Movie Review: The Gift (2015)

August 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

gift

I’ve always been a big fan of Joel Edgerton, one of the most underrated and talented actors to come out of Australia in recent years. And I’ve now become a super huge fan after seeing his directorial debut, The Gift, a seemingly cookie-cutter suburban thriller that’s anything but.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robin, a couple who move from Chicago to LA for reasons that become apparent as the movie progresses. Shortly after moving in, they bump into Gordon “Gordo” Mosley, played by Edgerton, who claims to have gone to high school with Simon decades ago. And so begins an awkward and tense relationship between the couple and the mysterious blast from the past, who as the title and trailer suggest, likes to deliver creepy gifts to their doorstep.

That’s all I can say about the plot without giving away spoilers, and on the face of that description, The Gift may dredge up memories of 90s surburban/family thrillers like Pacific Heights and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But even if that’s all it is — ie, a typical genre film — The Gift is a pretty good one. With well-developed characters, an uneasy atmosphere and genuine edge-of-your-seat suspense, it’s already a few steps ahead of more recent efforts such as 1999’s Arlington Road, 2001’s Domestic Disturbance and 2008’s Lakeview Terrace.

However, The Gift is much more than a typical genre film. It’s a subversive journey full of twists and turns, challenging audiences to put aside preconceived notions. Edgerton’s direction and script (yes, he wrote it too) plays with our knowledge and expectation of such thrillers, manipulating us into thinking one way and then shocking us with another. But it’s not all about tricking us either, as there are times when he chooses more conventional thriller paths and cliches — it’s just that we never know which approach he will take. It’s clear Edgerton, with his wealth of experience as an actor, knows how certain filmmaking techniques will make audiences think and feel, and he has taken full advantage of that.

I don’t want to overstate things here — we’re not talking about genius-level brilliance like The Usual Suspects or anything like that — though for a debut feature it’s hard to deny that Edgerton is impressive and has a wonderful future ahead of him if he decides to focus on more behind-the-camera work.

Full credit too to the cast. I love Jason Bateman, so don’t get me wrong, but he’s always more or less playing a variation of  Michael Bluth from Arrested Development (think about it — Horrible Bosses, The Switch, The Change-Up, Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, This is Where I Leave You, etc). The Gift is the first time I’ve seen him play a completely different character, and I’m frankly quite shocked by how great of a dramatic actor he is. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from him by far.

The lovely Rebecca Hall also gets to show off her acting chops more than I’ve seen from her in any film probably since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In many ways, she’s actually the centre of the film, as audiences are closer to her point of view than anyone else’s. She’s vulnerable, she’s sympathetic and she’s tough when she needs to be. It’s a complex, multi-layered performance and Hall hits it out of the park.

By comparison, I was actually least wowed by Edgerton’s own performance, which is still a very good one but more difficult to gauge because Gordo is the “outsider” of the story. Edgerton undergoes a bit of a physical transformation to play this role, dying his hair red and dialling the creepiness meter to the max to make audiences as standoffish about Gordo as the protagonists are.

Also worthy of mention is Allison Tolman from TV’s Fargo. She only has a small role as the neighbour, but she manages to make her character more noticeable and memorable than it otherwise would have been.

As clever and crafty as The Gift is, the film does descend into more familiar thriller territory in its third act, veering towards improbable and preposterous plot developments that don’t always make sense. Some might think this “ruins” the film; for me, it’s just the consequence of trying too hard to come up with an explosive climax, a trap that — let’s face it — 99% of thrillers fall into. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to take the film to the next level.

A less than optimal conclusion notwithstanding, The Gift is a superb thriller fuelled by skilfully moulded tension and conflicts, strong performances and a promising directorial debut from Joel Edgerton. I hope this film will open the door for us to see more efforts like this from him down the track.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Longest Ride (2015)

August 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

longest ride

I’m as shocked as you. The Longest Ride, the 10th Nicholas Sparks film adaptation, isn’t vomit-inducingly bad. In fact, it might just be the best Nicholas Sparks film since The Notebook.

Petite blonde Sophia (played by Tomorrowland‘s rising star Britt Robertson) follows her college sorority sisters to a bull riding event in North Carolina and meets the gentlemanly rider Luke (Clint Eastwood’s son, Scott). A natural attraction develops, but as a young woman with aspirations in the art world, Sophia is from a different world to the thrill-seeking Luke, and besides, she has secured an internship in New York that is set to commence in a couple of months.

For some contrived reason, the two also meet a mysterious old man named Ira (played by Alan Alda), who for another contrived reason starts telling Britt the story about the love of his life from back in the WWII era. The young Ira is played by Jack Huston and his girl is Charlie Chaplin’s real-life great-granddaughter Oona Chaplin.

So as with many of Sparks’s stories, The Longest Ride is a passionate love story that spans multiple generations and features an impossibly dashing, considerate, perfect man. It has old people, saccharine dates, romantic letters, contrived obstacles that get in the way of true love, and of course trips to the hospital. It’s a well-worn template, but a damn effective one judging by the fact that we’re now into double figures.

If they ever make a biopic about Sparks it should be titled What Women Want, because he seems to certainly know exactly what some members of the fairer sex demand. I think I’ve started to figure it out — it’s a man who is not just charming, handsome and ripped but also driven, annoyingly persistent, romantic, caring and always madly in love with you and only you until the end of time. In other words, it’s a man who doesn’t exist in reality.  It’s the same conceit that made Twilight and Fifty Shades commercial successes. Whoever creates a female version of the same character for a male audience he would be vilified, but a male version means $$$.

That said, The Longest Ride is less manipulative and cringeworthy than I expected. The opening scenes of when the young lovers meet had me worried, though as the story slowly progresses you start to get the feeling that these characters may be more “real” than they’ve been in any Sparks film for a long time. Some of the more emotional interactions, as ashamed as I am to admit, got to me.

Some of the credit has to go to the solid performances. Robertson and Eastwood do have chemistry and might be the better looking couple, though the romance between Huston and Chaplin’s characters is the stronger and more heart-string-tugging of the two. It’s supposed to be a secondary story that allows the core characters to reflect on their own lives, but in my opinion it overtakes them and becomes the heart and soul of the movie.

I didn’t really care for the bull riding aspect of the story. Like the way some people don’t get boxing, I don’t get bull riding. Why anyone would risk death and/or serious pain to stay on the back of an animal for a few seconds is a mystery I will probably never understand. I will say though that inserting bull riding into the romance is at least a little different and adds an old-fashioned, Americana charm to the film that I didn’t mind.

The Longest Ride is vintage Sparks in that it is corny and schmaltzy and a complete fantasy. It is also predictable, though, without giving too much away, not as predictable as some of Sparks’s other efforts, especially in how he decides to bring the story to a close. It’s not a conclusion I liked, but at least it doesn’t go down the exact same bittersweet path as some of his other films. And look, Sparks’s movies are the opposite of a box of chocolates — you always know what you’re gonna get — and in this case the quality of the chocolates are better than usual. What I’m trying to say, against my better judgment, is that I quite enjoyed it.

3.5 stars out of 5