Movie Review: Still Alice (2014)

February 23, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

still_alice

Note: Getting this review in just before they announce Best Actress at the Oscars!

I was in the mood to be depressed, so I went head and watched Still Alice, a sobering drama about a renowned linguistics professor’s battle with early onset Alzheimer’s.

It’s a respectable take on the illness that doesn’t go the whole way in capturing the worst the disease, preferring to leave its titular character with her dignity in tact. In that sense, Still Alice isn’t as quite as heartbreaking as I braced myself for (I had the Kleenex ready and everything), though the film surprised me with its gripping depiction of Alice’s family members and the way each of them reacts to the devastating news.

Based on the novel of the same name by Lisa Genova, Still Alice begins with Dr Alice Howland (Julianne Moore) celebrating her 50th birthday. With a successful career, a loving husband and three fully grown children, there’s not much more she could ask for.

But of course, the signs of the illness soon begin to manifest, randomly, sporadically, and with varying degrees of seriousness. Co-sreenwriters and directors Richard Glatzer and Wash Westmoreland — along with Moore in perhaps the best performance of her stellar career — do a solid job of conveying the initial shock and confusion from the onset of the symptoms. From a forgotten word here or a misplaced item there and getting gradually shittier at Words with Friends (I enjoyed this especially), to getting lost in what should be a familiar place, the trio manage to capture the angst as well as the physical disorientation through the use of camera panning and blurred backgrounds.

Moore’s deteriorating appearance is also used to match her crumbling mind. In the beginning I remarked on how amazing she looks for a 50 year old (54 in real life), though as the film progressed she grew increasingly lined and disheveled — though let’s face it, still pretty good for a 5o-year-old Academic who squeezed out three children.

It was a clever idea to make the subject of the illness a top linguistics professor who appeared to have everything, allowing the contrast ensuing from her illness to be even more stark. It’s bad enough for ordinary people, but for someone for whom words and language are her pride and define who she is, the blow must be incomprehensible. I know some will whine about how lucky Alice is to have money and family support compared to others suffering the disease, though it’s not the movie’s fault that it can only focus on one story.

I knew Moore was in it and is a favourite for Best Actress at this year’s Oscars, but I had no idea there were so many big stars in it. Alec Baldwin delivers a controlled, layered performance as Alice’s husband John, a brilliant researcher in his own right who struggles to deal with not only his wife’s deteriorating mental capacity but also the impact on his own career. The way he deals with losing he woman he has loved for so long, especially her losing perhaps the biggest reason for his love — her sharp mind and fierce career ambitions — is truly heart wrenching in more ways than one.

Kristen Stewart, Kate Bosworth and Hunter Parrish (from Weeds) play Alice’s three children, each of whom reacts differently to the diagnosis. Stewart, who gets the meatiest role of the three, is especially good, displaying a tenderness and non-constipated demeanour I thought I would never see again after “The Saga”. But to her credit, she has proven that there is life after Twilight.

The main complaint I can make against the movie is that it plays out too conventionally, pretty much the way I anticipated a movie about Alzheimer’s to go. The film alludes to how bad things will eventually get, but spares us the pain of actually seeing it. Maintaining the dignity of sufferers and reminding us that she is “still Alice” no matter what, appears to be a priority. Some will applaud the sensitivity of the approach, while others will say it sanitises reality. Everyone will have an opinion on how it affects the film, though it is undeniable that it would could have been edgier had it dared to venture a little further from expectations.

And for all the great depiction of Alice’s family, the film did very little to look at how her relationship evolved with her friends. In fact, I don’t even remember her having any friends at all.

It is not an easy movie to watch, and it’s hard to call it an enjoyable experience. If it’s superb performances and depressingly gripping drama you’re after, however, it’s hard to go past Still Alice. The script is perhaps too conventional for the film to be something truly special, but Moore’s performance elevates it far above what it would otherwise have been.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Camp X-Ray (2014)

February 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

camp_xray

It is great to see Kristen Stewart get her career back on track after the conclusion of the Twilight Saga. In her latest indie film, Camp X-Ray, Stewart plays a new Guantanamo Bay guard who develops a connection with one of the inmates, who are referred to “detainees” to curb the application of UN conventions.

This is a personal, intimate Gitmo film where the focus is on the characters and their emotional responses to their respective predicaments. Not to say there isn’t a place for more commercial, large-scale productions on the subject with more blatant political undertones, but Camp X-Ray‘s take on the less honourable aspects of the war on terror is definitely the one I prefer.

I’m not sure how accurate the film is when it comes to depicting what goes on at Gitmo, but assuming it is pretty close, Camp X-Ray is actually quite educational in its early stages. You get to see how new recruits are trained — from their perspective — in all the rules and procedures, including how they interact with and handle detainees on a daily basis. All of this is presented as without the need to sensationalise it, because the horror of the place speaks for itself.

As the film settles down, it becomes more of a two-character study, filled with insightful and tense conversations that begin to scratch the surface of Gitmo’s moral quandaries. How deep they get below the surface is in the eye of the beholder — personally I found it to be a captivating and emotionally powerful experience. Everyone will have their own idea of what it might be like to be confined indefinitely without charge, or to work around such people all day and every day, but seeing it depicted on screen just hit me in a way I didn’t expect. Not all the nuances were perfect, though there was never a moment where I stopped believing in the characters.

Much of that had to do with the strong performances of Stewart and Peyman Moaadi, the Iranian actor best known for A Separation. The initial wariness, the developing rapport and eventual bond between the characters were made believable by their layered portrayals and unsettling chemistry. It’s arguably Stewart’s best performance since 2007’s Into the Wild, the film that convinced me that she would one day be a huge star.

As an indie film with heavy themes, a limited setting and only a handful of characters (the only other semi-key character being a veteran guard played by Prison Break‘s Lane Garrison, who has been trying to rebuild his career after a real jail stint for killing someone in a car accident), know that Camp X-Ray won’t be for everyone, but I still believe that anyone who watches it will get something valuable out of the experience.

4 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 1

July 22, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

In order to do a best and worst movie list for 2012, I’ll have to finish watching and reviewing all my 2012 films first. So I’ve decided to commence yet another movie blitz, delivering four reviews at a time. I’ll try and keep ‘em short.

Lawless (2012)

lawless-poster-hitfix

One of my most anticipated movies last year because it’s directed by Aussie John Hillcoat, whose grim and gritty vision gave us The Road and The Proposition. It’s also based on a true story about the three Bondurant brothers who ran a moonshine business during the prohibition era. And it’s got a ridiculous cast featuring Tom Hardy, Jessica Chastain, Guy Pearce, Jason Clarke, Gary Oldman and Mia Wasikowska. The cast is so good I even forgave the fact that Shia LeBeouf is in it.

The brothers, Clarke, Hardy and LeBeouf, run a moonshine business in Virginia in the 1930s. The money is supposedly good, but the work is dangerous because, well, it’s illegal, and there are lawmen wanting a cut and ruthless competitors encroaching on their territory, and vice versa. One of the nastiest fellows is Guy Pearce, a special deputy, who commendably made himself look like a creepy psychopath, albeit a slightly one-dimensional one. Jessica and Mia play lovely ladies who get involved with the lads. Stuff gets nasty and violent; like a good old western, but brutally violent.

The verdict? Lawless is good, but not quite the epic western I had been expecting. It had all the elements — brotherhood, romance, run-ins with the law, a nasty villain, and lots of brutal, unflinching violence, and of course the acting is top notch — but for whatever reason the film felt like it just couldn’t elevate itself to where it wanted to go. I was interested but not captivated, attentive but not enthralled. Was it because it was just following a bunch of rough fellows around without any real sense of purpose? Or was it because the characters were not fully developed?

I blame it on Shia LeDouche.

3.5 stars out of 5

On the Road (2012)

hr_On_the_Road_12

Super-hyped film from last year. I’d like to think it’s because it’s a long-awaited adaptation of the classic Jack Kerouac semi-autobiographical novel of the same name (first published in 1957), and features a star-studded cast including Garrett Hedlund (of Tron: Legacy fame), Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Steve Buscemi, Viggo Mortensen and Terrence Howard. But let’s face it — On the Road  got most of its publicity because Bella Swan loses her top and executes a double-barreled sex act. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And I admit, I didn’t get the film. Was it a very difficult film to adapt (hence explaining the 50+ year gap between book and movie)? Was it because it was set so many years ago that I couldn’t connect with the characters or their world? Was I trying too hard to find meaning? I don’t know. But all I saw was a confused kid, Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley) becoming infatuated with his carefree, hedonistic friend, Dean Moriaty (Hedlund), who keeps screwing him over and over because he only cares about himself. They go places, they talk, they get drunk, they dance, they have fun, the fight, they separate, they meet up again. And it just goes on and on for more than two hours.

So unfortunately, On the Road bored me often despite my best intentions to enjoy it. I do have to admit that Hedlund is awesome in this — charming and magnetic — and Kristen Stewart showed, despite Twilight, that she actually can act and is excellent in the right role. But you’ll have to count me as one of those people who didn’t like this movie. Perhaps I need to read the book.

2 stars out of 5

Ruby Sparks (2012)

ruby-sparks-poster

Romantic comedies are not usually my thing, but Ruby Sparks is supposed to be one of the good ones because of its originality, quirkiness and chemistry between the two leads, real-life couple Zoe Kazan and Paul Dano. Kazan (who is nearly unrecognizable from when she played Leo’s slightly chubby mistress in Revolutionary Road) supposedly wrote the script for Dano, who electrified me in There Will Be Blood.

Dano plays Calvin, an anxious novelist who is struggling to recreate the success he enjoyed with his debut novel years ago. He has a dream about a woman (the titular Ruby Sparks) and decides to write about her as his therapist suggested, and boom, she appears in real life, exactly the way he describes her.

After the initial shock wears out, the writer and his creation enjoy what seems like a normal relationship — until Calvin realizes that even your dream girl can become your worst nightmare. It’s a be-careful-what-you-wish-for morality tale wrapped in a seemingly innocent love story. It’s about free will and loving your idea of a person rather than who the person really is. The deeper the movie goes the darker it becomes, and there are some scenes towards the end that are rather upsetting and heartbreaking.

The writing is excellent, as are the performances, and there is a sweetness about the relationship that feels genuine. But as far as resonance goes, I think the film fell a little short for me, failing to reach the depth of emotions conjured up by one of my favorite romantic comedies in recent years, 500 Days of Summer. Still, this is a delightfully fresh film with some interesting ideas. I found it to be an enjoyable, amusing, frightening and thoughtful experience.

4 stars out of 5

The Odd Life of Timothy Green (2012)

The_Odd_Life_of_Timothy_Green_9

I’ll be blunt. This Disney film about a barren couple wishing for a child and then having that wish miraculously realized is a clunker. While the intentions were good, The Odd Life of Timothy Green is everything I had feared it would be — predictable, saccharine, cringeworthy and overly sentimental.

Aussie Joel Edgerton and Jennifer Garner want a child but they’ve tried everything and nothing’s happening. One night, they write down all the things they would hope for in an imaginary child, chuck it in a box, and bury it in the yard. Out comes Timothy Green, a boy who fulfills all the qualities they had written down and, as the poster suggests, has leaves growing out of his calves.

At first, all is perfect, but then they start having the same anxieties as all parents do about their children, and they learn a few lessons along the way in typical Disney fashion. My guess is that Timothy Green wanted to be an old-fashioned family film that teaches us some life lessons while tugging our heart strings along the way. It’s a noble goal because such wholesome, non-animated, children-friendly films are rare these days, but unfortunately the film comes across as cliched and lacking in emotional depth. Everything that happens is predictable and even the crafted quarrels and tensions feel forced and heavy-handed. I blame a lot of it on the thin script and the character of Timothy Green (played by CJ Adams), who never endears himself to the audience like he should have.

The end result is a bland, not-very-funny or touching movie that doesn’t really teach us much.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn Part II (2012)

November 19, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

The world must really be coming to an end soon because — I can’t believe I am saying this– Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part II is GOOD.

How the Hogwarts is this possible? I have followed the films from the very beginning and read 2 of the 4 books (the first and third), primarily out of curiosity, and all they have done is bewilder because, let’s face it, they’re crap.

But inexplicably, this final film somehow manages to be by far the best of the lot and is a rewarding conclusion to an otherwise lackluster series.

The love story between Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and vampire beau Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) picks up from the end of the last film, where Bella was finally turned into a bloodsucker after dying during childbirth. For the first part of the film, we get to see the world in her new red eyes as she learns to deal with her newfound powers and desires. Oh, and there’s of course also her freakish hybrid baby daughter, Renesme (what the hell?) who is growing up so quick she belongs at Ripley’s Believe It Or Not.

But things aren’t all roses in Bella’s world. There’s finding a way to tell her father (Billy Burke) without really telling him anything. And there’s the Volturi, led by Michael Sheen and Stewart’s bandmate from The Runaways, Dakota Fanning, the vampire’s version of the Vatican, who are also evil and abuse kids. The Volturi (I’m assuming its plural for the “Voltura”) say baby vampires can’t be controlled and must be destroyed, but they aren’t the best listeners. Blah blah blah; get ready for an epic battle.

It’s actually the same formula that the Twilight films have followed since the second film, where the majority of the running time is spent waiting and training for some all out vampire fight. The big difference this time is that the dreaded and embarrassing love triangle between the lovebirds and Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) is finally broken, so we no longer have to be subjected to that cruel and unusual punishment.

There is also a whole heap of new characters from all over the world.  They may be forgettable, horrible and unoriginal stereotypes — but at least they each have awesome powers that will make you feel like you’re watching an episode of Heroes (back when it was still a good show).

You’d think they would have figured it out by now, but unfortunately, the special effects did not improve. The werewolves still look kinda weird, though nothing could compare to whatever they did with the baby, who was the most terrifying thing I’ve seen since Pennywise from Stephen King’s It. Was it really that hard to find a real baby for the role?

Despite all its problems, for the first time ever, the storytelling in Twilight is efficient (it’s a “compact” 116 minutes when recent trends suggested it could have been 146), the performances even and the action exciting. Granted, the are still moments of cringe that will make even the strongest bellies prone to violent bouts of projectile vomiting, but having put up with it for the first 4 films already I had become surprisingly immune. I trust there are others in the same boat.

As a vampire, Kristen Stewart gets to do a little more than heavy breathing and looking anxious this time, at last displaying a little of the range she’s capable of. Taylor Lautner remains relatively strong, although Robert Pattinson still has that “this is all so stupid” look plastered across his face for most of the movie. Michael Sheen makes the most of a ridiculous role that would probably would have completely failed if it went to a lesser actor, and actresses like Dakota Fanning and Maggie Grace seemed happy to just be part of the fun.

If you’ve followed the saga from the beginning as I have, you might find Breaking Dawn Part II to be a grand finale that delivers. There are pretty vampires and buffed werewolves, very good guys and extremely bad guys, wry humour and decapitations; and there’s love — a whole lotta love. Unlike the previous films in the franchise, there is not a dull moment in this one, as director Bill Condon (who captained Breaking Dawn Part I) appears to have finally figured out how to make things work. Better late than never, I suppose.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: By the way, there is a really — and I mean REALLY — cheap shot in this film. I won’t spoil it by saying what and when, but it’s quite typical of author Stephenie Meyer and the entire series. Let’s just say there were a lot of audible groans, and none louder than mine.

Mirror Mirror (2012) vs Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

June 8, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

As I have foreshadowed, my movie reviews are a little backed up, so why not kill two birds with one stone with this double-barreled review of two new films based around the same premise, Julia Roberts’ Mirror Mirror and Kristen Stewart’s Snow White and the Huntsman?

To be honest, I didn’t have much an interest in either film, but as usual, I watched both. What can I do? I’m a film buff.

First up, Mirror Mirror, which should have been more aptly titled “Lily Collin’s Eyebrows.” Since the Taylor Lautner vehicle Abduction, Collin’s eyebrows have been elevated to a whole new level. I was so distracted by the eyebrows that I often forgot to focus on the film. Which is easy, by the way, because it sucked donkey balls.

The majority of Mirror Mirror’s plot follows the original fairytale. Collins is Snow White and her stepmother and the Queen, Julia Roberts, is trying to get rid of her so she can remain the fairest of them all. Yes, there is a prince and yes, there are dwarves. No surprises.

Theoretically, Mirror Mirror should have been the better film. Just about everyone’s impression of Snow White comes from the Disney cartoon, which made it naturally more suitable for a family comedy as opposed to Snow White and the Huntsman’s “re-imagining.” While it was admittedly trying to be fun, Mirror Mirror suffered from a complete lack of freshness and laughs. The majority of the jokes were what I would call “family humour”, which is code for unfunny. There may have been a couple of good ones here and there, largely thanks to the charming wit of Winklevii star Armie Hammer as the prince, but for the most part the jokes hopscotched between obvious, lame and unimaginative. I can see children enjoying it, but I must say I cringed more than I laughed.

Mirror Mirror was more this

To be fair, the film was not badly made. Director Tarsem Singh, who last worked on Immortals, infuses flair into the art direction, and the costumes, especially those donned by Roberts, were all quite brilliant. The performances were strong and, thankfully, no one took themselves too seriously.

But in the end, I just couldn’t force myself to like or enjoy Mirror Mirror. Some might think the final Bollywood tribute sing-song was a redeeming feature but I found it totally bizarre and somewhat uncomfortable. If the film had lifted my spirits prior to this point I might have felt differently, but alas, it did not.

This brings me to the second Snow White film, Snow White and the Huntsman, which I thought would stink even before I caught the first trailer. Surprisingly, while I also struggled with it, I found it to be the better motion picture overall.

The Huntsman (let’s just call it that for short), is in the vein of last year’s Red Riding Hood, you know, that Amanda Seyfried “re-imagining” of another popular fairytale. It takes the basic plot and essentially does whatever it wants with it. In Red Riding Hood’s case, it was obviously inspired by the love triangle and teenage angst from Twilight, which doomed it to suckiness from the outset. In The Huntsman’s case, it’s a lot more complicated. This one takes “inspiration” from a lot of movies, from Lord of the Rings (or some might say Game of Thrones), Joan of Arc, Braveheart, Alice in Wonderland, Kingdom of Heaven, just to name a few. It’s both a blessing and a curse.

In this one, Snow White is imprisoned by the evil Queen for years before a daring escape into the enchanted forest, and a new character, known only as the Huntsman, is tasked with tracking her down. To me, even though the script was pretty muddled, it was by far more interesting because there were characters and plot points I didn’t expect. Sure, the story takes some questionably wild turns and spirals into absurdity on more than one occasion, but at least it kept me wondering what was going to happen next (for the most part, because at 127 minutes it was way too long and lost my interest for a while).

The final act of the film, the supposed climax, was crap and predictable. Anyone that has seen the trailers or the poster will know that Snow White, who has been imprisoned in a tiny cell since she was a child, mind you, suddenly becomes a sword-wielding badass for some reason. Her obligatory Braveheart-style motivation speech (which has become a staple of every movie with a big battle scene these days) was probably the most WTF moment I have seen on the big screen in years.

The standout character in the whole film has to be Charlize Theron as the crazy bitch/witch of a Queen. She’s fascinating despite the shortcomings of her character and Theron does an amazing job of portraying the seductive nutjob notwithstanding the sometimes trite dialogue she has to spew out.

Chris Hemsworth’s Huntsman is also an interesting character and he fits the role well, but there were too many loose ends when it came to his relationship with the princess.

Snow White and the Huntsman was more this

Speaking of which, if there is an Oscar for unexplained/exaggerated heavy breathing, Kristen Stewart would win it every year. She’s not bad in this but her act is wearing thin on me. I became a massive fan of hers after watching Into the Wild back in 2007 (one of my favourite films of all time), and sadly my affection for her has dwindled with every subsequent film she has been in (well, Adventureland is an exception). By the time I watch Breaking Dawn: Part II, I might very well find myself despising her.

Visually, the film is stunning, with the scenes involving Theron’s spells and the enchanted forest exemplifying what movie magic is all about. Amazingly, this is the first feature of director Rupert Sanders, who was previously best known for his advertisement of the video game HALO. I’d be very interested to see what he comes up with next.

Although it’s very difficult to compare two such different films, ultimately, The Huntsman is the better movie. That’s not saying a lot, considering how disappointed I was in Snow White, but as pieces of entertainment, it’s not much of a contest.

Mirror Mirror: 1.5 stars

Snow White and the Huntsman: 3 stars

PS: Ray Winstone must be the only guy in Hollywood who can play Beowulf and one of the Seven Dwarves. Just sayin’.

 
%d bloggers like this: