Sunday, 27 October 2013

The Counsellor

WRITTEN BY: Cormac McCarthy
DIRECTED BY: Ridley Scott
STARRING: Michael Fassbender, Cameron Diaz, Penelope Cruz, Javier Bardem, Brad Pitt
RATING: 2 stars

Cormac McCarthy has written some much-loved and respected novels that have been adapted to film, including The Road and No Country for Old Men. This time, he has written an original film script himself. Unfortunately, it seems he forgot he was not writing a novel. The Counsellor is dialogue heavy and the overall film makes little sense at all. The best aspect of The Counsellor was the creative and violent way in which a few characters die throughout the film. While it looks great stylistically – thanks to director Ridley Scott – and the cast is more than impressive, The Counsellor still completely falls apart.

The plot centres around a lawyer, known only as the Counsellor (Michael Fassbender), who involves himself in a drug trafficking deal with a client named Reiner (Javier Bardem) and his associate Westray (Brad Pitt). Reiner is a little wacky and is oddly paired up with his mysterious and sultry girlfriend, Malkina (Cameron Diaz), while Westray remains enigmatic and aloof. The deal the three men concoct collapses when an odd coincidence derails the entire scheme so that it looks like they have betrayed their counterparts. By the time the Counsellor realises he is in way over his head, it is too late to stop the ball rolling. So instead, he does the best he can to flee with his fiance, Laura (Penelope Cruz), before they are captured and murdered over his mistake.

Fassbender gives a solid performance, although it is far from his best work, which probably comes down to the script rather than him. Bardem is as reliable as always and is assisted with his character's quirks that make him more interesting, although Reiner is ultimately lacking in any substantial development. Diaz is an interesting choice to play a femme fatale type of seductress. While she has some good moments, she is not the most convincing actress. Her much talked about "sex with a car" scene is also just ridiculously funny and not at all sexy. Cruz is cute but it is hard to believe that anyone her age could possibly be so naive and innocent. Pitt was the only one who brought any real charisma and light to the film.

The Counsellor was a disappointing film that probably would have worked better as a novel.



Friday, 25 October 2013

The Butler

WRITTEN BY: Danny Strong
DIRECTED BY: Lee Daniels
STARRING: Forest Whitaker, Oprah Winfrey, David Oyelowo
RATING: 4 stars

Who is not in The Butler? The cast list is certainly long and distinguished - and that elevates an already solid film. It is also a good condensed history lesson of the US from the point of view of African-Americans living in the 60's, 70's and 80's. While parts were a little too sappy, especially in some of the intimate family moments, and the film lacked subtlety in its push to depict the horrors faced by African-Americans over the decades, The Butler is interesting and worth seeing.

Although the film is inspired by the true story of Eugene Allen, who worked as a butler under eight presidents, the film is almost entirely a work of fiction, aside from a few anecdotal tales from the real man. The Butler tells the story of Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) who comes from virtual poverty working on a cotton field to become a revered butler in the White House. Cecil is married to Gloria (Oprah Winfrey) and they have two sons. He does everything he can to protect his family and give them a better life. But his oldest son, Louis (David Oyelowo), clashes with his father about how a black man should live in a white man's country. Louis joins the freedom riders and starts spending time with Martin Luther King. The film chronicles the changes in the US over several decades and explores how the nation treated African-Americans through the eyes of these main characters.

Director Lee Daniels, who has made haunting films like The Paperboy and Precious, has softened slightly with The Butler but still shows some brutal and harrowing scenes that will tug at the heart strings. It is impossible not to feel for the freedom riders attacked in a chilling confrontation with the Ku Klux Klan, and of course the John F. Kennedy assassination is presented with great sadness. My main criticism of his style in this film was the costumes used to depict each decade. It was too obvious to show jumpsuits in the 70's and tracksuits in the 80's, and there were unintended laughs from the audience in several moments during my screening.

Some may also find the endless stream of cameos distracting, especially all the familiar faces of each president. But I think it is a testament to how intriguing the story is that so many well known actors wanted even just a small part in it. The cast includes Robin Williams, James Marsden, Alan Rickman, John Cusack and Liev Schreiber. There are also small roles given to stars like Cuba Gooding Jr who is very funny and Terrence Howard who is sleazy. Others include a creepy Alex Pettyfer, Mariah Carey in a tiny role, Lenny Kravitz, Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave.

But the film really rests on three actors. Whitaker is impressive with some difficult material, while Oyelowo also has some powerful scenes. In fact, he has some of the more pivotal scenes in the film. But it is Winfrey who almost steals the film. With such heavy issues explored, she certainly brings some much-needed comedy with her sass. But she also has some very serious scenes. It is easy to forget Winfrey is actually a good actress, but she is able to shine in this film.

The Butler will probably attract a lot of attention when award season rolls around and it deserves it.



Thursday, 17 October 2013

Captain Phillips

WRITTEN BY: Billy Ray
DIRECTED BY: Paul Greengrass
STARRING: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi, Barkhad Abdirahman
RATING: 3.5 stars

True stories often make the most intriguing films. While there is always some Hollywood spin, knowing that the essence of a story is based on reality can make it all the more emotional to watch. The 2009 news about an American cargo ship being hijacked was well documented at the time and now the film recreates that tale in the capable hands of director Paul Greengrass, who gave us the original Bourne trilogy, screenwriter Billy Ray who has crafted the intense drama well, and of course, Tom Hanks as the protagonist in a powerful performance.

Based on the book written by Captain Richard Phillips called A Captain's Duty: Somali Pirates, Navy SEALS, and Dangerous Days at Sea, the film tells the harrowing true story of how Captain Phillips (Hanks) dealt with the hijacking of his US-flagged MV Maersk Alabama – the first American cargo ship to be taken over by pirates in 200 years. The ship is conquered by four Somalians seeking money. But they are left dissatisfied with what they find on the ship, so they kidnap the captain with the aim of taking him back to Somalia.

The film is essentially a giant showdown between the captain and two of the pirates – the smart and tough Muse (Barkhad Abdi) and the hot-headed Bilal (Barkhad Abdirahman). Faysal Ahmed and Mahat M. Aliare are the other two pirates and each one gives an almost authentic performance. As strong as Hanks is in holding the film together, the four villains really make a surprising impact.

The first half of the film felt like Die Hard on a ship, while the second half was more intimate, or rather, claustrophobic in the boat. Greengrass is known for his use of hand-held camera work and it is used to optimal effect in this film and makes the audience feel like they are part of every moment. Interestingly, the film also shies away from being a tacky “America saves the day” story because although the American navy is involved, Greengrass does not make it about them – it is really a human story about the five men in that boat.

The film is a little more than two hours long and in parts it did drag a bit. Nonetheless, it is a fascinating story about survival and a brief insight into the horrors faced by Somalians living in poverty. 



Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Prisoners

WRITTEN BY: Aaron Guzikowski
DIRECTED BY: Denis Villeneuve
STARRING: Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Melissa Leo, Viola Davis, Maria Bello, Terrance Howard
RATING: 5 stars

Every parent's worst nightmare is the thought of their child being kidnapped and Prisoners masterfully explores that devastation. While it is confronting and disturbing to watch in parts, it is also a rewarding cinematic experience. Prisoners is a complex story with layers of mystery and a thought-provoking message. Not only will you be drawn into the whodunit tale and feel for the characters who each uniquely deal with the drama, but you will also find yourself wondering how far you would go in a similar situation – and that is the most challenging part of the film. The film encourages you to think about where you would draw the line on your humanity. Prisoners is a tense psychological thriller that ultimately blurs the lines between good and evil, and examines what it takes for a good person to become bad.

It is thanksgiving when six-year-old girls Anna Dover (Erin Gerasimowich) and Joy Birch (Kyla Drew Simmons) go missing. Their parents, Keller (Hugh Jackman) and Grace Dover (Maria Bello), and Franklin (Terrence Howard) and Nancy Birch (Viola Davis), each react differently to the horror as the days drag on. While Grace turns to prescription pills, God-loving Keller takes the law into his own hands. He knows that if his daughter is not found within a week the chances of her ever being found alive drop dramatically. The only lead in the investigation is an RV that had earlier been parked on their street. Detective Loki (Jake Gyllenhaal) arrests the driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano), but he is released due to a lack of evidence. The detective follows other leads but Keller is not satisfied. He is sure Alex is responsible and stops at nothing to find out the truth, and even drags a reluctant Franklin into his dark plans.

Aaron Guzikowski's plot takes several twists and turns along the way. It will keep you on the edge of your seat as you are presented with several creepy characters and potential suspects. Even though I had most of it figured out half-way through the film, it did not take away from my enjoyment. The film also raises some religious questions without being critical of faith or praising it to the point of alienating non-believers. It merely raises questions worth exploring in the film and in life. Director Denis Villeneuve, who made one of my favourite films – the horribly confronting and powerful Incendies – has again taken on a challenging subject but tells the story beautifully with his great use of cinematography and camera angles.

Jackman has been on quite a roll recently and his performance in Prisoners is almost flawless, as he presents a character that is somehow menacing and angry, but also caring and gentle. In fact, the entire cast is exceptional. Dano gives his strongest performance to date, Gyllenhaal presents an interesting unorthodox detective, Leo is almost unrecognisable and great in the role of Alex's aunty, Bello plays messy well, Howard portrays probably the most likeable character, and Davis has one particularly heartbreaking and desperate scene with Dano.

If I have to say one negative thing about the film, it is its two-and-a-half-hour length that may deter some people. But for me, the slow pace works to the film's advantage because audiences can feel the strain of time slipping away from the police and family.

I cannot say enough how much I love this film. I cannot wait to see it again. 



Wednesday, 9 October 2013

2 Guns

WRITTEN BY: Blake Masters
DIRECTED BY: Baltasar Kormákur
STARRING: Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg, Paula Patton, Bill Paxton, James Marsden, Edward James Olmos
RATING: 3 stars

Who knew Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington would have such great on-screen chemistry? 2 Guns sees them pitted against each other and working as a team, and there are several laugh-out-loud moments as they toss their banter around. There are also plenty of action sequences, multiple bad guys – although they are rather under-developed – and Paula Patton shows her breasts within minutes, so it is pretty much a teenage boy's dream film. Adults will enjoy it too, although the film runs away with itself in parts. If it weren't for the charm of Washington and Wahlberg, perhaps the film would have fallen apart, but as it is, 2 Guns has just the right amount of silly fun.

Based on the Boom! graphic novels by Steven Grant, 2 Guns has a rather convoluted plot that takes lots of turns. Bobby Trench (Washington) is an undercover DEA agent trying to catch Mexican drug cartel boss Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). Marcus Stigman (Wahlberg) is an undercover NCIS agent with the same mission. Neither of them know about the other and it is only after they are both involved in a bank robbery that they realise the truth. They then begrudgingly join forces to get to the bottom of what is happening. Have they been set up by their superiors? Why is everyone after them? It is ridiculous and yet it somehow works.

What makes the film even more fun is that the supporting cast are also great actors. Bill Paxton plays a shady man hunting the pair and he almost steals the film. James Marsden plays Stigman's boss and is great at being a jerk. He is such a versatile actor. Despite my joke about her breasts, Patton is actually quite good in the film too as Trench's girlfriend, Deb. I should also say that her breast exposure is not at all gratuitous. Olmos had an interesting but ultimately underused character. I wanted to know more about him. The same can be said for Paxton and Marsden's characters.

2 Guns was a lot better than I thought it would be. I wonder if we will get a sequel? 


Monday, 7 October 2013

Mystery Road

WRITTEN BY: Ivan Sen
DIRETED BY: Ivan Sen
STARRIG: Aaron Pedersen, Hugo Weaving, Ryan Kwanten, Tasma Walton, Damian
Walshe-Howling
RATING: 3.5 stars

I remember studying 2002's Beneath Clouds at university and thinking it was such a visually beautiful film. Writer/director Ivan Sen wonderfully captured the outback and Aboriginal culture. Now, 11 years later, he has written and directed another interesting piece of Australian cinema with some equally impressive cinematography in Mystery Road. Again, he tells an indigenous story, but it is very different. As a murder mystery detective story, it is hard to talk too much about the film without giving away spoilers, suffice to say it takes several twists and turns. Although the film is too long and slow-paced, it weaves an interesting web that finishes with some loose ends dangling just enough to allow you to draw your own conclusions.

Indigenous detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) returns to his old outback town after a stint in the city. His first case is to investigate the murder of a young Aboriginal girl. But what he soon discovers is that he may be the only one interested in solving the crime with his fellow officers pursuing other priorities and the rest of the town resigned to the fact that young Aboriginal girls are going missing or dying. Was the girl prostituting herself? Was she killed by a truck driver? Was she involved in an illegal drug ring?

Pedersen carries the film well with his charisma and acting ability. He is supported by a who's who list of Australian actors including Hugo Weaving playing a cop who may be more than unethical, Ryan Kwanten who plays a mysterious hunter, Damian Walshe-Howling as a local drug dealer, and Tasma Walton as Swan's ex-wife and mother of his teenage daughter. Several other Aussies pop up, such as Jack Thompson, and you will be pointing at the screen every time you recognise someone.

Mystery Road is a departure from many typical Australian films. That in itself should be praised. While it is not an amazing film, it is enjoyable.






Sunday, 6 October 2013

Diana

WRITTEN BY: Stephen Jeffreys
DIRECTED BY: Oliver Hirschbiegel
STARRING: Naomi Watts, Naveen Andrews
RATING: 1.5 stars

Princess Diana is fondly remembered for her extensive charity work, but she is equally remembered for her mysterious affairs and tabloid lifestyle. It is a shame that someone so admired and respected on the one hand can also be water cooler fodder. When I heard that 16 years after her death, a film was being made about Diana's life, I was intrigued about what stories would be told. Unfortunately, Oliver Hirschbiegel's film is a gossip-inspired story that does very little to engage audiences. Instead, it is filled with so-called intimate details that lack credibility. I would have preferred a film that focussed on her inspiring humanitarian work. As it stands, the film is awfully written by Stephen Jeffreys with woeful dialogue and a cheap, sensationalised look at a revered woman's life.

Chronicling the final two years of the most famous woman in the world, the film is set in 1995 with Princess Diana (Naomi Watts) being hounded by the paparazzi while she tries to juggle being a humanitarian, dealing with the end of her marriage to Prince Charles and how to remain in her children's lives. Then she meets heart surgeon Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews) who she likes immediately because he does not treat her like royalty. In fact, he shuns that lifestyle and considers it distracting to his medical work. Nonetheless, the pair begin an affair.

The film makes Diana's life out to be a soap opera. She appears desperate for love and a little annoying at times. Watts is a strong actress and she did her best with the weak script, but even she could not save this film. Unfortunately, there was zero chemistry between her and Andrews too, which was a vital missing link. He also had to endure delivering some of the worst lines.

The only really good thing I can say about this film is that they did a great job with recreating some well documented moments in the princess's life. But it is not worth seeing just for that. If you want to know about Diana's life, watch some old interviews with her or read a few biographies with a critical eye and make your own mind up about the Queen of Hearts.



Friday, 4 October 2013

Thanks For Sharing

WRITTEN BY: Stuart Blumberg, Matt Winston
DIRECTED BY: Stuart Blumberg
STARRING: Mark Ruffalo, Tim Robbins, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Gad, Alecia Moore, Patrick Fugit
RATING: 3.5 stars
 
If you think a film about sex addiction is going to be full of laughs, think again. While there are certainly some very funny moments and plenty of romance and quirkiness in Thanks For Sharing, the film also has a lot of heart and displays insight into the troubling world of addiction. As the film explains, sex addiction is not just something men say they have when they get caught cheating – it is real and can be incredibly stressful, debilitating and difficult to manage. First-time director Stuart Blumberg, who also wrote The Kids Are Alright and co-wrote this film with Matt Winston, shows warmth and understanding about tackling such a fierce demon.
 
Set in bustling New York full of cramped trains and sexy billboards, Thanks For Sharing is essentially a romantic comedy/drama that tells the story of three characters who know each other from their sex addiction rehabilitation program. Mike (Tim Robbins) is seemingly the poster boy for overcoming addiction. He has been sober for 15 years and has a loving wife (Joely Richardson). But we soon learn that his life is not as great as it seems when his troubled son (Patrick Fugit) comes to visit. Meanwhile, Mike's sponsee Adam (Mark Ruffalo) has been sober for five years and is finally ready to start dating again when he meets Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow) but he struggles to confide in her about his addiction. Adam is also mentoring ER doctor Neil (Josh Gad) who is not quite ready to admit he has a problem.
 
Ruffalo is his usual amazing self in this film. It seems there is nothing he cannot do whether it be superhero films, quirky dramas or romantic comedies. But I always like him best in roles like this where he plays complex characters. Robbins has some powerful scenes and Gad is also very good, while Paltrow was solid throughout as a cancer-surviving gym junkie. Alecia Moore, better known as Pink, surprised me with her talent playing another addict named Dede, who helps Neil along his way to recovery.
 
 
With its bursts of humour, Thanks For Sharing is far more appealing for mainstream audiences than the confronting sex addiction film, Shame, starring Michael Fassbender. But it still explores deep issues and takes some dark turns, so it is not the light film you might expect. Ultimately though, it is an interesting look at the world of sex addiction.
 
 
 

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Gravity

WRITTEN BY: Alfonso Cuaron, Jonas Cuaron
DIRECTED BY: Alfonso Cuaron
STARRING: Sandra Bullock, George Clooney, Ed Harris
RATING: 4 stars

If you see just one film in 3D this year, make sure it is Gravity. You will be pleased to know that all the great things you have been hearing about the film are true. It is visually stunning with amazing cinematography and special effects, including flying debris, and Sandra Bullock's performance is great. She basically carries the entire film by herself. Gravity is only about 90 minutes long, but the film pulls you in and will keep you on the edge of your seat with its intensity. I have never felt so good about feeling claustrophobic.

Medical engineer Dr Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) is on her first shuttle mission with veteran astronaut Matt Kowalsky (George Clooney). But during a routine spacewalk, the Russians shoot down a satellite that forces an emergency for the American crew. Their shuttle is destroyed, leaving Stone and Kowalsky tethered together and drifting alone in space. They have lost all communication with Earth, and with that, any chance for rescue. They decide the only way to survive is to make it to another space station before they run out of oxygen.

The really eerie aspect about space that Alfonso Cuaron's film cleverly depicts is that there is no sound and objects can fly at you at huge speeds without much warning. A large part of the film involves panicked breathing from Bullock's character as she runs low on her oxygen supply. But rather than that being annoying to listen to, it drags you in further to her ordeal and you feel almost just as suffocated and worried as her - but in a really good way. Meanwhile, Clooney is basically playing his charming self in Gravity and that is totally fine because he adds vital humour to an otherwise highly suspenseful film.

The film stumbles a little towards the end with an overly dramatic moment that was not needed in such a powerful film. But ultimately, Gravity is an exhausting but rewarding survival story that is much better than the over-rated Cast Away and just as good as the likes of 127 Hours and Life of Pi.



Tuesday, 1 October 2013

About Time

WRITTEN BY: Richard Curtis
DIRECTED BY: Richard Curtis
STARRING: Domhnall Gleeson, Rachel McAdams, Bill Nighy, Lydia Wilson
RATING: 3.5 stars
 
Cher famously sang that if she could turn back time, she would "take back those words that hurt you and you'd stay". In About Time, the protagonist also has love on the mind when he discovers he can time travel. To limit the scope of the possibilities involved with time travel, the film cleverly explains that the protagonist can only go back through his own life to moments that he remembers. It is an interesting concept to explore from writer/director Richard Curtis who also wrote Love Actually, Notting Hill and Bridget Jones's Diary. With a record like that, you know the film is going to be fun. But isn't it lovely when a cute romantic comedy leaves you with a beautiful message about love and life?
 
At the age of 21, Tim (Domhnall Gleeson) discovers he can travel in time, so he decides to make his world better by getting a girlfriend. But that task proves to be more difficult than the awkward young man first thought. Through a series of hilarious mishaps, Tim does his best to use his power for good by helping out his friends and also favouring himself, such as when he goes back in time to have sex with a woman over and over again. In another scene, he travels back in time to undo talking to a girlfriend's parents about oral sex. But the film also explores the sad and heartbreaking moments in a person's life and what Tim can and cannot do to change things.
 
Gleeson carries the film strongly, despite not being an A-list star. He is charming and goofy, and you are on his side the whole time. Rachel McAdams plays his girlfriend, Mary, and is her likeable self. Bill Nighy is both very funny and touching in some heartwarming father-son scenes. Meanwhile, Richard Cordery almost steals a few scenes playing the hilariously senile Uncle D. Lydia Wilson rounds out the lead cast in a pivotal role as Tim's messed up sister, Kit Kat.
 
About Time beautifully explores the humorous, emotional, sad and fun times in a person's life. It is one of those films you will be thinking about for some time afterwards.