Film Review – If I Stay

Posted in Uncategorized on September 24, 2014 by Reel Review Roundup

If I Stay (PG)

Directed by: R. J. Cutler

Starring: Chloe Grace Moretz, Mireille Enos, Joshua Leonard

One and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Doing it’s best to topple The Notebook from its pedestal as the world’s most popular and effective weepy for the teenage girl crowd, If I Stay pulls on every heart string and tries to wring every last tear from its audience’s eyes. Some may either succumb to the manipulations or resist them, depending on how many of these kinds of stories you have already seen.

Shy but talented musician Mia Hall (Chloe Grace Moretz) finds herself in a spiritual limbo when she is in a car crash. The lives of her mum, dad and brother are hanging by a thread, as is hers. While the doctors do their best to bring her back to consciousness, Mia’s life flashes before her eyes – life with her hippy parents, her first love with travelling musician Adam (Jamie Blackley) and the difficult decision she must make between her relationship and the next step in her musical career – which would take her to San Francisco and further away from her boyfriend.

The characteristics of this particularly melodramatic teenager are so magnified that she begins to become unrealistic. Having a privileged young girl whine and belly ache about all her life and career options for two hours feels like a string of “first world problem” memes. The script is littered with bad dialogue (her solution to a long-term relationship is “We can text!”), offensive behaviour  (a mother-daughter deep and meaningful over washing dishes!), and unsubtle imagery (her first kiss is next to a big, red, glowing tunnel-shaped sculpture), eschewing any chance for a shred of honesty or relatability.

In fact at times it feels like this films is making extra effort to be unrealistic because it is trying anything that will get us sniffly and teary eyed. The rest is just so misjudged and misguided. There are perhaps a couple of miraculous moments that are genuinely upsetting (for the right reasons) but they are fleeting. The performances are adequate, Enos and Leonard are the highlights as the laid-back, free-spirit parents, but they are merely back-burner characters. Mia spends the whole film debating whether or not to stay, but we are really wishing that she would just hurry up and decide to leave.

Film Review – A Million Ways To Die In The West

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , on May 29, 2014 by Reel Review Roundup

A Million Ways To Die In The West (MA)

Directed by: Seth MacFarlane

Starring: Seth MacFarlane, Charlize Theron, Amanda Seyfried, Liam Neeson

Three and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane shows little signs of expanding his comedic horizons with his second film as a director A Million Ways To Die In The West as he trots out a two-hour barrage of envelope pushing poo, fart, penis and sex jokes. But amid the smut is some great pop-culture nods, cameos and light-weight digs at religion and the almost forgotten western genre.

When sheep farmer Albert (Seth MacFarlane) is dumped by his girlfriend Louise (Amanda Seyfried) because she wants “to find herself” he tries desperately to win her back. His efforts are supported by the new hottie in town Anna (Charlize Thereon) with whom he strikes up a friendship. The sassy scorcher poses as his new girlfriend to make Louise see what she is missing out on. Little does Albert know is that Anna is the wife of the most dangerous man in the region, Clinch (Liam Neeson) who is hell-bent on bringing his posse to town.

MacFarlane builds the majority of his film on his juvenile sense of humour, so if you are after high brow laughs, you may want to steer clear. His film works better when he isn’t showing sheep peeing in his face or a proper, moustached man (Neil Patrick Harris) pooping into a man’s hat. There are some comedic low points, but this western spoof of sorts also has some huge belly laughs. Banter between the meek Edward (Giovanni Ribisi) and his chirpy prostitute girlfriend Ruth (Sarah Silverman) are major highlights – her job requires her to have sex with a minimum of 10 men per day but she wont sleep with him because they are Christians and are not married yet.

Theron gets a rare chance for broad comedy and although she is mainly eye candy next to the riffing MacFarlane, has a few bright spots with some choice zingers. Seyfried pales in comparison to the rest of the cast, but is a good sport to allow constant jabs at her large eyes. MacFarlane scrapes by as a watchable screen presence but his rapid fire riffing comes off as imitative of Vince Vaughn. A string of blink and you miss them cameos range from hilarious to hilariously nonsensical.

If you can stomach the bodily fluids, A Million Ways To Die In The West will satisfy with a considerable number of chuckles and chortles.

Film Review – The Babadook

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , on May 22, 2014 by Reel Review Roundup

The Babadook (M)

Directed by: Jennifer Kent

Starring: Essie Davis, Daniel Henshall, Noah Wiseman

Four stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Single parenthood is a nightmare. Raising a child alone sounds daunting without the support of a partner, but when there are supernatural or threatening elements involved, it becomes a battle. Poor Chris MacNeil (Ellen Burstyn) had a rough time when her daughter Regan (Linda Blair) was possessed by the devil in The Exorcist and Lynn Sear (Toni Collette) was at her wit’s end when her son Cole (Haley Joel Osment) wouldn’t tell her that he sees dead people in The Sixth Sense.

The Babadook joins the ranks of horror films about single mums whose already stressful lives are thrown into turmoil – exponentially – when their creepy children start seeing or talking to ghosts or other worldly creatures. But not only is it a window into domesticity and the often headache inducing routine of rearing a chatty, naggy youngster, but also the intense effect of undealt with grief and the possibility of mental illness seeping in.

It has been seven years since Amelia’s  (Essie Davis) husband died on the way to the hospital to give birth to their son Samuel (Noah Wiseman). She lives in the gloomy, rundown memory filled marital home with the energetic and attention seeking tyke who is beginning to show signs of ADHD. With a severe lack of sleep compounded with Samuel’s misbehaving, Amelia becomes increasingly stressed. On top of it all, Samuel wont stop going on about The Babadook, someone or something he is convinced is real and is trying to makes its way into their home.

Writer/director Jennifer Kent, who expanded upon her short film Monster, has created a realistic scenario that cuts close to the bone, refusing to shy away from the stresses of motherhood. Amelia takes out her frustrations on Samuel and just short of abusive acts, makes it quite clear that she holds much resentment towards him. It is such a dark area to delve into. Akin to killing a dog in film, having a parent hate their child is a huge no-no, yet The Babadook explores this taboo topic with stunning realism.

It’s fearlessness on the topic is what helps this film get under your skin (more so than the creaky floorboards and ominous knocks on the door it occasionally employs to induce chills) and make you fear for these characters when in danger, whether it is from The Babadook or from each other.  Or is the shadowy figure with the top hat and elongated nails just a metaphor for Amelia’s crippling guilt, resentment or creeping mental illness? There is much here to suggest that perhaps it is all in Amelia’s mind. Either way, it is a spine tingling presence.

On the surface, the last five minutes may look tacked on in the hopes for a shot at a sequel, but upon closer look, it ties together and solidifies the film’s themes and offers a much more satisfying psychological resolution. It is a perfect twist ending, one rarely seen in horror since The Sixth Sense.

Film Review – Healing

Posted in Uncategorized on May 18, 2014 by Reel Review Roundup

Healing (M)

Directed by: Craig Monahan

Starring: Don Hany, Hugo Weaving, Xavier Samuel

Three stars

Review by: Julian Wright

There is a lot of healing going on in Craig Monahan’s Healing. Taking a step in the opposite direction of subtlety, this tale of a handful of reforming (healing) prisoners working on a low security farm that nurse injured birds (healing) while one of them, Viktor, attempts to reconnect with his estranged son (healing familiy ties, geddit?).

Even the birds flying the coop and re-entering the wild is a a glaringly obvious metaphor for the inmates who are preparing for their own leap back in to the real world. Viktor even has a moment in which he feels overwhelmed and lost in the city on a day trip later mirrored by his favourite feathered patient’s failed attempt to re-engage with its natural environment. While the themes are hammered home with sledgehammer force, the message does make for an interesting and dramatic time passer.

At the end of a 16-year jail sentence, Middle Eastern Viktor (Don Hany) is transferred to a pre-release compound where he begins a program to care for injured wild birds and eagles with the help and guidance of a local rehabilitation centre and its staff. Viktor and his new fellow inmates, the quiet Paul (Xavier Samuels) and simpleton Shane (Mark Leonard Winter) build the aviaries under the watch of sympathetic guard Matt (Hugo Weaving) while trying to avoid compound bully Warren (Anthony Hayes).

The characters surrounding Viktor are thinly drawn presences that serve to create dramatic beats. Only Winter is allowed nuance and range with revelations of his plans upon release. Viktor is the core of the story and Hany does the character incredible justice. The TV heart-throb transforms himself into a weathered, emotionally beaten man whose circumstances have aged him beyond his years. It may have always been on the page that this character is lost, but Hany brings heartbreakingly to life.

The birds are majestic creatures and this is captured beautifully, but footage of them taking off and flying is slowed down far too often to the point of being downright hammy. It also happens so frequently that it surely adds about 10 minutes to the running time, detrimental to the overall impact of this quiet story which already moves at an injured bird’s pace.

Film Review – The Other Woman

Posted in Uncategorized on April 22, 2014 by Reel Review Roundup

The Other Woman (M)

Directed by: Nick Cassavetes

Starring: Cameron Diaz, Leslie Mann, Kate Upton

Three stars

Review by: Julian Wright

What does one do when they want to write a script but don’t have any original ideas? They take some from other movies and mash them together. It has been done for decades. The Other Woman is another in the endless list of guilty parties, however, the cast is watchable enough and the laughs are (mostly) fresh enough to warrant a passable film. Writer Melissa Stack has taken elements of Sex and the City and The First Wives Club for another “you go girl” chick flick comedy about women getting mad and even with the guy who has cheated on them.

New York lawyer and serial dater Carly (Cameron Diaz) feels that she may have finally met the man of her dreams in the dreamy Mark (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) after having waded through decades of duds. After two months of dating bliss, her bubble is burst when she discovers he is married to Kate (Leslie Mann) and the two begin an unlikely friendship, supporting each other and ultimately, hatching a plan to get even. The cherry on top of all his lies is that he is cheating on both of them with the much younger Amber (Kate Upton), who they take under their wing and include in their revenge plan.

The Other Woman‘s major strength is Leslie Mann, who steals the film right from under every other actor’s nose. Her character is the most rounded – the dedicated but flaky stay at home wife who supported her husband’s career left to pick up the pieces after taking such a blow. But Mann is able to elicit empathy while delivering the strongest laughs. Diaz appears to not even bother trying to get laughs, she must know she is not there for her comedic talents. Amber is written as the ditzy eye candy but Upton is rarely given the chance to show it. (She hardly ever gets the opportunity to speak).

There are some clichéd revenge sequences – feeding him oestrogen, putting his toothbrush in the toilet. They’re childish and unimaginative – but when they hit him with a laxative we have entered Wayans brothers territory. Possibly the worst scene in this not particularly believable film are knockouts Diaz and Mann pretending to have low self-esteem next to a bikini clad Upton. As if those skinny Minnies have anything to worry about.

Extra characters – Carly’s assistant Lydia (Nicki Minaj) and Kate’s brother Phil (Taylor Kinney) serve to merely extend the running time far beyond a reasonable 90 minutes. But clearly none of this is to be taken seriously, and if taken correctly, this can often be fun. Particularly those who get caught up in the eye for an eye antics.

Film Review – Muppets Most Wanted

Posted in Uncategorized on April 22, 2014 by Reel Review Roundup

Muppets Most wanted (PG)

Directed by: James Bobin

Starring: Ricky Gervais, Tina Fey, Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy

Four stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Re-capturing the magic that made a film a breakout hit can be tricky. It is often attempted, yet rarely achieved. As if they knew to expect a chorus of groans from audiences who had just enjoyed the deliciously delightful character comeback The Muppets (2011), the makers of Muppets Most Wanted warn us  in the opening song that this follow-up is not at the same level of quality. This clever piece of scripting – or lyric writing – that points to inadequacies, also continues what we know and love about the funny bunch of wise cracking fur-balls: the self referential, relentless audience winking.

Not long after their big comeback, the Muppets are approached by Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais) who convinces them to hire him as their manager and embark on a world-wide tour. But his plan is to steal expensive jewels from  every city they stop in along the tour. His way of achieving this is sending sensible Kermit to a Russian prison run by Nadya (Tina Fey) and replacing him with shady lookalike Constantine.

This follow-up is emotionally barron without the heartfelt input of Jason Segal. Moving this story from a relationship based adventure to a follow-the-clues crime caper means less time for warm and fuzzies about an orphan muppet trying to find his place in the world. Never mind, because there are still so many rapid fire jokes and pop culture references that most may not even notice. There is rarely a moment that passes that won’t have you erupting in a hearty laugh, and the array of cameos are still surprising and entertaining.

Film Review – Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II

Posted in Uncategorized on April 9, 2014 by Reel Review Roundup

Nymphomaniac Vol. I & II

Directed by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Charlotte Gainsbourg, Stellan Skarsgard, Stacy Martin

Four stars

Review by: Julian Wright

Seeing both volumes of Lars von Trier’s Nymphomaniac saga back to back is quite an experience. While probably not his preferred way for audiences to see his work (there is a 5.5 hour full version floating around), chopped in half with footage removed was the closest we got in its theatrical release. Wishing to see the closest thing to von Trier’s vision, I buckled in for the full ride (there was an option to view the second volume another day).

I am still torn by this decision. Having underestimated how thought-provoking it would be, both volumes viewed in such close proximity was mentally exhausting. Two two hour-films felt like a full day of movie marathoning. A 10-minute intermission was far too little time to absorb the events and themes of volume I before heading back in to experience volume II. However, had I opted for a next day viewing of the second part I would have felt like I was cheating. Maybe I should have just re-thought seeing them on Friday night after a long work week.

The weight of what goes on and what is explored in von Trier’s flashback filled story of the experiences of self-diagnosed nymphomaniac Joe (played at different ages by Stacy Martin and Charlotte Gainsbourg) is fascinating, fulfilling, overwhelming and challenging. The first half begins with a beaten Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg) being found in an alleyway by soft-spoken and academically minded good Samaritan Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). Seligman takes her back to his small apartment to care for her and the pair proceed to exchange tales, her life experiences that got her to this point of physical abuse and him, metaphors that mirror her stories.

She tells of losing her virginity to a no-hoper Jerome (Shia LeBouf) and later in life the power struggle between them when  she ends up working for him, the sexual tally game she would play with her friend, in which whoever slept with the most men on a train ride won a bag of chocolates (this is where Seligman’s unusual, yet fitting fly fishing metaphor comes) and her relationship with her father.

Her sexual encounters range from the brief, to daring to awkward. One of her regulars, a married man with kids, rocks up on her doorstep one day with a packed bag wanting to move in with her. Uma Thurman offers a stunning performance and a major highlight in the four-hour running time as his wife, who follows on his heels with their children to tour them through the location of his infidelities.

Joe’s obsession takes dramatic turns as she dabbles in experimentation: a pair of well-hung, non-English speaking African men who quarrel about how they will have sex with her in a hastily organised threesome and underground meetings with a mysterious man (Jamie Bell) with a penchant for the violent of domineering style of kink. Some of her actions may be to the detriment of the health and safety of those close to her.

Less interested in shocking his audience with audacious twists or imagery, von Trier’s hyped up sex scenes were (at least in this version) frank and at time graphic, yet maturely handled in a non-sensationalist way. Close ups and montages of genitalia, whether in a state of arousal or not, have a textbook feeling to them. It feels more like school sex education footage than pornography. Despite all the thrusting, pumping and heavy breathing, and there is quite a bit of it, these are some of the most un-titillating portrayals of sexual intercourse, which perfectly reflect the character’s state of mind and attitude towards sex. For Joe, these encounters are experiments, an urge fulfillment.

Perhaps it was the fatigue setting in but the second half, which deepened Joe’s psychology and raised the stakes (she goes to irresponsible lengths to “get it on”) was surprisingly emotionally aloof. When we should be feeling a deeper connection to this complex individual, I felt at arm’s length. At times, I felt that I should be feeling devastation, some sort of gut punch. Yet, I did not. However, it did not impede my appreciation and even enjoyment of this exploration of themes and ideas that are rarely tackled. This is one rare occasion in which I am keen to see the deleted scenes that ended up on the cutting room floor.

 

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