Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

May 7, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Being a movie nut, I was recently confronted with a frightening situation where I had almost zero new films to watch on two short flights to and back from a holiday to Japan. There’s only so many times a man can watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and trust me, it was tempting to experience its awesomeness again), but in the end I went with probably the only film on the roster I would have watched under normal circumstances, Clouds of Sils Maria.

This is a weird one because the trailers made it look like some sexy thriller, but in actuality it’s an arty farty piece that throws a lot of subtle considerations your way without really coming out and saying anything.

Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a successful but ageing actress who scored her break years ago by playing the young lead in the film and stage versions of Maloja Snake, written by some old dude named Wilhelm. It’s about a tempestuous lesbian relationship between a young woman and an old woman that ends in tragedy. In present day, Wilhelm carks it, but Maria is presented with the opportunity to star in the remake of  Maloja Snake, this time as the older woman. Adding to the intrigue is that she has a trustworthy assistant played brilliantly by Kristen Stewart, whose relationship with her at times appears to mirror that of the play. At the same time, the new choice for the young lead, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, has a completely different take on the character Maria thought she knew better than anyone.

So as you can see, this is a film with plenty of intricacies and parallels and layers, many of which are pointed out by the characters themselves in those pretentious discussions I used to partake in with my writing and film classmates (in class only, of course, because we had to). It’s an interesting film to watch because it makes you think, and it’s helped by the wonderful performances from the trio of central female characters, in particular Kristen Stewart, who proves once again that Twilight can turn even the most talented of thespians into a flaming turd. Don’t just take it from me. Stewart actually won a Best Supporting Actress at the Cesars (or the French Oscars, if you will).

I wasn’t drugged up on this flight, so it’s no excuse that the film — at an understandable 123 minutes — began to lose me towards the end. One of the film’s best attributes is that you never really know where it is heading, but eventually I didn’t really care. Perhaps it was all those annoying announcements they have to deliver every few minutes in three different languages that forced the film to be paused multiple times throughout, or maybe it’s because I started to see through its pretentiousness.

Still, for a mid-flight movie, Clouds of Maria Sils more than performs its duty. It has a clever premise and strong performances that challenge you to contemplate its subtleties and layered depth, though the experience was ultimately a pretty hollow one.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Serena (2014)

February 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The first two times Jennifer Lawrence and Bradley Cooper collaborated on a film (Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle) the results were spectacular, earning the duo three Oscar nominations and a win. Their third joint effort, unfortunately, is a huge misstep for everyone involved.

Set in 1930s America, Serena focuses on a young logging businessman played by Bradley Cooper, who becomes enchanted by a beautiful young blonde. The titular Serena is not just some trophy wife either, as she proves herself to be a strong, intelligent and astute woman who doubles as a valuable business partner.

That’s about as much as I can divulge about the plot without spoilers, because the biggest problem with the film is that I’m not even sure how to describe it. Is it a drama? A romance? A thriller? A Western?! All or none of the above?

The frustrating thing about Serena is that I couldn’t figure out where it was going or what it was trying to achieve. The first half or so felt like it was simply going through the motions while trying to set something up down the track, though the twists in the plot end up coming across as somewhat random and surprising in a WTF way. So after all that, this is what the movie’s about? Maybe I missed all the clues and subtle hints along the way, but it felt like I had been watching a completely different film when it suddenly decided to go off the rails.

The script was adapted from the bestselling novel of the same name by Ron Rash, which, from what I have read, differs significantly from the film. I had a feeling that might have been the case because it’s obvious there’s much about the movie that didn’t turn out the way it was envisioned.

The performances were good, but you already knew that was the case with two top-class actors at the peak of their powers. The problem is that Bradley’s character is an unlikable, spineless schmuck who generates no empathy or sympathy, while Lawrence is miscast as the blonde bombshell. Her youth worked to her advantage in both Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle, but here her babyfaced sweetness doesn’t match the tragedy-hardened demeanour her character demands.

The supporting cast also features some impressive names such as Toby Jones, who sleepwalks through the thankless role of the local sheriff, and chameleon Rhys Ifans, who plays a bizarre logger with an unexplored past and personality.

On the whole, Serena fizzles by failing to provide its A-class actors with roles suited to their strengths or a coherent script with a clear direction. The result is a strange and unsatisfactory experience that will leave many viewers scratching their heads wondering how such a quality production could have gone so wrong.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

February 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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If you don’t know the true story behind Foxcatcher, then I suggest you avoid reading anything about the movie — apart from this spoiler-free review, of course — and anything about its real-life characters, American Olympic wrestling brothers Dave and Mark Schultz, as well as multimillionaire philanthropist John du Pont.

I know I say that about every movie, but in this case it’s really for your own good. Foxcatcher is one of those slow, contemplative films so doused in melancholy that you know it will either end up turning around into something inspirational or that something tragic is going to happen. Not knowing what will transpire, however, makes all the difference in the world in terms of the film’s emotional payoff after sitting through more than two hours of anticipation.

That’s not to say Foxcatcher doesn’t deliver the goods if you know the background, for it’s a story so remarkable — with characters so conducive to psychological drama — that you’ll tend to forget it’s all based on true events.

There’s the young wrestler, Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), who has low self-worth — despite being an Olympic gold medalist — from living in his older brother’s shadow and a lack of financial stability. There’s Dave Schultz (Mark Ruffalo), the more confident and savvy of the siblings whose career is tied down by his commitment to his wife (Sienna Miller) and children. And then there’s John du Pont (Steve Carell), the old, mysterious loner with mommy issues who wants to use his incredible wealth and power to build a patriotic national wrestling team with the Schultz brothers as his headliners.

Together, they form a tense triangle of power politics driven by money, loyalty, manipulation and control, all of which takes place before a backdrop of the competitive and often cutthroat world of amateur wrestling.

That description may make Foxcatcher sound like some kind of exciting thriller, though the pace is actually deliberately snail-like at times, full of solitary moments of silence, contemplation and self-reflection. Even the wrestling scenes are intentionally muted so that you don’t get any of that manufactured adrenaline that typically comes with Hollywood spots movies. But the emotions are undoubtedly there, and they actually feel more genuine and amplified. Those who have seen director Bennett Miller’s other acclaimed films Capote and Moneyball, will have an idea of the style I am referring to.

The three main actors have received critical acclaim for their performances, especially Carell and Ruffalo, who received Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor, respectively. To be honest, I actually liked Tatum’s performance the most. Far from just a beefcake, he was terrific at projecting Mark’s obvious lack of self-esteem and desire for approval. Ruffalo was very good too, though he’s always at that level, while I would have been fine had Carell missed out on he nomination in favour of Selma‘s David Oyelowo. Not to say Carell wasn’t great in this, but he still reminded me of Steve Carell behind all the makeup.

Interestingly, after watching the film, I went online to check out what their real-life counterparts looked like. I was surprised to discover that none of them really had much of a resemblance, except for maybe Tatum, though it’s a stretch to call him a lookalike of Mark Schultz.

One of the things about the film that I liked — but recognise others might be frustrated by — is how the relationships, motives and states of mind of the characters are left ambiguous and open to interpretation. Was it mentor and student, coach and wrestler, father and son, brother and brother, or all of the above? And was I imagining things or was there even something sexual lurking beneath the surface? I have a feeling Miller wanted to let the audience decide for themselves so they can try to make sense of why things turned out the way they did in the end.

That said, Mark Schultz and some other wrestlers have already confirmed that Foxcatcher more or less made up the dynamics of the relationships and the character traits of the central trio. For the record, however, Schultz eventually recanted some of his criticisms of the film and against Bennett (who is up for Best Director), saying that he “loved” the film.

I personally found Du Pont to be by far the most fascinating character, and was naturally disappointed that his psyche was not explored in as much depth as it probably ought to have been. That said, such an endeavour would have added more time to a movie that was already feeling a little on the long side, and in any case I understand that the screenplay was based on Mark Schultz’s book and thus from his perspective.

Flaws and creative licenses aside, Foxcatcher works as a compelling yet disturbing drama powered by three excellent performances and the direction of a master storyteller. I have a feeling it will go down as one of the more memorable films of 2014.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Good Lie (2014)

January 28, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Good Lie is probably the best of all the films I caught on two red eye flights recently. Starring Reese Witherspoon, it tells the story of four Sudanese refugees after they win a lottery for relocation to the United States. Sure, it’s a Hollywood production, but for the most part this is an educational, eye-opening and deeply moving drama with fundamental themes that anyone should be able to appreciate.

The movie starts off with a recount of the Second Sudanese Civil War between 1983 and 2005, and how the four protagonists — three boys and a girl — became a part of the so-called Lost Boys of Sudan, basically tribal children who were displaced or orphaned during this period and ended up in refugee camps.

The foursome are given a second chance at life when they win the relocation lottery to the US, and the next part of the movie details their profound culture shock after their arrival. Some of it is quite amusing, though I wonder how much of it was exaggerated for effect.

With the help of Carrie Davis (Witherspoon), a woman with a job placement agency, the boys (the girl was separated from them for stupid bureaucracy reasons) start working in menial jobs in factories and supermarkets, wondering if this is all their lives in this strange and new land will offer them.

I had concerns that The Good Lie was going to be one of those “Americans are so awesome for helping out these refugees” type of movies, with Witherspoon’s character as some sort of selfless hero, though I’m glad to say this was not the case. The focus of the film is firmly on the four refugees (in particular the three boys), who are all well-developed, strong characters with individual personalities. The film is seen through their point of view, and the the bond that they have growing up together is the true heart of the story. Even their little frictions and fights are fascinating to watch.

The acting from the largely unknown cast is superb, and Witherspoon delivers a steady performance that doesn’t steal the limelight. It helps that her character is seemingly normal and doesn’t have a god complex. It was also good to see House of Cards and The Strain’s Corey Stoll in a supporting role as helpful friend Jack.

I was really touched by this film despite its fairly by-the-numbers approach. It’s heartbreaking but does not come across as manipulative, with light bits of humour sprinkled throughout. While there are some inevitable cliches, the depictions of both the Sudanese and American characters are executed with respect thanks to the steady hands of director Philippe Falardeau and the script by Margaret Nagle. It’s an honest story with a lot of hardships and reminders of the brutal reality of the world, but ultimately it also delivers a warm message of hope.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Judge (2014)

November 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I hadn’t seen any engaging dramas for a while, so I thought I’d go and check out The Judge, a film about a hotshot lawyer (Robert Downey Jr) who returns home and defends his estranged father (Robert Duvall), an elderly and well respected judge, against a serious crime.

I can understand why the film has received mixed reviews, but personally I thought it was a well-acted family drama with a nice legal slant. It is too cliched and melodramatic to be a top-level film or Oscar material, though it doesn’t mean that it’s not good enough to fall somewhere between the next couple of rungs on the ladder.

I was far from optimistic that the film would deliver during its early scenes, when we were introduced to Hank Palmer (Downey Jr), an arrogant, selfish and extremely capable lawyer with no moral compass or qualms about setting guilty men free. And when he was forced to return to his country-town home in Indiana, the path of the character journey laid out in front of the audience just seemed way too obvious.

The truth is, The Judge rarely deviates from this path. There core of the film revolves around the damaged father-son relationship and the high-stakes court trial. While both aspects are admittedly executed well by director David Dobkin (Wedding Crashers), the film never manages to shake off that air of familiarity. Even the progression of the plot is expected — there are moments of bonding and conflict between father and son, as well as typical ups and downs in court. And we know the answers to the central mysteries of the film — the reason for their estrangement and the judge’s guilt — will come down to a climatic courtroom scene at the end.

General predictability is undoubtedly a problem with the film, though my concerns lie more with its excess of not-particularly-original subplots. There’s the whole hotshot-returns-to-home-he’s-trying-to-forget angle. There’s the ex-girlfriend (Vera Farmiga) he abandoned whom he still clearly has feelings for. There’s the cute daughter (Emma Tremblay) he is trying to connect with and trying to introduce to his father for the first time. There’s his strained relationship with the two brothers he left behind — the older one (Vincent D’Onofrio) whose once promising future was destroyed by a tragic accident, and the younger one (Jeremy Strong) who suffers from a mental disability. There’s even the prosecutor (Billy Bob Thornton) on a mission of revenge and justice.

All of these subplots get enough screen time to be intriguing, but none receive sufficient attention to be satisfying. As a result the film’s focus is needlessly scattered and the tonal shifts sometimes come across as far from seamless.

Having said all that, The Judge is saved by it’s super ensemble cast, who elevate the script far above its value on paper. Whenever you throw award-winning and respected veteran thespians like Downey Jr, Duvall, Farmiga, Thornton and D’Onofrio together you know you’re in for some quality drama. Not everything worked, but there are some effective scenes scattered throughout the film. Thanks to the skill and chemistry of the cast, several set pieces that would have been trite and sappy in lesser hands ended up being quite emotional and engrossing.

Theoretically, a cynic like me should have disliked The Judge, a drama that embraces rather than avoids dramatic and courtroom cliches. To my surprise, however, I didn’t mind it, even when I knew I was being manipulated by scenarios similar to ones I had probably seen dozens of times before. It’s by no means perfect, and I don’t deny that it lacks the style and substance required to make it a memorable film, but I confess The Judge pulled enough of my heartstrings for me to call it a worthwhile and appreciable experience.

3.5 stars out of 5