Movie Review: The Rover (2014)

September 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Rover is David Michod’s highly-anticipated follow-up to one of the best Australian movies of all-time, 2010’s Animal Kingdom. Set in a world 10 years after a global economic collapse, the film stars Guy Pearce as a quiet and relentless anti-hero who sets out to retrieve his car from a band of robbers on the run, and during his journey forms a strange and uneasy bond with the abandoned brother of one of the robbers, played by Robert Pattinson.

I had very high expectations for The Rover because Animal Kingdom (review here) is THE film that restored my faith in Aussie movies. And like Animal KingdomThe Rover is a confident piece of filmmaking that is bleak, tense and uncompromising. But at the end of the day, I still have to consider The Rover somewhat of a disappointment even though it was probably exactly the way Michod wanted it to be.

The film is set entirely in Australia and has been marketed as a modern Western of sorts, taking advantage of Australia’s hot, dry air and sandy, desolate landscapes. It’s a visually impressive film, but it’s also one that doesn’t explain anything to its audience. There’s no voice-over or extensive opening crawl that explains to us how or why the economic collapse happened or what the world has become. All we know is that we’re in Australia, and it’s been 10 years since the collapse. Consequently, much of the intrigue of the film comes from discovering what the world is like (I won’t spoil too much), though you have to keep your eyes and ears open because all of it comes in little bits and pieces.

What it creates is an unsettling experience where you don’t really know what is happening and what will happen next. You are forced to put the pieces together to understand how this new world works and what the characters’ motivations are and why they’ve become the people they are. That’s what makes the film, despite it’s deliberately slow and considered pace, so compelling and compulsive to watch. It’s a fairly typical hook, but Michod’s direction and the screenplay by Michod and Joel Edgerton are so confident and understated that you never feel manipulated.

Having said that, The Rover can also be considered somewhat dull and nonsensical. Some of the slower scenes drag and don’t work as well as they should, and when you break the film down, it’s really quite a stupid story masquerading as something more profound. You can call much of the seemingly random stuff in it “realistic” and “unexpected”,  or you can call it “contradictory” and “pointless.”

The film offers more of an experience than a story in that you are just thrown into it and made to observe for about 100 minutes, and you come out of it knowing only what is shown to you on the screen. It intentionally under-utilizes its innovative setting, so much so that you might think it’s a waste, and anyone expecting to get a complete picture of a post-economic-collapse world will feel as though they’ve been cheated.

Despite what can be perceived as flaws, I found The Rover to be highly watchable thanks to the performances of two leads. We already know what we’re going to get from Guy Pearce, who honestly has to be one of the most under-appreciated A-listers ever (seriously, does anyone even remember that he was in Best Picture winners such as The King’s Speech and The Hurt Locker, and played the lead role in films like The Count of Monte Cristo, The Road, Memento, LA Confidential, The Time Machine  and Lockout, as well as the villain in Iron Man 3 and Prometheus?). But my goodness, did anyone think Robert Pattinson would be exceptional as well?  People said he was good outside the Twilight films (eg, Remember Me, Cosmopolis, Water for Elephants), but I thought he was just OK in those movies. Here, he is genuinely believable as a weak, slow-witted American redneck with stained teeth, and I’d be totally OK if he received some awards recognition for this performance (especially since he’s evidently trying so hard to break out of Edward Cullen mode).

Still, The Rover is nowhere near as exhilarating as Animal Kingdom, which may have set the bar too high. I applaud Michod for trying something different and a little daring for his sophomore feature rather than going down the commercial route (that’s probably coming next in his adaptation of the Afghan war book, The Operations, by the late Michael Hastings, and will reportedly start Brad Pitt), but I do wish The Rover could have been a more complete, satisfying story, rather than what ultimately feels like a short story stretched into a semi-experimental full-length feature.

3 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 12

September 17, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Yes, there are still movies from 2012 that I have not yet finished reviewing or watching. But I am getting there. I swear. Here are four more film reviews.

Byzantium (2012)

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This was one I had been really forward to because it’s directed by Neil Jordan, and I really needed Saoirse Ronan to redeem herself in my mind after the disaster that was The Host. I’m still not 100% sure what to make of Byzantium, which is an interesting twist on the vampire genre and relies a lot on its brooding and melancholic atmosphere as opposed to cheap scares — though I wish I could have found it more engaging and frightening.

Gemma Arterton and Saoirse Ronan are a mother and daughter vampire pair who have been around for a few hundred years by surviving on human blood. The story is dominated by a back story dating back to the Napoleonic Wars of how they became who they are, interspersed with their modern day exploits and typical (or not so typical) mother-daughter tensions. And of course, there are mysterious people hunting them down.

It’s a very dark (literally — the film is almost always poorly lit), bloody and violent film that provides a welcome escape from all the vampire lover fantasies we’ve had in recent years. I also loved the whole concept of how they are made into vampires and the way they transform when they feed. It’s different and haunting, driven by two very strong performances from Arterton and Ronan.

On the other hand, the dreariness got to me a little as the film progressed, and I yearned for less melodrama and more excitement. The back story, to be brutally honest, was somewhat predictable and stale, and I think that is what dragged the film down and prevented it from being an exceptional vampire flick. A minor disappointment because of high expectations, but not a bad film to catch on DVD on a rainy night.

3.25 stars out of 5

Cosmopolis (2012)

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So I keep hearing about what a great American writer Don DeLillo is, and Cosmopolis is based on one of his novels. And it’s directed by David Cronenberg (who gave us the magnificent A History of Violence and Eastern Promises in the last few years). Sure, it starred Shovelface, aka Robert Pattinson, but Cosmopolis was definitely high on my list of most anticipated movies of the year.

What’s it about? That’s hard to describe, but essentially it’s about a young billionaire (Shovelface) trying to head to his barber in a limo and gets sidetracked. He meets a bunch of people (from his wife to an assortment of mistresses) and things suddenly start to spiral out of control. Just 109 minutes of people saying and doing strange, random, confusing things.

The film has gotten mixed reviews and two minutes in I could see why. Cosmopolis seems like a great story on the paper, but adapted to the screen and it just feels all wrong. Every scene and conversation feels painfully contrived, like they are trying to sound mysterious and befuddling. No one on the history of the planet has ever spoken like the characters in this film, and yet everyone in it speaks in the same way.

I like the feeling of not knowing what is going on as things are slowly revealed to me throughout the film, but this film tries way too hard to mess with the audience’s mind and challenges them to look for deeper meaning (the follies of capitalism and materialism, perhaps?) when there isn’t really anything to look for. At least it feels that way anyway.

Cronenberg’s direction is stylish and the film is atmospheric, and the performances are strong, though that doesn’t make up for all its faults. It’s disappointing because there was definitely potential here, but instead all Cosmopolis did for me was bore and frustrate.

1.5 stars out of 5

Killing Them Softly (2012)

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I was warned about Killing Them Softly, which received praise from critics but was panned by many regular people who watched it. In fact, I was warned by an aunt to avoid it at all costs because it might bore me to death. Being the sucker for punishment that I am, I braced myself and watched it anyway, and to be honest I just thought it was OK — not boring, not great. Just OK.

The premise is simple. Ray Liotta runs an underground gambling ring for mafia types and once held up his own den to steal money off his patrons. Armed with the knowledge if that it happened again that people would automatically point the finger at Ray, a couple of goons (Ben Mendelsohn and Scoot McNairy) are hired to rob the place. In the aftermath, a hitman played by Brad Pitt, who likes to “kill them softly” (ie, quick and relatively painless) is assigned to…sort things out.

This is one of those movies I probably would have fallen asleep in a few years ago, but nowadays I have come to appreciate the art of “slow storytelling” and have come to understand why certain films are paced in a certain way. Killing Me Softly is undeniably slow, with lots of well-crafted dialogue and pauses. But the dark and bleak noir atmosphere is definitely intriguing, and when the violence hits it is brutal and uncompromising.

Having said all that, there’s not a lot about the movie that makes it something I would want to recommend to others. It’s simply a well-made movie that is slow and gritty, with big name stars delivering the expected strong performances. I wouldn’t call it boring, though it’s not exactly entertaining either.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Expatriate (2012)

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Known as Erased in the US, The Expatriate is a bit of a “meh” film in the sense that it’s perfectly adequate but does little to suggest that it should be anything other than a straight-to-DVD film, which is is.

Aaron Eckhart is a former CIA agent (kinda like Liam Neeson in Taken) who is living with his daughter in Brussels while working as a security expert. One day he suddenly discovers that all traces of his existence have been “erased”, so to speak, forcing him on the run as his ex-colleagues all start dropping dead. So essentially the whole movie is about him trying to survive while figuring out what big conspiracy he has been dragged into.

It’s not the most original premise, but there are elements of the film that work effectively for this to be an above average thriller. But when you have movies like Taken and those from the Bourne franchise (which this film borrows from liberally), a movie like The Expatriate pales in comparison and feels almost redundant.

I’m a fan of Aaron Eckhart and I think he does a great job in it, but it’s hard to like a movie when you feel like you’ve pretty much seen everything before, except done better.

2.5 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.

Movie Review: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn (Part I) (2011)

November 25, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Why God, oh why do I keep watching the Twilight Saga?  Nevertheless, I do, and I just did.  I’m not a Twilight fan and I don’t really get the obsession with vampires and werewolves and the boys who play them, but I remain fascinated by this amazing global phenomenon.

Today I watched Breaking Dawn Part I, based on the first half of the final book in the saga.  Breaking Dawn follows the footsteps of Harry Potter and the Death Hallows in that the final book of the series is unnecessarily split into two films in order to maximise the big fat dollars.  Of course they would.  The first three films in the Twilight series have made $1.8 billion worldwide, and the decision was proven correct by the fact that Breaking Dawn Part I has reeled in over $300 million in a week.  (Hey, at least they didn’t make the movie 3D.)  But what does that mean for the average moviegoer?

Well, for starters, a slower pace and a feeling that stuff is happening when nothing is really happening.  Breaking Dawn Part I pretty much picks up where Eclipse concluded (as far as I can remember), with the long-awaited wedding between Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) and her vampire loverboy Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson).  Bella’s best friend, werewolf Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) is still in love with her, but he has basically accepted the fact that she will never be with him.  It’s hard to go much further than the honeymoon without divulging crucial plot points, but most people who go and watch Breaking Dawn Part I would have read the book.  Even if you haven’t (like me), it doesn’t take a genius to figure out where it’s heading.  Besides, the trailers and previews essentially show everything, as usual.

I didn’t expect much from Breaking Dawn Part I, especially after hearing about the early lukewarm reviews, so I must say it was better than I thought it would be.  Sure, it was slower than the other films in the series (which weren’t exactly blitzing to begin with), but I never found myself bored.  As with the earlier films, the film was strewn with atrocious, cringeworthy dialogue that made me literally squirm in my seat.  I doubt Meryl Streep and Robert De Niro could have pulled off those lines, so that didn’t leave much hope for the likes of R-Patz and Taylor “Abduction” Lautner (who only had a brief shirtless scene this time round).  Plus you know with Part II looming, things are going to remain unresolved by the end of Part I, so there’s definitely an empty feeling when you walk out of the cinema.

Let’s face it.  The real reason these Twilight movies are killing it at the box office is because readers fell in love with the books’ characters, and then the actors.  And Breaking Dawn Part I’s biggest selling point is well advertised — you finally get to see R-Patz and Stewart “get it on”, so to speak.  After all, the sexual tension is what has been driving the films all this time, so it was kind of a reward for the audiences who stuck with it until now.

Unfortunately, after sitting through basically six hours and three films worth of sexual tension, the pay off is disappointingly tame.  There were rumours of perhaps a nipple but for the most part the honeymoon scenes are strictly PG-13 (which is the film’s US rating).  Whatever.  People who love the books, the characters and the actors will lap it up nonetheless.  And they will unreservedly flock to Part II when it is released in November 2012.  At the end of the day, Breaking Dawn Part I was made for the fans and will be enjoyed by the fans.  For a non-fan with an interest in the series, the film was barely passable.

2.5 stars out of 5

PS: The scariest thing about Breaking Dawn Part I is that apparently it utilises two-thirds of the book, leaving only one-third for Part II.

Movie Review: Water for Elephants (2011)

June 14, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Here’s a surprise.  I not only watched Water for Elephants, I actually enjoyed it a lot.  I remember last month when R-Patz and Reese Witherspoon were here for the Australian premiere and I just happened to be passing by, hoping to catch a glimpse of the elephant.  Unfortunately, the screams of teenage girls forced me to retreat before I saw anything.

But to make this film all about R-Patz is unfair.  Water For Elephants, based on the bestselling novel by Sara Gruen (who amazingly started it as a part of NaNoWriMo!), is a very good movie about an educated young man (Pattinson) who finds himself working for the Benzini Brothers Circus during the Great Depression and the Prohibition era.  The owner of the circus is August (Christoph Waltz), a charming but cruel man, and his wife and star performer is Marlena (Reese Witherspoon).  Oh, and of course there is an elephant.

It’s one of those classic coming-of-age stories, and if you have any interest in circuses or animals or R-Patz, then chances are you’ll find Water for Elephants a pretty enjoyable ride.  This was a shock to me, considering don’t particularly like Pattinson or Witherspoon, though I am a massive fan of Christoph Waltz (and have been since Inglourious Basterds).

Having interviewed circus performers last year, I do have a bit of a thing for the circus (despite my fear of clowns), but I think I would have enjoyed Water For Elephants in any case.  It’s a lovely film, beautifully shot and oozing a nostalgic old school feel.  The progression of the plot is painfully predictable but I still had a good time with it.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: After playing a character called Jacob in this film, it looks like R-Patz is now both Team Edward and Team Jacob!

 
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