Serena Review – Mountainous Mishap


Director: Susanne Bier

Writers: Christopher Kyle (screenplay), Ron Rash (novel)

Stars: Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Rhys Ifans, Sean Harris


Release date: November 27th, 2014

Distributors: StudioCanal, Magnolia Pictures

Countries: USA, France

Running time: 109 minutes


 

 

1½/5

Best part: The scenery.

Worst part: The misjudged direction.

Review: Serena

Verdict: A Laughable and dull western-drama.

The Hunger Games Mockingjay – Part 1 Review – Broken Arrow


Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Peter Craig, Danny Strong (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson

the-hunger-games-mockingjay-part-1-final-poster-394x600


Release date: November 20th, 2014

Distributor: Loinsgate

Country: USA

Running time: 123 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: The grimy visuals.

Worst part: The love triangle.

Let me stress this to film-goers and Hunger Games aficionados everywhere: this latest instalment, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, is a mixed bag. Following in the Harry Potter, Hobbit, and Twilight‘s footsteps, this first-half feature is purposefully messy. Ok, that’s unconfirmed. However, it sure seems tangible. The movie’s central action sequence solidifies this theory.Teenage warrior Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), eyes down an enemy bomber, takes a deep breath, and fires her bow. Despite the awesomeness, it’s the one time she uses her signature weapon here.

Jennifer Lawrence & Liam Hemsworth.

Setting everything up for Part 2 (coming mid to late 2015), Mockingjay – Part 1 constructs an obstacle course for itself. Spinning several plates at once, the story wobbles violently before its rescue. Part of another undeserving and needless trend, this instalment should have only been one 150-minute feature. However, to make an extra billion in box-office revenue, Lionsgate screwed the pooch. The story, such as it is, hurls us back into the desolate landscapes of Panem. Thankfully, this entry takes a wholly refreshing departure from the Games. Katniss, having survived the world-shattering events of Catching Fire, is on rebellion leader President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee(Philip Seymour Hoffman)’s watch. Applauded by Districts 1 through 12, she’s become the symbol of rebellion and hope. Previously unaware of District 13’s existence, she learns of several mind-numbing truths. Pulled into the resistance/Capitol war, her efforts spark significant unrest. Worried about friend/admirer Peeta(Josh Hutcherson)’s safety, she focuses on protecting her loved ones. Despite volunteer soldier Gale(Liam Hemsworth)’s long-lasting affections, Katniss’ resolve reaches breaking point. Armed by previous Games winner Beetee (Jeffrey Wright), Katniss and Gale become the children of the revolution.

Philip Seymour Hoffman & Julianne Moore.

Similarly to Deathly Hallows and Breaking Dawn, Mockingjay already suffers from studio interference. Almost always, splitting one narrative into two causes major structural flaws. In no other instance would this tactic be acceptable. So, why does this multi-billion dollar industry do it? Beyond the monetary gain, mass fandom influences these decisions. The fans, infatuated with Suzanne Collins’ original material and/or these adaptations, form a tight-knit community. Predictably, despite the cast and crew’s efforts, this installment doesn’t work by itself. It’s wafer thin narrative yields overwhelming major and minor flaws. The first half, specifically the painfully dour first act, explores our distraught lead’s psyche. Aided by former Hunger Games victor Finnick O’Dair (Sam Claflin), she flips between rousing anger and teary-eyed remorse. The movie unevenly plonks certain sequences next to one another. Though emphasising the consequences and stakes, it’s repetitiveness and bloated narrative are repulsive. The story leaves little but charred corpses, random set-pieces, and heavy-handed rants to connect with. The Capitol, however, still comes off like the Empire. The tension builds whenever moustache-twirler President Snow (Donald Sutherland) and Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci) appear. Sadly, this instalment takes the arrow away from the bow. Katniss, by focusing entirely on Peeta and Gale instead of the world around her, becomes yet another love-struck Young Adult heroine. Slipping from Catching Fire‘s grit to Divergent‘s distasteful pandering, this instalment never establishes its love triangle. Katniss, the only well-developed and charismatic character of the three, almost becomes Bella Swan here (but could still kick her ass!).

“You will rescue Peeta at the earliest opportunity, or you will find another Mockingjay.” (Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence), The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1).

Natalie Dormer.

Despite the complaints, Mockingjay – Part 1 is still a worthwhile installment. Here, Director Francis Lawrence (I Am Legend, Water For Elephants) becomes this series’ David Yates. Displaying a bright infatuation for the franchise, his earthy direction – previously bolstering  Catching Fire – grounds this expansive universe. Ditching the original’s shaky-cam/washed-out aesthetic, Lawrence’s cinematic flourishes boost this otherwise haphazard entry. Luckily, the movie’s last third builds significant tension and thrills. In addition, the political subtext overshadows its threadbare story. This installment examines the resistance’s larger-than-life propaganda machine. A camera crew, led by punky director/Capitol escapee Cressida (Natalie Dormer), follows Katniss and co. around whilst surveying the despair and destruction. This time around, popular characters Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson) and Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks) butt heads with revolution big-wigs over Katniss’ fate. Forget 3D and IMAX – this instalment launches its convoluted agenda from all angles. Katniss, forced into advertisements and viral marketing schemes, goes through several peculiar situations. Judging by just a few expressions, she’s more comfortable murdering small children than reciting lines and trying on fashionable military attire. Lawrence, switching between indie-drama experiments and major franchises, connects with the crowd-pleasing material. Amplifying the character’s physical and emotional transformations, the 23-year-old mega-star – displaying exceptional singing skills in one vital scene –  displays more class than her more-experienced co-stars. New additions Moore, Dormer, and Mahershala Ali add gravitas as vital resistance players.

The major problems with Mockingjay – Part 1 have little to do with its actors, screenwriters, or director. Similarly to the Capitol, Lionsgate’s overbearing gaze affects everything involved. The infamous split-in-two decision sucks this instalment dry. Katniss doesn’t help either: becoming a shrill, unfavourable, and indignant YA trope. Fighting only for herself, her barely defined family members, and two bland super-zeroes, the Girl on Fire is now extinguishing her own flames. Sadly, the Mockingjay is struggling to take flight. Let’s hope Part 2 drops the attitude and picks up the bow.

Verdict: Half a Hunger Games flick (for better or worse).

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.

White Bird in a Blizzard Review – Sex and the Suburbs


Director: Gregg Araki

Writers: Gregg Araki (screenplay), Laura Kasischke (novel)

Stars: Shailene Woodley, Eva Green, Christopher Meloni, Shiloh Fernandez


Release date: October 24th, 2014

Distributor: Magnolia Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 91 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Shailene Woodley.

Worst part: Shiloh Fernandez.

Hollywood, over the past few years, has waged war against optimism, relationships and marriage. In seeking to connect with modern/cynical audiences, big-budget cinema seemingly exists to criticize these well-intentioned, life-altering decisions. According to Tinseltown, life post-proposal is nothing but broken promises and empty souls longing for the “till death do us part” scenario to become reality. Following up Gone Girl and Men, Women & Children, White Bird in a Blizzard strives to put the final nail in the coffin.

Shailene Woodley & Shiloh Fernandez.

Shailene Woodley & Shiloh Fernandez.

In all honesty, despite seeing the positives of marriage, this socially recognised union is not my thing. In fact, White Bird in a Blizzard could spark many wide-ranging viewpoints about marriage, adolescence, and life. The movie, though intent on forming its own analysis, longs for multiple discussions about its story, themes, and characters. Writer/director Gregg Araki (Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin) has studied, and adapted to, this film/film-goer interaction throughout his career. So, does his latest feature stand up to criticism? As it turns out, White Bird in a Blizzard fits comfortably into his controversial filmography. The movie crafts itself around 1980s suburban America’s pros and cons. Its story follows promiscuous high school graduate Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley). Preparing herself for a degree at Berkeley, the youngster – despite her loving family and friends’ support – feels cut off from the rest of the world. Aided by her confident father Brock (Christopher Meloni) and detestable mother Eve (Eva Green), Kat’s life resembles that of your average adolescent. However, after Eve’s mysterious disappearance, Kat must pull herself back from the brink whilst asking the most important question of all: What happened to mum?

Christopher Meloni & Eva Green.

Christopher Meloni & Eva Green.

Based on Laura Kasischke’s best-selling novel, White Bird in a Blizzard takes on several genres and messages within its hurried 91-minute run-time. Exploring out-there stories and characters, Araki’s on-set intentions and off-set demeanour define him as one of American cinema’s most unusual auteur filmmakers. Known for his New Queer Cinema movement entries, he – similarly to Gus Van Sant – isn’t afraid of proclaiming his sexual orientation and significant viewpoints. Faced with fearsome opposition, his movies seek to destroy prejudice, conflict, and status quo. His latest effort, discussing societal norms and the studio system, has a helluva lot on its mind. In fact, like previous features, White Bird in a Blizzard depicts horrific events with subtlety, verve, and intelligence. Sticking to Araki’s independent roots, the narrative wears the veil of American Beauty whilst hiding many masochistic undertones. Harking back to Sam Mendes and Todd Solondz’ earlier works, this drama-thriller depicts a love-is-a-lie version of middle-class existence. Tearing his story-threads and characters apart, each sickening twist and turn further enlarge the central conflict’s cracks, tears, and erosion. Kat, pointing out her family and friend’s overt pretentiousness and transparency, becomes the knife slicing through society’s grand illusions. Our existentially frazzled lead, despite her boyfriend/neighbour Phil(Shiloh Fernandez)’s nice-guy nature, seeks primarily to destroy his booming reputation. Several scenes – featuring fluffy conversations between her and friends Beth (Gabourey Sidibe) and Mickey (Mike Indelicato) – strive to elevate our ‘protagonist’ above everyone else. 

“The beautiful woman she once was…became a phantom wandering away in a snowstorm.” (Kat Connor (Shailene Woodley), White Bird in a Blizzard).

Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe & Mark Indelicato.

Woodley, Gabourey Sidibe & Mark Indelicato.

Araki, not one for subtlety or objectivity, designed White Bird in a Blizzard to obliterate suburbia. Despite the approachable set-up, the movie thrusts deep-seeded emotions into the spotlight. Commenting on our evolution from 20th-century patio culture to 21st-century liberalism, the narrative revels in its views on feminism, masculinity, class warfare, gender politics, and relationships. Through flashbacks and dream sequences, we see a nightmarish insight into the Connor household. Eve, close to grinding glass into Brock’s dinner, appears stuck in a mind-numbing and lifeless void. Slipping into a booze-and-loose-clothes-addled depression, she leaps from glorified mistress to independent nightmare. Turning the tide throughout, the movie further examines its own disturbed, philosophical recesses. Biting off more than it can chew, it even tackles current young-adult, mystery-thriller, and relationship-drama trends. Crafting a Lovely Bones-esque switch from marriage to mystery, the narrative pokes fun at its whodunnit twists and turns. Whilst seducing Detective Scieziesciez (Thomas Jane), Kat openly calls her actions into question. Picking apart modern literature heroines’ weaknesses, it’s really an indictment against popular entertainment. She even has two good-looking guys fighting over her, outlined by her roommate’s “I’m Team Oliver” comments. In particular, Woodley’s casting illuminates Divergent and The Fault in Our Stars‘ misgivings. However, her sweet-natured performance, out-classing Meloni and co., highlights her immense dramatic talents.

Though Araki’s reach exceeds his grasp, his ambition and style cannot be faulted. Throwing bright colours, comically appealing narration, a kitsch soundtrack, and soap-opera-esque lines across his 11th feature, the writer/director Araki is one of few big-names crafting efforts of lasting effect and whip-smart attitude. White Bird in a Blizzard – thanks to its non-linear structure and self-aware humour – creates a thought-provoking contrast between reality and ‘reel life’.

Verdict: A potent and magnetic mystery-thriller.

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.

Gone Girl Review – Till Death…


Director: David Fincher

Writer: Gillian Flynn (screenplay & novel)

Stars: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry


Release date: October 3rd, 2014 

Distributor: 20th Century Fox

Country: USA

Running time: 149 minutes


5/5

Best part: Fincher’s direction.

Worst part: Minor book-to-film translation issues.

Movies and relationships – despite the major differences between fantasy and reality – share one vital similarity. Oddly enough, these two ‘necessities’ rely on first impressions. A good first impression can make for blissful rewards, while a bad one can turn smiles into frowns. Tinseltown’s latest smash hit crime-thriller/marriage deterrent Gone Girl makes it mark within its first few moments. In its second scene, one of our two lead characters, standing next to a wheelie bin, looks around the neighbourhood before skulking back into his/her house.

Ben Affleck as struggling journo/murder suspect Nick Dunne.

Analysing this one uneventful moment, Gone Girl‘s audience could piece a million ideas together to create a billion different interpretations. In a year of shlocky actioners and dodgy biopics, the movie pick critics and film-goers up off the ground. We can all rest easy, thanks to this pulsating crime-thriller. We can now look forward to a potentially ingenious Oscar season. Obviously, I fell in love with this movie and might never let go. Thanks to its commendable cast and crew, this is 2014’s best movie. So, what is it about? Well, that is certainly an interesting question. The aforementioned lead is Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck), a disgruntled writer dangling on the thinnest moral tightrope imaginable. The bin scene delivers only a minuscule look into his existence. Kicking off in the present, the narrative scours through his hit-and-miss past. Early on, we witness a younger, more confident Nick introducing himself to alluring femme fatale Amy (Rosamund Pike). Hitting it off immediately, our cute characters ignite the ultimate topsy-turvy relationship. At first, our lovebirds float through life in each other’s arms. Bolstered by kinky sex and likeable personalities, their coupling seems perfect. However, soon after Nick and Amy’s wedding, life swings the one-two punch of a recession and mass lay-offs. Following Nick’s twin sister Margo(Carrie Coon)’s advice, our leads move from New York to his hometown of North Carthage, Missouri. On their fifth anniversary, Nick comes home to find a crime scene. Amy has been kidnapped, and detectives Boney (Kim Dickens) and Gulpin (Patrick Fugit) are on the case.

Rosamund Pike as mousey housewife/victim Amy Elliot Dunne.

From here, I promise to stick to my specific criticisms about the final product. In doing so, I will be avoiding Gone Girl‘s jaw-dropping twists and turns. Based on tabloid journalist turned novelist Gillian Flynn’s best-selling beach-read, the movie elegantly tackles several genre tropes and thrilling ideas. Faithful to said momentous page-turner, Gone Girl hands screenplay duties over to Flynn. Gracefully, Flynn develops a straight-to-the-point translation of her own material. The novel – telling a slinky and cynical story about marriage’s ups, downs, and left turns – tip-toes between plot-points and chapters. This adaptation, though aided by Flynn’s succinct screenplay, is bolstered by mega-successful psychological-thriller filmmaker David Fincher (Fight Club, Seven). Along with the aforementioned modern classics, Fincher’s no-nonsense direction has delivered such gut-wrenchers as The Game, Panic Room, Zodiac, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Social Network, and the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo remake. Like his Stieg Larsson adaptation, his take on Flynn’s novel amplifies the emotional resonance and stakes. Examining the text’s denotations and connotations with microscope-like focus, his style aptly suits the narrative. Amy – the missing gorgeous, white woman – sends the world into a tailspin. Meanwhile, Nick, a handsome journalist sulking inside their McMansion, becomes the prime suspect. The first half, setting up its story and character threads, omits the fat and lovingly nurtures its more-important concepts. Thanks to Fincher’s non-linear style, aided by chapter-defining fade-ins/outs, the narrative peels back story-lines with fingernail-like sharpness and intensity. Relishing in Amy’s oppressive diary entries, Fincher and Flynn craft an alarming tale of regret, temptation, monogamy, and gender politics. Adding to the overbearing cynicism, the story even pits Amy against her mother’s notorious literature creation ‘Amazing Amy’. Slithering around one another, these people are despicable, desperate, and just plain fascinating!

“I will practice believing my husband loves me. But I could be wrong.” (Amy Elliot Dunne (Rosamund Pike), Gone Girl).

Tyler Perry as top-shelf attorney Tanner Bolt.

As a pulpy, trashy, and intriguing mystery-thriller, Gone Girl makes airport novels, Hollywood cinema, and Affleck look so damn irresistible. Affleck, coming off an Oscar win and a major career resurgence, makes the most of this experience. Shedding his polarising persona, the A-lister succumbs to the character. However, credit belongs to Pike for perfecting her indelible role. Delivering multiple turns within one performance, the British character actress deserves the Oscar win. In addition, the stunt casting works wonders. Neil Patrick Harris goes full ‘One Hour Photo‘ in his disturbing role. Tyler Perry delivers a charismatic turn as ego-driven attorney Tanner Bolt. Boosting everyone’s careers, Fincher is the all-seeing, all-knowing God of big-budget filmmaking. Dissecting Nick and Amy’s marriage like a water-logged body, the movie delivers several arresting surprises and hurl-inducing moments. Certain scenes, testing each viewer’s tolerance levels, lodge themselves in the consciousness. Throughout the second half, in which character psyches are repeatedly broken and remoulded, the narrative delves into its own unabashed insanity. In fusing 1940s film noir, 1980/90s Brian de Palma/Paul Verhoeven fare, and modern kidnap-thrillers, this mystery-thriller crafts an unconscionable swagger. As the cameras and Nancy Grace-like newscasters obliterate Nick’s life, Fincher – like with previous efforts – beheads 24-hour news media, police ignorance, and studio-driven dross. In fact, the movie points out its own quirks; calling attention to everything meta, symbolic, and cliched. Matching Flynn’s sarcasm, Fincher’s blackly comedic humour is worth the admission cost. Gone Girl‘s technical precision stands out above almost anything else in 2014. Jeff Cronenweth’s handsome cinematography, highlighting Fincher’s signature style, lends pathos to this gruelling experience. In addition, Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score boosts their already impressive oeuvre.

Despite the wheelie-bin scene’s infinite importance, the scene before it sums up Gone Girl‘s insatiable   prowess. Nick, looking at the back of his wife’s head, discusses his overwhelming desire to break her skull and learn her many saucy secrets. The following two hours does this with style, gusto, and chills. Thanks to Flynn’s taut screenplay and Fincher’s vigorous direction, this adaptation succeeds where similar efforts fail. Like Fincher’s previous efforts, Gone Girl takes the genre, eviscerates it, reshapes it, and dares others to do better. It’s a worthwhile experience…just don’t watch it with your significant other!

Verdict: A pulpy and confronting mystery-thriller.

Before I Go to Sleep Review – Painful Memories


Director: Rowan Joffe

Writer: Rowan Joffe (screenplay), S. J. Watson (novel)

Stars: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Anne-Marie Duff


Release date: September 5th, 2014

Distributors: Clarius Entertainment, Eagle Films

Country: UK

Running time: 92 minutes


2½/5

Best part: Strong’s dynamic turn.

Worst part: Kidman and Firth.

Amnesia – in real-life and entertainment – is a cruel, remorseless, yet fascinating mistress. Despite lacking physical pain, the psychological effects – of all temporary and permanent memory disorders – yield major consequences. For the victims and those around them, this affliction can’t simply be shaken off. In many big and small screen cases, ranging from Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind to 50 First Dates, amnesia is primarily used as a valuable plot device. In Before I Go to Sleep‘s case, it guides each character’s fate from go to woe. Unfortunately, there’s much more of the latter.

Nicole Kidman hiding from the critics.

Before I Go to Sleep‘s crippling afflictions reside elsewhere. Born from one tiny idea, the original material turned its intricate premise into a 2011 Sunday Times and New York Times best-selling crime novel. Attracting three A-listers and an ambitious writer/director, the project could have delivered a worthwhile adaptation. However, like with several of 2014’s  premise-driven productions, good concepts are met with poor results. Author S. J. Watson must be reeling from this wasted opportunity. His novel, known to book clubs around the globe, is worthy of careful analysis and lively debate. Before the conflict takes hold, the story kicks off from relatively modest beginnings. In the first shot, we see housewife Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) at her most vulnerable. After waking up, our main character wildly panics before darting around the house; looking for something to calm her down. Her insistent husband, Ben (Colin Firth), informs her of her situation through trust exercises and a romantic collage. Christine suffers from short-term memory loss (anterograde amnesia, to be precise), caused by a car crash 10 years earlier. Despite the efforts to absorb new information, her brain erases everything each night. Stuck at home, Christine yearns for determined psychologist Dr. Nash(Mark Strong)’s advice. Behind Ben’s back, she develops a video diary to piece her life together. Questioning her meaningless existence, she – after suffering horrific, contradictory nightmares/memories – demands answers about the accident, the aftermath, and everyone around her.

Colin Firth still reeling from Magic in the Moonlight.

Colin Firth still reeling from Magic in the Moonlight.

Writing the book whilst working as an audiologist, Watson  knew how to take charge of his narrative. Carrying a firm awareness of the genre and topic, Watson should have taken control over this production. Sadly, the studio gave it to writer/director Rowan Joffe (Brighton Rock). Despite Joffe’s stature in British film and TV, the ambitious filmmaker’s sophomore effort doesn’t do Watson justice. Infatuated by Before I Go to Sleep‘s third-act twists, Joffe seems entirely disinterested with everything else. Skulking towards the last third, Joffe’s execution – creating an awkward contrast between suburban drama and mystery-thriller – is as exhaustive and frustrating as Christine’s affliction. In particular, the first half-hour – instead of establishing the pros and cons of Christine’s life – plays out like a lifeless soap opera void of subtlety, tragedy, or development. Clinging onto underwhelming revelations and dull conversations, the movie never harnesses stakes, emotional resonance, or originality. Despite the premise’s allure, Joffe’s insecure direction overplays small moments and obscures important titbits. Clinging onto the original material, his direction spells out wholly predictable twists. Following a banal relationship-drama structure, the repetitive first half might cause viewers to sigh loudly and check their watches. Bafflingly so, the movie copies and pastes concepts and sequences from similar efforts. Dr. Nash’s story-line, coming off like a gritty detective thriller, distorts the trajectory of this ridiculous psychological-drama.

“I have to remember who did this to me.” (Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman), Before I Go to Sleep).

For once, Mark Strong isn't playing a baddie!

For once, Mark Strong isn’t playing a baddie!

Despite the 92-minute run-time, Before I Go to Sleep‘s inconsistent tone and sluggish pacing cause more yawns than gasps. However, blitzing the abysmal first half, the second half switches gears before capitalising on the material. Moving the chess pieces around, Joffe’s screenplay matches the novel’s reputation; making us ask: “Who’s really trying to help?”. Switching from American Beauty to Insomnia to Memento, the movie – forming a tug of war between Ben and Dr. Nash – delivers several thrilling set-pieces and twists. In fact, its biggest twist is almost makes the first half worthwhile. Aided by Hitchcockian plot threads, the move pays homage to a long, lost form of big-budget cinema. Aided by a blistering score, muted colour palette, and Ben Davis’ sumptuous cinematography, the tension and atmosphere bolster the dour story. However, despite the compelling psychological disorder/gimmick, the movie has little to say about anything. Alienating its characters, the narrative merely hints at disability care, identity issues, and domestic violence. Sadly, Kidman – despite channeling Alfred Hitchcock’s blonde bombshells – never successfully inhabits the topsy-turvy role. Filling most scenes with blank stares and hushed tones, her subdued turn hinders the character arc. Firth, having a rough year with this, Magic in the Moonlight, and Devil’s Knot, never overcomes his character’s preposterous transitions. Despite his immense talents, the British icon seems entirely out-of-place. Gracefully, Strong becomes the shining star. Despite his underdeveloped role, the thespian delivers enough verve and guile to bolster this underwhelming effort.

Whilst Before I Go to Sleep drifted from my consciousness, I reflected upon its many accomplishments and failures. Sadly, this process did little but remind me of much better psychological-thrillers. Influenced by major movies, directors, and writers, Joffe’s adaptation never lets us absorb the scintillating premise. Thanks to questionable logic, an inconsistent tone, and mind-numbing pace, this adaptation proves just how different movies and novels are.

Verdict: A mindless and dreary psychological-thriller.

A Walk Among the Tombstones Review – Takin’ Charge


Director: Scott Frank

Writers: Scott Frank (screenplay), Lawrence Block (novel)

Stars: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Boyd Holbrook


Release date: September 19th, 2014

Distributor: Universal Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 113 minutes


 

3½/5

Best part: Neeson’s charisma.

Worst part: The near-laughable bleakness.

Believe it or not, grimy pot-boiler A Walk Among the Tombstones is a game-changer. Recently, a specific trend has pulled scores of action-loving cinema-goers back to the theatre. This particular current, sprouting up only a couple of years ago, has been kind certain demographics. In addition, the big-name actors involved  have been given full-scale career revivals. Thanks to Kevin Costner vehicle  3 Days to Kill and Denzel Washington/Antoine Fuqua’s  latest collaboration The Equalizer, this resurgence of veteran anti-heroes shows no sign of slowing down.

Liam Neeson shuffling through action-thriller premises.

Liam Neeson shuffling through action-thriller premises.

With A Walk Among the Tombstones, one headliner is making amends for recent poor career choices. Liam Neeson, despite being one of Hollywood’s most popular leads, has recently been dealt several hits and misses. Since 2008’s surprise hit Taken, the Irish badass has landed major studio gigs from The A-Team to A Million Ways to Die in the West. Picking every script he’s given, his immense charisma and professionalism support his A-list status. Having languished in Non-Stop‘s reputation-destroying aura, his latest effort makes for a remarkable return to form. The story, despite resembling Neeson’s preceding sleep-walk-like efforts, delivers enough thrills to win over detractors. In the first scene, set in 1991, troubled detective Matthew Scudder (Neeson) – whilst on duty – walks into a bar, downs an Irish coffee, then skims the headlines. Soon after, three latino gang-bangers kill the bartender, steal some cash, and leave. After Scudder thwarts the robbery, the movie jumps to 1999. We then follow Scudder – now an unlicensed private investigator aided by Alcoholics Anonymous – through the ultimate doomsday mission. Hired by notorious drug kingpin Kenny Kristo and his dodgy brother (Boyd Holbrook), our lead tracks down Kenny’s wife’s kidnappers. The perpetrators, Ray (David Harbour) and Albert (Adam David Thompson), are on a kidnap/murder rampage without end. Along the way, Scudder’s friendship with street urchin T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley) becomes a distraction.

Dan Stevens continuing his remarkable hot-streak.

Dan Stevens continuing his remarkable hot-streak.

Based on Lawrence Block’s highly-rated crime novel, A Walk Among the Tombstones tackles the famed writer’s tropes with vigour and confidence. The narrative, etching itself into the consciousness, embraces its airport-thriller roots whilst crafting its own identity. Teetering between Neeson-action and crime-thriller ticks, the movie’s intentions strike a chord. Unlike most ‘Neesoners’, known to delve into dull pure nonsense, the movie’s existential shades and killers-punishing-criminals premise elevate it above most big-budget schlockers. As one of 2014’s more invigorating efforts, the story steadily, and intelligently, moves from one plot-point and revelation to the next. Like with Scandinavian detective-thrillers, the narrative revels in the genre’s darkest-possible tones. As the investigation takes several disturbing turns, the movie switches between grounded character study, fun actioner, and bleak crime-drama. From the first highly disturbing frame onwards, writer/director Scott Frank (The Lookout) succinctly, and passionately, delicately covers the material’s moral, ethical, and thematic depths. Examining every intrinsic detail, this adaptation turns mind-numbing and derivative ideas into worthwhile bursts of energy. His narrative, breaking off into slight sub-plots and character arcs, injects emotion and stakes into key moments. However, with Frank’s infatuation with Block turned up to 11, the darkness becomes laughable within the second and third acts.

“I do favours for people. In return, they give me gifts.” (Matthew Scudder (Liam Neeson), A Walk Among the Tombstones).

Our killers on the loose!

Our killers on the loose!

Fuelled by unlikeable people, disturbing crimes, paranoia, and tragic backstories, this concentrated dose of evil becomes tiresome and nonsensical. By setting this action-thriller in 1999, themes of identity crisis and man-made chaos come with the territory. Sadly, the Y2K commentary escapes the central, police-procedural plot-line. Reserved for only a couple of throwaway lines, the themes rift against the cop-thriller vibe. However, despite the over-ambitiousness, Frank still crafts emotional heft whenever possible. Thanks to Mihai Malaimaire, Jr.’s cinematography, the movie’s atmospheric aesthetic bolsters Frank’s straight-laced direction. Adding unique camera angles and movements to peculiar sequences, his flourishes bolster this otherwise morbid experience. In addition, the sound design amplifies each action beat. Elevating Scudder’s significant presence, the gunshots and punches strike with brute force. Despite the positives, the movie occasionally delves into bafflingly pretentious tangents. Marked by slo-mo flourishes and a manipulative score, certain scenes do little but extend the movie’s egregious run-time. However, even in its corniest moments, Neeson’s otherworldly aura lends gravitas to this stock-standard crime-thriller. Fitting the tragic anti-hero role like a glove, his thunderous tone and impressive frame make up for the character’s cliched development. Boosting his polarising action-hero resurgence, the movie makes for a major step in the right direction. In addition, Stevens, a breakout star thanks to Downton Abbey and The Guest, excels in his underwritten, Red Herring role.

Resembling 90s-style crime-thrillers like Ransom and Payback, A Walk Among the Tombstones comes off like a Mel Gibson vehicle driven by a universe-conquering Irishman. Bolstered by Neeson’s monstrous aura, the movie excels whenever he’s on-screen. Thankfully, that’s most of the time. However, despite Frank’s competent screenplay and direction, some stylistic and thematic choices hinder this hearty effort. Adding to 2014’s film noir/crime-thriller resurgence, the movie flaunts Hollywood’s gothic/manic-depressive side.

Verdict: Neeson’s notable return to form.

A Most Wanted Man Review – Spy Hard


Director: Anton Corbijn

Writers: Andrew Bovell (screenplay), John le Carre (novel)

Stars: Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Rachel McAdams, Willem Dafoe, Robin Wright


Release date: September 12th, 2014

Distributors: Lionsgate, Roadside Attractions, Entertainment One

Countries: UK, USA

Running time: 122 minutes


 

 

4/5

Best part: The electrifying performances.

Worst part: The monotonous pace.

Over the past thirteen years, filmmakers and studios have milked the proverbial zeitgeist teat. Though major political, economic, and cultural events have been re-enacted previously, the 21st century’s biggest issues are being flogged for our entertainment. United 93 and World Trade Center re-created America’s darkest day, Zero Dark Thirty depicted the hunt for Osama bin Laden, while The 25th Hour tackled the saddest New York imaginable. However, spy-thrillers like A Most Wanted Man face the nitty-gritty of post-9/11 paranoia.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman's all-powerful swan song.

Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s all-encompassing swan song.

Luckily, A Most Wanted Man takes the high road throughout. Looking into a distressing magic 8-ball, the movie refuses to offend anyone. However, it still tells an effective and meaningful tale. Adapted from acclaimed author John le Carre’s recent novel, this spy-thriller honours the legendary writer whilst taking a different path. In addition, the movie efficiently tackles the War on Terror. The title cards, layered over an arresting shot of the ocean crashing into a dock, inform us of important historical events. After learning Islamic extremist Mohammed Atta had planned the World Trade Centre attacks in Hamburg, Germany, the US Government developed a task force there to destroy future potential threats. In this fictional account, we meet the people in charge. In its latest mission, lead espionage agent Gunther Bachmann (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) tasks his team –  bolstered by Erna Frey (Nina Hoss) and Max (Daniel Bruhl) – with tracking illegal immigrant Issa Karpov (Grigoriy Dobrygin). Working off the local Muslim community and CCTV footage, Gunther’s team finds Karpov in a decrepit housing complex. Simultaneously, the team tracks Muslim philanthropist Dr. Faisal Abdullah(Homayoun Ershadi)’s suspicious activities.

Robin Wright taking time off from House of Cards.

Robin Wright taking time off from House of Cards.

Despite being Europe’s most prolific counter-terrorists, Gunther and co. must make their case before German security official Dieter Mohr (Rainer Bock) and American diplomatic attache Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright) take over. Obviously, A Most Wanted Man is devoid of a James Bond or Jason Bourne. Lacking gadgets, lavish vistas, or explosions, the average filmgoer might reject this intricate and claustrophobic effort. However, its narrative grips the viewer from the first to last frame. Its surprises, lacking the typical action-thriller bombast, are hearty breaths of fresh air. The mystery, placing professionals in realistic yet unpredictable situations, never relies on standard tropes. Standing alongside its competition, the story – aided by Andrew Bovell’s meticulous screenplay – rests on its characters’ strengths and weaknesses. Fuelled by intensive conversations and chases, the spying is as mature and concise as our characters. However, the story – depicting Gunther’s team forming alliances with distressed lawyer Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams) and renowned banker Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) – never delivers enough emotional resonance. Avoiding major thrills, the movie occasionally tests the viewer’s patience. Based around political conflicts and slow-burn espionage, some may beg for fistfights or shootouts. The first-two thirds, though peppered with harsh truths and tense sequences, won’t raise anyone’s blood levels.

“Every good man has a little bit of bad, doesn’t he? And in Abdullah’s case…that little bit might just kill you.” (Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), A Most Wanted Man).

Rachel McAdams making major career strides.

Rachel McAdams making major career strides.

Despite the minor flaws, A Most Wanted Man‘s positives make for pitch-perfect sequences. Fuelled by witty lines and surveillance jargon, this glacially paced drama soars when required. The last third, driven by a heart-wrenching climax and bitter resolution, delivers 2014’s most gripping moments. Director Anton Corbijn (The American, Control) applies his strengths to each frame. Known for uncompromising flourishes, his style rescues certain sequences from tedium. Dodging The American’s  immaculate sheen, his depiction of Hamburg is worth the admission cost. Enlivening each setting, he revels in the city’s architecture, grit, and history. In addition, Benoit Delhomme’s cinematography highlights each scene’s viscera and value. Beyond this, Hoffman delivers one of the year’s most profound performances. In his penultimate feature, Hoffman injects vigour and malice into this invigorating protagonist. In particular, one scene solidifies Hoffman and his character’s immense worth. After drifting out of bed, he rolls his eyes, downs a shot of whisky, then plays several notes on a piano. In this few-second scene, Corbijn cements Hoffman as one of this generation’s greatest talents. The supporting characters, though serving to boost Hoffman, further propel the story. Wright and McAdams bolster certain plot-threads with energetic and potent performances. In addition, Dafoe’s core strengths saves his plot-device role.

Delivering a fresh take on post-9/11 paranoia, A Most Wanted Man is an entertaining and comprehensive discussion of the past decade’s biggest issues. Blitzing similar pot-boilers including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Body of Lies, and Syriana, this spy-thriller embraces the simple to tackle the complex. More importantly, Hoffman’s scintillating performance highlights a remarkable career cut short. Like with his character, the movie’s nuances draw the line between success and failure.

Verdict: An intelligent and well-crafted spy-thriller.

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.

The Keeper of Lost Causes Review – Cold Case, Blistering Thrill-ride


Director: Mikkel Norsgaard

Writers: Nikolaj Arcel (screenplay), Jussi Alder-Olsen (novel)

Stars: Nikolaj Lie Kaas, Fares Fares, Sonja Richter, Mikkel Boe Folsgaard


Release Date: August 29th, 2014

Distributors: British Film Institute, Nordisk Film Distribution, Madman Entertainment

Country: Denmark

Running time: 97 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The chilling final third.

Worst part: The lead character.

Shuffling into varying release dates across the globe, Denmark’s latest cinematic hit, The Keeper of Lost Causes, is merely carrying the torch of a remarkable cinematic hot streak. This past decade, though marked by big-budget behemoths, has delivered several sleeper hits and international gems. Kicking off with 2009’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the Scandinavian crime-thriller trend has ascended significantly higher than expected. Borrowing from the aforementioned Swedish thriller’s playbook, this adaptation is, despite the occasional misstep, worth scouring for amidst the bevy of ultra-dumb actioners and childish comedies.

Our two cops gunning for redemption.

Our two cop leads gunning for redemption.

Being a new release designed specifically for adults, The Keeper of Lost Causes connects with the target audience before beating us into submission. Despite this concept’s overwhelming severity, the process makes for an intelligent and thought-provoking cinematic experience. Thanks to its crime-thriller novel roots, the movie seeks out a higher form of film-goer. This particular viewer type  – one wholeheartedly familiar with breakthrough Scandinavian crime fiction –  is already accustomed to the genre’s lightest and darkest ideas. Indeed, this whodunnit, adapted from high-profile author Jussi Alder-Olsen’s first Department Q novel, is far more rewarding than most. The story revolves around the day in, day out life of hot-shot detective Carl Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas). In the opening sequence, Carl’s preemptive side takes charge. In disrupting a crucial stakeout, Carl strides straight into the target’s lair. Getting one partner murdered and another terminally paralysed, our Maverick cop is sent, by his pragmatic chief, down to the basement. Whilst sorting through cold cases, Carl’s withdrawal symptoms begin to destroy him. Soon enough, however, after aligning with department outcast Assad (Fares Fares), Carl delves into his new department’s most horrific case. Shut down years earlier, the assignment examines the mysterious, five-year disappearance of noble politician Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter) from a passenger ferry.

Sonja Richter as kidnap victim Merete Lynggaard.

Sonja Richter as kidnap victim Merete Lynggaard.

Trudging similar territory to airport novel heavyweights Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo, Alder-Olsen’s notoriously visceral works have placed him on a high pedestal. With bookworms pining for future releases, his novels have birthed several intriguing and note-worthy genre tropes. Inexplicably, The Keeper of Lost Causes aims for the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series’ look and feel. Drenched in misery and anger, the narrative transforms Alder-Olsen’s material for the modern audience. However, with film and TV tackling similar material of late, this crime-thriller comes off as stale in comparison. Dealing in archetypes and a by-the-numbers story, certain plot-points and twists become visible from a mile away. In addition, the investigation itself lingers unnecessarily throughout the first half. Stalled by cop-thriller cliches, the first-two acts develop a confused and sluggish mystery-drama. Thanks to Carl and Assad’s good cop/bad cop dynamic, the main plot-line halts early in the second act. In fact, with potent dramas including Luther and Broadchurch throwing stronger punches, this movie may cause significantly more yawns then gasps. However, when separated from its rivals, this low-four-star whodunnit delivers the meat and potatoes. Adding enough depth when required, the narrative’s brightest spots lay in the tissue surrounding the bone.

“Do me a favour…if I get murdered…don’t investigate my case.” (Carl Morck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas), The Keeper of Lost Causes).

Just one tiny slither of this mystery-thriller's dark side.

Just one slither of this mystery-thriller’s dark side.

Light on exposition, the movie spends enough time examining, then taring apart, Carl’s personal problems – including his uneasy relationship with his step-son – and Assad’s backstory. Despite the generic whodunnit narrative, the second half transforms this conventional crime-thriller into a visceral and confounding thrill-ride. Switching this gritty experiment from Along Came a Spider to Prisoners, this spirited effort’s central conflict reaches darker, and more emotionally resonant, depths with each turn. As Merete’s never-ending struggle reaches breaking point, the movie’s Buried-esque dramatic shades deliver several heartbreaking peaks. As our two central plot-lines intertwine, director Mikkel Norsgaard (Klown) injects magnetic flourishes into its all-encompassing flashbacks. As the final third unravels, his vignettes tell haunting tales about our Buffalo Bill-like antagonist. More Daring and thought-provoking than most modern film noirs, this adaptation pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock, TV detective dramas, and even its competition. Like the sharp direction, the performances wholeheartedly elevate the predictable material. Lie Kaas spices up his tiresome role with levity and malice. Despite his character’s smarmy personality and frustrating code, our lead’s passionate performance grounds this obtuse crime-thriller. In addition, Fares delivers some much-needed levity as the concerned ally. Richter, confined to one morose setting, bares all for her fascinating character arc.

From Easy Money to Reykjavik-Rotterdam, Scandinavian crime cinema is making transcendent strides toward long-lasting worldwide acclaim. The Keeper of Lost Causes – one of many recent, top-tier film noirs – comes agonisingly close to reaching its more commercially-viable counterparts’ successes. With strong performances and profound twists, this whodunnit eviscerates the soul before busting the case wide open. Unfortunately, like most similar crime-dramas, the movie boasts a story we’ve seen too many times before.

Verdict: A disturbing and intensifying mystery-thriller.

Cold in July Review – Payback’s a B*tch!


Director: Jim Mickle

Writers: Jim Mickle, Nick Damici (screenplay), Joe R. Lansdale (novel)

Stars: Michael C. Hall, Sam Shepard, Don Johnson, Vinessa Shaw

cold_in_july_ver2


Release date: May 23, 2014

 Distributor: IFC Films 

Country: USA

Running time: 110 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The atmospheric visuals.

Worst part: The undercooked sub-plots. 

My screening of crime-thriller Cold in July was a precious and disarming experience. Sitting alongside my mother, several distractions reared their ugly heads before the lights dimmed and the movie reached its first frame. It’s strange whenever a movie instantly immerses you in its magic. The distractions fade away, and the narrative’s cinematic aura introduces itself willingly and charmingly. After the opening frame (part of a spectacular first scene), Cold in July fills its quarrels and catastrophes with a revolver’s worth of bullets.

Michael C. Hall.

With a dynamic story and engaging characters riding off into the sunset, this crime-thriller addresses the best and worst aspects of its ever-expanding genre. With new additions kicking their way through our doors each year, the revenge-thriller is hurriedly becoming a worn-out concept. In fact, recently, Blue Ruin roared its satirical and visceral sound at an unsuspecting film festival crowd. Here, the genre’s stripped-back nature is in full effect. The movie, not one to shoot second, delivers major questions before and after lighting up the screen with bullets, blood, and bad deeds. Intriguingly, to describe the plot, I may have to reach into the deep, dark recesses of my soul. This crime-thriller kicks off with a bang. With an intruder rummaging through his house, polite citizen Richard Dane (Michael C. Hall) takes the law into his own hands. After blowing the intruder’s brains out, Richard watches on in horror as his actions ripple across town. Tested by his wife, Ann (Vinessa Shaw), and their child, Jordan (Brogan Hall), this simpleton craves for everything to go back to normal. However, this act of self-defence yields severe consequences for our lead character. As the victim’s disgruntled father, Ben Russell (Sam Shepard), is released from prison, Richard watches over his family and home. Following through with its premise, masculinity, right vs. wrong, and gun worship are given as much credit as the lead actors.

C. Hall and Sam Shepard.

The premise – relying on charm and subtlety to push it forward – is certainly an interesting one. With revenge-thrillers making their mark on the transformer-and-superhero-ridden cinematic landscape, the little guy is making his mark over the big boys surrounding him. Okay, enough with the metaphors! I’m here to discuss Cold in July in a sincere and serious fashion. However, with something so delicious and gritty gracing our screens, it’s difficult not to notice its overt cheese factor. From the first few scenes onward, in which the town’s tasteless inhabitants tell it the way they see it, this story delves head-long into its most discomforting conceits. Cold in July tracks its characters, as its familial drama quickly reaches breaking point. With Ben swearing revenge, paranoia builds upon the already bizarre narrative. Echoing Cape Fear‘s intensifying structure, this guessing game rolls through the small-town setting with thunderous momentum. However, shockingly, this conflict only takes up the first third. The first third, housing Richard and Ben’s cat-and-mouse game, delivers more tension-fuelled moments and standard story beats than expected. The narrative then takes a turn for the kooky, as certain revelations alter Richard and Ben’s vicious battle. Taking on goons and genre tropes, this crime-drama lovingly transitions into a fiery western. Aided by War hero turned private investigator Jim Bob Luke(Don Johnson)’s kooky introduction, the movie’s second-half turns bolster an already arresting revenge-thriller.

“Are you really my father?” (Freddy (Wyatt Russell), Cold in July).

Don Johnson.

Upping the ante throughout the tight 110-minute run-time, director Jim Mickle (Stake Land, We Are What We Are) understands the benefits and limitations of the genre he’s playing in. Influenced by Fargo, No Country for Old Men, and Drive, Mickle honours these significant game-changing features and directors throughout this alluring thrill-ride. Matching sickeningly dark twists with blackly comedic jabs, his efforts deliver gut-wrenching surprises and moral quandaries. Clinging onto Joe R. Lansdale’s novel, Mickle and fellow screenwriter Nick Damici (also starring in a key role) occasionally veer into cloying obstacles. Several sub-plots, from the intrinsically important to the mildly distracting, are left wholly unresolved. By story’s end, questions and answers face off inside the viewer’s swirling mindset. Mickle’s feature, if anything, follows through on its promise to stick by Texas’ good ol’ fashioned timeliness. With certain settings becoming drenched in sleaze and sweat, the visuals strike up an unusual concoction of filth, degradation, and blood. Tracking our leads through strange situations, the cinematography is worth the admission cost. Slightly off-kilter, certain camera angles and movements heighten the tension. With a John Carpenter-like score upping the stakes, the movie’s 80s-era vibe comes close to tripping this meticulous story. Gracefully, the movie’s organic performances push this crime-thriller over the edge. In this hard-edged role, C. Hall’s adds tenacity and liveliness to every scene. Following his character, the story jumps whenever he does. In addition, Shepard and Johnson simultaneously parody and pay homage to their wonder years.

Overcoming the corny one-liners, gaping plot-holes, and obvious homages, Cold in July puts its foot down at opportune moments. Setting up several intriguing sub-plots and motivations, the first half pays off significantly more so than the second. However, despite these mild complaints, this crime-thriller eventually comes through. Unlike most modern movies, Cold in July is surprisingly honest about its best and worst qualities.

Verdict: A taut and intriguing crime-thriller

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire Review – Game On!


Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Simon Beaufoy, Michael Arndt (screenplay), Suzanne Collins (novel)

Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland


Release date: November 22nd, 2013

Distributor: Lionsgate

Country: USA

Running time: 146 minutes


 

 

Best part: Jennifer Lawrence.

Worst part: The familiar structure.

Review: The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Verdict: An engaging, moody, and impactful sequel for the holidays.

Life of Pi Review – Ang’s Adventure


Director: Ang Lee

Writer: David Magee (screenplay), Yann Martel (novel)

Stars: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Adil Hussain, Rafe Spall


Release date: November 21st, 2012

Distributor: 20th Century Fox 

Country: USA

Running time: 127 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The sumptuous 3D sequences.

Worst part: The occasionally unconvincing CGI creations.

“Life is all about letting go, you should take a moment to say proper goodbyes.” This line from Oscar-calibre adventure Life of Pi explains one of the story’s many profound life lessons. Life of Pi is a story about embellishing what is there before it’s gone. This meditative fantasy film may give director Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden DragonBrokeback Mountain) his 2nd Academy Award. It would be a deserved victory for sure, as his new film is a splendid and spiritual survival tale.

Suraj Sharma.

Suraj Sharma.

Life of Pi is told from the perspective of Piscine Molitor ‘Pi’ Patel. The middle-aged Pi (Irrfan Khan) recalls his life from childhood to the present. Named after a Parisian swimming pool, its pronunciation gets him picked on at school. Pi’s enthusiasm for belief and integrity extends to spirituality. Born Hindu, he learns more about the universe and other cultures through Christian and Islamic studies. Ignoring his family’s atheist beliefs, Pi (Suraj Sharma) becomes an honest and independent individual. His life changes forever when Pi and his family are forced to leave Pondicherry, India, taking their zoo with them. However, disaster strikes when a storm destroys their cargo ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Pi luckily escapes in a resourceful lifeboat. A Hyena, an injured Zebra, an Orang-Utan and a Bengal Tiger join him as Pi must contend with both the dangerous crew and his own psyche.

Richard Parker (the tiger).

Richard Parker (the tiger).

Life of Pi is an amazing journey of self-discovery and spirituality. Lee has taken a commendable gamble adapting Yann Martel’s best-selling novel. Many directors before him including Alfonso Cuaron and M. Night Shyamalan abandoned the project. This so-called ‘unfilmable’ novel has now been adapted into a religious fable-like character study and unique survival tale. Lee is known for questioning the importance of belief and humanity. His delicate handling of the multi-layered source material is a testament to his sensitivity and constructive direction. He has created a world in which everyone is a symbol of divine purpose. Lee’s handling of Pi’s existence is both pleasantly comedic and heart-wrenching. Similarly to Cast Away and 127 Hours, a character is imaginatively brought to life through a punishing story of mental, spiritual and physical endurance. Without coming off as preachy, the film also outlines the importance of culture and faith. Pi is obsessed with absorbing the wonders of different ideologies. His knowledge of maths, French and religion evolves into an emotionally affecting and in-depth study of philosophy, metaphysics and precociousness. It’s hard to ignore the sheer quality of the world Lee has created. Not only is India a vibrant plethora of colour and contrasting influences, but Pi’s journey across the Pacific Ocean is one of breath-taking beauty. The shipwreck sequence is an enthralling set piece which defines Pi’s struggle to communicate with the gods watching over him. It’s a harrowing scene of survival against great odds and possibly the best shipwreck sequence since Titanic.

“I suppose in the end, the whole of life becomes an act of letting go, but what always hurts the most is not taking a moment to say goodbye.” (Adult Pi Patel (Irrfan Khan), Life of Pi).

Pi’s journey is where the real heart of this story is, as Lee condenses the novel’s valued themes into a courageous quest across an unpredictable and dangerous environment. The film’s steady pace is attributed to Lee’s focus on this contemplative and metaphorical survival tale. Every day of Pi’s journey contains an unbelievable event. Scenes involving a whale’s majestic migration are as awe-inspiring as Pi’s attempts to control his blood-thirsty crew. The stand out sequence is the omnivorous island. Shaped like a person being laid to rest, the island is a labyrinth filled with deadly secrets and obedient  meerkats. These stunning sequences are enhanced by the effective use of 3D technology. Similarly to Avatar and Hugo, a master director has perfected the controversial process. Pi is portrayed by a multitude of actors over the course of this story. Sharma, in his first role, displays a kinetic balance of charm and determination. Acting against a green-screen for most of his scenes, he is a worthy talent for this arduous role. Sharma portrays a sympathetic soul with the will to overcome any obstacle. He ingeniously conveys a varied range of emotions in several heart-wrenching scenes. Khan and Rafe Spall’s story line bookends the film. Both actors are charismatic in their energetic dialogue sequences. Breaking down the story, their characters define the importance of two ideologies coming together through destiny. Another stand out performance is from the Bengal Tiger. Known as ‘Richard Parker’, the tiger is a ferocious and beautiful creation. Not since Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes has an animal been created with both depth and an understanding of its troubling surroundings. It’s a seamless CGI creation and an important symbol of the moral challenges Pi must overcome. 

A moving and thought provoking experience is garnered from this survival tale. Impressive CGI sequences prove film technology to be important for both story and style. While Pi’s quest for belief and hope is an inspirational example of how our decisions and interactions continually affect our way of life.

Verdict: A beautiful tale of survival and spirituality.

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. 

On The Road Review – Kerouac’s Kooks


Director: Walter Salles

Writer: Jose Rivera (screenplay), Jack Kerouac (novel)

Stars: Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen


Release date: October 12th, 2012

Distributor: IFC Films

Countries: USA, France, UK, Brazil, Canada

Running time: 137 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Eric Gautier’s cinematography.

Worst part: Sam Riley’s subdued performance.

For any writer, the most daunting experience is sitting in front of the blank page, wishing for your greatest work to be expelled from your mind and onto the canvas. On The Road reminds us however that our characteristics and experiences are what inspire some of our most creative ideas and endeavours. Based on one of the most popular books of its time, the film adaptation is a cool and viscerally enjoyable ride. Taking a more traditional approach for a road trip story, the film takes the beautiful and poignant scenic route, slowing down long enough to enjoy the ride through America’s forgotten landscapes.

Sam Riley & Garrett Headlund.

Sam Riley & Garrett Headlund.

Author Jack Kerouac based the book on his own experiences in the time of the Beat generation of the late 1940s and early 50s. Representing Kerouac, Sal (Sam Riley) is struggling to let go of writer’s block. Coping with the sudden death of his father, Sal wanders lazily through New York City searching for ideas, before he is introduced to to womaniser and drug addict Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). They instantly connect, becoming great friends while falling into the life of sex, drugs and smooth jazz music. Eager to learn about the heartland of America, they, along with several other colourful characters, travel across America in search of greater temptations and Sal’s next great story.

Kristen Stewart.

Kristen Stewart.

This once seemingly ‘unfilmable’ novel has been re-created as a touching, fun yet confronting character study. South American director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) has mixed an American road story with a taste for his home continent’s cinema. On the Road is an important discussion of freedom and liberty. Everyone in this time was free to taste, play and screw anyone and anything, letting go of personal and societal demons. We however are only introduced to one narrow side of this problematic time in American history. Salles’ discusses race, class, sexual orientation and femininity, without capturing the social and political attitudes of the time, and the consequences of questionable actions. Creating several vibrant drug trip sequences throughout the film, Salles is determined to immerse the viewer in the dirty yet delectable world he has re-created. Much like My Own Private Idaho and Into the Wild, what makes the large American setting whole are its inhabitants. On The Road is filled with a collection of strange characters, expressing their dreams and desires with the funky bunch of travellers. The acclaimed cast grows with every place Sal becomes a part of, capturing a truly engaging and unseen America. Character actors including Terence Howard, Steve Buscemi, Amy Adams, Alice Braga, Kirsten Dunst and Viggo Mortensen provide charismatic performances in small yet thematically important roles. Homo-eroticism and sex however are the most important interactions on this journey, as each friend subtly expresses their undying love for both each other and a seemingly lawless world.

“I really wish I could drink whiskey like a man. All these guys are like: “Hey! Do a shot!”” (Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), On the Road).

Viggo Mortensen.

Viggo Mortensen.

Despite significant chemistry between Sal and his new friends, including charismatic performances from Hedlund and Kristen Stewart as nymphomaniac and lost soul Marylou, Sal’s desire for writing his next great novel never comes across as significant or even broken to begin with. His existential troubles should have been focused on to a much greater extent, instead defining his character as a quiet and emotionless outsider. Riley’s lack of personality in the role also hinders the emotional impact needed for the contemplative character, failing to establish any concerns with the purity of the blank page. The dialogue however paints a picture of every city coming up on their map. While each character’s love for art and expression is told with distinct discourses and languages, succinctly capturing a time of freedom and rebellion in post-WWII USA. This road trip is a poetic and contemplative experience. Despite its noticeably slow pace, every city and hidden place in America is beautifully photographed. Authentically capturing every desert, mountainous and industrial area throughout the country, Sal’s pallet is provided more than many delectable ideas to create the perfect story. Tracking shots of every hazardous location place the viewer in each bump and fork in the road on their kaleidoscopic journey. Not only does Salles capture each distinct and dirty setting of the Beat generation, but the radiant Jazz and Soul score, along with many expressive and sweaty dance sequences, create a toe-tapping energy for every twist and turn on their grand adventure.

Certainly, despite Salles’ best efforts, On the Road fails to live up to Kerouac’s sterling legend. The slow pacing and jarring tonal shifts show off things that were lost in the translation. However, thanks to the performances, it still stands up on its own.

Verdict: A slow yet engaging journey across heartland America.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter – Hack, Hacky & Hackneyed


Director: Timur Bekmambetov

Writer: Seth Grahame-Smith (screenplay & novel)

Stars: Benjamin Walker, Dominic Cooper, Rufus Sewell, Mary Elizabeth Winstead


Release date: June 22nd, 2012

Distributor: 20th Century Fox 

Country: USA

Running time: 105 minutes


 

2½/5

Best part: The action sequences.

Worst part: The hammy villains.

The 16th President of the United States was far from the bearded profit and liberator of The Union as he is known today. This is what Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is presenting at least, as this bland, derivative actioner fails to do justice to either Honest Abe or even the concept of genre-hybridity.

Benjamin Walker.

A timeline of Abraham Lincoln’s life is presented over this narrated ‘dear diary’ type of story. A vengeful Lincoln (Benjamin Walker) is taken in by determined mentor Henry Sturges (Dominic Cooper), to train  him in the art of war with the un-dead. Lincoln has murder engraved on his ideology of existence and leaves him cold to the prospects of humanity. However his stone-like resolve cures his sins and leads him to the concept of unity within a civil war-torn land. His Presidency then becomes dependent on the north’s victory over the south and the freedom of slaves from their blood thirsty rulers. With a screenplay by the novel’s author Seth Grahame-Smith, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter scarcely surpasses the stupidity of its strange concept.

 

Dominic Cooper.

Dominic Cooper.

Choosing to side with visceral thrill over a connection to this beloved hero of US history, this contrived story skims over major plot points to become a bizarre collaboration of Blade and Amistad. Director Timur Bekmambetov (Wanted), a mimic of Guy Richie without the comic edge, clearly illustrates a lack of care with the thematic or narrative importance of this genre mash-up. A lack of believable character interaction and a large timeline skipping hastily through history leaves only clunky flashbacks and awkward scenes of exposition between every intense action set piece. The slight characters are aided greatly however by charismatic performances from this generally young cast. Newcomer Walker, essentially a younger-looking Liam Neeson, provides the inner strength and agility needed for his pivotal role as Lincoln. Dominic Cooper plays his Robert Downey, Jr.-like bravado up to a new level as Lincoln’s scorned mentor. While Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Anthony Mackie are left stranded, given a sore lack of development as important allies in Lincoln’s story.

“A guy only gets that drunk when he wants to kiss a girl or kill a man. So which is it?” (Henry Sturgess (Dominic Cooper), Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter).

Rufus Sewell.

Rufus Sewell.

Having already successfully created violent vampire stories with his breakout hits Nightwatch and Daywatch,  Bekmanbetov continues his unoriginal and abrasive visual style here. Despite several thrilling action set pieces scattered throughout, opportunities for unique ideas are wasted by his penchant for quick cuts and repetitive slo-mo. A martial arts style of axe-wielding is introduced with beautiful effect, yet is sadly lost in the action scenes with several being shot too close into each axe-swing, sepia tone setting and blood splatter. The mythology of vampire killing is created and continually written over when convenient. A missed opportunity for sure, montages of Lincoln in training and combat with his trusty multi-purpose axe become rare clever points in this silly popcorn flick. The vampires themselves only slightly change the mythology of vampire lore. Leaving the Twilight  bloodsuckers in their sparkly midst, they’re an effective cross between the smarmy Eurotrash from Blade and the ravenous blood stained horde from 30 Days of Night. With an execution greater than similar big-budget shlock such as Jonah Hex and The league of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the film’s stupidity and constant plot and character flaws however leave it in the dust of last year’s polarising genre-hybrid Cowboys and Aliens.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter has the ingredients of something special, yet its straight faced execution of silly material delivers a rushed adaptation of this unique spin on Lincoln’s historical relevance. If you are looking for an alluring and subversive cinematic take on history, stick with Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds.

Verdict: A visceral vampire flick sorely lacking bite.

Hugo Review – Scorsese’s Cinemascope


Director: Martin Scorsese

Writer: John Logan (screenplay), Brian Selznick (novel)

Stars: Asa Butterfield, Chloe Grace Moretz, Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen


Release date: November 23rd, 2011

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 126 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Scorsese’s direction.

Worst part: The distracting side stories.

With the laundry list of classic films to his credit, Martin Scorsese would seem like a perfect choice to direct both a charming kids film and a subtle homage to the origin of cinema. He has pulled this off with Hugo, a slapstick filled, heart-warming adventure perfect for the family.

sa Butterfield & Chloe Grace Moretz.

The adventures of Hugo Cabaret (Asa Butterfield) start out in Montparnasse Railway Station in Paris. Using the station as his home, he navigates his way around in perfect precision; dodging the wacky but vicious handicapped station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen), stealing from shop owners and changing the clocks in the station everyday. After being caught stealing by miserable toy shop owner George (Ben Kingsley), he not only forms an uneasy truce with him but creates a bond with his god-daughter Isabelle (Chloe Grace Moretz). Their bond is brought together by their love of storytelling and the longing for excitement. In their discoveries, involving the history of film, they find that there is more to the grumpy George than they ever could have imagined.

Ben Kingsley.

Based on the book The Invention of Hugo Cabaret by Brian Sleznik, the film perfectly captures the imagination of a child exploring this world. A comfortable look of 1930’s Paris created by constant panning and tracking shots of the station, its zany companions, a mostly up beat piano and accordion based score and a fun assortment of slapstick gags and supporting characters create a living, breathing setting to Hugo. Despite the consistently funny gags and an ever charming cast, some of the characters, such as Hugo’s father (Jude Law), kind book store owner Monsieur Labisse (Christopher Lee) and Hugo’s caretaker Uncle Claude (Ray Winstone) sadly get short shrift. The short stories involving the supporting characters tend to slow the film down and fail to end with a satisfying payoff. The story of Hugo and Isabelle discovering film history is the most beguiling aspect of the story. Despite the film’s slow first half, describing Hugo’s love for an automaton left to him after the death of his father, the second half picks up, subtly cross cutting classic film references together with their discoveries as we follow a race through a time in film history. Hugo is a delight for film buffs and the wider audience alike. Scorsese’s style, of consistently immersive 3D effects and CGI backgrounds mixed in with simple overlapping editing effects and stop motion animation, illustrates the importance of technological achievements throughout film history.

“My life has taught me one lesson, Hugo Cabret, and not the one I thought it would. Happy endings only happen in the movies.” (Georges Melies (Ben Kingsley), Hugo).

Sacha Baron Cohen.

References are consistent as we see the first films and how they captured the imaginations of the early film going audiences. Scenes describing the effect of Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat and the clock hand sequence from Safety Last!, delicately illustrate the origin and illusion of cinema to a modern audience. References to Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, the Lumiere Brothers and to a greater extent George Melies are also peppered throughout this film as modern technology and Hugo’s love of cinema explain their significance in film history. The second half of the film is a delight as we see the rise and fall story of the first formalist director, George Melies. Scorsese’s re-creations of Melies’ efficient editing techniques and extravagant set and costume designs light up the screen. Scorsese’s vision is on show in every frame. From the brown and blue colour palette made famous by Scorsese in The Aviator, to the explained and unexplained references and the uplifting story of two bright kids on a whirlwind adventure in a bustling train station. Just like Hugo spying on others through holes in walls and clocks, the audience plays the part of Scorsese in being able to peer into his vision of both a Jean Pierre Jeunet like Paris and a homage to his childhood fantasies brought to life by the earliest films.

Despite the long-lasting thirst for power and blood, Scorsese’s filmography is chock-a-block with game-changers and out-of-the-box surprises. Diving into new territory, Hugo is a fun, rousing assault on the senses.

Verdict: An intelligent and heartfelt family flick.