2014 Movie Blitz: Part VIII

July 20, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Cut Bank (2014)

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This was a strange attempt to emulate the magic of Fargo, one of my favourite movies of all time.

The story begins when the central character, played by Liam Hemsworth, accidentally films a supposed murder in the corn fields of the titular small town while training his girlfriend (fellow Aussie Teresa Palmer) for a beauty pageant. But nothing is as it first seems, and soon  Billy Bob Thornton and John Malkovich are on the case. Bruce Dern plays an old nutjob and mailman, while Michael Stuhlbarg plays a psychotic killer. Oliver Platt rounds out the star-studded cast.

Just like Fargo, Cut Bank is brutally violent and has plenty of unexpected events where the shit keeps hitting the fan and the mess keeps getting murkier and out of control. It even has a big Native American dude playing a tough guy. But it’s nowhere near as darkly comedic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers fail to  get the humour amid all the carnage and mayhem. It’s also not as intelligent or original. Watchable? Yes. Good? Not quite.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is Liam Hemsworth, who hasn’t really done anything that deserves praise thus far in his career. Yeah sure, he’s in The Hunger Games, but in that he’s a distant third fiddle who is more of a minor character than a major one. The charisma of his elder brother just isn’t there.

There are some decent moments, most involving Bruce Dern, and also when Teresa Palmer performs for the pageant, but for those most part Cut Bank doesn’t deserve anything more than a straight-to-DVD fate.

2.5 stars out of 5

Time Lapse (2014)

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This low-budget time travel thriller went completely under my radar. It’s better than the most recent time travel film I watched before it, Project Almanac, and the superb storytelling is good enough to make up for most of its flaws.

The premise of Time Lapse is simple. A guy, his girlfriend and best friend, all living under the same roof, discover a camera machine in a neighbour’s house that takes periodic photos through their apartment window. The photos reveal the scene in the apartment exactly 24 hours into the future.

Writer and debut director Bradley D King does a solid job of getting the most out of this interesting idea, taking advantage of the notion that the protagonists can use the device to send messages to their past selves but also requiring them to act out what they see in the photo 24 hours later to avoid a time travel paradox. It raises questions of free will, fate and whether we can really change the future.

I liked how the movie utilises a limited form of time travel that doesn’t require special effects, and how it focuses on the relationship dynamics of the three central characters. The ending is also quite clever and requires a bit of thought for everything to fall into place.

The performances of the central trio — Danielle Panabaker, Matt O’Leary and George Finn — are also strong, taking attention away from the aspects that don’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense, or reactions that stretch credulity. I thought it was pretty silly, for instance, for them to try to get rich through betting with dodgy bookies. A lotto ticket would have been so much easier and less dangerous.

Flaws aside, it’s still a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment, with enough intrigue and character development to deliver a thought-provoking experience.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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Don’t think you’re in for a comedy just because you see Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader on the cover. The Skeleton Twins is one of the saddest and most depressing films I’ve seen in a while.

The comedic duo play fraternal twins Maggie and Milo. I don’t want to spoil too much, so let’s just say both are going through a lot in their lives and are likely suffering from depression. Milo’s problems are a lot more overt because he’s gay (and obviously so) and has a dark past, while Maggie’s are more hidden under the surface because she appears to have a wonderful marriage to a lovely, gregarious husband (played by Luke Wilson).

Deep down, however, both are broken, and the film is about how they deal with life’s disappointments and messy situations. There are scenes of genuine heartbreak that really resonated with me, in particular some of the one-on-one conversations involving Milo, and much of the credit has to go to both Wiig and Hader for turning in such fantastic dramatic performances. Hader, in particular, is so convincing as a gay man that I had to check his Wikipedia page just to make sure he’s not gay in real life.

The pair are funny when they want to be, though it’s usually a one-liner here or a mildly humorous situation there; the overall melancholic tone never goes away in this film, a brutally honest look at life without rose-tinted lenses, full of difficult stretches and little moments of joy and laughter.

It’s undoubtedly well-made and driven by superb performances, which also include Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell and Boyd Holbrook, whose Aussie accent barely gets over the line for me (it’s just a hard accent for Americans to do, I guess). That said, I don’t usually like such dark, depressing films because they put such a downer on my mood. I suppose I’ll have to make an exception for The Skeleton Twins, as it has enough sweetness and poignancy to justify a hearty recommendation.

3.5 stars out of 5

Annie (2014)

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Am I crazy, or is the universally panned remake of Annie actually not that bad? I had basically put off watching the film (I’m not that interested in musicals anyway) because of all the bad reviews, so I entered this without any expectations. I came out of it pleasantly surprised. Yes it’s cliched and saccharine and Cameron Diaz overacts even more that usual, but I still thought Annie got the job done with some nice homages to the original 1982 film, a modern makeover, some clever jokes, and a couple of catchy — albeit super autotuned — tunes.

Quvenzhané Wallis (who rose to stardom after earning an Oscar nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild) plays the titular character, Annie Bennett, an orphan who longs to one day meet her real parents. She’s stuck with the nasty and single Miss Hannigan (Diaz) in foster care, I suppose for the government funding, until one day a stroke of luck makes her cross paths with mobile phone mogul and germaphobe William Stacks (Foxx). Sensing an opportunity, Stacks’ mayoral race campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) gets Stacks to temporarily take Annie into his care to boost his popularity. And you know the rest.

The singing is OK — it’s at least better than Mamma Mia (Pierce Brosnan still gives me nightmares). Cameron Diaz isn’t great, and Rose Byrne is decent, but Jamie Foxx has a nice set of chords. I’m sure there’s a lot of autotune, but that’s what you’re expected to get these days when you cast a musical for star power as opposed to singing. The songs are relatively catchy, better than a lot of other musicals in recent years, and songs only pop up when they need to, unlike say Les Miserables where just about every line comes with a melody.

Look, it’s not great, but the tone is light and lively, and Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne are funny enough to carry this well-intentioned remake through to the end, hitting a fair share of right notes along the way. I don’t get why people had such an acidic reaction to it.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

January 13, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I love Ben Stiller’s best work, but his resume has been a little mixed in recent years. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, a loose modern adaptation of the 1939 short story by James Thurber, is very much a Ben Stiller project (he directs, produces and stars), and it’s definitely some of his best work.

Stiller plays the titular character, a negative assets manager who manages photographs for Life magazine. He’s a meek and mild mannered introvert, a bit of a loner, someone who escapes the banality and drudgery of his existence by “zoning out” into one of his elaborate and vivid daydreams. Without giving too much away, Walter finds himself on an adventure which requires him to track down legendary photographer Sean O’Connell (wonderfully performed by Sean Penn) through a series of clues. Helping him out is his secret crush (Kristin Wiig), whom Walter has joined an online dating service for despite working together in the same office.

As his journey gets crazier and crazier, Walter’s fantasies diminish in frequency, and the film’s simple message become apparent. But getting to that point is a lot of fun because you never really know what to expect next, and Walter is such a likable character that he infuses the film with plenty of warmth (despite the freezing conditions) and heart.

Walter Mitty is a grand adventure, a big, epic physical and spiritual journey that takes Walter to several isolated and extremely beautiful places around the world. The film is filled with amazing special effects, not only during Walter’s fantasies but also throughout his travels. Conversely, it’s also an odd, quirky little film that is only loosely attached to reality, with plenty of serendipitous occurrences and strange coincidences, and a slightly surreal feel that brings up memories of The Truman Show (incidentally, they originally wanted Jim Carrey for the lead role).

The result is an ambitious film doesn’t always work, but enough of it worked for me to make Walter Mitty a special experience. And make no mistake, the film is very funny. There are moments of comic brilliance scattered throughout the 114-minute running time, with a few generating some real belly laughs, though arguably it could have been a more consistently hilarious movie had they focused more on the comedy rather than the poignancy of the drama.

The performances are really strong. Ben Stiller plays the kind of character we’re used to from him (by that I mean closer to There’s Something About Mary than Dodgeball or Tropic Thunder), and he’s very affable here, while Kristen Wiig provides an attractive love interest who is believable because she’s borderline in Walter’s league. A bearded Adam Scott is also very good as the office dickhead, and he seems to relish the opportunity to play such a role. Shirley MacLaine and Kathryn Hahn have small but important roles as Walter’s mother and daughter, while Sean Penn is brilliant as the enigmatic O’Connell. There are some very interesting minor characters, such as an online dating services rep (Patton Oswalt) who strikes up an unusual phone friendship with Walter, and the nutty Greenlandic helicopter pilot (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who provides some of the best lines of the movie.

The ending of Walter Mitty was perhaps a little too neat and predictable for my liking, but apart from that I found myself captured by Walter’s imagination and his struggle for a more fulfilling life. The film has received mixed to polarising reviews, and I can understand that because it’s the type of movie where you either get caught up in the adventure and its characters or you don’t. I certainly did, which is why I think it’s one of the most likable and memorable movies of the year.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Paul (2011)

June 21, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I like comedies and I’m fascinated by aliens, so Paul, the new sci-fi comedy written by and starring Simon Pegg and Nick Frost (of Shaun of the Dead fame) seemed right up my alley.  In short, Paul is pretty good, but nothing special.

Paul is about two English comic book nerds and buddies, Graeme and Clive (Pegg and Frost), who travel across the Atlantic to attend Comic-Con and to take a trip in their RV across the country to visit alleged alien hotspots.  Of course, they run into the titular character, voiced by Seth Rogen, who is unlike all the stereotypes we have come to expect, and that kick starts off a series of wild and wacky adventures.

For me, there were lots of moments where I went, ‘That’s very clever’ and had a giggle or two, but the laugh-out-loud moments were rarer than expected (though, to be fair, there were a couple of ripper gems).  That made it slightly disappointing as I thought the potential for better laughs was definitely there.

My favourite thing about Paul is the Arrested Development connections.  The film is directed by Greg Mottola, who did a few AD episodes back in the day before going on to direct Superbad and Adventureland.  Jason Bateman plays the mysterious Agent Zoil, and there’s also Jeffrey Tambor as a sci-fi writer and Jane Lynch as a themed cafe owner.  They are all brilliant.  I won’t spoil any more than that except to mention that the film also features the likes of Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Bill Hader (Adventureland) and John Carroll Lynch (my favourite husband from Fargo), plus a few truly awesome cameos.

Ultimately, Paul is what it is.  A few flashes of comedic brilliance, some clever lines, surprisingly wonderful cameos and references — super fun but not exactly super funny.  I’d call it an amusing film with a dash of geeky charm, for the most part an enjoyable chuckler as opposed to a laugh-out-loud kind of movie.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Bridesmaids (2011)

June 19, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Good comedies are so hard to come by these days, so I was very excited to hear that the buzz on Bridesmaids has been overwhelmingly positive.  It has been described as a female version of The Hangover, though I personally think Bridesmaids was actually better.

Co-written by and starring comedian Kristen Wiig, Bridesmaids tells the story of Annie (Wiig), a former cake store owner who becomes the Maid of Honour to her best friend Lillian (Maya Rudolph).  And as the Maid of Honour, Annie is entrusted with various tasks associated with the wedding and the bridal party, which comprises the wealthy, perfect wife of the groom’s boss Helen (Rose Byrne), the groom’s crazy sister Megan (Melissa McCarthy), and friends Rita and Becca (Wendi McLendon-Covey and Ellie Kemper, respectively).

The best parts of Bridesmaids are hilarious.  Bawdy conversations, outrageous situtations, a couple of which rely on gross-out humour — but nonetheless worked because of the surprisingly good execution from director Paul Feig (which became less of a surprise when I discovered he had directed episodes of Arrested Development, The Office and 30 Rock) and excellent comedic timing from the actresses, in particular the trio of Wiig, Byrne and McCarthy.  John Hamm (from Mad Men) was also brilliant in a small but memorable role.

Despite the praises, I still thought Bridesmaids could have been better and funnier.  For starters, at 125 minutes it was far too long for a comedy of this kind — though strangely it left a few loose ends.  The film worked best when it was focused on the bridal party and especially the rivalry between Annie and Helen, but for some reason the second half put excessive emphasis on Annie’s depressing personal issues and a sweet, sappy romance, both of which were adequate but seldom funny.

Since it was titled Bridesmaids, I was really hoping for more interaction between the bridesmaids, where there was so much potential for laughs, but instead there ended up being too many typical ‘rom-com’, ‘chick flick’ and ‘personal growth’ sequences that made the film’s humour somewhat choppy and uneven.  I put the blame on Judd Apatow, who was a co-producer of the film.

Having said all that, this was just my personal opinion and probably reflected my wishes and expectations more than genuine shortcomings of the film.

Ultimately, it may fall quite a fair way short of a classic, but Bridesmaids was at least a fresh idea that’s clever, entertaining, sometimes funny and occasionally hilarious.  And this is coming from a guy.

3.75 stars out of 5