257 posts tagged movie reviews
WE STEAL SECRETS: THE STORY OF WIKILEAKS (2013)
Julian Assange is a polarizing figure. The Australian hacktivist and founder of information-sharing website Wikileaks inspires admiration from free speech advocates and draws the ire of international security organizations from around the globe. Alex Gibney’s documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of Wikileaks takes the controversial figure and tells the story of his rise to celebrity and, ultimate, demise. The highly stylized film is well-shot and well-produced, and features a bevy of experts and commentators from around the world willing to weigh in on the character of undoubtedly one of the world’s most interesting people.
Gibney does an excellent job keeping viewers engaged. With visually interesting transitions and moody establishing shots, Gibney really sets the tone for the increasingly digital world we live in. The documentary tells of Assange’s not-so-humble beginnings as a member of Australian hacker collective Mendax, and what led to the founding of Wikileaks, an event spurred on by a successful exposé on the corruption of multiple banks in Iceland. The film then focuses on what catapulted Wikileaks and Assange to fame: the Afghan and Iraq war logs provided by US army intelligence officer Bradley Manning.
The story is riveting and the subject enthralling, but We Steal Secrets, interestingly enough like Assange, doesn’t quite do a very good job with funneling the wealth of information on the topic into a narrative that is easy to follow. The film jumps from Assange to Manning to various locations around the globe, almost like a game of Carmen Sandiego. Still, considering what was perhaps a mountain of information to sift through, it was quite a feat for Gibney to focus the story at all.
As far as documentaries go, We Steal Secrets does a good job remaining pragmatic; Gibney seemed determined to present Assange like the complex individual that he is - full of idealism and brilliance, yet also extremely mistrustful and combative. He leaves it to the viewers to decide whether Assange is an uncompromising advocate of free speech, or a naive demagogue. What the documentary does lack is a thought-provoking point of view or question that it asks of the audience, a piece of insight to mull over about the age of information, digital fences, international security, and internet activism. We are left to ponder the T.E. Lawrence-esque rise and fall of Assange, yet we aren’t challenged to question the existing social and political climate that allowed such a perfect storm to occur. Still, We Steal Secrets is worth checking out for the intriguing and tantalizing tale it has to spin.
THE GREAT GATSBY (2013)
Everything about Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the F. Scott Fitzgerald classic screams excess. And why not? After all, isn’t the man, the myth, the legend - Jay Gatsby - the epitome of too much? Wasn’t Fitzgerald’s novel both a celebration and condemnation of the decadence of the Roaring 20s? At a certain point, however, past the eye-popping colors, digitized lights of New York City, the 3D, and the ridiculously affected acting, things started to get nauseating. Watching The Great Gatsby was the cinematic equivalent of gorging on too many red velvet cupcakes and throwing them up all over the screen. Perhaps that was the point - to emulate Fitzgerald’s own impatience at such frivolity. But Luhrmann’s adaptation was borderline gluttonous in its attempt to throw everything and the kitchen sink into this glitzy, over-the-top production. While this style certainly worked for him in the past, with Romeo & Juliet and Moulin Rouge, in Gatsby the result was garish, tasteless and virtually unwatchable, possibly because the va-va-voom visuals weren’t balanced by well-established characters and story. Everything in the film was an assault on the senses, leaving no room for the nuanced satire that made Fitzgerald’s novel timeless.
It was obvious that painstaking effort went into building the sets, costumes and overall design aesthetic of the film. In fact, as far as authenticity goes, the film’s production designers certainly accomplished quite a feat with their attention to detail. However, it was nearly impossible to appreciate all the little things that went into constructing such a cornucopia of design because the camera kept frantically jumping about and zooming around, as if its operator was in some kind of drug-induced stupor. I understand that the intention of this sort of frenzied movement was to have audiences relate to the dizzying rush that our fish-out-of-water narrator Nick Carraway felt being thrown into the lavish lifestyles of the rich and famous, but the effect was more irksome than expressionist. The camera never lingered long enough for the audience to appreciate how much work went into staging the elaborate drama, and when it did pause (ever so briefly), all that was left to notice was reduced to computer-generated imagery. The film should have made viewers ache to be at a party like Gatsby’s, but due to the frenetic camera work and the barrage of feathers, flowers and various other froufrou, I couldn’t help but find all of it rather tiresome.
12 YEARS A SLAVE (2013)
Hunger director Steve McQueen’s latest film delves into the harrowing true story of Solomon Northup, a free-born black man who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841. Based on Northup’s book of the same name, 12 Years a Slave stars Chiwetel Ejiofor in a role that accentuates the British thespian’s impressive range and incredible skill. Ejiofor carries the moving film with an effortless grace and confidence that is impossible to ignore. Ejiofor’s performance was elevated even more by an equally impressive supporting cast consisting of Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong’o, Paul Dano, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt and Alfre Woodard. 12 Years a Slave is a film that explores America’s sordid past through the experience of one man - an experience that is devastating in its showcase of the breaking of the human spirit.
ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013)
Much has been said and written about Nicolas Winding Refn’s Only God Forgives, especially after the film caused quite the stir at Cannes. On the one hand it has been heavily panned for being overly indulgent, and on the other it has been lauded for its moody, neon-peppered, pulpy cinematography, courtesy of British cinematographer Larry Smith of Eyes Wide Shut and Bronson fame. Both sides certainly have merit, but I decided to watch the controversial flick for myself to see what all the fuss was about. Only God Forgives revolves around Julian (Ryan Gosling), an American who has set up shop in Thailand after running away from his sordid past. Julian’s new life involves managing a boxing joint along with his rambunctious brother Billy, a gig that is really just a front for drug trafficking. When Billy is murdered, Julian grapples with seeking vengeance and consoling his grieving, domineering mother (played by Kristin Scott Thomas).
It’s a simple enough plot, and Winding Refn’s sparse script certainly didn’t boast any bells and whistles. A minimalist script is fine, especially if it is supplemented by acting and visual imagery that speaks volumes when dialogue cannot. While Only God Forgives certainly looked great, there was too much moody posturing instead of truly meaningful movement. Sometimes the static imagery worked; because the film was highly photographic, it often felt as though time was standing still, an interesting effect that I am sure Winding Refn and cinematographer Larry Smith intended to represent Julian’s inability to move on from his destructive past. This visual representation of the suspension of time as Julian battled with his demons was effective, however as it was further incorporated into the film, it started to get tiresome to the point of banality. Winding Refn also has a tendency to let the camera linger on his characters’ faces almost to an awkward extent. I remember this from Drive and I didn’t care much for it at all. As a result of all this, the film came off as though it was meandering, despite only having a handful of main characters and virtually nonexistent dialogue. Winding Refn seemed to sacrifice good writing in favor of painting an audacious and subversive visual aesthetic. What little dialogue there was came across as glaringly meager, contrived and almost out of place.
THE KINGS OF SUMMER (2013)
Searching high and low for the Now and Then of teenage boys? Look no further. Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ feature film debut is a funny and entertaining coming-of-age tale about three friends who decide to live in the woods as an assertion of their independence and proof of their ascent into manhood. As expected, shenanigans ensue. The Kings of Summer is equal parts ridiculously over-the-top and endearing as we watch Joe, Patrick and Biaggio discover the perils of post-pubescent love and the even more precarious landscape of the wild. The film stars Nick Robinson, Gabriel Basso, Moises Arias, Nick Offerman, Megan Mullally, Alison Brie and Mary Lynn Rajskub.
The Kings of Summer's teenage exploits are fun without being obscene, with scenes that are meaningful yet not heavy-handed, which makes a pretty successful coming-of-age dramedy. It's a film that has a moral, but doesn't take itself too seriously. What I really liked about this film was that it wasn't trying to be whimsical or even profound. It was a simple, relatable story about friendship, young love, and being jaded - all of which make up the stuff of many films, yet The Kings of Summer delivers them in such a unique and delightful fashion. The film was reminiscent of the aforementioned Now and Then, with just a dash of Mud. There was a slight sense of modern Americana to the film’s style, too, which I thought was interesting.
I have to say that I had low expectations going into this film and it ended up being pleasantly surprising. Watching this in my cramped airplane seat, I had a hard time concealing my laughter during certain scenes, much to my seatmate’s chagrin, no doubt. Needless to say, I was thoroughly entertained by the film and was even more impressed by the young cast’s comedic timing, along with writer Chris Galletta’s amusing script. It’s no easy task to showcase the naiveté of youth and the curmudgeonliness of age and have them both complement each other so well. For his first foray into feature film territory, Galletta accomplished quite the feat by successfully highlighting both. Director of Photography Ross Riege also elevated director Vogt-Roberts’ work with his excellent cinematography. From the clever composition of visual elements to the dewy lighting that perfectly encapsulated the setting, The Kings of Summer was a pretty picture to look at and an impressive debut from Vogt-Roberts.
There’s nothing like a racing rivalry to get one’s adrenaline pumping.
Ron Howard’s latest offering, Rush, is based on the fiery Formula 1 feud between Austrian racer Niki Lauda (played by Daniel Brühl) and English driver James Hunt (Chris Hemsworth). Both men come from contrasting backgrounds and get to the top of the F1 ladder through drastically different means, but both have enough ambition and determination to be each other’s formidable opponents. The film is focused, riveting and exciting, balancing tension and levity in a very smart and concise manner. Although not quite as compelling as Asif Kapadia’s fantastic documentary Senna, Rush is a success in that it manages to highlight the spectacle of racing while at the same time introducing drama and conflict in a way that comes off as very organic. If you can help it, I would recommend watching this film knowing as little as possible about the competition. It was much more enjoyable for me that way. As someone who knew next to nothing about F1 racing before Rush, I found the film very accessible and easy to follow.
Peter Morgan, the scribe behind The Last King of Scotland and Frost/Nixon, accomplishes quite the feat in making both Rush's two leading men equally sympathetic and likable. Hunt, flamboyant, reckless and charming, is the complete polar opposite to the no-nonsense and brusque Lauda. Considering that Hemsworth is the more popular actor of the two (a fact further emphasized by the marketing posters for the film that prominently feature the Thor star), one would think that he would easily be the one to root for in such cutthroat competition. Morgan expertly paints the two characters in both favorable and compromising positions, and as a result, both men equally appeal to viewers, making for a much more interesting dynamic.
When Ridley Scott’s Alien debuted in 1979, it had the tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” At the time, it may have already seemed like a pretty chilling sentiment. But after seeing Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity, that memorable musing has taken on new meaning. While the statement still holds all of the sense of terror and vertigo of floating aimlessly in space, it also gives off a feeling of loneliness that hasn’t quite been captured as well as perhaps Duncan Jones’s 2009 sleeper hit Moon. Sandra Bullock stars in Gravity as Dr. Ryan Stone, a rookie NASA scientist who goes through a grueling test of survival when she is involved in an accident aboard a space station.
The film, written, directed and edited by Mexican auteur Alfonso Cuarón, is a breathtaking experience that grabs audiences and dares you to let go. It’s so full of tension and suspense and heavy decisions that it’s almost interesting how these contrast to the weightlessness of zero gravity. From a technical standpoint, nearly everything about the film is masterful, from Cuarón’s precision editing to Steven Price’s atmospheric score, Emmanuel Lubezki’s stunning cinematography to Bullock and George Clooney’s moving performances. This is about the closest a film of the last decade has ever been to flawless. It may seem like I’m laying on the hyperbole a bit too much, but having seen it in IMAX 3D and immaculately pristine sound, Gravity is definitely worth the hype and more.
It’s rare to find a film these days that challenges an audience on all fronts: mentally, emotionally and viscerally. Gravity is visually captivating and a feast for the eyes, that much was evident from the film’s well-cut teaser trailer. Whether the film would have emotional depth or interesting characters to ground its ambitious scale was uncertain. I was very pleased to see that Cuarón was able to successfully marry dazzling visuals with a simple story that was accessible and character-driven, even amidst the grandeur of space. This flick could have so easily turned into an action disaster movie set in space, but Cuarón clearly dug in his heels and ensured that he told a story that seemed very personal while remaining relatable to audiences. All in all, I found myself gripped by the film’s suspense, terrified and also enamored by the vast openness of space, moved to tears by Bullock’s heartfelt performance, and astounded by Cuarón’s cinematic achievement.
(Some spoilers ahead)
SIDE EFFECTS (2013)
Exploring the perils of Big Pharma makes an interesting enough endeavor, but Steven Soderbergh’s twisty thriller throws in sex, lies and videotape to really sweeten the pot. Channing Tatum’s Martin Taylor is convicted and imprisoned for the white collar crime that made Martha Stewart notorious: insider trading. He is released from prison and into the loving arms of his doting wife Emily (played by Rooney Mara). The couple tries to settle back to normal, with Martin trying to repair his old financial industry relationships and Emily working to be supportive of Martin’s reintegration into society. The stress of a rocky marriage takes a toll on Emily and she ends up at the hospital, under the care of psychiatrist John Banks (Jude Law), who advises Emily to take antidepressant medication to help ease her troubles. Emily takes a turn for the worse, however, when under the daze of drugs she commits a crime that turns hers and everyone else’s lives upside down. Equal parts Basic Instinct and The East, complete with that trademark Soderbergh sepia glow, Side Effects is a tantalizing tale of a hypochondriac culture and the exploits that occur in it.
Rooney Mara was a fascinating femme fatale in this devious drama, with Jude Law going toe to toe with her as the doctor tasked with the unfortunate job of untangling the PR nightmare mess. Catherine Zeta-Jones was also impressive as Emily Taylor’s former psychiatrist. Channing Tatum, on the other hand, was sort of just there, and while the role he played wasn’t exactly demanding, at the end of the day anyone could have played the character, which doesn’t bode well for the Magic Mike actor. Mara approached her role in a very cerebral manner, which i found really interesting. While she looked a little young for the role, she certainly did it justice, acting with a multidimensionality that kept the audience on their toes.
Side Effects was also expertly filmed, which isn’t so surprising with Steven Soderbergh at the helm. Everything just looked clean and finished, with camera movements that were precise and deliberate, and shots that were well-composed. While I’m not a fan of Soderbergh’s love for that sepia hue he likes to wash over most of his recent films (it can be observed in Haywire, Magic Mike and Behind the Candelabra), I didn’t find it as distracting here compared to others. The film’s ending resolution also felt just a little bit rushed, and I would have liked for it to have unfolded at a much slower pace for the revelations to have more impact.
Side effects of prescription drugs have always been a hot topic of debate. Some feel they are a necessarily evil that offsets worse problems. Others think they cause much more trouble than the thing they are meant to cure. Scott Burns’ script takes the issue head on, oftentimes in a much more heavy-handed manner than what was necessary. Sure, a statement probably needs to be made about the pill-happy culture in America, but there are ways to do this without coming off as sententious. There was an incendiary story already to be told, and there simply was no need to be so emphatic about the underlying repercussions of taking medication.
Overall, Side Effects had an entertaining story and riveting drama, with twists and turns that made it really interesting. It’s not my favorite Soderbergh film and not something I’d care to watch again, but it kept me on my toes and I always enjoy when that happens.
HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON (2010)
This is the movie Brave should have been.
Set in the fictional Viking village of Berk, How to Train Your Dragon is the coming-of-age tale of Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel), whose quest to become a dragon slayer like his renowned father Stoick the Vast leads him to discover some surprising things about himself and the dragons his people are afraid of. The film also features the voices of Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Kristen Wiig and David Tennant. Wildly entertaining, heartwarming and thrilling, How to Train Your Dragon has all the elements of an epic fantasy. It’s a fantastic film that will appeal to the young and the adult, with plenty of humor, excitement and dazzling visuals to go around.
The film strikes a great balance between funny and dramatic, with a lovely tale about a tenuous relationship between a father and his son that turns into a meaningful one. The comparisons between Brave and How to Train Your Dragon are to be expected, considering both tried to accomplish similar themes despite one succeeding more than the other. Both stories are about villages being mired in misinformed tradition, and about a young protagonist’s struggle to meet or exceed their tribe’s expectations about what true courage entails. While Brave tried to appeal to the crowd that loved slapstick humor with its depiction of the obnoxious Scotsman, How to Train Your Dragon delighted in its protagonist’s naturally clumsy and non macho demeanor. From his pitiful name to unintimidating appearance, Hiccup is not your average hero, let alone the ideal representation of a Viking man. However, through his cunning, ingenuity and compassion, he emerges as his village’s unexpected hero. Instead of highlighting Merida’s skills and stubbornness in a manner that brought out the heroine in her, Brave instead chose to focus on her pettiness and recklessness, which made her less likable than the well-intentioned Hiccup.
How to Train Your Dragon wasn’t only about Hiccup’s rite of passage into becoming a man, but it was also the dragon Toothless’ rite of passage into becoming a full-fledged dragon. The parallels between the two characters were thoughtfully weaved into the story, with both struggling to become part of their respective communities in similar ways. Just as Hiccup wanted to prove himself worthy of being a Viking, Toothless also wanted to prove to be worthy of being a dragon. Both characters had different things that were holding them back; Hiccup suffered from a lack of self-confidence, while Toothless had a physical deformity that made him unable to take to great heights like his fellow dragons were able to. They both overcome their emotional and physical handicaps in a symbiotic manner that was inspiring and moving, taking the film to a much more transcendent level than a simple tale of a boy and his dragon.
Storytelling wasn’t the only impressive thing about How to Train Your Dragon. The film’s visuals were unique and engrossing, with action sequences that were absolutely breathtaking. When Toothless soared through the clouds with Hiccup on his back, bobbing and weaving through cliffs and crevices, it took the audience on a thrilling roller coaster ride. It also certainly helped that accomplished cinematographer Roger Deakins acted as visual consultant for the film; his expertise may have been a factor in making the animated adventure much more cinematic.
There was one minor gripe that I had with the film, however, which had to do with the way the dragons were animated. It was rather confounding the way the animators chose to give the dragons personalities that seemed closer to household pets than untamed reptilian creatures of the wild. For instance, Toothless often bounced between the characteristics of a quirky cat and a playful puppy. My guess is that this was supposed to endear Toothless more to the audience, however I believe this could still have been accomplished without using cute pets for reference.
With a sequel coming in early 2014, I can’t wait to see what else Dreamworks has in store for audiences. If the second film is as good as the first, I am sure it will turn out to be quite the enjoyable ride.
Denis Villeneuve delivers a taut and twisty thriller with Prisoners, a story about how desperation can push people to extremes. The film, featuring Hollywood heavyweights Hugh Jackman, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, Maria Bello, Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Melissa Leo, revolves around two families gripped by the disappearance of their daughters. Jackman, Bello, Howard and Davis play the distraught parents of the 6-7 year old girls who disappear during a cold Thanksgiving night. Gyllenhaal’s no-nonsense Detective Loki is tasked to investigate the disappearance, which leads him to uncover some very disturbing secrets in this sleepy suburban community.
The story is very reminiscent of Clint Eastwood’s Mystic River, certainly matching that film’s intensity. It was well-paced, well-thought out and felt very complete. There were little details here and there that were dropped like bread crumbs, leading viewers to come to conclusions that were at times surprising, others validating. The use of very sparse but meaningful details contributed to a feeling of well-roundedness, especially for the characters involved. For instance, the film opens with Hugh Jackman’s character teaching his teenage son how to hunt, imparting words of wisdom to the boy about being prepared for anything. The scene was short, yet it spoke volumes about the character’s mindset. This was a man who clearly would go to any lengths to fight for his beliefs and his family. Another bread crumb that gave insight to the characters without spelling everything out was Gyllenhaal’s character’s rapid blinking, a tic that the detective may have developed from a rough past or the physical representation of the toll his cases were taking on him. This was a man who invested a great deal, physically and emotionally, into his cases and it showed. While some may have dismissed these things as unimportant, it was this attention to such minutiae that made Prisoners so compelling to watch.
It wasn’t difficult to get engrossed in the film, and Villeneuve certainly knew how to build suspense. From the editing to the use of deep focus, Villeneuve knew exactly when a cut was needed and when to linger. Sometimes filmmakers cut to spare the audience the sight of something grisly, and other times a choice is made not to cut in order to magnify the intensity of a scene. Villeneuve accomplished both, with the help of Roger Deakins, who is known for his brilliant cinematography. Deakins added an extra layer of bleakness to the film with his play on lighting and shadows. The movie was very atmospheric, which can be attributed to Deakins’ excellence in setting the mood through texture. The film’s overall look and feel reminded me of Harris Savide’s work in David Fincher’s Zodiac.
Following the film’s triumphant debut at the Telluride and Toronto International Film Festivals, the web has been a-flutter with songs of praise for Hugh Jackman’s performance. While he was certainly powerful in it, Jake Gyllenhaal was the one who impressed me the most. He was able to show more with less, and that kind of nuance goes a long way, especially with a very dramatic film like this. Paul Dano was also brilliant, and I think he’s one of the most underrated actors around. From Little Miss Sunshine to There Will Be Blood and Ruby Sparks, Dano has shown a versatility and intensity that makes him such a pleasure to watch.
While Prisoners was, for the most part, well done, there were some aspects of it that didn’t quite work for me. There seemed to be multiple climaxes that became rather confusing, like there were a lot of fake-outs for endings. There were times when I felt that the story was going to end, only to find out that there was more to come, some of which I didn’t find all that necessary. The film meanders a little bit towards the end, which I think was rather unfortunate because it took away from some of the earlier parts that were wrought with tension. Melissa Leo, while usually fantastic, seemed to have a little too much fun with her character. The result was a sense of exaggeration that didn’t fit the grittiness of the whole film. I’m not sure if it was the way her character was written, or the way she performed the role, or the ultimate combination of both that led to some disappointment.
That said, I am a big fan of the film’s ending, which a lot of people found abrupt and unsatisfying. I will have to disagree with them, as I thought it ended just at the right moment. While closure is a good thing to have in some films, I think it’s much more interesting when things aren’t exactly tied up in a neat bow by the end of the movie. I like the sense of mystery, the nudge to use one’s imagination. I also think that audiences are smart enough to come to their own conclusions without having everything spelled out for them. Overall, Prisoners is riveting and suspenseful, with some really incredible performances from its talented cast. Villeneuve tells a story that seems big while also managing to be intimate, which is quite a feat. The film asks a question of the audience that it never tries to answer for them. How far would you go to protect your family? Presenting such moral quandaries in creative ways is always something that I find interesting in movies, and Prisoners does this without coming off as pedagogical.