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As Cool as I Am (2013)
Claire Danes fans will be disappointing in this messy, seemingly pointless coming-of-age drama.
"As Cool as I Am" is a well-intentioned coming-of-age story, but it seriously lacks focus. The story jumps from one thread to the next, back-and-forth between the main characters' romantic relationships, all with little clarity, understanding of character motivation or overall narrative drive. In amongst this messy storytelling are a few prominent moments: a rape scene, and a moment where a neglectful father slaps his daughter. Both of these jarring moments seem to be almost immediately forgotten about, lacking sufficient follow-up or indication of how the events affect the lives and psyche of the main characters. It's irresponsible of the filmmakers to raise sensitive themes like rape and abuse and not take the time to properly deal with or resolve them.
I've become an increasingly avid Claire Danes fan since 2011 when I became obsessive over "Homeland" the superb TV drama she headlines and her involvement was the main factor drawing me to "Cool", her first feature film performance in five years. Sadly it has to be said that if this is the best script Danes can find to draw her back to the big screen, she'd be better off sticking with the box.
Unfortunately for fans like myself, "Cool" doesn't offer Danes (who only gets a sketchy outline of a character at best, and is relegated to the sidelines most of the film) much of an opportunity to stretch her considerable acting muscles. Her performance actually falls flat during the major cathartic, emotional scenes in the final third. The star of the film is Sarah Bolger, who is in almost every scene of the film and leaves a real impression. She's the most genuine thing about the whole project, and her major emotional moments ring true she even sells her main character's culinary interests which are otherwise undercooked (excuse the pun).
"Cool" has a distinctly unfinished feel. Characters (particularly Danes') make utterly baffling decisions toward the end of the film which are never resolved, and far too many threads are simply left dangling by the final frame. This sub-par, shoulder shrug of an ending leaves a feeling of redundancy around the whole film. What was the point? And another question that just has to be asked while I'm at it: what on Earth is the meaning of the film's title?
No Good Deed (2014)
Formulaic, but not awful.
"No Good Deed" isn't a bad home invasion thriller, but it's completely unremarkable, and merely satisfied with fitting a standard studio woman-in-peril mould. It's not difficult to tell where the events are all leading right from the beginning.
To its credit, the performances from Idris Elba, Taraji P. Henson and Leslie Bibb are decent, and the film manages one strong suspense sequence early on (Elba's first encounter with his ex-girlfriend after he leaves prison). There's also one mildly surprising twist in the final third, but its not enough to save a tepid, predictable middle section.
"Deed" is a film is enjoyed best as mindless entertainment on a rainy, stormy night (like the one in the film), with the proviso that you expect a film that trots along an utterly formulaic, seen-it-before path.
Pulp Fiction (1994)
Not a film I feel passionately about, but still an undeniably fantastic second feature from Tarantino.
Quentin Tarantino had an immediate fan base following his career after the release of the excellent "Reservoir Dogs" in 1992, which only grew significantly upon the release of the much-revered "Pulp Fiction" two years later. Commonly referred to by many as one of the best films of the '90s, the film was simply a revolution, its impact undeniable. Many - perhaps the majority excepting those who prefer "Jackie Brown" - consider "Fiction" Tarantino's finest work. Countless film fans worship at its alter. Am I one of them? Not really. I think the film is fantastic for reasons I'll soon explain, but I don't passionately subscribe to it as Tarantino's best either. In fact, "Django Unchained" is easily better, and this film has serious claims to that title from "Inglourious Basterds" or "Kill Bill: Vol. 2" (YES, I think it's better than number one, okay...easily better, in fact).
But why is this film so particularly popular? It's remarkably clever, pop-culture-hip, reference-heavy dialogue is one such reason. There's no wonder it won Tarantino and Roger Avary an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The technique on display only matches the words - Tarantino's patient, passionate direction and Andrzej Sekuła's stylish yet unobtrusive are a match made in heaven.
The film is consistently tense, electrifying and unpredictable, and that is aided by its (at the time at least) unique non-linear narrative. It never complies with Hollywood movie clichés, and even in 2016 this approach is refreshing.
Fans and viewers which of "Fiction"'s distinctive four chapters is its best. Some, like me, will place the first chapter (somewhat smug and self-satisfied, like Uma Thurman's performance on re-watches) and the last (overly convenient - how come nobody walks into a previously packed diner and interrupts the goings-on?) the worst of the best. They'll prefer the brutally tense mid-section involving the sexy anti-hero Butch Coolidge (perhaps a career-best Bruce Willis) and the darkly hilarious, clever Harvey Keitel-assisted murder clean-up. They are certainly the film's highlights for me. But the film encourages subjectivity (the suitcase, hello?) and perhaps these different interpretations are part of the fun of this wickedly clever, irrefutably influential modern classic.
A disappointing sequel to 2014's promising young-adult sci-fi film.
"The Maze Runner" was one of 2014's biggest surprises, but unfortunately its immediate sequel "The Scorch Trials" sends this franchise somewhat off the rails, lacking the components that made the first film so entertaining.
"The Maze Runner" worked extremely well because it grasped a simple concept and rendered it intriguing and highly entertaining for those naiive to novelist James Dashner's young-adult book series. "The Scorch Trials" does the opposite. The more it reveals about this post-apocalyptic dystopian future, the less interesting and more formulaic it seems to become. The film gets so bogged down in overly convoluted, exposition-heavy storytelling that it's hard to care, for instance, about the discovery of an important resistance group in the final third. The 'shocking' cliffhanger is equally a "meh" moment. By this point the film has, like a vacuum, sucked out a lot of what was interesting about the first film.
As protagonist Thomas, Dylan O'Brien competently holds the film on his shoulders. He's charismatic and convincingly physical and intense. But the surrounding film lets this young actor down significantly. It's bereft of character development. Try naming anyone other than Thomas, and perhaps Patricia Clarkson's icy villainess Ava Paige who isn't completely forgettable. Kaya Scodelario in particular flounders, appearing to give her best Kristen-Stewart-in-Twilight impression, and failing to find depths in her explicable character, who is responsible for a couple of big plot twists.
The film at least manages to be fun some of the time - for the first third it is essentially one big chase scene. A nightmarish, claustrophobic and surprisingly-violent-for-this-age-group attack on the central heroes by zombie-like desert inhabitants is undeniably pulse-pounding. But even then, that otherwise-well-done sequence ends at an 'oh well', abrupt anticlimax. It's the first sign of the choppiness that will remain consistent through the rest of the film (another sequence featuring a desert storm is similarly lazily resolved - it cuts to the characters suddenly, and inexplicably, under shelter in fine weather). What are we to invest in a film that lacks the resolve to see these intense encounters through to the end?
And, eventually, even the film's fun chases become a bit exhausting and tiresome. At least one could've been cut to match the first film's tight plotting and pacing. "Trials" is notably overlong and plodding, especially in its aforementioned third act, where all but the most invested of viewers will have lost interest.
One hopes that the third film can redeem this franchise, but it'll take a lot to restore investment from the viewers - such as myself - who found this second instalment severely disappointing.
What Richard Did (2012)
Morally complex Irish drama with a fantastic central performance.
"What Richard Did", which I saw as part of the New Zealand International Film Festival, is a low-key but very powerful and morally complex film.
It features an excellent performance from newcomer Jack Reynor. While his titular character is obviously charismatic and charming throughout, Reynor's performance explores the depth of the character, particularly his restrained rage. There's a scene near the end of the film where he breaks down alone in his family's beach house, and it's truly heartbreaking and memorable. You really feel for the character's plight throughout the movie.
My only real complaint would be, by contrast, the performance of Lars Mikkelsen. He's not a good crier at all and one key scene in the film almost had me laughing because of his acting. A small flaw in an otherwise highly recommended movie.
L'inconnu du lac (2013)
An admirable thriller - but extremely explicit
A very explicit French gay-themed film. Sometimes it felt a bit overly so - including graphic unsimulated scenes of oral sex and even a shot of a man, erm, climaxing. But I kind of admire the movie at the same time for not shying away from showing anything. The characters are intriguing and the film is beautifully photographed in long, uninterrupted takes and panning shots of the lake setting. The setting itself is one of the best things about the movie. Everything takes place either on the lake or shore surrounding it, in the forest behind the lake, or a car park. You become so accustomed to these settings that everything else outside them seems meaningless - for instance we never see what the main character does for a living, or the supposed 'happy hour' drinks many of the cruising characters in this film attend after a day on the lake. None of that would've been necessary because the film is all about the character's interactions with one another on the beach, anything else would've felt out-of-place. It's a brilliant choice on the part of the director and has an interesting, hard-to-describe effect on the viewer. The film also has a healthy dose of humor (the police inspector is hilarious) and several very intense scenes, especially towards the ending. Recommended, but not for the squeamish or conservative!
Robin Hood (2010)
Visually handsome and not without some well-executed sequences, but overall one of Scott's lesser pictures.
"Robin Hood" is a bit of a letdown for fans of Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe's previous collaborations, especially the great "Gladiator" which is its closest cousin. Crowe's performance never projects the same animalistic intensity he gave to Maximus in that film, and as a result his Robin Hood is somewhat bland. Not to mention his all-over-the-place Irish (?) accent seems to change by the scene.
The love story he shares with Cate Blanchett feels very by-the-numbers and overall it's totally unconvincing. Both actors fail to create a spark of chemistry with the other, and the movie works better when they are apart. Blanchett, when she's given the opportunity to take centre stage away from her dull romantic story with Crowe, emerges as the best part of the film. It's odd that she steals the lion's share of the memorable scenes, given that the story revolves mostly around Crowe's titular hero. In a scene where her village is set upon by vicious pillagers and she is nearly raped, Blanchett is so good you'll almost want to cheer for her. This entire sequence is worth mentioning as it's the film's highlight. If the rest of the film had been this emotional, Scott might've been onto a winner.
This is a Ridley Scott production, so the mise-en-scene is typically spot-on, and it's visually handsome throughout. The cinematography captures the vast landscapes of the period beautifully, and brings intensity to the multiple battle sequences.
Scott clearly sets the stage for a sequel with his final scene, and if it ever emerges (which based on the so-so critical reaction, it won't) you'd hope he spends less time on the muddled plot and expositionary dialogue, which could take up probably 1/3 of this effort and bogs down the finished product considerably. If it had the sense of adventure the legend is known for, this might be a character I'd look forward to revisiting. Perhaps in this film Scott has chosen to take his source material far too seriously.
It's one of Scott's least enjoyable films to date, though worthy of checking out for a couple of undeniably powerful moments and the beautiful visuals. Just don't expect "Gladiator".
A very cool movie, bound to start a deserved cult following, and featuring a brilliant leading performance from Gosling.
Ryan Gosling is fast becoming one of the most exciting actors working today. It's nice to see him overcome the 'heartthrob' status achieved thanks to his role in the overrated "The Notebook" and work on genuinely interesting, and challenging projects like his latest, "Drive".
The film thrives on his excellent performance. Whether getaway driving or charming Carey Mulligan, he's nothing short of riveting to watch. As an action hero, this guy makes Liam Neeson in "Taken" look like a whimpering pussy in comparison. Simply put - he's awesome, and utterly sells this character. I look forward to another quality performance from Gosling in the upcoming "Ides of March".
I was lucky enough to see this film at its (apparently) second screening in the world, at the Wellington International Film Festival in New Zealand. It was obviously massively popular during this screening, rousing an opening introduction speech (it was the festival's closing night film) and an enthusiastic clap from the audience at the climax. It's not hard to see why audiences embraced "Drive". It's both an unpredictable and exciting outing for action fans, but all the same well-observed and gritty, which will no doubt appeal to indie viewers.
The film's stunning cinematography envelopes the audience in the proceedings. The adrenaline-fueled car chases are furiously shot and nothing short of thrilling. Director Refn's camera also beautifully captures the Los Angeles skyline and the sprawling lights of the city. It's some of the best photography there's been of this city that I've seen in a film.
There are a couple of really well-filmed "shock" moments worth mentioning. One is in a car parking building and one a hotel bathroom, both featuring gunshots. Both are jump-of-your-seat scenes at their very best. Refn constantly keeps the audience on their toes, and there's no way to predict what will happen next. That's one of the most refreshing things about "Drive".
Carey Mulligan could've been utilized a little more, especially in the film's final third, where she sort of just disappears. It's disappointing because she really gives the movie a heart in her handful of scenes with Gosling. I was glad she wasn't reduced to a typical "damsel in distress" role (the film actively avoided action movie clichés, much to my delight), but she could've been included somehow.
Overall, it's small complaint in a very "cool" movie that a lot of people are going to love. Is the movie likely to be a little overrated and over analysed? Probably a little. Is it going to start a cult following and does it deserve said following? Most definitely. It's a refreshingly unpredictable and well-made roller-coaster ride featuring another excellent performance from one of Hollywood's hottest talents in Gosling, who is proving himself to be one of the most reliable leading men in modern cinema.
Crazy Heart (2009)
Bridges' much-hyped performance doesn't disappoint, but the film itself isn't a masterpiece.
Crazy Heart has often been dubbed "The Wrestler, Part 2". This film's general premise is much the same (swap wrestling for singing country songs), and while this story works well enough, it can't help but compare to The Wrestler and feels inferior and almost a rehash of that film. The pace is slowed considerably by the extended musical performances, they frankly drag and distract from the more interesting personal struggles of the two lead characters. Bridges' much-hyped performance doesn't disappoint, he truly inhabits this character flaws and all and gives a gritty showing that is some of the best acting of his great career. Gyllenhaal, too, is superb, her and Bridges have a wonderful chemistry that is the film's highlight. Too bad Cooper's film stands as just good, rather than great, as he invests too much in the overlong musical sequences and not enough in exploring these two appealing characters and their believable connection.
Away We Go (2009)
A nice change of pace for Sam Mendes.
Sam Mendes takes a welcome break from his high-budget, A-list starring films to direct this neat little movie that has an indie-vibe about it. John Krasinski and Maya Rudolph have wonderful chemistry, playing two mobile mid-thirties "fuck-ups" who cris-cross across America in search of the perfect city to lay down roots and raise their impending family. Krasinski in particular is lovable and very funny in his role. As the couple travel to different cities in search of a new home, we are introduced to an array of supporting players who, despite limited screen time, make just as much of an impression as the two leads (who are basically in every frame of the film). Maggie Gyllenhaal is stand-out hilarious as NL, a "new age" mother, the segment at her home is easily the film's funniest. Melanie Lynskey and David Messina break your heart as a big-hearted married couple unable to conceive their own children. Kudos to Lynskey for really making a pole-dancing scene suitably remorseful, and Messina's monologue whilst he watches his wife is one of the film's emotional highlights. From this lovely film it's clear that Mendes directs an intimate, subtle and observant story just as brilliantly as he does the "big" movies he's commanded since American Beauty. More ventures like this would be a welcome treat from him.