Stars: Mel Gibson, Erin Moriarty, William H. Macy, Diego Luna
Release date: August 31st, 2016
Distributor: SND Films
Country: France, USA
Running time: 88 minutes
Best part: Gibson’s committed performance.
Worst part: The gangbanger villains.
2016 marks big, bad actor/director Mel Gibson’s shiny return to the big screen. Is it ok to accept the artist despite the controversies? Should we forgive and forget despite serious – and possibly unresolved – social problems? Whatever the case, Gibson is back with action-thriller Blood Father and directorial effort Hacksaw Ridge.
Blood Father kicks off with American war veteran and ex-hardened criminal turned convict John Link (Gibson) in a mediocre existence. Thanks to his parole officer’s orders, he is unable to drink, do drugs, or leave the state. Stuck in a dead-end tattoo business, housed in his caravan home, he longs to find his missing daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty). Lydia’s life goes from bad to worse. Influenced by her drug-running boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna), she joins his assault on tenants occupying cartel-owned homes. After an accidental shooting, she runs off and meets up with Link. The cartel’s baddest are hot on their trail.
Obviously, Blood Father lacks the big-budget prowess of Gibson’s 1980s/90s hey day. The veteran performer can do ‘dark and gritty’ this in his sleep. Director Jean-Francois Richet (Public Enemy #1, the Assault on Precinct 13 remake) boils everything down to essential elements. This little known director tackles one of Hollywood’s best (watch Braveheart and Apocalypto for confirmation) and gets his way. His style provides Gibson some meat to chew on. The drama builds slowly throughout the first half. As Link and Lydia steadily come together, the story delves into their broken lives. Richet and co. revel in Link’s dour existence. As Link and Lydia team up, the man-on the-run thread lightens the tone. That slight elevation from depressing to gritty builds the excitement.
Make to mistake, this is comfort food cinema. The ‘heroes are bad, villains are worse’ plot works well here. While the violence raises the stakes. Peter Craig and Andrea Berloff’s script provides fun surprises and an off-beat sense of humor. Their witty one-liners and lean sarcasm balance the jarring tonal shifts. The opening scene is a highlight; laughing at America’s lackadaisical gun laws. Link’s friend Kirby (William H. Macy), on the surface, is an nice-guy/target archetype. However, the writers and Macy make us care. His nasty gags and protective nature are worthwhile attributes for an otherwise throwaway supporting character. Gibson is the stand out performer – proving he still has the charisma and ferocity to pull off meaningful roles. Moriarty, however, is somewhat bland.
Blood Father recalls Gibson’s action-movie good ol’ days. Discussing the icon’s past, present and future, it is much deeper than most may give it credit for. At the very least, it is worth at least one Saturday afternoon viewing on Netflix.
Stars: Colin Firth, Emma Stone, Hamish Linklater, Marcia Gay Harden
Release date: September 19th, 2014
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics
Running time: 97 minutes
Best part: The charming performances.
Worst part: The heavy-handed subtext.
Certainly, veteran actor/writer/director Woody Allen has lived an awe-inspiring, unpredictable, and thought-provoking life. The 78-year-old Tinseltown icon has spent several decades breaking the mould. With game-changing successes in multiple disciplines, his aura, for the better part of a century, has shone brighter than Hollywood Boulevard and Times Square combined. This starry-eyed filmmaker has delivered some of cinema history’s greatest moments. In front of and behind the camera, the tick-laden auteur has given industry hopefuls and impressionists plenty to smile about.
Colin Firth and Emma Stone’s peculiar coupling.
Allen, despite being cinema’s most prolific hit-and-miss filmmaker, shouldn’t be insulted for his work. However, despite his merits, his latest effort, Magic in the Moonlight, won’t convert any average film-goers into raging fans. This jaunty romantic comedy, if anything, proves that Allen should take more vacations. Possibly, he should go to some of the many picturesque locations he’s captured over his illustrious career. For now, he’s stuck making witless and confused rom-coms. In typical Allen fashion, the allure of classier times fuels the otherwise bland and uninspired narrative. The story, inexplicably wafer-thin, relies on several key players to push it into overdrive. We start off in 1920s Berlin, with a world-famous illusionist performing his signature act for a packed house. Wei Ling Soo, playing to wealthy audiences, earns his fortune by making elephants disappear from boxes and slicing gorgeous stage hands in half. However, the real illusion is revealed once Soo is back-stage. Revealed to be a snide British man, Stanley (Colin Firth), Soo regularly berates production crew members, journalists, and fans. Debunking fraudulent magicians and mediums in his spare time, Stanley’s narrow-minded worldview attracts business but deters everything else. Given a new assignment by long-time friend Howard Burkan (Simon McBurney), Stanley heads to the Cote d’Azur to mingle with the ultra-wealthy Catledge family – Grace (Jacki Weaver), Brice (Hamish Linklater), Caroline (Erica Leershen), and her husband George (Jeremy Shamos) – and uncover houseguest/clairvoyant Sophie(Emma Stone) and her mother(Marcia Gey Harden)’s misgivings.
The sublime sights of a Woody Allen picture.
Crafting a star-studded feature every one-or-two years, Allen’s work-horse routine is now cracking under pressure. Sporting a career marred by controversy, the notorious filmmaker should be trying harder to win us over. Sadly, this lifeless and misguided rom-com is a significant step backwards. Sitting well-below recent efforts including Blue Jasmine and Match Point, Magic in the Moonlight calls Allen’s attentiveness, relevance, and tolerance levels into question. Unlike previous efforts, this movie lacks anything resembling subtlety, gravitas, originality, or charm. His signature storytelling tropes, bolstered by real-life events, overcook the movie’s tiresome screenplay. Throughout its brief run-time, as Stanley becomes bewitched by Sophie’s charms, the cliche-meter ticks over. Crafting a whimsical mystery/love story, this nostalgic rom-com shifts awkwardly between each conversation, montage, and revelation. Pulling Stanley and Sophie together with witless conversations and wide-eyed stares, Allen’s latest delivers several discomforting and interminable scenarios. In addition, the narrative makes the unwarranted leap from meet-cute-driven comedy to sweeping romance. One scene, in which Stanley and Sophie’s car breaks down in front of an observatory, almost sinks this light-hearted romp. Throwing in plot-threads, characters, and twists sporadically, Allen’s 96-minute magic trick lands with a whimper instead of a bang.
“When the heart rules the head, disaster follows.” (Stanley (Colin Firth), Magic in the Moonlight).
Hamish Linklater and Jacki Weaver now part of Woody Allen’s collective.
Obsessed with slight-of-hand story-telling ticks, Allen’s hubris hurriedly takes over here. Sugar-coating each plot-strand and character arc, Magic in the Moonlightdiscards intriguing concepts in favour of stylistic flourishes and heavy-handed dialogue. Beyond the inflated narrative, the movie never says anything relevant or thought-provoking. Pitting Stanley’s nihilism against Sophie’s air-tight optimism, the movie continually dives into a suffocating science vs. religion debate. Relying on mismatched leads and one-note support, the characters exists simply to echo Allen’s viewpoints. Meddling with infidelity and age differences in relationships yet again, Allen’s personal touch amp-ups the creep factor. However, known to show off the world’s most picturesque locations, Allen’s direction bolsters this archaic and forgettable effort. Aided by Darius Khondji’s pristine cinematography, the movie’s infatuation with France is almost worth the admission cost. Drowning us in his high-society existence, his version of the Mediterranean sports the world’s most appealing vineyards, Great Gatsby-style parties, mansions, and scenic vistas. Allen should also be credited for pulling this remarkable cast together. Bolstering his exhaustive dialogue, certain scenes bow down to these immaculate thespians. Firth, despite his irritating character, admirably sells each line. Thanks to his pithy delivery and effortless charisma, the British icon elevates several sequences. Stone, however, is the movie’s best asset. Her show-stopping looks and raw energy make for an invigorating love interest. Eileen Atkins almost steals the show as Stanley’s wise and advantageous aunt, Vanessa.
Whenever Allen invites a journalist into his home, he always shows off the most important part of the property. He opens a drawer, then pulls out a stack of screenplay ideas from which his features originate. This method, despite the infatuation with cinema, now seems like an act of desperation. Surely, Magic in the Moonlight won’t age well. Thanks to a ridiculous screenplay, wafer-thin characters, and overbearing subtext, this fluffy rom-com highlights the veteran filmmaker’s flaws. Wearing his style thin, the movie makes for a significant misstep within a momentous career.
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
Running time: 122 minutes
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.
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.
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!
Music/Lyrics: Claude-Michael Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Jean-Marc Natel, Herbert Kretzmer
Stars: Simon Shorten, David Thaxton, Celinde Schoenmaker, Tom Edden
Basis: Les Miserables (novel) by Victor Hugo
Adaptation: Claude-Michel Schonberg, Alain Boublil, Trevor Nunn, John Caird
Premiere date: 1980 (Paris), 1985 (west End)
Genre: Musical, drama
Best Part: The rousing musical numbers
Worst Part: The stodgy love triangle
Courageously, a handful of musicals have stood the test of time. These select few, visually and thematically standing out from the crowd, have been proven worthy of pop-culture acclaim. Even the average Joe, who may or may not know anything about musical theatre, is aware of these productions and their effect on the world. However, big-budget musicals like Wicked, The Loin King, Jersey Boys, and Miss Saigon – despite their overwhelming auras – all pale in comparison to the world’s biggest theatre production. I’m, of course, talking about period-piece extravaganza Les Miserables.
The cast in control.
So, the question remains, how has Les Miserables become this prominent and insightful? Why is a musical about a French Revolution considered to be the most important creation in theatre history? Certainly, the narrative doesn’t inspire confidence or rave rounds of applause. The premise is steeped in one of history’s most depressing periods. In fact, its acclaim all comes down to the execution. The musical, thanks to acclaimed writers/lyricists Alain Boubil and Claude-Michael Schonberg, is a worthwhile delight in the midst of its exhaustive pop-cultural impact. After 25 years in the spotlight, this theatre extravaganza is still holding onto its best-and-brightest characteristics. Nowadays, after the 2012 blockbuster adaptation collected an enthusiastic choir of newcomers, future performances need to excel to satisfy its ever-increasing audience. So, does the West End’s ongoing iteration still hold-up to scrutiny? Well, in short, yes it absolutely does! Obviously, each performance tells the same story about heartfelt characters struggling to survive. However, this version delivers more refreshing nuances than operatic high notes (and that’s saying something). Queen’s Theatre, the heart of London’s artistic hub, now hosts this extraordinary endeavour. Walking up the steps, the anticipation builds like a grand crescendo. Greeted by courteous employees, I was immediately impressed by the venue’s atmospheric vibe.
A vibrant French Revolution.
Soon enough, after the rabid theatre geeks and groan-fuelled school kids took their seats, the lights steadily dimmed as the performance kicked off in style. Closing the surrounding curtains, the venue had prepped the audience. From there, the projector beamed bright colours and titles onto the stage’s immense canvas. The narrative rears its disgusting head in 1815, Digne. Matched by a momentous opening number, disgraced prisoner Jean Valjean (Simon Shorten) is released from his sentence by notorious lawman Javert (David Thaxton). Rejected by society, Valjean is ignored by everyone except the gracious Bishop of Digne (Adam Linstead). Those familiar with the musical will be able to track where this story goes after its traumatic opening. After factory worker Fantine (Celinde Schoenmaker) is forced into prostitution, Valjean risks everything to help her daughter Cosette (Emilie Fleming) achieve a better life. Shockingly, I find it difficult to spell-out these details. This musical’s prowess lies within its darkest and most transcendent elements. Les Miserables‘ tiniest details reveal themselves at opportune moments. Suitably, viewers will lap-up this exhaustive, gripping, and touching experience. The story, revelling in the time period and courageous characters, is just one of several invigorating aspects of this stirring extravaganza. From there, several major and minor characters and plot-threads clash throughout the 150-minute run-time. Thanks to Thenardier (Tom Edden) and Madame Thenardier(Wendy Ferguson), a love triangle forms between Cosette, idealistic student Marius (Rob Houchen), and Eponine (Carrie Hope Fletcher).
“I had a dream my life would be so different from this hell I’m living!” (Fantine(Celinde Schoenmaker), Les Miserables)
Suitably, Les Miserables‘ musical numbers fuel its scintillating and unrelenting narrative. From the confronting opening sequence onward, the show’s top-tier numbers ring throughout the venue. Here, the performers deliver each song flawlessly. Within the first 45 minutes, this musical showcases its most profound and memorable songs. ‘Valjean’s Soliloquy’, ‘I Dreamed a Dream’, and ‘Castle on a Cloud’ tug on the heartstrings whilst telling gritty stories in themselves. Describing our lead characters’ conflicts and motivations, these numbers are first-half highlights. In addition, despite being brash comic reliefs, the Thenardiers work wonders for this sombre tale. ‘Master of the House’, fitting comfortably into this sprawling narrative, is a punchy and effective song. Utilising the entire stage, this version’s intricate production design boosts the experience. Switching sets with flawless technical precision, Les Miserables smoothly transitions between time periods, locations, and set pieces. Thanks to the swivelling stage mechanism, the larger-than-life execution crafts a momentous scope. The second-half’s battle sequences, combining the love triangle with Valjean’s dilemma, deliver timeless numbers and breathtaking choreography. Gun shots and bellowing cries help paint a portrait of this vital conflict. Graciously, the performers bolster this stirring stage production. Shorten, replacing Peter Lockyer for this performance, is a breakout success as the troubled prisoner turned protector. Within the first act, his revelatory performance matches Colm Wilkinson and Hugh Jackman’s turns.
Pushing itself to be better than previous productions, this West End version lives up to the original’s efforts and audience expectations. Eclipsing Tom Hooper’s cinematic adaptation, this version sticks to the original’s roots whilst delivering an exciting experience. As the world’s most popular and enlightening musical, the story, set and costume designs, musical numbers, and character arcs stand the test time on both sides of the Atlantic. Do you hear the people sing? Yes, we do. In fact, judging by box-office receipts, we cling onto multiple listens.
Verdict: An immense and note-worthy musical experience.
Stars: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Emmanuelle Riva, Isabelle Huppert, William Shimell
Release date: October 24th, 2012
Distributors: Artificial Eye, Sony Pictures Classics
Running time: 127 minutes
Best part: Powerful performances by Trintignant and Riva.
Worst part: The film’s monotonous pace.
Events such as death and taxes are inevitable. But when they hit it’s hard to control their wrath. The negative aspects of life are important to Austrian director Michael Haneke. His latest, Amour, depicts a story about how even the most fulfilled people can strenuously suffer in the end. Amour is a poignant drama that, unfortunately, takes too long to reach its inevitable conclusion.
Former music teachers Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva) live a quaint existence. They spend their retirement in a small apartment overlooking Paris. They still love the arts and frequently spend time out on the town. That is until Anne’s health starts to cause them problems. One morning, she sits down to eat breakfast with her husband. During their conversation she spaces out and falls into a catatonic state. She eventually succumbs to multiple strokes and partial paralysis. Confined to her bed, Anne is taken care of by Georges. Georges must ease Anne’s pain before her life reaches its painful end. Films about the elderly are either up-beat or dour. Amour definitely fits into the latter category. Haneke’s body of work is filled with movies that both amaze and anger. With his cult-hit Funny Games, he depicted a home invasion whilst pointing the finger at the reality-TV-loving viewer. Cache(Hidden), on the other hand, explored both stalking and domesticity. The pacing and thematic issues of his other films are also inAmour.
Riva & JeanLouis Trintignant.
Amour has good intentions. There is no denying that this love story is both personal and affecting on many levels. This is a realistic situation that is hard to discuss. However, it also discusses an issue that doesn’t have enough energy or tension to be presented on the big screen. Without any cinematic depth or investment, it becomes a very tedious and, at points, confusing film. It’s baffling that this film has garnered so much acclaim. The fact that it won the Palme d’Or (best film) at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, let alone that it’s nominated for Best Picture at this year’s Academy Awards, is a real eye opener. It fits the stereotype that a lot of ‘popular’ foreign films fall into. A Beautiful Mind discusses both mental illness and relationships in a much more enthralling manner. Haneke’s style is this film’s hindrance. Haneke loves breaking the fourth wall. Not in a glaring way, but in a much more subtle and profound fashion. His camera becomes a fly on the wall. His contemplative and discomforting direction may seem like an optimum choice. But it slows this film down to a crawl. Many scenes are overly long. For some reason, he loves both the intricacies of reality and life’s slow pace. Despite his issues, it’s rare that a well-known director can be anywhere near this subtle. The camera stays still throughout the film’s excessive 2 hour and 7 minute run time. In some scenes, his cinematography is atmospheric and beautiful. Only one or two shots are used for every scene. It’s a touching choice that allows the viewer to objectively view this story.
“Things will go on, and then one day it will all be over.” (Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant), Amour).
Trintignant & Isabelle Huppert.
Despite the lack of tension or thrills, it’s still an immensely rewarding experience. Unlike a lot of films made today, Amour never falls off balance in any way. It’s witty when it needs to be whilst building to its inevitably depressing finale. It’s a dialogue heavy yet profound narrative. Georges and Anne manage to charmingly reflect on their lives. George’s description of a friend’s funeral service, for example, is both hilarious and identifiable. The film, however, never goes into great detail about relationships. Their relationship is never given any back story. Haneke’s slice-of-life direction only paints a detailed yet narrow portrait of their current situation. What works about this film, above all else, is the characterisation. Haneke and the actors have created a heartening character study. Georges is man blinded by determination and obsession. His moral and ethical codes lead him to make seemingly immoral decisions. Marriage is the only positive part of his life. In this situation, it’s understandable that he would irritate everyone around him. At one point, he slaps his bed-ridden wife. Not to be unlike-able or abusive, but because he is angry about her debilitating condition. Interactions between him, Anne’s nurses, and his daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) become frighteningly realistic. The only part of Amour worthy of an Oscar nomination is Riva’s breath-taking performance. Embodying every stage of Anne’s condition would’ve been a monumental task. Riva’s charming personality shines through every alienating and claustrophobic scene.
Amour is a confusing, dull yet profound film. Its interesting premise is let down by the execution. Haneke’s signature and controversial style has already enraptured critics. But the film’s lack of dramatic intensity most definitely won’t be for everyone. Sadly, the narrative isn’t interesting enough to be placed on the big screen.
Verdict: A potent yet tedious love story/character study.