Thursday, 23 October 2014

Fury

WRITTEN BY: David Ayer
DIRECTED BY: David Ayer
STARRING: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, John Bernthal
RATING: 4 stars

Fury is not just another glorified war film. This is a film of substance, emotion and humanity. There is a lot of gory violence with graphic images of body parts being blown up, to the point that squeamish viewers may need to look away a few times. But Fury is never gratuitous. The film depicts the confronting aspects of war on the frontline, including all the mud and filth that goes with it. The protagonists have fascinating character arcs with each starting and ending the film at different emotional points. There is the young and inexperienced man who is horrified at the thought of killing anyone, the hardened fighters who suppress their overwhelming feelings by drinking, and the rugged leader who carries the burden with the utmost bravery. Fury is essentially about the unbreakable brotherhood between five men confined in the small space of a tank - and that is worth spending money to see.

Written and directed by David Ayer, Fury is set in Germany in 1945. Sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier (Brad Pitt) commands a tank on a dangerous mission behind enemy lines. The team is out-numbered and out-gunned by the Nazis. To make matters worse, they are joined by a rookie soldier named Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) who is unprepared for war.

Pitt has always been wise in his film choices, and in recent years, he has become even more fussy about the roles he takes on. Fury is obviously a film he felt needed to be made, since he is also an executive producer for the film, and his performance is fantastic. His character is tough and strong, but he is also sentimental and kind. It is his job to teach his team about the harsh realities of war. When he takes off his shirt in one scene, we see his back is covered in scars. It would have been great to learn even more about the character's background.

Lerman is very impressive playing a character who develops more than any other. It is a real coming of age story for him and he has some amazing moments such as the confronting scene in which Wardaddy demands that he shoot an SS soldier. Shia LaBeouf is emotive and it is easy to forget his real life dramas when he gives such a solid performance on screen as the Bible-quoting soldier. Michael Pena provides some much-needed laughs to lighten the mood but his is also a complex character. John Bernthal is the most debauched of the team, but even his character garners some sympathy. The actors all have great chemistry together and while that is depicted strongly in the many tight tank scenes, it is also memorably shown in an intense and drawn-out dining scene where so much about their individual personalities is revealed.

Fury is about the loss of innocence and the depravity of what people can do to each other in a battle for survival. As Wardaddy says in the film: “Ideals are peaceful, history is violent.”




Wednesday, 22 October 2014

This Is Where I Leave You

WRITTEN BY: Jonathan Tropper
DIRECTED BY: Shawn Levy
STARRING: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Jane Fonda, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Timothy Olyphant, Connie Britton
RATING: 2.5 stars

This Is Where I Leave You has a great cast of comedians so it is a shame that the film is so bland. The film has the odd distinction of having lots of things going on but nothing really happening with the plot. There are a few gags thrown in that are totally out of place while other jokes, such as the very obvious running quip about boobs, are repeatedly force fed to the audience. The film had so much potential and should have been so much better, but it suffers perhaps from having too many underdeveloped characters.

Adapted from Jonathan Tropper's novel by the man himself, the film tells the story of the four adult Altman children (Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll and Adam Driver) who return to their childhood home for the funeral of their father. Their mother (Jane Fonda) forces them under Jewish Shiva rules to live under her roof for a week despite the fact that none of them wants to be there.

Bateman is likeable but his character is so middle-of-the-road and lacks spine even when he is dealing with the fallout of his separation from his cheating wife. He does, however, have good chemistry with Rose Byrne who plays an alternative love interest and Fey, as his nurturing sister. Actually, Fey's character also has an interesting relationship with their childhood neighbour, played by Timothy Olyphant. We learn that they were madly in love as teenagers until he had a brain-damaging accident. There's is the most compelling story but it is so disappointingly underdeveloped. Driver is goofy and has some funny moments but his relationship with a cougar, played by Connie Britton, is totally unbelievable. Stoll is good as the other brother desperate to have a baby with his wife, played by Kathryn Hahn, but their story is not fulfilling. The twist involving Fonda's character towards the end of the film is also strange and seems to be there for laughs and shock value more than anything else.

Hollywood keeps trying to make these dysfunctional family themed films but they rarely work. This Is Where I Leave You is ultimately a disappointing experience. 


Sunday, 19 October 2014

Kill The Messenger

WRITTEN BY: Peter Landesman
DIRECTED BY: Michael Cuesta
STARRING: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt
RATING: 3.5 stars

Many of you will remember the 1996 cocaine smuggling scandal in the United States with the mysterious link to the CIA. Kill The Messenger explores what happened to Gary Webb (Jeremy Renner) after he broke the controversial story for the San Jose Mercury News, including the dark fallout as his peers in the journalism community turned against him for writing an article without getting reputable sources on the record to back-up his claims. It is a fascinating and sad story about cover-ups and journalistic integrity.

What Webb uncovered was that the CIA had helped the Nicaraguan Contras smuggle cocaine into the United States during Ronald Reagan's presidency. Webb was about a decade late to investigate the case, but that did not stop him from digging deeper than any other journalist before him. Unfortunately, Webb's work was flawed and that gave skeptics enough to tear his story apart while the authorities continued to deny everything.

Renner does a good job of portraying Webb as a man intent on revealing the ugly truth no matter the cost. Webb is presented as a sympathetic character, though I am not sure how accurate that may be. As if to push the point that Webb was badly treated, the film focuses a lot on his personal life, especially regarding his relationship with his wife and oldest son. It felt too sappy and added several unnecessary minutes to what would otherwise have been a tight film. In fact, while Rosemarie DeWitt is sweet as Webb's saintly wife, her character is totally unbelievable. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Oliver Platt play Webb's editors at the newspaper and both give solid performances. Small but pivotal roles have also been given to Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen and Ray Liotta who all add some intrigue with their complex characters.

Kill the Messenger is a good film. Unfortunately, in our post-WikiLeaks world, such a scandal about government cover-ups is hardly surprising today.


Thursday, 16 October 2014

A Walk Among The Tombstones

WRITTEN BY: Scott Frank
DIRECTED BY: Scott Frank
STARRING: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, David Harbour, Adam David Thompson, Brian 'Astro' Bradley
RATING: 3 stars

At what point do audiences get bored of watching Liam Neeson in the same kind of role? He pumps them out so regularly that it can be a little overwhelming. There is no doubt, however, that he is very good at playing the heroic tough guy and A Walk Among The Tombstones is another decent action film for him. Adapted from Lawrence Block's novel, A Walk Among The Tombstones is a little too long and drawn out, particularly during the final act, but the film delivers some good suspense and creepy characters.

Matt Scudder (Neeson) is a former alcoholic policeman who now works as an unlicensed private detective. He is asked by a drug dealer (Dan Stevens) to find the men who kidnapped his wife and murdered her despite receiving the ransom money. Scudder initially refuses to take on the case but when the man reveals more about his wife's kidnapping and murder, Scudder starts to dig into the case. He soon learns that the men he is looking for have done this before and will do it again.

Neeson's character seems to be searching for redemption and he is a fairly complicated man who is well portrayed by the actor. David Harbour and Adam David Thompson play the villains and they are quite scary and slimy. It is just a shame we do not learn more about them and their debauchery. Brian 'Astro' Bradley provides some laughs as a homeless teenager who befriends Scudder, but their relationship feels forced.

Writer/director Scott Frank has done an adequate job with A Walk Among The Tombstones, but it feels a little too methodical.




Tuesday, 14 October 2014

Before I Go To Sleep

WRITTEN BY: Rowan Joffe
DIRECTED BY: Rowan Joffe
STARRING: Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, Mark Strong
RATING: 3.5 stars

In Before I Go To Sleep, there is a man with a scar, a woman with red hair, a hotel room, an airport and lots of blood. You will no doubt be on the edge of your seat as you try to figure out the truth in this psychological thriller. Amnesia is a horrible experience and the film pushes that stressful and scary feeling of not being able to trust anyone because of that lack of self-awareness. Inexperienced director Rowan Joffe perhaps tries a little too hard with the film and it suffers for that, veering into midday movie territory at times, while the ending drags on too long. But the cast is impressive and the music fits in well as the creepy story unfolds. Before I Go To Sleep is certainly an exciting mystery.

Based on a novel by S.J. Watson, Before I Go To Sleep is about Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman) who wakes up every day unable to remember the recent years of her life due to a traumatic accident. Her husband Ben (Colin Firth) is very patient with her, explaining every morning that they are married and fills in other gaps before going to work. But when he leaves the house, Christine gets a phone call from Dr Nash (Mark Strong) who explains to her that he is secretly treating her in the hopes that she will regain her memory. He instructs her to keep a video diary and together they try to find out the horrific truth of what happened to her.

Kidman is sublime in this role, depicting a frightened, insecure and unsure woman searching for answers about who she is and what happened to her. Firth is also amazing as her patient and sympathetic husband. As the story progresses you are never really sure if he is as he seems or if there is something more sinister behind his loving nature. Strong is also very good and adds another element of intrigue to the complex tale, while Anne-Marie Duff appears as Christine's friend and brings some more surprises to the plot.

Before I Go To Sleep is an intriguing story that will certainly keep you guessing. 



Sunday, 12 October 2014

The Judge

WRITTEN BY: Nick Schenk, Bill Dubuque
DIRECTED BY: David Dobkin
STARRING: Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall, Vera Farmiga, Vincent D'Onofrio
RATING: 4 stars

The Judge is a courtroom drama with family issues at the heart of the tale. It is a character-driven film with a stellar cast and a poignant message. The film runs for about 140 minutes and could have been edited down a little bit, although it is never really boring. Unfortunately, the last half hour is a little bit melodramatic and lame, but the film still works overall to tug at the heartstrings. The Judge is sad and even depressing in parts, but it is also beautiful and warm.

Slick lawyer Hank Palmer (Robert Downey Jr) returns to his childhood home after his mother dies suddenly. But Hank's relationship with his father Joseph (Robert Duvall), the town's judge, is strained. It is only when Joseph is accused of a murder that Hank begins to reconnect with him and it seems Hank is the only one capable of saving the judge from going to prison for the rest of his life.

Downey suits this role perfectly. Hank is the kind of lawyer who “innocent people can't afford” and he is full of wisecracks. Downey lends some honesty to the role and makes Hank, who is heavily flawed with his superficial lifestyle, somehow sweet and vulnerable. Duvall must surely garner some attention come award season with his portrayal of the firm but fair judge. He has great chemistry with Downey and the slow reveal of how deep their mutual painful memories run is great to watch. There is a bathroom scene with the duo that is both tragic and full of love.

The supporting cast includes Vincent D'Onofrio as Hank's older brother who carries his own torture on his shoulders after his potential baseball career was thwarted as a teenager. Jeremy Strong plays the younger, mentally impaired brother, whose life revolves around home movies. Vera Farmiga is great as the local cafe owner and Hank's ex-girlfriend who gives him the reality check he needs. Leighton Meester also features to add some light comedy to an otherwise very dramatic film. Billy Bob Thornton also appears as the prosecuting lawyer out to equal a score with Hank.

Director David Dobkin is perhaps best known for his comedies, but he has delivered a solid dramatic film. 



Thursday, 2 October 2014

Dracula Untold

WRITTEN BY: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
DIRECTED BY: Gary Shore
STARRING: Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon, Charles Dance
RATING: 2 stars

Many of us love a good vampire story and no vampire is as infamous as Bram Stoker's Dracula. The concept for Dracula Untold, which is essentially an origins story for the bloodsucker, had so much potential but ultimately fell flat due to a boring script that was poorly executed by first-time director Gary Shore. The film only runs for about 90 minutes but it lacks much intrigue and is far more sappy than expected in the way it pushes Dracula's family story to the forefront of the tale. You can see what Shore and the writers, Matt Sazama and Burk Sharpless, were trying to achieve in humanising Dracula, but it did not work. Even the action sequences and battle scenes were bland. I really wanted to enjoy Dracula Untold, but the truth is, I will probably never bother to see it again.

Transylvania's Prince Vlad (Luke Evans) is struggling to keep the peace with Ottoman warlord Mehmud (Dominic Cooper). The situation is made worse when Mehmud demands Vlad handover children to be trained as Ottoman soldiers, including the prince's own son. So, he makes a pact with an immortal demon (Charles Dance) to save his family and the realm. Vlad drinks the monster's blood, which will give him three days of superpowers to defeat the Ottoman army. But the deal comes with a catch. Vlad has an uncontrollable desire to drink human blood and must resist for those three days or risk becoming a vampire forever.

Evans is actually a very good actor so it is a shame he has been given so little to work with in this film. He was the saving grace of Dracula Untold. Unfortunately, Cooper was a ridiculous caricature and the supporting cast were hardly memorable. Poor Sarah Gadon, who plays Vlad's wife, is reduced to a simple damsel in distress.

If you like vampire stories, there are far better films to see and books to read than Dracula Untold. 


Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Gone Girl

WRITTEN BY: Gillian Flynn
DIRECTED BY: David Fincher
STARRING: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Kim Dickens, Neil Patrick Harris, Tyler Perry
RATING: 4.5 stars

How well can you ever really know your spouse? How much of our lives is a facade? Those are the questions raised in Gone Girl, which cleverly explores how we portray ourselves and aspects of our personality to our friends and family. It is a thought-provoking, thrilling and suspenseful tale. In less capable hands, Gone Girl could have become a tacky Desperate Housewives type of black comedy, but revered director David Fincher has executed Gillian Flynn's narrative very well, while adding his own signature style. Flynn also adapted her own novel to the screenplay so any omissions or changes in the plot of the film, including the tweaked ending, would presumably have had her backing. Other aspects of the story are only briefly touched on in the film, but explored more thoroughly in the book, providing a greater insight into these complex characters. Nonetheless, the film holds strongly on its own as a gripping and beautifully filmed piece of cinema. I highly recommend both the book and the film.

When Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) goes missing on her wedding anniversary and is feared murdered, her husband Nick (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect. He does not seem to behave the way a distraught husband might in front of the media or detectives. In a series of flashbacks, we learn more about this loving couple and how their relationship became dangerously derailed, as the mystery surrounding Amy's disappearance unfolds.

Affleck suits the role perfectly. While he has movie star good looks, it is also believable that he could be that seemingly laid back guy-next-door and he has that creepy smile down pat. Pike is equally impressive in what is a challenging role as the complex seductress. It is fascinating how much you can sympathise and perhaps even empathise to some degree with Nick and Amy despite both of them being heavily flawed. Interestingly, despite the growing animosity between them, they know each other better than anyone else and there is a strange comfort in that even as the bizarreness of the story becomes further entangled. Affleck and Pike have fantastic chemistry.

The supporting cast includes Neil Patrick Harris as a suave yet creepy man obsessed with Amy, Carrie Coon as Nick's supportive but suspicious twin sister, Kim Dickens as the smart detective trying to piece together the puzzle of Amy's disappearance and Tyler Perry as Nick's cocky lawyer. All of the performances are convincing, which is vital to making the thriller work.

It may only be October, but I think Gone Girl is one of the best films of 2014.