callous journey. With slapstick humour and shocking expletives highlighting the first-half’s kinetic formula, the movie kicks off with style, panache, and grace. Moving from one underwhelming destination to another, Davis’ journey is one of heartache, self-discovery, and determination. However, the second half becomes a philosophically powerful yet sombre road-trip-based adventure. Meeting peculiar characters and bizarre revelations, the final third slowly sheds the first two thirds’ malevolent wit and optimistic aura. Ultimately, the Coen’s latest effort discusses our infatuation with varying entertainment mediums. Genres and movements are ably presented as impressive creations crafted by inspiring artists. Here, Davis and co. craft life-changing works out of impulse, burgeoning motivations, and extraordinary ideas.

“If it was never new, and it never gets old, then it’s a folk song.” (Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), Inside Llewyn Davis).

John Goodman & Garrett Headlund.

Refusing to answer its thesis by the half-way mark, Inside Llewyn Davis hurriedly delves into pop-culture’s fascination with nostalgia. Davis and co’s mental, spiritual, and emotional angst paints a haunting picture of the past, present, and future. Nostalgia may bring back fond memories, but won’t play a show-stopping track or put a coat around Davis’ shoulders. The Coen’s statements are illuminated by the movie’s awe-inspiring and memorable musical interludes. Describing key moments of this all-encompassing narrative, the soundtrack is crafted out of love, admiration, and care for this immaculate genre. Conceived by the Coens, Isaac, T-Bone Burnett, and Marcus Mumford, Inside Llewyn Davis becomes a quirky and enlightening musical minus the genre’s insufferable tropes. From the opening frame, music plays a vital part in emphasising and re-shaping 1960s-America’s social, political, economical, and cultural landscapes. The first track, ‘Hang Me, Oh Hang Me’, is a distinctive, impactful, and poetic gut-punch. With Isaac’s haunting vocals carving into the soul, the track potently and engagingly examines Davis’ existential and emotional conflicts. Fortunately, the seceding musical numbers elevate the moody and eclectic material. Yet another Coen Brothers classic is humanised by its characters. Davis, though prickly and distinctively sarcastic, is a strangely likeable presence. Slimily weaving into friends’ lives, this irritable and harmful musician follows a dingy path. Isaac, placing egotism and aura aside, is revelatory in this complex role. Mulligan provides another touching and multi-layered performance as the dismissive friend. Throwing expletives and criticisms at our bewildered antihero, Jean is an exasperating and unconscionable character. Suitably, David and Jean deliver twists, turns, and haunting lyrics. Meanwhile, Timberlake builds charisma and range as the blissful nice-guy. Timberlake, Isaac, and Driver deliver the movie’s most enlightening musical number. ‘Please Mr. Kennedy’, featuring stirling vocals and electrifying lyrics, provides refreshing relief from this heart-wrenching tale. Once again, Goodman electrifies a small yet significant role. Throwing hysterical insults at Davis, his character revels in life’s most intriguing pursuits and absurdities. His comedic lines (“Folk songs? I thought you said you were a musician?”) relieve this dark road-trip story.

With the Coens up for Oscar contention yet again, Inside Llewyn Davis, like its lead character, deserves some much-needed love and care. As a concentrated dose of Coen-Brothers-moviemaking tropes, Coen fans, film buffs, folk aficionados, and average filmgoers will absorb this visceral and confronting dramedy. Laugh-out-loud moments, attention to detail, and tenderness transform this slice-of-life drama into an infectious and award-worthy artistic endeavour. Like the best folk songs, Inside Llewyn Davis‘ poeticism, narrative, and inherent charm will put a song in everyone’s hearts.

Verdict: An intelligent, hysterical, and enlightening drama. 

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty Review – Jet Lag


Director: Ben Stiller

Writer: Steve Conrad (screenplay), James Thurber (short story)

Stars: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Sean Penn


Release date: December 26th, 2013

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 114 minutes


 

2½/5 

Best part: The charming performances.

Worst part: The awkward comedic hijinks.

For short periods of time, daydreams detach us from our conscious selves to provide joy, exhilaration, and knowledge. In these intimate moments, the boundaries separating reality and fantasy are blurred. Escaping from mundane situations, people zone out to temporarily experience something else entirely. This broad description illuminates similarities between this particular humanistic action and cinema’s overall purpose. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty director/star Ben Stiller invites us to follow in his larger-than-life footsteps. However, this fantasy-adventure flick becomes as tepid and unexacting as the situations we subconsciously escape from. The movie, though peppered with exciting sequences, may be drowned out by more influential holiday releases. Also, this superficial yet exhilarating comedy-adventure won’t attract newcomers to Stiller’s zippy filmography.

Ben Stiller.

With its ingenious premise, Stiller had the perfect opportunity to make a profoundly engaging and heartening remake. However, as a perfect example of 2½-star entertainment, Walter Mitty is only a utilitarian and concise comedy-adventure. Walter Mitty, despite its commendable intentions and engaging performances, is crushed by Stiller’s immense hubris. In lesser hands, this movie would get a free pass. However, with Stiller’s immense success in front of and behind the camera, the movie never cements his noteworthy talents and courageous oeuvre. Unfortunately, this disappointing yet enlightening adventure hurts more than expected. With an intriguing premise and immaculate big-budget-film-making tools at his disposal, Stiller’s adaptation of James Thurber’s short story becomes a saccharine and uninspired 2-hour Hallmark moment. Being the second big-screen remake after the 1947 Danny-Kaye-starring version, this version proves quality deservedly overshadows quantity. The plot, diverting from Thurber’s influential material, borrows from several genres, movements, and generic action-adventure conventions. This version kicks into gear when office drone and lonely schlub Walter Mitty (Stiller) walks into New York’s LIFE Magazine headquarters. Sadly, with the magazine transitioning from print to online, the majority of employees face the chopping block. Facing constant complaints from transition manager Ted Hendricks (Adam Scott), Mitty has little time to impress cute co-worker Cheryl Melhoff (Kristen Wiig).

Kristen Wiig.

Unable to efficiently operate his E-Harmony dating profile, Mitty faces loneliness, unemployment, and a debilitatingly miserable existence. However, his fortunes change thanks to one photonegative. With negative no. 25 missing from photojournalist Sean O. Connell(Sean Penn)’s final LIFE Magazine reel, Mitty takes it upon himself to track down the all-important image. At the behest of mother Edna (Shirley MacLaine) and sister Odessa (Kathryn Hahn), Mitty – normally escaping to (dreaming up) fantastical worlds and dangerous situations – embarks on a spiritually transformative journey across the world. As a family-friendly farce, the movie becomes an uninspired and inoffensive Frank Capra-esque trip down memory lane (in multiple ways). However, this version contains several outstanding moments and concepts. Stiller’s creative side occasionally rises above the conventional and manipulative material. With daydreaming a commonplace practice, the first few scenes are, despite the CGI set-pieces and outlandish scenarios, startlingly relatable. His fantasies – ranging from jumping through windows, to saving dogs from explosions, to being a seductive mountaineer crashing into LIFE Magazine headquarters – are suitably charming. However, this movie doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. These dream sequences, though enthralling, add little to the movie’s enlightening narrative. Despite the glorious imagery and sweet touches, the movie’s all-important intricacies are wholly separated from one another. Unfortunately, Walter Mitty is significantly less enthralling than Stiller thinks it is.

Adam Scott.

Underneath its alluring sheen, the story hits familiar beats and dull patches. Sadly, the movie sticks to every Stiller-comedy-movie trope. With underwhelming twists and turns, kooky characters, and unexplored subplots, the movie never reaches its full potential. Sporting major logic leaps and contrivances, the stakes are limited despite Mitty’s stupefying journey. Tonally shifting between specific plot-strands and influences, the movie is also overwhelmed by its self-consciousness and contrarian messages. Throughout this roller-coaster ride, Stiller’s perspective hurriedly switches between each overcooked and excessive idea. Its living-the-dream overtones are overtly and repeatedly touched upon. In addition, this clichéd theme clashes with Stiller’s commentary on the working class hero. Beyond this, it ignorantly dives into the modernity vs. tradition debate. Switching from underdog story to hypocritical Hollywood farce, Walter Mitty is as shaky and bizarre as the titular character’s imagination. Despite the significant flaws, Walter Mitty, dramatically and visually, alludes to several distinctive comedies and influential dramas. As a Boxing Day family-friendly smash, the movie is comparable to Life of Pi. In addition, the movie’s ambitiousness and scope are reminiscent of Forrest Gump and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (the latter awkwardly referenced here). However, the most relevant influence is Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind. This whimsical yet forgettable drama marks Stiller’s most earnest directorial effort yet. With Zoolander and Tropic Thunder being quotable and energetic big-budget comedies, Stiller has proven himself a note-worthy and engaging director.

“I just live by the ABCs: Adventurous, Brave, Creative.” (Sean O’Connell (Sean Penn), The Secret Life of Walter Mitty).

Sean Penn.

His style normally highlights each project’s most unique and outrageous aspects. However, Walter Mitty‘s visual flourishes and directorial ticks become steadily irritating. Influenced by Michel Gondry, Woody Allen, Danny Boyle, and Robert Zemeckis, Stiller develops a pale concoction of the aforementioned filmmakers’ styles. Unable to deliver the comedic timing, zany visuals, and kinetic pacing of his previous efforts, his style lacks edginess, heart, or creativity. Each trick, awkwardly plastered across the screen for convenience’ sake, decreases the movie’s overall emotional impact. Stiller – pasting words across settings, adding montages at opportune moments, and flooding sunlight into every frame – applies conventionality to his extraordinary narrative. However, Stuart Dryburgh’s immaculate cinematography delivers vertigo-inducing thrills. Iceland, Greenland, New York and, the Himalayas are gorgeous and exhilarating locations. Also, the skateboarding and mountaineering sequences elevate the second half. However, the distracting product placement damages Mitty’s comically charged adventure. Shout-outs to E-Harmony, Papa Johns, American Airlines, and LIFE Magazine contradict the story’s over-arching messages. Despite Stiller’s comedic chops, the hit-and-miss gags provide false notes. Only a handful of clever lines save this otherwise dour dramedy. Despite the cookie-cutter characters, the enlightening performances are refreshing. Stiller, though preoccupied, delivers a gleeful and multi-dimensional performance. Playing a familiar average Joe type, his earnestness fits this intriguing role. Wiig is an engaging presence as Mitty’s quick-witted love interest. Scott ably portrays yet another over-the-top antagonist. Thankfully, Penn and Patton Oswalt bring tenderness and heart to the movie’s final third.

With insurance-advertisement-level depth and Kodak-moment-level visual stimulus, Walter Mitty is an advantageous yet misguided vanity project. With self-affirming shots of Stiller’s face, CGI overload, conventional screenwriting, and engaging performances, Stiller’s latest directorial effort becomes a confusing, pandering, yet engaging fantasy-adventure aiming specifically at common audiences.

Verdict: An awe-inspiring yet underwhelming comedy-adventure. 

Much Ado About Nothing Review – Shakin’ Up Shakespeare


Director: Joss Whedon

Writer: Joss Whedon (screenplay), William Shakespeare (play)

Stars: Amy Acker, Alexis Denisof, Clark Gregg, Nathan Fillion


Release date: June 21st, 2013

Distributors: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions

Country: USA

Running time: 108 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The dynamic cast. 

Worst part: The awkward first five minutes.

“What’s the matter, smart ass? Don’t know any f#cking Shakespeare?”. Mark Wahlberg’s line from The Departed, to me at least, sums up William Shakespeare’s overwhelming effect on pop culture. The Bard, whether he’s infatuated with a sprightly, Gwyneth Paltrow-looking woman (Shakespeare in Love) or brashly labeled a fraud (Anonymous), is always depicted as a knowledgeable and enigmatic individual. In addition, big-budget renditions of his seminal works – including Ten Things I Hate About YouThrone of Blood, and Romeo + Juliet – amicably reach wide audiences. Along comes geek heartthrob Joss Whedon. Whedon, arguably Hollywood’s hardest working writer/director, offers up a loving tribute to history’s greatest poet. Whedon’s Much Ado About Nothing depicts a funky, sexy, and witty insight into the Hollywood hills. Whedon’s rendition, receiving extraordinary exposure, is a unique and faithful ode to an ever-lasting hero.

Alexis Denisof & Amy Acker.

His version, touching upon an engaging story and vital themes, is an insatiably strong adaptation. Sticking to the source material, Much Ado About Nothing defines Whedon as an all-knowing and gracious filmmaker. Describing the plot, despite overlaying valuable information, doesn’t ‘spoil’ the final product. With work this treasurable and refined, everyone should seek out Shakespeare’s material (in fact, why are you still reading this review? Go find it!). The narrative unfolds with the scornful yet vibrant Beatrice (Amy Acker) lamenting her cloying existence. Her cynical ideologies and actions – cheerfully matched by zany, confident, and desirable bachelor Benedick (Alexis Denisof) – almost push her to breaking point. Thanks to Leonato (Clark Gregg) and Don Petro(Reed Diamond)’s agreement, Hero (Jillian Morgese) and Claudio (Fran Kranz) will achieve marriage and eternal happiness. This event, marked by lavish celebrations and free-flowing alcohol, is marred by Claudio’s deceitful brother Don John (Sean Maher). Along the way, our courageous and optimistic characters come across masked well-wishers, snivelling evildoers, and luscious settings. Hot on the evildoers’ trails, Agents Dogberry (Nathan Fillion) and Verges (Tom Lenk), and their spritely associates, watch over proceedings. However, their good efforts are threatened by Don John’s helpers, Conrade (Riki Lindhome) and Borachio (Spencer Treat Clark). Over the course of a few days, allegiances, best-laid plans, and the idea of love itself will be greatly tested. In this I-Pod, smart phone, and gossip induced world, our heroes and villains will face off in the midst of kind greetings, parties, weddings, interrogations, and funerals. Despite the pace wavering with each abrupt transition and additional plot-strand, this adaptation develops a comforting and engaging tone. With characters, twists, and sexual awakenings seamlessly intertwining, Whedon subtly controls every necessary strand and titbit. His overwhelming affection for Shakespeare pours over his charming and hilarious adaptation.

Nathan Fillion & Tom Lenk.

Before I go on, I’ll admit my affection for Whedon and Shakespeare may potentially cloud my judgement. Having read and viewed their all-important works, its difficult not to proclaim Much Ado About Nothing as entertainment history’s greatest ‘collaboration’. Both critically-and-commercially-lauded artists – bringing heart, soul, and laughs to every creation – have crafted influential and popular efforts defining certain generations. In praising Whedon’s adaptation on its own merits, Much Ado About Nothing, as famed film production schedules go, is a jaw-dropping and clever achievement. Mashing the original material with a contemporary setting pays off. Whedon’s behind-the-scenes ingenuity boosts the small scale and quirky visuals. With a 12-day shooting schedule, Whedon took time off from working on The Avengers to work on this concept. With planning, production, and post production taking place in Whedon’s Santa Monica Mansion, his style and the narrative’s intimate nature go hand in hand. Passionate about Shakespeare’s comedic touches, Whedon’s writing style derives from the Bard’s seminal efforts. His adaptation highlights the most punctual and relevant aspects of Shakespeare’s work. Relaying Shakespeare’s every word, the opening few scenes are jarring. With kitsch direction applied to poetic material, viewers may, sadly, throw up their hands by the thirty-second mark. However, criticising the movie’s core would insult Shakespeare’s material. With each metaphor, anecdote, and soliloquy, I hurriedly connected to intricate details and overtones. Despite several plot-points, including feuds between royal ties and Claudio’s paranoia over Hero’s virginity, not connecting to the movie’s time period, certain strands relate to relevant themes. Despite the hurried marriages, articulate prose, and pontifications, Much Ado About Nothing places Whedon’s popularity in the spotlight. Like his previous efforts, multi-layered characters, deception, honour, and societal order rule the day. Obsessed with familial ties and small scale conflicts, Whedon deliberates on our media-obsessed world’s love of power, sex, love, loss, regret, inspiration, and fame. Featuring attractive heroes, scheming, black-haired villains and vicious conflicts, Much Ado About Nothing and The Avengers aren’t too dissimilar.

“Why, he is the Prince’s jester: a very dull fool; Only his gift is in devising impossible slanders.” (Beatrice (Amy Acker), Much Ado About Nothing).

Fran Kranz.

Whedon’s unique pet project, born from a shared understanding of the source material, brings family and friends together. His mansion becomes a labyrinthine castle for conflicted characters to swiftly travel through. Emphasising each hallway and empty space, characters efficiently peer around corners, fall down stairs, and glance through wide windows. In addition, several camera tricks illustrate Whedon’s methodical conveyance of small details and symbols. Aiding the confronting material, the black-and-white cinematography also takes time getting used to. Emphasising  each conflict and relationship’s rawness, this choice elevates Whedon’s succinct and powerful style. Keeping it in the family, Jed Whedon (brother) and Maurissa Tancharoen (sister in law) contribute with a hip, jazzy score. Firmly stamped into the enthralling narrative, their tunes elevate each intriguing set-piece. This anachronistic journey – featuring an entertaining masked ball, scintillating romantic moments, and a discomforting memorial sequence – is a wondrous miasma of fashion, fun, and fiery feuds. Like Shakespeare and Whedon’s previous efforts, the characters contain a knowing sense of humour. Understanding each debilitating situation’s gravity and urgency, these people appropriately speak the truth. Making for several hysterically awkward moments, these blunt yet alluring characters solidify this intriguing dramedy. Using dry wit, guile, vaudeville slapstick, and heart, Whedon touches up Shakespeare’s creations. Boosting each enigmatic characterisation, the movie’s dynamic ensemble conquers the cloying material. As Whedon’s ‘regulars’, the TV-centric cast convincingly delivers Shakespeare’s tongue-twisting dialogue. Standout performers Fillion, Gregg, Denisof, and Diamond become comedic geniuses in vital roles. Meanwhile, Acker brings gravitas and poignancy to her promiscuous and cynical character.

Combining two brilliant minds for one rendition, Much Ado About Nothing is a humorous, reflexive, and thrilling dramedy. Despite having stated my overwhelming affection, it’s still worth mentioning – Whedon is a cinematic genius! This movie, aptly accessing the play’s most intriguing elements, is certainly worth a look.

Verdict: A witty, clever, and enlightening dramedy.

Hitchcock Review – Psychotic Psychosis


Director: Sacha Gervasi

Writers: John J. McLaughlin (screenplay), Stephen Rebello (book)

Stars: Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston


Release date: December 14th, 2012

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 98 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: Helen Mirren’s steely performance.

Worst part: Anthony Hopkins’ distracting make-up.

Back in Hollywood’s heyday, prolific British director Alfred Hitchcock inspired a wave of crime/thriller films and film-makers. However, none of them were able to match Hitchcock’s own notoriety. A man with an original idea can seemingly rule Hollywood. He was a man who held a quintessential vision every-time he stepped behind the camera. HBO’s The Girl and Hitchcock have recently recreated important segments of the great director’s life. Hitchcock is a loving ode to his oeuvre, yet fails to create a succinct dramatic depiction of ‘The Master of Suspense’.

Anthony Hopkins.

This biopic picks up with Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins) in the midst of the explosive success of his spy flick North by Northwest. Despite critical acclaim and studio access at his fingertips, he is pushed toward projects seemingly below his impressive status. Hitchcock becomes inspired by the story of convicted serial killer Ed Gein, depicted in the chilling best-seller Psycho. Hitchcock’s  privileged yet frustrating marriage to sympathetic wife Alma Reville (Helen Mirren) is tested as adapting the novel becomes the influential director’s obsession. An instant horror-thriller classic is brought to life through a painstaking journey. The consequences of Hitchcock’s questionable actions come to light. Fresh-faced actors and actresses, intrusive studio heads and the Motion Picture Production Code breathe down his bloated neck. But he must also contend with his wife’s suspicious friendship with screenwriter Whitfield Cook (Danny Huston).

Hopkins, Helen Mirren & Toni Colette.

Hopkins, Helen Mirren & Toni Colette.

Hitchcock created possibilities, exceeded expectations and infuriated the most important people in tinsel town throughout his illustrious career. Despite his influence on modern film-making, his professional life is as important as his degrading personal life with Alma. The story constantly jumps between the making of Psycho, a formulaic biopic, a psychoanalytic look into Hitchcock’s mind and a dramedy. This representation of Hitchcock’s perspective is lacking a sense of immersion. The storyline is filled with underdeveloped and unnecessary recreations of the great director’s experiences. Vertigo-inducing due to the film’s schizophrenic storytelling, Hitchcock creates only an elusive figure that barely delves beyond his own personality. However, the making of Psycho is the most involving aspect of HitchcockPsycho was one of Hollywood’s greatest success stories. It was independently funded, original, chilling, perverse and remembered for its shocking shower sequence. Hitchcock’s bizarre means of promotion, production and distribution succinctly build his reputation. Another storyline that works is Alma’s connection to her husband. Her love for Hitchcock subtly draws her closer while his brash love of blondes and film-making pushes her away. A polite and immaculate part of Hitchcock’s life, she still pushes her husband to continually prove his impressive reputation.

Scarlett Johansson.

Films such as Chaplin and Ed Wood provide in-depth and dramatic depictions of famous directors. They create expansive stories while depicting important parts of their lives. Based on Stephen Rebello’s non-fiction book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho, Hollywood’s love of Hitchcock is proven to be invaluable. Sacha Gervasi (Anvil! The Story of Anvil) creates a witty and insightful interpretation of Hitchcock’s time with the infamous Bates Motel. However, Hitchcock unfortunately lacks both the visceral joys and in-depth character study elements needed for a truly meaty Hitchcock biopic. Gervasi paints a bright yet sanitised picture of vital events. Tonally imbalanced; unnecessary plot-lines and a goofy sense of humour decrease the film’s importance. It takes the ‘cock’ out of ‘Hitchcock’. It’s safe, pulpy and light-hearted while being uncomfortably dark in others. Hitchcock is visited by Gein in the subconscious. This Shining-like examination of Hitchcock may have been vital in a greater story, but in this goofy dramedy it’s noticeably unessential.

“Beware, all men are potential murders. And for good reason.” (Alfred Hitchcock (Anthony Hopkins), Hitchcock).

Mirren & Hopkins.

Hitchcock is a fun experience for film buffs; able to identify every one-per-second reference to trends, issues, directors and films of the time. The average cinema-goer may avoid this film as it ironically avoids telling this story for, ahem, the birds. The film largely avoids the director’s controversial actions and behaviour, instead developing his symbolic traits. Fact and fiction are dressed up to elevate this touching tribute to a glorious cinematic icon. The director’s unique figure and love of voyeurism are dutifully constructed, and that’s before the story develops his influential film-making techniques enlivened during the making of Psycho. Hopkin’s portrayal doesn’t help much. Hopkins emphasises the elements of Hitchcock that make him a baffling caricature. His confronting physical presence and multi-layered make-up effects are noticeable to a disastrous extent. However, it’s fun to see stellar performances from Jessica Biel, Scarlett Johansson, James D’Arcy, Ralph Macchio, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Kurtwood Smith as figures important to Psycho‘s creation.

Hitchcock was clearly the biggest presence in any room, eagerly providing imagination and a witty reaction to every word spoken against him. So it’s underwhelming that a film chronicling the work of The Master of Suspense partially lacks thrills, charm and, well, suspense.

Verdict: A confused yet witty biopic/retrospective.

Liberal Arts Review – Readers & Romances


Director: Josh Radnor

Writer: Josh Radnor 

Stars: Josh Radnor, Elizabeth Olsen, Richard Jenkins, Alison Janney


Release date: September 14th, 2012

Distributor: IFC Films

Country: USA

Running time: 97 minutes


 

3½/5

Best part: The witty Screenplay.

Worst part: The heavy-handed messages.

Building the foundations of a successful career and profound personal existence can have an effect on any college graduate. While looking back on the good old college days, thinking of the person you were could cause regret and heartache in the present. Liberal Arts discusses this issue with a witty and optimistic outlook. Josh Radnor’s new film defines him as both an auteur and a prolific director of fun yet painfully realistic dramedies.

Josh Radnor & Elizabeth Olsen.

Thirty-five year old Jesse Fisher(Radnor)’s New York-based lifestyle is crumbling under his feet. A bad break up, stolen laundry, a boring job, a deep love of books and an innate desire to ignore everyone culminates into existential angst. Relief comes in the form of an invitation to his favourite college teacher’s retirement celebrations. Professor Peter Hoberg (Jenkins) finds Jesse to be a friend and protege, admiring his love of literature. Jesse’s attention however is drawn away from his mentor to the seductive beauty of nineteen year old Zibby (Olsen). Zibby and Jesse soon form a careless friendship, despite their 16 year age difference. Jesse is then forced to make the tough decisions Zibby has not yet been introduced to.

Richard Jenkins.

Richard Jenkins.

Radnor’s eye for imaginative yet occasionally brutal drama has formed the basis for his second independent feature. Known primarily for his role as Ted on hit sitcom How I Met Your Mother, both his first feature Happythankyoumoreplease and Liberal Arts have turned Radnor into someone to look out for. His script is a smart balance of snarky comic sensibilities and profound romantic-drama conventions. Now known for both comedic and dramatic talent, Radnor’s direction is reminiscent of Woody Allen’s early period of Annie Hall and Manhattan. Both Radnor and Allen succinctly and creatively depict New York, Intertwining relationships and the problems associated with life itself. Jesse’s perspective on art, politics and society is highlighted through the contrast between New York and his old college grounds. The film highlights problems concerning sudden change, human connection and infinite possibilities. Jesse’s once optimistic persona has turned into a cynical yet still hopeful shadow of its former self. He now revels in opinionated discussion and helping anyone he can to see the harsh realities of modern culture.

Allison Janney.

Allison Janney.

Jesse is at points likeable and at others hard to get close to. Spelled out as a ‘likeable’ guy at points, his emotions continually change when least expected. Arguments with the light-hearted Zibby may be snappy at points (especially in their heated debate over Twilight-related material), but his constant desire to have his own way becomes tiresome. having said that Radnor delivers a charismatic portrayal of someone down on his luck with his head held high. A bleakly honest, world weary soul with a thirst for knowledge, his heart is in the right place but his head is understandably elsewhere. He and Olsen (Martha Marcy May Marlene) convey instant chemistry, becoming a believable couple in the face of realistic hurdles. An optimistic and opinionated individual, Olsen’s Zibby happily embodies unique principals. She illustrates that ‘yes’ is the best way to enjoy every day, giving Jesse’s outlook on life a whole new understanding. Jenkins (having a stellar year following Killing Them Softly and The Cabin in the Woods) continues his fine form as Jesse’s mentor. His frustration with retirement leads to a familiar fear of change, expressing a wide range of emotions in his intense performance.

“Grace, I realized, is neither time nor place dependent. All we need is the right soundtrack.” (Jesse Fisher (Josh Radnor), Liberal Arts). 

Radnor & Olsen.

The film’s love of art, culture and democracy is illustrated through Jesse’s shattered mentality. Going back to where he feels at home, the change between Iowa and New York defines the importance of tradition and a deeper meaning for life in a world dominated by popular culture. The film’s themes such as transition, age, politics, romance, culture and retirement all interweave into every conflict and witty dialogue sequence. Despite Radnor’s smart writing and profound outlook on society, Liberal Arts is conservative and awkwardly condescending simultaneously. The film’s light hearted tone leaves many important conflicts without significant development. Jesse’s broken psyche is relieved in one underused sub plot with a mentally unstable male student. While the romantic aspect is also touched on lightly, despite Jesse and Zibby’s instant connection. Their problems are quickly and easily resolved, lacking the depth of similar relationship-based films like (500) Days of Summer. The film however has a keen eye for literature, music and valuable ideals. Vivaldi and Beethoven interweave beautifully into every montage. While Jesse’s love of reading defines how both knowledge and analysis define the power of culture, opinion, and intellect.

Despite the cutesy messages, Liberal Arts is a fun, enlightening, and intriguing dramedy. Radnor, launching himself far away from HIMYM, the TV star has set his affairs in order and delivered an assured cinematic effort.

Verdict: A witty and engaging independent drama. 

The Perks of Being a Wallflower Review -Teenage Tyrade


Director: Stephen Chbosky

Writer: Stephen Chbosky (screenplay & novel)

Stars: Logan Lerman, Emma Watson, Ezra Miller, Paul Rudd


Release date: September 21st, 2012

Distributor: Summit Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 113 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The indie-rock soundtrack.

Worst part: Underused supporting cast.

Whether it be the popular kid, the musical kid, the sporty kid or one of the unappreciated, anyone will admit that any amount of time spent at high school was just too much. Adolescence, bullying, illness and social order may at some point affect the average teenager, which The Perks of Being a Wallflower amiably discusses with hints of wit and optimism. The film depicts the mind of a struggling student, looking for a way into an accepted approach to living life. Wallflower is a middle finger to the cynical outlook of the world, proving that anyone’s dreams can and should always be encouraged.

Logan Lerman.

Logan Lerman.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is a sweet and passionate young man about to attend his first day of high school. Instantly becoming an outsider, Charlie finds solace through his ambition of becoming a writer. Trying to expel the demons of his solemn past, his love of reading and new-found connection with English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) become profound stepping stones to a fulfilling life. He also finds a meaningful connection with a unique group of older students, led by Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller). Charlie is soon invited on their surreal journey heading swiftly towards the end of the school year. Their imaginative interests and opinionated attitudes may help Charlie to find a place where he truly belongs and control his wavering mental state.

Emma Watson & Ezra Miller.

Emma Watson & Ezra Miller.

Wallflower is a truly unique and profound example of obtaining the greatest effect through low budget filmmaking (by Hollywood standards of course). The characters and story become instantly identifiable, not just through the power of adolescence but through existential angst. Charlie is an avatar for the modern viewer. A 90’s kid adapting to his own slice of Eden, the determined yet repressed Charlie allows the viewer to peel back multiple layers of his fragmented psyche. With each first experience (sex, drugs etc.), Charlie expands his own universe and creates a rebellious, empathetic and aspiring protagonist. The narration and flashbacks create an immersive and emotionally powerful insight into a life slowly veering away from normality. This easily identifiable character is an important example of how a single person can powerfully effect the lives of everyone around them. The film’s comedic yet extensive outlook on intertwining relationships and philosophical ideals is on par with cult classics such as Dazed and Confused and 10 Things I Hate About You. Director and screenwriter Stephen Chbosky is clearly a major part of his own work. Chbosky, also the author of the original material, has created a sensitive coming-of-age tale of how certain passions, ideals or significant others can lead to multiple conflicts and conclusions.

Watson & Miller.

Watson & Miller.

The film provides many nods to similar works, portraying a love for subversive entertainment and nostalgia simultaneously (in particular The Rocky Horror Picture Show). Influenced by the fun yet profound high school-based comedies of John Hughes (The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off), Wallflower‘s subtle character touches create a much greater impact than the exaggerated iconic elements of Hughes’ material. The multi-layered stance against the high school system is projected in Charlie’s kaleidoscopic journey of friendship, betrayal and conformation. The ambitious and artistic older students convince Charlie that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. The ranging personalities and conflicting emotions of this quirky group provide an in-depth study of the music, films, social classes and artistic endeavours of the era. ”Everything sounds better on vinyl” says Watson’s character, as the film provides a subtle look at what it takes to find a collection of identifiable people perfect for Charlie’s innate desires. The homophobic and abrasive high school system is a symbol of oppression in a changing decade. Chbosky creates a tonal balance however by portraying the 90’s as a cultural landscape eventually willing to accompany everyone’s hidden dreams, desires and opinions. Despite it’s affecting story, the film fails to develop Charlie’s important emotional problems such as bullying, family, suicide, troubled relationships and drug addiction, leaving many vital conflicts with a lack of significant explanation.

“You can’t just sit there and put everybody’s lives ahead of yours and think that counts as love.” (Sam (Emma Watson), The Perks of Being a Wallflower).

Our favourite Wallflowers.

Our favourite Wallflowers.

The independent rock score stands out as a vital symbol of this group’s inner workings. Songs from David Bowie, Neil Finn and Sonic Youth provide a surprisingly memorable, catchy and rousing way of propelling this uplifting story of youth fighting back. The film benefits from its stellar cast. The young lead actors have never been better, creating likeable characters through instant chemistry. Lerman, unconvincing in mainstream films such as Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief and The Three Musketeers, is enthralling in his subdued performance as Charlie. His impressive emotional range here lifts Chbosky’s troubled character off the page, displaying a charming yet destructive teenager wanting desperately to fit in. Emma Watson (the Harry Potter series) delivers an energetic turn as the seductive yet positive student finding new ways to achieve independence, placing her preferences and conflicting emotions in full view. While Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin) is both charismatic and darkly comic as the class clown and sympathetic leader. The supporting cast however is underused is ostensibly important roles. Rudd is his usual charming self in his small screen time as Charlie’s teacher. While TV actors Dylan McDermott and Kate Walsh are wasted as Charlie’s parents.

Chbosky, taking on writing and directing duties with little experience, seems to know what he is doing. Despite the minor book-to-film translation flaws, his adaptation is a fun and visceral homage to John Hughes and adolescence itself.

Verdict: A charming and resonant coming-of-age story. 

Moonrise Kingdom Review – Young Lover’s Yonder


Director: Wes Anderson

Writers: Wes Anderson, Roman Coppola

Stars: Jared Gilman, Kara Hayward, Edward Norton, Bruce Willis


Release Date: May 25th, 2012

Distributor: Focus Features

Country: USA

Running time: 94 minutes

4/5

Best part: The engaging performances.

Worst part: The irritable supporting characters.

Bravely holding up the peace sign in protest against modernity and establishment, Moonrise Kingdom could be seen as this generation’s Easy Rider. A big statement to make for sure, but its quirky tone and important discussion of free love and youth are held onto with a fond emotional resonance and artistic beauty.

Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward.

Jared Gilman & Kara Hayward.

Its 1965, America is a transitional state and its youth are easily impressionable to the evolving tapestries of temptation and rebellion. Violent and socially awkward Suzy (Kara Hayward) finds her soul mate with the equally strange and detested Sam (Jared Gilman). They run away from home to the island of New Penzance, isolated from the throes of a bland American life. The parents and local authorities are made aware of their indiscretions and become determined to keep them apart, but a physical and emotional escape from their confines has forever drawn them into the realm of forbidden desires. Along the way, our heroes  run into several peculiar townsfolk and obstacles as their relationship reaches new peaks and troughs. In addition, with the town looking high and low for our cute couple, we look on as people from all different walks of life become bitten by the same bug that recently struck our two leads.  Guided by Sam’s boy scout savvy, the forest-dwelling existences may just pull their friends and well-wishers out of their tedious existences.

Edward Norton.

Edward Norton.

Forbidden desires, love and loss bring this anti-American prophecy to life through the vision of acclaimed director Wes Anderson. Anderson, known for his niche fan base and strange dramedies such as The Royal Tenenbaums and  Rushmore, has created his most concentrated work yet with Moonrise Kingdom. Everything on-screen glows as every frame is a reminder of this acclaimed auteur and his peculiar vision in a modern filmmaking era. The Anderson tropes are all in full effect; precocious children, dysfunctional families, a 70’s aesthetic and uncomfortable themes provide just the tip of the knife, piercing the heart of any viewer taking in this touching and cheerful dramedy. Based in a storybook like setting, his messages are surely based on his childhood in an era of free love and inhibitions dancing in the wind. The film speaks to the modern and adult viewer about valuable contrasting issues. Society, family, age and politics are all questioned as the film breaks down more than just the fourth wall. Looking into the camera at characters off screen, tracking and panning across settings through limited angles, abstract imagery, spit screen dialogue sequences and cutesy geographical narration from Bob Balaban’s gnome-like character question the comfort, voyeurism and staged representations of modernity and order. Moonrise Kingdom is one of art house sensibility, constantly creating delicate cutesy moments out of the darker side of life.

“I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.” (Suzy (Kara Hayward), Moonrise Kingdom).

Norton, Bruce Willis & Tilda Swinton.

Norton, Bruce Willis & Tilda Swinton.

The child characters are a part of us in one way or another. We go through their strange yet spiritually enlightening journey, knowing how and when their changing bodies and personalities will soon affect each other. First experiences, with concerning issues such as sex and violence, may catastrophically destroy their innocence. We witness however the pair shuffling through the bases, in the hope they find their own slice of Valhalla in an era of war and hatred. The adult characters sadly add little more than thematic representations and roadblocks to this hippie-era love story. With the boy scouts representing the army at the height of the Vietnam War, Edward Norton, Jason Schwartzman and Harvey Keitel as scout leaders are suitably charming yet lack moral depth. The film is delightfully based on children learning by doing, displaying not that parents are wrong for their treatment of children, but should give them a chance to grow by themselves. Despite both child character’s anti-social and even masochistic tendencies, including piercing ears with fish hooks and brutally attacking boy scouts, delectable performances from Hayward and Gilman illustrate the joys of living discovered through adventure.

Moonrise Kingdom, marking Anderson’s spectacular return to form, is a rich, hearty dramedy with something to say. Talking about life, love, and inhibition, the movie comes from a significant place close to Anderson’s heart.

Verdict: A sweet and quirky coming of age tale.

My Brothers Review – Stand By Me


Director: Paul Fraser

Writer: Will Collins

Stars: Timmy Creed, Paul Courtney, Tj Griffin, Don Wycherley


Release date: August 17th, 2012

Distributors: Olive Films, Cinemax

Country: Ireland

Running time: 90 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The sibling relationships.

Worst part: The underdeveloped supporting characters.

Very few films have powerfully focused on the positives and negatives to come out of the passing of a loved one. This solemn part of existence is illustrated in My Brothers with a delicacy rarely seen in modern drama. Paying homage to Stand by Me and Star Wars, this love letter to 70s/80s Hollywood comes from a profound place of love and imagination. Bolstered by three solemn yet ambitious lead characters, this road trip comedy reaches for the more meaningful aspects of existence.

Timmy Creed.

Timmy Creed.

With the imminent death of their ill father, three brothers react differently and affectingly to their current predicament. Noel (Timmy Creed) feels punishingly afflicted with sudden responsibility when faced with his family’s future. Paudie (Paul Courtney) avoids the situation through immature behaviour. While Scwally (T.J. Griffin) is a naive young boy connected to a cheap toy lightsaber, despite having never seen Star Wars. To redeem their once happy connection with their father, the three brothers travel to a seaside town to replace his broken watch. With an unbalanced array of personalities and sombre feelings towards their current situation, the experiences and recollections they encounter may positively change their unsteady relationship.

Creed, Paul Courtney & Tj Griffin.

Creed, Paul Courtney & Tj Griffin.

My Brothers is a touching, charming yet sombre examination of family, memory, death and redemption. Paul Fraser (Once Upon a Time in the Midlands) has directed this solemn yet inspirational road trip film with a powerful emotional connection. The sombre tone, created through gorgeous cinematography capturing every raindrop and dirt road on their journey through rich, green hills, assuredly develops this story of the importance of both life and death. Unlike Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter, in which three different stories of people affected by death fail to develop a powerful emotional connection to its important themes, the three brothers aren’t simply aiming for a relief from their current predicament, but aim to effectively tie up loose ends with one powerful act. With the watch symbolising their family’s happiness and responsibility, its repair will ultimately bring the three of them together despite their imminent loss of family connection. The acoustic soundtrack and wildly differing personalities clashing throughout their journey effectively capture an authentic representation of youth in lower class Ireland.

“If daddy dies in the holidays, do we still get time off from school when we go back?” (Scwally (Tj Griffin), My Brothers).

The road trip.

The road trip.

With a window into family happiness at tail ends of the film contrasting their currently crumbling lives, the three brothers are developed as realistically flawed yet loveable characters. Much like the works of J.J. Abrams and Wes Anderson, they not only provide gripping and believable performances but feel like representations of the director’s childhood experience. Their clashing personalities and poignant issues powerfully affect their families’ structure, yet their ailments allow for genuine comedic moments. They become more believable with every van malfunction, expression of bodily function and revelation of inner thoughts and desires. The characters also symbolise a separation between imagination and reality. The transformational Stand By Me elements of their journey on the road to personal development and realisation, along with Scwally’s immense infatuation with an important item, define important issues created by youth when faced with unavoidable experiences and difficult yet vital decisions.

My Brothers, a current hit at film festivals around the world, is an emotionally gripping experience. The sympathetic characters and bittersweet narrative create a realistic representation of the dramatic shifts in any desperate family when faced with loss.

Verdict: An emotionally powerful journey of family connection.

 

The Descendants Review – Cloying Clooney


Director: Alexander Payne

Writers: Alexander Payne, Mat Faxon, Jim Rash (screenplay), Kaui Hart Hemmings (novel)

Stars: George Clooney, Shailene Woodley, Amara Miller, Robert Forster


Release date: November 18, 2011

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 115 minutes


 

4½/5

Best part: The charismatic performances.

Worst part: The laboured pace.

George Clooney seems to enjoy playing the common working man; appearing perfectly fine on the outside but damaged and wanting more on the inside. He once again visits this character’s journey of self discovery and change in The Descendants, a film about letting your personal life spiral out of control when focusing on professional but less important matters.

George Clooney.

Clooney Plays Matt King, a Lawyer facing several major problems at once. His wife is in a deep coma after a boating accident and has a problem letting her go before their marital problems are resolved. He must also finalise a deal for the sale of 25, 000 acres of Hawaiian land owned by his ancestors. This disrupts the already troubled relationship between him and his two rebellious daughters, 10-year-old Scottie (Amara Miller) and 17-year-old Alex (Shailene Woodley), who continually ignore his every rule and request. Thankfully the film never steers into largely corny or depressing territory.

Shailene Woodley & Nick Krause.

Based on a book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, director Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt) creates a very charming, funny, yet sentimental view of a family in crisis. The very human drama and characters propel this film above others of its type. The awkward situations and conversations are directed delicately, leading to a hilarious response from more than one party every time. Clooney plays its straight as a down to Earth guy struggling to keep his head above water. The desperation to balance all of his conflicts makes you forget about Clooney’s real life cool cat persona. His relationship with his daughters and Alex’s dopey friend Sid (Nick Krause) is the strongest element as the clash of duelling personalities defines the importance of family connections. Much like Payne’s earlier films, The Descendants‘ characters place their personalities in full view, making them both sympathetic and detestable at the same time. Woodley delivers a stand out debut performance as Alex, succinctly expressing anger for her parent’s  mistakes. The relationship between Matt and Alex develops throughout the film as they try to find the answers to multiple problems while repairing the shattered state of their family.

“Hey, I’m doing you a favour. I could go out there and fuck you up, so get a better attitude!” (Matt King (George Clooney), The Descendants).

Clooney & Beau Bridges.

The beautifully filmed Hawaiian locations provide an emotional contrast to The Descendants‘ story. Matt King’s honest narration in the first act, telling the vision of Hawaii as a ‘paradise’ where it should go, provides a strong foundation of how his mind works in these situations. King’s painfully harsh speech to his comatose wife after finding out her biggest secret illustrates the extent of his agonising situation. Leaving him, meant Matt had to do everything himself instead of just being the ‘back-up parent’. At the same time he tries to be a nice guy but is given nothing but  abuse by everyone around him. Characters such as cousin Hugh (Beau Bridges), a witty and spiritual hippy-surfer strongly in favour of selling the land, Elizabeth’s angry, ageing father Scott Thorson (Robert Forster) and real estate mogul Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard) are both like-able and unlike-able, making them incredibly realistic. Payne’s direction never allows you to dislike the characters despite the uncomfortable emotions directed by them towards Clooney’s determined and blunt character.

Payne, being on of Hollywood’s most interesting and prolific dramedy filmmakers, isn’t afraid to take things personally. His latest effort is a game changer in many respects, making all think a little differently about love, loss, Clooney, and paradise.

Verdict: A blunt and clever dramedy.

We Bought A Zoo Review – Animal House!


Director: Cameron Crowe

Writers: Aline Brosh McKenna, Cameron Crowe (screenplay), Benjamin Mee (book)

Stars: Matt Damon, Scarlett Johansson, Thomas Haden Church, Elle Fanning


Release date: December 23rd, 2011

Distributor: 20th Century Fox 

Country: USA

Running time: 124 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The fun performances.

Worst part: The kooky supporting characters.

Director Cameron Crowe (Almost Famous, Jerry Maguire) has once again created an in- depth account of the troubles surrounding the average Joe. We Bought a Zoo is a touching and sweet retelling of the book of the same name; based on the story of Benjamin Mee, a family man who found a fresh start by buying and maintaining a Zoological Park.

Matt Damon & Scarlett Johansson.

Matt Damon, delivering his natural likeability as a widower on the verge of leaving everything behind, plays Mee in the film. After buying the house connected to the zoo, a sale aided by an enthusiastic realtor (J. B. Smoove), he goes about making the best of a bizarre situation. He soon meets the gaggle of volunteer zookeepers, led by Kelly (Scarlett Johansson), and things start looking up. Over the course of a few months, our lead, his family, and his new friends go on a insatiably invigorating journey through think and thin with creatures great and small. Mee, his two children and the collection of unique personalities making up the volunteers must then band together to re-open the park in time for the summer. Along the way, they must defend the park from the clutches of notorious zoo/national park inspector Walter Ferris (John Michael Higgins).

Elle Fanning & Colin Ford.

Despite its slow beginning, formulaic approach, and consistent cheesiness, We Bought a Zoo succeeds in the realism of the characters and the strong performances all around from both human and animal alike. Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson stand above and beyond, making you believe every second in their strong determination towards their extraordinary plans for the zoo. Damon sells you on the struggle of Benjamin’s position. His constant bickering with his son, along with the very humorous relationship with his quirky brother Duncan (Thomas Haden Church), sells you on the sentimental connections of this story. Along the way, we come to grips with the Mee family’s saddening scenario. Recollecting on the life they shared with their lost wife/mother, the drama, for all its sappiness, occasionally tugs the right strings throughout its taut run-time. Aided by flashbacks, Crowe has no shortage of love in his heart for this real-life family unit. Like with previous efforts, this controversial director

“You know, sometimes all you need is twenty seconds of insane courage. Just literally twenty seconds of just embarrassing bravery. And I promise you, something great will come of it.” (Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), We Bought a Zoo).

Our colourful characters.

Much like Almost famous, the chemistry between the child and teen actors is We Bought a Zoo‘s most charming element. Mee’s kids Dylan and Rosie (Colin Ford and Maggie Elizabeth Jones) fit perfectly into the story due to their differing emotional adventures. Elizabeth Jones’ character Rosie not only gets some of the funniest dialogue but also delivers some of the cutest reaction shots seen in quite some time. Meanwhile, tows the line perfectly between sullen and enthusiastic. Grasping a pitch-perfect version of childhood, his is a wholly recognisable and empathetic character. Elle Fanning (Super 8) is also a stand out as Lily, a peppy young 13-year-old working at the zoo. Her growing sense of excitement when confronted with a boy her age is a delight to watch as their cute relationship plays out. Crowe manages to provide a glimpse into his sense of style particularly familiar to fans of Almost Famous. The pseudo-hippy personalities of some of the supporting characters along with the frequent rock guitar score and artistically edited flashback sequences lend a fun and retro sense of style to this extraordinary and heartfelt story.

Throughout We Bought a Zoo, the “awws” and “oohs” echoed across the crowd like a cutesy Mexican Wave. Thanks to the starry cast and charming direction on offer, this dramedy is the perfect for distraction for life’s many obstacles. It makes an animal out of us all!

Verdict: A sweet and charming family film.