Thursday, 30 May 2013

A Haunted House

WRITTEN BY: Marlon Wayans, Rick Alvarez
DIRECTED BY: Michael Tiddes
STARRING: Marlon Wayans, Marlene Forte, David Koechner, Nick Swardson
RATING: 1 star

There is something wrong with a comedy film when you barely laugh out loud. That is what happened when I watched A Haunted House. When Marlon Wayans began the hugely successful Scary Movie franchise with his brother Shawn, they sparked a series of spoof films, none of which experienced the same success as the first two films. With A Haunted House, Wayans has ventured on his own but unfortunately, the film lacks any of the necessary charm, appeal or laughs. While the premise of spoofing supernatural films including The Exorcist and Paranormal Activity is well intentioned, it falls flat in just about every aspect. In fact, as if Wayans and co know their film is a woeful mess, they resort to crude jokes that will barely make you crack a smile.

The thin plot revolves around Malcolm (Marlon Waylans) and Kisha (Essence Atkins) who move in together but soon discover the house is haunted by a ghost. When Kisha becomes possessed by a demon, Malcolm seeks the help of a priest (Cedric the Entertainer), a psychic (Nick Swardson), and the so-called Ghost Guys (David Koechner, Dave Sheridan) to save her.

A Haunted House had a small budget and at times felt more like a series of skits loosely linked together. Most of the characters were annoying, except perhaps Marlene Forte who played creepy Spanish maid, Rosa. Atkins was good in parts, but even she got carried away. If it wasn't for Wayans' charisma, this film surely would never have even made it to cinema screens.

Maybe I would have enjoyed this film more if I was a 15-year-old boy. Or maybe not. At least it only runs for 80 minutes. 

Tuesday, 28 May 2013

The Great Gatsby

WRITTEN BY: Baz Luhrmann, Craig Pearce
DIRECTED BY: Baz Luhrmann
STARRING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton
RATING: 4.5 stars

Tackling a story many consider to be the "great American novel" was never going to be easy. But surprisingly, it could not have been left in the more capable hands of Australian film-maker Baz Luhrmann. He certainly knows how to bring theatrical spectacle to the big screen. He makes the cinema a true artistic experience that is accessible to everyone. The Great Gatsby washes over you like the wild confetti-filled parties it depicts. It is beautiful, colourful and outrageous. It is also a lovely reminder that a film does not need superheroes or aliens to be a blockbuster.

Based on F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel, The Great Gatsby is set during the roaring 1920's when everything good in life seemed to be in excess. Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to New York in 1922 to learn about bond trading. He rents a house across the bay from his cousin Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan) and her adulterous husband Tom (Joel Edgerton). But Nick is drawn to the mansion next door owned by mysterious millionaire Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio) who throws the wildest parties in town for everyone including bootleggers, officers, socialites, governors and mobsters. But Gatsby is not what he seems. As Nick quickly discovers, no one really knows the true man behind the facade or his true motivations.

The more I think about The Great Gatsby, the more I love it. As a fan of the novel I can assure fellow fans that the film stays mostly true to the book, with only a few minor changes. It even maintains some of the poetic imagery and symbolism from the book. Indeed, The Great Gatsby is a twisted love story that men and women can enjoy. It is full of amazing mise en scene, cinematography and music. It is a feast for the eyes, ears and soul. Catherine Martin's production design and costumes are exquisite, the use of 3D is effective and rap music is brilliantly infused into the 1920's world. It shouldn't work, but it does.

Some might think the dazzle of feathers, flowers, balloons, fireworks and fountains detract from the heart of the story, but I don't think that is a fair analysis. The film balances both angles and is a beautiful piece of cinema. My only criticism of The Great Gatsby was that it was a little too long. It could have been trimmed 15 minutes with a bit of editing.

The cast is also impressive. DiCaprio never disappoints with his performances. His embodiment of Gatsby is powerful, as he is able to portray a man of influence, propriety, charm and mystery, while also expressing Gatsby's obsession and boyishness. Edgerton was equally commanding and has now fully blossomed into a great actor. He matches DiCaprio well and they have a particularly good scene together towards the end of the film. Maguire is really the protagonist of the film and he holds it all together well. Mulligan is alluring and emotional, while Isla Fisher has a small but pivotal role as Tom's mistress. Elizabeth Debicki is also good as Jordan the golfer, particularly considering her youth and inexperience. It was a shame her character was not as well explored as it was in the novel.

I really cannot gush enough about how much I loved The Great Gatsby. I cannot wait to see it again, Old Sport.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

The Reluctant Fundamentalist

WRITTEN BY: Ami Boghani, Mohsin Hamid, William Wheeler
STARRING: Riz Ahmed, Liev Schreiber, Kiefer Sutherland, Kate Hudson
RATING: 4 stars

It is fascinating to see a film depict a story in which an innocent person becomes hardened and disillusioned by the harsh realities of life after being exposed to stereotypes and xenophobia. The Reluctant Fundamentalist cleverly presents the effects of our Western post-terrorism world in which anyone who looks different is automatically feared by the overly suspicious and ignorant few.

Adapted from a novel by Mohsin Hamid, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ami Boghani and William Wheeler, the film is set in present day Pakistan during a hostage crisis. Changez (Riz Ahmed) is a professor at a university and is suspected of being involved in the crime. He agrees to sit down with columnist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber) to tell his story. In a series of flashbacks, we see a young, smart Changez move to New York to experience the so-called American dream, make some money and support his family. He falls in love with Erica (Kate Hudson) and begins working on Wall Street under the guidance of Jim Cross (Kiefer Sutherland) at the prestigious financial consultancy company Underwood Samson. Changez struggles with racial tensions in the US but things get far worse after the September 11 terrorist attacks. He becomes targeted and discriminated against by authorities simply because he looks like a foreign Muslim and is therefore suspected of extremism and terrorism.

At times, perhaps the film over simplifies the racial and religious issues in the US. Nonetheless, it is an interesting exploration of what many foreigners are exposed to from xenophobic people. I don't mean that as a slight against the American culture, just on certain narrow minded people who exist in every culture. Furthermore, the film says a lot about fundamentalism in a religious, political and social context. If you pay close enough attention, there is actually a lot of thought-provoking ideas presented in the story that are worth debating afterwards. The film raises many questions, but wisely, offers no solutions.

Ahmed is exceptional as Changez, creating a complex, intriguing, sympathetic and mysterious character. Hudson is solid as the girlfriend who is far more damaged than she appears. It is good to see her in a serious role. I have long been a big fan of Sutherland's acting ability and he is equally as strong in this film. Schreiber is also impressive, particularly as the story reveals more about his character.

Director Mira Nair has made good use of editing techniques to keep the story flowing with enough intrigue. The cinematography is also very good at depicting the contrasts between New York and Lahore. The film is only weakened by its slow pace in some moments. I also was not a fan of the final scene that left me cringing.

Hopefully, this film can open people's eyes to the racial tensions in Western cultures like the US and Australia where, although we try to be open, we are so often closed off to foreigners from cultures we do not take the time to understand.

Sunday, 12 May 2013

The Call

WRITTEN BY: Richard D'Ovidio
DIRECTED BY: Brad Anderson
STARRING: Halle Berry, Abigail Breslin, Michael Eklund, Morris Chestnut
RATING: 2 stars

Throughout most of The Call, it was such a thrilling ride that I found myself quietly whispering at the screen to warn the protagonists of danger. But then the climax and resolution came and ruined the entire experience. Suddenly, the suspenseful enjoyment was gone and we were left with a midday movie style ending. Alas, I am still lamenting how it could go so terribly wrong within a matter of minutes. For a while, the story worked when the characters were being reasonably intelligent in moments of crisis. But then the plot went off the rails and the characters fell into the trap of making ridiculously stupid mistakes that could not be overlooked or forgiven by even the most easy to please film viewer.

Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is one of the best at the Los Angeles 911 call centre until she makes a fateful mistake that leads to a girl being kidnapped and murdered. Jordan decides to become an instructor rather than work on the desk again, until she is forced to help when a junior worker panics about a girl being kidnapped. Casey (Abigail Breslin) is trapped in the trunk of a car when she calls 911. Soon Jordan and the field police, which includes her boyfriend (Morris Chestnut) must work quickly to save Casey before her abductor, Michael (Michael Eklund), realises they are looking for him.

I'm being very kind with my star rating only because the film was so thrilling for the first three quarters. Watching the excitement unfold, I was drawn into the drama and I really liked the way the story was told from the police dispatcher point of view. Unfortunately, director Brad Anderson was not able to keep the plot together, although some of the scenes were cut well between the female leads to enhance the anticipation and fear.

The performances helped sustain the film for the first half. Berry was strong and emotional in all the right moments – again, until the end. My only issue with her was with her odd 70's style hair, which was distracting to watch at times. It is hard to say more about her performance without spoiling the ending, suffice to say her character takes an unbelievable turn and Berry struggles with the dialogue. Breslin was also good, particularly considering much of her performance was in the boot of a car. You certainly felt her pain and sense of panic. However, I'm not sure why she had to spend the third act with her top off. Eklund was dark and creepy, but as you learn the extent of his warped personality, it becomes clear that writer Richard D'Ovidio was trying to throw as much crazy as he could into the character without much justification. It is all far too clich├ęd and cartoonish.

I really wanted to love The Call. During the screening, it was a lot of fun, and it was only after it finished that I realised how many plot holes there were. Despite those flaws, if it were not for the useless ending, I might still have enjoyed it just for the thrills. But the final scenes were perhaps the worst of any film I've seen recently.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Death of A Salesman

WRITTEN BY: Arthur Miller
DIRECTED BY: Adam Mitchell
STARRING: John Stanton, Josh McConville, Ben O'Toole, Caroline McKenzie
RATING: 3 stars

Anyone familiar with Arthur Miller's classic work will already know that Death of A Salesman is not exactly an uplifting theatrical experience. But that is not the point. The play is a terrifyingly raw and accurate depiction of the harsh life endured by many working class people in 1940's America. Full of drama and conflict, the play explores themes of family issues, ideals of masculinity and chasing the so-called American dream.

Willy Loman (John Stanton) spent his entire adult life as a travelling salesman but never made the big bucks. Now in his 60's, Willy is still overwhelmed by debt but is also struggling with guilt, self-pity and ailing health. Feeling the weight of his high expectations for his offspring is his son Biff (Josh McConville), the golden child who never fulfilled his potential. Completing the family dynamic is Willy's other son Happy (Ben O'Toole), who is so self-involved he barely even notices that his family is struggling, and Willy's wife Linda (Caroline McKenzie) who tries to keep the men in her life content.

Anyone who has ever witnessed or experienced first-hand a complex father-son relationship will find this play insightful and engaging. The play shows several flashback sequences that display how things have changed for the Loman family over the years. It is a heartbreaking tale, but also one that has a good moral lesson that audiences can take home.

Black Swan Theatre Company's production is impressive with a strong cast who deliver pivotal scenes with conviction. Stanton has a lot of dialogue and emotionally gripping moments, which he performs well, while McConville has one scene in particular that will blow you away. They are backed up well by O'Toole and McKenzie, as well as a supporting cast that includes Igor Sas as Willy's neighbour and perhaps his only true friend, and Eden Falk as Biff's far more successful friend.

The set design is also interesting. The stage is large in its depth but set designers, Alicia Clements and Trent Suidgeest, have not cluttered the area. Instead, there is plenty of space and the actors walk through various doorways around the edges. The central set piece is simply a dining table, but it works well.

Death of A Salesman is now playing at the Heath Ledger Theatre.

Photo courtesy of Robert Frith

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Star Trek Into Darkness

WRITTEN BY: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman, Damon Lindelof
STARRING: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch, Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban
RATING: 3 stars

At the risk of offending a large portion of my readership, I must confess I am not really a Star Trek fan. Having said that, there are a lot of things to like about Star Trek Into Darkness for trekies and blockbuster film fans. For starters, the visual effects are very good and there is a fun use of 3D throughout. There is also a good dose of action and humour, with several references to the Star Trek franchise. Despite its positives, there was something lacking that almost derailed the entire film. In fact, it was almost boring in parts due to its slow pace.

When the Star Fleet faces a terror attack from within that threatens the universe, Captain Kirk (Chris Pine), Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the Enterprise team embark on a mission to save the universe from an all-out war. They capture the villain named Khan (Benedict Cumberbatch) but things are not quite as they seem.

Quinto and Pine are now well and truly comfortable in their roles and have great chemistry. Most of the humour, heart and clashes come from their interactions. It is largely due to their performances that these films are successful. Cumberbatch is a decent villain but was lacking some menace. Simon Pegg was funny as Scotty and Karl Urban is also good as Bones, particularly given that he had some of the more woeful lines. Zoe Saldana could have been used more but she is solid.

Fans of the franchise and the first film should be satisfied with this instalment. It is not amazing, but it is entertaining enough. 

Monday, 6 May 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines

WRITTEN BY: Derek Cianfrance, Ben Coccio, Darius Marder
DIRECTED BY: Derek Cianfrance
STARRING: Ryan Gosling, Bradley Cooper, Eva Mendes, Ben Mendelsohn
RATING: 2.5 stars

The Place Beyond The Pines is more than two hours long, which is totally unnecessary. It required some major editing because it was often far too slow and boring. However, it was also an intricately woven tale that provides a good moral lesson. It is perhaps a little too ambitious, but the intention is there. Director/co-writer Derek Cianfrance has worked hard to get the most out of his cast and put a microscope on parenting and the idea of masculinity, examining how important it is for boys and young men to have a strong male influence in their lives.

It is hard to explain the plot without giving too much away, so I will have to keep it vague to avoid spoilers. The film is basically told in three acts. The first involves Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling) who works in a travelling carnival as a motorcycle stuntman. He quits his job when he finds out a one night stand with Romina (Eva Mendes) has resulted in a son named Kevin. Luke wants to be a father but Romina has moved on with Kofi (Mahershala Ali). Luke begins living and working with a mechanic named Robin (Ben Mendelsohn) who convinces him to start robbing banks. But Luke gets overzealous with the crime, which brings rookie cop Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper) into his life. The second act deals with Avery's experiences in the police force while the third act jumps forward 15 years and brings the story to its climax.

Gosling is fast-becoming an impressive actor. Forget the swoon factor with so many women gushing over his charisma and six-pack – there is actually a good actor underneath that superficiality. He proves again in this film – after his previous collaboration with Cianfrance on Blue Valentine – that he is willing to take on challenging roles. On the other hand, I am still unconvinced that Cooper has any lasting power. I'm still scratching my head at his Oscar nomination and his performance in this film did little to change my opinion of him as anything more than a mediocre actor. Mendelsohn seems to be popping up in everything these days, which is fine with me. He is as great as always. Mendes has never impressed me as an actress or a great beauty but her performance is fair. Ray Liotta has a small role as yet another seedy character, which is a shame because he is capable of so much more. I would have liked to have seen more of Rose Byrne too as Avery's wife. Two of the better performances come from young actors Dane DeHaan and Emory Cohen who play key roles in the third act.

The Place Beyond The Pines is an interesting film, but it is not quite as complicated and layered as it intended to be.

Sunday, 5 May 2013

The Big Wedding

WRITTEN BY: Justin Zackham
DIRECTED BY: Justin Zackham
STARRING: Robert De Niro, Diane Keaton, Susan Sarandon, Katherine Heigl, Topher Grace, Amanda Seyfried, Ben Barnes
RATING: 3 stars

You would think that a film starring three of the greatest actors of their generation would be an almost certain hit, and yet, The Big Wedding has been brutally bashed by US critics. I had very low expectations but was pleasantly surprised to see that although it is not a great film, it is fun and quirky. Thanks mostly to a likeable cast, writer/director Justin Zackham, who wrote The Bucket List, has been able to weave a complicated plot full of odd relationships and make it an enjoyable popcorn film. Anyone contemplating the complexities of uniting two unusual and embarrassing families for a wedding will certainly enjoy a few giggles along the way.

Don (Robert De Niro) and Ellie (Diane Keaton) have divorced and Don now lives with Bebe (Susan Sarandon). Don and Ellie's adopted son Alejandro (Ben Barnes) is marrying Missy (Amanda Seyfried) so the entire family comes together for the wedding, including Don and Ellie's biological children Jared (Topher Grace) and Lyla (Katherine Heigl). Jared is a 29-year-old virgin waiting for love and Lyla is struggling to cope with a marriage that appears to be in tatters. Alejandro's biological mother Madonna (Patricia Rae) is also attending the wedding from Columbia, but as a devout Catholic, she believes divorce is a sin. So, Alejandro asks Don and Ellie to pretend they are still married.

One good thing to come out of this film was Barnes, who should be cast in more films. He is an absolute delight. Seyfried has a small role but she is quite funny, while Grace has one of the funnier and sweeter plot lines. Heigl has taken on a more serious role in this film and it pays off for her. It is still strange for me to watch De Niro in roles like this but he gives a good performance and is supported well by his leading ladies, Keaton and Sarandon. I don't know why Robin Williams agreed to his minor role as the Catholic priest. He's not funny, nor is he in any way deep or complex enough to warrant any intrigue. Anyone could have played that role.

Despite the good cast, the film lacks some important sparks. The chemistry is good, the humour is mostly enjoyable, and yet the film fails to hit the mark in parts. The ending in particular is below average. There is certainly a good message to be received from The Big Wedding, but it is not really clear what the message is and perhaps that is because the film tries too hard to be both funny and dramatic. As far as wedding films go, I would rather re-watch Father of the Bride.