Dramas exploring the nature of death and the true meaning of life are always in danger of tipping over into extreme sentimentality, and this one very quickly gets bogged down in buckets of syrup. It's a slickly made movie with a first-rate cast, but occasional glimpses of gritty honesty aren't quite enough to counteract sudsy philosophising that sounds profound but is actually rather shallow.
It's set in New York, where advertising company owner Howard (Will Smith) is still lost in grief six months after the death of his 6-year-old daughter. And his business partners are worried that the company is falling apart as a result. In desperation, best pal Whit (Edward Norton), protege Claire (Kate Winslet) and rising-star Simon (Michael Pena) hire a private detective (Ann Dowd) to determine Howard's mental fitness to run the company. They also hire three actors to confront him as Love (Keira Knightley), Time (Jacob Latimore) and Death (Helen Mirren), abstract concepts he's obsessed with. But they don't know that Howard is also considering attending a grief counselling meeting run by Madeleine (Naomie Harris).
Directed with a magical sheen by David Frankel (Hope Springs) and written to within an inch of its life by Allan Loeb (The Switch), there's nothing about this film that doesn't feel contrived and controlled. In addition to their scenes with Howard, each of the three actors has an impact on the colleague who needs their specific gifts. And there are a number of revelations and twists that feel annoyingly hokey. Even so, the cast is strong enough to add moments of lightness that lift the movie briefly out of the sludge. Mirren, Knightley and Latimore have a sparky edge as the story's catalysts. While Norton, Winslet and Pena bring some raw, honest emotion to their own personal dramas.
Continue reading: Collateral Beauty Review
Philip Roth's layered novels are a challenge for filmmakers (see also 2003's The Human Stain or this year's American Pastoral), but they're so rich and provocative that they can't be ignored. For his directing debut, writer-producer James Schamus (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon; Brokeback Mountain) adaps this story as a tightly controlled period drama with blackly comical edges and darkly personal emotions.
It's set in 1951 New Jersey, where the young Marcus (Logan Lerman) is preparing to leave home for university in Ohio. His parents (Linda Emond and Danny Burstein) are worried that he will make the same mistakes that are ruining teens' lives across the country at the moment or, even worse, head off to fight in the Korean War. But Marcus is a very serious kid, focussed on making his own decisions about what he wants to do. He certainly wants nothing to do with his crazy roommates (Ben Rosenfield and Philip Ettinger) or the Jewish frat-house, whose leader (Pico Alexander) is desperately trying to recruit him. And then there's the pressure he's getting from the university dean (Tracy Letts). He's much more interested in the enigmatic Olivia (Sarah Gadon), a young woman who constantly surprises him.
Yes, this is essentially a coming-of-age drama about a young man making the shift from his loving family to take control of his own destiny in the big bad world. But it's much more complex than that, as it weaves in political and topical themes. The conversations are riveting, as Marcus' atheistic beliefs provoke everyone he meets. This leads to a stunning centrepiece scene, a blistering 15-minute argument between Marcus and the dean that's like a battlefield set-piece with subtle attacks, bomb blasts and surprising outcomes. Through all of this Schamus maintains the beautifully tailored appearance of the period, when the carefully muted surfaces obscured the churning, world-changing ideas underneath.
Continue reading: Indignation Review
A buoyant celebration of the power of music, this is the third blissfully entertaining musical romance from John Carney, who also wrote and directed Once and Begin Again. Set in the 1980s, this brightly comical film is packed with fabulous songs, both real hits from the period and fantastic pastiche numbers. And it's vividly performed by a fresh cast.
It's set in 1985 Dublin, where 15-year-old Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is furious when his parents (Aidan Gillen and Maria Doyle Kennedy) transfer him to a local catholic school due to financial trouble. Conor's adored older stoner-rocker brother Brendan (Jack Reynor) is still living at home, while their younger sister Ann (Kelly Thornton) observes the craziness of her family with wry detachment. Then Conor falls for sexy bad girl Raphina (Lucy Boynton), trying to impress her by telling her that he's in a rock band. So now he really needs to create one. He gathers some other outcasts at his new school, and they become Sing Street, trying to write some "futurist" songs. But finding their own sound is tricky.
As this scrappy band comes together, they take inspiration from the music around them, including pop bands like Duran Duran, The Cure and Spandau Ballet. Their own songs and clothing hilariously echo these styles as they try to find a way to connect with their audience while expressing themselves artistically. And the songs are fiendishly catchy, each accompanied by a hand-made music video that cleverly traces the boys' passion for music and their coming-of-age as artists in their own right, all within the context of the period. At the centre, Conor's journey is twisty, complex and hugely resonant. Walsh-Peelo is a very likeable actor who's thoroughly believable as a young guy trying desperately to act grown up, despite the terrible examples of his bickering parents and slacker brother.
Continue reading: Sing Street Review
Director Bennett Miller continues to skilfully probe around the edges of true stories with this follow-up to Capote and Moneyball, although this is a much, much darker tale. Actually, it's such an unnerving series of events that it's not easy to watch, and its characters aren't easy to like. But it's so expertly shot and edited, with startlingly full-on performances from the entire cast, that it can't help but get under the skin and chill us to the bone.
It opens after the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, where Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum) and and his big brother David (Mark Ruffalo) both won gold medals for wrestling. But they need help with funding to train for Seoul 1988, and Mark gets a remarkable offer from billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell) to start a wrestling team at his vast Foxcatcher estate in New England, which is known for the thoroughbred horses managed by John's imperious mother Jean (Vanessa Redgrave). Aside from wanting to stay home with his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids, David doesn't trust John, so Mark heads to Foxcatcher on his own. But John's obsession knows no bounds, and soon he lures David and family to join them.
Initially, John's interest in wrestling feels like a mere eccentricity, a way of creating a team of "thoroughbreds" to rival his mother's prize-winning horses. But Carell cleverly plays the role with an insinuating glint that makes us wonder what he's up to, and his wrestlers see it too, going along with his nutty plans simply because the money is so good. Then the squirm-inducing twists and turns start, as John introduces Mark to cocaine and everything starts to spiral out of control. Nearly unrecognisable with a prosthetic hook nose, Carell is genuinely terrifying because his performance burns so slowly.
Continue reading: Foxcatcher Review
Fans of the Oscar-winning 2006 Irish film Once (and its more recent stage-musical adaptation) may find this American drama a little derivative, but it's a strong story in its own right. This time writer-director John Carney has assembled a starry cast to nicely capture the rhythms of New York's streets. And the songs, while not quite as integral to the story, are gorgeous.
The opening sequence sets up the story from two perspectives, as music producer Dan (Mark Ruffalo) hears songwriter Greta (Keira Knightley) reluctantly perform at a bar's open-mic night. Both of these people are at their rope's end: always seeking offbeat talent, Dan is on the outs with his record label partner (Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def), and wants to reconnect with his estranged wife and teen daughter (Catherine Keener and Hailee Steinfeld). Meanwhile, Greta has just been dumped by her rising pop-star boyfriend Dave (Adam Levine), who got his big break from a song she wrote. To stop her moping, her pal Steve (James Corden) encourages her to start singing her own songs. In Greta, Dan sees the kind of artist he longs to make records with, so with nothing to lose the two set out to record her songs at locations around the city for a new album.
Like Once, this is a love story that doesn't actually involve romance: these two people need each other to discover their life's passions. So Ruffalo and Knightley get the chance to create some terrific chemistry without much of a threat that they'll fall for each other. Indeed, each has other fish to fry, as they try to sort out their emotional connections elsewhere. Their flirty friendship plays out in a fresh, effortless way that generates some complex emotions and ideas. Ruffalo is always great at creating these kinds of loose, slightly hapless characters, while Knightley delivers an even more earthy performance, letting her own sparky personality emerge on-screen for the first time along with some serious skill as a singer. And the supporting cast add texture in just the right places.
Continue reading: Begin Again Review
With a strikingly against-type performance from the late Gandolfini, this film gives the romantic-comedy formula a welcome adult spin. Writer-director Holofcener keeps the characters authentic even as she indulges in some rather farcical plotting. And her astutely observational dialog lets the cast members create characters who are funny, flawed and thoroughly engaging.
At a party, massage therapist Eva (Louis-Dreyfus) meets two people who become important in her life. First is Marianne (Keener), whose snappy wit and honesty make her much more than just a new client. And then there's Albert (Gandolfini), an unlikely suitor who charms Eva with his dry wit and warm camaraderie as they share common emotions about daughters (Fairaway and Hewson) who are leaving home for university. But as Marianne moans about her miserable ex-husband, Eva realises that she's talking about Albert. And she knows that if she tells them that she's made this connection, she'll lose both a friend and a boyfriend.
Holofcener takes this simple idea and stretches it nearly to the breaking point. Fortunately, the film's real strength lies in the interaction between these people, and it's easy to identify with their hesitance as they endure a series of awkward moments that feel bracingly realistic. All of the dialog bristles with humour that feels improvised, and Louis-Dreyfus has always been an expert at combining comedy with both underlying strength and fragility (see Veep). Gandolfini seems like a strange match for her, but he plays the role so beautifully that we root for them as a couple.
Continue reading: Enough Said Review
There's plenty of potential for jagged black humour in this suburban comedy-drama, but the filmmakers never take a single risk. So with its soft and simplistic approach, the movie is never as quirky or hilarious as it should have been, or as the filmmakers seem to think it is. The only pleasure in watching it comes through understated touches the gifted cast members manage to inject here and there. And what a great cast!
It's set in West Orange, New Jersey, where two families have been best friends for decades. David and Paige Walling (Laurie and Keener) have two grown children: Vanessa (Shawkat) lives at home while Toby (Brody) drops in to visit every now and then. Across the street are the Ostroffs, Terry and Carol (Platt and Janney), whose wayward daughter Nina (Meester) is home for Thanksgiving. Everyone thinks a romance between Toby and Nina would be wonderful. But as the Wallings try to work out some marital problems, it's David who drifts into a transgressive affair with Nina. Which sends these long-time friendships into spiralling chaos.
The plot is so perfectly suited to a black comedy that we wonder what happened along the way. Director Farino smooths every edge, instead straining for silly farce that leads to some sort of emotional catharsis. But he fails to recognise that these people are all intelligent adults, so the fallout from David and Nina's fling feels contrived and obvious. The script also never makes us feel like they are doing anything besides reacting to their previous relationships: this isn't real love, so why should we care?
Continue reading: The Oranges Review
Kate and Alex (Keener and Platt) are socially active New Yorkers, supporting charities and trying to help their feisty teen daughter (Steele) understand what's important. But Kate's beginning to feel guilty about their work; they buy furniture from families with recently deceased relatives and resell it at a profit. This is taken to the extreme as they wait for their aging neighbour (Guilbert) to die so they can annex her apartment, and Kate and Alex struggle with how to interact with her very different granddaughters (Hall and Peet).
Continue reading: Please Give Review
Brainy Danny (Pucci) and his more action-oriented brother Brian (Pine) are driving through Colorado with Brian's girlfriend Bobby (Perabo) and their friend Kate (VanCamp) when they encounter a man (Meloni) who's trying to get his sick daughter (Shipka) to a clinic. She has the highly contagious disease that has killed off almost everyone, so extreme measures are needed to prevent infection. As they continue across the Southwest, heading for a Gulf Coast beach they remember from childhood, they encounter various other survivors and are forced to make some brutal decisions.
Continue reading: Carriers Review
Synecdoche (sih-NECK-doh-kee) is a word whose meaning is too long to type out here -- and isn't essential to understanding the film, anyway. But it's just the type of word you might throw in the title of your first movie as a director if you wanted to let people know in advance they're in for something offbeat. And Synecdoche, New York is nothing if not determinedly offbeat.
Continue reading: Synecdoche, New York Review
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