30 January 2016

The Big Short


The Big Short  is the rare film that had some genuinely funny laugh out loud moments, but ironically, almost all of it came from outside the main story, and therein laid the comic genius of Adam McKay (and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph). McKay crafted a fact-based, recent historical retelling of the 2007/08 financial crisis and made it engaging, informative, darkly comic and entertaining. That is no mean feat.

Just like fellow Best Picture/Director nominee Spotlight, this film has the uphill task of leading the audience to an already known conclusion and not losing them along the way. Whereas Spotlight managed to deftly keep the tension high and the emotional stakes honest, The Big Short held onto its audience by its humor, its amazingly factual portrayal of an unbelievably broken and corrupt system and its style.

The whole movie felt like a Freakonomics book, and having not read Michael Lewis' book of the same name, I cannot be sure if the film was faithful to the tone of the source material or did McKay and Randolph made it all up. But nonetheless, the style worked! With multiple breaking of the fourth wall and absolutely hilarious asides that kept the audience entertained as we moved towards the eventuality

Christian Bale plays against type (but actually, does this guy even have a type?) and gets nominated for a Best Supporting Actor for his brilliant portrayal of a socially-awkward hedge fund manager. With most of his scenes having only himself in it, Bale managed to bring across both his brilliance and his controlled annoyance at those less so than him.

Steve Carrell continues his Oscar-baiting trending of dramatic roles after last season's Foxcatcher. Although neither roles were really outstanding, this one at least managed to let his comedic talents shine which should be really what he needs to aim for. Instead of overly dramatic roles like in Foxcatcher, Carrell would do better if he sought out dramatic roles that allowed him to be funny.

And Ryan Gosling continues his trend of hijacking an ensemble and stealing the show while Brad Pitt eyes the Oscar as producer rather than supporting actor.

The noughties soundtrack was a fun mix to an otherwise serious and, honestly, depressing story.

At the time of the writing of this review, the pundits have The Big Short as the front runner for winning the Best Picture. It is topical. It is inventive/innovative. It is widely relatable. It is funny. It is smart. But it is also too smart. Too filled with jargon. And not all that "fun".

26 January 2016

Spotlight



A smartly written film with heart that does not pander to the lowest denominator nor paint the heroes in an overly grandeur light. Tom McCarthy and the cast of excellent actors all brought their A-game out for this, making a potentially dull feature on investigative journalism and its reporters, with an explosive exposé notwithstanding, into a compelling and tense human drama.

McCarthy's pacing was excellent and the tension really ebbed and flowed naturally. Even as we approached the climax, McCarthy never really stepped on the accelerator but instead allowed the film's own natural rhythm to bring us to the eventual conclusion. Despite knowing how it all ended, we were still invested - through to the end - to find out how they finally got there.

Writers McCarthy and Josh Singer wisely focused on the team of journalists rather than the subjects and the subject matter in which they are investigating. And that, coupled with the dynamic cast made the film highly engaging. McCarthy's and Singer's background in writing for ensemble TV really showed through. The only minor complaint was that there was not enough opportunity for them to mix up the dynamics more, as it was almost always the same cast members paired/grouped together. However, it was really the occasional shake-up which helped to flesh out the individual characters more.

There really was not a clear lead actor in this film. Mark Ruffalo and Michael Keaton had the most screen time, but ostensibly the whole main cast were supporting each other. And every cast member was excellent in their role, although it is a pity that the fourth member of the Spotlight team played by Brian d'Arcy James is not getting as much recognition/billing as his big-name co-stars.

Ruffalo had the showiest role and he was - as per usual - great in it, acting as the moral/emotional compass of the show. Keaton's role was less showy and that could be why he was left out this awards season. However, Keaton's portrayal was more nuanced as he hit all the right emotional notes.

Rachel McAdams has also been getting a lot of award love for her role. However, although she - like the rest of the gang - gave one of her best performances of her career (even better than in True Detective and Southpaw), I am not sure if it warranted an Oscar nomination. Without having watched Trumbo, Youth or Brooklyn, I cannot be sure whether Helen Mirren, Jane Fonda or Julie Walters were robbed.

This was one of the truly great films of 2015/16. It was not as massively fun nor entertaining as Mad Max: Fury Road, which really embodied what movies should do - bringing the audience out of the mundane-ness of Life and into a whole different world; but on its own, Spotlight was entertaining but perhaps not to as wide an audience.



24 January 2016

Stan Lee's Lucky Man


Pilot: There is something interesting about the concept of this series but unfortunately by the end of the hour it still was not very clear about its own identity. Based on next week's preview, this seemed to be a serialised detective drama with a supernatural/superhero twist to it. However, that paranormal angle was not clearly explained nor specified which then throws more questions to the air. Although it does serve to put the audience in the same footing as the lead. And thankfully they have got the charismatic James Nesbitt to sell the show/concept. Unfortunately for him, the people that surrounds him are uninteresting and cliche. This was very distinctively unlike any of the American superhero-based shows, and I do applaud the British for that, but they need to get a better grip of the super-side of things and explain the mythology better especially before they throw in even more plot threads.

20 January 2016

Room


Room was definitely one of the better films of 2015. It had a terrific and very strong first and second act, however, in comparison, the third act fell short with both the director and writer (Lenny Abrahamson and Emma Donoghue) getting complacent and/or lazy and falling into a typical, run-of-the-mill storytelling.

Brie Larson gave a strong, honest performance but the third act really let her down, and so whether she is the Best Actress of the year is still not a foregone conclusion. But lucky for her, she had the talented Jacob Tremblay to play off with and the rise and fall of this film really laid on his shoulders. And he delivered. A pity that this year's Best Supporting Actor field is so crowded otherwise he'd deserve a nomination.

Abrahamson should be applauded for the first two acts. Amazingly shot within the confinements of a room, he managed to make it look big and claustrophobically small at the same time. That bottleneck first act was succinct in showing us everything about these two persons in the room, and also their captor. The short second act was exciting and riveting throughout with that final scene extremely well done to relay the tension and the unknown. But then we get the third act, and the exploration of the complex human-emotions following the aftermath was not well-captured. It felt too long and too draggy with no fixed focus on whose story he wants to tell: Mother or Child.

The last point could also be blamed on Donoghue, and it does makes one wonder is her original novel any different from this film. Kudos to her for capturing the innocence of Tremblay's character through his monologues which tells us a lot more than what Abrahamson's camera showed.

Larson is worthy of all the accolades that has been showered on her. Her performance was vanity-free, naked and she showed this realistic maternal strength, love, desperation and guilt. You believed her, and that is important. But, in the third act, she seemed less sure of herself. Nonetheless, this is a Brie Larson like we have never seen her before.

But like aforementioned, Tremblay is the most valuable person in this film. A lesser child actor may have made the character annoying but yet Tremblay had an innocence and naivete that was endearing and genuine.

Room was a good, smart film with amazing performances, and only if it could have kept that high standard up throughout, then it would have been a truly great film!

19 January 2016

Billions


Pilot and Episode 2 "Naming Rights": This is Showtime trying to make the world of investment banking as interesting/dramatic as what Netflix did for politics with House of Cards. The only difference is that the world of hedge funds and traders are surprisingly a lot more foreign than Capitol Hill. Further distancing the audience is the difficulty in relating to the ultra-rich - who here is also a co-lead and ?likely anti-hero.

Thankfully, at least, Showtime has decided to not dumb it down too much which shows respect to the audience and kept all the technical jargon in, although conversely, that might end up alienating some audience if they keep it up too much.

Secondly, thank you for staying away from gratuitous sex scenes, although I do applaud them from going beyond network TV's S&M and used golden showers to show how edgy cable tv is. But then, we get drugs and a lesbian sex scene in episode 2. Two steps forward, one step back.

There was too much exposition in this pilot with too much telling rather than showing and that really dragged the pacing, especially when there are only two leads. Some of the lines were over clunky but there were some really good quotable quotes, although the build up of which sometimes did not really make it worth it. One thing interesting about the series (more in the pilot) was how the director (Neil Burger - both episodes) cut away from a conversation to show a scene of what the conversation was/will be about.

Damien Lewis is back to Showtime with his weird American accent. However, he is a good actor and does really make a good anti-hero, making us feel confused and torn as to how bad is his character. Although the showrunners really drilled it in by hammering us repeatedly with innocent white-collar criminals and their incessant pleas of "...but I only did it because...no one was hurt".

Paul Giamatti really chewed his scenes - reminding me a lot of James Spader in the early days of Blacklist, but his more quiet scenes had more impact, especially when he played across Maggie Siff.

Siff's character is going to be interesting and I really hope she will not end up being a cliche. Thus far, she has been written as smart and independent and as the only character with interactions with both sides, she will be the most interesting to watch down the road. And Siff played her well.

Malin Ackerman also plays the other more interesting character and Ackerman icily exudes an underlying ruthlessness that makes her an ideal match again Lewis. Sadly, she has had not much screen time, but whenever she is on, she gets great lines.

The only other actor that stood out thus far was Toby Leonard Moore, and unfortunately that was more because he was essentially playing the same role as he last did on Netflix's Daredevil.

The concept of the show is there and it will be interesting to see how the hunt goes. Although it will be difficult to imagine how it will proceed beyond this current 12-episodes season. How long can the hunt stretch out? Is this going to end up more Revenge or more Hannibal? More Homeland Season 1 to 3 or Season 4 and 5? The good news is that at least it is still interesting enough to continue watching.

Episode 3, "YumTime": Malin Akerman and Maggie Siff got more to do this episode and they are both a delight to watch. Giamatti is really chewing the scenery mercilessly. And Lewis is doing the same but with those really scary eyes and brows. It will be interesting to see how the A-plot in this episode fall in with the rest of the show in the long run. But at least thankfully the The Big Short-esque jargon has been kept to a minimum. And although there is way less nudity or skin shown here as compared to other Showtime flicks, the swearing is excessive. Way too excessive.

14 January 2016

Joy


David O. Russell has his first semi-dud since hitting a home run with his last three movies (The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle).

Re-teaming up with his muse Jennifer Lawrence and frequent collaborators Robert de Niro and Bradley Cooper (can a muse be a guy?...anyways, moving on...) Joy was a genuinely enjoyable, funny and interesting film...in its first act. Thereafter, director/writer Russell got bogged down by the tedious reality behind every success story and neglected the fundamentals that made his previous dramas worked: the characters, the family and the complicated bonds between them. That resulted in a bloated, overwrought, tedious drama of a fairly interesting person which was wrapped up in one of the laziest, sloppiest, deus ex machina way possible which kind of overwrites all the character development of Lawrence's central character.

The first act was a joy (all pun intended). And a very pleasant surprise. With shades of Silver Lining Playbook. The family members, except for Elizabeth Rohn's half-sister character, played well opposite each other. There were genuinely funny moments and a central character worth rooting for. But as the film dragged on, the laughs got scarcer and scarcer, and characters just got more and more two-dimensional and flat and boring.

Lawrence gave one of her most understated performances since her Winter Bone days. It was not showy nor flashy and she really does embodies the everyday American persona very well. And the girl has great comedic timings. She really should work with Amy Schumer. She anchored the film but the writing of her character failed to live up to its potential, however, if it was not for her, the film may have tanked even more.

The understated star of the show was Diane Ladd. She was fantastic and equally magnetic on screen, giving a real, palpable sense of faith, believe and love.

Virginia Madsen also give a hilarious turn as the mother.

De Niro was let down by his character; Cooper was just a glorified cameo, again playing the role he had always play; Rohm was just out of place with no chemistry with the others and extremely poor justifications for her character; Edgar Ramirez was a fun addition but ultimately just a plot convenience; Isabella Rossellini was wasted although she was a (non-intentional) campy hoot in the first act.

Despite a strong performance by Lawrence, this film failed to live up to the high bar that Russell has set for himself. A fairly enjoyable show that was failed by poor writing.

13 January 2016

The Danish Girl


The Danish Girl was a good film that boasted good performances from its two leads - Eddie Redmayne and Alicia Vikander - but despite its Oscar-baiting story, the ultimate product failed to connect and engage with the audience beyond the superficial layer. And it showed especially in its ending and the penultimate scene.

Tom Hooper is really a fan of the close-ups after Les Miserables, and it was again a double-edged sword here. It worked well for certain scenes but not so for the majority of the others. Hooper chose to tell the story Lili Elbe nee Einer Wegener, but yet the film seemed more interested in focusing on the struggles of Gerda Wegener rather than the identity struggle of Einer/Lili. But when it does, Hooper sort-of just glossed over it and Redmayne go through the expected beats, such that it does become painfully obvious that both Hooper and Redmayne did not explore much into the characterisation and emotional architecture of the eponymous heroine.

Although there is a need to dramatise a story when it is given the big screen treatment, Hooper and writer Lucinda Coxon really twisted the true story of the Wegeners to make it more sanitised and Hollywood-appropriate. Thereby, like Stonewall before it, it felt like a betrayal to the people involved and to the memory of Lili.

Redmayne gave a good performance, but perhaps because of the above, he may not have reached the Oscar-winning heights of his Stephen Hawking portrayal last year for The Theory of Everything. There was so much potential here for him but I think his portrayal of a trans-woman lacked depth and substance. It was more showy (for the sake of showing) rather than nuanced.

Vikander - having a very ubiquitous year after Ex-Machina and The Man From UNCLE - gave a striking performance that showed she was more than just a pretty face. Although I felt that she performed a lot better in Ex-Machina and is more worthy of awards-recognition for a Best Supporting Actress for that role rather than a Best Actress for this (although BAFTA and the Golden Globes might disagree, but strangely enough the SAG put her for Best Supporting Actress for this).

And then of course there were the always reliable Ben Wishaw (I fear he is going to get typecast soon...but after seeing him here and in Suffragette, I really want to watch a Ben-Eddie-Carey Mulligan movie!) and Matthias Schoenaerts (hey! another Carey Mulligan - Far From The Madding Crowd - connection, so maybe a Ben-Eddie-Carey-Matthias rom-com?).

Cinematography was by Danny Cohen who worked with Hooper on The King's Speech and Les Miserables, and he sure did make Copenhagen and Denmark country looked beautiful. Music by Alexandre Desplat was hauntingly beautiful who also did the score for Suffragette but this work was stronger.

The Danish Girl bears a lot of similarity to the other Oscar hopeful Carol. Both films are outstanding and engrossing in their own rights, boasting good performances by their two leads (although Carol's Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara do edged out both Redmayne and Vikander and their very odd/conflicting accents), beautiful score and gorgeous cinematography, and excellent directing, however, also like Carol, something is missing in its final product and execution to really elevate it to greatness. Although Carol does one-up The Danish Girl in its authenticity both in terms of setting and the non-heteronormative love story.

5 January 2016

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride





A one-off screening of the much loved (and missed) Sherlock series, this Christmas/New Year special was everything the TV series was and translated very well onto the big screen. Although it truly did not advance the serial’s main plotline, it was an effective one-off, case-of-the-week story telling that kept its fans happy and any new viewers satisfied (the recapped definitely helped).
The dialogue was quick and witty and machine-gunned out with aplomb and gusto by all its stars. The humour was spot on and there was a healthy amount of verbal and physical comedy. The direction was superb with outstanding work on set designs, costumes, music and cinematography.
The central plot/narrative on the hand was fairly straightforward. The case itself drew comparison with Season 3’s explanation of how Sherlock’s faked his own death. The initial explanation of why it was set in Victorian times was great and truly unexpected (for someone who had strictly avoided all spoilers), however, the constant slipping in and out of time thereafter felt cheapened and reduced that tension and authenticity of the later scenes.
The theatrical release was bookended by Steven Moffatt’s introduction of Holmes’ Victorian set design and Mark Gatiss’ cast interview. The former was a fun insight to production design and the thought that goes into it and the latter was just fan service.



The Little Prince [SQ Inflight Entertainment]





The Little Prince was a charmingly sweet animation that combined both CGI and stop-motion technology to present a story within a story, with the original narrative mirroring that of the beloved (and well known) fable.
Directed by American Mark Osborne, this film was clearly targeted towards introducing a new generation to Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s children classic (although every time I read it, at different ages, I garner something new about it). It managed to introduce a wholly new narrative to bring the audience into the world of The Little Prince, however, non-book readers may initially be confused by how weirdly erratic the eponymous little prince could be – although Osborne did try to address that with a bit of meta-confusion.
The Third Act was a highlight. With a marvellous imagining that was a bit darker than the preceding two acts, although Osborne ultimately still held back from making it too morose/macabre/dark.
The 3D stop-motion was gorgeous and I could really watch the whole original Le Petit Prince in that although that may not appeal to as wide an audience as this current incarnation. However, the computer animation was fairly normal with nothing too spectacular or standing out as compared to the Pixar films.
Similarly, the voice work was not outstanding with Jeff Bridges (as the Aviator), Paul Rudd (as Mr Prince), Marion Cotillard (as The Rose) and James Franco (as The Fox) being more distinct and imbuing some sense of personality to their characters.
The Little Prince will definitely appeal to the older audience who grew up reading this marvellous novella however it was not strong enough to hold onto their attention fully until the final act. As for a younger audience, this film should be engaging enough through its 108 minutes although it still lacked many of the bells and whistles that most animations have these days with much of its strength lying on its narrative which does demands more attention from the young.



4 January 2016

Carol [Moonlight Cinema, Brisbane]


A beautifully directed love story by Todd Haynes that was superbly crafted and extremely well acted by two talented actresses. However, despite all its beauty and excellence there was within its core a distinct lack of emotional chemistry between the two leads/characters that, if present, would have elevated this film to almost perfection (and Oscar front-runner).

This was a very typical Haynes period film - highly reminiscent of his succinctly masterful Julianne Moore starrer Far From Away (even the soundtrack sounds similar) and the brilliant Kate Winslet/Eva Rachel Wood mini-series Mildred Pierce. Haynes definitely has an eye for the period and his attention to details were impeccable. The sets and scenes were lush with details, as were the costumes and make-up. Both Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara looked convincingly liked they were from the 50s.

The story itself was beautiful, but I suspect something was amiss in the translation from print to screen. There was without a doubt that both actresses were superb and turning in fine performance; Blanchett was nuanced and finely tuned whereas Mara was more raw and exposed. However, their romance itself was less convincing. Objectively, and intellectually, I can imagine why they would fall in love, but emotionally, that was not translated keenly on screen. Individually, their feelings of longing, heartbreak, despair and lovelorn were keenly felt and explored, but when they are together, the sparks just seemed to crackle and sputter instead of burning up in a blinding blaze.

As aforesaid, individually both Blanchett and Mara gave very strong performances and it is very likely they will both get nominated during Oscar time (and Mara really does deserve a Best Actress rather than Best Supporting Actress, although her chances of winning seemed to be higher with the latter). However, Mara really felt more authentic as the naivete girl falling in love for the first time, rather than Blanchett as the more experienced lover trapped by society to conform while desperate to be really in love.

The craft throughout this film was beautiful and on point. Cinematographer Edward Lachman did a great job in lensing the period and Carter Burwell created a lovely score that really carried a scene and emphasised the emotions.

Haynes has given us yet another beautiful (atypical) love story but this time it lacked the intense chemistry that differentiates it from his earlier works. 


Suffragette


This Carey Mulligan led period piece was a fairly entertaining film that shed some light on the history of the suffragette movement through the personal, circumstantial drama of an initially unwilling participant. However, it lacked the historical details to make it more educational nor does it, despite Mulligan's dedicated and moving performance, provide enough emotional heft for us to connect with the cause. Especially since most educated audience will already accept the fact that it is a right for women to vote. Therefore, the film failed to show and engaging lead the audience to its inevitable conclusion.

The period details were well designed as were the costumes with the drabness and dreariness of the lower class clearly illustrated and emphasized to counterpoint that of the well to do. However, we do not see the struggle of the upper crust and that disparity made the cause and the purpose of the suffragettes jarring.

Mulligan did a highly commendable job in depicting the evolution of her character. But as a character, she was not a well written one - mostly reacting to her circumstances rather than actively participating in the change. Nonetheless, that did not diminish the quality of her acting as we keenly feel her pain, suffering, despair and helplessness. 

Ben Wishaw stood out as Mulligan's on-screen husband. Their scenes were electrifying and it would be interesting to see these two actors together again. 

Helena Bonham Carter received second billing and she is usually a great actress to watch. Here, she was her more subdued self and similarly did not really make much of an impression. There was hardly any conviction in her character's headstrong-ness and militant-type dedication to the cause. 

Meryl Streep just chewed up the scenery in her barely five-minutes appearance. But at least in that brief moment she managed to convince us why she is a leader and why the cause is right. 

Suffragette is unlikely to get much awards notice other than for Mulligan and maybe during the BAFTAs as it - despite its Oscar baiting intentions - really lacked an emotional core beyond its first act. 

Stephen King's Doctor Sleep

This was unexpectedly good. It was not Oscar-winning good, but it was a thoroughly entertaining horror-thriller. Kudos to writer/director...