Wild Review – Witherspoon’s Wily Walkabout


Director: Jean-Marc Vallee

Writers: Nick Hornby (screenplay), Cheryl Strayed (book)

Stars: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Thomas Sadoski, Michiel Huisman


Release date: December 5th, 2014

Distributor: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 115 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: Reese Witherspoon.

Worst part: The frustrating flashbacks.

Any movie placing the word ‘wild’ in its title – no matter how big, small, good, or bad – is taking a major risk before release. Tackling one of cinema’s most popular adjectives, this word is a cliche not worth tripping over. Though fulfilled heartily in The Wild Bunch and The Wild One, movies like Wild Hogs, Wild, Wild West, and The Wild highlight this trope’s overt simplicity. Oscar-hungry drama Wild, grappling wholeheartedly with the cliche, appears wholly obvious and generic.

Reese Witherspoon.

Despite the title’s simplicity, there’s a saying everyone should cling onto before seeing Wild: you can’t judge a book by its cover. In fact, the movie’s poster is surprisingly simple. Presenting its lead character, the American wilderness, and neat stylistic choices, the poster promises everything audiences expect nowadays from small-budget performance pieces. Fortunately, despite its many flaws, this walkabout is worth taking. Just make sure to see it with an open mind and a box of tissues. Wild delivers a story drenched in heart, heartache, and heartbreak. Our poster-hogging character is thirty/forty-something traveller Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon). After a string of poor choices, disappointing outcomes, and failed reboots, Strayed decides to venture down a well-known, well-worn path. Walking the United States’ notorious, over-1000-mile Pacific Crest Trail, from the US-Mexico border in California to the US-Canada border in Washington State, Strayed fashions her three-month trip as the ultimate jumpstart. Having divorced nice-guy husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), Strayed reflects upon her adulterous indiscretions and addiction problems. Along the way, we see – via flashback – Strayed interacting with optimistic mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) and snarky brother Leif (Keene McRae).

Witherspoon’s haunting artistic journey.

On her tumultuous trip through America’s unrelenting mid-section, Strayed meets several bright and enthusiastic characters serving as significant bursts of energy. In recent cinema history, survival-thrillers/road-trip flicks have relied on roller-coaster-like pacing, visceral gore, blockbuster storytelling tropes, and CGI-driven worlds. Dodging Life of Pi‘s visual stimulus, Tracks‘ sweeping scope, and Cast Away‘s volleyball/Angry Tom Hanks sequences, Wild carries is tried-and-true formula across the windy, dangerous path less taken. Shifting gracefully between major plot-points and interactions, director Jean-Marc Vallee (Dallas Buyers Club) bolsters this ombre tale with a real-world approach. Similarly to The Way, the movie’s grounded narrative analyses one of history’s most sumptuous activities. Despite Hollywood and the general public’s lack of interest in the PCT, this drama – based on Strayed’s real-life memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail – makes a compelling argument for travelling, spiritual guidance, and self-worth. Across the vast stretch of land, the movie falls for Strayed’s gripping adventure. learning whilst doing, our hero seeks human interaction, core strength, and re-birth. Finally, another well-intentioned female character! Proving the journey is more valuable than the destination, the story, revolving around her intensifying character arc, is worthwhile. Despite this, the heavy-handed symbolism – outlined by Strayed’s run-ins with a poorly-rendered creature – adds little to the story or message.

“I’m lonelier in my real life than I am out here.” (Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon), Wild).

Witherspoon pleading for more Oscar buzz.

Infatuated with the Western world’s untouched landscapes, the European  filmmaker fuses its gut-wrenching story with a thought-provoking agenda and sterling comedic jaunts. Like with his preceding effort, his style draws life from generic plot-points  and characters. Trudging the arduous dirt path, as the movie switches from lively road-trip flick to dour relationship-drama/character study, Vallee, Witherspoon, and screenwriter Nick Hornby hold our interest throughout the 115-minute run-time. In the first scene, we get an uncompromising glimpse into Strayed’s cruel world. Strayed, stranded on top of a rocky hillside in an undisclosed location, pulls off her sock, rips off an infected toenail, before watching one of her boots tumble down a steep hillside. From there, Vallee and Witherspoon’s project pins us down and never lets go. Obviously, credit belongs to Witherspoon for shredding her starry persona. Grappling with a reprehensible character, the A-lister attacks each scene with award-worthy bravado. Despite its overwhelming positives, its story-telling and technical flourishes distort the narrative. Giving its supporting players little screen-time, the movie’s cold, lifeless flashbacks paint broad strokes. In addition, its pro-feminism message renders many the male characters mute and/or abrasive. However, it difficult to avoid the movie’s crisp, unrelenting locations. Yves Belanger’s wondrous cinematography – along with the immense scenic vistas – develop a momentous sensory assault.

Honouring its succinct title, Wild tells a haunting and visceral tale of man, nature, and existence. Valle, following up his 2013 Oscar contender, moulds an impactful and wondrous drama out of this profound true story. Aided by Witherspoon’s heart-breaking performance, the movie’s comedic moments and emotional resonance overshadow the minor flaws. Like our lead’s topsy-turvy career, the movie surges fourth despite the odds.

Verdict: A haunting and precious Oscar contender.

Short Term 12 Review – Woman, Interrupted


Director: Destin Daniel Cretton

Writer: Destin Daniel Cretton

Stars: Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, Rami Malek

short_term_twelve_xlg


Release date: August 23rd, 2013

Distributors: Cinedigm, Demarest Films

Country: USA

Running time: 96 minutes


4½/5

Best part: The powerful performances.

Worst part: The minor contrivances.

It may be a cliche, but, more often than you’d think, laughter really is the best medicine. However, eclipsing this sentiment, a concentrated mix of emotions is a sure-fire cure-all. By that token, dramedy Short Term 12 pleases anyone who submits themselves to its aura. Along with laugh-out loud moments, the movie contains more emotional twists and turns than previous dramedies of it type. Based on writer/director Destin Daniel Cretton’s own 2009 short film, its engaging characters, heart-warming narrative, and powerhouse performances will make even the toughest men cry throughout the blissful run-time.

Brie Larson & Keith Stanfield.

So, with indie-dramedies serving specific and profound purposes, how does Short Term 12 break away from the pack? These dramedies all sport similar promotional material – commendable actors look sad, the soundtrack sets the mood, and title cards exclaim the movies’ true merits and potential. With movies like Short Term 12 bursting to life at film festivals across the world, these modest productions become small gems hiding amongst major trendsetters. Thankfully, Short Term 12 is currently blossoming outside the festival circuit. Examining powerful social and psychological issues, Cretton’s dramedy contains more emotional force than all of last year’s blockbusters put together. The previous statement may be extreme, but it’s difficult to disagree with. Sitting in the near-empty theatre, the movie’s awe-inspiring momentum enveloped me. The movie focuses on the titular foster-care facility in an unnamed sector of middle-class America. Its head supervisor Grace (Brie Larson) looks after several under-privileged children. Thankfully, she is not alone. Grace, aided by long-term boyfriend Mason (John Gallagher Jr.), Jessica (Stephanie Beatriz) and newcomer Nate (Rami Malek), values her life’s work. The movie also examines a handful of these under-privileged children. Defined by varying genders, races, personalities, and problems, these characters draw memories, advice, and emotions out of their trustworthy carers.

John Gallagher, Jr.

Shy troublemaker Marcus (Keith Stanfield) is two weeks away from turning 18. Forced to leave the facility after reaching this age, Marcus’ crippling confidence issues threaten his and Mason’s personas. Flying under Hollywood’s all-encompassing radar, Short Term 12 takes controversial and potentially saccharine material and transforms it into a compellingly dramatic creation. In need, and deserving, of major critical consideration, this dramedy wholeheartedly delivers an accurate and dense depiction of America’s neglected citizens. In a better world, young audiences would ache for a drama like this. In fact, the movie becomes a mirror for this infamous demographic to peer into. Grappling touchy subject matter, Short Term 12 speaks to young people of all mental, physical, and occupational statuses. In particular, the movie touchingly deliberates on the problems facing teenage girls. The story kicks into gear after one person’s introduction. Welcoming troubled minor Jaden (Kaitlyn Dever) into the facility, Grace meets her emotional match. Unlike most institution dramas, the subjects and carers exist on similar and familiar planes of existence. We sympathise with these characters whilst relating to every twist and turn hitting their valuable lives. When one character breaks down, another relates to, and then elevates, their crippling condition. Grace, putting her arm around certain characters whilst listening to their every word, is the narrative’s emphatically likeable core. Despite coming close to Girl, Interrupted and Precious’ levels of dreariness, Short Term 12 balances out its heavier moments with sharp and humorous sequences.

“It’s impossible to worry about anything else when there’s blood coming out of you.” (Grace (Brie Larson), Short Term 12).

Kaitlyn Dever.

Highlighting important moments with witty lines and appealing character traits, Short Term 12 takes necessarily deep breaths. From the opening scene – involving Mason delivering a sweet yet peculiar anecdote about his most embarrassing incident at the facility – this story delivers organic links between lost lives, tangible existences, and wounded souls. Speeding toward the potently affable finish line, the narrative delivers emotional and psychological gut-punches and heartfelt surprises. Short Term 12, relying on morally ambiguous and straight-laced characters, breaks boundaries despite its small-scale setting’s bleak confines. Refreshingly, no one comes off like an antagonistic hindrance. Even the facility’s head supervisor Jack (Franz Turner), whilst arguing with Grace about Jaden’s stability, adequately outlines her situation’s more alarming details. Realistically, protocol and evidence stand above impulsive decisions and commendable intentions. Despite falling into visceral revenge-thriller territory in the final third, the empathetic and conscionable characters guide this poignant tale. Cretton’s screenplay, despite lacing each role with distracting contrivances, never trips up this talented ensemble. Larson, improving upon her terrific 2013 in cinema and TV, tackles her tumultuous role head-on. With Grace fending for herself throughout a tough emotional spiral, Larson’s performance works wonders for the movie’s ambitious aura. Playing the ultimate nice guy, Gallagher Jr. stretches his acting muscles beyond Aaron Sorkin’s perplexing dialogue (The Newsroom). As the voice of reason, his character provides levity for several heartbreaking scenes.

Thanks to lasting appeal, powerful dramatic beats, and fresh-faced performers, Short Term 12 becomes a strong breath of fresh air compared to the past few months’ big-budget flops. Here, we see the evolution of a diminutive genre. This movie doesn’t simply burst into life; it delivers original ideas and emotionally gripping moments unlike any previous micro-budget drama. This optimistic character study, much like its teenage subjects, deserves some much-needed credit and attention.

Verdict: A sumptuous and heart-warming drama.

Lone Survivor Review – Fallen Brothers


Director: Peter Berg 

Writer: Peter Berg (screenplay), Marcus Luttrell, Patrick Robinson (book)

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Ben Foster, Emile Hirsch


Release date: January 23rd, 2014

Distributors: Universal Pictures, Foresight Unlimited

Country: USA

Running time: 121 minutes


 

3/5

Best part: The visceral action sequences.

Worst part: Its unsettling agenda.

Here’s a fun question: what do The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, Devil, and Zack and Miri Make a Porno have in common? Give up yet? Ok, i’ll just tell you. The answer: their titles reveal major spoilers. This is a problem for multiple reasons. Assuredly, the studios must think their audiences are stupid. To attract multiple target markets, filmmakers and studios reveal their movies’ greatest secrets. Sadly, Lone Survivor is up there with the aforementioned releases. Lone Survivor harms itself thanks to one tiny detail – it’s based on a true story. Unquestionably, this issue is most problematic when dealing with docudramas. Despite the obvious marketing troubles, it’s still acceptable to look past these issues and lap up this confronting thrill-ride.

Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster, Taylor Kitsch, & Emile Hirsch.

Whether they’re PR stunts or debacles, these movies carry a duty to inform but not spoil applicable and potentially groundbreaking stories. This movie’s production history is a tumultuous journey in itself. Based on Marcus Lutrell and Patrick Robertson’s book about these harrowing events, certain facts, figures, and opinions were changed to suit a ‘standard’ narrative structure. Causing controversy on all fronts, the book has been translated into an exhilarating yet morose action flick. Despite Luttrell’s blessing, the movie sits uncomfortably on shaky ground. This story, though exponentially impactful, needed a significantly more objective and accomplished writer/director. The first half presents these courageous figures as war-obsessed men of honour. Lutrell (Mark Wahlberg) is a grizzly soldier unafraid of death and disparity. Lieutenant Michael P. Murphy (Taylor Kitsch) awaits his upcoming wedding with baited breath. Matthew Axelson (Ben Foster) revels in his profession’s most masochistic aspects. Danny Dietz (Emile Hirsch) is the tough-as-nails rookie with a heart of gold. Spoiler: three of these people aren’t making it back to base. Introducing its tough-guy caricatures, the first half boasts an awkward and bafflingly unimpressive sense of humour. Making up reconnaissance and surveillance unit SEAL Team 10, these US Navy SEALs head up an important mission called Operation Red Wings. Their mission revolves around murderous Taliban leader Ahmad Shah. Responsible for the deaths of 20 US Marines, Shah must be captured or killed by any means necessary. Dropped into the Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush region, the team sneak through this harsh and unending forest region. Unfortunately, within the first few hours of this mission, the team’s cover is blown by innocent civilians. From this point on, the movie’s Call-of-Duty-esque conflict kicks into gear. 

Eric Bana.

Lone Survivor, despite the marketing and narrative flaws, is a tight, tense and visceral thrill-ride. Mixing varying genre elements into one confronting and egregious concoction, the movie wholeheartedly praises these real-life heroes. Transitioning from gripping war-action flick to horrifying survival thriller, Lone Survivor delivers several tremendous highlights. Pandering to this movie’s agenda would be wrong. But, then again, it would be cruel to attack writer/director Peter Berg for choosing this story. Oh boy, treading this line is difficult! Anyway, though I respect Berg’s intentions, his movie becomes an obvious and one-sided war flick. Berg’s career is peppered with intelligible action flicks (The Kingdom, Welcome to the Jungle) and disgracefully forgettable blockbusters (Hancock, Battleship). Obsessed with the US Military, he becomes infatuated with these all-encompassing tough guys. Here, his blockbuster ticks and war-drama tropes awkwardly clash. Beyond his hit-and-miss filmography, Berg’s inept screenplay turns a potentially compelling concept into indulgent and ineffectual material. Returning to the big screen after Friday Night Lights‘ ongoing success, American prosperity and foreign policy are tools at his disposal. Using military technology and soldiers for the movie’s overwhelming production, Berg’s commendable intentions are overshadowed by his distracting political agenda. Painting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq in black and white, Lone Survivor develops a one-sided and imbalanced portrait of this harrowing conflict. Don’t get me wrong, I wholeheartedly respect the US military’s efforts to build monumental infrastructures across the world. Unfortunately, movies like Lone Survivor refuse to deliver detailed viewpoints. Praising the US’ stranglehold over smaller territories, heartfelt moments transition into trite and uninspired sections. Bookended with archival footage of Navy SEAL training, and pictures of these heroic figures, this right-wing action extravaganza should’ve retreated to safer ground. Going all out, Lone Survivor transitions into a confused and questionable commentary on the past decade’s aforementioned conflicts. 

“You can die for your country, I’m gonna live for mine.” (Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson (Ben Foster), Lone Survivor).

Ali Suliman.

Given the thumbs up by Glenn Beck himself, Lone Survivor hurriedly became a red-white-and-blue box office success story. With LA Weekly critic Amy Nicholson’s review panned by the debilitating media commentator, this potent war flick is an obvious and mean-spirited right-wing fantasy. However, overcoming its irritating and one-sided agenda, Berg’s action direction bolsters this terrifyingly graphic and intense action-thriller. Stepping into the four soldiers’ shoes, the movie examines its characters’ identities. Driven by manliness, ego, and focus, the movie, despite telegraphing certain characters’ demises, comments on every soldier’s immense will to succeed. Lone Survivor, despite the glorious attention to detail, gives thanks to Zero Dark Thirty, Platoon, Black Hawk Down, The Hurt Locker, and Three Kings. A long list for sure, but these movies are infinitely more thorough and responsive. Like The Kingdom, the punishing violence and gore elevate this hokey and conventional war-docudrama. Depicting this conflict’s most intensifying moments, bullet wounds, bruises, and shrapnel cuts stand out. In fact, opting for practical effects is the movie’s ballsiest choice. Berg’s attention to detail and action-direction develop several enthralling set pieces. With our lead characters going head-to-head with Taliban forces, the second two-thirds deliver brutal and ever-lasting gunfights. Despite the one dimensional enemies, the visuals and stunt sequences elevate this middling war-drama. The cliff sequences – in which our lead four hit every rock and tree on their way down – are shockingly gruesome. In addition, Tobias A. Schliesser’s cinematography throws the audience into this atmospheric and saddening situation. His distinct camera movements and angles heighten each set pieces’ intensity and emotional impact. Treading light ground, the performances also elevate this underwhelming and heavy-handed action flick. Wahlberg, carrying multiple action flicks last year, is suitably intense as the team’s determined leader. Left with the most responsibility, Wahlberg’s magnetic presence bolster’s this thrilling survival tale. Kitsch, recovering from a disastrous 2012, is energetic as the cocky second in command. Hirsch and Foster, known for disturbingly honest turns into low-budget dramas, excel in this moody war-drama. Rounding out this eclectic cast is Eric Bana as Lieutenant Erik S. Kristensen. Bana, coming back into the spotlight, is a welcoming presence as the leader manning the all-important military base.

I know I should be respectful to Lutrell and his fallen comrads. In fact, to be clear, I’m specifically attacking Berg for transforming this story into something it’s not. Turning this brave story into an explosive romp, Berg’s aura delivers an underwhelming effort reeking of wasted potential. However, thanks to Berg’s action direction and attention to detail, this engaging war flick overcomes its brash agenda and underwhelming cliches. More movies about this subject should be made, just not like this. 

Verdict: A brutal yet overbearing war-docudrama.

Pain & Gain Review – Bay’s Bonkers Bash


Director: Michael Bay

Writers: Christopher Markus, Stephen McFeely (screenplay), Pete Collins (articles)

Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson, Anthony Mackie, Tony Shalhoub


Release date: August 8th, 2013

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

Country: USA

Running time: 129 minutes


3/5

Best part: Dwayne Johnson.

Worst part: The Michael Bay-isms. 

Remember the 1990s? It was a far more peaceful time – back when boy bands ruled the airwaves, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air skyrocketed to mega-popularity, and Internet Explorer was still relevant. As a 90s kid, I look fondly back on this time and continually find more glaring similarities and differences between then and now. In the 90s, Miami, Florida was home to one of the most shocking crimes in US history. Action-comedy Pain & Gain is the ‘Michael Bay-directed’ account of this tragic event.

Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson& Anthony Mackie.

I used quotation marks in the previous sentence to make a specific point about this movie. Bay (Armageddon, the Transformers trilogy) is one of the most controversial directors in tinsel-town history. Many blame him for the death of modern cinema (Pearl Harbour was undoubtedly a huge misstep!) and continually criticise his ear-and-eyeball-shatteringly-brash style. However, his bombastic popcorn flicks have supported many careers and studios (dammed with faint praise). Since his filmography is a mixed bag (to say the least), Pain & Gain may just be his magnum opus. This hauntingly vile yet exciting and visceral action-comedy repeatedly states that it’s ‘based on a true story’. In the first three minutes, we see body-builder Daniel Lugo (Mark Wahlberg) impressively performing sit ups shortly before running from a barrage of policemen. The movie then steps back a few months, and Lugo is working for the man. Lugo, an over-worked yet optimistic personal trainer at Miami’s Sun Gym, is forced to work with high-paying client Victor Kershaw (Tony Shalhoub). Inspired by self-help guru Johnny Wu (Ken Jeong), Lugo asks work-mate Adrian Doorbal (Anthony Mackie) and ex-con Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson) to help him kidnap Kershaw and steal all his worldly possessions. However, their incompetent plan is met with hostility from Kershaw, former detective Ed Du Bois III (Ed Harris) and Miami’s steamy criminal underbelly.

Tony Shalhoub.

What follows is a tale of violence, tyranny, anguish, emotional turmoil, and dream chasing. Yes, this movie is a stew filled with chases, enviable settings, disturbing violence, and A-list actors (you know, the ‘typical’ Hollywood movie ingredients). However, Pain & Gain startlingly deviates from what a standard run-of-the-mill action-comedy would do. Turning this horrific yet though-provoking true story into a relentless farce is a bizarre premise in itself. Here, Bay throws preconceptions of all kinds out the window. His idea of the ‘American Dream’ is clichéd and shallow, but it makes for a topical, discomforting, and enthralling movie-going experience. Pain & Gain clearly suggests that life is not worth living unless you have reasonable goals, a can-do attitude…and enviable possessions. In keeping with these pessimistic messages (such as they are), Bay’s superficial world (seen in all of his movies) is depicted here as a lugubrious, slimy, and morally weak black hole. Bay’s mean-spirited and chauvinistic creation knowingly points out the dangers that come of economic turmoil and unadulterated obsession. Thankfully, the familiar yet refreshing crime-thriller aspects keep this controversial movie in check. Throughout Pain & Gain, Bay alerts us to that split second when the lead characters go from laughably bumbling morons to villainous, delusional, and selfish delinquents. Despite the aforementioned abrupt tonal shifts, Bay makes sure the audience can ably laugh at, but never with, the three anti-heroes.

Ed Harris.

Ultimately, Bay proves with Pain & Gain that he has the potential to create gleefully satirical, dark, and multi-layered action flicks (and who on Earth saw that coming?!) Despite Pain & Gain’s glowing positives, Bay’s sexist, racist, homophobic, manic, and atmospheric directorial ticks are on display once again. His crass/frat-boy-like filmmaking style/sense of humour overshadows everything he touches. Bay’s repetitive and abrasive approach may test well with audiences, but he needs to branch out if he wants to be treated like an adult. If Hollywood were a high school, The Coen Brothers would be the popular, talented kids whilst Bay would be the nerdy youngster with a creepy yet obvious crush. In fact, Pain & Gain, conceptually and narratively, draws major comparisons to Burn After Reading and Fargo. However, whereas those crime-dramas are consistent, intelligent, and punchy, this movie fails to come up a clever, original or subtle stylistic choice. Bay delivers yet another blood, sweat, and expletive-filled universe. The 90s, by this movie’s standards, glistens with jaw-droppingly gorgeous bodies, bright lights, bold colours, and stereotypical comic reliefs. For some reason, many shots zoom through bullet holes and around characters. I’ve also never understood his obsession with low angles, explosions, and gratuitous slo-mo. Unequivocally, It’s the Bay-isms that distract from what the movie is trying to say about wealth, masculinity, power, and friendship.

“Jesus Christ Himself has blessed me with many gifts! One of them is knocking someone the f*uck out!” (Paul Doyle (Dwayne Johnson), Pain & Gain).

The Sun Gym gang.

If you find True Romance/Out of Sight-esque crime-capers annoying and pretentious, you should probably check out Now You See Me instead. Like Now You See Me, the A-list cast elevates the mediocre material. Unlike that movie, however, Pain & Gain isn’t entirely brainless. Aided by the enjoyably silly yet unique narration, this movie highlights the aesthetic and magnetic qualities of its performers. Wahlberg’s enigmatic and captivating screen presence elevates his strange yet fascinating role. Used to playing hard-nosed cops and criminals, Wahlberg could’ve done this in his sleep. However, his wacky character is a steroid-filled shot to this movie’s heart. Emulating such masculine figures as Tony Montana, Rocky Balboa and Michael Corleone (“I watched a lot of movies Paul, I know what I’m doing!”), Lugo believes his muscle-fuelled lifestyle will bolster his ridiculous and disgusting get-rich-quick scheme. Despite his dim-wittedness, Lugo’s blissful ignorance and persistence are, at points, hilariously charming traits (similarly to his Boogie Nights character). The Stand out performer here is Johnson. Coming off G.I. Joe: Retaliation and Fast and Furious 6, Johnson has established himself in 2013 as the next Arnold Schwarzenegger/Sylvester Stallone-type action hero. Able to inject charisma, physicality, and grit into any role, Johnson in Pain & Gain balances wit, magnetism, and an inhumanly muscular frame to turn in a nuanced performance. His hysterically zany character, obsessed with Jesus and Cocaine (what a combination!), is a truly affecting and disturbing creation. I hope we see more of Mackie after his enjoyable performance here. Shalhoub, Jeong, and Harris deliver charismatic turns in small roles. On the other end of the spectrum, a little of Rebel Wilson’s ‘comedy’ goes a long way!

Turning this impactful true story into a pulsating action-comedy would’ve been an ambitious and incomprehensible task. However, Bay has done a remarkable job with allowing us to laugh at these absurdly dumb characters. Pain & Gain is an outlandish, insane, and lurid movie about the American Dream.

Verdict: A relentless, punchy yet bizarre action-comedy.

Rampart Review – Crumbling Cop


Director: Oren Moverman

Writers: James Ellroy, Oren Moverman

Stars: Woody Harrelson, Ben Foster, Sigourney Weaver, Ice Cube


Release date: February 10th, 2012

Distributor: Millennium Entertainment

Country: USA

Running time: 108 minutes


 3/5

Best part: Woody Harrelson.

Worst part: The depthless narrative.

With a penchant for gritty cop drama, screenwriter/author James Ellroy (L.A Confidential, The Black Dahlia) continues his honest yet disturbing writing style for this interpretation of the controversial true story so insulting its almost ripped straight from one of his coveted crime novels. Rampart‘s execution however doesn’t do this powerful story justice, failing to provide a satisfying message or understandable pay-off.

Woody Harrelson.

Woody Harrelson.

Set in 1999, this bizarre tale of true events is based around the slowly crumbling life of notoriously sick and twisted senior police officer Dave ‘date- rape’ Brown (Woody Harrelson). He is a hurricane blowing through a dirty, crime-ridden town, as his questionable antics and lack of enthusiasm run him into the laws he proclaims to protect everyday. Living uncomfortably with two ex-wives and sisters, and his two  precocious daughters, Brown must save them from his own disgraceful crimes. He also contends with the aftermath of the race war he single handily begins and his run ins with DA investigators, witnesses, informants, lawyers and an angry mayor; coinciding with his shameful emotional spiral downwards. The screenplay itself, co-written by Ellroy and director Oren Moverman (The Messenger), is clearly written to be a no-nonsense, thought provoking drama. The magnificent dialogue is full of lines questioning this period of time in L.A history. “I’m not a racist, I hate all people equally.” Brown tells Ice Cube’s DA investigator character as he unflinchingly explains his reasoning for being targeted by anyone with a different frame of mind.

Harrelson & Ben Foster.

Harrelson & Ben Foster.

Unfortunately, past the witty yet alluring dialogue moments is a story which fails to highlight the important issues. The legitimacy of unethical police officers, questioned by the state of California, is an important part of beautiful yet truly tough crime thrillers such as L.A. Confidential, the issues important to this point in history are unusually ignored here in favour of character. Moverman’s direction provides elements of observational documentary filmmaking for this study of a heartless anti-hero. In Rampart, the camera keeps moving throughout as pans, tilts and high and low angles constantly provide a distraction rather than a unique mark of directorial style. The use of colour and editing tricks however cleverly illustrate the truly degrading fall from grace Brown experiences, as this hard edged cop gives into all forms of sinful temptation. Despite wonderfully humorous and compelling dialogue, convincingly illustrating relevant issues from different perspectives, this film is comparable to other slice of life dramas such as the Michael Fassbender independent feature Shame, both uniquely focusing on one disturbed character. Rampart boasts a solid cast, yet fails to develop its characters beyond shallow representations of different social and political issues.

“I don’t cheat on my taxes… you can’t cheat on something you never committed to.” (Dave Brown (Woody Harrelson), Rampart).

Harrelson & Ice Cube.

Harrelson & Ice Cube.

The performances however capture a charismatic allure that make the characters important on an emotional level, particularly Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche as sisters and Brown’s concerned ex-wives. Ice Cube’s turn as DA investigator  Kyle Timkins is surprisingly charismatic.  While Sigourney Weaver, Steve Buscemi, Robin Wright, Ben Foster (re-teaming with Moverman and Harrelson from The Messenger) and Ned Beatty, all in small roles, are convincing yet fail to make a mark on this alluring yet ambiguous story. The saviour of his frustratingly ambiguous and unfocused character study is Woody Harrelson. In every scene, Harrelson strangely embodies this corrupt cop with his usual relaxed yet charismatic persona. As a distant relation to the culturally admired yet sickening serial killer Mickey Knox from Natural Born Killers (this time on the ‘right’ side of the law) he lends an aura of likeability, through his unwavering ability to insult with intelligent wit, to an immoral and inhuman law-man. Brown is a creation drawn from such hardened L.A. based characters such as Bud White (Russell Crowe) from L.A. Confidential and Alonzo Harris (Denzel Washington) from Training Day. With sunglasses hiding his piercing stare and a cigarette constantly hanging from the side of his mouth, Brown is an ancestor of the infamous outlaw character synonymous with the western genre; following his own set of unorthodox rules in a time evolved beyond his services.

Despite all my complaints, I will happily give Rampart credit for putting a new spin on the LAPD-crime genre. Despite Moverman and Harrelson’s efforts, even these titans can’t stop their movie from crumbling under pressure.

Verdict: An alluring yet unfocused crime-drama.

We Bought A Zoo Review – Animal House!


Director: Cameron Crowe

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

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


Release date: December 23rd, 2011

Distributor: 20th Century Fox 

Country: USA

Running time: 124 minutes


 

4/5

Best part: The fun performances.

Worst part: The kooky supporting characters.

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

Matt Damon & Scarlett Johansson.

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

Elle Fanning & Colin Ford.

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

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

Our colourful characters.

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

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

Verdict: A sweet and charming family film.