Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Samba

WRITTEN BY: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
DIRECTED BY: Olivier Nakache, Eric Toledano
STARRING: Omar Sy, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Tahar Rahim
RATING: 3.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Samba (Omar Sy) moved from Senegal to France 10 years ago and has been quietly trying to blend in while working in low-paid jobs. Meanwhile, Alice (Charlotte Gainsbourg) is a senior executive who has recently experienced a burnout and starts doing pro bono work helping immigrants in Paris apply for visas and jobs. When they meet, Alice is immediately struck by Samba and tries to help him get his working papers.

The fantastic team behind The Intouchables has given audiences another memorable French film. It is certainly a drama, but there is so much realistic humour thrown in too, which balances the story. While The Intouchables paired a lowly criminal with a rich paraplegic to draw some fascinating juxtapositions, Samba makes its own commentary about illegal immigrants and class issues. Gainsbourg brings a sensitivity and warmth to a character who is miserably messed up, while Sy has an imposing presence and appeal portraying a man trying to get ahead in life. Along the way, we meet a series of characters who show a different facet of immigrant life. Jonas (Isaka Sawadogo) is locked up but eager to find his hairdresser fiance Gracieuse (Sabine Pakora), while Wilson (Tahar Rahim) is the romantic charmer who just wants to have fun. But it is still the central story that is the most engaging. Directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano have produced a thought-provoking film with a lot of heart.


Thursday, 26 March 2015

Get Hard

WRITTEN BY: Jay Martel, Ian Roberts, Etan Cohen
DIRECTED BY: Etan Cohen
STARRING: Will Ferrell, Kevin Hart, Alison Brie, Craig T. Nelson
RATING: 3 stars

SYNOPSIS:
James King (Will Ferrell) is a wealthy but naive financier who is engaged to the bratty daughter (Alison Brie) of his boss, Martin (Craig T. Nelson), when he is framed for embezzlement and sentenced to 10 years in prison. James has one month to get his affairs into order before being sent to jail. So, James enlists the help of car washer Darnell Lewis (Kevin Hart) under the racist belief that because Darnell is black, he must have served time behind bars and can help James prepare for prison life.

Although the plot seems barely plausible, there are plenty of laughs in Get Hard. Unfortunately, there are also some scenes that take the humour too far and rely too much on racial stereotypes. Some moments also felt mildly homophobic with references to prison rape. We know it happens in jail, but when the joke becomes characters repeatedly saying lines to the effect of “you're going to be raped” the humour falls flat pretty quickly. The better scenes are when the comedians are given the opportunity to be their natural funny selves, including Hart's typically yappy motor-mouth and Ferrell's expressions of confusion. Director Etan Cohen keeps the film relatively tight, but by the time the climax comes, your attention will probably already be waning. With a better storyline, the pairing of Ferrell and Hart might have been a better success. As it is, Get Hard will likely find its niche audience in teenage boys.




Sunday, 22 March 2015

A Little Chaos

WRITTEN BY: Jeremy Brock, Alison Deegan, Alan Rickman
DIRECTED BY: Alan Rickman
STARRING: Kate Winslet, Matthias Schoenaerts, Alan Rickman, Helen McCrory
RATING: 1.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Set in France in 1682, landscape gardener Sabine de Barra (Kate Winslet) is assigned the task of constructing a section of the gardens at Versailles. She is working under master landscaper Andre Le Notre (Matthias Schoenaerts) and is soon thrust into the centre of the court of King Louis XIV (Alan Rickman).

This costume drama is unfortunately very slow, predictable and unsatisfying. I do not have a green thumb, but even if you do, you are unlikely to find much enjoyment in the drawn-out discussions about plants and landscaping. The love story is also obvious and uninteresting. Only two scenes stand-out as being mildly fascinating – the unusual meeting between the king and Sabine, and the moment when a group of women at court secretly discuss the deaths of loved ones, which is a topic banned at court. Despite Rickman's best attempts as a co-writer and director to capture the beauty of the flora and provide some insight into life at court under the king, the film fails to engage on any level. In fact, I very nearly walked out. The only reason I stayed was because I was hoping for some originality in the second hour, but it was not to be.

Winslet certainly makes a rare misstep with this role and she has very little chemistry with Schoenaerts, who remains wooden throughout. Rickman plays a pivotal character, but he too is bland. Helen McCrory plays Andre's cheating wife who is wise to the sparks flying between her husband and Sabine, but she is otherwise an under-developed character. Stanley Tucci's small part is a poor attempt at providing some light between the drama. His talents are totally wasted.

If you are interested in Versailles, just go there. It is an amazing palace and the gardens are exquisite. This film is a disservice to its history and beauty.

  

Friday, 20 March 2015

Cinderella

WRITTEN BY: Chris Weitz
DIRECTED BY: Kenneth Branagh
STARRING: Lily James, Cate Blanchett, Richard Madden
RATING: 3.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Ella (Lily James) is a happy young girl despite the death of her mother. But when her father suddenly dies too, leaving her in the care of her evil stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett) and equally vicious stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger), Ella's life turns to turmoil and she is forced to be a servant in her own home. When she meets the mysterious prince Kit (Richard Madden), Ella's life starts to take an unexpected turn.

The story of Cinderella is so well known and has been retold in various ways over the years. I was expecting a re-imagining of the tale in this latest film, but instead, we basically got the same old story. However, that is not necessarily a bad thing. The film is visually stunning, including gorgeous costumes and effects that bring the fairytale to life. James has a girl-next-door vibe about her that makes her portrayal of Cinderella relatable. Madden makes a dashing Prince Charming and has great chemistry with James. The scene in which they first meet in the forest is especially sweet. An important aspect of the film is that the lovebirds are likeable. Some other versions have portrayed him as dull and her as stupid. But this film has them both being played as strong, smart and kind, although still a little naive. Blanchett is gloriously wicked and never falls into the trap of over-acting. Meanwhile, McShera and Grainger are both funny and silly. Helena Bonham Carter is also delightful as the Fairy Godmother. We have always known that Cinderella has plot holes and does nothing for feminism, but that does not make it any less enjoyable. Cinderella pushes the notion that all we need to live a good life is courage and kindness, and it is a lovely sentiment. Cinderella is a magical fairytale and sometimes we all need that kind of fantasy. 


Wednesday, 18 March 2015

Insurgent

WRITTEN BY: Brian Duffield, Akiva Goldsman, Mark Bomback
DIRECTED BY: Robert Schwentke
STARRING: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Ansel Elgort, Kate Winslet, Naomi Watts
RATING: 4 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Now that Tris (Shailene Woodley) is a divergent, and therefore does not fit into any faction created to harmonise society in this post-apocalyptic world, she and her boyfriend Four (Theo James) are on the run from the villainous Jeanine (Kate Winslet) who wants to use Tris to open a mysterious box that could hold the answer to the future of civilisation.

The sequel picks up right where the original film finished and the action is immediate. There is a cat and mouse element, as well as the developing love story between the protagonists. But the most fascinating aspect of the story remains the idea that a form of peace can be created by dividing people into factions based on their personalities. The sequel delves further into the various factions and how they work, which is interesting. The use of 3D is also a very good addition to the action sequences.

Woodley and James maintain their chemistry and have a sweet love scene this time, which is handled well for young audiences. Miles Teller returns as bad boy Peter and he is fantastic, providing the vital laughs in between all the doom and gloom. The film is again elevated by the presence of the incomparable Winslet, while Naomi Watts, Daniel Dae Kim and Octavia Spencer provide an additional boost for the sequel in some pivotal roles. Ansel Elgort is also back as Tris' wimpy brother, while Jai Courtney returns as the leader of the Dauntless army trying to catch Tris and Four. Both give convincing performances.

There are some interesting changes made from Veronica Roth's book for the film, including a few characters being cut out and a couple of plot tweaks, but it does not detract from the overall enjoyment of the film. Die hard fans should not be too disappointed. However, it does leave the adaptation of the third book quite open and there will likely be some surprises in the next two instalments of the franchise. I cannot wait to see what the film makers do with the adaptation of Allegiant. 


Friday, 13 March 2015

Top Five

WRITTEN BY: Chris Rock
DIRECTED BY: Chris Rock
STARRING: Chris Rock, Rosario Dawson, Gabrielle Union
RATING: 3.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Andre Allen (Chris Rock) is a comedian famous for his role in a series of funny action films in which he dresses up as bear named Hammy. His catchphrase "It's hammy time" seems to be as well known as Arnold Schwarzenegger's iconic “I'll be back” phrase. But Andre, who is also a recovering alcoholic, wants to put Hammy behind him, so he makes a serious film called Uprise about a Haitian slave rebellion, and is busy promoting it while also preparing to marry a reality television star (Gabrielle Union). Meanwhile, his agent tells him he must spend a day with journalist Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) before his bachelor party, even though her publication has notoriously bashed all of Andre's work.

Rock wrote, directed and starred in Top Five. With such a long, successful career in Hollywood, he must have have had a lot of inspiration to draw on for this film. He remains one of the funniest, smartest and genuine comedians too, and clearly has a lot of fun in this film making jokes about being famous. Although Top Five is very modern, including some risque humour we often see in comedies these days, there is also a 1950s romantic comedy vibe about the film that elevates its charm. That is largely due to the witty dialogue and chemistry between Rock and Dawson, who are both fantastic. There are also a string of bit parts and cameos from famous comedians and actors, which are nice surprises. You are sure to laugh out loud a lot while watching Top Five. 


Thursday, 12 March 2015

Chappie

WRITTEN BY: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell
DIRECTED BY: Neill Blomkamp
STARRING: Sharlto Copley, Ninja, Yolandi Visser, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman
RATING: 3.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
The streets of Johannesburg are being successfully patrolled by robotic police called Scouts, with human officers used as support. Engineer and Scout creator Deon (Dev Patel) creates an artificial intelligence, but when his boss Michelle Bradley (Sigourney Weaver) refuses to give the go-ahead to try it, Deon decides to secretly install the chip in an old droid. But Deon is soon kidnapped by a trio of thugs who want to use the robot, they name Chappie, to commit crimes. Their only problem is that Chappie is as innocent as a child. When Deon's colleague, the ruthless Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman) learns what Deon has created, he comes up with a plan to ruin Deon and the Scout program so that he can unleash his own crime-fighting machine called The Moose.

South African director Neill Blomkamp often delivers films that are a thought-provoking commentary on social issues, including class and corruption. He also has a knack for creating visually fascinating perceptions of the world, which often seem to take inspiration from Mad Max. In Chappie, he has given audiences both, while adding an intriguing story about the debate on advancements in technology and the theme of nature versus nurture.

Chappie, the character, is so innocent and surprisingly cute, which is largely due to the great effort of actor, Sharlto Copley, who gives the robot humanity. His mannerisms are fantastic and he has some hilarious moments too because Chappie needs to learn how to speak and how to understand feelings. The film is actually a fascinating look at how malleable young minds can be and how different parenting techniques can influence the way a person sees the world. South African rap-rave group Die Antwoord members Ninja and Yolandi play Chappie's thug “parents” and while she has some touching maternal moments, he would rather teach Chappie how to be a gangster. Yolandi is endearing but Ninja has some frustrating moments. Jackman and Weaver seem to just be there to give the film more credibility, but Michelle is so minor and Vincent is so under-developed that no one can care much about him or his motives.

Unfortunately, there are also a few plot holes and moments of convenience that make the film falter, such as why the villains repeatedly allow Deon to come and go from their hideout when they usually have no problem killing people. Nonetheless, the action-packed climax will not disappoint. The film is almost two hours long, which is unnecessary, but it will surely spark debate about the social issues it raises. 


Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Home

WRITTEN BY: Tom J. Astle, Matt Ember
DIRECTED BY: Tim Johnson
STARRING: Jim Parsons, Rihanna, Steve Martin, Jennifer Lopez
RATING: 3 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Based on Adam Rex's novel, the Boov are an alien species on the run from the villainous Gorg. They take refuge on Earth, forcing the relocation of many humans. Oh (Jim Parsons) is one of the Boov aliens, but soon becomes an outcast after yet another disastrous mistake on his part. Oh forms an unlikely friendship with a girl named Gratuity "Tip" Tucci (Rihanna) who is trying to find her mother after the alien invasion.

The sweet, child-friendly themes of love and family are not explored with much originality in this film, but that doesn't make the message any less poignant. Home has loveable protagonists played by Parsons, who sounds and behaves a lot like his television character Sheldon Cooper, and Rihanna, who gets to keep her Barbados background for the role. Steve Martin also voices the egotistical coward leader of the Boovs and Jennifer Lopez plays Tip's mother. Both are welcome additions. The 3D effects are fantastic for children with bubbles sprouting up everywhere, while Tip's fancy flying car, which is altered by Oh, runs on slushy fuel which should delight young audiences. Despite the short running time of about 94 minutes, Home still could have been trimmed 10 minutes to keep the attention of younger audiences. Nonetheless, the film reminds us that home really is where the heart is. 


Sunday, 8 March 2015

Infinitely Polar Bear

WRITTEN BY: Maya Forbes
DIRECTED BY: Maya Forbes
STARRING: Mark Ruffalo, Zoe Saldana, Imogene Wolodarsky, Ashley Aufderheide
RATING: 4.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Set in Boston in the 1970s, Cameron Stuart (Mark Ruffalo) has bipolar disorder, or manic depression, as it was known then. Cameron does not take his medicine and when he drinks too much alcohol, he has the tendency to go off the rails. When he is hospitalised after a breakdown, Cameron is unable to find work and his wife Maggie (Zoe Saldana) cannot pay the bills on her own. So, she makes the heartbreaking decision to get a business degree in New York, leaving Cameron to care for their two daughters (Imogene Wolodarsky and Ashley Aufderheide) on his own for 18 months.

Infinitely Polar Bear is hilarious, endearing and has a strong message without being preachy. The film may not be a totally insightful look at bipolar disorder, but it does go a long way to de-stigmatising it and making it relatable, which is an important first step and one that hopefully people struggling with the disorder can appreciate.

What is so brilliant about this film is that it explores a lot of issues with simplicity, rather than over-reaching and becoming exhaustive. As well as examining life with bipolar disorder, it also covers socio-economic issues, race and gender roles. Cameron comes from a rich family, but his grandmother refuses to give anyone in the family a free handout, so he and his children are forced to live in a small apartment and drive a series of barely roadworthy cars. The girls are bi-racial but one looks “less black” than the other and she struggles to embrace her ethnicity. Meanwhile, Maggie is the breadwinner because Cameron cannot work and he struggles to feel masculine in his own home while she fights for gender equality in the workplace. Maggie is unwittingly a driver of feminism and despite feeling like she has abandoned her daughters, she is in fact teaching them a valuable lesson.

Ruffalo is again outstanding and it seems he can do no wrong on-screen. He makes Cameron empathetic and lovable despite his story being so sad. Saldana has the difficult task of playing a mother who some may battle to understand. Maggie is a good person and is trying to do the best for her family, but there is a sense of reluctant abandonment. Nonetheless, Saldana brings humanity to the character. Wolodarsky and Aufderheide are an absolute delight, giving such raw performances and seeming so natural. In fact, the four of them are all so believable as a family.

Writer/director Maya Forbes has made a wonderfully heart-warming feature film debut, tied up in less than 90 minutes. Infinitely Polar Bear is a sweet family drama with a lot of laughs. See it at the cinema.




Thursday, 5 March 2015

Seventh Son

WRITTEN BY: Charles Leavitt, Steven Knight
DIRECTED BY: Sergei Bodrov
STARRING: Jeff Bridges, Julianne Moore, Ben Barnes, Alicia Vikander
RATING: 2.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Based on the first in a series of Spooks books by Joseph Delaney, the film introduces audiences to Master Gregory (Jeff Bridges) who is an alcoholic and grumpy spook tasked with keeping the supernatural world at peace. He imprisons the evil witch Mother Malkin (Julianne Moore), but years later, she escapes and becomes more powerful than ever. She kills his apprentice and threatens to take over the world, so Master Gregory finds himself a new apprentice – the seventh son of a seventh son – named Tom (Ben Barnes) to help him defeat Mother Malkin for good.

While there have been several young adult books adapted to film in recent years, Seventh Son will unfortunately go down as a dud. It has the ingredients for success including powerhouse actors, plenty of action and romance. But writers Charles Leavitt and Steven Knight, and director Sergei Bodrov fail to make the story engaging. It is not that the film is boring, it just does not stand out or leave a lasting impression. Some of the dialogue is also very poor and at times I found myself cringing.

I have no idea what Moore was thinking when she took on this character. A lot of actresses have portrayed over-the-top villains to have a bit of fun and balance out their more serious roles, but this was a poor choice for her. Mother Malkin lacks depth and imagination. Meanwhile, Bridges can barely be understood with all his mumbling. At least Barnes is solid, although his character is a bit annoying. Alicia Vikander plays his love interest, and while she is beautiful, the pair lack chemistry. Big stars like Djimon Hounsou and Kit Harrington are also wasted in such small parts.

Visually, Seventh Son looks great. It is just a shame that the story did not support the action, and the cast, which included Oscar-winning actors, failed to impress.



Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Inherent Vice

WRITTEN BY: Paul Thomas Anderson
DIRECTED BY: Paul Thomas Anderson
STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson
RATING: 2.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Based on Thomas Pynchon's novel and set in the 1970s, Inherent Vice is about drugged-up private detective Larry "Doc" Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), who is visited at home one night by his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterston). She tells him about her new rich lover, Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), and asks Sportello to help foil a plot by Mickey's wife and her boyfriend to have Mickey committed to an insane asylum. A short time later, Mickey and Shasta go missing, prompting Sportello to look into the case. During his investigation, Sportello meets several strange people including a shady musician (Owen Wilson) and a creepy dentist (Martin Short). Sportello is also dogged by Detective Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin). As Sportello explores further, he starts to uncover a deep and dark conspiracy.

I really wanted to like Inherent Vice, but not even the amazing performances led by the awesomely eccentric Phoenix could save the film from skewing all over the place. It did not grab my attention at all and left me wondering if I had missed something. I kept expecting all the loose ends to tie together in the end, but after two-and-a-half hours they were still left hanging there. It felt like a B-grade Quentin Tarantino film. I am not sure how such a well accomplished writer/director like Paul Thomas Anderson could have messed it up so badly. At least he gave us the brief reunion of Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon who still have great chemistry. In fact, Phoenix is also well-paired with Brolin who is bizarre and hilarious in this film. I would enjoy a buddy film with them. Meanwhile, Waterston is sexy and mysterious, Short is humorous but also incredibly sleazy, and Wilson appears randomly in scenes and remains enigmatic. Several other big names also feature but they are all given so little to do, including Maya Rudolph and Benecio Del Toro. Inherent Vice feels like a long acid trip with so little meaning that it becomes frustrating and boring, rather than insightful and compelling. 


Monday, 2 March 2015

Focus

WRITTEN BY: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
DIRECTED BY: Glenn Ficarra, John Requa
STARRING: Will Smith, Margot Robbie, Rodrigo Santoro, Gerald McRaney
RATING: 3 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Nicky Spurgeon (Will Smith) is a master con man, smart enough to know that there is no such thing as one big final score. When novice con woman Jess (Margot Robbie) tries to trick Nicky, he plays along before revealing he is onto her. But he sees potential in her ability and great beauty, which he knows can be used to con others. So, Nicky takes Jess under his wing, but sparks soon begin to fly between the pair, which only serves to complicate things because neither of them knows if it is really love or just one big con.

In some parts, Focus embraces the clich├ęs of its genre while at other times it rejects certain aspects. This means that while some plot points seem very obvious, others are a great surprise. Unfortunately, the film still lacks a main point overall. There are two main cons, but neither is all that compelling. The characters are also not really likeable so it is hard to get invested in their story or care what happens to them. Smith and Robbie have great chemistry, despite him being twice her age, but that is not enough to keep viewers intrigued. Unfortunately, Rodrigo Santoro is reduced to a caricature as the rich car racing sportsman Nicky is trying to con. Ultimately, Focus is mindless enjoyment, but it is hardly memorable. If you like con films with a bit of romance, I would recommend re-watching Ocean's 11. 


Sunday, 1 March 2015

Lucky Them

WRITTEN BY: Huck Botko, Emily Wachtel
DIRECTED BY: Megan Griffiths
STARRING: Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt, Ryan Eggold
RATING: 3.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Stax magazine editor Giles (Oliver Platt) gives music journalist Ellie Klug (Toni Collette) one last chance to save her job. She is tasked with finding out what happened to rock star Matthew Smith who disappeared a decade ago. The assignment is a particularly difficult one for Ellie because Matthew was her first love and she has some unresolved issues about their relationship. Ellie teams up with the rich and bored Charlie (Thomas Haden Church) who decides to make a documentary film about her quest.

Lucky Them is a road trip film in which the protagonist is on an unusual journey of self-discovery while mourning her past to make way for her future. It is about confronting your demons and letting go of them to find peace within yourself. Such a lovely sentiment can never be emphasised too much in a film because it is such an important life lesson. The theme of music is the launching pad and catalyst for many plot points and ideas in the film, which reminded me of last year's Begin Again. It is hard not to compare the two, although they are quite different stories, because they both use music as a way of demonstrating their poignant messages. Unfortunately, Lucky Them does not do it as well as Begin Again. For starters, it is much darker and although the climactic scene is powerful and the resolution hopeful, it lacks the spark of Begin Again.

Collette is wonderful as the self-loathing protagonist who makes some questionable choices because she is so heartbroken. Church plays such a quirky character and he provides some great dead-pan humour. Ryan Eggold has a pivotal role as Lucas, a musician who Ellie kisses during an interview and then has a complicated relationship with, revealing so much that is wrong with Ellie. Platt only appears in a few scenes but he gives a solid performance too. There is also a fantastic surprise cameo in the film.

Ultimately, Lucky Them is a funny, sad and thought-provoking film.