- Category: Movie Reviews
- Written by Gilbert Seah
Lots of goodies opening Christmas Day. HAPPY CHRISTMAS to all!!!
See the Kubrick Exhibition at the TIFF Bell Lightbox.
AMERICAN SNIPER (USA 2014) ***1/2
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Eastwood is in American war hero mode as in FLAG OF OUR FATHERS. Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) realizes the folly of his useless cowboy days and decides to aid his brothers-in-arms after witnessing on TV the destruction of the twin towers. With full patriotism at heart, he joins the U.S. Navy Seals to emerge as the most lethal sniper in the U.S. military history. And this is a true story based on Kyle’s book.
Cooper got the rights to Kyle’s book, produces and stars in the film. He has also bulked up 100% for his role, which shows his total dedication.
Eastwood directs the film after Spielberg and O. Russell could not make it. Fortunately, Eastwood has one main storyline to concentrate on, and he goes all out on it. Chris Kyle is the American sniper hero. He goes to battle, comes back and becomes the loving family husband. Unlike Eastwood’s previous THE JERSEY BOYS, that had too many subplots and was all over the place, AMERICAN SNIPER is focused and gets what story is required to be told, and told quite effectively. Trouble is that the film is rather plain, with no surprises. The audience knows what exactly to expect, and gets what is expected. So, there is not much to complain. And not much to be surprised about either.
The battle scenes are similar to what has been seen in other films like FURY and THE HURT LOCKER. The film, shot in Morocco looks like it could be set in any small village in Iraq. Kyle, nicknamed ‘legend’ is shown through 4 battle ‘tours’ as the toll on his family and home begins to take place. The best parts of the film is seen through the telescopic lens of the sniper’s weapon. One main point of the film is that the sniper, unlike other combatants wain war, has time to think and decide whether to take out his target.
Eastwood treats Kyle as the true American hero. Like action heroes in films, this man appears invincible on screen. His real death is not sown on screen but mentioned in words written out. He is faithful to country and family. Kyle merges after all the war trauma as the perfect family man. The trouble is that Eastwood does not dwell too much on his cure, making this part of the film seem hokum.
AMERICAN SNIPER totally dispenses with any sympathy for Iraq. It is, in a sense, pure propaganda, but that is just Hollywood delivers best. But perhaps, this is the kind of film the U.S. needs right now. Eastwood again proves himself a capable director of a wide range of themed movies.
BIG EYES (USA 2014) ****
Directed by Tim Burton
BIG EYES is the story of Margaret Keane 3(Amy Adams) and her work - the painting of big-eyed children that became phenomenally successful in the 1950’s. But she did not get any recognition as her husband, Walter Keane (2-time Oscar winner Christoph Waltz) claimed to be the artist and became a national celebrity and talk show fixture. He used his marketing savvy to sell them cheaply in hardware stores and gas stations across the United States.
Margaret generated the paintings from their basement and Walter's contribution was adding his signature to the bottom. The ruse broke up their marriage, and when she tried to make it known that she authored the paintings, they ended up in a court battle after she found that Walter took the paintings without permission. The case culminated in a dramatic courtroom showdown.
The story is obviously a case of spouse abuse, not a hot topic at all for the post-festive season. But this is the work of Tim Burton (ALICE IN WONDERLAND, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS) with the over-the-top actor Waltz, which are two good reasons to see the film already.
The first third of the film is total bliss for Margaret. She falls in love with the suave sweet-taking Walter against the advice of her best friend, DeAnn (Krysten Ritter). Under his guidance, she nurtures her talent. They make money and for a while, while she is unaware of the fame he is stealing from her, she is a happy camper. The rest of the film when the marriage fails and she fights him in court is more serious stuff. But Burton camps it up totally. Take the court scene at the end when Walter represents himself, a scene inspired no doubt from the courtroom scene in Woody Allen’s BANANAS. Walter, as attorney asks a questions, then moves to sit in the witness chair to become the witness to answer the question. Burton realizes that humour can still be used to get a serious message across.
The best scenes in the film are the two confrontations, one between Walter Keane and an art critic (Terence Stamp) who despises the work, and the other an art gallery owner (Jason Schwartzman) who refuses to display his work. It is the contrasts of the two characters in conflict that makes the segments unforgettable. Too good are these scenes that they overshadow the key court segments.
Though the Walter Keane character is mostly an antagonist, half of his time in the film is spent as a victim - that of his astute art critic and of the judicial system prosecuting him. Watching actor Waltz as a victim instead of instigator is just as rewarding - not something easily said of other actors that can do only one side of a role.
The special effects are impressive. The alteration of the eyes, making them larger to resemble those of the children in the paintings are subtly done. The film also demonstrates that genius does not come without a price.
BIG EYES is one of Tim Burton’s more focused and entertaining films. It proves him the top of his field and good to see him at the top of the kind of quirky, odd films he does best in.
THE GAMBLER (USA 2014) ***
Directed by Rupert Wyatt
THE GAMBLER is a remake of the Karel Reisz 1974 film of the same name starring James Caan based on an original script by James Toback.
The new 2014 version is based on a script by William Monahan and picked up by Mark Wahlberg who made this his pet project. British director, Rupert Wyatt (RISE OF THE PLANET OF THE APES) comes on board as he had worked with Wahlberg in the ape movie.
The central character Jim Bennett (Wahlberg) is a risk taker. Both an English professor and a high-stakes gambler, Bennett bets it all when he borrows from a gangster (Michael Kenneth Williams) and offers his own life as collateral. Always one step ahead or in this case behind, Bennett pits his creditor against the operator of a gambling ring (Alvin Ing) and leaves his dysfunctional relationship with his wealthy mother (Jessica Lange) in his wake. He plays both sides, downward spiralling his life and his romance with one of his students (Brie Larson). This is self-destructive behaviour all the way, making quite a depressing movie.
In the Q and A session after the film’s promotional screening, director Wyatt claims that the Jim character is not a gambler, but uses the gambling to get out of life’s rut. His film does not reflect this point of view, but in fact the opposite, as Jim keeps doubling his stakes at the tables. But it is immaterial whiter Jim is a gambler or not as his goal is to change his life, though the reason in the story being getting out of his debts.
THE GAMBLER has the feel (and it is) of a studio movie, like the ones that used to star, say Bette Davis. THE GAMBLER is a character driven film with Mark Wahlberg in it. Wahlberg has always been good in everything he has been in, and this film is no exception. But one would rather see him acting well in an action flick. Other supporting actors like Lange, John Goodman as another loan shark and Oscar winner George Kennedy (COOL HAND LUKE) make welcome appearances. But reality in the film is sacrificed for acting theatrics, and there are plenty of these.
Director Wyatt puts in some welcome tension in the film to adding suspense to the drama. As Jim has 7 days to pay of his $240,000 debt, he counts down the days (Day 5… Day 4… etc.) on screen. There is also a bit of violence when Jim occasionally gets beaten up.
In the film, there are two extended monologue sequences, the most notable lasting more than 5 minutes, in which Wahlberg as Jim goes on and on about genius in his English lecture. He lectures on genius while abusing many of his students. But in real life, this does not happen. Any professor would have lost his job as a result, though the film shows a near empty lecture hall during his next class. The second has John Goodman doing his f*** you policy. These monologues provide actors’ dream performances.
It is easy to see what attracted Wahlberg and Wyatt to this film. It is a story of a man who wants to break out of the system, and in the extreme the only way is being a genius. All artists strive this unachievable goal. Though Jim Bennett achieves it, without having to become a genius, he does it at great personal risk. In a way, filmmakers do likewise.
It is difficult or even fair to say whether Wyatt’s or Karel Reisz’s GAMBLER is the better film. In the 2014 version, director Wyatt, writer Monahan and actor Wahlberg have left their clear imprints, making the film their own. That is enough of a good thing to warrant the viewing of this compelling though flawed film.
INHERENT VICE (USA 2014) ****
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Did not like Anderson’s last film THE MASTER because of its extreme free flowing format and lack of narrative. INHERENT VICE, however as it is based on a novel, forces Anderson to commit to a storyline and its characters. This he does while also leaving his ‘free’ mark on the film. The result is a more disciplined, coherent and ultimately superb work.
INHERENT VICE, writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson’s 7th film (THERE WILL BE BLOOD, BOOGIE NIGHTS, PUNCH DRUNK LOVE being my favourites) is his first ever film adaptation of the Thomas Pynthon novel that he absolutely loves. The central character is private eye Doc Sportello (Joaquim Phoenix). His ex-old lady suddenly out of nowhere shows up at the start of the film with a story about her current billionaire land developer boyfriend (Eric Roberts) whom she just happens to be in love with, and a plot by his wife and her boyfriend to kidnap that billionaire and throw him in a looney bin. That is enough to say for the plot, except that the plot thickens. But what is more important than the plot is the film’s take on 70’s America - drug culture, war, hippies, money laundering, drugs and the gumshoe profession. There is enough material here to satisfy a dozen films.
The Doc character in this Anderson version of detective film noir is quite different from the one audiences are used to, as in for example the Philip Marlowe books or films. Take for example, Robert Altman’s THE LONG GOODBYE where Elliot Gould’s Marlowe spends the first 15 minutes or so trying to fine the correct brand of cat food for his cat. Anderson’s or Phoenix’s P.I. is not as cool. Doc gets in trouble, is not that good at not getting beaten up and often succumbs to his sexual temptations. (Gould as Marlowe, totally dismisses all the nude women neighbours dancing in the night.) But one should not complain but admire a different type of noir P.I. demonstrated on screen. And Doc somehow gets the case solved in the process.
Anderson’s 70’s psychedelic hippie atmosphere is seen on screen through the script’s dialogue, the wardrobe, vehicles and props. The characters particularly Doc are seen too often smoking up a spliff, as if to remind the audience of the film’s period. But still, the film feels a bit too forced, especially since this film is made in 2014 a compared to say THE LONG GOODBYE when the film was made and set in the same period.
The script is extremely funny. But the humour is subtle and ‘under-your-breath’. Take the film’s funniest segment set in a Japanese restaurant. Bigfoot complains to Doc that the pancakes are not as good as his mother’s but at least he gets respect here. Doc replies that he has to earn respect from his mother.
I was initially wondering the choice of Deputy D.A. Penny Kimball (Reese Witherspoon) as the film’s voiceover. It becomes clear later in the film, as this character is the only one that has got everything together. She's perfectly groomed, in a respectable job and knows everything including all the job’s shady dealings as well as what Doc needs.
The acting ensemble is superb. Phoenix as Doc holds the entire film, aided by a great supporting cast including Josh Brolin as Cop Bigfoot. One cannot predict what is going to come out of Brolin next. But best thing are the cameos from Jeannie Berlin, Maya Rudolph (Anderson’s current partner) and Eric Roberts. Rudolph (the bride in BRIDESMAIDS) appears in no more than 5 minutes total in screen time as Doc’s 100% efficient know-it-all an know when to say it, in total 60’s garb and helmet hairdo also perhaps delivering the only message in the story: “Love will save us.”
Though based on Pynchon’s novel, the story is secondary to the other happenings on screen. The characters, atmosphere and dialogue overshadow the film’ s plot. The way to enjoy this excellent film is to just sit back and enjoy the ride, to let the rich and colourful characters come to life, rather than let the plot mechanics confound. This is Anderson’s best film to date since THERE WILL BE BLOOD.
INTO THE WOODS (USA 2014) ****
Directed by Rob Marshall
The story for INTO THE WOODS is an inspirational concoction of familiar Grimm fairy tales (book and script adapted by James Lapine) tied to an original tale with the common theme that all the characters have to travel into the woods to get to some destination or attain some goal.
The only original story in the film has a baker (Jams Corden) and his wife (Emily Blunt) cursed childless by a witch (Meryl Streep). They have to bring her specific items to break the spell. These include a milk-white cow (the one Jack brings to the market to sell in Jack and the Beanstalk), a golden shoe (modified from the glass slipper from Cinderella), corn golden hair (from Rapunzel) and a red cloak (Little Red Riding Hood’s). Baker and wife enter the woods to search the objects, encountering the fairy tale characters. When the spell is removed, the wife bears child (“That was pretty quick”, the husband baker remarks) and the story takes a serious and different turn. Being a musical, there are lots of songs and musical numbers, some laborious but some quite inventive such as ‘Agony’. The two princes camping it up in the ‘Agony’ number brought cheers to the female crowd during the promo screening culminating in an applause.
INTO THE WOODS is a grand fantasy fairy tale epic but it hardly feels like one. The main reason is the pacing that needs a big pick up during the second half, where the musical is supposed to turn meaningful where responsibility ties hold. One good thing is that Marshall’s film does not turn sentimental, but the film turns a bit Monty Pythonish especially with humour like wicked sisters turning blind and characters like a female giant destroying the village. The film features an all star-cast led by Meryl Streep who takes the witch role too seriously, as good as she is. I would have rather seen bubbly Bernadette Peters reprise her Broadway role. Johnny Depp does nothing much but look silly as the fox in the Little Red Riding Hood tale while Frances de la Tour is hilarious as the female giant.
The other film adaptation of the Stephen Sondheim musical A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM cut most of the songs and re-arranged the story, making it a thoroughly entertaining short efficient comedy. But a full musical it was not. In contrast, INTO THE WOODS the film hardly changed anything. The result is an overlong musical (though the film’s runs just over 2 hour, it feels like 3). Marshall relies on the strength of the Sondheim’s songs to carry the film. And that is exactly why happens. Musical fans are in for a treat but non-musical fans are in for a harder ride.
Be forewarned too that there are sexual undertones between the Big Bd Wold and Riding Hood, as well as a bloody scene in which a heel and toe are cut off.
Rob Marshall has had his share of hits (Oscar winning CHICAGO), mediocrities (NINE) and flops (MEMOIRS OF A GEISHA). INTO THE WOODS should lie within the first two categories. But I loved INTTO THE WOODS being one who has a soft spot for both musicals and fairy tales especially ‘Grimm’ ones.
MR. TURNER (UK/France/Germany 2014) ****
Directed by Mike Leigh
British director/writer Mike Leigh alternate between small budget emotional dramas (SECRETS AND LIES, LIFE IS SWEET, HAPPY-GO-LUCKY) and bigger budget period efforts (TOPSY-TURVY). MR. TURNER falls somewhere between the two. The emotional authenticity of his smaller dramas lend into his bigger productions and there is not a Leigh movie that I have not liked.
The film opens beautifully, with a far shot of two ladies (Dutch apparently from their headdress) as they carry water from perhaps a well. The camera pulls back to reveal a painter at his easel. It is Mr. Turner at work.
MR. TURNER, starring his regular actor Timothy Spall (who won the Best actor award at Cannes) plays the great British painter J. M. W. Turner. Profoundly affected by the death of his esteemed father, loved by his housekeeper, Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson), whom he takes for granted and who he occasionally exploits sexually. She asks him at the start of the film: “Is there anything else I could do for you?” after which he fondles hr breasts. But she suffers from some skin ailment, shown as her scratching the back of her neck at one point in the film.
He also forms a close relationship with a seaside landlady, widow Mrs. Booth (Marion Bailey) with whom he eventually lives incognito in Chelsea, where he dies.
But Leigh is more interested in Mr. Turner the person than the painter. He shows the paintings alloying him the luxury to enjoy what best he can from his life. Turner travels, paints, stays with the country aristocracy, visits brothels, is a popular if anarchic member of the Royal Academy of Arts. In one memorable scene, Turner straps to the mast of a ship (like a gargoyle, a term he describes himself as well) so that he can paint a snowstorm (resulting in him getting Tuberculosis), and is both celebrated and reviled by the public and by royalty.
The film benefits from both the stunning cinematography by Dick Pope and the dramatic occasional dialogue that leigh is famous for. Often, what looks like a painting changes (when the car pulls back) to a stunning landscape shot on film. The chamber room dialogue such as the debate on the best way to cultivate gooseberries is both irrelevant and exhilarating.
The audience sees, as expected on biographies on famous painters, the inner demons that reside in them. Mr. Turner’s talent as a marine painter is a given. Leigh provides a few scenes showing him at work painting on canvas. His upbringing and childhood background accounts for his eccentric behaviour. What emerges is a beautiful tale of an artist and odd human being.
SELMA (UK/USA 2014) ***1/2
Directed by Ava DuVernay
The synopsis of the film SELMA is summarized well in the one line from imdb: “Martin Luther King, Lyndon Baines Johnson and the civil rights marches that changed America.”
This means that director and co-writer Ava DuVernay and writer Paul Webb have free rein as to what they wish to tell of the Martin Luther King Jr. story. They have picked and highlighted the civil rights march led by James Bevel (actor called Common) that begins in the town of Selma (and hence the film’s title) and ends in Montgomery. Audiences should note that this film is not a biography of Martin Luther King Jr.
The blacks take to the streets in order to exercise their right to vote without unfair barriers. The result is brutality from the redneck whites. The film arrives hot on the recent tensions of the Missouri riots and the the stranglehold killing of another black man.
At the film’s worst, DuVernay relies on the senseless beatings of the elderly black folk to get her point across. Audiences have already seen lots of this on the news. As Oprah Winfrey co-produced the film, there is a scene of her playing a character (Annie Lee Cooper) brutally beaten as well. The dispersing of the first march ends up in violence and DuVernay devotes quite the bit of screen time. But the film also has scenes of white ‘nigger lovers’ beaten up as well. There are a lot of scheming and inner workings that prevent the blacks from voting. One wishes more detail is given on what these restrictions are, how they came to being and why they are not so easily removed. Mention of a wide range of arcane laws and intimidation tactics to discourage black citizens were being used was made in a film and was left at that. The inner workings and talks between President Johnson and King Jr. form the film’s best segments.
To DuVernay’s credit, she captures the desperation of the times and the angry atmosphere.
Brit actor David Oyelowo is subsequently eloquent and bold in his role of King Jr. as Tim Roth is despised as the racist Alabama governor George Wallace. Tom Wilkinson steals the show as President Lyndon Johnson, who finally defies to do the right thing. Noticeable is the underwritten role of king’s wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo).
SELMA turns out, undoubtedly to be an emotional wrenching film. This is the kind of film that gets high audience praise. It gets audience all riled up and delivers what they love to hear and believe. Nothing wrong with that but one wishes the film contained more information and substance than audience pleasing scenes! Fortunately, DeVernay took over the directorial chair from Lee Daniels who went to direct THE BUTLER instead. Daniels is more guilty of unabashed graphic depictions of a story, as evident in PRECIOUS. I believe the film is currently holding close to 100% positive on ‘Rotten Tomatoes’. The film received a standing ovation at its premier at the AFI in L.A. and here, a fair percentage of the audience also gave the film a standing auction at the end of the promotional screening.
UNBROKEN (USA 2014) ***1/2
Directed by Angelina Jolie
Opening at Christmas, this film about the triumph of the human spirit is a war drama produced and directed by Angelina Jolie based on the 2010 nonfiction book by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, the film is serious material, with the comedy by the Coen Brothers clearly left out.
The main protagonist is Louis "Louie" Zamperini, played by Jack O’Connell, with his war buddies played by Garrett Hedlund and Domhnall Gleeson.
Running at 140 minutes or so, the film can be divided into there main parts. The first is Louie in his early life, training and competing in the Olympics and then flying as a fighter pilot. The second is his adrift at sea for 40 odd days and the third is the years spent in the prison camp under a sadistic sergeant (Miyavi) whose cruelty is attributed to him not achieving officer status in the Japanese army and taking it out on those under him.
Jolie’s film is stunningly shot. The first third with the flight pilots squirming around the enclosed spaces in the plane while fighting the enemy planes deserves mention. The filming of the sharks around the rafts are both scary and suspenseful in the second third. The logistics of the POW war barracks in the third marks what’s outstanding in the third. It is hard to judge which third of the film is best. But Jolie does a good job for one that imagines has little experience in war and suffering. But Jolie has learnt from her last film which was a war drama. One problem though is the frequent use of silly lines like “If can take it, I can make it,” that apparently Louie has applied from his Olympic training that he uses in order to survive. The blending of the three parts of the film is weak despite having 4 writers, and the film looks like three pieces in the life of Louis instead of one under three different tests.
Brit Jack O’Connell is as good here as he was in his last film, the unreleased excellent prison drama STARRED UP. He plays an American Italian sans British accent, shedding quite the few pounds in the transition from fit athlete to malnourished prisoner-of-war. At only 24 years of age, he is one up and coming star to watch. It is brilliant casting of pretty boy Miyavi as the sadistic Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe. Watanabe was reported to have said openly that he derived sexual satisfaction from torturing the prisoners. His character is the most intriguing in the film. The famed torture scene of him forcing Louis to lift a log above his head forms the climatic confrontation in the film.
UNBROKEN is a film about survival during war - survival on the open seas and in the POW camp. When the war is finally over, the film is unable to match the events already occurred with a satisfactory punch ending.
UNBROKEN is no BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI, the best war film about POWs, but it is still a solid individual war epic.
BEST CHRISTMAS FILMS:
- Big Eyes
- Inherent Vice
- Into theWoods
- Mr. Turner
- National Gallery
Best Sci-fi: Interstellar
Best Suspense Drama: The Imitation game
Action: The Hobbit: Battle of the Five Armies
Foreign Language: Mommy
Animation: The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Comedy or Musical: St. Vincent
Best documentary: National Gallery