Maleficent

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Genre: Action, Adventure

Director: Robert Stromberg

Writer: Linda Woolverton, based on Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” and Charles Perrault’s “La Belle au bois dormant”

Cast: Angelina Jolie, Elle Fanning, Sharlto Copley, Lesley Manville, Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple, Sam Riley

Running Length: 97 minutes

Synopsis: Maleficent explores the untold story of Disney’s most iconic villain from the classic “Sleeping Beauty” and the elements of her betrayal that ultimately turn her pure heart to stone. Driven by revenge and a fierce desire to protect the moors over which she presides, Maleficent (Angelina Jolie) cruelly places an irrevocable curse upon the human king’s newborn infant Aurora. As the child grows, Aurora (Elle Fanning) is caught in the middle of the seething conflict between the forest kingdom she has grown to love and the human kingdom that holds her legacy. Maleficent realizes that Aurora may hold the key to peace in the land and is forced to take drastic actions that will change both worlds forever.

Review: You may not know it from the official trailers, but Maleficent is both a kid- and family-friendly film. To say more would be slightly spoilerly, but this mismatch presents the biggest stumbling block for the film – that many viewers are going to watch the movie with the wrong expectations in tow. Given that the film is trying to flesh out the backstory of one of Disney’s most famous villains, and integrating that into one of the most famous “old-school” Disney animations, first-time director Robert Stromberg has a lot to achieve in a very short amount of time. It’s not entirely successful, and in a way it almost feels as though the original Sleeping Beauty had put some shackles around the way the movie unfolds, but almost all is forgiven solely by the extremely astute casting choice of Angelina Jolie as Maleficent.

Producer Joe Roth seems enamoured with films that retell a familiar story, including Alice in Wonderland, Snow White and the Huntsman, and Oz the Great and Powerful, and Maleficent is a film cast in a similar mould. For Maleficent, unfortunately, it really has been done before (and arguably better) in Wicked, which means that there are very few surprises to be had here. In fact, the attempt to run a parallel story to the original Sleeping Beauty doesn’t nearly work as well as it should, because the film is simply too short to allow for more depth in the storytelling. The final third of the movie feels extremely rushed, as though the fact that this is a family movie means the running length can’t exceed 90 or so minutes (two words for Disney to consider: “Harry” and “Potter”). It’s almost hilarious how little time Aurora spends caught in her magical slumber, that it feels more like a quick nap than anything else. It’s things like these that make the links to Sleeping Beauty feels perfunctory, especially because there appeared to be a need to recreate certain key scenes from the alternate perspective.

However, there’s no denying that Richard Stromberg had realized a wonderful world in Maleficent – the art direction and set design (despite there being only two main sets in the film) is flawless, and the visual effects are extremely well done. This isn’t surprising, given Stromberg’s CV before taking the helm, which includes two Oscar wins for Art Direction for Avatar and Alice in Wonderland. However, once again this is a film that doesn’t require viewing in 3D – there were scenes that should have looked better without 3D glasses on, and the already dark scenes look even murkier in the third dimension.

There is no doubt that Angelina Jolie totally owns the Maleficent character. She’s terrific in the role, all regal and menacing, her already distinct features made even more angular by Rick Baker’s incredible makeup. Her screen presence overshadows everyone else in the film, to the point that she is really the only character that matters or has any semblance of depth. This could be a good or bad thing depending on your perspective, but let’s get real – everyone is here for Angelina Jolie/Maleficent, and her performance does not disappoint.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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X-Men: Days of Future Past

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Genre: Action

Director: Bryan Singer

Writer: Simon Kinberg, story by Jane Goldman, Simon Kinberg and Matthew Vaughn

Cast: Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Halle Berry, Nicholas Hoult, Ellen Page, Peter Dinklage, Ian McKellen, Patrick Stewart

Running Length: 131 mins

Synopsis: The ultimate X-Men ensemble fights a war for the survival of the species across two time periods in X-Men: Days of Future Past. The beloved characters from the original X-Men film trilogy join forces with their younger selves from the past, X-Men: First Class, in order to change a major historical event and fight in an epic battle that could save our future.

Review: To say that X-Men: Days of Future Past is one of the better installments in the X-Men franchise seems to be faint praise, given that there have been a number of clunkers in the seven films thus far. So let’s rephrase: this is the second best movie in the franchise so far (the first by far still being X-Men: First Class), and since it features actors from the original trilogy, also manages to more or less flush out the bad taste that remained after the rather terrible X-Men: The Last Stand.

Days of Future Past is not a perfect movie – it has way too many characters doing nothing, the dense plot requires a working knowledge of the X-Men universe to make head and tail of. However, it belongs to a rare breed of superhero movies where the action takes a back seat to plot development. While the action is fine in Days of Future Past (the most notable being an imaginative, series-best scene where Quicksilver uses his powers to get the mutants out of a tight bind), it is when some of the key actors get a chance to flesh out their characters where the movie shines.

There’s an impressively long list of mutants featured in Days of Future Past, but almost all of them are nothing more than wallpaper – this sadly even includes seasoned thespians Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as the future age Professor X and Magneto. Hugh Jackman is given top billing, but even his Wolverine is reduced to doing nothing much except be the plot device that marries the two timelines in the film. As for the minor mutants, the only ones who are really given any significant screen time are Kitty Pryde (Ellen Page) and Quicksilver, the rest seemingly present just to perform a technical demonstration of their powers – the most egregious example being Fan Bing Bing’s Blink, who didn’t even seem to get a single line of dialogue.

Thankfully, Singer does give the key actors in X-Men: First Class their time in the sun, and the film benefits immeasurably because of this. The trio of James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender and Jennifer Lawrence do most of the heavy lifting in the film, and it is not a stretch to say that the movie is successful largely due to their presence. Michael Fassbender once again reigns supreme, and his portrayal as Erik/Magneto is easily the strongest (and dare I say, most magnetic) amongst the trio. There’s a tragic quality about Erik Lensherr which Fassbender is able to bring out, both within and without his costume – a pretty rare occurrence for superhero movies.

Having watched the film in 2D, it’s hard to say if 3D would add to the viewing experience, but it does not look like to be the case. While the quality of the CG in any action blockbuster worth its salt (or its $200 million production budget in this case) is a given, there are spots in the film where the visual effects do seem a little sloppy, particularly the finale sequence, easily the weakest scene both visually and in the grander scheme of things.

Bryan Singer was the director who truly established the end-credits sequence in superhero movies, and it’s no surprise that there’s one such scene in Days of Future Past, an obvious teaser for the already announced X-Men: Apocalypse. Having reboot the franchise’s beginnings with X-Men: First Class, and now resetting the present X-Men universe with the time travel premise in Days of Future Past, the X-Men franchise is now at its strongest in its entire 14-year cinematic history. Hopefully Apocalypse will be able to continue the streak and not waste the build-up when it arrives in 2016.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Grace of Monaco

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Genre: Drama

Director: Oliver Dahan

Writer: Arash Amel

Cast: Nicole Kidman, Tim Roth, Frank Langella, Paz Vega, Parker Posey, Milo Ventimiglia, Derek Jacobi, Robert Lindsay   

Running Length: 103 mins

Synopsis: The story of former Hollywood star Grace Kelly’s (Nicole Kidman) crisis of marriage and identity, during a political dispute between Monaco’s Prince Rainier III (Tim Roth) and France’s Charles De Gaulle (Andre Penvern), and a looming French invasion of Monaco in the early 1960s.

Review: If Nicole Kidman was looking to end her poor run at the box office, Grace of Monaco is not going to be the one to do it. Critically ravaged at Cannes, the film – though not as bad as what early reviewers have indicated – is still a terrible misstep in more ways than one. Perhaps the title card that opens the movie already says it all – instead of the typical “based on a true story”, it is instead “a fictional account inspired by real events”, which suggests that much of what transpires on screen belongs strictly in the imagination of Dahan and probably Arash Amel. (I’m quite sure that Grace Kelly’s role in the blockade was far smaller than what was intimated here) I will not be alone in feeling that the film does not do justice to Grace Kelly or any of the other real life characters.

Although Nicole Kidman had obviously put a lot of effort into the role, her portrayal of Grace Kelly remains unconvincing, though one must give kudos to Kidman putting up with the ridiculous extreme close ups that Dahan subjects her to. While it’s understandable that close ups allow the audience to observe the smaller nuances in expression, when the actress’s face is pressed right up to the lens, allowing one unfettered access to even her nostril hairs, I would believe that backing the camera up is the wiser thing to do. There’s absolutely no chance that this performance would generate any Oscar buzz, although it had seemed promising before the film was released.

There’s also a sense that no one really knew what direction to take this movie, which echoes the equally misguided Diana from last year, starring Nicole Kidman’s good friend Naomi Watts. The film is alarmingly superficial in its treatment, and the audience neither gets an in-depth look at Grace Kelly nor at the 1962 blockade, which means it essentially is a daytime soap opera with a bigger budget. That parts of it isn’t even real just makes things worse – were the real life developments not interesting enough that it required pointless re-imagination?  

There are nice things to look at in the film, as it boasts exotic locales, attention to period detail, and a lavish set design. Fans of Nicole Kidman will surely be placated by the numerous costume changes she goes through, as well as the beautiful jewelry she dons throughout. However, it’s extremely difficult to muster up a genuine recommendation for the film based simply on these positives, and one cannot help but feel that Grace Kelly and Nicole Kidman both deserved something better than this.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)

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Godzilla

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Genre: Sci-Fi, Action

Director: Gareth Edwards

Writer: Max Borenstein, story by David Callaham

Cast: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, CJ Adams, Ken Watanabe, Bryan Cranston, Elizabeth Olsen, Carson Bolde, Sally Hawkins, Juliette Binoche, David Straitham

Running Length: 123 mins

Synopsis: An epic rebirth to Toho’s iconic Godzilla, this spectacular adventure pits the world’s most famous monster against malevolent creatures who, bolstered by humanity’s scientific arrogance, threaten our very existence.

Review: It’s been 16 years since Hollywood has put Godzilla on the big screen, and little wonder since the 1998 version was quite a misstep in terms of establishing the (then-planned) franchise. I’m pleased to say that the 2014 (re)incarnation is a far, far better movie.  Although it hiccups in terms of human drama, Godzilla manages to deliver on most other aspects, especially on Godzilla himself, and is a very satisfying stompy movie indeed.

The film does take its time to get started, with Godzilla not making a formal appearance till about the halfway point. This is largely due to Gareth Edwards attempting to ramp up the human drama in the movie, though it is somewhat unsuccessful. Despite populating the cast with an amazing amount of talent, no one actually gets to do much apart from Bryan Cranston. Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins are particularly wasted, reduced to nothing more than reciting expository dialogue. It is a pretty shocking waste of thespian chops, and the film would probably have done better just by focusing more on the monsters from the get-go.

Where the film does succeed, however, is giving the audience the human’s-eye view of the action once it gets going. Gareth Edwards regularly films the proceedings from the perspective of the humans, and this really helps to put the audience smack in the heart of the action. One particularly impressive scene is seen through Ford’s (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) face mask as he skydives past Godzilla – it is an impossibly intimate look at the big monsters and delivers dramatic flair in spades.

Kudos to the effects team as well for crafting Godzilla and monsters that look stunningly realistic (well, as realistic as we think giant monsters would look like anyway), and all the computer-generated mayhem and destruction are presented most convincingly. An excellent score by Alexander Desplat perfect augments the fantastic sound effects and mixing in the movie – it’s highly recommended that you watch Godzilla in a theatre with great acoustics, and rest assured that you can feel Godzilla’s roar in your bones if you do so. What’s not so recommended is the 3D in the movie – once again, the post-production 3D does nothing to enhance the viewing experience, and it would be better to stick to a big screen that’s devoid of the third dimension.

Although this isn’t identical to the Toho Godzilla movies that some of us grew up with, Gareth Edwards has done a very commendable job in maintaining the spirit of the old movies. Sure, the science is a bit junky still, and the central humans just aren’t interesting enough, but Godzilla himself is most impressively brought to life, in a mould that’s similar to the Japanese films that he once starred in. In fact, the movie could have been significantly improved if more focus was brought onto the monsters instead of the humans, but this is so much better than Hollywood’s previous attempt that it would seem nitpicky to ask for more. This may be Edwards’ first big budget directorial effort, but he has lived up to expectations (and more), and this film more than makes up for the 1998 travesty that almost killed Godzilla for good.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Genre: Action

Director: Marc Webb

Writers: Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci, Jeff Pinkner, James Vanderbilt, based on the comic book by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko

Cast: Andrew Garfield, Emma Stone, Jamie Foxx, Dane Dehaan, Sally Field, Campbell Scott, Embeth Davidz, Colm Feore, Paul Giamatti

Running Length: 141 mins

Synopsis: For Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield), life is busy between taking out the bad guys as Spider-Man and spending time with the person he loves, Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone), and high school graduation can’t come quickly enough. Peter hasn’t forgotten about the promise he made to Gwen’s father to protect her by staying away – but that’s a promise he just can’t keep. Things will change for Peter when a new villain, Electro (Jamie Foxx), emerges, an old friend, Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), returns, and Peter uncovers new clues about his past.

Review: The Amazing Spider-Man 2 may be far from being the perfect superhero movie, but as far as Spider-Man movies go, the film has now taken over the mantle from Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2 as the best Spider-Man movie so far. It may not boast the best action sequences, or the tightest of editing (at almost two and a half hours, the film runs way too long), but it is certainly the film that is closest in spirit to the comic book version of Spidey. One of the criticisms of the first installment in the Spider-Man reboot was that it took too long to get the establishing story out of the way, but it does pays off partially in this sequel.

Although it’s clear that The Amazing Spider-Man 2 cost a pretty penny to make – the 3D is surprisingly decent throughout, and the CGI, particularly in the final showdown with Electro, is as good as it gets these days – what really makes the film stand out is in the “smaller” sequences. There’s no doubt that being a real-life couple makes the chemistry between Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone easily the best and most tangible in any superhero movie to date (far better than the Tobey Maguire-Kirsten Dunst pairing in the original Spider-Man trilogy, at the very least), but even other characters also get a chance to shine. Sally Field particularly impresses (again) as Aunt May, and her performance is the strongest one in the film despite a rather limited screen time. Unsurprisingly, the most emotionally engaging scenes in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 are when everyone is out of their costumes. 

For a Summer action blockbuster, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is surprisingly light on action, and although the limited action sequences are all well choreographed and make good use of technology, I suspect that many moviegoers will still have preferred something that isn’t so skewed in favour of exposition and storyline, especially since the first installment already spent a good amount of time doing the same. There’s no doubt that the film is a little durdly, particularly in the middle, but the eventual payoff does make it somewhat worth the time.

The single largest misstep in The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is its entirely forgettable villains. Electro is the worst offender, and though he is supposed to be the central villain, he is such a broad caricature – bringing to mind Jim Carrey’s Riddler in Batman & Robin – that it’s impossible to take the character seriously. Even an accomplished actor like Jamie Foxx can’t do much to rescue a character that is this poorly written and developed. While Harry Osborn/Green Goblin is significantly better written, with Dan DeHaan doing a capable enough job, his introduction and eventual transformation does seem rather rushed, and it’s surprising to see such a major villain in the comic book series getting such short shrift in the film. And the less that’s said about the Rhino and Norman Osborn the better – suffice to say that it’s a colossal waste of talent for both Paul Giamatti and Chris Cooper.

With The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Marc Webb and his creative team have managed to create a Spider-Man that’s closest to the comic book version, but despite the positives of the film, it very nearly comes apart at the seams due to its flaws. Whether one would enjoy the film depends very much on how much weight is placed on the film having an emotional centre, which in my opinion is one of the things that the film manages to get very right. With The Amazing Spider-Man 3 slated for a 2016 release, hopefully the franchise will finally hit its stride in its third outing, and deliver the best Spider-Man movie yet.  

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Transcendence

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Genre: Sci-Fi, Drama

Director: Wally Pfister

Writer: Jack Paglen

Cast: Johnny Depp, Rebecca Hall, Paul Bettany, Morgan Freeman, Cillian Murphy

Running Length: 119 mins

Synopsis: Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is the foremost researcher in the field of Artificial Intelligence, working to create a sentient machine that combines the collective intelligence of everything ever known with the full range of human emotions. His highly controversial experiments have made him famous, but they have also made him the prime target of anti-technology extremists who will do whatever it takes to stop him. However, in their attempt to destroy Will, they inadvertently become the catalyst for him to succeed—to be a participant in his own transcendence. For his wife Evelyn (Rebecca Hall) and best friend Max Waters (Paul Bettany), both fellow researchers, the question is not if they can… but if they should. Their worst fears are realized as Will’s thirst for knowledge evolves into a seemingly omnipresent quest for power, to what end is unknown. The only thing that is becoming terrifyingly clear is there may be no way to stop him.

Review: Transcendence is Wally Pfister’s first directorial outing after a good number of collaborations with Christopher Nolan as his DP, and it’s clear to see that Nolan has made more than an impression on Pfister’s directorial style – it’s almost as though Pfister had morphed into a Mini-Me version of Nolan, except without as much directorial flair. Pfister had set out to make a weighty, cerebral sci-fi movie in the mould of Inception, but the end result is more heavy-handed than weighty, more befuddling than thought-provoking. While it starts off intriguing and tries its best to captivate the audience, the movie sags under its own overplotting, eventually imploding in a most spectacular fashion into a hole-ridden, completely unbelievable denouement, after going nowhere with its plot for more than an hour.  

There are certainly things to like about Transcendence – the film is handsomely shot (on 35mm film no less), and both Rebecca Hall and Paul Bettany do a good job of being the focal points for much of the movie. Paul Bettany in particular turns in a particularly heartfelt performance, and becomes the emotional centre of Transcendence, and though it is definitely not intentional, Bettany becomes the person to root for in the film, eclipsing Rebecca Hall despite her continual presence. The technobabble is at least interesting for the first few reels, and the film does try its best to make a point about the over-reliance on computers and technology that plagues all of us these days.

However, for every positive aspect, negative aspects abound. The leading name on the poster may have been Johnny Depp, but he disappears for most of the movie, and given that he is playing an AI version of himself, it perhaps can be forgiven that his performance is flat and uninspired. The same goes for the rest of the supporting cast apart from Hall and Bettany, who are given nothing much to do except be devices for exposition. Even the usually great Morgan Freeman fails to impress, and that’s when you know something has gone awry.

Transcendence also makes the fatal flaw of trying to be smarter than the audience, but then actually not following through on the attempt. It’s immediately apparent – the movie is told from a flashback perspective of Max Waters, which essentially gives the ending away in the first five minutes. Usually this would mean that the movie has another reveal up its sleeves, but that’s not really the case in Transcendence, which leads one to question why the narrative structure was picked.

And in the second half of the movie, where nanotechnology plays a huge role, the script time and again requires audiences to fully suspend their disbelief and to accept the proceedings at face value. The technology is absurd, and the logic is nonexistent – this may be acceptable in a typical Summer action blockbuster, but not in a movie that’s trying so hard to be an intellectual one. It’s ineffective and rather insulting to the audience to be quite honest, especially given how the plot eventually writes itself into a very tight corner, and then plods to a long-expected but illogical conclusion that the audience has already (literally) seen coming from the start. And true to the shared DNA with Christopher Nolan, Pfister chooses to end off the movie with one final shot that is open to interpretation, much like Inception – the only difference being that I was absolutely not vested to even attempt any interpretation. Transcended, this has not.

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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Cuban Fury

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Genre: Comedy

Director: James Griffiths

Writer: Jon Brown, based on an original idea by Nick Frost

Cast: Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, Chris O’Dowd, Olivia Colman, Kayvan Novak, Ian McShane

Running Length: 98 mins

Synopsis: In 1987 a 13-year-old, natural-born dancer with fire in his heels and snakes in his hips is working himself up to explode all over the UK Junior Salsa Championships. But when a bullying incident on the mean streets of London robs him of his confidence, our young hero finds his life diverted down a very different path. 22 years later, an adult Bruce Garrett (Nick Frost) finds himself out of shape and unloved, trapped in a downward spiral of self-pity and repression. Only Julia (Rashida Jones), his smart, funny, gorgeous new American boss, gives him reason to live. But she’s out of his league. Luckily for him, she also has a secret passion. Thus, Bruce is once again brought face-to-face with the darkest and most powerful of his inner demons. Somehow, someway, Bruce must learn how to unshackle his dancing beast, regain his long lost fury and claim the love of his life…and he’s going to do it all on the dance floor.

Review: I’m a big fan of dancing movies – Strictly Ballroom remains one of my favourites, but even the cheesiest dancing franchises will get me shimmying to the nearest cinema. Cuban Fury seems at first glance to be a perfect marriage of two genres – dancing and comedy – that we haven’t seen in quite some time, but unfortunately it doesn’t exactly live up to its promise. While still a perfectly acceptable comedy, the film runs rather limp for much of its running time, livening up in all too brief bursts.

This is Nick Frost’s first solo outing, and while he remains a pretty charming actor with excellent comic timing (one of the opening scenes in which he digs into a four-pack of mini yoghurt tubs is a master class in precision comedy), and Rashida Jones turns up her charm to 11, the true stars of the movie are the supporting actors. Chris O’Dowd is impossibly slimy and abominable as the office lecher, and Olivia Colman shines as Bruce’s cocktail waitress sister, but the biggest scene stealer is Kayvan Novak. His portrayal of Bejan, a fellow dance student, is such a memorable take on what could have been a derivative, boring character, that he effortlessly steals Frost’s thunder every time they appear together.

A dance movie, even a comedy like this one, lives and dies by its dance routines. And this aspect is the biggest failing of Cuban Fury – not only is there a distinct lack of “proper” dance sequences (even the finale feels watered down), it’s quite easy to tell that even with (supposedly) months of training, Nick Frost is not a dancer and simply can’t convince as a lapsed salsa dancing prodigy. There’s a good office dance-off between O’Dowd and Frost, but it’s too little and arguably a little too late.

Thus, what should have been a cracking combination of dance and comedy ends up feeling a little short on both ends, and though it will still leave hardcore rom-com enthusiasts feeling satisfied, it would not do so well in the more critical eyes of a typical cinemagoer. 

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Best Offer

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Genre: Drama

Director: Giuseppe Tornatore

Writer: Giuseppe Tornatore

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Sylvia Hoeks, Donald Sutherland, Jim Sturges

Running Length: 131 minutes

Synopsis: The Best Offer is the tale of the solitary, cultured Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush), no longer young, whose reluctance to engage with others is matched only by the dogged obsessiveness with which he practices his profession of art expert and auctioneer. Asked to handle the valuation and sale of a mysterious woman, Claire Ibbeston’s (Sylvia Hoeks) priceless heirlooms, Virgil finds himself enveloped by a passion that will transform his grey existence forever.

Review: The Best Offer is an uneven offering from Giuseppe Tornatore, whose body of work can be best described with the same word – uneven – since the early career success of Cinema Paradiso. Directed and written by Tornatore, The Best Offer is an excellent showcase of Geoffrey Rush’s thespian skills, and is accompanied by great visuals and a lush score (by Ennio Morricone). However, the rest of the cast don’t fare as well as Rush, and the plot is an extremely convoluted one that eventually does itself in with a flurry of hamstrung, too-obvious twists and turns.

Geoffrey Rush once again proves to be a brilliant actor, especially since he has to portray two aspects of Virgil – the cold, calculative social misfit before he meets Claire, and the more human and vulnerable old man that he becomes after falling for the largely unseen Claire. His performance does veer into the over-dramatic at times, almost a caricature of a crotchety old eccentric, but overall it’s still a very assured and charismatic performance. Sylvia Hoeks unfortunately disappoints as Claire, and worked better as a disembodied voice in the first half of the movie, than the petulant and quite unlikeable (though still beautiful) woman in the second half. One cannot imagine her being attractive even to a social hermit like Virgil, no matter how much the script tries to force this union.

Tornatore also seemed to be unable to practice self-editing, the most evident being a completely baffling subplot with a mechanical automaton that has zero need to be present in the film, except to function as a tool for exposition. The end result is a movie that runs over 2 hours and yet doesn’t justify the running time at all. Over-exposition is the order of the day, and since the finale is so glaringly obvious, the film feels as though it takes forever to reach a foregone conclusion. And yet, so many plot lines are left unexplained that it’s almost frustrating, and the film simply assumes that no one would question the logic (or lack thereof) of the whole venture.

The Best Offer is an offer that’s marginally good, at its best – although highly technically proficient, checking all the requisite boxes for what makes a handsome movie, the film falters and stumbles along, despite an intriguing start. It is rescued solely by Rush’s presence, but the most of the goodwill runs out along the way, and the entire film virtually falls apart in its final, rather disappointing reel.

Rating: * *(out of four stars)

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Captain America: The Winter Soldier

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Genre: Action

Directors: Anthony & Joe Russo

Writers: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, based on the comic series by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby

Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Redford, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan

Running Length: 135 minutes

Synopsis: After the cataclysmic events in New York with The Avengers, Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier finds Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), aka Captain America, living quietly in Washington, D.C. and trying to adjust to the modern world. But when a S.H.I.E.L.D. colleague comes under attack, Steve becomes embroiled in a web of intrigue that threatens to put the world at risk. Joining forces with the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Captain America struggles to expose the ever-widening conspiracy while fighting off professional assassins sent to silence him at every turn. When the full scope of the villainous plot is revealed, Captain America and the Black Widow enlist the help of a new ally, the Falcon (Anthony Mackie). However, they soon find themselves up against an unexpected and formidable enemy – the Winter Soldier.

Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a game changer in terms of the Marvel movie universe – the events that unfold in this film has far reaching repercussions, and it is definitely interesting that the studio chose to do it in a single movie. This is particularly so given the track record of dragging out plot developments across multiple films prior to the “proper” Avengers movie in 2012. With this change, Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is finally given more screen time and actually feels like a character in the movie proper, instead of a plot delivery device, usually showing up in end credit sequences.

Apart from Nick Fury, Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow is also given a much larger role, and can essentially be considered Captain America’s partner throughout the whole movie. This is an astute choice because Captain America can be considered to be quite a vanilla superhero, and almost everything that he does here is a retread of the first movie. It doesn’t help that despite his physicality, Chris Evans really lacks the charisma and presence of other action superheroes.

With Black Widow in the mix, things get a little more interesting, since she is willing to bend the rules to her favour, and Scarlett Johansson as an actress is many levels more charismatic than Chris Evans is. Suffice to say that she successfully manages to steal the limelight from Evans in the film consistently, which actually winds up being not a bad thing. A small plot thread involves Black Widow thinking of all the women that Captain America can hook up with, and interestingly enough, she herself is never presented as an option despite some hints of a possible romantic dalliance – perhaps this would be further expounded upon in future Marvel movies.

Action setpieces are a must in any self-respecting superhero movie, and these do not disappoint in The Winter Soldier. The directors made an interesting choice to move away from CGI for some of these action sequences, and the audience is treated to a number of “smaller” scenes – a car chase, ground pursuit and close quarters combat, which are really far more entertaining than the CGI-laden finale. One big caveat – directors Anthony and Joe Russo does not seem to be comfortable with helming a big superhero action movie, and chooses to go the route of employing jerky camera movements and frantic quick cuts to suggest visceral action. It does not work well, and is even more pronounced when viewed in 3D, particularly the two sequences that bookend the movie.

The identity of the Winter Soldier will be no mystery to anyone familiar with the Marvel comic universe, but the script does make it a sufficiently interesting reveal for moviegoers who are not that acquainted with the backstory of Captain America. Returning scribes Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely wisely chooses to devote a good amount of screen time delving into the more emotional aspects of the Captain (the Winter Soldier reveal and a short sequence with Peggy Carter, for example), which gives the character more dimensionality and makes up partially for Evans’ lack of charisma. And to be fair, Evans does a decent job in these scenes, underscoring the fact that Captain America belongs very much to the “more human” category of superheroes.

Captain America, like Iron Man, seems to be planned as a trilogy, though it’s hard to imagine a third movie being in the same mold as the previous two without it feeling like a tired retread. However, Captain America is one of the longest running comic book franchises, so hopefully the final film would find some way to improve further on its predecessors. The Winter Soldier is perfectly fine as the opening salvo in a year chock-full of superhero movies, and it will certainly be interesting to see how the events initiated in this film will cascade out to the next few Marvel films, particularly Avengers: Age of Ultron next year.

P.S. There are two end credit codas, one mid credits which gives a sneak peek into Age of Ultron, and one at the very end which hopefully hints at further developments for the Captain America franchise. 

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Labor Day

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Genre: Drama

Director: Jason Reitman

Writer: Jason Reitman, based on the novel by Joyce Maynard

Cast: Kate Winslet, Josh Brolin, Gattlin Griffith, Clark Gregg

Running Length: 111 minutes

Synopsis: Labor  Day  centers  on  13-­year-­old  Henry  Wheeler (Gattlin Griffith),  who  struggles  to  be  the  man of  his  house  and  care  for  his   reclusive mother Adele (Kate Winslet) while confronting all the pangs of adolescence. On a back-to-school shopping trip, Henry and his mother encounter Frank Chambers (Josh Brolin), a man both intimidating and clearly in need of help, who convinces them to take him into their home and later is revealed to be an escaped convict. The events of this long Labor Day weekend will shape them for the rest of their lives.

Review: Sentimental to a fault, it’s hard to associate the director of Thank You For Smoking, Up In the Air and Juno to be behind the helm of Labor Day, a movie that would be perfectly at home in the canon of Nicholas Sparks movies, despite it not being a novel written by Sparks. Yet, Jason Reitman not only directed the film, but was also responsible for the screenplay, and it is such a stark departure from his previous work that it’s nearly impossible to reconcile.

Looking past that, it’s easy to see that Labor Day must have had some Oscar aspirations. The film is beautifully shot, and Kate Winslet once again hits it out of the ballpark with her portrayal of Adele. It’s a demanding role that requires the thespian to portray a broad spectrum of emotional states, and yet it has to be done with restraint, appropriate for a love-starved woman who has hidden away from the world. It’s a terrific, engaging performance. Josh Brolin puts forth one of his most charismatic turns ever, and it’s easy to see how anyone would fall for his Frank, who apart from being a convict, is about as perfect a mate as one could hope for.

Despite the great performances by Winslet and Brolin, Labor Day is really too schmaltzy for its own good, resulting in a film that becomes increasingly hard to take seriously. This is particularly apparent in the final reel, where there’s such a massive confluence of unfortunate events that the film firmly detaches itself from reality (and this potentially is more the fault of Joyce Maynard than Reitman, but having never read the novel I cannot say for sure). The film also suffers from mild schizophrenia, none more apparent than the pie-making scene, which seems to draw inspiration from the (in)famous pottery sequence in Ghost, and suddenly switches modes into a cooking program. It is almost as though Reitman couldn’t decide whether to make this a thriller, a romance, a drama or a Food Network special, and so he simply threw everything into the mix (pun not intended).

Labor Day ends up being a film that would work for a very narrow audience – if you loved the Nicholas Sparks movies, there’s a good chance that you will find Labor Day to be a gem amongst the testosterone-fueled pre-Summer flicks of late. One does hope that Reitman’s next project would bring his sharp, satirical eye back into focus, and not be another rather generic, near-mawkish film like this one.      

Rating: * * ½ (out of four stars)

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