Thursday, 30 January 2014

Are We Officially Dating?

WRITTEN BY: Tom Gormican
DIRECTED BY: Tom Gormican
STARRING: Zac Efron, Michael B. Jordan, Miles Teller, Imogen Poots, Mackenzie Davis
RATING: 3 stars
I laughed out loud a lot while watching Are We Officially Dating?, which is also known as That Awkward Moment in other countries. But upon reflection, I cannot say it was a particularly good film. The main reason for this is that it is terribly predictable. From the moment we are introduced to each character, we can guess exactly how they will develop through the film. Are We Officially Dating? is also pitched as a romantic comedy told from the male point of view, which is great, except that it ends up being told in the same sappy way as a female would tell the story. What does work for the film though is the cast and their chemistry. It feels believable that the trio are best friends. If nothing else, Are We Officially Dating? is a fun film to see on a date night.
When Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) finds out his wife (Jessica Lucas) is leaving him for her lawyer, his two best friends, Jason (Zac Efron) and Daniel (Miles Teller), make a pact vowing to remain single and only have casual sex with women. But all three struggle to keep their promise. Mikey misses his wife, Daniel starts to develop feelings for his wingwoman Chelsea (Mackenzie Davis) and Jason begins to romance young writer Ellie (Imogen Poots) after initially mistaking her for a hooker.
Poots has the quirky-girl-next-door look down pat, while Efron seems to be playing his charming self in this film. But Jason is also rather unlikable in some scenes and I found myself wondering why Ellie likes him. Jordan, who was recently seen in Fruitvale Station, gives a decent performance and his character is probably the most sympathetic. Teller, who recently starred in The Spectacular Now, is very funny in this film. It seems like he improvised some of his lines, which worked well. He also had good chemistry with Davis.
Hardly anyone will remember this film in a few years, but Are We Officially Dating? is still a decent romantic comedy with plenty of shirtless scenes to entertain.

Monday, 27 January 2014

Dallas Buyers Club

WRITTEN BY: Craig Borten, Melisa Wallack
DIRECTED BY: Jean-Marc Vallée
STARRING: Matthew McConaughey, Jared Leto, Jennifer Garner, Denis O'Hare
RATING: 4 stars

Dallas Buyers Club is based on an interesting and sad true story about the AIDS crisis of the mid-1980s following widespread realisation about the disease with the death of screen legend Rock Hudson. After reading up on the facts, it is clear there is quite a bit of artistic license taken with the story. Regardless, its portrayal of the epidemic and the fear people had towards homosexuals is still fascinating.

Set in 1985, Ron Woodroof (Matthew McConaughey) is a homophobic electrician and rodeo living in Texas, who enjoys care-free sex, alcohol and drugs. But when a work accident lands him in hospital, doctors (Jennifer Garner and Denis O'Hare) conduct a blood test that reveals Woodroof is HIV positive and has just one month to live. At first, Woodroof is in denial about his fate but soon realises he will have to fight to survive the disease. Unhappy with his treatment at the hospital, Woodroof meets transsexual drug addict Rayon (Jared Leto) and the pair create a "club" for people with HIV and AIDS to get access to drugs from overseas that are not approved by the US government.

Despite about a decade of cheesy romantic comedies, I had always remembered that underneath all that muscle, McConaughey could actually act. Some of his earlier films, such as A Time To Kill and Amistad, certainly showed that and I have championed the so-called McConaissance with everyone else. But, is McConaughey really going to win an Oscar for losing about 25kg? As good as he was in Dallas Buyers Club, he was better in recent films like Mud and The Paperboy. I still think the Oscar should go to Leonardo DiCaprio for The Wolf of Wall Street. That being said, McConaughey was still very good in this film and his character's transformation from being homophobic to basically a humanitarian is fascinating.

Leto on the other hand deserves every award he has been getting for his portrayal of Rayon, who was not actually a real person in Woodroof's life. He seems to be more of a mix of a few people who Woodroof knew. I expect Leto will score an Oscar for his performance, and rightly so. The confronting scene with his father is especially moving. Garner is also solid in another role that is a combination of a few real life people. Although any actress really could have played the character, it is good to see Garner acting again and in a serious role. Denis O'Hare is also very good as a fellow doctor at the hospital who Woodroof directs a lot of his anger towards.

Dallas Buyers Club works well because it addresses a very serious issue through a very personal story about the will to live. 

Friday, 24 January 2014

12 Years A Slave

WRITTEN BY: John Ridley
DIRECTED BY: Steve McQueen
STARRING: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch
RATING: 4.5 stars

A lot has been said on how 12 Years A Slave depicts a unique story about the horrific treatment of African Americans during the slavery era. While I loved the film, I cannot agree that the tale is all that unique. We have seen many powerful films about slavery before and most include depraved actions from slave owners including whippings, rapes and kidnappings. It is, unfortunately, a common theme. A lot has also been said about how confronting and difficult this film is to watch. Again, I have to disagree. While it is certainly a film that will likely make you wince in parts, at no point was I so horrified that I had to look away or shed a tear. Don't get me wrong, I really loved 12 Years A Slave. It is based on a harrowing true story and it is shameful to think about this dark history of slavery in America. For that reason alone, it is an extraordinary film and it has some amazing performances.

Set in the United States before the Civil War, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a free African American man living in New York. But, while on a work trip to Washington in 1841, he is kidnapped and sold into slavery. He is bought by Christian man William Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) but when trouble strikes, he is sold to the very cruel Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender). Through the years, Solomon struggles to survive and seek freedom.

Director Steve McQueen has a unique style with long takes and close-ups that allow the actors to express emotion and tell the story through their facial expressions. Leading the list of great performances is Ejiofor who commands the screen. It is interesting how invested the audience is in his personal struggle for justice despite there being so many other victims of slavery who just happened to always have been slaves. Fassbender is brutal and mean in the film. It is disturbing to watch him at times but he is great in the role. Lupita Nyong'o plays another slave and has some of the most challenging scenes. Cumberbatch is also solid in his portrayal of a conflicted man. Unfortunately, Brad Pitt's character as a Canadian abolitionist was rather one-dimensional. His character is small but pivotal, and yet, we know nothing of real significance about him.

I am a big fan of films that tell important stories about history and the mistakes societies have made in the past. It often not only provides entertainment, but also teaches audiences a valuable lesson, and 12 Years A Slave certainly does just that.

Tuesday, 21 January 2014

The Wolf of Wall Street

WRITTEN BY: Terence Winter
DIRECTED BY: Martin Scorsese
STARRING: Leonardo DiCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler
RATING: 5 stars

If you have read The Wolf of Wall Street, which I definitely recommend, then you already know just how extraordinary Jordan Belfort's life has been. Quite frankly, it is amazing that he is still alive with all the drugs, sex and lies in his excessive Wall Street life. The film has been adapted from Belfort's memoir chronicling his rise to become a wealthy stockbroker and the ultimate corruption that led to his downfall in the 1990s. The film is three hours long, but in the always reliable hands of director Martin Scorsese, there is never a dull moment.

Told with narration from Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio), The Wolf of Wall Street begins in 1987 when a young and ambitious Belfort meets stockbroker Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey) who teaches him how to make money from his rich clients. But when Black Monday hits, Belfort finds himself struggling. So, he creates his own business with his partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill), adopting techniques he learnt to use on his rich clients on middle-income earners. Using his charisma, Belfort pockets millions of dollars from unsuspecting people and along the way he collects a white Ferrari, a 170-foot yacht, a mansion, a blonde bombshell for a wife, lots of cocaine, a raft of other drugs and many prostitutes. But, as Belfort's profile expands, so too does scrutiny from the FBI.

What does DiCaprio have to do to win an Oscar? He has arguably been the most consistent actor for the past two decades and his most recent run of films have all seen him challenge himself more than ever, culminating in this wild performance. One particular sequence shows how some drugs have restricted Belfort's physical movements, forcing him to crawl to his car and drive home. It is not only jaw-achingly hilarious, but also very well performed by a usually serious actor. The great thing about this character is that DiCpario is able to be funny and dramatic. He really deserves an Academy Award and I hope he finally gets one.

Jonah Hill is also very funny, but that is to be expected from the comedian. It is surprising he got an Oscar nomination for the role. Australian actress Margot Robbie nails the New Yorker accent and is a great addition as Belfort's wife, Naomi. Kyle Chandler is also solid as the suspicious FBI agent investigating Belfort. Small roles have been given to Jean Dujardin who helps Belfort hide millions in a Swiss bank account, and Matthew McConaughey who gives great life to Hanna as he beats his chest and hums during a very funny lunch scene. It is great to see director/actor Rob Reiner back into acting as Belfort's father and Jon Favreau also has a small role. Joanne Lumley is also good as Naomi's aunt Emma who helps Belfort with his money laundering scheme. Keep an eye out for the real Jordan Belfort in the final scene of the film too.

The Wolf of Wall Street explores the dark side of addiction and debauchery. Some may argue the film is an advertisement for cocaine and corruption, or that it glorifies Belfort's crimes. But, like a train wreck you cannot take your eyes off, I think The Wolf of Wall Street is more of a cautionary tale about the danger of too much greed and power.

Thursday, 16 January 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

WRITTEN BY: Adam Cozad, David Koepp
DIRECTED BY: Kenneth Branagh
STARRING: Chris Pine, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh, Kevin Costner
RATING: 2 stars

There are so many failures in Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit that I hardly know where to begin. The plot is far-fetched, the dialogue is embarrassing and I am sick of Russians always being the bad guys in Hollywood films – the stereotype is so old. Also, I've been to Russia and there is absolutely no way anyone can get a Russian visa in a matter of hours. As an action film, audiences have become accustomed to letting silly aspects slide because the point of most action films is having fast cars, beautiful women, explosions and daredevil stunts. But, that is not actually what the slightly geeky character of Jack Ryan is supposed to be about. I think a lot of people who read Tom Clancy's books will be disappointed with this reboot.

Jack Ryan has previously been played by Alec Baldwin, twice by Harrison Ford, and Ben Affleck. In the fifth instalment, Chris Pine takes the reins, but the film is not actually adapted from any of Clancy's novels. In this film, we first meet Jack as a student doing his PhD. But he soon drops out to join the US defence forces after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attack. When he is injured at war, he requires a long rehabilitation process, where he meets a doctor named Cathy (Keira Knightley). It is there that he is also approached by the CIA's William Harper (Kevin Costner) to work as an analyst on Wall Street. Years later, Jack uncovers a financial terrorism threat that could collapse the US economy. So, he becomes a field agent and travels to Russia where he confronts businessman Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh).

Pine is absolutely fine for the role of Jack Ryan. He has the charm, looks and acting ability to pull it off. Unfortunately, he was given a terrible script to work with. His chemistry with Knightley is good, but I still think she is one of the worst actresses in Hollywood. For example, in a scene when her character should have felt some nervousness having dinner with Viktor, Knightley appeared totally calm as if she were a CIA operative. Branagh does his best directing and acting in this film, but Viktor becomes a caricature bad guy. Costner is solid, although he does not do enough in the film.

Unfortunately, the best thing about Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit was Pine's blue eyes and the beautiful shots of Moscow's iconic architecture.

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Inside Llewyn Davis

WRITTEN BY: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen
DIRECTED BY: Ethan Coen, Joel Coen
STARRING: Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund
RATING: 4.5 stars

Inside Llewyn Davis could easily be made into a play – it is a fascinating character study that pulls you in to the story, which is essentially about an anti-hero dreaming of success in the music industry. The film chronicles a week in the life of Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac), a young folk singer living in Greenwich Village in 1961. The protagonist is down on his luck and struggling to make ends meet, bouncing around from couch to couch and inevitably alienating the only few friends he has with his angst selfishness.

While the film is a drama, there are also humorous moments generated by natural real-life funny moments such as Llewyn's struggle to care for a cat and return it to its owners. There is also a very funny scene involving a song recording session.

Isaac is a rare talent with the ability to sing beautifully and act well. It is great to see him finally shine in a leading role after so many supporting roles in recent years. Joel and Ethan Coen have taken full advantage of Isaac's skills, getting him to sing songs in their entirety. Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake play Jean and Jim – a singing duo and couple who let Llewyn sleep on their couch. Jean had an affair with Llewyn and is pregnant with his child. She is one of the most interesting supporting characters and Mulligan is great in the role. Timberlake also seems comfortable in a singing role. John Goodman and Garrett Hedlund also have small but intriguing parts. The film is all about Llewyn, but I wanted to know more about their characters.

Ultimately, Inside Llewyn Davis depicts a fascinating and vulnerable character trying to find his way in the world, and that is something we can all relate to.

Tuesday, 14 January 2014


WRITTEN BY: Spike Jonze
DIRECTED BY: Spike Jonze
STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson
RATING 4.5 stars

It is easy to joke about how technology is constantly changing and we are relying more than ever on our phones and computers to do just about everything for us. But, there is also a very real skepticism and fear about the direction the world is going with so many gadgets. Her holds a mirror up to society and cleverly explores the relationship between people and technology in a quirky romantic comedy/drama. While Spike Jonze's film is funny in parts, it also challenges its audience with its layers of depth.

Set in the not too distant future, Her introduces audiences to Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix), a lonely writer struggling to move on after the break-up of his marriage. He develops an unusual romantic relationship with his operating system that calls herself Samantha (voice of Scarlett Johansson). While it seems to be an outlandish concept, it is not so crazy within the context of this film, because in the future, many people are a little too attached to their gadgets.

There is no doubt Phoenix is an impressive actor and he is brilliant in this film. He is funny at the right times, but also endearing and sympathetic. The "sex" scenes in particular are very good. Amy Adams plays his ex-girlfriend and best friend. While she is good, she has a sub-plot that is not really worth exploring. Johansson has never really impressed me and her "sexy" husky voice is not actually all that sexy. Kristen Wiig has a small role as the voice of a stranger who Theodore has phone sex with when he is feeling lonely. She is hilarious.

The only problem I really have with this film is that it falters a bit in the middle before coming back again strongly. It is also perhaps a little too long. Nonetheless, Her is a profound and emotional film with a thought-provoking message.

Friday, 10 January 2014

Saving Mr Banks

WRITTEN BY: Kelly Marcel, Sue Smith
DIRECTED BY: John Lee Hancock
STARRING: Tom Hanks, Emma Thompson, Colin Farrell, Annie Buckley, Bradley Whitford
RATING: 4.5 stars

There is always some criticism about inaccuracies in films that are supposed to be based on true stories. Saving Mr Banks perhaps tries to maintain the positive image of Walt Disney as a man who brought so much happiness to people, while he actually had some major personality flaws. But then, the film is not really about him. It is also rather convenient that this film would be made to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the Mary Poppins film. But, if you can put that cynicism aside, Saving Mr Banks is a surprisingly funny, interesting and moving story about the woman who created the beloved fictional nanny.

In Saving Mr Banks, author P. L. Travers (Emma Thompson) reflects on her difficult childhood growing up in Australia as she meets with filmmaker Walt Disney (Tom Hanks) during the adaptation of her novel, Mary Poppins. Travers cherishes the nanny so much that she is loathe to part ways with the character creatively and refuses to sign away the rights unless she can be involved in the production.

If you have read the Mary Poppins books, or watched the film or stage production, you will probably have an affection for the character. But Saving Mr Banks is quite an eye opener about the character's creator and tells the behind the scenes story with heart through a series of flashbacks. In fact, director John Lee Hancock has done an impressive job of transitioning between the two eras for maximum emotional impact.

Emma Thompson gives a flawless performance as Travers. She is snappy, funny, witty, proper, and so very English. This film belongs to her and she is absolutely perfect. For me, perhaps only Cate Blanchett has given a slightly stronger performance this past year. Hanks is quite good as Disney, but he does not really stretch himself much in the role. For all the award attention he has been getting lately, I think it is better placed for his role in Captain Phillips.

Colin Farrell gives a powerful performance as Travers' alcoholic father in the flashbacks. It is a shame he has been overshadowed by Thompson and Hanks. Annie Buckley plays the young Travers and is also very good, especially for such a young actress. Jason Schwartzman and B.J. Novak are well cast as songwriters Richard and Robert Sherman, and Bradley Whitford also provides plenty of laughs. Paul Giamatti has a small yet significant role as an endearing limo driver, and Rachel Griffiths has a pivotal role as Aunt Ellie. I would have liked to see more of her.

If you see Saving Mr Banks, make sure you bring some tissues. Stay for the end credits too to see real life photographs of the author and some recordings from her meetings with the Disney staff.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

20 Most Anticipated Films of 2014

Happy New Year film lovers.
Film schedules can change, and often films that are due for release in the United States late in the year do not get released in Australia until the following year.
Nonetheless, here is my list of the 20 most anticipated films of 2014:
1) The Wolf of Wall Street
If you have read the book, you know just how crazy Jordan Belfort's
corrupt life has been. In the reliable hands of director Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead, I have high hopes for this film. It is three hours long and has had mixed reviews in the US, but I cannot wait to see it for myself.
2) 12 Years A Slave
This film has become beloved in other parts of the world and will soon
be released in Australia. It has a strong cast and seems to have a very powerful message about American history and slavery. It will probably make you cry.
3) Her
Another film getting a lot of buzz. The idea of a man seemingly falling
in love with a computer is peculiar, but with Joaquin Phoenix in the lead, it is likely to be compelling viewing.
4) X:Men Days of Future Past
I will never give up on the X-Men franchise. The prequel reboot was a
five-star film for me and the filmmakers have found a way to link the old cast with the new through Wolverine and some time travel. I think a lot of comic book fans will be excited for this film.
5) Interstellar
Christopher Nolan is back again. He is probably one of the most
reliable directors to come out of Hollywood and he has assembled a fantastic cast including Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, Matt Damon, Casey Affleck and John Lithgow.
6) Inside Llewyn Davis
I love just about everything the Coen brothers do so I have high expectations for this film. It chronicles a week in the life of a young singer in 1961. Oscar Isaac may finally have his big break after a string of small supporting roles.
7) Dallas Buyer's Club
Matthew McConaughey has been on quite a roll in recent years. He lost a
lot of weight for this role and Jared Leto has also had a lot of praise for his work in the film. It is set in 1985 and deals with AIDS medication.
8) Gone Girl
Based on a novel, it is about a woman who mysteriously disappears on
her wedding anniversary. David Fincher and Ben Affleck have teamed up for this intriguing tale that promises to be full of thrills.
9) The Monuments Men
It basically looks like Ocean's 11 set during World War II with
artwork. Of course that sounds like fun. George Clooney has directed, co-written and starred in the film based on a book. He has also enlisted the help of his buddies including Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett.
10) Fury
Brad Pitt. Do we need another reason to see this film? It is about a
crew of Americans in Nazi Germany who embark on a mission towards the end of World War II.
11) Unbroken
Angelina Jolie has been filming this in Australia. The film co-stars my
favourite young actor, Garrett Hedlund, and looks like a fascinating true story about an Olympic runner who was taken prisoner by Japanese forces during World War II. Jolie is proving to be a passionate director so I am keen to see what she does with this film.
12) Blue Is The Warmest Colour
The story of a young lesbian couple's complicated relationship. The
film has had a lot of praise that has been slightly tarnished by some bizarre behind the scenes stories. It still looks like a fascinating film.
13) The Fault In Our Stars
We need at least one love story every year that will make us cry. A
lot. It looks like this film about two youngsters who find love in a cancer support group will be it. Shailene Woodley is a young actress we are sure to see more of in the next few years.
14) Into The Woods
An impressive cast who sing including Johnny Depp, Chris Pine and Meryl
Streep, who plays the evil witch conspiring to teach a lesson to characters in childrens stories like Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood. This is a Tony Award winning musical so the film has a lot to live up to.
15) Noah Russell Crowe has had some hits and misses recently but he has certainly been working hard. This film tells the Biblical story of Noah with a twist. Director Darren Aronofsky gave us films like Black Swan and The Fountain, so expect the unexpected.
16) Mandela: Long Walk To Freedom
The story of Nelson Mandela's life journey from his childhood in a rural village to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Idris Elba looks impressive in the trailers.
17) Exodus 
Ridley Scott directs Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver and Aaron Paul in this story of Moses leading the Jews from Egypt in the Bible's book of Exodus. I am intrigued with Bale's choice more than anything else.
18) 22 Jump Street
The original was such surprising fun, I cannot wait to see what they do
next. I pray to Korean Jesus that this is not a dud.
19) Transcendence
Johnny Depp plays a terminally ill scientist who downloads his body
into a computer. A fascinating concept for cinematographer Wally Pfister to take on in his directorial debut.
20) Sin City: A Dame To Die For
It has been almost 10 years since the original film. Have they waited 
too long for a sequel? I hope not.

What are you looking forward to seeing in 2014?