Movie Review: Manny (2014)

February 2, 2015 in Boxing, Movie Reviews, Reviews, Sport

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Considering what great material the filmmakers had to work with, Manny, the new documentary on eight-weight-class Filipino world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, should have been a sure-fire KO. Instead of delivering the haymakers fans would have loved to see, however, the film ended up pulling its punches all the way through, resulting in a thoroughly unsatisfying experience that barely scratches the surface of both the man and the sport.

On its face, Manny ticks all the right boxes for a sports documentary. A poor Filipino kid from the gutter is forced to box from a young age to put food on the family table, and in the process develops a talent and ferocity that would take him to the very top of the sport. Amid the career highs (such as his superstar-making pummeling of Oscar de la Hoya in 2008) and lows (his KO loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012, for instance) there are celebrity interviews and “rare” public and behind-the-scenes footage, all with the familiar voice of Liam Neeson narrating the script.

But despite an explosive start highlighting Pacquiao’s knockout loss to Marquez, Manny soon settles into conventional documentary mode and begins to skim over the stuff that would have made the film fascinating. It touches on all the things we already know about Pacquiao’s life outside of his major fights — the humble beginnings, the rise through the weight ranks, the movies and singing that came with the stardom, the foray into politics, and the apparent “religious awakening” he would experience a few years ago — but without ever getting to the “good stuff” simmering beneath the surface.

Yes, it was cool to see highlights of his training and big fights — Barrera, Morales, De la Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Margarito, Marquez — in high definition, and it was fun to see celebrities like Mark Wahlberg, Jeremy Piven and Jimmy Kimmel talk about him, but all of these things felt superficial.

I wanted to see more footage of Manny’s daily life; I wanted to hear more about the dirty business of boxing and the disputes between his promoter Top Rank and Golden Boy; I wanted to hear about all the venomous groupies that feed of his money and all the cash he literally gives away; I wanted more depth on Manny’s dark side — the gambling and the drinking and the womanizing. It would be unfair to say the film completely ignores these issues, though it barely takes more than a jab at them. The approach by directors Leon Gast (who won the Oscar for the Ali documentary When We Were Kings) and Ryan Moore was to just touch upon all the touchy things and gloss over them quickly before moving onto the more positive aspects of Manny’s existence.

The best parts of the movie are when we see people close to Manny talk about him, from adviser Michael Koncz and ex-conditioning coach Alex Ariza to his long-time coach Freddie Roach and promoter Bob Arum. The bits with the most emotion actually all involve Pacquiao’s wife Jinkee, the only person who appears to be giving it to the viewers straight. But unfortunately, these flashes of genuine insight into Pacquiao are few and far between.

Perhaps it’s because I already know too much about Pacquiao for Manny to teach me anything new. To be honest, even the 24/7 documentaries produced by HBO before each Pacquiao fight offer more about he subject than this documentary. I just think the film would have been so much more interesting had it dared to venture deeper into things such as Alex Ariza’s unceremonious dumping from Pacquiao’s team and the subsequent feud he developed with Roach and Koncz (not discussed at all), questioning how and what really caused the negotiations with Floyd Mayweather Jr to break down multiple times (nothing apart from a couple of clips anyone could have dug up on YouTube), and some sort of definitive statement about all the allegations of performance enhancing drugs (the elephant in the room).

Even the chronological depiction of Pacquiao’s career missed important chunks. Although the footage is out there, the film ignores Pacquiao’s earlier losses before Morales and his world title fights at the lighter weight class, and completely skips his less inspiring bouts against Joshua Clottey and Shane Mosley. I know it’s hard to follow every bout of Pacquiao’s long career, but pretending that some important events of his life don’t even exist makes me question the filmmakers’ objectivity and decision-making.

At the end of the day, Manny is a film that’s more hagiography than documentary. It feels like it has been made by the same people who follow Pacquiao around all day telling him how great he is (they’re what netizens described as “Pactards”). Pacquiao is an interesting, charismatic sportsman who deserves a better biography than what he got here, and this was never more apparent when listening him spew out the awkward lines they wrote for him at the end of the movie.

Having said all that, Manny remains in a position to succeed because of Pacquiao’s immense popularity and fortunate timing — as the long-awaited showdown between him and Mayweather appears to be  getting somewhere at last. Maybe after they finally do fight each other someone else can make a more compelling documentary that can do Manny Pacquaio justice.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Into the Woods (2014)

January 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Sometimes you just have to go against the grain. Despite the awesome ensemble cast, the reputation of stylish director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean 4), the box office and critical success, there is only one thing I am certain of: Into the Woods is a shit film.

Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, Into the Woods cleverly builds a world combining several Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. At the centre of the story is a couple played by Emily Blunt and James Corden, who come in touch with all these classic fairy tale characters as they try and break a curse that has prevented them from having a child.

It sounds like a fun idea, and for the first few minutes of the film (at least) it was not difficult to see the potential of the premise. You get a bunch of big name stars — from Meryl Streep (whom I cannot believe was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role at the upcoming Oscars) and Anna Kendrick to Chris Pine and Johnny Depp — playing wacky characters. The tone is light and tongue-in-cheek, and the script makes good use of our knowledge (and the characters’ lack of knowledge) of the fairy tales they’re in.

And so it came as a slow and painful shock to me that Into the Woods simply didn’t work as a feature film. It may have as a Broadway musical — I don’t know because I haven’t seen it — but I found myself not caring much for the story or the characters. There are some admittedly funny moments, many of which are sarcastic or involve Billy Magnussen, who plays Rapunzel’s unfortunate prince, though the whole “turning fairy tales on their head” gimmick grew tiring in a hurry.

At 124 minutes, the film is far too long and the dark final act dragged on for what felt like an eternity. I actually thought the movie was already long when it hit its faux ending much earlier and had to be forced to endure about another 20 minutes of soulless mayhem.

Strictly speaking there’s nothing wrong with the production per se, though as a whole Into the Woods failed to engage me. I couldn’t get into the story because it was so all over the place, I didn’t get into the songs because there was nothing resembling a catchy melody or song, and I didn’t care about anything or anyone because there was no heart or genuine emotion.

Maybe it’s my bias against fairy tale “reimaginings” or my inability to get most musicals, most notably the big screen adaptation of Les Miserables from 2012. But  even had I approached it a clean slate I just don’t see how I could have come to a different conclusion — and that’s the film is strangely detached, unexciting, and far too long.  It’s a pretty movie to look at and I have the utmost respect for the talented cast on the screen, though these positives alone are insufficient to drag Into the Woods out of the shitter.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Horns (2014)

November 15, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’m just going to come out and say it. I think Horns is awesome. It’s weird and surreal, and it’s a little all over the place, but it’s also original, devilishly twisted and wickedly funny.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Ignatius “Ig” Perrish, a young man who has been shunned by his small town after being fingered as the prime suspect for the rape and murder of his lovely girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). One morning, Ig awakes with two horns protruding from his head. He has no idea where they came from and he can’t get rid of them, but there’s clearly something supernatural about it all because the horns seem to come with certain powers — powers he will exploit in an effort to clear his name.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Joe Hill. Some of you might not know this, but Hill is Stephen King’s son, and he displays a lot of the same wicked sensitivities as his old man. The central idea of the film may start off as a gimmicky concept, but Hill manages to infuse the tale with a sharp satirical edge and plenty of dark humour to firmly distinguish himself from his old man.

The film has received mixed reviews from critics largely for its tonal inconsistencies, and I agree to some degree. It has been marketed as a horror, though it also has elements of comedy, fantasy, family drama, mystery and romance. You could even call it a part-religious satire or allegory for the way it takes on religion and religious symbolism. Either way, the shifts in tone are far from seamless, and as a result viewers could find themselves questioning what the film really wants to be and what it is trying to say.

For me, Horns is first and foremost a black comedy because its hilarity is what stands out the most. I laughed more times in this movie than pure comedies I’ve seen in years, though that might say more about my twisted sense of humour than anything else. The film does become less funny and more dark as it nears its conclusion, but for me it will always be a black comedy at heart. And besides, there are very few attempts to scare the audience for the first three-quarters of the film, and even when it started veering into horror I found it more unsettling than frightening.

I can’t think of another film quite like it. The one that pops up in my mind, strangely, is Jennifer’s Body (the Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried flick from 2009). That one was sexier and much scarier, but it has the same type of twisted, surreal tone and satirical wit.

Director Alexandre Aja has a bit of a mixed-bag career — he rose to stardom with Haute Tension in 2003 and did a fine job with the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, though he followed those efforts up with the clunky Mirrors and the campy Piranha 3D. In my opinion, Horns may actually be his best film to date.

Daniel Radcliffe has been busy trying to reinvent himself since Harry Potter ended, starring in a range of flicks from The Woman in Black (straight horror) and Kill Your Darlings (biographical drama) to The F Word (rom-com). Horns is arguably his most daring post-Potter venture to date, and I also believe it’s likely the best performance of his career — and that’s even with him putting on an American accent. Radcliffe is proving himself to be one of those rare actors who couldn’t act for shit as a child but has gradually developed into a quality thespian with a bright future ahead of him.

The rest of the cast is not too shabby either. Even though she’s supposed to be dead, Juno Temple appears more than you’d think through flashbacks, and she does a fine job of convincing audiences that she’s someone all the boys in town would pine for. Max Minghella is solid as the best friend-slash-lawyer, while Joe Anderson plays the quiet brother. Veterans such as Heather Graham, Kathleen Quinlan and David Morse round out the impressive ensemble.

My main problem with Horns is not the tonal inconsistencies, but rather, the predictable nature of its central mystery. Maybe it’s just me, but I figured out the real killer about 10 minutes into the film. Fortunately, there were plenty of other little curve balls and surprises to keep the film intriguing for the remainder of its 2-hour running time.

The best black comedies always say something about the darkest aspects of human nature. Horns is about our constant judgments of others. It’s about living up to the image we think society has carved out for us. It’s about the hypocrisy of thinking one way and saying or doing another. It’s about selfishness and self-preservation. That’s why I think it is a stroke of genius for Hill to bring out all of these nasty sides of human nature in a story about a guy demonized by his community appearing to be literally turning into the devil, and to do it in such an original, twisted, and intentionally unsubtle way.

And so, despite recognizing its flaws, I had an absolute blast with horns. I think it is a unique genre-bender and one of my Darkhorse favorites of the year.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Before I Go to Sleep (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I had wanted desperately to read SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, the bestselling novel about a 40-year-old woman who has that same condition as Drew Barrymore from 50 First Dates — ie, she has no short term memory and wakes up every morning with no recollection of the previous day or what happened to her since her early 20s. But alas, I was stuck on other books, so I decided to take the easy way out and watch the adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong.

While the film blatantly steals from Adam Sandler’s idea (if you can’t tell that’s a joke then I can’t help you), Before I Go to Sleep is no comedy — it’s a mystery thriller with plenty of suspense that will have every viewer trying to guess the outcome. Personally, I thought it was a perfectly solid mystery film that doesn’t manage to fully differentiate itself from similar Hollywood efforts in recent years. I enjoyed the ride while it lasted, and while I wouldn’t call it forgettable (pun unintended), the film clearly will not be as revered as its source material.

Nicole Kidman plays our protagonist, Christine Lucas, who suffers from the — let’s just call it the Drew Barrymore condition — because of an “accident” she was in about 10 years ago, or so her husband Ben (Colin Firth) tells her. Every morning, after waking up and being reminded of who she is by Ben, she receives a call from a neurologist, Dr Nasch (Mark Strong), who tells her that they’ve been secretly working together to help her remember her past.

Naturally, nothing is what it seems, and Christine slowly begins to peel away the mystery, one layer at a time like an onion. Who can she trust? Who is telling her the truth? And why did she really become this way? These are all questions that will get answered eventually, though not before writer and director Rowan Joffe (who was a writer on 28 Weeks Later and The American) throws a bunch of curve balls at us. But anyone who watched this film probably knew that there’d be twists and turns galore, and an obligatory surprise at the very end.

Knowing what’s coming, however, didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the film. Before I Go to Sleep is done and dusted in an extremely manageable (and unlikely for this day and age) 92 minutes. The short running time keeps the film tight and fast paced, and Joffe cleverly finds ways to avoid repetition despite Christine waking up in the same manner every day. Always be kept on the back foot from all the plot twists and red herrings also prevents you from thinking too much about all the potential plot holes and inconsistencies.

I know it is unpatriotic of me to say this, but I have never been the biggest fan of Nicole Kidman. I just don’t think, Oscar notwithstanding, she’s that good of an actress. Having said that, I admit she there is not much for me to complain about here. She gets the job done, I’ll leave it at that. Colin Firth and Mark Strong are also excellent and make full use of their charisma in different ways, such that both come off as trustworthy suspects.

My biggest problem with the film, and films like this in general, is that knowing a “shocking” twist is coming means you likely won’t be shocked when it finally comes. I couldn’t shake that feeling of anticipation throughout most of the film, and I doubt I’m alone when I say I more or less guessed the ending.

While it doesn’t come close to blowing me away like I was by a classic like The Usual Suspects, I think Before I Go to Sleep generally accomplishes what it set out to do. It might not be the most creative or satisfying mystery thriller you’ll come across this year, but in my opinion it’s certainly one of the better ones.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

September 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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First the book, and now the movie. I’m not big on romance, but I consider myself a fan of John Green’s young adult cancer romance novel The Fault in Our Stars. Last week I finally got a chance to see the movie adaptation, directed by Josh Boone (set to direct a new adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand) and starring rising stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as a pair of cancer-ridden teen lovers.

I went in expecting a tear-jerker and still came close to discharging some saltwater from my eyes, which is no mean feat considering I almost never cry at movies and I knew exactly what was going to happen. I don’t have a problem with films that intend to manipulate viewers into crying as long as it is done in a non-exploitative way, and I think The Fault in Our Stars achieves, and if not comes very close to achieving, that objective. The emotions come not just from the realization that young lovers will inevitably be torn apart, but arise organically from the fact that we care about them and the special relationship that they have.

Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a smart, uncannily self-aware teen living with terminal thyroid cancer. She’s already supposed to be dead, but a fictional experimental drug has miraculously extended her life for an indeterminate period of time. At one of the dreaded support groups her parents send her to, she meets Augustus Waters (Elgort) a former basketball star who lost a leg to osteosarcoma. The attraction is instant, and the two begin a sweet but doomed courtship that will take them from Indiana to halfway across the world.

I thought the book was awesome, and the film does a fantastic job of staying true to its source material. Much of the dialogue is there, the key scenes are all there, and some of Hazel’s inner thoughts are projected to audiences via well-timed but not overused voice-overs. There were some small changes, such as the cutting out of some minor characters and a clever (and arguably more effective) tweak to the ending, but for the most part the adaptation is as smooth as fans of the book could have hoped for, and kudos must go to Josh Boone in creating a tone that captures the essence of John Green’s voice and style.

Admittedly, it is difficult to transfer the love story from the page to the screen without losing something, and if one must nitpick it would have to be the loss of some of the sardonic wit of the novel. Much of it is there through the dialogue and interactions between the characters, but I guess it was too difficult to squeeze in all of Hazel’s astute observations and thoughts about the world and the people around her. But hey, I get that the focus is on the love story, and you can’t blame the filmmakers for sacrificing a bit of humour to make more time for tears.

The casting is also a bit of a mixed bag. Shailene Woodley is magnificent. I don’t know if it’s an Oscar-worthy performance, but in my humble opinion it’s as good as performance Jennifer Lawrence has given. Woodley drives the film from start to finish. She’s sympathetic but not pitiful, charming but not obnoxious, and she brings out the best of the qualities of Hazel as the protagonist.

Ansel Elgort, who incidentally played Woodley’s brother in Divergent, is solid but occasionally struggles as the love of Hazel’s life, Augustus Waters. It’s not an easy role to pull off because he needs to be attractive, witty, considerate and caring, and Elgort achieves that for the most part, though at times he fails express his emotions in pivotal scenes, opting instead for an awkward, supposed-to-be-but-not-really charming smile. But still, he’s better than Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.

The supporting cast had some big names but not quite what I expected. Hazel’s mother is played by a rail-thin Laura Dern, who despite her excellent performance was not the actress I had envisioned in the role. Neither was Hazel’s father, played by True Blood’s Sam Trammell, who is given less to do and doesn’t deliver any more than he is given. The strangest casting choice was that of Willem Dafoe as the writer Hazel worships, Peter van Houten. Having read the book, I know the character is supposed to be fat and dishevelled, but Dafoe (despite trying to dress down) is neither, and it was hard reconciling the two in my mind. Even had I not read the book beforehand I probably would have expected more from the performance.

As it turned out, it was the lesser-known Nat Wolff (who appeared in Boone’s first film, Stuck in Love) who steals the show from the other supporting characters in his role as Augustus’s best male friend Isaac, who has already lost one eye to cancer and is about to lose the other. He was exactly how I pictured the character to be and comes across as both affable and genuine.

I can only imagine how my thoughts about the film would differ had I not read the book first, though I imagine it would still be highly positive. This is an easy film to like, with likable characters, a witty and thoughtful take on the bleak subject matter of cancer, and of course plenty of heartbreak mixed in with splashes of beauty and joy. It might still be a teen romance, but it’s a heartfelt and powerful one that does its best to avoid the cliches of the genre with rare wisdom and warmth.

4 stars out of 5

 
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