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Labor Day - Film Review

Reviewed by Biggest Loser on February 5th, 2014

Paramount Pictures presents a film by Jason Reitman

Written by Jason Reitman, based on the novel ‘Labor Day’ by Joyce Maynard

Starring: Gattlin Griffith, Kate Winslet and Josh Brolin

Running Time: 111 minutes

Released: February 6th, 2014

An autopsy should be performed on Labor Day to see what went wrong. Even this early in director Jason Reitman's career, I never imagined that he would make a film this bad. All his films so far (Thank You For Smoking, Up in the Air, Juno and Young Adult) have been sharply observed, funny and cynical looks at American culture. Adapting Joyce Maynard's novel takes Reitman into a new direction that he wasn't prepared for: an old fashioned weepie romance that never puts a foot right. In every scene Labor Day's overstretched story is unconvincing and overstated. Its situations are nothing but contrived and set against a backdrop of good old Americana it's hard to stomach that Reitman has recently given up on subversiveness and wit in favour of shallow gooeyness.

The film's central idea is that a woman isn't missing a person but simply love. Kate Winslet features as a depressed single mother in the 1980s, who is divorced and seems almost catatonic. The main character in the story though is her young son Henry (Gattlin Griffith), who needs a father as much as his mother needs a husband. Their house is rundown and overgrown with weeds. He attempts to fill in the social void by taking his mother places. One day when they are shopping together Henry meets Frank (Josh Brolin), who is bleeding and asks for his help. Henry takes him back to his mother and they agree to let the man go home with them. From news reports, it is apparent that Frank is a murderer on the run from the law. He takes Henry and Adele hostage inside the house over the Labor Day weekend but can't leave till the right train arrives. Rather than hurting them he teaches the boy skills around the house and begins a romance with Adele that lasts beyond their five days together. Through flashbacks we learn that both Adele and Frank suffered tragedies in their own families.

The premise is absurd. The credibility of the narrative hinges dangerously on the first scene where Adele and Henry meet Frank and the behavioural and psychological contrivances that Reitman employs to justify taking a stranger home are straight up implausible. On top of the brittle foundations of the characters, there is too little story and narrative direction. It shuffles between dull montages of Americanisms like playing baseball, fixing tires and baking pies. These scenes are wholesome, clean and frankly, boring. To compensate for the lack of conflict, there are least three set pieces where Reitman amateurishly tries to manufacture suspense by having neighbours and police visit the house. Not one of these episodes rings true. The lowest point of the film involves the introduction of a handicapped child. I found the cheap and artificial way that someone's disability is used to try and build tension to be nothing short of offensive.

The source material isn't strictly to blame. On top of producing and directing the film, Reitman also wrote the screenplay. He makes fatal decisions in the writing, like assuming his audience is unintelligent. One of the script's few potential sources of conflict is having the adults ask Henry to leave the house for errands, presumably so they can sleep together. In the very next scene another child character is brought in solely to explain that very same idea. As she explains that they might leave without him, the film cuts back to a scene of Adele and Frank in the car together. Typifying the same annoying over-explaining is also an intrusive voice over (supplied by Tobey Maguire as the adult Henry) and loud music cues. An example is when Frank suggests the police won't be suspicious if they drive away pretending to be a family, the voice over chimes in straight after to say "a family", further telegraphing the emotion and sentimentality.

Kate Winslet's performance is one of the film's only qualities. Though short on dialogue, the physically drained look on her face feels true to the depressive state of her character. Yet Josh Brolin is miscast as a romantic lead and fails to show anything more than a simple brood. The decisions of their characters, like planning to move away together, seem inexplicable in such a short time span of knowing each other. As Henry, Gattlin Griffith lacks contrast and variation in his expressions. I wanted his character to have a stronger reaction to having this strange, bloody man staying in their house. Where can the story go if everyone is all too happy to go along with this? I've liked all of Jason Reitman's films until now but this was a long, frustrating film, particularly when it postures as being a story about truth and perspective but has few of these qualities. Hopefully this terrible film is a small blight on what should be an otherwise fruitful career for the director.

Her - Film Review

Reviewed by Biggest Loser on January 9th, 2014

Sony presents a film by Spike Jonze

Written by Spike Jonze

Starring: Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson (voice), Rooney Mara and Amy Adams

Running Time: 126 minutes

Rating: MA15+

Release Date: January 16th, 2014

The science-fiction genre in Hollywood has for some time amounted to little more than action films that happen to be set in the future and feature high-powered armaments. After Star Wars and more recently Avatar, there has been a tendency to build computer generated worlds but only fill them with aliens and laser guns. Science fiction films where technology and special effects are used to explore human behaviour and make sociopolitical comments about the present and the future are becoming increasingly scarce.

Fortunately, director Spike Jonze (creator of oddball favourites Being John Malkovich and Adaptation) has made a science-fiction film that is partly a glimpse into the future of advanced computer software, a current day look at our overreliance on technology and also the unlikeliest of love stories. Who would have predicted that one of the more aching screen romances in recent years would be between a man and his computer? What is more frightening about the premise is that you come to believe and be touched by it.

The film is set in the distant future of Los Angeles, with Joaquin Phoenix cast as Theodore, a shy writer whose profession is to produce love letters for other people. He is detached from the world because of a painful breakup from Catherine (Rooney Mara). He still has some joy from seeing his college friend Amy (Amy Adams, pivotal in a subplot), who has her own dysfunctional relationship. His life takes a bizarre turn when he is introduced to Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson), a highly sophisticated, verbalised operating system, put together from the DNA of her creators. She is described as a consciousness, able to think and feel on her own, gaining new experiences by herself and through what Theodore sees. She is carried with him in a portable device, like a smart phone, and together they fall in love.

Jonze completes the extraordinary tasks of avoiding the most obvious movie clichés and pitfalls that could come with this utterly bizarre concept. The film succeeds as a human drama because the director finds the right tone. It’s sometimes hilarious (how could it not be?) but the mood is mostly melancholic and dream-like because no one here is playing this as an extended joke. This is a sad world where characters, including Samantha, are craving human connection and longing for new experiences and emotions. The dramatic conflict is real because as Samantha begins thinking and feeling for herself, and grows closer to Theodore, he begins making the same judgments and pedantic criticisms of her that affected his previous relationship.

Hollywood’s exploration of man’s relationship with computers, from HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odysseyto The Terminator, has mostly revolved around their destruction of us. Jonze aims higher, attempting to answer challenging philosophical question relating to epistemology and existence. When machines are capable of thinking, feeling and learning does that knowledge stop them being robotic and draw them closer to true humanity? Contrastingly, as humans grow further away from each other and become more reliant on technology, will we forget personal uniqueness and that people’s desires are different from our own?

On top of its plethora of ideas, we take the film seriously because the actors do too. Joaquin Phoenix’s performance in this film is subtle and challenging. The long duration of unbroken close-up shots on his face provides time for him to embody the shifting emotions of joy and anxiety that a relationship can place on a person. The close-ups also infer that humanity and individuality is defined not merely by knowledge but our own unique faces that define us within our species. Scarlett Johansson, who replaced all of Samantha Morton’s original voice work, makes a strong case for Oscar nominated voice acting. With her singing background, she knows how to alter the pitch of her voice, infusing it with both humour and emotion. Her disembodied presence becomes charming and sad, rating as some of the best work the actress has ever done.

The film’s visual compositions are also an expression of social detachment. Los Angeles is this film reminded me of China with its high rise buildings covered in a grey, overhead smog, which hints at the power corporations have in the future. To express Theodore’s isolation, his apartment looks partly cold but also modern, with its metal and glass surfaces. It is old and new, reflective of his psychological inability to move forward from his personal mistakes, despite all the technological advances around him. Similarly, in the film’s production notes it states that his clothes were designed with a 1920, 30s and 40s look. The retro costume stylising, combined with a wide angle lens as Theodore walks outdoors talking to Samantha, further suggests his segregation from genuine human emotions in the present day.

It is worth noting that in 2003 Scarlett Johansson starred in Sofia Coppola’s film Lost in Translation, where a character was rumoured to be based on Spike Jonze because he used to be married to the director. Like that film, this is a story about a character that is fractured and hurt by one relationship and faces the impossible task of fulfilling that void with something that is inevitably unsustainable. The sincerity with how this beautiful, slightly long film is made, and the quality of the performances, are suggestive of a filmmaker who knows very personally what they are talking about.

The Way Way Back - Film Review

You can still put a price on a great script in Hollywood. The Way Way Back was shown at the Sundance Film Festival and then the distribution rights were auctioned off to Fox Searchlight for a little under $10 million dollars. The bidding was described by the Los Angeles Times as: "In what could be one of the richest deals in Sundance Film Festival history". This proves two things. Fox were rightly confident in the film's quality, it's an excellent movie, and that studios are willing to pay big dollars for films with great scripts because of how rare they are today.

However, this is a film made by smart people. After winning an Oscar for writing The Descendants, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash make their directional debuts, along with co-scripting the film and featuring in small roles too. They prove here they are as talented behind the camera, working closely with young and seasoned actors to enrich a story that is partly a coming of age tale but also critical about the juvenility of its adult characters too. For a film that only cost $4 million dollars to make, I found this funnier and outrightly more enjoyable than any major blockbuster released during the American summer this year.

Liam James plays Duncan, a fourteen year old boy who is spending his summer vacation with his mother Pam (Toni Collette), her new boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell) and his daughter Steph (Zoe Levin). Duncan and Trent don't get along because Trent is critical of him and isn't sensitive to how shy and subdued he is. They're also surrounded by kooky neighbours, including the hilariously outspoken Betty (Allison Janney), who has a son with a lazy eye and a daughter named Susanna (AnnaSophia Robb). Trent is also spending too much time with his friends Kip (Rob Corddry) and Joan (Amanda Peet). To make the most of his time, Duncan visits a waterslide park and is nurtured by Owen (Sam Rockwell) who works there. Owen encourages him to loosen up and have more fun, despite his own fluctuating relationship with his boss Caitlin (Maya Rudolph), who questions his responsibility and work ethic.

The strength of the script is that it realises that there is something to be lost if Duncan were not to blossom while he is still young. He is surrounded by adult characters that are complacent, jealous and disappointed with their lives. Several of the characters in the film are also divorcees and brush with infidelity too, which heightens the film's awareness of people becoming desperate in unhappy situations. The film achieves a dual layering. It is a coming of age story but it never over or underplays its sadder impression of an incompatible family unit and how people make wrong choices when their lives appear to be in stasis. The film's opening image is a static medium close-up of Duncan sitting alone in the car, which underscores his immobility and lack of self-belief.

Countering its somewhat bleaker subtext, the film is written with great flair and some hilariously funny dialogue. I particularly liked the line where Betty says that her gay ex-husband's favourite view of her was the back of her head. Together, Faxon and Rash have also done a terrific job in providing each character with a unique voice. This is due to how well-chosen the actors are and how convincingly they inhabit their characters. Liam James is astonishingly good at expressing Duncan's feelings through his slumped and disengaged body language and monotone voice. This is until he takes responsibility for his own life and grows more confident in his skin and finds a gentle bond of commonality with the beautiful Susanna.

On either side of him are two men with contrasting acting styles and dialogue rhythms. Steve Carell is uncharacteristically serious and rigid as Trent, who is overly harsh in singling out Duncan, but we understand that he wants to instill rules into him. He's just stubborn and terrible at empathising with other people. Sam Rockwell as the slacker Owen snatches the movie with one of the funniest, most energised, manic performances I've seen all year. His jokes and sarcasm are fast and loose and earned the biggest laughs at the screening. Significantly, he adds the right dosage of kindness to his character, without becoming overly sentimental either. Toni Collette has a comparatively small role, but it's an expressive, pivotal one that requires her clearly uncomfortable character to make a serious choice about her own unhappy life.

This hilarious, warm and surprisingly touching film is proof that there is still value in small, human comedy-dramas and that they don't necessarily have to break the bank. It's heartening to see a script of this quality can still be produced and supported by Hollywood heavyweights. Yet there's also a somber melancholy that this retreat away is ready to end and we'll be returning to our ordinary cinema lives of robots, ninjas and superheroes. If only the vacation could last a little longer.

Before Midnight - Film Review

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The third film in Richard Linklater's trilogy, after Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, is the most satisfying and complete of the revered series. Most sequels grow stale by resting on the formula of their predecessors. The strength of this trilogy is that each episode, filmed nine years apart since 1995, reflects a new perspective on the changing relationship of its central characters Celine and Jesse. This has prevented the series from losing its essentiality because with each addition the characters and their attitudes to life and each other have changed over time and feel anew.

One of the unique aspects of the trilogy is that it is compromised almost solely of dialogue. This is rare today when Hollywood films prefer action and effects over dialogue and character. There are only five or six sequences inBefore Midnight, each one comprised simply of characters talking. These conversations are rich, purposely reflecting how relationships are tested by time and conflicting perspectives. While the previous two films merely teased the possibilities of Celine and Jesse's relationship, Midnight reflects the consequences and the regrets they have about their choices. It leads into some huge fireworks but refuses to exchange the depth of the series for pure melodrama. It is still funny, deep and personal, often achingly so in its long and authentic exchanges.

Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reprise their roles as Celine and Jesse, who are now an unmarried couple, with twin girls of their own. Jessie has divorced his wife but is struggling with being separated from his son Hank (Seamus Davey-Patrick). While holidaying in Greece, Jesse and Celine debate the idea about them moving to the US so that they can see Hank more often. Celine is reluctant, considering the possibilities of a job offer instead. Some later discussions talk place in the villa of an elder writer named Patrick (Walter Lassally), who is housing them and some other Greek couples. One of Celine and Jesse's most heated conversations takes place in a hotel room, which tests the increasingly brittle foundations of their relationship.

The screenplay by Richard Kelly, Delpy and Hawke draws a complex binary between the speed of time, dwelling on the irreversible events of the past, and fixed perceptions that force one to look too far into the future. The source of Jesse's anguish is not simply his current separation from his son but being divorced from the irreversible years of Hank's life. His plea to move back to the US is fuelled by preempted nostalgia for his son's teenage years: "If I miss these years, they're never coming back." Celine's pessimism stems from a culture clash, believing they won't be happy back in the US, and predicting that this is how people breakup, comparing their relationship to a ticking time bomb. Her conflicting perceptions of time are amplified by her resistance to autograph Jesse's novels, containing semi-autobiographical details about their relationship. There are also brighter, romanticised feelings drawn from loss, with another character reflecting on how they were still able to still see all of their miniscule details of their partner after they had gone. It's suggested that it is important not to love one person but to have a love of life by reflecting on those fleeting moments while you still can.

The film's various ruminations on time and space are embodied by Linklater's camera as it lingers over the handsome Mediterranean setting. One of the more amazing scenes is a car ride conversation that is sustained for nearly fifteen minutes without a single cut. The naturalism of the scene is exemplified by the director's insistence that every word of dialogue was written down and not improvised. The duration of the medium shot, framing Jesse and Celine together, demonstrates how they exist in the same spectrum of time but through their bickering they often forget how lucky they are to share the important moments together. Colour and space are used distinctively, with red and green primary tones enriching the vibrancy of the domestic scenes, while in the hotel room the spaces are more contained and the tones drab to infer a claustrophobic tension. As the couple argues, the reverse angle shots and deep lenses fracture and separate their spatiality to remind us of their conflicting beliefs, drawn from perception and nostalgia. Both performances achieve an unbroken magnetism, supplied by the director's willingness to provide his actors with as much time and space possible to invigorate these roles.

Although we have seen many films examine relationships, few have analysed the couple via the framework of insightful philosophical musings and with such an intelligent and consistent discourse. How many romantic comedy-dramas are sophisticated enough to have conversations veering from gender roles, the inevitability of death or the dread of spending another fifty years together? The film is about the way time and age have believably shaped the once optimistic and impulsive beliefs of both Celine and Jesse. It is not just a 'boy meets girl' story. Its 'boy meets girl and realises they're going to die someday.' It encompasses all the troubling realities that Hollywood likes to shield from us.

The Heat - Film Review

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Reviewed on July 8th, 2013
Fox presents a film directed by Paul Feig
Screenplay by Katie Dippold
Starring: Sandra Bullock, Melissa McCarthy, Demian Bichir and Michael Rapaport
Running Time: 117 minutes
Rating: MA15+
Released: July 11th, 2013

One of the missteps of The Heat isn't its lack of jokes or laughs but it's insistence on treating its material with frivolous humour and a general lack of seriousness when it seems necessary. It is also a vehicle that denies its leading actress Sandra Bullock the opportunity to show what an emotional force she can be. Simply content with establishing itself as one of the first female buddy cop films, The Heat's humour is obvious and overly broad and its crime story is derivative and often lacking in dramatic heft. Though it might have equaled its male-centric subgenre, one wishes it brought more dramatic weight and heart to surpass it.

Bullock plays FBI agent Ashburn, who is extremely professional and by the book but also lonely and estranged from her male colleagues. She is told by her superior Hale (Demian Bichir) that there is a promotion on offer if she is able to solve a case involving a drug dealer in Boston. She moves there from New York but doesn't know the area. She encounters a tough and extremely erratic street cop in Mullins (Melissa McCarthy), who is reckless but knowledgeable of Boston. Putting aside their differences, they try to work together to solve the drug case. However, it becomes apparent that there is a more personal stake for Mullins because her brother Jason (Michael Rapaport), who has just been released from prison, is involved in the drug case too.

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Director Paul Feig's previous film Bridesmaids examined female friendships through a puerile and scatological lens. The Heat isn't as lowbrow a comedy but it sets its ambitions low by duplicating the male buddy films of the past rather than providing unique insights into its female characters. The film mimics the same archetypes found in the pseudo-Western cop films like Lethal Weapon and 48 Hrs. The rogue cowboy in these films becomes more sanitised and domesticated by someone that he would never once have considered his equal. Nick Nolte and Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs. were like the Lone Ranger and Tonto and complimented each other's characters both comically and dramatically.

The reverse situation is true of The Heat because the rogue cop Mullins' care for her brother and her lethal force approach are valued extensively over Ashburn's lonely meekness. By refusing to cut away from McCarthy's improvised comedy, Feig allows her aggression and belligerence towards criminals and her ongoing squabbles with Ashburn to dominate proceedings, often stalling the drive of the thin, single track narrative. Glimpses into Mullin's family life work to humanise and deepen her character's backstory so that she appears more morally conflicted than we might have expected but the brevity of the subplot softens the emotional punch.  

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By comparison, Ashburn is underwritten in Katie Dippold's screenplay. Her inner life is cold, devoid of friends or family and reduced to empty nights at home, enlivened somewhat by the film's best joke involving a neighbour's stray cat. The character's loneliness is an undeveloped feeling that exists only to perpetuate the likelihood and predictability of her friendship with Mullins. The sustainability of Sandra Bullock's twenty year career is due to her seamless transitions between comedy and drama, which has prevented her from being demoted to secondary roles. In spite of some funny, quick lipped lines, Feig fails to utilise Bullock's greatest asset as an actress, which is her dramatic fire, delegating her to remain formal and proper but weaker in the face McCarthy's conspicuous outlandishness.

Both police work and crime are also under researched and delivered inauthentically to justify the film's perpetually jovial tone and tension-free air. Some buddy cop films place the crime and police work first and then discover humour in these situations. Yet Mullins and Ashburn are part of a police unit that is inconsequently free to interrogate by playing Russian roulette with a loaded revolver against a suspect's groin or hanging them off a balcony by their ankles. Short but vivid bursts of violence in the film's final act, including a self-inflicted knife wound gag, also jar uneasily with the predominantly lightweight mood.

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There are pockets of big laughs in the film, particularly when the film strikes it's often self-deprecating tone. But given Bullock's experience in the comedy genre and McCarthy's increasingly popular, manic performances, it is not unreasonable to expect more from this talented duo beyond penetrating a male orientated subgenre, which itself in recent years has failed to ignite anything other than the worn, proven templates of past glories. 

Monsters University - Film Review

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Reviewed on June 15th, 2013
Disney presents a film directed by Dan Scanlon 
Screenplay by Robert L. Baird, Daniel Gerson and Dan Scanlon
Starring: (voices of) Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Helen Mirren
Running Time: 110 minutes
Rating: G
Released: June 20th, 2013

One of the more understated strings in the bow of animation giant Pixar are the moral lessons that their films provide to audiences. In 2001 Monsters, Inc. introduced us to Mike and Sully, two monsters that were part of a corporation where monsters could travel through teleportation doors and into bedrooms of children to scare them so that their screams would power their operations. Children were also seen as dangerous outsiders until the business learnt that laughter is a more successful for increasing production. Overcoming our fears, risk taking and laughter are lessons that the animation studio itself taught us and embraced on its own.

Pixar have again upheld this optimistic, moral outlook because Monsters University is a celebration of diversity and learning your specialist skills. The film is a prequel to the 2001 film, with Billy Crystal and John Goodman reprising their roles as monsters Mike and Sully, who are not friends but college rivals learning the trade of scaring and hoping to be accepted into the Monsters, Inc.

The film will give parents an opportunity to talk to their children about the subject of college in a positive outlook. In American there has rarely been a more important time to have this conversation. The Huffington Post wrote in April that there had already been thirteen college shootings this year. In 2007 thirty-two people were shot dead at Virginia Tech. Though never short of funding, the American education system also still produces consistently subpar performances. Countering these pillars of fear and tension, Monsters University captures the emotions of college life and then gleefully subverts them.

The core of the film is the friendship of Mike and Sulley, who represent contrasting attitudes in college study life. Mike is hardworking, ambitious and by the book but also small, an outcast and a loner. He wants to be the sole leader. Sulley is unprepared, lazy and coasts off his family name as a Sullivan. He's bigger, more intimidating and popular than Mike and expects everything will come through his natural ability and that he doesn't need to study. After making a bet with Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), they're thrown together into a Scare Games contest, where they reluctantly band together, along with other loners, to complete a series of challenges to stay enrolled in the college.

Each game played against the other rival fraternity houses gives the film a story structure that is not dissimilar to The Internship. Unlike that film though, you actually care dearly about the characters. This is one of Pixar's greatest strengthens, not just as animators but as filmmakers. Each of the hilarious characters, including a middle-aged student and a two-headed dancer, helps to understand each other's strengths and how to use these in the tasks.

It could be viewed as a generic 'be yourself' message but in the context of a college setting its thematically sensible because college should be a place where people learn their own skills and can take unexpected detours and still succeed. For those assuming this is a derivative underdog story, there is a huge point of conflict in this film, coupled with Pixar's trademark lump in the throat moments, as the story shifts into its darker unexpected final act.

The director of the film was Dan Scanlon, who worked as a storyboard artist for Pixar on Cars. He graduated from Columbus College of Art and Design with a Bachelor of Fine Arts and in his first Pixar film as director he has used these visual skills exceptionally. The film is hysterically funny, partly due to the wit but also the number of sight gags on display.

Monsters University itself resembles a proper college, with lecture rooms, dorms and orientation stalls, and uses this detail to reference old college films and campus stereotypes. I liked the variety in the monster designs, like how one of the students had a moustache shaped like a vampire bat or the gothic monster that had spikes coming out of the microphone she was holding. Dan Scanlon also controls the beats of the story so that there are breathing spaces between the challenges and that action sequences are brisk and never overlong.

Hollywood films now are bigger and louder, but with little to say. Monsters University is a rare blockbuster that could teach audiences something. The film is about learning to accept fear and failure, while remaining hopeful about change and growth through our different skills. Pixar's personal talent is that their films are still as simulating as they are funny and creative.   

The Hangover Part III - Film Review

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Reviewed on May 23rd, 2013
Roadshow presents a film directed by Todd Phillips
Screenplay by Todd Phillips and Craig Mazin
Starring: Bradley Cooper, Ed Helms, Zach Galifianakis, John Goodman and Ken Jeong
Running Time: 100 minutes
Rating: MA15+
Released: May 23rd, 2013

Director Todd Phillips (The Hangover series, Starsky and Hutch) said that he felt there was freedom in making R rated movies and that it provided energy and aggressiveness. There has been a lot of testosterone and energy used in the revival of the 'man-child' films made by Judd Apatow and Phillips recently. Some of these are throwbacks to the raunchy comedies of the 1980s, where teenagers could watch raunchy, adult entertainment. When similar films embrace rather than critique the man-child syndrome however, they reveal how outdated and archaic they are because their target audiences are now older and smarter and deserve more.

The bromance subgenre could be traced back as far as any Western but today it echoes Hollywood's fixation on male friendships and reveals the general misogyny of the studio system as it hinges most of its resources on male orientated films. The reckless stupidity associated with not all, but many of these bromance films, amounts simply to wasted energy, aggressiveness and chaos, still in search of the word adult.

In spite of racist and misogynist undertones, the first Hangover movie drew appeal from the fact that its story seemed shrouded and mysterious, as its central characters uncovered their idiocy from the night before. It was about them coming to terms with their actions. If the sequel was a poor, laugh free cash-in, this third film challenges it to lower the bar past juvenile and into a new zone of painfulness.

Lame, unfunny and poorly made, this is not simply a question of juvenility or gender politics, but how far a director and producer is willing to sell-out a popular cast and franchise name for something that displays his own ineptitude.

Zach Galifianakis' opening scene, where he drives along a highway with a giraffe in the trailer, is an example of the attention-seeking, mean-spiritedness found in The Hangover Part III. What isn't shown in the film's previews is that when the giraffe reaches the overpass its head is knocked clean off and it smashes into a windscreen, causing a pileup of cars.

Animal cruelty features three times in this movie and like everything else here it's grimly unfunny. Who would have thought? The writing in Phillips' screenplay, co-written by Craig Mazin, is generally awful. The jokes aim low and still miss and there are three or four long, laboured transition scenes where the characters stop to signpost the next lurching stage of the plot through lazy expositional dialogue. There's no mystery or actual hangover till an end credits scenes, which means the title is now redundant too.

The story structure is dull and rigid, now resembling a heist action movie as the Wolfpack search for gold. After the giraffe incident and the death of his father (Jeffrey Tambor), Alan (Galifianakis) is forced into an intervention by his Wolfpack friends Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Doug (Justin Bartha). They prepare to take him to a clinic, only to be ambushed by Marshall (John Goodman) who kidnaps them. He reveals that Mr. Chow (Ken Jeong) has escaped from prison and has stolen half his gold. He wants it back and says that he will kill Doug if they don't comply or contact the police. 

Todd Phillips' dependability on Galifianakis is the sum of why the film is so unfunny. No one else is allowed to try and be funny, unless you think a grotesquely exaggerated Asian stereotype counts, but then I've never liked Mr. Chow. Bradley Cooper, after his career defining performance in Silver Linings Playbook, is called to do so little that Phillips seems utterly daft about his comedic talents. Once quirky and original, Galifianakis' mentally strained man-child act is now irritating and sad, with every quip line foreseen, which robs the jokes of their unpredictability.

If anyone were to say that the lack of growth in these cartoon characters is the point then it would be to excuse the dunderheadedness of this achingly boring and hopefully, but not definitely, last entry from what it is: a limp, unimaginative, charmless, joke-free action movie, pretending it's a comedy, and one that should be shunted and long forgotten. 

Star Trek Into Darkness - Film Review

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Reviewed on May 9th, 2013
Universal presents a film directed by J.J. Abrams
Screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof
Starring: Chris Pine, Zachary Quinto, Benedict Cumberbatch and Simon Pegg
Running Time: 132 minutes
Rating: M
Released: May 9th, 2013

In 1966 Gene Roddenberry created Star Trek as a TV series and coincidentally this was the same year that director J.J. Abrams was born. The show was pitched as a space Western in the vein of Wagon Train, which was a Western mystery show set on the Frontier. Star Trek converged with the start of the Vietnam War. Roddenberry had already seen action as a fighter pilot in World War II. To counter Vietnam, his version of Earth was a society without conflict and in space there were galactic truces, race relations and a sense of unity aboard the ship the Enterprise. As with any good Western, there was moral code of ethics between men, no matter how pointy their ears might have been. Roddenberry believed in a disciplined society that could be unaffected by war or religion. Spock for example was said to be modelled on a police Chief he knew when he was part of the LAPD.

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After many years as a TV show and dozens of films, someone decided Star Trek should be reinvented yet again and Abrams was hired to transform it into a glossy action film. As a filmmaker J.J. Abrams is somewhat of an enigma. One of his heroes growing up was Steven Spielberg. When he was a boy he was hired to repair some old film footage for him. Spielberg would later produce Abrams most personal film Super 8, a movie that typifies the director's career. Part of the film is a loving tribute to home movies and geek culture, while the other is a bombastic, overblown blockbuster, short of any personal imprint. He's a slick filmmaker, I enjoyed his TV show Alias until it became ridiculous, but he struggles to find the balance his idol has between action and character. Into Darkness is a better film than the messy 2009 film though. The best scenes overcome the generic, simplification of the action genre by retreating back towards the essence of the original show: a morally ambiguous grey zone, where the values of the characters and their races are tested. However, the characters are still bound by a rigid story structure, where at least ten elaborate set pieces take full precedence over the human and Vulcan drama. 

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The most interesting aspects of the plot are when Spock (Zachary Quinto) and Kirk (Chris Pine) butt heads over their different beliefs. Kirk is tasked with tracking down a rogue agent named John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch), who is now essentially a terrorist bomber, causing havoc in London by using desperate people to do his bidding. This leaves a chilling, lasting impression, particularly when the film adds a layer of complexity, with Spock insisting that Harrison should be captured and trialled first. He's at odds with the order of the mission and Kirk, who wants revenge for the death of a colleague. Cumberbatch is frighteningly good in the film, a massive improvement over Eric Bana's villain in the first movie. The tension he brings through his menace, his arrogance but also his ability to cast doubts in the minds of the protagonists about who the baddies really are, is a magnetic quality that is hard to prepare for prior to seeing the film. What a terrific find he's become over the last few years. 

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However, by ingraining itself in the structure of an action film, a lot of this ambiguity is undone. Whereas action and moral ethics fought and overlapped persistently in The Dark Knight, Into Darkness' rhythm is too discrete and foreseeable. The action is timed acutely to follow a stretch of exposition, dividing itself between moments of ideology and combat, and the emphasis on set pieces means the lines between good and evil become transparent again and remove the crucial shades of grey. Abrams also seems more interested in choreographing lavish action sequences than exploring the personal side of the drama. His imagination in the set pieces is limitless. He employs an array of frenzied techniques, including rapid cutting, tilting cameras, overhead shots and quick pans, to breeze through the action. Yet when the characters stop to face one another and talk his direction has none of the same flair or creativity. The actors sit or stand still, with the camera perched on their shoulders for dull reverse angle shots that don't heighten the tension. 

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Rarely do we ever see these characters in their downtime either. Without any inner life they become ciphers for voicing conflicting moral ideas, like instinct against logic or law and these conflicts are often resolved within a scene of one another. After watching Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan recently, which Into Darkness borrow from, it's also fascinating that Kirk is viewed as an ageing man who has to start thinking about death and his legacy. In this film he's more on par with Tony Stark, able to bed two alien girls with tails at once. That amplifies where they're aiming this film at, in spite of the occasionally intriguing layering of the story. For a franchise that prides itself on going where no man has gone before, the Enterprise is starting to travel in circles.

Spring Breakers - Film Review

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Reviewed on May 2nd, 2013
Icon presents a film directed by Harmony Korine
Screenplay by Harmony Korine
Starring: Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine and James Franco
Running Time: 94 minutes
Rating: R
Released: May 9th, 2013

In 1995 Harmony Korine wrote the screenplay for the Larry Clark film Kids, an unflinching drama about kids engaging in underage sex and drug use. Two years later, Korine made his directional debut with the bleak, apocalyptic Gummo, which charted more absurdist waters in a post-apocalyptic world of boredom and young people running amok. Troubled youths is a reoccurring theme that has stayed with this former skateboarder right up till now.

Spring Breakers is a more accessible and commercial film than Gummo but its short of a narrative and it lacks the matter-of-fact treatment of Kids. There's a memorable visual style and a bizarre, entertaining performance by James Franco, but not enough story or insight to certify its importance. The film is long and flabby, its characters and plot underdeveloped and Korine's direction lacks certainty. Is this a critique of a self-absorbed generation, a comedy, a thriller or just an exercise in perversion?

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The film is about four bored college girls named Faith (Selena Gomez), Candy (Vanessa Hudgens), Brit (Ashley Benson) and Cotty (Rachel Korine), who want to party during spring break. When they can't pool enough money together for the trip, they decide to rob a diner. They reach the spring break destination, only to be arrested by the police and then bailed out by a man calling himself Alien (James Franco). He is a drug dealer that encourages them to join him on a crime spree and wipe out a nearby rival gangster.

In an interview with the Australian movie magazine FilmInk, Korine discussed his intentions for the film: "I make movies because I like the story and the characters. I'm not making a movie that's an indictment on American culture, or a movie that's about boobs or guns - those are parts of that world and that fabric, but it's not about that." As Korine suggests, the film's point becomes extremely elusive, particularly when the filmic style is separated from the theme, and his direction relies on technique to substitute plotting.

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The early scenes work to instill feelings of belonging. The long shots of the still, tired, grey and empty college grounds reflects the girls' isolation because they fear they won't experience anything new or meet anyone exciting as everyone has already left for spring break without them. These shots are juxtaposed by the party scenes, which are filmed through the extensive use of montage, with music playing over slow-motion and highly saturated images.

It provides these ugly scenes of drinking, drugs and senseless nudity as a dream-like vision of paradise in the minds of these morally corrupted girls. "Pretend it's a video game...act like you're in a movie," one of the girls says to further highlight their detachment from reality. The night scenes reflect darkness in mood and lighting but also moral decay, with only the fluorescent colours of the girls' costumes brightening the screen to suggest their belief in their own self-importance, while the broader landscape of society fades into the shadows.

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However, the film's voyeuristic disposition reveals Korine's apathy towards character development and narrative thrust. Korine's costume choice of leaving the girls in their swimsuits for most of the film, and the way that his camera lingers over those raunchy party scenes, evokes an unintentionally creepy sense of perversion. Apart from the opening scenes, the elaborate neon visuals eclipse the story and characters, with the repetitive vision of raunchy partying making the film seem excruciatingly long and banal.

Selena Gomez is the only standout of the girls, proving that she can act by showing some believable emotion. However, the religious symbolism of her character barely registers as one-dimensional and the other three girls, despite their intimidation factor, are underwritten and lack distinction. James Franco provides the most memorable role of his career as Alien, a cross between a hip-hop rapper and the Devil, who has a cornrows haircut, gold teeth and dresses like a gangster.

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He's utterly mesmerising and funny, but what exactly does his character want? He uses the girls for crime jobs but never really needed to as he has his twin henchmen. Sex is an option he fulfils, but not straight away either. A promising seed of conflict is planted when the girls look as though they'll rob or kill Alien, only for the moment to fizzle out. He embodies a bastardised version of the American Dream: to take everything you want, while you can, but not understand what to do with it. In a very funny scene, he showcases all of the useless things he was able to obtain, including several kinds of shorts, a looping copy of Scarface, and nunchucks.

Alien's artlessness is amplified strikingly through the film's best and strangest scene, where he sits at a piano, surrounded by the girls dressed in pink balaclavas, carrying assault weapons, and declares Britney Spears as one of the best singers of all time. He starts singing Britney's song "Everytime" and then a montage opens with the song playing over images of the girls' crime spree. Decadence is visualised magnificently but in the end the film is hypocritical: a hasty attack on a pop generation when the film itself is not art but poorly disciplined and morally questionable. 

Drift - Film Review

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Reviewed on April 27th, 2013
Hopscotch presents a film directed by Ben Nott and Morgan O'Neill
Screenplay by Morgan O'Neill
Starring: Xavier Samuel, Robyn Malcolm, Myles Pollard, Sam Worthington and Lesley-Ann Brandt
Running Time: 113 minutes
Rating: M
Released: May 2nd, 2013

Drift is a breezy Australian surfing film that doesn't break any new ground or take too many chances but the surfing scenes are spectacularly photographed and the performances are as colourful as the scenery. Like many local films, it is extremely well made and acted with professionalism, even when the story isn't revolutionary. The opening scenes in the Sixties are filmed in black and white. This is a fine visual touch, recalling Oz the Great and Powerful, because when the film forwards past the childhood of its central characters Andy and Jimmy and enters the 1970s, the film explodes with vivid colours being cast over a giant wave.

Riding this enormous wave is Jimmy (Xavier Samuel). Jimmy and his brother Andy (Myles Pollard) moved from Sydney to Margaret River in Western Australia with their mother Kat (Robyn Malcolm) to start a new life together. Andy works long hours in a timber mill, while his brother rides hard in professional surfing competitions. Seeing the lousy treatment of the older folks of the mill, Andy decides to quit his job and help start a surf shop with his brother, selling surfing gear like boards and wetsuits. This is at a time just prior to when surfing competitions started awarding serious prize money.

Andy is angered to discover that Jimmy has done a small time job for some local bikie crims and urges him to return any stolen material. Yet these bikie thugs refuse to leave their friends alone and one of them becomes involved in drugs. Sam Worthington (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) plays a hippie surfer named JB, who befriends both the boys. JB's Hawaiian hippie friend Lani (Lesley-Ann Brandt) also takes a romantic shine to Andy. Beneath its sunny exterior, the film is about the relationship of these two brothers and poses the question of whether a hobby makes for a satisfying and financially sustainable living.

The film has more than sand between its ears, realising that a compromise has to be made when it comes to approaching sport as an occupation. This is reflected by JB, who has the film's funniest and smartest line: "Its Darwinian man. We adapt, we survive." It would be impolite to say that the story by Morgan O'Neill exists merely to showcase the surfing because there is more narrative than just sun. It's more of a question of the familiarity of many individual story elements.

This is very much a rerun of the underdog story: the little business that could, faced against impossible odds like evil bikies and a stuffy bank manager. The bikies are a blessing and a curse for the film. They're total caricatures but also helpful in providing some danger to the script through some flat spots, where it feels as though there could be more risk involved. The bikies handout a few thuggish beatings and there is a drug subplot, which gives the film a grittier shade in contrast to lightweight, jovial tone and relaxed, pleasant performances.   

The film even retreats to that plotline where a contest is handily giving out a large monetary prize so that the little people can save the farm. Are these contests deliberately organised around places of low socioeconomics and general lucklessness? The organisers must have prior knowledge of people's banking woes, such is their convenience. I also couldn't see the necessity of the romance between the Lani and Andy. Lani serves to ties the global relations between Australian and the US neatly (in a perfectly square ending) but any potential conflict between the brothers never eventuates over her.

What many people will see the film for are the stunning, exciting and beautiful surfing sequences, which are filmed by Rick Rifici and Rick Jakovich: two highly experienced and talented water cinematographers. Filmed with great width, there are some gorgeous and hair-raising waves showcased here. The actors in the film performed some of the surfing, while real surfers were employed as stunt doubles too. An interesting fact is that despite how vivid and colourful the film is, it was actually filmed in winter so that the waves would be bigger and therefore more dramatic. They're a huge part of a great looking movie so that even when the pacing slumps or the story seems corny, it's never been so easy to dive into the surf.