Thursday, 29 January 2015

The Theory of Everything

WRITTEN BY: Anthony McCarten
DIRECTED BY: James Marsh
STARRING: Eddie Redmayne, Felicity Jones, Charlie Cox
RATING: 4.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Physicist Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) is studying at Cambridge university when he meets Jane (Felicity Jones) at a party. As they get to know each other, the pair realise they have many differences. Jane is a Catholic while Stephen is an atheist. She studies the arts and he studies science. But none of that stops them from falling in love. When Stephen discovers he has motor neurone disease, he realises he must work quickly to finish his PhD and live as full a life as he can with Jane.

Stephen Hawking is one of the greatest living minds, so a film about his life was always going to be fascinating to watch. What is so surprising though, is that The Theory of Everything is not just about how motor neurone disease affected the life of a physicist – it really is an extraordinary story about life and love. Hawking himself has described the film as "broadly true" and even let the filmmakers use his voice for the final act. Writer Anthony McCarten has adapted the screenplay from Jane's memoir and with the blessing of the Hawking family, there is not much else for the rest of us to do but take it all in and enjoy the journey. Despite the obvious tragedy of Hawking's illness, The Theory of Everything is an inspirational and uplifting film.

Redmayne could not give a better performance and he is almost certain to win an Oscar after scooping most of the other awards this season. He captures Hawking's intellect, humour and vulnerabilities so well. Since Hawking is limited in his speech and movement, the film is just as much a story about Jane and the struggles she faces while loving and living with a man who doctors say will only live for a few years. As the decades pass, Jane struggles to keep it all together and Jones depicts her heartache with sincerity. Redmayne and Jones also have terrific chemistry. Charlie Cox rounds out the main cast as Jonathan, the choir singer who helps care for Stephen as he grows close to the family, and is very good in the sympathetic role.

Jane Austen famously said that if a book was well written, it was always too short. Indeed, the same can be said for a film. Director James Marsh gives us a two-hour film that is so intriguing and beautiful that I was not ready for it to end. 


Sunday, 25 January 2015

Foxcatcher

WRITTEN BY: E. Max Frye, Dan Futterman
DIRECTED BY: Bennett Miller
STARRING: Channing Tatum, Steve Carell, Mark Ruffalo
RATING: 4 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Champion Olympic wrestling brothers Mark (Channing Tatum) and David Schultz (Mark Ruffalo) join Team Foxcatcher, led by eccentric multimillionaire sponsor John E. du Pont (Steve Carell) in the lead-up to the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul.

Money cannot buy you everything but it can certainly help you obtain a lot and hide even more about your true self from the world. It is that frightening idea that Foxcatcher presents in this bizarre true story. The film has taken certain liberties with facts and it tweaks the timeline and details of some relationships to suit its narrative, but its most pivotal scene is quite accurate to what really happened. Foxcatcher is not the Olympic sporting story you might expect. It has a very slow build-up before a terrifyingly disturbing and sad ending that will leave you with so many unanswerable questions.

Carell will blow you away with his performance, which is like nothing we have ever seen him do before. He nails the mannerisms and voice of du Pont. Ruffalo certainly looks the part and gives an honest portrayal of the champion wrestler. Meanwhile, Tatum gives the best performance of his career in this leading role and it is such a shame that he has not had the award attention that his co-stars have enjoyed. Ruffalo and Tatum have excellent brotherly chemistry too.

I cannot say any more about this film without giving away the plot. Like director Bennett Miller's other films, including Moneyball and Capote, Foxcatcher is probably about 30 minutes too long, but the acting makes it worth watching. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of film that will make viewers gain much more of an appreciation or understanding of wrestling.




Friday, 23 January 2015

Selma

WRITTEN BY: Paul Webb
DIRECTED BY: Ava DuVernay
STARRING: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth
RATING: 4 stars

SYNOPSIS:
The film is an account of Dr Martin Luther King's (David Oyelowo) campaign to secure equal voting rights for African Americans by marching from Selma to Montgomery in Alabama in 1965.

Martin Luther King is one of the most important figures in recent American history so it is important to have a film that emphasises his crucial message of equality, while also examining the wider issue as experienced by so many others at that time. The brutal violence depicted in the film is shocking and heartbreaking to watch at times. The events of 1965 may seem like a long time ago, but considering the tragic racism we still see in the United States and other countries, the film has a poignant message that resonates today just as it did 50 years ago.

The film has been criticised in the US for its inaccurate portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson, which presents him as somewhat of an opponent to the civil rights movement when in fact he was a supporter of the Selma march. I think perhaps that criticism is a bit harsh because the film does show him as backing the movement after pressure from King. The fact is, as the president, he would have faced obstacles in getting laws passed despite any personal feeling of support he might have had for the civil rights movement. I think the film handles his struggle fairly.

The film was also largely overlooked as an Oscar nominee and now that I have seen the film, I can certainly agree that Oyelowo at the very least deserved a nomination for best actor. His voice and delivery of speeches was fantastic. The supporting cast were also very good including Wilkinson who carried himself so much like Johnson, and Tim Roth who was so appropriately racist and slimy as Governor George Wallace. Oprah Winfrey also appears in a small but pivotal role as an intelligent woman who is repeatedly denied the right to enrol to vote. She has some particularly moving moments.

Selma is at times painfully slow to watch, but I am just glad that we have this significant story depicted in a film at all. 


Wednesday, 21 January 2015

The Wedding Ringer

WRITTEN BY: Jeremy Garelick, Jay Lavender
DIRECTED BY: Jeremy Garelick
STARRING: Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting
RATING: 1.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Doug Harris (Josh Gad) is marrying a woman he always thought was out of his league. Gretchen Palmer (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting) wants a big wedding, including several bridesmaids, but Doug does not have a friend to be a best man, let alone fill out his list of groomsmen. So, he hires Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart) whose job it is to pretend to be a person's best friend on their wedding day. He enlists the help of a motley crew to be the remaining groomsmen as they try to quickly create back stories of friendship to get through the big day.

Obviously this is a silly – and quite sad – concept, but I had no idea just how bad this film was going to be. It has three likeable actors in the leading roles and yet none of them are impressive. The Wedding Ringer narrative feels like another variation of The Wedding Date (remember that film with Debra Messing and Dermot Mulroney?) but it is so weak and predictable, to the point that the climax is boring. Meanwhile, the jokes are mostly unoriginal, lame and mildly offensive for the more sensitive audiences. The best aspect of the film is that it only runs for about 95 minutes. Save your money and time for a more worthwhile film. 


Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Still Alice

WRITTEN BY: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
DIRECTED BY: Richard Glatzer, Wash Westmoreland
STARRING: Julianna Moore, Alec Baldwin, Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth, Hunter Parish
RATING: 3.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Columbia linguistics professor Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) is respected in her career, has three adult children (Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parish) and is happily married to esteemed doctor John (Alec Baldwin) when she is diagnosed with Alzheimer's disease. Slowly, Alice starts to lose her memory and eloquence.

Adapted from Lisa Genova's novel, Still Alice is written and directed by real-life couple Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland. It is a moving story spearheaded by Moore's performance. Alice specialises in words, which makes her awareness of their disappearance from her mind more painful for her. When she starts to forget obvious things and then gets lost jogging around her neighbourhood, Alice fears she has a brain tumour. But the diagnosis is worse for her given her career and the fact that there is no cure. Alice laments that she wishes she had cancer because people feel sorry for those victims while people with Alzheimer's face more of a stigma. It is not that the audience should feel more for Alice than anyone else with Alzheimer's because of her job and intelligence, but it does further highlight the tragedy. Moore's depiction of Alice may finally be the performance that wins her an Oscar.

Unfortunately, the other actors seem to just be there to support Moore, which is a shame because, as a family drama, it would have been helpful to learn more about them and their experiences as well as Alice's struggles. When her children learn they may also be carriers of the gene, the issue surrounding that are not fully explored. Similarly, her relationship with her family – which is built up as a loving and close dynamic – is not developed enough. The way in which John reacts to his wife's illness is hardly believable and despite Baldwin's best attempts, his character felt incomplete.

Still Alice is definitely a sad film to watch, but it handles its subject matter tastefully. For anyone who has lost a loved one to the disease, it will also probably hit home pretty hard.

 

Friday, 9 January 2015

Into The Woods

WRITTEN BY: James Lapine
DIRECTED BY: Rob Marshall
STARRING: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine
RATING: 4 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Into the Woods provides a modern twist on several fairy tales by intertwining their plots. The funny – but also at times quite dark – musical follows Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy), but links all of their plots together with an original story involving a Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt). The couple must lift a curse placed by the Witch (Meryl Streep) so that they can become parents.

This Tony award-winning musical has been adapted into a film with several changes along the way to make it more child-friendly. It is a good move but there are still plenty of adult themes, which will go over the heads of youngsters. Director Rob Marshall and his team created a visually magnificent set and edited certain songs out of the musical to tighten the film and its narrative. Although I have not seen a live version of Into The Woods, I do not think the film drastically suffers from any song or sub-plot exclusions. Into The Woods is a lavish production with a delightful cast.

Streep has certainly improved her singing since Mamma Mia and is vocally very strong in this role, which is much more than just an evil witch. Blunt is also a surprisingly good singer and it is great to see the Devil Wears Prada duo back together on-screen. In fact, Blunt's character is quite complex and sad, and although many of her decisions might be met with a disapproving frown, her motives are genuine. There is no doubt that her character has been dealt a rotten hand. Corden is equally impressive and has great chemistry with Blunt.

Huttlestone is delightful but Crawford is a little annoying at times, although that has more to do with her character than the young actress herself. Meanwhile, Mauzy has very little to do but be a damsel in distress. Kendrick is as solid as ever in both her acting and singing. But it is Chris Pine as the sexy and arrogant Prince Charming who is again the scene stealer after his recent success in Horrible Bosses II. He is absolutely hilarious. Johnny Depp also has a small role as the wolf hunting Little Red Riding Hood and he has one very creepy song. If it were a more sleazy actor, it would have been more disturbing.

Into The Woods is a lot of fun, but if you do not like musicals, then this film will not change your mind.


Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Taken 3

WRITTEN BY: Luc Besson, Robert Mark Kamen
DIRECTED BY: Olivier Megaton
STARRING: Liam Neeson, Forest Whitaker, Maggie Grace, Dougray Scott
RATING: 1.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Former government operative Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) is living a normal life when he is accused of murdering his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). Knowing that it does not look good for him, Mills dodges police as he investigates who is truly responsible.

Perhaps no one is technically "taken" in the sense of a kidnapping this time, but Lenore's life is taken and so is Bryan's reputation. The premise is actually quite good, and I had hoped that the inclusion of Forest Whitaker as the inspector hunting down Mills would add a spark to the third instalment, but the delivery was painfully slow, boring and unsatisfying. Everything about the plot, which was really not that complicated, was over-explained to the audience and that brought the run time too close to two hours. The action scenes were also routine and lacked intrigue, and there was too much mushiness between the protagonists. 

Poor Maggie Grace continues to play a two-dimensional character as Mills' daughter, despite an attempt from writers Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen to give her a sub-plot that was supposed to make viewers care more about her - it failed. Whitaker's character was equally bland but Dougray Scott was slightly better as Lenore's grieving second husband. Unfortunately, the entire cast of Russian villains were embarrassing caricatures. If it were not for Neeson's tough guy charm, this film would have been a total mess.

I loved the original film and the second film was at least hilarious in its ridiculousness. But this third - and hopefully final - instalment was tedious. If you really want to see Taken 3, I would recommend waiting for the DVD release. 


Friday, 2 January 2015

Kingsman: The Secret Service

WRITTEN BY: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn 
DIRECTED BY: Matthew Vaughn
STARRING: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Michael Caine, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong
RATING: 4 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Based on a comic book, Kingsman: The Secret Service is about a secret spy organisation that recruits a street-kid named Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Taron Egerton) into the agency's competitive training program just as the world starts to come under threat from evil technology billionaire Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson). Under the tutelage of Harry Hart (Colin Firth), Eggsy trains hard to escape his abusive home and become a super spy.

Director/co-writer Matthew Vaughn did great things with Kick Ass and X-Men: First Class, and now he can add Kingsman: The Secret Service to his impressive resume. The film is hilarious, crude, violent, ridiculous and so much fun. Be warned that this is not a film for children, especially the final half hour where sexual references abound.

Firth suits his character perfectly with his English charm and suave demeanour. Egerton is a relative newcomer to feature films and is a likeable young leading man. Michael Caine appears in a supporting role as a senior figure in the agency and Mark Strong also features as a fellow spy who is a bit of a tech geek, while Mark Hamill has a small but pivotal role. All three stalwart actors are convincing. Jackson has some very funny moments but his lisp becomes a little annoying and less effective in garnering laughs.

What makes the film so entertaining is the way it mocks the spy and action genres without being mean. I certainly laughed out loud a lot while watching Kingsman: The Secret Service and you probably will too. 


Thursday, 1 January 2015

Birdman

WRITTEN BY: Alejandro González Iñárritu, Nicolás Giacobone, Alexanfer Dinelaris, Armando Bo
DIRECTED BY: Alejandro González Iñárritu
STARRING: Michael Keaton, Edward Norton, Emma Stone, Naomi Watts
RATING: 4.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was once the lead actor in a superhero franchise called Birdman. But now, Riggan is facing bankruptcy and has put everything he has left into a Broadway play in the hopes that it will launch his comeback. Riggan is directing and starring in an adaptation of Richard Carver's short story called What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. His best friend and manager Jake (Zach Galafianakis) is producing the play while his daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who has just come out of rehab, is his assistant. Riggan's lead actress Lesley (Naomi Watts) brings in her talented but difficult boyfriend Mike Shiner (Edward Norton) to fill out the cast. But as opening night approaches, Riggan struggles to keep the play and himself together.

Director/co-writer Alejandro González Iñárritu has a lot to say about film, art, success, mental health and popular culture. Birdman is a beautiful piece of cinema with a fascinating depiction of actors, including their eccentricities and self-indulgences. The moral of the complex story is enthralling and thought-provoking. While the film lags a little in the middle, it bounces back strongly in the final act. Be aware that the trailer is misleading and does not do the film justice.

Aside from the intriguing plot, the stylistic elements are profound. There is a very clever use of editing, which makes it seem like most of the film has been shot in one take. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki has since revealed that most shots ran for about 10 to 15 minutes, but it appears seamless. Due to the tight nature of the set, it also makes the audience feel like they are in the theatre with the cast. Music and sounds are also used for maximum effect, including a repeated drum beat and having musicians playing their instruments in random places throughout the film.

The cast is brilliant, led by Keaton who has indeed made quite the comeback with this role. Norton is sublime and Watts is wonderfully dramatic. Stone is the weakest link, but perhaps only in comparison to how great everyone else is. Galafianakis is also underused.

The entire experience of watching Birdman is quirky, fun, hilarious and quite special. It should win many awards, including several Oscars.