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: Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

February 11, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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My love for the Cohen brothers is profound. They may have had some misses over the years, but when they hit the mark the sky’s the limit. Their latest effort, Inside Llewyn Davis, a comedy drama about a struggling folk singer, is not a miss, but it’s not quite a spectacular hit either. It features some of that trademark Cohens quirky humour that I love and plenty of wonderful music, but the story itself is not quite engrossing enough to keep me drawn in for the entire 105-minute running time.

Set in New York in the 1960s, Llewyn Davis (played by Oscar Isaac) is not doing too well. We can tell from the opening scenes that he’s a pretty good signer, but his solo album, which shares the same name as the film, isn’t selling, and he is forced to sleep on the couch of a friend’s family. He’s not a horrible guy but he’s not exactly likable either and often comes across as a bit of a dick who’s not afraid to speak his mind regardless of how offensive his words  may be.

It’s a bit of a meandering film with no real direction, one that follows Davis around for a week as he tries to land gigs and score performances to earn himself some dough. We see him looking after a ginger cat, get hassled by his casual girlfriend Jean (Carey Mulligan) and taking a road trip with some interesting people. His personal life is in a complete mess and his relationships are all over the place, and his existence is more or less one misadventure after another, and the majority of them are his fault. It’s not exactly a riveting plot, and at times I wondered what the heck it was trying to say, or whether it was trying to say anything at all.

And no, it’s not one of those poignant dramas either. There’s no touching message about life or underlying beauty. It’s just Davis being who he is, for better or worse, battling to survive in a tough industry where artists often find themselves making compromises to make ends meet. I actually prefer that, though I wish there was more of a focus and a proper story to tell.

The strength of the film lies in the offbeat comedy that the Coens are masters of, and much of it comes from the sharp conversations between Davis and the people in his life. There are plenty of witty and dumbfounding lines that elicited chuckles from me throughout the movie, though not many huge belly laughs like the ones I got in Fargo.

I had never heard of Oscar Isaac before but he’s terrific in this — both his acting and his singing. And I had no idea that there were so many big names in supporting roles, from the aforementioned Carey Mulligan to Justin Timberlake, John Goodman, Garrett Hedlund, F Murray Abraham, Max Casella (Doogie Howser’s buddy!) and Girls‘ Adam Driver. All of them stand out in their own way, especially Mulligan, whom I didn’t think much of before but was thoroughly impressed with here as the straight-shooting and ball-busting ex. She was very funny.

In the end, I don’t really know what to think of Inside Llewyn Davis. I enjoyed this finely crafted film and found it highly amusing, no doubt, and I also surprisingly liked the music a lot. But at the same I was a little disappointed with it and wished I could have liked it more. It’s a strange experience that will probably polarize viewers, but if push comes to shove I would probably still recommend it, especially to people who enjoy a good Coen brothers project.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Blue Jasmine (2013)

January 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I don’t think much of Woody Allen as a husband or father, but I still get excited whenever I hear that he has a new film out. Despite a mixed bag in recent years, I loved Match Point and thought Midnight in Paris was one of the best movies of 2011. His latest, Blue Jasmine, starring Cate Blanchett in possibly a career-defining performance, is definitely right up there as one of his better projects over the past decade.

In tradition with Allen’s unique style, Blue Jasmine is a small, chatty, neurotic character movie, this time about a woman who had everything coping (or not coping) with losing everything. Blanchett plays the titular Jasmine, a New York socialite who once had wealthy husband (Alec Baldwin) and all the branded handbags and shoes a woman could want, but begins the film travelling to live with her not-so-well-off sister and her two sons in San Francisco. There are reasons for her downfall and breakdown, and we find this out gradually, piece by piece, through a series of well-designed exposition and flashbacks.

It’s clear from the very first scene, a one-sided conversation aboard her flight, that Jasmine is not a likable protagonist, someone who cannot let go of her elitist attitude and high and mighty behaviour despite no longer having the status or bank balance to back it up. Much of the fun is watching this very self-centered, pompous and cluelessly tactless woman trying to “put up” with people she thinks are inferior to her, though at the same time there is a certain poignancy to Jasmine’s ordeal because she is fighting so hard to not crumble under her depression. Despite all the obnoxious and insufferable things she says and does, it’s no easy hating Jasmine because she’s so laughably pitiful.

Part of that is Allen’s masterful writing, but most of the credit should go to Blanchett’s performance, which has already won her a Golden Globe and makes her a favourite heading into the Oscars. She is simply perfect as Jasmine, exuding an elegance and presence that is tailor made for the role. Everything, from her posture to the way she seems to start every sentence with a heavy sigh, tells you the kind of horrible character she is, and yet you understand why men are drawn to her. And most of all, she is incredibly funny, in an endearing Larry David/George Costanza kind of way.

Backing Blanchett up is a strong cast that includes Sally Hawkins as her “far too nice” sister, Bobby Cannavale as the sister’s middle-class boyfriend, and Peter Sarsgaard as a potential new love interest. Rounding out the effective ensemble are Alec Baldwin as the sleazy husband (another wonderful bit of casting), Louis CK as the sister’s new potential love interest, and Michael Stuhlbarg as a creepy dentist.

Blue Jasmine is an unusual, quietly brilliant movie because it doesn’t follow Hollywood’s typical “character journey” plot. Some of the subplots were a little on the predictable side — you just knew Woddy was setting certain relationships up for a dramatic moment — but by the end I was pleasantly surprised with its unconventional, and probably more realistic, conclusion. The film does lose momentum and become more serious and less funny as it progresses, but with a crafty pace and a compact 98-minute running time, Blue Jasmine is a pure delight that doesn’t come around very often, even for Woody Allen.

4.25 stars out of 5

And here’s Cate winning her Golden Globe!

Movie Review: Captain Phillips (2013)

December 19, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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To be honest, I wasn’t really all that interested in Captain Phillips, which depicts the true story of the Maersk Alabama hijacking by Somali pirates in 2009. I dunno, maybe I had been put off by pirates because of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise (there may actually be an element of truth that joke), or perhaps it was because it looked like another boring a Oscar bait. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Captain Phillips is, without a doubt, one of the most thrilling and captivating movies of the year.

As always, if you don’t know about the Maersk Alabama hijacking then don’t read up about it before you go watch the movie. First of all, it’s best not knowing how the story ends, and secondly, you won’t be distracted by any of the creative liberties taken by the filmmakers. I went into it not knowing anything about it at all other than that it’s based on a true story, and as a result I was glued to the screen for the entire 133-minute running time, which didn’t feel one bit overlong at all.

To just give a basic background of the premise, the film tells the story of Richard Phillips, the captain of the Maersk Alabama who took orders to sail through the Gulf of Aden to Mombasa with aide cargo. The ship gets hijacked by a band of Somali pirates, who take Phillips hostage for ransom and sets off a major international incident. It’s an extraordinary story of bravery and survival, one that I’m sure has been at least a little embellished and sped up for the purposes of the movie, but I have no problems with that at all because it worked. Apart from a brief intro, Captain Phillips is intense all the way through, rarely easing up to give audiences time to take a breather. The sense of dread is real, the fear of danger is genuine, and the action feels authentic without being not over-the-top. It’s a masterful piece of filmmaking considering that almost all of it takes place on the sea, and in nothing more than a couple of boats, and yet it’s far more exciting than many films that follow characters to multiple locations all around the world.

I’ve been a fan and critic of director Paul Greengrass, who directed two of the Bourne movies (Supremacy and Ultimatum) as well as the underrated war movie Greenzone. I like the way he handles his action sequences but I’m not a fan of his trademark handheld camera. In Captain Phillips, however, it feels as though Greengrass held back on the queasy-cam sequences, and even the scenes where the handheld cameras were more obvious were almost fitting because they were on the rocky seas.

As for the performances, I expected an Oscar-nominated one from Tom Hanks, which he delivers, but I was equally impressed by newcomer Barkhad Abdi, who has nabbed a Golden Globe as the lead pirate and I think deserves an Oscar nod too. You would think as a hostage Hanks won’t get to show off his acting chops as much, but he’s so solid as the stoic but clearly terrified captain and it’s difficult to imagine anyone else pulling off the role the way he did. Adbi, on the other hand, is brilliant as the young leader of the pirates, who is frightening and vulnerable at the same time. All of the newcomers who play the pirates are terrific — they are the bad guys but you almost don’t want anything to happen to them — but Adbi is the one who stands out the most because of his screen presence.

In all, I was very impressed by Captain Phillips. It ticks all the right boxes — riveting plot, thrilling action, just the right amount of political intrigue and well-developed characters backed by top performances. A smart, intense and highly enjoyable film.

4.5 stars out of 5

Random thoughts as I watch the 2012 Golden Globes

January 16, 2012 in Blogging, Entertainment, Misc

Note: Thoughts are chronological and jotted down as I watched the live broadcast.

Ricky Gervais is still good.  On a night where everyone is patting themselves on their backs and telling each other how great they are, it’s good that the host is a self-deprecating chubby who tells it as he sees it and takes the celebs down a couple of notches

Man Jonah Hill has lost some weight.  Must have followed Seth Rogen’s diet.  Wonder if it helps or hurts his career to be thinner.

Jeez there are lots of apparently great TV shows and fantastic films I haven’t seen.  Damn it.

No matter how many people sing its praises or how many awards it wins, I just can’t get myself interested in Downton Abbey.  Sorry.

Yay!  Go Kate Winslet (Mildred Pierce winner) once again!  She has to be one of my, if not my favourite actress in Hollywood.

Steve Buscemi (Boardwalk Empire), always my favourite actor, but damn I love Bryan Cranston because Breaking Bad is so ridiculously good.  Oh well, congrats to Kelsey Grammar for Oz.  Did he get another wife?

Can’t believe Homeland won best TV drama.  I heard it was just OK.  Guess I better see for myself.  Also gotta watch American Horror Story and Game of Thrones.  How am I ever going to fit these in?

Wow, Madonna is still around.  Winner for best original song (Masterpiece).  Check out those toned arms.  And she’s either looking very good for her age (93) or she has the world’s best make-up artist (the latter is slightly more likely).

Totally random and bizarre appearance from a Turkish actress who does nothing except say that the show is seen in a lot of countries.  Will no doubt go down as the biggest “WTF?” moment of the night.

Go Seth Rogen, standing right next to Kate Beckinsale and admitting to trying to conceal a massive erection.  Normally tacky but this is Rogen and he is standing next to Beckinsale.

Natalie Portman appearance during Michelle Williams‘ acceptance speech for My Week with Marilyn.  Still looking great despite the rigours of child-bearing and childbirth.

George Clooney, after getting a talked-up intro by Gervais, comes out with a cane and an awfully orange complexion (sadly very common tonight).

Yes!  The Adventures of Tin Tin wins best animated film.  Well-deserved.  One of the most entertaining films I’ve seen this year.  Good to see Andy Serkis get some kudos for his performance.

Will Ewan McGregor always look this young?  And Joseph Gordon-Levitt is a legend.

Woody Allen has gotta win best screenplay for Midnight in Paris.  Come on…YES!  So well deserved…and he’s not even there.  Nice cover by Nicole Kidman.

William H Macy and wife Felicity Huffman — awesome duo and song.  The heck d’ya mean?

Don’t mean to be mean but Jessica Lange has had some work done.  And then some.

Speaking of which, Madeleine Stowe looks absolutely amazing.  Did you know she’s 53 years old?

Tina Fey and Jane Lynch — best presenter pair of the night so far.  Natural, sassy and funny.

Did Matt LeBlanc dye his hair?  Good win as himself.  Sounds real enthusiastic…

Porn star moustache from Bradley Cooper.  I can’t stop looking at it.

Morgan Freeman tribute.  Lots of good movies, some average ones, a few bad ones, and a zillion voice-overs.  Ahh…Shawshank.  Still the best.

What the heck is wrong with Angelina Jolie?  She looks scary bony.

Martin Scorsese win best director for Hugo.  I gotta watch this movie.  Apparently it’s a critics fave but not embraced by audiences.

Modern Family wins again.  I’ve only seen a few eps but I need to get a move on.  My sister says it rivals Seinfeld but I’m yet to be convinced.

I don’t know much about fashion but Jessica Biel has a funny dress.

Seeerriously, Meryl Streep is probably the best actress in the world, but everyone can see through the fake surprise she feigned when she just won for The Iron Lady.  How can she possibly be surprised?  She bloody wins every single time!

Jane Fonda is 74.  Holy crap.  Work or no work, that’s an impressive looking lady.

The Artist has just become a must-see.  To be honest I might not enjoy it.  And why is there a dog doing tricks on the stage?  I hope it takes a dump.

Go Natalie Portman. Best actor time.  I go for Ryan Gosling.  But George Clooney wins.  Can things get any better for this man?  Big props to Michael Fassbender’s penis.

Man, The Descendants just won best drama.  I have to admit it does look pretty darn good.  Add it to the list.

And that’s a rap.  In short, this is what I learned from tonight’s Golden Globes:

  • there are too many movies and TV shows I haven’t seen;
  • it was a generally breezy night but still too much self-congratulatory crap and not enough humour;
  • Gervais started off with a good intro but pretty much disappeared after…not a big fan of him personally but he does do a good job at these awards by keeping everyone on edge and less likely to vomit from all the Hollywood self-loving;
  • biggest winner of the night appears to be The Artist or The Descendants;
  • George Clooney’s life just keeps getting better…I swear, one of these days something bad has to happen to him…it has to; and
  • Michael Fassbender has a massive schlong.

And now we wait for the Oscars.