Now You See Me: smoke and mirrors

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The Prestige and The Illusionist were great films. Mainly because they were almost like magic tricks themselves – constantly keeping the audience guessing until the very end. Now You See Me obviously draws from the same genre, but with too many sub-plots, characters and the added heist element, it is ultimately little more than a poor man’s Ocean’s Eleven.

At the start of the film, four magicians are recruited by a mystery man to put on a big show in Las Vegas, subsidised by a wealthy businessman (Michael Caine). Calling themselves The Four Horsemen, they are cocky sleight-of-hand artist Jesse Eisenberg, psychic trickster Woody Harrelson, Harriet Houdini Isla Fisher and pickpocket Dave Franco.

Somehow or other — the script isn’t strong on explanations — they are headlining the MGM Grand in Vegas within a year. At the show, they bring a Frenchman to the stage as a volunteer, “teleport” him to the vault of his bank in Paris, and get him to steal millions from the vault.

The FBI then selects one of its agents (Mark Ruffalo) to investigate the crime, and he’s assisted by a French Interpol agent (Melanie Laurent) and an annoyingly smug ex-magician (Morgan Freeman) who has dedicated his life to working out how tricks are done, and spoiling them for the audience.

The result is a cacophony of big-name actors all vying for screen-time amidst overlapping and often nonsensical storylines. Most of the acting is underpowered, and the normally excellent Ruffalo gives the worst performance of his career. To top it off, the director can’t even decide who the main characters are. Is it the gruff and confused FBI agent and his suspicious colleague, or the four illusionists?

Unsurprisingly, the man behind the camera is none other than Louis Leterrier, whose last creative act was to inflict the 2010 3D remake of Clash of the Titans upon the world. His new film is smaller in scale, but equally short on sense. Definitely one to avoid.

Man of Steel: not quite a Nolan, but juicier than ever

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Co-produced by Christopher Nolan and directed by the somewhat audacious blockbuster engineer Zack Snyder, Man of Steel takes Superman (Henry Cavill) back to square one and recalibrates him as a pure-of-heart hero for a new age. It’s a risky move, the implications of which are fully realized in the movie’s tense climax, in which Superman is compelled to act in a way that none of the other prior screen incarnations of the hero would ever have considered.

Nolan co-concocted the story line with expert screenwriter David Goyer, and Goyer battles the origin-stories-are-boring problem with a two-pronged approach. The birth of Kal-El and the end of the planet Krypton narrative gets a juicy backstory involving genetic archiving, internecine struggles between warlike factions, and a more pronounced series of confrontations between wise and saintly Jor-El (Russell Crowe) and the once-noble but increasingly power-mad General Zod (Michael Shannon) These scenes are substantially aided by the fact that Krypton is rendered beautifully as the ultimate sci-fi planet.

Goyer also keeps things moving via a multiple flashback structure that toggles between the young Clark Kent and the present-day action. Young Kent finds that his enhanced senses can drive him crazy and that his superstrength renders him a freak. Given Nolan’s work on the Dark Knight movies, the notion of a tormented Superman shouldn’t surprise us. But the whole idea of Superman, as conceived by two comic book artists almost a century ago, was rooted in optimism, and to their credit, the creators of the movie don’t forget that; they just make optimism a more difficult place for Kal-El to get to.

Surprisingly, in this iteration of the origin story, intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) gets to know a drifting, bearded, do-gooding stranger before she meets the Clark Kent who also works at the Daily Planet. One big digression the movie takes is making Lois privy to Clark’s “secret” right from the get-go.  The move not only make sense, but it spares us a lot of silliness down the line.

Even though some of the attempts at gravitas don’t work, the movie does make you believe that a flying man in tights is a thing of scary awe and with a superb all-around supporting cast, Man of Steel blasts the archetypal superhero into our uncertain new century in high style, neither selling him out nor making a sap out of him.

I, for one, am looking forward to the next installment already.

After Earth: undeserving of it’s flop film status

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Sitting down to watch After Earth, I didn’t expect much. Having heard and read only negative feedback, I was prepared for the worst – a plodding adventure written by Will Smith (produced by him too) with the sole intention of raising his son Jaden to movie star status.

I was pleasantly surprised, therefore, to find myself drawn in by the suspense of this action-packed flick and not so pleasantly surprised to realize the majority of mainstream media were so obsessed with the fact Will Smith would have the audacity to costar with his son in a movie helmed by a “failed” director that they couldn’t just enjoy After Earth for what it is.

Prior to this, co-writer and director M. Night Shyamalan had been on a downward spiral that was seemingly out of control. After delivering a trio of great films – including The Sixth Sense – between 1999 and 2002, Shyamalan lost his footing and produced an unbroken string of bad movies. It is natural, I suppose, for one to expect that trend to continue. But it didn’t.

After Earth is not perfect, but it is Shyamalan’s best movie since 2002’s Signs. It is also a compelling science-fiction adventure that works as both a coming-of-age tale and a parable about father-son relationships.

The film is set in a distant future where human beings – having damaged Earth beyond repair – are living on a new world. During a routine military mission, a famous human general named Cypher Raige (Will Smith) and his 13-year-old boy, Kitai (Smith’s son, Jaden), crash land on the old human home world. Because Earth is unstable and populated by a host of deadly creatures, Kitai and Cypher are in remarkable danger.

As with a lot of semi-enjoyable science-fiction movies, After Earth has points that strain credibility. For instance, the characters possess only crude, close-range weapons despite being advanced enough for intergalactic travel. Focusing on this could ruin one’s appreciation for the picture. But beneath the surface-level problems lies a movie that is both action-packed and emotionally stirring.

Shyamalan does a fine job with pacing, and Will Smith is solid as a hardened military veteran who realizes that he and his son are facing long odds. Jaden Smith is less polished than his father, however, and he speaks in a poorly chosen (and never explained) accent. An annoying aspect, to be sure, but one easily ignored.

After Earth is a film that should have helped Shyamalan regain his stature in the film industry. Unfortunately, the early backlash was so nasty that it may have actually sped his fall. Definitely not out of this world, but an enjoyable film that by no mean deserves its bad reputation.

The Great Gatsby: typically Luhrmann, but spellbinding none-the-less

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Romeo and Juliet and Moulin Rouge showed us that Australian director Baz Luhrmann can throw a hell of a party. Now, after the epic drabness of Australia he pulls the stereo out of storage and does it again. The best scene in this fast and furious stab at F Scott Fitzgerald’s 1925 state-of-the-nation novel comes early, as we gatecrash a wild shindig at the Long Island home of filthy rich socialite Jay Gatsby (Leonardo DiCaprio). Gatsby’s wide-eyed neighbour Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) cuts through the layers of flappers and frippery and meets his elusive host amid the throng. The scene is Luhrmann at his best: swirling cameras, mad excess, look-at-me costumes and big musical statements.

In Luhrmann’s world, everything is bigger, noisier and brighter than the far-from-humdrum universe of Fitzgerald’s story. That’s fine when the party’s raging, but when the music stops and the lights go up, dawn casts an unflattering glow on the film’s quieter, more intimate moments.

One of the niggling problems with the film is that it never knows whether it’s about the doomed love between Gatsby and flighty Southern belle Daisy (Carey Mulligan) who lives across the water with her brutish husband Tom (Joel Edgerton), or about the longing, questioning, horrified gaze of Carraway. He’s an outsider in a rarefied world (comparable to Charles Ryder in Brideshead Revisited), and arguably that’s where the real emotional pull of Fitzgerald’s story lies. Yet there’s a whole swathe where Carraway recedes from view and Luhrmann focuses on the push and pull between Daisy and Gatsby.

Carraway, of course, is the book’s narrator, and Luhrmann tries to hang on to his perspective by creating a framework in which Carraway spills all to a psychiatrist about his encounters. It’s an admission of failure – or at least that there’s a major problem to solve in adapting this novel. We hear Carraway’s narration. We even, occasionally, see text from the book. But it’s the age-old page-to-screen issue: we’re witnessing all this from the outside in, rather than the inside out.

What Luhrmann makes intoxicating is a sense of place – the houses, the rooms, the city, the roads – and the sense that all this is unfolding in a bubble like some mad fable. Where he falters is in persuading us that these are real, breathing folk whose experiences and destinies can move us.

Deadfall: out in the cold… where it belongs

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Deadfall is a prime example of a film losing steam too quickly, making it an exceedingly weak and limp effort from The Counterfeiters director Stefan Ruzowitzky. What starts off as a promising, chilly crime yarn turns out to be yet another generic thriller.

Jay (Charlie Hunnam) has just been released from prison. Don’t worry, though, he’s really a (mildly) innocent man. He also isn’t your “average criminal,” because most criminals don’t happen to be former Olympian boxers. Who live by the border of Canada. Who get tangled up in some bad (read: nearly wacky) situations. It’s  just a real shame for Jay that two casino-robbing siblings, Addison (Eric Bana) and Liza (Olivia Wilde), attempt to take advantage of him and his family on Thanksgiving. Their plan heats up, though, once Liza and Jay start to feel something for one another.

What is missing to make it work is any sense of investment from Ruzowitzky. He takes joy in constructing some of the film’s action, but when it comes to Hunnam’s character, his dopey love story and his conflict with his parents, Ruzowitzky appears more bored with it all than we are.

Besides being saddled with an archetype we’ve all seen before, Deadfall frequently switches from chronicling Bana and Wilde’s more far interesting dynamic to centering on the beef-head lead, who we are never really rooting for. Hunnam, normally a fine actor, shows no vulnerability in his role and consistently plays up a tough guy routine that’s nearly impossible to get invested in. Jay constantly gets screwed over and yet it’s still hard to really feel for him. While Hunnam’s performance is certainly at fault here, most of the blame falls on a weak and underdeveloped script.

The only actor capable of overcoming these trite situations is Eric Bana. Bana’s performance is the sole source of fun and danger in Deadfall. The only action we see is when Addison is around, and it’s all clean-cut, propulsive, and belongs in a far better movie than this. The more minimal set pieces are the only sequences where Ruzowitzky takes full advantage of the film’s setting, and it’s where the movie comes alive.

Yet, that’s when Hunnman returns as a walking and talking cliche and the movie sinks again.

The pieces are in place for a good, if routine, crime story, but unfortunately, they just never come together.

Star Trek Into Darkness: live long, prosper

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Star Trek Into Darkness’ is a brisk, no-nonsense sci-fi action sequel built around a conflict between the crew of the Starship Enterprise and a slick, slippery new villain called John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch).

Director JJ Abrams revived the Star Trek franchise back in 2009 by taking it back in time (in Trekkie terms, that is; it’s still the future for us), pumping it with wit and style and giving life to younger versions of Captain Kirk, Spock, Scotty and the rest of the space geek dream team. Here, the main focus is internal strife, rather than structural revolution, as Kirk and Spock get catty with each other and Harrison emerges as a disgruntled insider bent on domestic terrorism.

The most striking scenes come without doubt at the start as Kirk (Chris Pine) struggles to rescue Spock (Zachary Quinto) from a volcano on a distant planet. We witness a primitive race – carefully colour-coded all white, yellow and red – as they first lay eyes on a spaceship. It’s a powerful moment, and nothing later matches up to it, even if two episodes of city-bashing (first London, then San Francisco) offer their fair share of wide-eyed 3D viewing.

The revived Star Trek films are shaping up to be the opposite of Christopher Nolan’s Batman tales in that they’re light on bleakness and attitude. There are enough gags (Simon Pegg is fun again as Scotty) and wit (the tension between Kirk and Spock is winning) between darker bouts of space fighting and ship-saving to keep the mood airy and unpretentious.

Only when we’re treated to a gratuitous, over-the-shoulder underwear shot of Alice Eve as the Enterprise’s new recruit does this breeziness tip into recklessness. It’s here that we sense the filmmakers’ worry that the whole thing might be a bit too boyish and sexless. That said, the script manages to introduce some thoughtfulness into proceedings via Spock’s morose musings on death and feelings (or lack of them).

All in all, it’s a welcome offering to the franchise that won’t leave send you home disappointed.

DVD Review: Gangster Squad

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Inspired by a true story, and based on a book by Paul Lieberman, Gangster Squad is a sleek and stylish, but ultimately predictable, mobster-cop flick.

Set in sepia tone, the first few minutes of this noir film shows just how much the city of LA has deteriorated. The city’s police and its politicians are all in the never-ending pocket of ruthless, power-crazy mafia don Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who doles out brutality without a second thought.

Deciding to put an end to the corruption, honest cop John O’Mara (Josh Brolin) starts recruiting an undercover, off-the-books team to secretly destroy Cohen.

Enter Sergeant Jerry Wooters (Ryan Gosling), and a host of other miss-matched personalities; Central Avenue black beat cop Coleman Harris (Anthony Mackie); old cowboy sharpshooter Max Kennard (Robert Patrick); eavesdropping techy Conwell Keeler (Giovanni Ribisi); and Latino novice Navidad Ramirez (Michael Pena).

Acting-wise, Brolin holds steady as the man who seems to be carrying the world on his shoulders, though he is regularly upstaged by Gosling with a cool, off-handed approach. Sean Penn as Cohen is just downright scary – he nails the heart-piercing, droopy-eyed stare – but without such a fine cast of actors behind it, this movie would be little more than a high-gloss caper.

The only other good thing about Gangster Squad is how cinematographer Ruben Fliescher got the trappings of the 1940s spot on. The coupes and sedans, the people, the Hollywood stucco, the band singers in neon-lit clubs and Mafioso bars – it’s just about as good as it gets from that point of view.

Unfortunately, those looking for the depth and complexity of the best of the genre are in the wrong place, but take Gangster Squad for what it is and it’s not a bad way to spend an evening. But be warned – it’s not as deep, or as smart, as it thinks it is.

 

Iron Man 3: snappy, fast-paced, and surprisingly vulnerable

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Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past few months, you will, no doubt, be aware of Hollywood’s latest obsession with superhero movies. Almost every second month, another one hits the big screen. But despite this now regular occurrence, cinema-goers have yet to tire of the genre, with each new creation raking in the mega-bucks. Iron Man 3 is no different.

Enter Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr); the witty, self-deprecating, bad-boy billionaire anti-hero. First introduced to the masses five years ago in the blockbuster Iron Man, Tony is as charismatic as ever, but, character-wise, is a long way from the carefree hero we once knew.

In Iron Man 3, Tony is still reeling from THAT final scene in The Avengers. (If you have’t seen it, I won’t ruin it for you. You can read my review of The Avengers here and decide whether or not to rent it).

Referring to it as the “New York” incident, Tony’s basically suffering from a bad dose of post-traumatic stress disorder — the sort of psychological damage that’s generally denied most superheroes and, in my opinion, what sets Tony apart from the others on this occasion.

The symptoms, which include panic attacks, insomnia, and night terrors, all take their toll on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) causing Tony to spend most of his time creating more Iron Man suits and leaving civilian-saving duties to Col. James Rhodes (Don Cheadle).

But when new threats are revealed in terrorist leader The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley) and bitter scientist Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce), Tony must figure out a way to save himself, and the World, from the powers of evil.

Throughout the movie, Director Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), takes full advantage of Downey’s gift for snappy one-liners and fast-talking banter. He also does something not many other superhero directors attempt to do; he spends a lot of screen time focusing on Tony’s anxiousness and vulnerability. We see him as a man with real emotions, and a man who realizes what’s important — the people he loves.

All in all, a great movie that does nothing to make me tire of the superhero genre. Exceptional cast, breathtaking special effects, and many a laugh-out-loud moment. As with all the Marvel movies, stick around for the credits and you’ll find a final scene… which promises to tie in nicely with 2015′s sequel to The Avengers. I, for one, cannot wait.

Oblivion: an unconvincing mish-mash of science-fiction past and present

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Oblivion boasts a charismatic star and a good band of techy’s… but the script is awful and the director is even worse.  The result? A science-fiction film so dull and unimaginative, you almost feel bad for the bags of money spent on special effects (which are, admittedly, pretty darn impressive, but not nearly enough to be the film’s saving grace).

The year is 2077 and Jack Harper (Tom Cruise) is a drone technician living far above the clouds in Tower 49 with his partner Victoria (Andrea Riseborough). They are the last humans left on Earth after it was destroyed by an alien race called the ‘Scavs’. The rest of the human population are on Titan, one of Saturn’s moons. Jack and Victoria have been left on Earth to work in the Tower and fix up malfunctioning drones – essentially tying up lose ends before they, also, relocate to Titan.

My main problem with this post-apocalyptic tale is that it borrows too much from previous films. Way too much. It reference’s everything from 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) to Star Wars (1977), Total Recall (1990) to I Am Legend (2007). Cruise’s own Top Gun (1986) is also given an embarrassingly obvious nod.

Consequently, almost nothing about this film rings true. The relationships between the three main characters are clunky and devoid of emotion and the plot twist towards the end is neither surprising nor stirring.

It’s as if Director Joseph Kosinski was given a handwritten checklist (probably scrawled on the back of a Tesco’s receipt) of what a sci-film must contain and expects us to be satisfied by lumping all these ‘must-haves’ into the same film.

Having said that, it has to be noted that Claudio Miranda’s cinematography is indeed breath-taking and the 80′s synth-style score by M83 is both amusing and inviting. Neither accolades are reasons to actually go and see this disastrous film, but credit where it’s due.

Overall, though Oblivion is amazing to look at, it ultimately leaves you bored and unimpressed. Only two things could make this movie better – different director, or a Morgan Freeman voice-over. The former is an unfortunate reality, but the latter could always be fixed in post-production. Lets start a petition shall we?!

The Host: a genuinely dreadful movie

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It’s rare that I see a film as patently awful as The Host. I mean, sure, I’ve recently stomached the likes of Identity Thief and Red Dawn, but this latest film from Twilight author Stephenie Meyer may well go down as one of the worst I’ve ever seen. A travesty really, because I genuinely liked the book of the same name.

The story involves Alien squiggly bits that, after an interstellar journey, get implanted into the necks of the human race, resulting in glowing eyes and a fascination with shiny metal vehicles. A ragtag band of humans who exhibit a fondness of making out in the rain, yet who are chaste enough to avoid hitting the proverbial first base, are shown in a kind of existential battle. Hiding out in a dormant volcano, we see them going on daring missions, stealing supplies, that kind of thing.

But before that happens, there’s a bit where Saoirse Ronan wanders through the desert in the most tedious runaway that may ever have been filmed. Oh, and there’s also this part where we realize that our heroine has held on to the former memories of her, um, host, and the two of them have conversations that lack the dramatic sophistication we see in the book version.

As you can probably tell, my heart really just isn’t in this review. Quite frankly, The Host is just boring to write about as it is to watch.

The dreary cast makes it difficult to tell the 20-something chiseled boys from one another, and the likes of William Hurt makes one feel kind of sad that this is what he’s ended up doing.

In all honesty, The Host is the eye gouging, can’t-get-the-hours-back-of-your-life kind of bad that, if there’s any justice, will quickly disappear from your local screen, soon to be forgotten by all but those masochistic few who actually stomach the entire running time.

Definitely one to avoid.

The Call: tense and compelling with a lackluster ending

the call“911, what is your emergency?”

It’s a line you hear repeated time and time again within films in the thriller genre, typically for only the briefest of moments as our hero or heroine desperately tries to escape the sinister figure lurking in the shadows.

More often than not, these anonymous voices are unable to do anything more than provide a precious few lines of dialogue — immensely unhelpful ones at that — before danger catches up to our protagonist and he or she is forced to get themselves out of trouble.

Thanks for nothing, 911.

In most films, this valuable service is merely a quick nod to a character’s common sense before being promptly abandoned in favor of fanciful dose of heroism and courage. This tendency is precisely what makes The Call, despite its many flaws, work. Yes, it is predictable. No, it is not even remotely frightening. But its inversion of the leading role, along with a decent dose of tension and a pair of fine leading ladies, turns an otherwise forgettable and generic ride into an entertaining little thriller that is far more enjoyable than it should be.

Jordan Turner (Halle Berry) is a 911 operator who receives a panicked call from a girl whose house is being broken into. Alone and terrified, the teenager initially manages to hide from the intruder thanks to Jordan’s careful instruction, but a careless mistake allows the man (Michael Eklund) to discover and capture the young woman, who is found dead several days later. The incident shakes Jordan, she quits her job soon after. Six months pass, and she is now a trainer for new operators, but is abruptly thrust back into the fray when another teenage girl named Casey (Abigail Breslin) is captured by the same man. With the caller locked in the killer’s trunk and running out of time, Jordan works with the girl over a disposable phone to plot an escape plan, all the while desperate to prevent the past from repeating itself.

Shaky camerawork, straightforward plotting and a generic villain ensure that Brad Anderson’s low-budget efforts feel more like an episode of CSI than a big-screen thriller, but it’s all so inoffensive that such a fact is easily overlooked. It does have one major downfall, however – the ending. I won’t spoil it for you, but the ending is quite possibly one of the worst I’ve seen this year. Having said that, it’s only March, and I’m sure worse are to come.

Jordan’s position as an operator provides an interesting, albeit dramatized, look into a typically ignored workforce that is nonetheless vital to the safety of many. Berry gives a subtle but realistic performance, and is surprisingly easy to connect with despite her lack of characterization. Her chemistry with Breslin — heartbreakingly realistic in her role as the victim — provides the story with its best moments, where the pair acts as both conspirators and accomplices. The relationship is at once touching and exciting, raising the film above its mediocre plot and Eklund’s relatively spooky, but ultimately cliché, villain to make the product as a whole much more emotional than it has any real right to be.

It’s certainly forgettable, but The Call is saved from inherent blandness by its actors, who lend the affair an unexpected humanity. It’s not a call you’ll likely be making more than once, but the initial dial is one you can punch in confidently. As long as you aren’t expecting too much, you’ll hang up satisfied.

DVD Review: Life of Pi

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Life of Pi is a true masterpiece, and is one of the most visually stunning films I have ever seen.

Director Ang Lee has done what many thought could not be done, he turned the best-selling novel into a larger-than-life work of art. Not only that, but it is actually one of the best book-to-movie adaptations for a long time.

The film tells the story of Pi Patel (Suraj Sharma / Irrfan Khan), zookeeper’s son. Pi is uprooted from his home in Pondicherry, India, when his father decides to move their zoo to Canada. The family catches a ride on an ocean freighter along with the animals – imagine a modern-day Noah’s Ark. When a massive storm rocks the freighter, the boat sinks – and Pi finds himself one of the few to survive. He is all alone in a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a ferocious Bengal tiger named Richard Parker.

Yes, it sounds far-fetched and unrealistic – that’s what I though too. At every twist and turn, I expected to laugh out loud at the absurdity of it all. But I didn’t.

It is genuinely one of the tensest, most captivating movies I have seen in a long time. It takes a story of fantastical proportions and not only makes you believe it, but makes you care about it. The acting is magnificent, to say the least, with newcomer Suraj Sharma (teen Pi) tugging the heat-strings in all the right places, and Irrfan Khan (adult Pi) reservedly superb as naval-gazing narrator.

Simply put, Life of Pi is glorious. A marvel that takes cinematography to new heights with its crisp rendering of dreamlike landscapes and its fierce yet fascinating feline co-star, all while delivering a poignant and inspiring story of human endurance.

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The Blu-ray disc includes the following HD special features:

  • A Filmmaker’s Epic Journey: Not many Blu-Ray can tout over an hour-long documentary, The four-part making-of documentary shows the four-year filming process, and covers everything from the adaptation of the novel, filming, and the lengthy post-production process. The documentary includes interviews with the cast, and focuses heavily on Ang Lee and newcomer Sharma.
  • A Remarkable Vision: The award-winning visual effects are spectacular. Bill Westerhofer and the team at Rhythm and Hues visual effects show how they were able to make the film look realistic.
  • Tiger, Tiger Burning Bright: This feature focuses on the CGI used to create the tiger with the help of a real-life tiger.
  • Gallery: The feature gives a peak at the pre-production art, which you can watch in an auto-play slide show.
  • Storyboards: The feature shows the storyboards used for seven of the big scenes in the film.

If you have not seen this Academy-Award winning movie yet, buy it on the spot. You won’t regret it.

Identity Thief: steals more groans than giggles

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Jason Bateman was great in Arrested Development. Melissa McCarthy was brilliant in Bridesmaids. Throw them together and you should have comedy pyrotechnics, but what you get is more comedy bronze than gold.

Bateman is mild-mannered accountant Sandy (WAY too many jokes about his ‘unisex’ name by the way) who has a wife and two daughters.

He’s the type who plays by the rules and is always overlooked. When McCarthy’s party girl Diana steals his identity, clocking up debts and a criminal record as Sandy, he’s forced (via some hard-to-believe complications) to motor cross-country to bring her in and clear his name.

There are moments of brilliance, for sure – the two leads share great chemistry as McCarthy’s energetic mugging bounces off Bateman’s smart-casual eye-rolling, but it’s not enough to make a good film great.

Director Seth Gordon (Horrible Bosses, Four Christmases) has a firm grasp of characters, making this road trip comedy more than a Road Trip knock off, but many developments, not least Sandy and Diana’s burgeoning friendship, never ring true and the film begins to outstay its welcome not far into its near two-hour runtime.

Identity Thief just about gets by on McCarthy and Bateman’s star power, but it’s just not quite the knockout comedy you might expect from this pairing, nor is it the film either of them really deserve.

More average than awesome.

Oz the Great and Powerful: if only it had a brain

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Victor Fleming’s 1939 masterpiece achieved excellence in both style and substance by wowing audiences with the first color motion picture and also telling a compelling coming-of-age adventure tale.

But alas, the current trend of exploiting such successes (instead of attempting to expand the zeitgeist with original thought) has only resulted in a catalog of needless remakes, prequels and sequels. Big studio efforts to capitalize on one box office hit in the hopes another will follow are now weaving their way toward once-untouchable standards. Sadly, The Wizard of Oz is no exception.

Disney’s first tentpole film of the year exemplifies this theory, as the origin story Oz the Great and Powerful blows into theaters with the tenacity of a Kansas tornado – and a price tag that would make James Cameron blush. Based on L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, this trip down the yellow brick road is set years before Dorothy’s famed journey and weaves a fantastical origin story about how the mysterious man behind the curtain arrived in Emerald City in the first place.

Unfortunately, the bloated budget and uninspired storyline make Oz the Great and Powerful a strangely hollow experience devoid of the enchantment of its predecessor.

James Franco stars as the wizard, a third-string casting choice after Robert Downey, Jr. and Johnny Depp both passed on the role. Franco initially presents an earnest, winking charisma, revealing the real Oz as traveling magician and petty con artist Oscar “Oz” Diggs.

Shot in black-and-white, the introduction of Oz as a small-town crook and sideshow buffoon establishes solid characterization and narrative curiosity as we witness his struggle with his selfish, womanizing tendencies. Oz does display a sleight of hand worthy of most turn-of-the-century stages, but one particular crowd balks at his inability to help a pleading youngster out of her wheelchair. The angry protests chase him out of the tent and straight into the path of a jilted strongman whose wife succumbed to Oz’s wiles. With his trusty top hat and bag of tricks in tow, Oz escapes on a hot air balloon, cackling with self-satisfaction at the shaking fists below. Then, the inevitable twister comes spinning his way.

Just like Dorothy herself, Oz is whipped into the whirling centrifuge and comes to a merciful landing in a Technicolor dreamscape. The saturated color palette and lush production design lend well to the film’s 3D presentation, but fail to evoke the same magic as Dorothy’s first glimpse of Oz.

Franco’s attempt to showcase a wide-eyed awe throughout the rest of the film isn’t nearly as successful as his carnival smirk, and his performance suffers as a result. He does perk up, however, when meeting Theodora (an also miscast Mila Kunis), a local witch who informs Oz he must be the prophesied leader they’ve all been waiting for.

The promise of a throne, riches and an adoring crowd has Oz conflicted between his greedy, deceitful nature and the ethical obligation to admit he’s all smoke and mirrors and not the real Wizard. After Theodora explains Oz can’t accept his new title without first defeating the Wicked Witch, the film sags under a strained second act not even the radiant Michelle Williams as Glinda the Good can fully salvage.

But thankfully, Rachel Weisz’s diabolical turn as Evanora, Theodora’s conniving sister, is a highlight performance and rounds out the players nicely to initiate the film’s long overdue climax.

All in all, Oz the Great and Powerful ultimately ends up suffering the same fate as Tim Burton’s similarly sumptuous but equally empty adaptation of Alice in Wonderland. Perhaps a pair of ruby slippers would have helped, but what’s missing most in Oz is the brains, the heart and the courage.

Undeniably a visual treat, but ultimately not worth the trip to the cinema.

Red Dawn: jingoistic and unnecessary

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The jingoistic Red Dawn, in which North Korea invades America in the very near future, is the unfortunate  movie Chris Hemsworth signed up for when he was still an unknown and maybe  living, if not under a rock, perhaps in a pickup truck. After MGM went belly-up in ’09, Red Dawn was, for all intents and purposes, left on a shelf somewhere to gather dust - hence why it’s only now seeing the cold harsh light of day.

If you read the first sentence correctly, you’re probably wondering how North Korea (population 25 million) can raise enough invaders to attack the Unites States (population 315 million). Short answer is, thy probably can’t. You see the original screenplay for this remake named the invaders as Chinese. After principal photography was completed on the film three years ago, the enemy identity was changed to North Korea by reshooting several scenes, redubbing lots of dialogue and using digital adjustment to change the looks of flags, uniforms and insignia on trucks and tanks. Why? Because China is one of the biggest markets for American movie exports. North Korea, not so much.

In this remake of the 1984 cult classic, the able Hemsworth plays Jed Eckert, an emotionally bruised veteran on a visit home to Spokane after a few tours in the Middle East. His little brother  Matt (Josh Peck) is the quarterback of his high school football team. After a prologue of talking heads giving a political “primer” on declining  relations with North Korea, the film opens with Jed and the boys’ dad (Brett  Cullen) watching in dismay as the Wolverines lose their game.

The brothers Eckert wake the very next day to the sight of North Korean paratroopers floating down from the sky. Spokane is soon under foreign  control, as well as other American cities. The boys escape to their family’s hunting cabin with a crew of  friends and acquaintances, including a pair of younger, handily tech-savvy geeks  played by Josh Hutcherson (The Hunger Games) and Conor Cruise (son of Tom Cruise).

Under Jed’s tutelage they emerge as Wolverines – teenage ass-kickers raising  hell for those dopey invaders, who bumble and stumble and can do little more  than raise a frustrated fist at the pesky kids. Only one of them, their leader Captain  Lo (Will Yun Lee) even gets a name.

Adrianne Palicki, Isabel Lucas and Alyssa  Diaz provide the girl power, all of which is very PG (no bunker hook-ups  for these kids) while Peck projects such pained  sensitivity that I had doubts about his characters ability to make a sandwich, let alone  kill dozens of Koreans.

If the movie finds an audience, that audience will most likely be 14  and oblivious to the fact that there ever was an earlier Red Dawn.

Definitely one to stay away from.

Cloud Atlas: ambitious and intellectual, but not without fault

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“All boundaries are conventions, waiting to be transcended”, declares the  young, bisexual British composer Robert Frobisher (Ben Whishaw) near the end of  Cloud Atlas.  That’s the mission  statement for this zany epic – based on a 2004  novel by David Mitchell – which alternates between six separate stories, set in  different historical periods, about the battle for love and freedom.

Besides Frobisher, the other protagonists include a crusading reporter (Halle  Berry), a bumbling publisher (Jim Broadbent), an oppressed clone (Bae Doona) and  a tribesman (Tom Hanks) from a post-apocalyptic future.  Many actors appear in  multiple roles, with heavy make-up sometimes used to alter their race or  gender.

That is as much as can be nailed down about the movie – to attempt a short and succinct summary of plot would be both pointless and frustrating.

What I can say, is that the film sets out to transcend various boundaries, including the boundary  between blockbuster entertainment and art cinema; it also rejects the notion  that a visionary project should be guided by a single individual.  Three of its  segments were directed by Andy and Lana Wachowski, the siblings who brought us  the Matrix trilogy; the other  three are the work of the German director Tom  Tykwer, best-known for Run Lola Run.

But perhaps the real mastermind of the piece is editor Alexander Berner, who has the unenviable task  of linking all the stories together through sound bridges and match cuts.

  Overall, Cloud Atlas strives to go beyond what has been done before, and occasionally  succeeds.  Though sometimes awkward in practice, the ”colour-blind” casting is  the most radical tactic, a distancing device aimed at upturning our assumptions  about fixed identity.

Does this lumbering machine soar to the skies?  In a word, no. The  performances are often absurdly broad, and it’s unclear how literally we’re  meant to take the notion that different characters are reincarnations of one  another.

But at its best Cloud Atlas has an undeniable charge: it is a film that so boldly  risks incoherence that it requires the viewer, too, to take a leap.

It won’t be for everyone, but truly great movies so rarely are.

Broken City: Another awful Mark Wahlberg movie

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If you had to choose two actors suited to a political crime thriller, chances are Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe wouldn’t be the first names out of the hat. Never-the-less, they’re big names. The bigger the names, the better the film right? Right??

Cue Allen Hughes’s Broken City; the only proof we need to finally conclude that a film requires a lot more than well-established actors.

Wahlberg, in a not-so-unique role, plays Billy Taggart, a good cop in a bad town.

One night, Taggart makes a decision that changes his life forever. Years later, the city’s mayor (Crowe) remembers the cop-turned-private-eye and asks him to take on a new assignment. The mayor suspects his wife (an impressive Catherine Zeta-Jones – credit where credit’s due) of being unfaithful and wants the ex-cop to investigate.

So begins a twisted and unnecessarily convoluted tale as Taggart tries to find out what’s going on. That is, quite genuinely, the whole film right there. Taggart becomes confused. Taggart investigates. Taggart (on more than one occasion)  blatantly asks “What’s going on” and, in the end, Taggart finds out what was going on. Riveting.

On several occasions, Hughes places too much responsibility on his stars to carry the film on their own, believing that if he simply puts them in a scene together the actorly sparks will fly. This doesn’t work, however, unless they also have something interesting to say.

In Broken City, neither the over-complicated plot nor the overwritten dialogue ever grips. At times, it seems that barely any effort is being made at all, when Zeta-Jones, for example, makes a speech about human rights below a huge sign reading “Human Rights Campaign”. A little imagination, people, please. But that’s Broken City, a film that takes a sledgehammer to subtlety.

Avoid at all cost.

Flight: No nosedive for this blockbuster

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Director Robert Zemeckis is back with Flight, his first live-action film since 2000′s Cast Away (his last few films – The Polar Express, Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, all animations). In Cast Away, the movie began with an intense plane crash sequence. In latest flick Flight, he follows that same pattern, with one of the scariest plane crash sequences in the history of cinema.

Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) is a very experienced, very trusted airline captain who just happens to have a bit of a drinking and drugging problem. The night before a trip from Orlando to Atlanta, Whip partakes in excessive amounts of booze and some recreational cocaine with sexy stewardess fuck-buddy, Katerina (Nadine Velazquez), and on the flight itself, dumps a couple of mini vodka bottles into his orange juice.

Disaster strikes mid-flight, however, when the plane begins a deadly nosedive due to a mechanical failure – the plane crashing into a collision course that would surely have killed all 102 passengers if not for Whip’s impeccable flyboy skills. Whip remains cool, calm and collected and pulls off an incredible emergency landing by inverting the plane completely – something only very few pilots could have managed. As a result, only six souls were lost.

Back on the ground, battered but essentially unharmed, Whip finds himself the subject of an investigation by the NTSB – a troubling development, considering the empty vodka bottles and a post-crash toxicology report.

Enter Whittaker’s union rep (Bruce Greenwood) and lawyer (Don Cheadle) – the only individuals standing between Whip and some serious jail time.

Stories about alcoholism can only end one of two ways however: The guy is either going to have an epiphany and come clean, or something bad is going to happen. Zemeckis meanders through the story taking a bit too long to wrap up subplots dealing with Whip’s love interest (Kelly Reilly), an incredibly funny scene with John Goodman as Whip’s cocaine-supplier and a drawn out legal battle resulting in a public hearing where Whip must re-live the events of the crash.

While we never really delve into the reasons why Whip has given his life over to booze and drugs, Denzel’s stellar performance reminds us that whatever it is, it’s genuine. The movie belongs to him throughout - his performance so strong, so engaging, that it covers many of the story’s weaknesses.

When Whip defiantly insists that no one else could have crash-landed the broken plane, you believe it. Not because the movie’s story proves it, but because of the power of Washington’s performance: No one else could have played this difficult role so well.

Spielberg’s Lincoln: The final victory of a great man

Originally posted on Film Jam:

Lincoln, contrary to its title, is not so much a biopic as it is historical analysis of two of the most important events in the history of the United States — the signing of the 13th amendment to the US Constitution which would ban slavery, and the end of the Civil War.

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Daniel Day-Lewis in his role as US President Abe Lincoln

As the film opens, the audience is plunged straight into the horror of the American Civil War. Opening on a bloody battle scene, viewers would be forgiven for thinking this a typical Spielberg film – it’s not.

Lincoln is, in fact, the quietest of Spielberg’s most recent films, with an equally unobtrusive, delicately crafted, totally absorbing performance from Daniel Day-Lewis – the kind that compels you to lean in and pay close attention, neatly defining the charisma of a born leader.

After the battle, the action moves to January…

View original 362 more words

Django Unchained: Big, crazy, and hugely entertaining

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Quentin Tarantino continues to justify his superstar status on the world’s cinema stage with latest film Django Unchained, his brilliant, bloody and thrillingly unpredictable revenge western about a freed slave unleashing hell on his plantation-owning enemies in the pre-Civil War American South of 1858.

Sort of an artistic companion piece to his audacious, history rewriting Second World War epic Inglourious Basterds, the film once again sees him taking a serious subject matter and moulding it into a deranged alternate universe, one in which the barbarity of a heinous system of oppression is exposed and cathartically avenged in ruthless and savage fashion.

Writer/Director Tarantino has paid his unique homage to plenty of genres before now; the gangster (Pulp Fiction), martial arts (Kill Bill: Vols 1 & 2), the grindhouse horror (Death Proof). Now he’s revived the spaghetti western with his usual fanboy enthusiasm.

In Django Unchained, German bounty hunter Dr Schultz (Christoph Waltz) buys and frees a slave called Django (Jamie Foxx). In exchange for Django’s help in identifying three men with big bounties on their heads, Schultz agrees to help him find and free his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from whom he’s been forcibly and maliciously separated. Shultz, a loquacious, progressive, cultivated fellow who abhors slavery is pretty much the closest thing the film has to a character with a modern perspective and he frequently threatens to steal the movie.

Unfortunately for Django, his wife is working on the notorious Candyland plantation in the Deep South of Mississippi, owned by one Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio) who enjoys nothing more than sweets and blood sports in equal measure.

As per usual, Tarantino uses his specific brand of comic violence – almost as much as he uses uninterrupted, drawn-out monologues. There are gallons of blood, exploding body parts and unflinching cruelty.

As the garrulous Schultz, Christoph Waltz essentially plays a benevolent version of his wily-tongued Nazi from Inglourious Basterds. Schultz has a respect for procedural correctness as well as violence: when he reaches into his jacket, you never know if he will produce a gun or a warrant.

Jamie Foxx, however, has less to work with as Django, even once he begins searching for his enslaved wife. He gets jazzy comic notes to play, savouring his freedom by wearing a dandyish royal-blue suit as he rides through a cotton plantation, but the film grinds him down – in all honesty, he’s a bit of a bore.

His plantation-working wife isn’t much better - Broomhilda is severely underwritten and her character never really shines through the trauma she endures.

Lucky for us, then, that Di Capri and Jackson are on hand to distract us from this problem- Leo’s portrayal of the bubbling sadism beneath the plantation owner’s charming veneer is spine-chillingly good while Jackson’s turn as Candie’s doddering henchmen, complete with oldage make-up and a frosting of white hair, also adds to the edge of unpredictable menace.

Primarily, however, this is a Tarantino film. Yes, he’s stuck reverentially to genre stalwarts, but you only need to see that the soundtrack features a James Brown/2Pac amalgamation to know this is no traditional spaghetti western. Although it’s too long and arguably self-indulgent, it’s big, crazy, and hugely entertaining.

A fierce but fiercely intelligent testament to Tarantino’s frequently questioned filmmaking proclivities and certainly among the best films he’s ever made.

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