"Silver Linings Playbook" (2012)

Silver Linings Playbook (2012)
Directed by: David O. Russell
Running time: 122 minutes

Well folks, it’s officially Oscar Season here in Australia! Finally the movies that have been nominated for one or more of the Big Five (Best Actor, Actress, Director, Script, Film) have come out or are coming out within the next week or so and we can have a look at what the Academy deems to be the best films of the previous year. The delay is irritating, but I suppose it makes sense given majority of the films that get nominated aren’t epic blockbusters so film producers are cautious as to when to release the films internationally, lest they be flops, until they have confirmation that they’ve been nominated for an Oscar and that the “Oscar buzz” will boost box office sales. At any rate, Silver Linings Playbook is my next Oscars review, with it being the only film nominated for all of the Big Five* and then some at the next Oscars! Anyhow, on with the show!

Now Showing this week is Silver Linings Playbook, directed by David O. Russell and based upon the novel of the same name by Matthew Quick. Bradley Cooper plays Pat, a man who has recently been released from a psychiatric hospital eight months after an incident (that is not initially revealed) and is trying to get his life back on track. With a plan to exercise his body and his mind, Pat sets off on a mission to reconnect with his wife whom he has not spoken to since his incarceration. However, his demons from the incident still plague him, straining his relationship with his parents and his friends around him. But perhaps through a friendship with Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), a woman with some serious problems of her own, Pat can conquer his condition once and for all.

Let me start by saying that Silver Linings Playbook was much better than O. Russell’s last Oscar effort The Fighter (2010). For one, Silver Linings nailed the narrative conflict of Pat’s loyalty to his family and to what is best for himself. This conflict is interesting in Silver Linings, and all the characters involved are (for the most part) likable or at least sympathetically relatable, much unlike The Fighter. And this is where Silver Linings‘ strength comes from: our love for the characters involved (particularly Pat and Tiffany and them being an intriguingly odd couple) as it will actually make us care about what happens to them. Well done, O. Russell, you’re learning!

Silver Linings worked quite well structurally, beginning with Pat being discharged from the hospital without us having any idea what is wrong with him or why he was there. That information is slowly revealed over the first act and it made for some very suspenseful viewing. Why is everyone so nervous around Pat? Just what exactly did he do? However once this is all revealed, the film sort of descends into a conventional rom-com structure, with quirky anecdotes involving the lead couple and involving a huge buildup towards them doing something incredibly embarrassing to save the day. But to be honest, that wasn’t a bad thing; I am no where near jaded enough of a critic to hate a good quality romantic comedy! The only really big criticism I would have with the narrative of the film was that far too often did scenes culminate in a lot of characters being in a room together and just shouting. Not two people shouting at each other whilst others watched, but everyone shouting at everyone and it became so cluttered and chaotic that I often found myself being pulled out of the film and waiting for it to subside so the film could regain some focus.

I was expecting the performances in this film to be groundbreaking, given that not only has Silver Linings been nominated for the Big Five, but on top of that it is up for Best Supporting Actor and Actress as well! It is the only film this year to be nominated in all of the acting categories! But to be honest, I would say that all of the acting in the film was good, but not Oscar worthy. Don’t get me wrong, I found everyone did a good job, and I particularly enjoyed seeing Bradley Cooper in a type of role that I have never seen him in before, but I wouldn’t say that any of the performances are ones that will stick with me forever. There just wasn’t that spark, that special thing when a character is so convincing that you’re on the edge of your seat wondering what is going to happen to them, because from where you’re sitting they are a real person.

This year’s Oscars will be an interesting one, with some out of left field nominations and spectacular “snubs”, but I suppose I will reserve judgement as to which film/actor/writer/director deserves what award until I have seen as many of the films as Australian cinemas allow (I can’t find Amour or Beasts of the Southern Wild anywhere)! But bottom line, I still enjoyed Silver Linings, a feel-good rom-com that is of a higher quality than most.

Stay tuned for more Oscar films over the next few days, I have a lot more to get through!

See you next time!

*Little bit of trivia, Silver Linings is the first film since Million Dollar Baby (2004) to be nominated for the Big Five, and only three films out of the previous forty to have been nominated have ever won them all. Those three films were It Happened One Night (1934), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) and The Silence of the Lambs (1991).

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"Gangster Squad" (2013)

Gangster Squad (2013)
Directed by: Ruben Fleischer
Running time: 113 minutes

Now Showing this week is Gangster Squad, a noir action thriller directed by Ruben Fleischer. Aside from having the worst title of the year (though it’s only January so early days!), Gangster Squad tells the tale of a group of small time Los Angeles police officers who are instructed to go completely off the record and use whatever means necessary to take down the notorious crime boss Mickey Cohen, a man whose government ties make him almost untouchable. Throw in one of the handsome Gangster Squad (*shudder*) members falling for Cohen’s girl and wanting to rescue her from him, some tommy-gun drive-by’s, snazzy suits and jazz and you have a classic 1940’s gangster flick thrill ride.

Which is exactly what Gangster Squad (seriously, I taste vomit every time I type that phrase) is: a classic 1940’s gangster flick. I don’t really have all that much to say about it beyond that, it had all the attributes to fit the genre and make for an entertaining two hours of guns, dames and mobsters. To me, the film just didn’t have any depth to it. Don’t get me wrong, Gangster Squad (geez, don’t remember eating that…) ticks all the right boxes for the genre, has some solid performances and the visual aesthetics are gorgeous; it’s just that the film never truly got me to care too much for the people involved as they weren’t really characters beyond their genre specific archetypes. Aside from the villain (who I’ll get to in a moment), I couldn’t tell you any of the characters names because they didn’t stick with me; none of them were really that memorable. The performances were good, everyone was convincing and no one did a bad job (except Ryan Gosling had something funny going on with his accent, wasn’t a fan), but the characters just weren’t well rounded. The one exception to this, as I mentioned, was Mickey Cohen (played by Sean Penn). He was a fantastic villain, not because of any originality or quirkiness to him ala. the Joker, but because he just owned every scene he was in. Even if he was just standing still, not saying a word, Cohen had all the power in the scene and was always a formidable, terrifying character. What can I say, the guy had presence!

The other highlight of the film for me was the action sequences. The cinematography in the shootouts and the fight scenes always felt so visceral, with the use of slow and quick motion, sickening, wet “thud” sounds for punches, and actually going all out with showing what it looks like when someone is repeatedly hit in the face. Trust me, it looks powerful. Another compliment to the filmmakers: the car chase scene was just awesome and everyone else will have to see it for themselves to understand.

Having said all this, Gangster Squad (is there such a thing as “throat diarrhea”?) is still a film I would recommend, if only for the enjoyable ride that it is. Yeah it isn’t that deep, the ending doesn’t really work and Ryan Gosling sounds funny; but basics are all there. The action is intense and spectacular, the villain is awesomely scary, no one can argue with a swinging 40’s soundtrack and Emma Stone looks beautiful. Won’t be winning any awards, but a fun two hours nonetheless.

See you next time!

"Jack Reacher" (2012)

Jack-Reacher-Poster-2Jack Reacher (2012)
Directed by: Christopher McQuarrie
Running time: 130 minutes

As awesome as movie marketing often is (Cloverfield anyone? Or The Dark Knight?!), sometimes it can really misguide potential viewers. Marketing can ruin the originality and clever nature of a movie i.e. The Cabin in the Woods (which is brilliant by the way, BUT DO NOT WATCH ANY TRAILERS OR READ ANY REVIEWS/SYNOPSES PRIOR TO VIEWING!) or it can just present the movie in a false light and deter many from going to see it because they don’t like the kind of film that the marketing has shown it to be. Jack Reacher is a victim of the latter, with many I have spoken with saying they have no interest in seeing it as they are not fans of over the top, explosion filled action movies. But here’s the kicker you fools: Jack Reacher is NOT an over the top, explosion filled action movie! It is actually a crime/mystery story with really only one or two scenes that come close to being “action” scenes. But it’s ok fool-who-judged-too-soon, for it isn’t really your fault. Marketing is to blame.

Now Showing this week is Jack Reacher, directed by Christopher McQuarrie and starring Tom Cruise in the title role. Following the tragedy of five innocent people being killed by a sniper, the man arrested for the killings has only one request: “get Jack Reacher”. Shortly afterwards, the suspect is assaulted in police custody and falls into a coma. It is now that Jack Reacher, a cold, methodical, ex-military cop, shows up and it is now up to him and the suspect’s defense attorney to figure out why the killer wanted Jack Reacher and why he committed the crime.

See? Doesn’t sound like an action movie to me. Sounds more like a detective story. And what a detective story it is! For the most part, I loved the story-line of Jack Reacher (which is based off of the novel “One Shot” by Lee Child). It was engaging, thrilling and full of so many twists and turns that I didn’t see coming; which is exactly what every story needs! On top of that, the script itself was quite witty, especially the quips that come from Reacher himself. Reacher is an excellent character, a man who not only is disconnected enough to be able to approach the most horrific of circumstances objectively, but still human enough to have a true sense of right and wrong; and he is played wonderfully by Tom Cruise. People either love him or hate him (often the latter is due to Cruise personally, not Cruise as an actor), but I find his performances as an actor to be of good quality and his Jack Reacher is no exception.

I must say that I really enjoyed the cinematography in this film. I don’t often bring this up as usually films are made competently, so unless the film is wonderfully shot or horrifically shot I don’t feel the need to mention it.  Jack Reacher‘s cinematography made some excellent use of blending past and present scenes together (as in Reacher examining a crime scene, and us seeing the crime happening as he interprets it), but my personal favourite touch was the way in which the sniping scenes were filmed. The introductory massacre was shot in such a way that the screen was taken up by a whole wide shot of a water front, but then in the centre of the screen was the scope of the rifle. The camera itself never moved, just the scope panning slightly across the screen as it would have done for the shooter. Couple this with a lack of soundtrack and just the shots and the shooter’s breathing, and it made for some very disturbing and very powerful viewing. That scene will stick with me for a long time.

But Jack Reacher is by no means perfect. There is a villain in the story who is totally superfluous, just coming across as the token European bad guy and played in a cliched monotone by German director Werner Herzog (random?!). There were a few character relationships that seemed very unbelievable, particularly between Reacher and some of the minor supporting cast. But I suppose my biggest beef with the film was that the final act did slowly start becoming the kind of action movie that all those people I mentioned in the introduction didn’t want to see. Don’t get me wrong, it was a good final act, but after all the clever mysteries and thrilling conspiracy theories, to suddenly have it turn into an 80’s action flick was a tad disappointing. Although it certainly wasn’t a deal breaker!

Bottom line, I recommend you check this movie out. If for nothing else but seeing an awesome main protagonist realised on the big screen. And with there being so many other books by Lee Child starring Jack Reacher, I hope we will see him again someday.

See you next time!

"Life of Pi" (2012)

Life of Pi (2012)
Directed by: Ang Lee
Running time: 127 minutes

So, the Oscar nominations are out! That’s exciting, and I clearly have a lot of movies to catch up on in the Best Picture category. Also, I love that Seth Macfarlane is hosting the event, his nominations announcements were quite enjoyable and far better than the stale humour that the Academy Awards is privy to. Anyway, on to reviewing one of the Best Picture nominees that also happens to be the film adaptation of the novel that I hate most in my entire history of reading!

Now Showing this week is Life of Pi, directed by Ang Lee and based off the novel of the same name by Yann Martel. It follows the incredible (I mean that in the way that the story is not credible, not that it is sheer brilliance) tale of an Indian teenager named Pi whose family was travelling across the ocean with all the animals from their zoo in India, heading to Canada. The ship they are travelling on inexplicably sinks and Pi ends up alone on a life boat with only a zebra with a broken leg, an orangutan, a hyena and a large Bengal tiger named Richard Parker for company.

As I previously stated, the original novel by Yann Martel is my least favourite book of all time. I read it eight years ago when I was fifteen, and it was a story that sounded really interesting but was the most boring read I have ever come across and I’ve read the entirety of Lord of the Rings, stupid songs and all! Martel’s book was just so slow, with barely anything actually happening for it’s duration. Beginning with a ramble about the thyroid glands of three-toed sloths, transitioning into the most boring ship wreck sequence I’ve ever read (I believe it was expressed with a single sentence: “The ship sank.”), and then three hundred pages of Pi saying variations of “lovely morning/how are you?/look, I caught a fish Richard Parker!” and the tiger merely growls in response; getting through the book was extremely painful. Anyway, I know this is meant to be about the film not the book, but the reasoning I have for explaining all this to you is that in spite of all my hatred for the novel, I did my best to put it behind me and approach the film with an open mind. After all, I read the book when I was fifteen and I was not as cultured a man as I am today, my tastes have matured somewhat and perhaps the film version would open my eyes.

Well, and I never thought I’d say this, Life of Pi was actually quite good.

Life of Pi makes a much better film than it does a book. And not just because of my eight years of cultural maturity, but because the visual medium is of excellent benefit for the kind of story it is. In books, I often find that animals have now power; you never really get the full experience of facing down an animal when you read it in a book. And when reading Life of Pi, I had no fear from the tiger or sympathy for the zebra or orangutan. But in film form, seeing the colour of Richard Parker’s eyes, hearing his roar and the rumbling growl ever present in his breath and just watching the strength in his muscles made him an absolutely terrifying obstacle to be stuck with in the boat. And the sounds and behaviours from the other animals gave them a sense of character and made their trauma much more heartbreaking than the novel could ever have hoped to achieved. No expense was spared on the computer animation of the animals in the boat; they were all extremely realistic and never once looked like they weren’t there with Pi in the boat. This realism made the scenes of silence between Pi and the animals (and there are many!) much more interesting and powerful, it is one thing to read about staring down a tiger, but seeing it is quite another! I congratulate the visual effects team, they’ve done an amazing job.

Acting wise, the film was also quite excellent. The young Pi in the boat did a great job, especially considering it was one of his first feature roles, given he mainly only worked with nonexistent co-stars. On top of that, the film is framed by an older Pi telling a young author (who isn’t named, but is clearly meant to be Yann Martel) his story, and they both were very interesting to watch even though their roles were minimal. The one complaint I would have there is that the author character was basically Captain Exposition, pretty much explaining the twist at the end to the audience. That’s just sloppy writing right there.

I mentioned earlier that I found the story to be “incredible”, as in in-credible. Without spoiling it too much, a large part of the film is supported by the question of whether Pi’s story of survival is true or not. And I often feel that we’re not supposed to have a solid answer to that question, that it could just as easily be true as well as false. But the events of the film contain many moments (that I shan’t reveal) that, for me, make it impossible to believe that it did happen. I don’t mean that to say that it breaks the twist, but more in the sense that I was taken out of the film by thinking “no, Pi should be dead now” and I couldn’t believe what was being shown to me. And I believe that that spoils the film a little, which is sad as that mystery is part of the power of the ending.

Anyway, amazingly I have come around to think that Life of Pi was a good film. I enjoyed watching it, and that was something I never expected to happen after eight years of loathing Yann Martel and his Booker Prize for literature. This film is definitely worth a look, if for nothing else but the visual feast for the eyes and to at least see possibly the most realistic tiger to be realised on screen.

See you next time!

"The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey" (2012)

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012)
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Running time: 169 minutes

And so we draw 2012 to a close with easily one of the biggest film releases of the year! Yes folks, Peter Jackson has returned to Middle-Earth once more with a new trilogy of The Hobbit, beginning with this first part: An Unexpected Journey.  This was an interesting film to review, particularly because I saw the film in the new, crazy format of HFR-3D (High Frame Rate 3D film) and it was a very…different experience. More on that later, but let’s get on with the show!

Now Showing this week is The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, directed by Peter Jackson. Taking place sixty years before the events of Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit tells the story of a Hobbit named Bilbo Baggins (Frodo’s uncle) and his first real adventure away from the Shire. Bilbo is convinced by the wizard Gandalf the Grey to join a company of thirteen dwarves who are off to reclaim their mountain homeland from a gold hungry dragon named Smaug. The dwarves need a “burglar” and Gandalf believes that a Hobbit would make the perfect candidate due to their small stature. So Bilbo sets off with Gandalf and the company of dwarves on a journey of self discovery and lots and lots of walking. LOTS.

First things first, The Hobbit is most definitely a true cinematic return to the realm of Lord of the Rings. The look and feel of the original trilogy is all there, from the vast grey mountain ranges to the beautiful fields of the Shire. All the familiar locations have been recreated exactly how we remember them, including Bag End, Rivendell and even the Weather Top ruins. Peter Jackson has nailed this aspect of the film, and it is definitely an important one for a prequel. It has to feel like it belongs in the same world as the originals and The Hobbit most certainly does.

But while The Hobbit is an enjoyable return to Middle-Earth, with the battle scenes, the epic feel of the quest being undertaken and the majestic nature of the characters and the landscape; The Hobbit is not without its flaws. Flaws that take the film down from the peg of greatness, which disappoints me greatly. Please don’t misunderstand me, I really enjoyed the film, but I just wasn’t as taken by The Hobbit as I was with Lord of the Rings and for the following reasons.

To start off: the dwarves. There are thirteen of them, and it just feels like way too many. Only three of them really say or do anything that is actually relevant to the overall narrative, and the rest of them are just such nothing characters. Even though they’re all named at the beginning, I couldn’t tell which one was which outside of Thorin (their tough as nails leader), Balin (the wise councilman) and Bofur (relatable everyman to Bilbo). The rest of them were all just variations on fat, cliched vikings; talking of ale and food and having physics defying beards! I didn’t care about any of the dwarves outside of the three I named because they just aren’t developed and aren’t even barely established, and when you’ve decided to change from two three hour movies to three three hour movies, skimping on the character development is not ok. Maybe they will become more like characters in the later films, but here in the beginning they just come across as filler. And couple ten filler characters with some superfluous (but very amazing!) encounters with some rock giants and you’ve got a lot of filler for a story that is believed to be in need of extension.

Secondly, the story has some plot holes in it, specifically one involving those damn eagles! Yes, Lord of the Rings had an eagle related plot hole as well, but the eagle moment in Lord of the Rings is in the book and is therefore J.R.R. Tolkien’s fault. But the moment I am referring to in The Hobbit was changed by the filmmakers to include Gandalf summoning them which he did not do in the book, so they basically created a plot hole for themselves. I can’t go into too much detail without spoiling it, but when you have a story already written for you and is, essentially, plot hole free you don’t go adding them! You’re work is done for you, just follow the story! Yes you can play around with the story a little, it is after all an adaptation rather than a translation, but the original story had a different way out of that scenario that would have worked just fine. It just came across as a call back to Lord of the Rings in a weird form of self referencing. They did that a few times actually, and you’ll know them when you see them!

And lastly, I come to the HFR-3D. This won’t apply to those who saw the film in the standard frame rate, so I apologise if this isn’t relevant to you. I won’t bore you all by explaining what movie frame rates are, if you want a concise account here‘s the Wikipedia page. What the higher frame rate does to the film is make the image appear to be much smoother than we are originally accustomed to, which in theory should make events appear more lifelike. The movie was filmed at forty-eight frames per second (fps), which is double the industry standard of the last century. The best way to describe the feeling of watching a higher frame rate film, for me at least, is to ask if you’ve ever noticed the difference between watching a movie at the cinema and watching a movie you filmed at home on a digi-cam? Have you noticed that the latter one looks a lot less clear (because of the camera quality) but everything seems smoother and more real? Well The Hobbit looks like that except still maintaining the quality of a proper camera and for the most part it works. I disagree with all the other critics that say the HFR made sets and props look so real that they looked like exactly what they were: sets and props. To me, all that stuff looked perfect. What got to me was that when things started moving quickly (in say fight scenes, chase scenes or fast panning scenery shots) it all looked like the movie was being sped up. But when things were moving slowly or characters were just talking to each other, the higher frame rate looked amazing. There is a particular scene with some trolls that looked so real they could have actually been on set with the actors, it was fantastic. But I must say, proper lastly this time, the 3D was not good. Yes it was clearer than most, but it still looked like cardboard cutouts moving around a backdrop sometimes and that just looks terrible. I just wish we could stop with the whole 3D films thing already; HFR is fine, it could be worked on to have amazing looking films, but 3D is just not going anywhere. Pack it in people, move on!

But like said earlier, I still enjoyed The Hobbit. The epic quest, the interesting central characters and the tense build up (that will span more films!) to the encounter with the dragon were all wonderful. Acting wise, again amongst the actual characters, was excellent. Martin Freeman’s Bilbo is loveable and courageous, Sir Ian McKellan’s Gandalf is as awesome as always and I loved Thorin, played by Richard Armitage. He was the one dwarf who had an interesting back story behind him, and was driven with such rage that was channeled into his badass nature, alone with his love and loyalty to his fellow dwarves. The Hobbit definitely was an amazing experience, and it can pretty much be said that no one else does “epic” cinema quite like Peter Jackson.

See you next time!