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: Unbroken (2014)

February 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Angelina Jolie has been tipped as a filmmaker to watch for the future, so I was naturally drawn to her third and latest directorial effort, Unbroken, a biopic about the remarkable life of US Olympian and WWII prisoner of war Louis Zamperini.

To be frank, I was a little disappointed with Unbroken given its subject and celebrated director and screenwriting team (that includes one of my faves, the Coen Brothers). It’s solid, there is no denying that, though I don’t think the film did very much in elevating Zamperini’s inspirational life significantly above what one would have expected simply from reading a basic bio of his experiences. While it depicts Zamperini as an amazing individual, Unbroken fails to distinguish itself from all of the other POW stories.

Jolie begins with a typical in media res approach that introduced Zamperini as a member of a US bomber squad on a mission against the Japanese-occupied Island of Nauru in 1943. As expected, the film reverts to flashback mode shortly after, showing Zamperini’s childhood in California as a troubled kid. From there, Jolie adopts a surprisingly linear, conventional narrative, focusing on Zamperini’s Olympic career before moving onto his role in WWII.

Zamperini is indeed worthy of respect for his astounding resiliency and will to survive, but the film focuses too much on this one aspect of his personality. The narrative is pretty much just him overcoming one hardship after another. He’s like a human version of that annoying Chumbawamba song — he gets knocked down but he gets up again, and again and again and again. Jolie doesn’t do much to mix things up other than emphasise the sadistic nature of his Japanese captors (in particular a one-dimensional corporal known as “Bird” played by Japanese recording artist Miyavi) and play up Zamperini’s glorious moments of triumph.

The problem, I think, is that Jolie was too in awe of her subject, whom she has met and was still alive during filming. As a result, the film became essentially a work of hero worship that never really managed to explore his character like it should have. It’s strange, but even though it is a biopic I still don’t feel like I really got to know Zamperini as a person other than that he he managed to live through a lot of terrible things. I can only imagine how much edgier and how much more depth the film would have had had Jolie been able to maintain a bit of distance from her protagonist.

Failing to meet expectations aside, Unbroken is a well-intentioned effort and a very watchable film. Jolie’s direction is not flashy, though she infuses her images — some handsome, others bleak — with passion and control. Shades of Clint Eastwood, perhaps? And the story is undoubtedly inspirational because its true; the performance of Jack O’Connell as Zamperini is quite good, and the supporting cast featuring the likes of Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund and Jai Courtney all fill out their respective roles impressively. The film has moments I really liked and found emotionally rewarding, but also others (including the final climax) that were heavy-handed and too obviously geared towards sentimentality. On the whole, I still think it’s a film worth watching because Zamperini’s story is such an extraordinary one, though it’s a shame Jolie could not have wielded her Malificent magic to turn it into something special.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

January 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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You know what’s awesome? Watching a movie you expect to be very good, and then having those expectations shattered because it’s even better than you thought it would be. That’s essentially what happened when I watched The Imitation Game, the amazing true story about how British prodigy Alan Turing cracked the Nazi’s “unbreakable” Enigma code during the Second World War.

I had heard mostly rave reviews about the film, especially after it received eight nominations at next month’s Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Actor for Benedict Cumberbatch. Usually when a film is overhyped, the ensuing viewing experience will inevitably turn into (at least) a mild disappointment. Case in point: 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, another British flick that received overwhelming praise but put me into one of the best sleeps I’ve had in years.

And so I was shocked that discover that The Imitation Game is the real deal. The film had it all — a riveting “true story” premise, a fascinating central character, stylish execution, wonderful performances and plenty of excitement and thrills. And to top it off it wasn’t “too British” at all.

The story is clearly and cleverly told through three time periods — in 1951, when police start probing into Turing’s life after an alleged break-in at his house; in the early 1940s, when Turing is hired by the British government to crack the Enigma code used by Nazis to encrypt their messages; and during Turing’s school years, when we learn how his genius is also his curse. I was really impressed by how each time period served a distinct purpose, both in terms of plot and characterisation, and how everything would come together for viewers in the end like solving a giant puzzle, much like how Turing cracks the code in the film.

I had fears that the movie would be flat despite its premise because, let’s face it, watching people sit around trying to crack a code on screen could be kinda boring. This was one of the fatal flaws of one of Cumberbatch’s other “true story” films, 2013’s The Fifth Estate. Cumberbatch was great as Julian Assange, but none of the films’ digital wizardry could make typing on keyboards and online chats feel exciting.

The masterful script by Graham Moore and the crafty delivery by Norwegian director Morten Tyldum avoid such pitfalls by explaining just enough for audiences to understand the task at hand but without losing them through over-complicating things. They fill the movie with constant sources of tension, from Turing’s tenuous relationships with his colleagues and his superiors in the British government to the moral quandaries of war and hiding his deep dark secret. There’s even a Russian spy in there to keep things interesting, and it also helps that there is actually a big physical machine with gears and the whole shebang that churns through the code combinations as we wait with eager anticipation.

Cumberbatch deserves the acclaim for his portrayal of Turing, and I would not be at all upset if he takes home the Best Actor gong next month. Thanks to Cumberbatch’s performance, The Imitation Game is as much a biographical character study of Turing as it is a film about breaking a Nazi code. Not very many actors could have done what he did, and that’s to make audiences not just sympathise with the tragic character, but root for an arrogant, socially inept loner who challenged the Enigma code more for ego than to save lives. And yet Cumberbatch manages to win us over very early on with his charm and witty delivery.

Kiera Knightley, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nod as Turing’s colleague Joan Clarke, is also very good, as is the rest of a quality ensemble cast featuring the likes of Matthew Goode, Mark Strong and Tywin Lannister himself, Charles Dance.

I can’t think of anything negative to say about this movie. Award bait or not, The Imitation Game is an instant classic that tells an important story about a forgotten hero but doesn’t forget to educate us, excite us and captivate us along the way. Hands down one of the best movies of 2014.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Million Dollar Arm (2014)

January 27, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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As a fan of baseball, cricket, true stories and Hollywood movies, I was naturally attracted to Million Dollar Arm, the biographical sports drama about the discovery of Indian baseball pitchers Rinku Singh and Dinesh Patel by sports agent JB Bernstein via a reality TV program.

The true story is out there for people who want to learn about their incredible journey, but for the sake of those interested in watching the movie I will keep spoilers — including whether they actually succeeded or not — far far away.

The film stars Mad Men’s Jon Hamm as Bernstein and comedian Aasif Mandvi as his business partner, with Life of Pi‘s Suraj Sharma playing Singh and Lake Bell playing Bernstein’s love interest. Alan Arkin co-stars as an ancient baseball scout, while Bill Paxton plays real-life pitching coach Tom House.

The premise is that Bernstein comes up with the idea of finding baseball pitchers in the world’s last untapped talent market — India — and convinces a financier to create a reality TV show that can help the winner rake in potential prize money of up to a million US dollars (hence the title). After a long and arduous search, he finds Singh and Patel, and brings them back to the States to train, with the aim of having them participate in a Major League tryout within a year.

What should be noted upfront is that Million Dollar Arm is a Disney production, meaning it’s very pleasant, family-friendly, safe and sappy, with some bits of light humour that won’t risk offending anyone. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but this is not where you will find gritty, hard-hitting drama that pushes the envelope. This is one true story that feels pretty made up.

In some ways, Million Dollar Arm is like a Disney version of Jerry Maguire, where a down-and-out sports agent tries to revive his career with a potential star(s), except he kind of loses his way along the journey and must find himself before it’s too late.

The entire ensemble cast is very good, though there is nothing particularly special about the script or the direction of Craig Gillespie (Aussie director of the 2011 remake of Fright Night), which treads on the safe side in delivering themes and an overall trajectory that will feel eerily familiar if you’ve ever seen any American sports movies.

I found it interesting that the film change the backgrounds of Singh and Patel to make them cricket players, when in real life they were javelin throwers. Perhaps it was a marketing decision to appeal to all the cricket fans in India. Those who want to know just how faithful the film is to real events can check out this very informative link.

Anyway, Million Dollar Arm is what it is — a Disney-fied inspirational true story with likable actors that will make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside.  Despite the overlong running time of 124 minutes, this is definitely a fastball right down the middle of the pitch for those don’t mind the family-friendly feel and the typical sports drama manipulation.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Captive (2014)

November 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Atom Egoyan has made some terrific films about loss and grief throughout his career. His latest effort, The Captive, starring Ryan Reynolds, Mireille Enos, Rosario Dawson, Scott Speedman and Kevin Durand, has been panned by critics, earning just a 24% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. Sure, it’s not nearly as good as his earlier movies or recent abduction films like Prisoner, but I think everyone’s being way too harsh.

Ryan Reynolds plays a father whose daughter is kidnapped under his watch. With no witnesses, he is considered the prime suspect by police detectives (Dawson and Speedman), while his wife (Enos) quietly blames him for allowing the abduction to happen.

The story jumps back and forth between the time of the abduction and eight years later, when the daughter is still yet to be found and the lives of the parents are left in tatters. But new clues arise, and it appears their daughter might still be alive and living under the control of a child sex ring.

It’s nightmarish stuff, and the film is often difficult to watch as a result. As a parent myself, I can only imagine the pain and anguish from losing a child under such circumstances. I had never thought much of Ryan Reynolds as an actor, but he is very good here, especially as he has to deal with the suspicions of the police on top of his guilt.

It seems most people who did not enjoy the film had a problem with its preposterous plot. I admit that some of the things that occur in the film are a little fanciful, though thanks to the unsensationalized approach of Egoyan I did not have to suspend my disbelief. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have any qualms about the film’s realism if Egoyan slapped a true story tagline on it (and no, it is not a true story).

My major problem with the film was its unnecessary shift back and forth in time, which were occasionally confusing. Notwithstanding that, however, I think the captive is a flawed but solid thriller worth checking out.

3.5 stars out of 5

 
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