Thursday, 27 June 2013

Man of Steel

WRITTEN BY: David S. Goyer
DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder
STARRING: Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Michael Shannon, Diane Lane, Russell Crowe, Kevin Costner
RATING: 3 stars

It is hard to make a superhero film that lives up to the hype. When it works, as in The Avengers, it is a thrilling cinematic experience. When it doesn't quite get there, you get a good, but not entirely memorable film, like Man of Steel. The first notable difference with this Superman film is that the hero does not wear his underwear on the outside of his suit, and that is a good thing. Secondly, Clark doesn't work at a newspaper and simply take off his glasses to become Superman. Again, that works in the film's favour. Thirdly, it is an origins story with Clark Kent struggling to understand his powers and place in the world. All these aspects work well to reboot a stale story. Unfortunately, that is where the delight ends. The rest of the film is a mess of, dare I say it, too much action that sees a city almost completely destroyed. That is not a very effective super man at all.

Man of Steel opens with Krypton self-destructing. Kal-El (Henry Cavill) is the son of Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and Lara Lor-Van (Ayelet Zurer). The parents send their baby to Earth to save their race and give him a life. General Zod (Michael Shannon) is exiled for trying to overthrow the planet's leaders but escapes when the planet is destroyed and vows to find the baby and the kryptonite with him. Kal-El is given the name Clark Kent on Earth and is adopted by Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). Clark struggles in his youth with his powers and inability to fit in until he meets Daily Planet reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams). The pair team up to save the world when Zod invades Earth.

Christopher Nolan, who successfully rebooted the Batman franchise, worked on the development of this Superman tale with screenwriter David S. Goyer, who previously worked with him on the Batman films. Nolan was also a producer on Man of Steel but has since distanced himself from the project, insisting it is director Zach Snyder's film. That was probably a good move on his part because Man of Steel lacks the depth that Nolan usually brings to a film.

For the saturation of action in this film, the use of 3D really should have been more worthwhile. The action sequences were drawn out and often unnecessary. There were some good battles, but it seemed like Snyder did not know when to end them.

Cavill is the perfect choice to play the superhero. He reportedly ate 5000 calories a day and worked hard to get the right body shape, and it certainly paid off. Crowe has a bigger role than expected and is very good. The film needed an A-list actor to keep everything grounded and he delivered the goods. Shannon looked psychotic most of the time, but he was a decent villain. Lane is endearing and Costner could have had a bigger role. But Adams was miscast and lacked chemistry with Cavill. Their more intimate scenes lacked energy.

While Man of Steel was good in parts, it was also boring at other times. Unless you are a huge Superman fan, you probably won't find much enjoyment in this film. However, if the rumours are true that Cavill will play Superman in a future Justice League film, then I look forward to that. The film is also set up for a solo sequel.



Wednesday, 19 June 2013

World War Z

WRITTEN BY: Matthew Michael Carnahan, Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof
DIRECTED BY: Marc Forster
STARRING: Brad Pitt, Daniella Kertesz, Mireille Enos
RATING: 3.5 stars

It is quite rare for a film with so many plot holes to be so enjoyable. But that was my reaction to World War Z. The reasons are that the special effects are fantastic, the zombies are terrifying and the hero never resorts to one-liners or ridiculous gimmicks. You will be on the edge of your seat during the whole film. In fact, the suspense, at times, is almost unbearable, and that makes it a lot of fun. Another great aspect of the film is that there is no gore, as generally found in zombie films, so it is appropriate for young teenagers, as long as they can handle the suspense. While hard core fans of zombie films may be a little more sceptical of this film, mainstream action fans and filmgoers will enjoy the ride.

World War Z is based on a 2006 novel by Max Brooks, but does not follow the book very closely at all. When zombies attack the world, former United Nations investigator Gerry Lane (Brad Pitt) becomes the last hope of stopping the zombies from spreading their virus. He agrees to help, despite having recently left the UN, because it is the only way to ensure his family is protected from the zombies. Along his quest, Gerry travels the world to learn how other countries are coping, such as North Korea where they have resorted to pulling out people's teeth and Israel where they have built a giant wall to keep zombies out. The climax comes in Wales in a drawn-out, suspenseful scene.

Much has been said about the dramas on set and budget problems for World War Z, and that seems to have lowered many people's expectations. But clearly, everyone should have had more faith in Pitt as a producer in his first blockbuster film, having previously developed smaller films like The Tree of Life and Killing Them Softly, and director Marc Forster who gave us Monster's Ball, Finding Neverland, The Kite Runner and Quantum of Solace. With such good records, we should have known it would all work out for World War Z.

Speaking of Pitt, he is absolutely fantastic in this film. While his character meets a lot of people along the way, no one sticks around for very long because they are either turned into zombies or left behind as he moves on and makes his way around the world looking for a cure. So really, Pitt carries the entire film by himself. It explains why the film needed an A-lister in the lead. Despite his good looks, Pitt is also believable as a regular, smart guy who can kick arse. The supporting cast includes a strong performance from Daniella Kertesz as a young Israeli soldier, as well as an emotive performance from Mireille Enos who plays Gerry's wife.

What makes World War Z so engaging for non-zombie fans is that it actually uses the idea of zombies to tell an underlying, much deeper story. Like Contagion or 28 Days Later, the film explores how people react in the pressurised situation of a deadly epidemic. This is especially depicted in one of the earlier scenes when Gerry and his family are on the run from the zombies taking over their city. The camera jolts and spins around that you don't quite know what is happening some of the time, but it gives that sense of chaos and panic. The scene on a plane - yes, we get zombies on a plane - is also well filmed.

Maybe it is because I had such low expectations, but I was fully immersed in World War Z. I am hoping for a sequel.



Saturday, 15 June 2013

Despicable Me 2

WRITTEN BY: Ken Daurio, Cinco Paul
DIRECTED BY: Pierre Coffin, Chris Renaud
STARRING: Steve Carell, Kristin Wiig, Benjamin Bratt, Russell Brand, Steve Coogan
RATING: 2.5 stars

Children's films have been rather disappointing lately. Unfortunately, Despicable Me 2 falls into that category too. It's not a bad film. There are certainly some very funny moments and the children at my screening laughed out loud a lot, but the film lacked some overall spunk. The first film was such a success that a sequel was almost going to be inevitable. But the plot was weak and the lead was not quite so despicable this time around.

Gru (Steve Carell) is no longer a villain since saving his three adopted daughters Margo, Edith, and Agnes in the first film. But his new quiet life is interrupted when Lucy Wilde (Kristin Wiig) and Silas Ramsbottom (Steve Coogan) ask him to help the Anti-Villain League take down Eduardo (Benjamin Bratt) before he destroys the world. It is hoped that Gru's villainous experience can help him stop Eduardo's rampage.

A strong cast of comedic actors has been assembled for this film and yet, they were not given many opportunities to be funny. Most of the laughs came from the minions. Nonetheless, Carell was a good leader, Wiig had a few good moments and Bratt was particularly good. It just was not enough to make Despicable Me 2 a worthwhile film.





Thursday, 13 June 2013

The Internship

WRITTEN BY: Vince Vaughn, Jared Stern
DIRECTED BY: Shawn Levy
STARRING: Vince Vaughn, Owen Wilson, Rose Byrne
RATING: 3 stars

Just from watching the trailer, it is clear The Internship is a giant advertisement for Google, although the company did not contribute funding to the film. That being said, the idea of working for Google is used to create comedy, so it is not such a big deal. The phrase “Google it” is already popular for many people, so it is hardly surprising that a company that already has a wide reach and is known to be one of the happiest places in the world to work, would inspire a funny film. If you can accept that and go in knowing this is not going to compare to Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson's previous work in The Wedding Crashers, then you might actually enjoy a few light-hearted laughs along the way.

Billy (Vaughn) and Nick (Wilson) are salesmen whose careers have been made redundant by the digital age. They find a way into the coveted internship program at Google, along with dozens of young, smart and technologically savvy college students. They must outdo the young geniuses to prove they should be given full time jobs at Google.

Vaughn and Wilson have great chemistry and they use that to their advantage. The opening scene alone is enough to demonstrate that, as they sing along to an Alanis Morissette's hit, Ironic. There are also cameos by Rob Riggle as an awkward colleague, Will Ferrell as a mattress salesman with a neck tattoo, and a minor role for John Goodman who plays Billy and Nick's boss. But the young crop of actors are even more impressive. Tobit Raphael plays Yo-Yo, a stereotypically smart Asian student with mother issues, and he probably creates the most laughs. Tiya Sircar plays Neha, a quirky and funny girl who lacks life experience, while Dylan O'Brien plays the socially awkward and judgemental Stuart. Aasif Mandvi is also very funny as the supervising teacher. Aussie Rose Byrne keeps her accent playing a workaholic Google executive, but unfortunately she has lost much of her Aussie accent. She may as well have played an American.

What works in the film's favour is that older people, who lack internet and computer coding skills will watch it and laugh because they understand the issues that Nick and Billy face. Meanwhile, the savvy Generation Y viewers will laugh during scenes like when Billy says “on the line” instead of “online”. There are also some funny and random references to Flashdance and Harry Potter. Perhaps the best scene is when the older men take the younger generation out on the town. That is funny no matter how old or young you are.

But, The Internship also has many flaws, not least of which are the drawn out motivational speeches, of which there are far too many. The film could also have been about 30 minutes shorter.

While The Internship is not a landmark film, it is entertaining enough. 



Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Mud

WRITTEN BY: Jeff Nichols
DIRECTED BY: Jeff Nichols
STARRING: Matthew McConaughey, Tye Sheridan, Jacob Lofland, Reese Witherspoon
RATING: 4.5 stars

Love. That is the central theme in Mud, a dark and complex tale in which each character's notion of love drives their at times extreme, violent, deceptive or optimistic actions. Mud also beautifully juxtaposes the promise of youth with some of the harsh realities of life. While the film is a coming of age story and a character-driven mystery, there are actually many layers to the plot and intriguing characters that you will be pondering the depths of its message hours after seeing it.

Set in Arkansas, best friends Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) find a boat stuck in a tree on a deserted island and plan to make it their own. But they discover a mysterious man named Mud (Matthew McConaughey) already squatting in the boat. Mud tells the boys he is waiting for his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) but also admits to being a wanted man by police and bounty hunters. Ellis and Neckbone ignore warning signs to stay away from Mud, and instead agree to help him reunite with Juniper and escape those looking for him.

Much like River Phoenix in Stand By Me and Leonardo DiCaprio in What's Eating Gilbert Grape, the two young actors in this film give a powerful and moving performance. While McConaughey may play the title character, Mud is actually Sheridan's film. He is in most scenes and has several very emotive scenes. Viewers at my screening were so engrossed in the protagonist and his story that there were several audible gasps during a few of his more dangerous and climactic scenes. It says a lot about how strong a performance he gives. Lofland was also very strong and provided some good comedy relief too. The youngsters had great chemistry. McConaughey was also convincing, playing such a tragic figure. Mud is distinctive with his snake tattoo, chipped tooth and boots with crosses on the heels. He has enough danger, charisma and intrigue to draw you in, which suits McConaughey perfectly. It is enjoyable to see him in these serious roles lately, but he still manages to get his shirt off in one scene. Only Witherspoon was ineffective. Her character had little to do and she seemed rather one-dimensional.

As previously mentioned, different views on love are explored thoroughly in the film presenting cynical, idealistic and romantic ideas. Specifically, Ellis' parents (Sarah Paulson and Ray McKinnon) are facing divorce, while Ellis is still a passionate believer in the notion of love and its power to overcome anything. It is that belief that makes him want to help Mud, who has loved the same girl since childhood, and it also makes him pursue his own romance with an older teenager. Meanwhile, Juniper has a more needy and manipulative take on love. The film also explores the different types of love between children and their parents and guardians with Mud, Ellis and Neckbone all having different experiences. The film does not strive to make a point about whose perceptions are right or wrong, it merely presents the various types of love.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols has already received praise for this film overseas. Aside from the story and performances, there is also some great cinematography capturing the landscape, fauna and flora of the area. Mud is slightly too long and the ending is a little too conventional, considering how unique the rest of the film is. Nonetheless, it is a beautiful film. I hope Australian audiences embrace it.





Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Monsters University

WRITTEN BY: Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson, Dan Scanlon
DIRECTED BY: Dan Scanlon
STARRING: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren
RATING: 2 stars

Children's films are supposed to be funny, cute and adventurous. Unfortunately, Monsters University mostly lacked those three elements. The cute factor from Monsters Inc. has worn off, the humour is almost non-existent and the adventure is reduced to a few average montages. I saw this film with a cinema full of children and not even they were laughing much during the screening.

We may know Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and James "Sully" Sullivan (John Goodman) as best friends, but it wasn’t always that way. As we see in this prequel, the mismatched pair of monsters had some major personality clashes when they first met. The film begins with Mike taking an excursion to Monsters Inc. where he decides his life ambition is to become a scarer. Years later, he arrives at Monsters University only to be told he is not scary. He befriends his odd roommate Randall (Steve Buscemi) and begins a rivalry with Sully, who thinks his family reputation of scarers is enough to coast through the class. Things take a terrible turn for the pair when they accidentally destroy a personal item belonging to Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren). They get expelled from the class but Mike makes a deal with the dean that if they win the annual Scare Games they will be allowed back into the class.

One of the better aspects of the film was the actors including Crystal, Goodman, Buscemi and Mirren. Unfortunately, great actors voicing sub-par characters is not enough to sustain a film. I don't think we needed a prequel to the original film. I hope Pixar does not bother with a third instalment.





Thursday, 6 June 2013

Fast and Furious 6

WRITTEN BY: Chris Morgan
DIRECTED BY: Justin Lin
STARRING: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Dwayne Johnson, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson
RATING: 3 stars

At this point in the Fast and Furious franchise, everyone knows what kind of film they are getting. Chances are, if you stopped watching after the first one or two films, then you're probably not going to bother with number six. But then, you're probably not reading this review either. If you enjoyed the other films, then this film is more of the same. Director Justin Lin, who has directed a few of the other films in the franchise, has made no apologies about that and he does not need to either. There are hot bodies, fast cars, loud engines, ridiculously unrealistic chase and fight scenes, humour and plenty of fun.

If you recall from the previous film, Dom (Vin Diesel) and Brian's (Paul Walker) Rio heist left their crew with $100 million but are unable to return home where they are still wanted by police. Meanwhile, Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is tracking a mercenary drivers led by Shaw (Luke Evans) and Dom's true love Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) who everyone thought was dead. Hobbs asks Dom to assemble his team in London to take down the bad guys and save Letty from a path of self-destruction. He also promises them full pardons for all their crimes so they can return home.

Johnson's size really is ridiculous. His muscles look like they are about to explode and he makes beefy Diesel look small. But seeing them together in some action-packed scenes is a lot of fun. Diesel even has two scenes where he appears to almost fly. It is outlandish and hilarious, and yet it is accepted as a convention of this franchise. Rodriguez is a vital character in this film and her return is certainly welcome. Evans is a good villain, oozing charm and intrigue. The Fast and Furious franchise started as Walker's films and, although he now has to share the space with some muscle, he still has some good moments with his character developing and becoming a father.

The central theme of this film is about family and they certainly do drill that into the audience. There are plenty of plot holes, but who cares when there are car parks exploding, bridges collapsing, cars flipping over, tanks coming out of nowhere and the climax on a plane being dragged down by cars? It is action heaven. Make sure you stay for the credits too. There is an exciting cameo that hints at the next film in the franchise. 



Monday, 3 June 2013

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks

WRITTEN BY: Alex Gibney
DIRECTED BY: Alex Gibney
STARRING: Julian Assange, Bradley Manning, Adrian Lamo, Daniel Domscheit-Berg
RATING: 4 stars

There is a lot to like about We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. As a documentary, its 130-minute running time is far too long, but there is so much intriguing information. Much of what we see in the film are facts anyone who has followed the story of Julian Assange and WikiLeaks already knows, but it is still fascinating to hear the story from those involved in the rise and fall of such a controversial figure in recent history. It is a very thorough overview of an important piece of modern history. But, the most interesting part is actually less about Assange, and more to do with Bradley Manning who is allegedly responsible for the largest security breach in United States history.

We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks opens with writer/director Alex Gibney speculating that a young Assange was responsible for the WANK (Worms Against Nuclear Killers) virus that invaded NASA in 1989. The film then chronicles Assange’s rise including exposing corrupt banking in Iceland, government corruption in Kenya and toxic waste dumping. It is particularly interesting to see Assange's former deputy Daniel Domscheit-Berg talk about WikiLeaks. However, Assange himself refused to participate in the documentary. Instead, archive footage of his interviews, press conferences and media engagements were used, which are still effective in telling the story.

The film also explores how WikiLeaks began working with traditional media, including The Guardian and The New York Times, before canvassing allegations of sexual assault against Assange in Sweden, which he claims is a smear campaign possibly organised by the CIA. It also touches on how Assange came to be where he is now - in the Ecuadorian embassy in London. Gibney has done well to show an idealistic Assange on a mission to keep governments and corporations honest. But he also explores the ethics of WikiLeaks and Assange's paranoia.

A large portion of the documentary focuses on Manning, an intelligent but sad man from Oklahoma struggling with his gender identity. He enlisted in the army to get a government-funded education but was targeted by other soldiers for being effeminate. As an intelligence analyst in Iraq, he became disillusioned and sought out WikiLeaks. He was eventually betrayed by fellow hacker Adrian Lamo, who gives an interview in the film. Manning is currently awaiting trial but the film suggests there is little evidence to support any claim that the information Manning leaked led to deaths or impacted missions. Instead, the film suggests it merely caused the US government embarrassment.

With any documentary, it is important to consider bias. But considering so much of this information is already public knowledge, the film actually does well to give the story some freshness and balance. It is sure to make viewers think more about the essence of what Manning, Assange, Domscheit-Berg and others were trying to do. In today's world where information is more widely available through the Internet, but terrorism remains a serious threat, governments are inevitably holding secrets, supposedly for the safety of the public. But how much is too much secrecy? That is the debate that this film encourages.