Movie Review: The Water Diviner (2014)

May 4, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Russell Crowe fancies himself as the world’s greatest actor, so I was curious to see how he would fare in his directorial debut, The Water Diviner, about a grieving father’s quest to find his three missing sons in Turkey following the end of World War I.

The film is “inspired by a true story,” whatever that means, and while it is largely grounded in reality it has a somewhat “magical” feel, where audiences are supposed to be believe in miracles and that “everything happens for a reason”. I don’t want to say it is a bad film, because it’s not, though after hearing Crowe talk it up so much and describing how much effort and passion and experience he poured into the production, not to mention its win for Best Picture at the AACTA Awards (shared with Babadook), my immediate response after watching it was: “That’s it?”

It’s an Aussie production through-and-through, with a mostly Australian cast and crew that features one prominent recognisable foreign signee, the lovely Olga Kurylenko, as a widowed Turkish hotelier. Crowe apparently just wanted to focus on directing, but the film producers wouldn’t give the movie the green light without him in the starring role. Russell was said to have put the crew through a rigorous boot camp to prepare them physically and mentally for their roles, and raved on about how he felt he was the only person in the world who could do the film justice. Despite this being his first film as director, he believed he had more experience than most directors — including Ridley Scott — given his 30 years as an actor in the industry.

And yet, The Water Diviner, notwithstanding its touching premise, turned out to be not all that much better than a glorified TV movie. It is well-researched and provides the historical background from both sides — notwithstanding typical accusations of inaccuracies — and there are undeniably moving moments, dramatic scenes and nicely choreographed war sequences, though many of the positives are undone by a sappy tone and corny melodrama. The contrived romance between Crowe’s and Kurylenko’s characters, in particular, was completely unnecessary and took away the focus from the film’s heart, which is a father’s grief and the love for his sons.

Led by Crowe’s typical self-assuredness, the performances from the cast are decent. Jai Courtney, who seems to be everywhere these days, plays an ANZAC captain who has his doubts about the Aussie farmer’s quest. Jacqueline McKenzie has a small role as Crowe’s depressed wife, while Packed to the Rafters star Ryan Corr plays one of Crowe’s sons. Isabelle Lucas is for some strange reason in it, looking way too thin as a basically pointless side character.

Perhaps its the budget or time constraints, but The Water Diviner fails to deliver the sweeping epic it appears to have set out to be. Instead, it’s a solid and even occasionally good, but ultimately unspectacular film that likely won’t have producers rushing to ask Crowe to direct their future projects.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Noah (2014)

August 5, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Darren Aronofsky’s Noah is one hell of a trippy experience. You cannot possibly go into this movie without some preconceived notions of what it is about, but ignoring those notions is imperative if you want to comprehend it, let along enjoy it.

As the title suggests, the film centers around the biblical character of Noah, and if any actor can be accused of having a God complex it would have to be the man playing him, Aussie Russell Crowe (or when he makes a dick of himself, “New Zealand-born actor Russell Crowe”).

But the thing is, Noah is decidedly a non-religious movie. It’s a fantasy film that is so loosely based on the source material that it would be misleading to even call it “loosely based.”

God is not called “God” — he’s the Creator. We never see Noah speaking to him, and thankfully we never see the Creator talking back. In fact, there is no concrete evidence proving that the Creator even made contact with Noah, who may simply be a lunatic, though everything that happens in the movie strongly suggests that everything we are seeing is not just a string of random coincidences.

To make things even weirder, the film is filled with strange animals not of this world and creatures that look like they came straight out the Middle Earth, including these stone golems called the Watchers (apparently called Nephilim in the Bible) who remind me of LOTR‘s Ents. Parts of the film, in fact, have a distinct LOTR-type feel, with epic battles, epic speeches and an epic old man with white hair who seems to know a little bit of magic (in this case he’s Noah’s grandfather Methuselah, played by Anthony Hopkins).

(On the other hand, there is a guy called Noah, he does build an ark, there is a flood, and there are references to the Garden of Eden, and everyone’s a descendant of either Cain (the guy who killed his brother Abel) or his brother Seth.)

So if Noah is a Bible movie it certainly does not feel like legitimate one, and if you are a devout Christian expecting a “faithful” experience like The Passion of the Christ, you will likely come away not just disappointed but wondering what the heck just happened.

Having said that, Noah still works — surprisingly well too — as a timeless fable, a fantasy morality tale that could have been set in another world. And let’s face it, most reasonable Christians would probably concede that the biblical tale of Noah’s Ark is not a literal story but a fable, or at least take the position that it does not matter if it really happened because it’s the message that’s ultimately important. The universal themes — faith, family, vengeance, survival, love, compassion, mercy and salvation — are all there anyway, so what’s the big deal if they spice it up a little with some added melodrama, crazy creatures and eye-popping special effects?

This is a cliche, but another reason why the film stays afloat (pun intended) is because of the performances. Russell Crowe brings an intensity and sincerity to Noah that’s necessary for us to believe in the character, but he’s also complex and far from a saint. Jennifer Connelly again does a great job of playing Crowe’s supportive and stoic wife, bringing back memories of her Oscar-winning performance in A Beautiful Mind. Emma Watson is all grown up and plays their adopted daughter, while her love interest from Perks of Being a Wallflower, Percy Jackson aka Logan Lerman, plays Noah’s horny son, who just wants to “get married” before he is wiped from the face of the planet. They’re both somewhat annoying, but they serve their purpose. Ray Winstone, on the other hand, gets the meaty role as the film’s primary protagonist, Tubal-Cain, who wants to steal Noah’s Ark for himself.

On the whole, Noah is probably not what people envisioned when they first heard the film was being made, but if you can keep an open mind you might come away pleasantly surprised. The story on which the film is based has always been one of the more implausible tales of the Bible, and instead of taking on the difficult task of trying to make it more “realistic”, Darren Aronofsky just ran with it, creating a wild, crazy, trippy yet thoughtful fantasy experience that even non-believers can take something out of.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Man of Steel (2013) (2D)

June 23, 2013 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Every Superman movie comes with unreasonable expectations. We already saw how the 2006 Superman Returns directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh (whatever happened to his career?) turned out when it tried to reboot the franchise with a more serious, thoughtful take on the Superman mythology. It wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was, but no matter which way you look at it, the film was a bitter disappointment.

And so I was somewhat apprehensive about yet another reboot, the long-awaited Man of Steel headed by Zack Snyder, the man who gave us 300 and Watchmen, two flawed films  I really enjoyed. Snyder is supposedly a massive Superman geek who knows the universe inside out. Coupled with his unique visual flair and penchant for relentless action, it seemed like a good fit. Indeed, the initial trailers and the pre-release word of mouth were promising.

Having now watched the film and given some time digest, I have to admit I still found Man of Steel a disappointment — albeit one that was very interesting (especially in the first half) and had a lot of positives going for it.

One of the biggest positives is Henry Cavill, formerly the unluckiest man in Hollywood (having just lost out on the lead role in Superman Returns to Brandon Routh, Casino Royale to Daniel Craig, and Twilight to Shovelface Pattinson),. Cavill is perfect as Clark Kent/Superman. Apart from being superhumanly handsome and buffed out of his mind, he exudes a vulnerability that at times reminded me of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Nolan, by the way, served as a producer on Man of Steel.

Secondly, a problem with any Superman movie is that everyone knows the plot, so kudos to Snyder for making an origins story that covers some things we have not seen before, or at least not done in a way we’ve already seen before. I’m no Superman expert, but I understand there are quite a few subtle adjustments to the story, characters and narrative progression that made the film feel familiar but fresh.

The best parts of the film, surprisingly (or not surprisingly), are where Superman is out of his suit (which made the controversial decision to keep the underwear inside this time), the bits where he is learning who he is and how to control his powers. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane do a magnificent job as Clark Kent’s parents, stealing the show with the most human and emotional portions of the movie.

So the first half of Man of Steel is brilliant, dare I say almost Nolan-esque. The second half, when the villain, Zod, played by the brilliant Michael Shannon, arrives on Earth — well, that’s when things start to unravel and the film morphs into your more conventional superhero affair…except that it goes on for far too long and the carnage is so overboard that it all becomes numbing and dull. OK, maybe “dull” is taking it too far, but the tension and excitement was certainly not commensurate to the number of buildings being blown to pieces.

That said, the special effects were very good, and it wasn’t easy distinguishing between what’s real and what’s CGI. Some of the Krypton technology was pretty cool too, a clever divergence from the typical alien technology you might have seen in the past.

I like Amy Adams, but I never really liked Lois Lane in this one. Her relationship with Superman didn’t feel close enough to warrant some of the interactions between them. It was like we had to accept that there was chemistry between them (when there wasn’t) just because she’s Lois Lane. Adams is good, but the character felt lacking.

As for Russell Crowe as Jor-El, I have to admit he is pretty good in a “I’m Russell Crowe, the greatest f*&%ing actor in the world!” kind of way. I didn’t expect he’d have so much screen time either.

I sound more negative about Man of Steel than I should be, but only because my expectations were so high. The cast and the first half of the film were super but for whatever reason the storytelling in the second half lacked the emotional depth that would have made it a great film. And it was unnecessarily long. All things considered though, it is a solid Superman flick that is clearly better than Superman Returns, but not quite what I believe it was trying to achieve — ie, Dark Knight territory.  Perhaps the planned sequel(s) can get there.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Broken City (2013)

February 5, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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In a nutshell, Broken City is a barely average thriller with a super cast. Marky Mark Wahlberg is a former New York cop turned private investigator. The city’s mayor, played by Russell Crowe, hires him to dig up some dirt on his wife, played by Catherine Zeta Jones, in the lead up to his re-election campaign against a wealthy but inexperienced opponent played by Barry Pepper (it’s been a while since he was the sniper in Saving Ryan’s Privates). And Wahlberg’s long-term girlfriend, Natalie Martinez (Death Race, End of Watch), happens to be an aspiring actress who just landed her first feature role.

As you would expect, nothing is really as it seems. Everyone has a past and a secret and the stakes gradually get higher and higher until it all comes to a head. The end.

I may sound unenthusiastic about Broken City but it’s actually not that bad. There’s nothing new about the corruption-centered, politically driven plot, including all the expected twists and turns, but there is enough drama and tension to keep the film afloat for it’s 109-minute running time (a suitable length for a film of this kind). And it’s always good to see confident heavyweights and Academy Award winners like Crowe and Jones strutting their stuff.

That said, the standout of the film was not any of the big stars, but Alona Tal, who plays Whalberg’s sassy secretary. The cute banter between the two resulted in the film’s most enjoyable scenes.

On the other hand, there were parts of the film that felt somewhat rough around the edges. A few characters, their reactions and interactions didn’t quite feel authentic. Flaws probably more attributable to the script than the stylish direction of Allen Hughes (From Hell, The Book of Eli — though those were along with his brother Albert).

I came into this movie thinking that it was going to be a gritty cop drama in the vein of Training Day or Street Kings, but it wasn’t anywhere as heavy duty as those films. At the end of the day, the best way to describe Broken City is to call it an adequate, occasionally enjoyable mystery drama that doesn’t break any new ground. There’s nothing horribly wrong with it but there’s also nothing that really stands out either, meaning it’s likely to be one of those films no one will remember in a few years.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Les Misérables (2012)

January 31, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’m sorry, but Les Misérables is overrated. Or perhaps more accurately, it just wasn’t for me.

Director Tom Hooper, coming off his 2011 Oscars triumph with The King’s Speech, appeared to have a winner on his hands. One of the most beloved musicals of all-time. The likable singing and dancing Hugh Jackman as the protagonist Jean Valjean. Probably the hottest actress on the planet right now, Anne Hathaway, to play poor Fantine and sing the classic “I Dreamed a Dream.” Amanda Seyfried. Russell Crowe. Even Helena Bonham Carter and Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen). It was a sure hit and an Oscar certainty.

But Les Misérables ended up getting mixed reviews from critics, and I find myself siding with those who didn’t fall for its charm. Those who love the musical will love this film no matter what, but I  personally found it to be an exhausting and often dull experience that I couldn’t really get into until it was almost over. Technically, the film is supposedly quite a remarkable achievement, with spectacular sets, strong performances and a lot of long single takes and live singing (rather than recorded in post-production like most other musicals). But really, who cares about all of that if the film isn’t any good in the end?

I had never seen a stage production of the musical so I’ll assume there are others who aren’t familiar with the plot. The story is set in 1815 and Jackman’s Valjean is a thief who is paroled by Crowe’s ruthless prison guard Javert after years of imprisonment. Basically, Valjean decides to turn his life around and be a good guy and Javert can’t seem to let go of the past. It’s a miserable time to be alive (hence the title) and the remainder of the film focuses on the struggles of the masses, Jackman trying to be good, and Crowe not letting him. It goes on for years and years.

The biggest problem with Les Misérables is that 99.9% of all vocal interactions between characters is sung. There is essentially no dialogue except a stray word here or there. As a result, we get a lot of long singing monologues where we have to listen really carefully to the lyrics (which is not always clear) just to figure out what the heck is going on.

That can get annoying and takes time to get used to, but fine, it’s a musical, so I get that. What bothered me more was that most of this talk-singing was awful to listen to. Not that the actors’ voices were bad — it’s just that there’s no real tune or melody. It just sounds like a bunch of people playing a lame game where they have to sing everything and are making up the tune as they go along. It’s really monotonous and challenges the audience not to tune out, so to speak, after a little while.

Yes, there is a handful of REAL musical numbers that are pretty good, with Hathaway’s much-lauded “I Dreamed a Dream” number being the highlight, as well as Carter and Borat’s “Master of the House” (which I was familiar with through that Seinfeld episode with Elaine’s dad and Jerry’s inside-out coat), but these are few and far in between. The vast majority of the film was dominated by this crappy talk-singing or sing-talking and I just could not stand it.

The performances were good, I’ll admit that, but was Hathaway’s performance really that good? Oscar-favourite good? I personally think it’s a little overrated, especially considering (spoiler alert!)  she only has a few minutes of screen time. Then again, Judi Dench won for something like 9 minutes of acting in Shakespeare in Love, so why the heck not?

I do, on the other hand, have to defend Russell Crowe a little bit here. Crowe has been panned for his singing, but I thought he was perfectly adequate. A little wooden, perhaps, but he’s freaking Pavarotti compared to Pierce Brosnan in Mama Mia.

Anyway, Les Misérables turned out to be a huge disappointment. It probably would have been great as a stage show, and Hooper has basically shot an extravagant stage show on film, but that’s why we have different media formats. I finally got into the story and the characters towards the latter part of the film’s third act, but by then it was too little too late.

2 stars out of 5

PS: Dang, the trailer made the film look so awesome. If only it really was.