2013 Movie Blitz: Part VII

June 30, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I know I saw no more 2013 movie blitzes, but I lied. So here’s another one with some high profile flicks.

The Butler (2013)

TheButler

The natural inclination is to assume that The Butler is the black Forrest Gump — a simple unassuming man who happens to be a bystander in major historical events that shaped the world.

But that’s not really fair. For starters, The Butler is a “true story”, apparently, as it is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a real-life African-American butler who worked for the White House for 34 years. Here he is renamed Cecil Gaines and is played by Forest Whitaker. Secondly, most of the film is focused on the civil rights movement in the 1960s, contrasting Cecil’s desire to just “do his job” at the White House against his son Louis’s (David Oyelowo) active involvement. Thirdly, The Butler is nothing like Forrest Gump in that it is a serious drama almost devoid of humor. And lastly, The Butler stars Oprah!

The film is directed by Lee Daniels, who was at the helm of the award-winning Precious back in 2009. That was a small budget, personal drama, whereas this is an ambitious epic filled with major Hollywood stars, though the general feel of the films are largely similar. In other words, it is engaging, never really dull, but never superior entertainment. And depending on your perspective, you may find it either emotionally satisfying or too obviously manipulative. 

I have heard mixed reviews about the film, which reflects my feelings toward it. The performances are brilliant — there is no doubt about that and I don’t think anyone expected anything less with this cast. That said, I found the casting a little bit jarring. With the exception of the little known David Oyelowo, just about everyone else is a recognizable star. You have Mariah Carey playing Cecil’s mother in a small cameo, Terrence Howard as a neighbour, Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz as co-workers, and a whole bunch of big names playing American presidents — Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marston is JFK, Liev Schreiber is Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack is Richard Nixon, and strangely, Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan. That doesn’t even include all the other recognisable names such as Jane Fonda, Minka Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, and so forth. And of course, there’s Oprah, who is an excellent actress but too…Oprah…to avoid being a distraction.

It was interesting watching the historical events unfold, though if you are not American, and in particular African-American, the emotional impact may be less powerful. More importantly, Cecil Gaines was not a particularly charming protagonist — he had his moments, but by and large he was a very muted, restrained man, and anytime he did something out of the ordinary it felt overly sentimental. I’m not saying there wasn’t any subtlety, though the nuances definitely could have been handled better. The relationship that drove the movie, that between father and son, was executed well, but I think the film undercuts itself with too much obviously intentional melodrama that audiences who know what they’re in for will easily see through. 

3 stars out of 5

The Counselor (2013)

The Counselor

The Counselor is one of those WTF movies where there are a lot of big names attached and you can’t figure out why. It’s based on an original screenplay by Cormick McCarthy, whose novels have been adapted into solid films such as No Country for Old Men and The Road. It’s directed by the legendary ridley Scott and features an all star cast including Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. But the film — and I have to be honest here — is crap.

Fassbender plays eponymous Counseler, a lawyer of some sort who gets in over his head when he becomes involved in a drug deal with Mexican cartels. The film features a lot of conversations that appeared to have no direct relation to the plot, and they speak in ways that make you feel like there is some big mystery involved when things are actually very straightforward and simple. It is also a film that fancies itself as a bit of an erotic thriller — there is some raunchy pillow talk between Fassbender and his in-film girlfriend Cruz, and Cameron Diaz makes love to a car. Yes, you read that correctly.

It is quite a violent film, though there is really only one scene that made me a little squirmish. People who hate Brad Pitt should love it.

My main problem with this movie is that it tries too hard to create an atmosphere it does not deserve. The makers of the movie talk about things such as greed, primal instincts and dealing with the consequences of our choices, but at the end of the day it’s just about a guy who gets into a drug deal, things go wrong and shit happens. Except not a whole lot actually happens. For all the talking and acting, it is shocking how little action and suspense there is.

So despite the big names and the solid performances, The Counselor has to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. We know Cormick McCarthy can be brilliant, but this is him at his pretentious worst.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Way Way Back (2013)

way_way_back

A film that should have gotten way more buzz than it did. Coming of age films aren’t what they used to be, which is why The Way Way Back is such a refreshing and yet nostalgic breath of fresh air.

Liam James is quite the revelation as 14-year-old Duncan, and awkward, withdrawn and humorless teenager who reluctantly goes on a summer holiday to a small seaside town with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his typical teenage daughter (Steph Ramsey). 

Being the way that he is, Duncan naturally hates it there as everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives without him. But then he meets two people who change his life. The first is the pretty older daughter of a neighbour, played by AnnaSophia Robb, who seems to be more intrigued by Duncan’s odd personality than hanging out with other popular girls her age. The second is the manager of the local water park, played by Sam Rockwell, a carefree dude who is full of fun and jokes but appears to be stuck permanently in a state of arrested development.

Before long Duncan begins working at the water park and gets to know a whole host of quirky, oddball characters. While he struggles at home dealing with his family life, he begins coming out of his shell at work where everything seems to flourish for him.

At first glance this is the type of film we all feel like we have seen before, but there is just something about it that works. 

My guess starts with the immensely likable characters who all have their own quirks and are believable despite not being developed to perfection. Duncan, to be brutally honest, comes across initially as a potential mass shooting waiting to happen, but then we fall in love with his innocence and naivete. He makes you want to root for him, and that’s very important.

Rockwell is also brilliant as the lovable larrikin, the type of big brother we all wished we had. Even Steve Carell is brilliant playing against type as the douche bag villain who is not necessarily a terrible guy but whose judgmental attitude and selfish motivations we instantly recognize.

Additionally they are a bunch of scene stealing minor characters, from Allison Janney’s talkative neighbour and Toni Collette conflicted mother to Maya Rudolph’s  frustrated water park employee. All of them are memorable in their own way.

While there is nothing remarkable about it, The Way Way Back is a delight. It’s sweet, funny, heartfelt and powered by great characters and performances. It’s a pleasant surprise and one of my underrated hits of 2013.

4 stars out of 5

Drinking Buddies (2013)

drinking-buddies-poster

I heard about Drinking Buddies through word-of-mouth. It’s an indie film with Hollywood stars; an exploration of workplace relationships that relies predominantly on improvised dialogue.

Olivia Wilde stars as Kate, a pretty girl who is mutually attracted to her co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson) at a Chicago brewery. Unfortunately for both of them, they are each involved in a relationship with someone else. For Kate, it’s a casual boyfriend (Ron Livingston), but for Like, it’s a little more serious with his steady girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).

The strength of Drinking Buddies lies in the performances, which feel very natural (probably because of all the improv), and as a result the relationships also come across as genuine.

It’s an interesting premise, one most of us who have worked closely with others in a group environment can relate to, and in this case everything is accentuated because their inhibitions are lowered by the constant presence of alcohol.

It asks us what the boundaries are in a supposed “platonic” relationship between co-workers. It’s one thing to be attracted to someone, but it’s another when it comes out to acting out forbidden desires. What is the line and what constitutes crossing it?

My main gripe with the film. and the primary reason I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, was that I couldn’t bring myself to like either Kate or Luke, in particular Kate.

Without giving too much away, I was uncomfortable with the way they acted around each other, and, without revealing how far things go, I felt they crossed a lot of lines even early on.

I kept feeling like they kind of deserved each other, but I wasn’t rooting for them to be together because I didn’t care for them. By contrast, I developed much more sympathy for their significant others, even though they arguably crossed more lines than Kate and Luke.

Still, this was a well-made, well-performed drama that tackles some complex and thought-provoking issues. I just wish I liked it more.

2.5 stars out of 5

Writing Update: Literary Snobs

June 6, 2010 in On Writing, Study

With a week left before all assessments are due, I have officially begun to shit bricks.  However, in true writer style, I am still trying to put off working on them for as long as possible.

So let me tell you about what’s been on my mind.

Literary Snobs

The more I read and write, the more difficult it has become for me to come across what I consider “good writing.”  Not to say that I have become a good writer or a certified critic by any means, but I do find myself being pickier than ever.  I used to be able to go to a bookstore, pick up any book, start reading and just get into the story.  These days, nine out of ten times I’m too busy finding problems with the writing to enjoy it.  Makes me wish I could go back to the days when I was ignorant about what good writing is and just read everything for what it is.

Having said that, a lot of the books I complain about happen to be critically acclaimed.  Not because the writing itself is “bad”, but because I find it tedious, boring, convoluted, distracting, or hard to follow.

One of my classes drew my attention to A Reader’s Manifesto by BR Myers, a book published in 2002.  In it, Myers attacks literary fiction for being “pretentious” but at the same time protected by literary critics for political reasons or simply because they want to seem “sophisticated” when they really didn’t get it.

Amongst those criticised include award winners such as Cormac McCarthy (especially his newer style) and Annie Proulx, two writers I studied this semester and found very challenging to read (often requiring at least two readings to “get” it).

I found the crticisims highly interesting.  We live in an age where literary fiction is really suffering and genre fiction (especially crime and “vampires”) is making the big bucks.  Why is that the case?  Is it because contemporary society doesn’t have the attention span to properly appreciate literature, or is it because people simply want reading to be a pleasurable hobby that doesn’t require too much mental exertion?  And if the latter is the case, what is wrong with that?  Who is to say that writing must be “good” to be enjoyable or that enjoyable writing isn’t “good?”

I agree with Myers in that literary critics are too quick to heap praise on literary fiction and crap on genre fiction.  But I do think it is a bit of a stretch to claim the writings of award winners such as McCarthy and Proulx have no merit.  While they may be in the minority, there are people out there that truly enjoy high-brow literature for whatever reason.  And there’s nothing wrong with that either.

What annoys me is literary snobbishness — people who think readers of genre fiction must be too stupid or uneducated to appreciate literary fiction….and perhaps the opposite too — people who think lovers of literary fiction must have sticks up their butts.  Why can’t we just all agree that people have different tastes and that’s that?

For the original Atlantic Monthly article, click here.

For more information and a summary of A Reader’s Manifesto, click here.

Movie Review: The Road (2009)

January 30, 2010 in Movie Reviews

There are quite a few excellent posters for 'The Road' - this is my favourite of the lot

Pound-for-pound, The Road is the most depressing movie I have seen in years, but it is also moving and strangely uplifting.

Based on the Pulitzer Prize winning novel of the same name by Cormac McCarthy (my review of the book here) and directed by Australian John Hillcoat (The Proposition), The Road stars Viggo Mortensen and Kodi Smit-McPhee as a nameless father and son duo making their away across a post-apocalyptic America.

At first glance, The Road is a survival movie.  The world in which they live is not a pretty one.  Nor a safe one.  I don’t want to spoil it for those who don’t know much about it, but let’s just say McCarthy (and Hillcoat) don’t have much faith in humanity.  Even though I had read the book, seeing that brutal, horrific world on the screen still made my skin crawl.  There are a few scenes in particular that I will remember for a very long time.

However, at its heart, The Road is about a father’s unconditional love for his son.  Then tenderness with which the man cares for his boy brings a sense of hope into a hopeless world.  Despite how futile their efforts seem, you want them to make it.  You want them to live.

Visually, the film is amazing.  Hillcoat’s interpretation of the world McCarthy created on the page is grey, lifeless and frightening.  It’s not so much a visual style (like say Harry Potter 6) as it is a depiction of what our eyes would see if we were there in person.

As for the performances, Viggo Mortensen is sensational.  I can’t think of another actor better suited for the role than him.  On the other hand, Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son felt more replaceable.  He was more than adequate, but I wouldn’t call it an outstanding performance.

The book and the film have a number of differences – more flashbacks, less repetition and increased action – but the essence is identical.  Most of these changes are welcome and necessary for the adaptation to work, so I don’t have a problem with it.  Well, maybe except the extended cameos of Charlize Theron, some of which felt like were there just to give her more screen time.

The Road is terrific (in both senses of the word), but be warned – it is a slow paced film.  There are some short bursts of excitement, and though it is never boring, there are lengthy periods of patient observation.

On the whole, The Road is a worthy adaptation of an award-winning novel.  It might not have quite the same emotional punch as the book, but when all said and done, The Road may very well be the most important movie of they year.

4 out of 5 stars!

[PS: I can’t believe that ‘The Road’ is receiving a limited release in Australia.  For a film based on a best-selling, Pulitzer Prize winning novel and directed by an Australian with two Australians in key roles (Kodi Smit-McPhee and Guy Pearce), this is mind boggling to me.]

[PPS: Contrary to popular belief (okay, just mine), this film has no relation to The Lord of the Rings…except maybe Viggo Mortensen is actually Aragorn and Kodi Smit-McPhee is the son he had with Arwen…and the world is the way it is because Sauron finally got his hands on The Ring (ie Frodo’s ring, not the Japanese horror film).]

Book Review: ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy

August 24, 2009 in Book Reviews

The movie tie-in version of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'

The movie tie-in version of Cormac McCarthy's 'The Road'

I first heard about Pulitzer winner ‘The Road’ by Cormac McCarthy from one of my bosses at work a couple of years ago.  He couldn’t stop talking about this harrowing tale about a nameless father and son duo, making their way across the country in post-apocalyptic America with nothing but the clothes on their backs, a pistol, and each other.

Sounded promising, but it wasn’t until I was in the UK that I decided to have a look at it – and I must admit, my first attempt, in the Borders at Cambridge, ended up with me dozing off.  My second attempt, at the same Borders, didn’t fare much better.  I barely made it past the first hundred pages.

It wasn’t that it was badly written – in fact it was the opposite – but I just couldn’t get into it for some reason.  A lot of short snippets and images, casual dialogue, searching for and consuming food – over and over.  It was repetitive and monotonous, and felt like the story wasn’t heading anywhere.

HOWEVER, I didn’t give up on the book.  After my fellow blogger at theninthdragonking convinced me to give it another go, I bought the book on special and started from the beginning again.  And this time, I took my time, trying my best to imagine and visualise the type of world the characters were living in.  After the first hundred or so pages (which I still found a little slow and repetitive), I started to understand what all the fuss is about.  Of course, the fact that more stuff happened helped, but it was the harrowing images that McCarthy burned into my brain, and the touching relationship between father and son, that eventually got to me.

The world which McCarthy creates is dark, cold and terrifying, and I don’t just mean the natural elements.  Cannibalism, slavery and even catamites (for those who don’t know what they are, see here).  The darkest side of humanity is in full display.  It’s sickening and yet somehow rings true.  It is a warning to us all, but at the same time it is just a simple story about the unconditional love a father feels for his son and their will to survive.  It’s the type of book that can continue to haunt you long after you’ve turned the final page.

McCarthy is a brilliant writer.  He doesn’t waste words and he doesn’t colour his images with unnecessary or flowery descriptions.  You would probably see no more than a couple of adverbs every five pages.  That’s definitely something I can learn from.  Sure, for some reason he disregards a lot of punctuation in this book (speech and apostrophes in particular), but I didn’t have a problem with it.  I wouldn’t submit my manuscript like that, but he’s a Pulitzer Prize winner, so he can do whatever he wants!

I’m very interested in seeing the movie adaptation starring Viggo Mortensen and directed by Australian director John Hillcoat, to be released in October 2009.  It’s a difficult book to adapt in so many ways, so I hope they can pull it off.  If it’s anywhere near as good as what they did with No Country For Old Men then it will be awesome.

4 out of 5 stars