Saturday, 29 August 2015

Straight Outta Compton

WRITTEN BY: Jonathan Herman, Andrea Berloff
DIRECTED BY: F. Gary Gray
STARRING: O'Shea Jackson Jr, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell, Paul Giamatti
RATING: 4.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Set in the rough streets of Compton, Los Angeles in the mid-1980s, the film depicts how NWA was formed and revolutionised hip-hop music with their tales about life in the hood. At the start of the film, Eric “Eazy-E” Wright (Jason Mitchell) is a drug dealer, Andre “Dr Dre” Young (Corey Hawkins) is struggling with becoming a young father and O'Shea “Ice Cube” Jackson (O'Shea Jackson Jr) is like a sponge absorbing all the injustices around him. The trio and their friends, MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr) – who are unfortunately reduced to being sidekicks in the film – form NWA and begin working with manager Jerry Heller (Paul Giamatti), whose intentions are not as pure as they seem.

Straight Outta Compton is a powerful film depicting an important story about the music industry, pop culture and politics in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s. It is not a stretch to say Straight Outta Compton is as important as any civil rights film, such as the recent Selma, because it expertly shows the racial tensions, police brutality and corruption against the controversial rappers that is still applicable to black people today in some parts of the US. The film runs for more than two hours, but by the end of it, I still wanted more. Even if you already know the story of NWA, there are some great insights in this film and the end credits only give a tease about the direction their lives took in the past 20 years. It is also great to see significant moments in NWA's history on screen including the infamous run-in with police that led to the iconic song, F*** Tha Police.

Like any biopic, the film is skewed a certain way. It is very much Ice Cube and Dr Dre's version of events, so do not expect to see scenes that show either of them in severely bad light, including Dr Dre's abuse of women. Eazy-E's wife is also a producer, so again, it has a strong influence from her point of view. Furthermore, Jerry Heller has publicly objected to his portrayal in the film. Nonetheless, the overall story is fascinating.

The cast is also phenomenal, led by Ice Cube's son Jackson Jr, who plays his father so well it almost feels like stepping back in time to watch the real Ice Cube. Hawkins has some tough scenes and pulls them off well, while Mitchell perhaps has the most difficult task of portraying Eazy-E's complexities. R. Marcus Taylor is also worth noting as the threatening Suge Knight, who was the catalyst for some major changes in Dr Dre's life. Giamatti is also convincing and has now recently played two creeps of the music industry after his work in the Brian Wilson biopic, Love and Mercy.

There are few biopics that explore the themes and lives of successful rappers. Straight Outta Compton not only does that, but does so in such an interesting way that you do not even have to be a fan of the group to love the film.





Thursday, 27 August 2015

The Gift

WRITTEN BY: Joel Edgerton
DIRECTED BY: Joel Edgerton
STARRING: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
RATING: 4 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have recently moved to a new city close to where Simon grew up when they bump into his old schoolmate Gordo (Joel Edgerton). They exchange awkward pleasantries and Simon thinks that is the end of it until Gordo starts to infiltrate the couple's lives. He gives them a series of unwanted gifts, visits their house uninvited when Robyn is home alone and invites them to his house for dinner under false pretences. There is something not quite right about Gordo, but then, there is also something not quite right about Simon and Robyn either.

The Gift is one of those rare psychological thrillers that makes total sense and has substance. While the film is suitably scary, creepy and suspenseful, writer/director Joel Edgerton has also built a clever film around the concept of bullying that leaves the audience with a powerful message. As the film subtly developments and each character's motivations are revealed, it becomes increasingly more difficult to choose sides. Who is the true villain? Is it about justice or revenge? It is a very fascinating tale and there are several moments that will make you jump out of your seat.

Bateman often plays arrogant characters but there is always something amiable about them, perhaps even more so because he himself is so endearing. In The Gift, he again portrays that role, but this time, he is grittier and there is something unsettling about Simon. In contrast, Hall represents Robyn as meek and non-confrontational. They are a complex couple but they seem happy together before things start to unravel. The actors have some great scenes together working through that dynamic. Meanwhile, Edgerton lost quite a lot of weight and looks very different in this film. He depicts Gordo as despicable, weak and sinister, but also gives him enough softness to make audiences question their feelings towards him.

As much as The Gift is an exciting thriller, it is also a captivating examination of human nature and how our past can come back to haunt us. 


Wednesday, 26 August 2015

Ricki and the Flash

WRITTEN BY: Diablo Cody
DIRECTED BY: Jonathan Demme
STARRING: Meryl Streep, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, Rick Springfield
RATING: 2 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Ricki (Meryl Streep) is a musician who gave up her marriage and children to pursue a dream of becoming a rock star. Years later, she remains mostly estranged from her adult children until her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) calls to say their daughter Julie (Mamie Gummer) is getting a divorce and desperately needs her mother. With the encouragement of her bandmate/boyfriend Greg (Rick Springfield), Ricki decides to try to salvage her relationship with her three children.

A lot of the scenes in this film felt like cliched dysfunctional family moments strung together in a boring and pointless plot. That is disappointing considering screenwriter Diablo Cody has preciously written well thought out films like Juno. The most poignant moment is when Greg tells Ricki it does not matter if children love their parents, it only matters that parents love their children. It is not the most exciting moral to a story but it seems to be the main point of this sappy tale. The music is probably the strongest aspect of the film and ranges from 1980s rock to modern pop. Streep is good as a rock musician, but unfortunately, I could not believe her romance with Kline or Springfield, although both leading men were solid on their own. Gummer, who is Streep's real life daughter, provides laughs as well as propelling the drama, and this film's failings should not stop her star from continuing to rise. Ricki and the Flash is harmless and well meaning, but surprisingly bland.


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

We Are Your Friends

WRITTEN BY: Max Joseph, Meaghan Oppenheimer
DIRECTED BY: Max Joseph
STARRING: Zac Efron, Wes Bentley, Emily Ratajkowski, Jonny Weston, Alex Shaffer, Shiloh Fernandez
RATING: 1.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Cole (Zac Efron) is an aspiring DJ living on the other side of the Hollywood hills with his friends (Jonny Weston, Alex Shaffer and Shiloh Fernandez) who work as party promoters. One night at a club, Cole meets beautiful college drop-out Sophie (Emily Ratajkowski), who flirts briefly with him. Later that night, Cole shares a joint with slightly older DJ James (Wes Bentley), who invites Cole to hang out more. Cole quickly forms a friendship with James only to learn that Sophie is James' girlfriend.

It seems We Are Your Friends is supposed to celebrate the skill of DJs and their contribution to music culture. Through several passionate speeches, the film explains how DJs find the right beat to get a crowd pumping, but it all feels pompous and arrogant. Quite frankly, the film tries too hard to make its point instead of letting the music speak for itself. I'm no expert, but I imagine real DJs may even be turned off by this film. Music aside, the overall plot lacks direction and purpose, including an out of place sub-plot involving Jon Bernthal as a shady real estate mogul who hires Cole and his friends to work for him. The genre is also hard to pinpoint because the film is neither funny nor dramatic enough. Plus, the film seems a little critical of youth, who are the target audience. Perhaps the only thing working in the film's favour is the eye candy for both sexes, but even then, there is a lot of unnecessary and gratuitous attention on female nudity and sexuality. Ultimately, We Are Your Friends fails to engage audiences at every turn. Unless you are a massive fan of Zac Efron, who remains a charming screen presence, you are unlikely to find much enjoyment in this film.



Monday, 24 August 2015

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

WRITTEN BY: Jesse Andrews
DIRECTED BY: Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
STARRING: Thomas Mann, RJ Cyler, Olivia Cooke, Nick Offerman
RATING: 3.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Self-loathing high school student Greg (Thomas Mann) avoids getting too close to people and spends most of his time making parodies of classic films with his "co-worker" Earl (RJ Cyler). But when his parents force him to spend time with his classmate Rachel (Olivia Cooke) after she is diagnosed with cancer, he is forced to reassess his outlook on life.

Who does not love an offbeat coming of age story? Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is hilarious, bittersweet and has a poignant message. The characters are realistically awkward, angst-ridden and endearing, and the leading trio are all convincing in their roles. Adding gravitas to an otherwise relatively unknown principal cast are Nick Offerman as Greg's unusual sociologist father, Jon Bernthal as the tattooed history teacher and Molly Shannon as Rachel's borderline alcoholic mother. The film also makes good use of random animation and unusual chapter headings to add to the enjoyable quirkiness. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl may be pitched as a truthful look at teenage life, but older viewers will experience just as many laughs and tears as younger audiences.





Sunday, 23 August 2015

Southpaw

WRITTEN BY: Kurt Sutter
DIRECTED BY: Antoine Fuqua
STARRING: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence
RATING: 4 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Champion boxer Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) seeks the help of trainer Tick Willis (Forest Whitaker) to get his life back on track after losing his wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) in an accident and his daughter Leila (Oona Laurence) to child protection services.

Kurt Sutter is one of the best screenwriters in Hollywood today and he has crafted a beautiful script, expertly executed by director Antoine Fuqua. The film is full of graphic and compelling fight sequences, as well as a heartfelt custody battle. The final boxing scene is especially gripping and will keep you on the edge of your seat. I cried a few times during some of the more emotional moments, especially between Gyllenhaal and Laurence who were adorable as father and daughter. In fact, Gyllenhaal, proves once again what a diverse actor he can be and has taken an extra step with the physicality of this role. Meanwhile, Whitaker is as reliable as ever as the inspiring trainer, Naomie Harris is sympathetic in her role working for child protection services, and both 50 Cent and Miguel Gomez make good semi-villainous characters as a manager and rival boxer respectively. The soundtrack also nicely supports the story. Southpaw is a powerful film worth seeing on the big screen. 


Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Vacation

WRITTEN BY: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein
DIRECTED BY: John Francis Daley, Jonathan M. Goldstein
STARRING: Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins
RATING: 3.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) has grown up since the original National Lampoon's Vacation and is now married to Debbie (Christina Applegate), with whom he has two sons, James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins). Rusty decides to go on a road trip with his family, dragging them along to Walley World in an Albanian rental car full of bizarre gadgets. Along the way, they endure several mishaps including a scary truck driver, a not so hot hot spring experience and a revealing visit to Debbie's former sorority.

Although it has been more than 30 years since the original Vacation film, this reboot/sequel pays homage to the previous films while also making it relevant for today's more popular raunchy and dirty sense of humour. Vacation is definitely not family friendly, but everyone who watched the other films as a child has grown up now and will find a lot of adult laughs in this new instalment. The leads have good chemistry and Stebbins is especially hilarious as the foul-mouthed younger sibling who bullies his older brother. Much has already been talked about in the media of Chris Hemsworth's “package” in the film, but it is disappointing that he and Leslie Mann feature in only a few brief scenes as Rusty's brother-in-law and sister. Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo also make a nostalgic brief appearance. Ultimately, Vacation manages to balance some lewd humour with a sweet message about the importance of family.




Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Holding The Man

WRITTEN BY: Tommy Murphy 
DIRECTED BY: Neil Armfield
STARRING: Ryan Corr, Craig Stott, Guy Pearce, Anthony LaPaglia
RATING: 4 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Based on a true story, Holding The Man is about a 15-year romance between aspiring young actor Tim Conigrave (Ryan Corr) and high school football captain John Caleo (Craig Stott). They meet and fall in love at school in the 1970s but are then forced to hide their romance from their disapproving parents and a community unwilling to accept homosexuality until the 1980s AIDS crisis thrusts the issue into wider consciousness.

Holding The Man does not give audiences a particularly original story, but it is nonetheless a tragic and beautiful film. Every performance is magnificent, spearheaded by Corr and Stott who are believable in their emotionally gruelling roles. Guy Pearce is a welcome addition as Tim's father, while Anthony LaPaglia is heartbreaking to watch as John's dad. He has the difficult job of portraying a man in denial that his son is gay, which makes him almost villainous, while also softening the character by showing love for his son regardless of the way he lives his life. Geoffrey Rush also pops up as an acting coach, adding gravitas to an already exceptional film. Holding The Man is an emotional roller-coaster but its message is just as powerful and relevant today as it was when Conigrave wrote his memoir in the 1990s. 



Friday, 14 August 2015

Irrational Man

WRITTEN BY: Woody Allen
DIRECTED BY: Woody Allen
STARRING: Joaquin Phoenix, Emma Stone, Parker Posey, Jamie Blackley
RATING: 3.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is widely revered philosophy professor who has lost his zest for life when he moves to a small town college to teach. There, he meets Rita Richards (Parker Posey) who is unhappily married and wants to begin a romance with Abe. He also meets Jill Pollard (Emma Stone), who is a bright student and quickly becomes his new best friend. Jill is dating Roy (Jamie Blackley) but finds Abe's tortured mind and artistic personality fascinating. When the pair overhear a conversation about a shady judge, Abe comes up with a way to reinvigorate his life. He decides he wants to commit a murder.

Irrational Man is a mildly interesting dark comedy with the second half of the film really picking up the quirkiness and intensity, but it is still probably one of Woody Allen's weakest films in recent years. The film only runs for 95 minutes, but it feels longer and that is because the first act moves too slowly. Nonetheless, the film explores some interesting themes including existentialism, romanticism, morality and cynicism. Like most of Allen's other works, the story centres on a handful of protagonists and most of the character development is rich. Phoenix and Stone are both believable in their roles, but Posey's character is one-dimensional. Ultimately, despite Irrational Man being a slightly less satisfying Allen film, it is still far more original, witty and unpredictable than a lot of other films that will be bigger box office hits this year. 


Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Man From UNCLE

WRITTEN BY: Guy Ritchie, Lionel Wigram
DIRECTED BY: Guy Ritchie
STARRING: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki
RATING: 4 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Set during the Cold War in the 1960s, and based on the television series, The Man From UNCLE is an origin story about how the group was formed. Controversial CIA agent Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill) and KGB operative Ilya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer) are forced to work together to protect East German mechanic Gaby (Alicia Vikander) while also using her family connections to get closer to the villainous Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) and a Nazi organisation aimed at misusing nuclear weapons.

The Man From UNCLE is a sexy and cool spy comedy. Director/co-writer Guy Ritchie has put his signature slick touch on the film with split screens, lots of well-timed humour and sexual innuendo. There are also plenty of great action sequences that take place all over Europe, which are thrilling but never drawn out. Chic fashion from the 1960s and a memorable soundtrack round-out the spectacle of the film. The plot is a little slow to get going, and perhaps the film could have been trimmed about 10 minutes, but it is such good fun it barely matters. Just as Kingsman: The Secret Service reinvigorated the spy comedy genre, so too does The Man From UNCLE.

Tying all the wonderful aspects of the film together is the solid cast. The Man From UNCLE is further proof that Cavill should be the next James Bond. It is a shame he could not use his English accent for this role, but he oozes sex appeal as the loveable rogue. He also has fantastic chemistry with Hammer, who is very funny as the more traditional spy with a dark past. They are definitely the surprise comedy duo of the year so far. The two leading women are equally strong. Vikander is fast becoming a reason to see any film as she builds an impressive resume and Debicki is a sultry villain. There is no damsel in distress in this film - everyone is a badass. Hugh Grant also has a small but pivotal role, adding even more charm to an already delightful film. 

The ending perfectly tees up a sequel for The Man From UNCLE. I hope we get it.


Thursday, 6 August 2015

Fantastic Four

WRITTEN BY: Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, Josh Trank
DIRECTED BY: Josh Trank
STARRING: Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan, Jamie Bell, Toby Kebbell
RATING: 2.5 stars

SYNOPSIS:
Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is a genius while his best friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) is the muscle. As children, they create a teleporting machine but no one believes them except Dr Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara). So, Reed begins working at the Baxter Foundation with the pair alongside reclusive brainiac Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell), who invented teleportation first before Reed created an even better machine, and Dr Storm's biological son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), who is smart but also a hothead. After they get the machine to work, Reed leads Ben, Victor and Johnny on a mission to visit another dimension using the machine. Of course, it all goes horribly wrong and leaves Reed, Ben, Johnny and Sue with unique powers, while Victor goes missing and is presumed dead. The Fantastic Four must then learn to best use their powers until they can figure out a way to cure themselves.

It is difficult to pinpoint where and how Fantastic Four went wrong. It has all the ingredients of a good superhero film – a solid young cast, a decent storyline and intriguing characters. Yet, the film is very slow to get started, and as a reboot, it offers very little excitement or originality from what we saw in the 2005 film led by Ioan Gruffard as Reed. Perhaps Fantastic Four takes itself too seriously because there are only a few laughs and way too much personal drama. The complex relationship between Reed and Ben is the most convincing and interesting, but even that eventually becomes boring. In fact, so much time is spent on character development, which is usually a good thing, but in this case means the action is all rushed at the end. The effects were also hit and miss, and there was some terrible dialogue. The final scene will forever be burned in my mind as an embarrassment to scriptwriting. A lot of people were critical of the 2005 and 2007 films, but they were more enjoyable than this reboot. I cannot imagine many viewers will be keen for a sequel, but we may have to endure one anyway.