Genre: Drama

Director: Angelina Jolie

Screenplay: Joel Coen & Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson, based on the book by Laura Hillenbrand

Cast: Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Miyavi, Garrett Hedlund, Finn Wittrock, Jai Courtney, John Magaro, Luke Treadaway, Alex Russell, John D’Leo, Vincenzo Amato, Ross Anderson, C.J. Valleroy, Maddalena Ischiale

Running Length: 137 minutes

Synopsis: Unbroken is an epic drama that follows the incredible life of Olympian and war hero Louis “Louie” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) who, along with two other crewmen, survived in a raft for 47 days after a near-fatal plane crash in WWII – only to be caught by the Japanese Navy and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp.

Adapted from Laura Hillenbrand’s popular book, Unbroken brings to the big screen Zamperini’s unbelievable and inspiring true story about the resilient power of the human spirit.

Review: Unbroken is a very, very well-made film, excelling in its technical aspects and honestly quite an achievement for second-time director Jolie, who had embarked on making a second war-related movie after her little-seen directorial debut (2011’s In the Land of Blood and Honey). However, the film also feels sterile and perfunctory, lacking heart and a deeper emotionality, despite an excellent performance by newcomer Jack O’Connell. And even though it already runs over two hours, there’s this sense of incompleteness, that there’s a bigger story to be told of what happened to Zamperini after his traumatic ordeal, which deserves more than a few seconds worth of title cards before the end credit crawl.

Louie Zamperini’s life story is an incredible one – in a short span of years, he goes from Olympic athlete to an army officer surviving a plane crash, being stranded almost fifty days at sea on a life raft, followed by more than two years of torture and suffering in various POW camps. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s biography of Zamperini, Unbroken tells a mostly straight tale, but Jolie chooses not to touch on the lighter aspects of his life. Zamperini was a born leader and apparently devised ways to make life more bearable for himself and his fellow inmates, but this is not covered in the film at all. Jolie instead focuses almost entire on the brutality that Zamperini endured, which makes the narrative more one-sided than it should be. There’s also no redemptive arc in the film, even though it is a significant portion of the biography, which mutes the impact of Unbroken further.

Performances of the ensemble cast are almost uniformly good, with the exception being Miyavi, who plays Zamperini’s sadistic tormentor Mutsushiro “The Bird” Watanabe, who hams it up a little too much and becomes more caricaturish than truly evil. Jack O’Campbell is a relatively fresh face, but manages to take on both the physical and emotional aspects of the role well. It is a difficult role to undertake, but he manages to give an excellent performance, not just in the big moments, but even in the small nuances of action and movement in the quiet scenes.

Jolie had assembled a highly proficient team of technicians for Unbroken, from the Coen Brothers being involved in the script, to Alexandre Desplat for the scoring and Roger Deakins in cinematography. It all works admirably well, especially so for the stunning cinematography by Deakins (which has been aptly rewarded with a nomination in the upcoming Academy Awards), accompanied by excellent production design by Jon Hutman. However, she may still have bitten off a bit more than she could chew with Unbroken as a sophomore effort, resulting in a somewhat lopsided movie that does not sufficiently engage.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


The Wedding Ringer

Genre: Comedy

Director: Jeremy Garelick

Screenplay: Jeremy Garelick, Jay Lavender

Cast: Kevin Hart, Josh Gad, Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting

Running Length: 101 minutes

Synopsis: Doug Harris (Josh Gad) is a loveable but socially awkward groom-to-be with a problem: he has no best man. With less than two weeks to go until he marries the girl of his dreams (Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting), Doug is referred to Jimmy Callahan (Kevin Hart), owner and CEO of Best Man, Inc., a company that provides flattering best men for socially challenged guys in need. What ensues is a hilarious wedding charade as they try to pull off the big con, and an unexpected budding bromance between Doug and his fake best man Jimmy.

Review: It wouldn’t be too far off the mark to call this movie “Best Men”, since this project was probably greenlit off the success of Bridesmaids (to be fair, director Jeremy Garelick started work on the screenplay together with Jay Lavender more than a decade ago). The concept is not new – see Wedding Crashers and I Love You, Man – and the jokes are for the most part rather predictable and uninspired, but what saves the movie is casting Kevin Hart in the lead role, and the chemistry he shares with Josh Gad.

The first reel of The Wedding Ringer is about as insipid as it gets, with virtually no plot development and very few laughs. Fortunately, things improve quite a bit in the subsequent reels, as Kevin Hart hits his stride and the bromance between him and Gad develops. It’s a believable pairing, and surprisingly can be quite touching at times. Although Gad is a good enough foil to Hart, this is Hart’s movie through and through. In the best scenes, Kevin Hart manages to channel top comedic talents like Eddie Murphy and Robin Williams with his motor mouth and comedic timing, and since this is technically his first leading role it does bode well for his future in the movie industry. The rest of the ensemble cast are not particularly memorable, and Kaley Cuoco-Sweeting is particularly underused, given that she’s quite the established comedic actor herself.

Crude sight gags and humour are now almost gold standards in R-rated comedies, and this is no different in The Wedding Ringer. It is actually quite tame compared to some of the other comedies in the same rating band, and thankfully doesn’t go out of its way to gross out audiences. There are moments that don’t work – the entire football match with Doug’s future father in law is overlong and pointless, for example – but The Wedding Ringer does serve up a good number of belly laughs (and a great parting shot for those familiar with Jorge Garcia’s body of work). It may be a flawed comedy, but in awards season it’s actually pretty astute counterprogramming, and manages to be an entertaining enough diversion.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Into the Woods

Genre: Musical

Director: Rob Marshall

Screenplay: James Lapine, based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine

Cast: Anna Kendrick, Daniel Huttlestone, James Corden, Emily Blunt, Christine Baranski, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Tracey Ullman, Lilla Crawford, Meryl Streep, Simon Ruddell Beale, Joanna Riding, Johnny Depp, Billy Magnussen, Mackenzie Mauzy, Annette Crosbie, Chris Pine, Richard Glover, Frances de la Tour

Running Length: 124 minutes

Synopsis: Into the Woods is a modern twist on the beloved Brothers Grimm fairy tales, intertwining the plots of a few choice stories and exploring the consequences of the characters’ wishes and quests. The musical follows the classic tales of Cinderella (Anna Kendrick), Little Red Riding Hood (Lilla Crawford), Jack and the Beanstalk (Daniel Huttlestone), and Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy)—all tied together by an original story involving a baker and his wife (James Corden & Emily Blunt), their wish to begin a family and their interaction with the witch (Meryl Streep) who has put a curse on them.

Review: Although it may seem like a kid-friendly movie – after all, it’s a mashup of Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Beanstalk, Cinderella and Rapunzel – Into the Woods is anything but. Adapted from Stephen Sondheim’s 1986 musical, there has been some modifications to the tale (unsurprising, given it’s Disney releasing the film and the story features a bunch of Disney Princesses), but the story is still a dark, albeit comical one. Rob Marshall has won acclaim previously for directing a stage-to-screen musical (Chicago), and although Into the Woods is perfectly serviceable as an adaptation, there’s no real wow factor in the transition, despite the star-studded cast.

Although I believe that Meryl Streep is likely to get her 19th Oscar nomination for her role as the witch (her singing is, surprisingly, quite decent), she’s not the focal point of the movie. And despite once again displaying her formidable talent in singing, neither is Anna Kendrick’s turn as Cinderella, which is honestly quite a bland, dispirited performance. It is Emily Blunt and James Corden who form the emotional centre of the film, and Blunt especially impresses, managing to steal the limelight from anyone sharing her scenes (yes, even Streep) and having a nice enough singing voice to complement her acting chops. Chris Pine also deserves a special mention for his extremely exuberant performance as Prince Charming.

This is Rob Marshall’s third movie musical, and yet the director still shows little flair in translating stage to screen. Although already more expansive than both Chicago and Nine’s stage-bound setpieces, Into the Woods still feels somewhat claustrophobic despite its woods settings, with little visual invention. That is, except the excellent “Agony” sequence, which sees Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen unabashedly hamming it up in what is essentially a medieval MTV. If more of Into the Woods was filmed in the same vein, it would definitely have stood out from the rest of the pack.

In other aspects, the film generally fares well. Art direction and production design (particularly the costumes) are well done, and most of the CG effects are acceptable, apart from the really lackluster work on the giantess. One could assume that Disney picked up on this adaption because it is a reimagining of its own Disney Princesses franchise (Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were however excluded from the film version, ostensibly because their appearance in the musical wasn’t the most family friendly, if you catch my drift), much like how it greenlit the live action Maleficent. However, while Maleficent is a far more imaginative work, Into the Woods is just a rudimentary adaptation that thankfully still manages to entertain.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Night at the Museum: Secret of the Tomb

Genre: Comedy

Director: Shawn Levy

Screenplay: David Guion, Michael Handelman, story by Mark Friedman, David Guion, Michaelk Handelman, based on characters created by Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant

Cast: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Dan Stevens, Rebel Wilson, Skyler Gisondo, Rami Malek, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Andrea Martin, Ben Kingsley, Rachel Harris, Matt Frewer, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Bill Cobbs, Anjali Jay, Crystal the Monkey.

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis: With the help of favourite and new characters, security guard Larry Daley (Ben Stiller) travels to London to unlock the true secret that brings the museum to life. It’s a thrilling race against time to restore the tablet’s power, before it’s gone forever.

Review: There was really no reason for Night at the Museum to get a sequel, much less two, and yet here we are, finally ending what is now a trilogy of Night at the Museum movies with Secret of the Tomb. While the franchise has never broken any new ground, it has always been entertaining and has performed respectably well at the box office. This is unsurprising since the movies are family friendly, with a very recognizable roster of stars fronting them. This last installment is particularly poignant (though unintentionally so), however, being one of the last (if not the last) big screen outings for two actors that have passed on, namely Mickey Rooney and Robin Williams.

Secret of the Tomb suffers a bit from been-there, done-that, as it brings nothing new at all, despite a shift of location to London. It does manage to introduce even more characters, the most memorable of all being Rebel Wilson’s quite funny turn as the night guard in the British Museum, and also Dan Stevens (of Downton Abbey) who hams it up as a rather clueless Sir Lancelot. While not particularly fresh, the film still entertains, particularly a brilliant sequence in London which sees an excellent cameo (try not to spoiler yourself as this is a really fun one) from one of the most famous Hollywood stars around. There was probably no way that Robin Williams would have known this was one of his last performances, but it’s a grand, elegiac one, which acts as a fitting sendoff for the actor.

Visual effects in Secret of the Tomb are well done, seamlessly matching live action to CG animation. Levy does try to mix things up a little, most evidently so in a visually inventive sequence in an MC Escher painting. However, it seems that Levy and team are also aware that they have milked the franchise dry, and whilst not a definitive conclusion to the franchise, the way Secret of the Tomb concludes suggests that there will no longer be any further additions to the canon. Which honestly is a good thing, since I cannot imagine there being enough of a story left for yet another sequel.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Exodus: Gods and Kings

Genre: Action, Drama

Director: Ridley Scott

Writers: Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine, Steven Zaillian

Cast: Christian Bale, Joel Edgerton, John Turturro, Aaron Paul, Ben Mendelsohn, Maria Valverde, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley, Isaac Andrews, Hiam Abbass, Indira Varma, Ewen Bremner, Golshifteh Farahani, Ghassan Massoud, Tara Fitzgerald, Maria Valverde, Andrew Barclay Tarbet

Running Length: 150 minutes

Synopsis: From acclaimed director Ridley Scott (Gladiator, Prometheus) comes the epic adventure Exodus: Gods and Kings, the story of one man’s daring courage to take on the might of an empire. Using state of the art visual effects and 3D immersion, Scott brings new life to the story of the defiant leader Moses (Christian Bale) as he rises up against the Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses (Joel Edgerton), setting 600,000 slaves on a monumental journey of escape from Egypt and its terrifying cycle of deadly plagues.

Review: It’s apt to quote from Ridley Scott’s own Gladiator, since it was the movie that made the sword-and-sandals epic cool again – “Are you not entertained?” Because this is one of the main problems I have with Exodus – although it is sufficiently stirring sporadically, and shows a really masterful use of CGI, the film is simply not that entertaining, bringing nothing new to the tale of the Ten Commandments, and actually ends up being less interesting than Cecil B. DeMille’s still-definitive 1956 version.

Perhaps it’s because Ridley Scott didn’t seem to set out to make a religious epic, and much like Darren Aronofsky’s Noah earlier in the year, attempts to make certain scenes more secular and logical, that the film takes a big hit. The parting of the Red Sea certainly feels more realistic, but does not inspire any awe. The plagues visited upon Egypt are brilliant CGI setpieces, but at the same time come across as being perfunctory, as though Scott is checking off an invisible list of the ten plagues, just making sure that they all end up in the film. The burning bush and the Ten Commandments seem more like afterthoughts, and are not given the dramatic heft that they should have been. The personification of God is also a questionable decision – I am not sure if assigning an actor to play God (literally) is more effective than a loud booming voice, as clichéd as the latter sounds.

Although Scott and his team of 4 writers correctly presume that a good majority of the audience would be at least somewhat familiar with the story of Moses, broad narrative gaps appear in the film, which almost makes the film feel disjointed. And yet, the film devotes so much time to the setup that when thing finally get going in the last hour, the pacing suddenly speeds up and the entire proceedings start feeling rushed. To add insult to injury, after a rather stirring finale act of crossing the Red Sea, Scott decided to keep the narrative running just a bit too long, leading to a drawn out and wholly anticlimactic denouement.

Putting aside the fact that the film is populated by white actors instead of ethnic actors more appropriate to the story’s locations, even the A-list names in the cast feel a bit out of place. The normally supremely dependable Christian Bale feels a little stilted in his portrayal as Moses, and Joel Edgerton basically depends on his bronzer and guyliner to carry his performance as Ramses. These are not bad performances by any measure, but again, so much drama is dialed back that it just comes across as being too muted for an epic film like this one. Other notable actors like Ben Kingsley, Sigourney Weaver, John Turturro and Aaron Paul barely register, completely wasted in parts where they have too little to do.

Thankfully, the few action setpieces are quite rousing, if never reaching the level of Scott’s best films. Also, for a film that’s steeped in CG by necessity, Exodus actually comes across as being visually stunning without being too clearly artificial (though there’s absolutely no necessity to catch the film in 3D). In this day and age where a straight-up biblical epic may no longer be palatable to the general audience, both experiments in 2014 have been only moderately successful. There is really no reason to remake The Ten Commandments, and the results only serve to reinforce this. Here’s hoping that Scott’s next cinematic outing (The Martian, coming in end 2015) would prove to be a more compelling film.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1

Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Francis Lawrence

Writers: Peter Craig and Danny Strong, based on the novel by Suzanne Collins

Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Sam Claflin, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Jeffrey Wright, Elizabeth Banks, Natalie Dormer

Running Length: 123 minutes

Synopsis: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1 opens with Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) in District 13 after she literally shatters the Hunger Games forever. Under the leadership of President Coin (Julianne Moore) and the advice of her trusted friends, Katniss spreads her wings as she fights to save Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) and a nation moved by her courage.

Review: Despite its best intentions, Mockingjay Part 1 is easily the weakest installment in the Hunger Games franchise thus far. Lionsgate had made the financially-lucrative (but creatively bankrupt) decision to cleave the final installment in two, but unfortunately Mockingjay Part 1 does not work well as a standalone movie, and ends in such an abrupt manner that it can potentially turn casual audiences off from making a return visit for Mockingjay Part 2. The final novel in the Hunger Games trilogy was the grandest in scale, but does not lend itself well to a (probable) 4-plus hour transition to the big screen. Mockingjay Part 1 is ponderously paced, meanders and feels drawn out, and is only sporadically interesting in its two hour plus running time. While the elements that made the first two movies good are still present, they are weighed down by too much unnecessary baggage.

Although “The Hunger Games” is still part of the title of Mockingjay, it is important to note that while there’s war and strife, there’s no Hunger Games being conducted in the movie. While this is not surprising for anyone who has read the novels (like myself), expectations of some audience members will surely be confounded. Mockingjay is a far more static movie, with a very minimal number of action setpieces. Much of it is set underground, in District 13, and with Katniss essentially neutered from most of the action (of any kind), it’s almost like the franchise is banking on the halo effect of her past two cinematic outings to coast by. Even though Jennifer Lawrence is a great actress, she’s really only effective in a handful of scenes in Mockingjay Part 1, a stark difference from the previous two films where she held the audience’s attention from beginning to end. The film does boast a very strong supporting cast of veteran actors, especially the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, but none of them are really given enough time to shine, despite the film’s length.

It doesn’t help that Peeta is separated from Katniss for essentially the whole movie – while Liam Hemsworth’s Gale is around Katniss, the love triangle is essentially DOA since there’s no chemistry whatsoever between Hemsworth and Lawrence, which has already been confirmed in the last two movies, but brought into starker contrast this time round. Fortunately, the romance is a smaller and less consequential component of the film compared to other YA offerings, so it doesn’t completely undermine the movie despite the clunkiness.

Since it’s essentially half a movie, it is difficult to judge if Mockingjay is a befitting swansong for the franchise until Part 2 is released (a full year later, in November 2015). It cannot be denied, however, that nothing much really happens in Mockingjay Part 1, since it’s merely a placeholder for the true conclusion of the film in Part 2, where surely there’s less inaction and an actual denouement. This is the film’s most glaring fault and drowns out almost every positive aspect. While it’s still a perfectly serviceable YA film (albeit a fair bit darker and brooding than most films in the same genre), Catching Fire had set up higher expectations which unfortunately are not met with this half of the finale.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)


Life of Crime

Genre: Drama

Director: Daniel Schechter

Writer: Daniel Schechter, based on the novel “The Switch” by Elmore Leonard

Cast: Jennifer Aniston, Mos Def (as Yasiin Bey), Isla Fisher, Will Forte, Mark Boone Junior, Tim Robbins, John Hawkes

Running Length: 99 minutes

Synopsis: Mickey (Jennifer Aniston), the wife of a corrupt real estate developer (Tim Robbins) is kidnapped by two common criminals (Yasiin Bey and John Hawkes), who intend to extort him with inside information about his crooked business and off-shore accounts. But the husband decides he’d actually rather not pay the ransom to get back his wife, setting off a sequence of double crosses and plot twists that could only come from the mind of Elmore Leonard.

Review: One can be forgiven, in the opening minutes of Life of Crime, for thinking that the projectionist had somehow played a reel of American Hustle by mistake. And indeed, the film does bear some resemblance to American Hustle, since both a crime capers set in the 70s. Life of Crime is the more low-key movie, and though the plot is sporadically entertaining, the film does not leave much of an impression by the time the credits roll.

There have been a good number of Elmore Leonard adaptations over the years, and this one sits in the middle of the pack. Having not read the source novel, I am unsure how faithful the adaptation is, but suffice to say that the plot and its twists would not be very surprising for anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of caper movies. Having said that, there are a good number of scenes which are set up quite well and the characters’ interactions are rather interesting to observe. Dialogue is also classic Elmore Leonard, which is to be expected since he was quite involved in the project prior to his death last year.

Jenifer Aniston is most known for her comedic roles, but has proven she has what it takes to be a thespian in some smaller movies. She is actually very good here, much better than I had expected, and easily becomes the emotional centre of the film. She is quite capably supported by the rest of the ensemble cast, and I actually enjoyed this ensemble more than the American Hustle posse of characters. However, the cast is less memorable than prior Leonard adaptations (a good handful come to mind – Out of Sight, Jackie Brown, Get Shorty), and although it provides light entertainment, the slightly meandering plot and relatively low energy level of the film did leave me feeling a bit underwhelmed at the end.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)