Best Films of 2014

Posted in Uncategorized on February 16, 2015 by Reel Review Roundup

Putting the finishing touches on this list, it struck me – there were some terrific, female-lead films in 2014. The fact that this observation has not dawned on me while compiling other best of year lists is troubling. I would like to go back and review my choices – hopefully I do find some great films with strong female leads. But in general, 2014 offered a number of excellent films, it was difficult to narrow it down. I feel there are some honourable mentions that definitely deserve a higher placing alongside those in the Top 10 – perhaps I should re-evaluate my list rules at the end of this year to expand to a Top 20. Please read, debate and challenge me on my choices.

 

Honourable mentions: The Double, What We Do In The Shadows, Predestination, Nymphomaniac Volumes I and II, Birdman, The Babadook, The Lunchbox, 52 Tuesdays, Whiplash, The Raid 2, The Wolf Of Wall Street, Nebraska, The Man Whose Mind Exploded, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Appropriate Behavior, Two Mothers.

10. Blue Is The Warmest Color – Sprawling love story that at three hours long covers every aspect of a complicated and complex relationship between two women.

9. Two Days, One Night – Marion Cotillard stuns and dazzles as a woman battling depression and fighting for her job back over an emotional roller-coaster of a weekend.

8. Maps To The Stars – David Cronenberg is back on point (in my opinion) with this scathing take on Hollywood with Julianne Moore in top form as the bratty aging actor who strives to keep her star shining.

7. Short Term 12 – Almost documentary-like in its realism and naturalism, Short Term 12 features an amazing cast that handles the heartbreaking moments with ease.

6. Gone Girl – Ben Affleck and Rosumund Pike deliver career-best performances in this slick mystery-thriller with awesome twists that examines the different ways we behave for different people and in different scenarios.

5. Boyhood – While what was technically achieved (filmed throughout 12 years) is impressive, it is the performances (particularly Patricia Arquette) that amaze. A rare occasion in which a three-hour film did not feel like enough.

4. Nightcrawler – Hilarious black comedy/satire/ thriller on the hazy ethics of citizen journalism with Jake Gyllenhaal shining as the wide-eyed, enthusiastic, manipulative entrepreneur who will do anything for the best film angle.

3. Charlie’s Country – Important Australian film on the battles our Indigenous still have today to nurture their culture in a white world. David Gulpilil is heartbreaking as the elder who has spent his life trying hang on to his identity.

2. Her – Unusually plotted but emotionally charged look at how we connect with our technology and others that covers a range of themes that allows for repeated viewings.

1. Under The Skin – Mysterious, chilling, other-worldly, disturbing, hypnotic. The kind of film that is unusual and thinly plotted but mountains of ideas going on under the surface. Puzzling and alien to some, intriguing to others, this reviewer was utterly floored.

Worst Films of 2014

Posted in Uncategorized on January 16, 2015 by Reel Review Roundup

Perhaps this list should be called Biggest Disappointments, for many of them mentioned, particularly in the Dishonourable Mentions section, were not so much terrible as much as they had potential but did not live up to it. However, a select few were so badly made or on a level that I could not get on that I even committed the controversial and cardinal film reviewer sin of walking out of the cinema before the film ended. It is something that I have never done before and am not proud to admit that I did, but what’s done is done. Please read, debate and challenge me on my choices.

 

Dishonourable mentions: Dracula Untold, 300: Rise of an Empire, Grace of Monaco, The Best of Me, Into the Storm, The Judge, The Giver, Let’s Be Cops, Deliver Us From Evil, Chef, Labor Day, Get On Up, Annabelle,

10. Transcendence – A mish-mash of sciencey ideas played out in hilarious and logic defying fashion. Talented Rebecca Hall is the rare spark in a painfully silly story.

9. Winter’s Tale – Was it intentional or a complete misfire? Many are still debating. Regardless, this cuckoo film has some of the most deliriously bad dialogue that even if the crazy tone of the film was intended, this is still a tough slog. One frequently wonders what the stellar cast were thinking when they signed on.

8. The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 – Possibly the dullest build-up to a climax. There are glimmers of strong, interesting and intriguing ideas, but they are few and far between as the content of one book is stretched across two films.

7. Serena – how the mighty have fallen. Everyone’s BFF Jennifer Lawrence’s winning streak came to a screeching halt this year with this laughable drama, which sat on the shelf for a couple of years, was finally unleashed. Lawrence is left shooting crazy expressions for two hours that give Claire Danes’ in Homeland a run for their money.

6. Vampire Academy – The YA book adaptation craze took another turn for the worse after last year’s City of Bones, with this wretched big-screen version virtually incoherent. Most disappointing is that with the proven talent (Mean Girls and Heathers film makers) behind the scenes, this should have been a success.

5. The Trip To Italy –  Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon travel Italy, eat and indulge in ongoing famous people impersonation sparring. Others connected with this admittedly inoffensive film, however it felt repetitive, self-indulgent and hollow. Not even the mouth-watering dishes and stunning scenery could save it.

4. If I Stay – Chloe Grace Moretz attempts leading role teen angst amid bad dialogue, unsubtle imagery and manipulative weepy film making clichés. At one point mother and daughter bond over dish washing. At another, Chloe walks into a shed full of boats and asks where she is. Real face-palm stuff.

3. The Water Diviner – Russell Crowe’s directorial debut tells an amazing story in an important era in Australian history, but this mawkish, cliché, groan-inducing inspirational tale is tough going. The kind of unimaginative direction that actually has a man and his love interest playfully splash water at each other in slow motion.

2. Need For Speed – If the makers of Need For Speed set out to out-dumb the Fast and Furious series, they succeeded admirably, but they also threw in some misogyny and bad-taste (attempted) humour. Without a smidge of logic (some may scoff at the idea in this kind of film), and dragged out over more than two painful hours, there has never been a greater need to speed through a film than this one.

1. Blended – Perhaps this has no right to be on any list seeing as I walked out of the cinema at the point Adam Sandler was shown urinating. However, I ultimately decided that if it was nowhere near bearable enough to finish, then it should top this list. We had already endured Drew Barrymore spitting her food all over herself, tired slapstick and the most unbelievable set up for a story – and that is just the first five minutes.

Film Review – Dracula Untold

Posted in Uncategorized on October 2, 2014 by Reel Review Roundup

Dracula Untold (MA)

Directed by: Gary Shore

Starring: Luke Evans, Dominic Cooper, Sarah Gadon

Two and a half stars

Review by: Julian Wright

 

After the tweenification of the vampire lore via the popular and toothless Twilight series, Dracula Untold aims to get back to the blood sucking basics. It exchanges the glitter for gore and Bella for bats to explain how Dracula came to be the undying character that novelist Bram Stoker created all those years ago. But despite the attempts to bring gravitas to the transformation from man to monster, Dracula Untold forgets one key point: make it interesting and compelling.

When Prince Vlad Tepes’ (Luke Evans) kingdom and family is threatened by his power-hungry rival Mehmed (Dominic Cooper), he turns to a cave-dwelling creature (Charles Dance) to help him stand up to his enemy and save his people. Vlad is given the strength of 100 men for three days, the only catch is that he will thirst for human blood and if he succumbs, he will be sunlight and silver sensitive for eternity.

His self-sacrifice is something he and his devoted wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) must deal with and come to terms with, but when the village people find out about his new status, they are not so appreciative. Vlad finds his number of enemies rising exponentially, but his biggest one yet could be this new curse.

All the ingredients for a good film seem to be here: solid script with appropriately high stakes that avoids lame one-liners, attention and time given to character development and a director that treats proceedings like a serious, gothic horror film. However, none of this seems to pay off with a disastrously dull opening 20 minutes, murky special effects cloaked in even murkier cinematography and a general lack of flair in telling the story.

The occasional action sequences, that serve to break up the drama, are almost incoherent with choppy editing, almost non-existent lighting and a flurry of a colony of bats that conceals the action rather than elevates it. After this bungled attempt at bringing the spooky drama back to vampires, some may be begging for a Twilight return.

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.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.