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Review – Interstellar (12a) [2014]

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Star Rating: 3.5/5

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There are some directors whose movies are simply a cut above the rest. Steven Spielberg, David Fincher, Alfonso Cuarón and Martin Scorsese do not necessarily make films often, but when they do their films are invariably of the highest quality. Christopher Nolan rightly has a place among these filmmaking giants and his latest movie, Interstellar, confirms this despite the film’s problems.

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) explaining the mission and its purpose to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey)

Professor Brand (Michael Caine) explaining the mission and its purpose to Cooper (Matthew McConaughey)

Interstellar is set in the not-too-distant future. The Earth will soon be unable to sustain life due to crop failures. Mankind needs to find a new planet in order to survive. With the situation desperate, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey) leads a team of astronauts into space so as to find another planet that can sustain habitable life.

Interstellar is an ambitious, innovative and stimulating movie. Like The Dark Knight Trilogy, The Prestige and Inception, Interstellar is a film full of ideas such as Murphy’s Law, gravity, love, and how time bends in space to name but four. These ideas keep viewers fully occupied throughout the film’s 167-minute running time. As in the above-mentioned films, Nolan again illustrates his intelligence by writing an ingenious script that holds much realism and does not fall into the generic (and dull) intergalactic ray-gun war between men and monsters. Nolan must be applauded for it and for not patronising his audience (harrumph Michael Bay).

Cooper saying goodbye to his little daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) before he goes on the mission.

Cooper saying goodbye to his little daughter, Murphy (Mackenzie Foy) before he goes on the mission.

Granted, most viewers probably will not completely comprehend Interstellar’s dialogue as one may need to be a quantum physics professor and an astrophysics nerd for that. If viewers are neither of those and find the dialogue difficult to grasp, they can still easily enjoy the film simply by sitting back and admiring the awesome sceneries, the breath-taking special effects, and the phenomenal music. The CGI and the music, in particular, make audiences feel like they’re on a wonderful rollercoaster ride through space, and the length of the film enhances this riveting sensation.

However, not even this terrific sensation can override or conceal the gaping holes in Interstellar’s storyline (as a train could fit through them). These holes stem from moments of tension that are there solely for the sake of tension (and filler) rather than advancement of the storyline; and from the ending being too rushed and contrived for the movie to make sense. With most directors, viewers would generally accept these plot holes as par for the course. But with Nolan, viewers expect better. Scenes of tension in his previous films have had consequence(s) upon the storylines, and he has given us some of the most original, thought-provoking and satisfying endings in movie history. To see his film suffer from similar problems as those of (cheesy) action films and (second-rate) sci-fi movies feels wrong as Nolan is too smart a man to fall into such holes.

Cooper speaking with Amelia (Anne Hathaway) as they try to determine what to do next as they search for a habitable planet.

Cooper speaking with Amelia (Anne Hathaway) as they try to determine what to do next as they search for a habitable planet.

Yet, the above-mentioned holes are not the only issues staring back at Interstellar. Like Inception, Interstellar is so plot heavy it has no time for character development. For any film, it is excusable not to give peripheral characters proper story-arcs since that bloats the film’s running time unnecessarily and can render a film with a terribly swollen cast (like Interstellar) impractical to make. But what is not excusable for any film, including Interstellar, is for the major characters to not have proper story-arcs. This is because one of the most fascinating parts of a film is the journey the main characters go on and watching how the journey affects them, for good or ill. Without such story-arcs for the major characters, Interstellar feels like a large plate with little food on it: somewhat unsatisfying.

Over-all, Interstellar is a very ambitious, intelligent and challenging movie. Yes, it has plenty of plot problems. And, yes, it does not give its characters enough time for sincere character growth. On the flip side, though, the movie is made worthwhile by the stunning landscapes, the spectacular special effects, the spellbinding music, and the interesting ideas that are seldom explored in films. Suffice to say, Interstellar does not make for an easy 167-minutes and the film would have ended up as a total mess if it were to have been directed by anyone other than a master of his/her craft. This underlines why Christopher Nolan is such an extraordinary director and why he rightly stands among the best in the business in Hollywood.

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Review – Les Misérables (12a) [2013]

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Star Rating: 4/5

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At the beginning of 2012, audiences were treated to the silent film, The Artist. It was unexpectedly charming and something different in an age of formulaic, clichéd blockbusters. A year on, and audiences are treated to something different once again in the form of the marvellous Les Misérables.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman), looking like a scraggy vagabond, as a convicted criminal about to be released on parole.

The storyline is based upon the 1862 historical-fiction novel by Victor Hugo and the subsequent theatre production. It loosely centres round Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) and Javier (Russell Crowe). Jean Valjean is a convicted man, who breaks his parole and seemingly vanishes in his bid to start a new life. Javier, the Inspector, upon discovering what Jean Valjean has done, is determined to find Prisoner 24601 and bring him to justice.

The plot for Les Misérables is more detailed and layered than that, especially as it has a large cast all with roles to play before the story ends. Unlike the stage version, the film does a good job of keeping the narrative understandable and easy to follow, despite having to take out chunks from the book. This is no small achievement, considering that more or less the entire movie is sung. Credit should rightly go to Tom Hooper for this, as well as for successfully turning a theatrical play into an Oscar-nominated film. (It should be borne in mind that The Woman In Black was the last time a director attempted to translate a play into a movie, and the less said about that film the better!)

However, in spite of Hooper cutting out sections of the book, the film still seems too long and somehow bloated at 158 minutes. The Artist, it should be noted, is only 100 minutes and, consequently, does not feel over-stuffed. Part of the reason for why Les Misérables feels this way is due to the numerous sub-plots taking place throughout the story, many of which have only questionable importance to its outcome.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Inspector Javier (Russell Crowe), wearing almost the identical garb of the former (and now fallen) Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte I, on the lookout for Jean Valjean.

Yet, more significantly, does the story actually matter? When one watches Les Misérables in the theatre, one is more likely to be awed by the music and the mechanics of the stage, than taken in by the (slightly contrived) narrative. But the movie does not have an innovatively-devised podium. Additionally, it suffers from a cast that, while stellar in name, generally lack the powerful vocals of their stage counterparts.

Russell ‘wannabe-Napoleon Bonaparte’ Crowe and Hugh Jackman, the two leading men, are particularly guilty of this. It is not that their performances are bad, it is just painfully obvious that they are actors first and singers a distant second. One might argue that this is what Hooper desired as he claimed to want the vocals ‘raw’ and conversational, rather than melodramatic. (Then again, he could have been saying this as a defence of his cast, in hindsight, after realising that he should have used stage actors instead of Crowe and Jackman.)

Also, the more one sees and hears the supporting cast, the more Crowe and Jackman are shown up; in particular, against Anne Hathaway. Hathaway, as Fantine, might look pale and terribly thin with her skin, bone and flesh emaciated a la Natalie Portman in Black Swan, but she most certainly can sing. In Rio I, Hathaway showed that she can sing well and nicely. But in Les Misérables she takes her talents to a new level, acquiring immense vigour in her voice, despite clearly lacking in nourishment.

No-one else looks starved like her, but Eddie Redmayne and Samantha Barks, as the rebel Marius and Éponine, respectively, have very good voices; Amanda Seyfried, as Cosette, illustrates that she’s a better singer than actor (and that she can exist without her incongruous pink lip-gloss, unlike in the medieval-themed Red Riding Hood); while Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter, as Thénardier and Madame Thénardier, respectively, show us that they may not have noteworthy vocals, but that they can still make us laugh whilst in tune.

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Jean Valjean, now all cleaned up and living a new life under a false name, holding a poorly street-woman, who just so happens to be Fantine (Anne Hathaway).

Yet, if one is truly bothered about the singing not being up to scratch with the stage performers, one can still admire the sceneries and the visuals. Cinema, as opposed to theatre, is not limited by the area of a stage (however impressive the mechanics of it may be), and Hooper uses this to his advantage to give viewers a true feel for the (miserable) neighbourhoods that our characters come from in a way that the theatre perhaps can’t convey as deeply.

All-in-all, Les Misérables is very impressive theatrical production-cum-film. The cast’s vocals may not be as strong as those actors on the stage, and the movie lacks some of the charms of the theatre. Nevertheless, like The Artist, Les Misérables is something different, and it should be celebrated that an operatic-style film can be delivered in such a superb and entertaining manner.

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Review – The Dark Knight Rises (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 5/5

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Once in a decade, perhaps, are audiences treated to a trilogy wherein the three films are not only worthy of five stars each, but also raise the bar over the movie that preceded it. Ten years ago, it was Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings, which culminated beautifully in the epic The Return of the King. Now, it is the turn of Christopher Nolan and his Dark Knight Legend saga, which has climaxed spectacularly with The Dark Knight Rises.

The monstrous-looking, hulking Bane (Tom Hardy). Ra’s Al Ghul’s successor intends to finish off Gotham once and for all, forcing Batman to come out of his virtual retirement.

Eight years have passed since Bruce Wayne/Batman (Christian Bale) defeated the Joker, killed the District Attorney, Harvey Dent, and disappeared. Since then, Gotham has branded Batman an enemy, after he took responsibility for Dent’s crimes to uphold the reputation of the ‘White Knight.’ Whilst away from his former exploits, Bruce has been a recluse, investing some of his considerable wealth in peaceful nuclear energy and the Wayne Foundation, where he uses the expertise of Miranda Tate (Marion Cotillard) to good effect.

However, Gotham now faces a new threat. The League of Shadows has returned and is led by the masked, super-strong Bane (Tom Hardy), who is out to destroy Gotham and Batman with it. After Commissioner James Gordon (Gary Oldman) is wounded trying to take out Bane, leaving the police almost solely in the hands of the young idealist officer, John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), Bruce feels that the time has come to don the bat-gear again. But how will Gotham take to his return? And what will Batman do with the criminal Selina Kyle/Catwoman (Anne Hathaway), who has a mysterious interest in Wayne Manor and Wayne Enterprise?

Rises’ plot might be slow-moving for the first hour and it certainly requires great levels of concentration for the entire 164 minutes; yet, the film is intellectually-stimulating, absorbing and multi-layered. It also builds up to a stunning, well-thought-through climax, ensuring that those who give the movie their full attention will be rewarded.

One of the most satisfying aspects of the storyline is that Nolan cleverly links Rises with Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, the two previous instalments in the series. He does this by making the caped crusader rise to a new mental and physical challenge, which is a direct result of his prior victory over the League of Shadows; and by illustrating the relevance of Batman and Harvey Dent as symbols of hope against injustice and corruption. (Not to mention demonstrating how susceptible the fabrics of society are to implosion when the symbols are smashed.)

Selina Kyle (Anne Hathaway) wearing her figure-revealing ‘cat’ outfit while she steals what she needs at night and fights her way out of trouble.

Furthermore, Nolan intelligently incorporated genuine, present-day issues and analogies into the previous two films to make them relatable to the epoch. He does it again in Rises. Like in The Dark Knight, he throws in moral and ethical dilemmas here to illustrate just how tough and messy decisions can be for our political leaders (in the war on terror). And, like in Batman Begins, Nolan underlines how sophisticated, scientific technology can be used as weapons. In the first film in the series, it was the dangers of microwave emitters. In the third, it’s the threat posed by ‘peaceful’ nuclear programs (Iran) and what happens should they fall into the wrong hands.

Arguably, Rises lacks a character with the charisma of the Joker, especially as he is Batman’s traditional nemesis. Nevertheless, the astuteness of the plot and the excellence of the cast make up for this absence. Christian Bale superbly reveals the psychological torment and the multifaceted nature of Bruce Wayne that makes all other comic-book based protagonists, such as those in Fantastic Four, The Avengers Assemble and Spiderman appear immature and superficial by comparison; Anne Hathaway looks as eye-catching in tightly-fitted latex as she plays; Michael Caine again gives a touching performance as Alfred, Bruce’s wise fatherly butler, as does Morgan Freeman as the humorous Lucius Fox, the head of Wayne Enterprise; and, lastly, Tom Hardy is terrifying as Bane.

Just as Nolan did with the villains Scarecrow, the Joker and Two-Face in the other movies, he’s turned Bane from a pantomime fool (as was seen in the unwatchable 1997 Batman & Robin) into a complex and sinister character, with a distressing backstory. It is not merely Bane’s brute strength and intelligence that’s scary, it’s also the glint of frightening fanaticism in his eyes which was probably last seen with Ayatollah Khomeini, the late leader of the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Batman (Christian Bale), with renewed vigour, battling it out with Bane to save Gotham from destruction.

While the actors do their parts splendidly, so too do the special effects team and Hans Zimmer. The effects look so real, viewers have to remind themselves that CGI was used. Similarly, the score may not be as grand or uplifting as the one composed by Howard Shore for The Lord of the Rings; nonetheless, the dark disposition of Rises entails that Zimmer’s gothic-style music is apt and augments the scenes exponentially.

Over-all, The Dark Knight Rises is an engrossing and special conclusion to an exceptional trilogy. Christopher Nolan has transformed the Batman story from a joke into a dark and very human tale that has relevance to the current era, making all other comic-book based movies seem light and casual in contrast. Once more, Nolan has used intelligence and a phenomenal cast to outdo himself in the same way that Peter Jackson did almost a decade ago. Heaven knows, it might be another ten years before we see a series of such brilliance again.

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Review – Rio 3D (U) [2011]

Star Rating: 3/5

In recent times, there have been some exceptional animated films; the pick of the bunch being Toy Story 3. Kung-Fu Panda and Coraline have their merits for humour and horror, respectively; however, they lack the je ne sais quoi of Toy Story 3. For similar reasons, Rio falls short, despite being enjoyable and cute.

Blu and Linda showing that they are the best of friends

Rio is about a blue McCaw called Blu (voiced by Jesse Eisenberg – The Social Network, Zombieland, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice), a shy and dorky bird that can’t fly. At a young age, Blu is taken from his home in the Amazon and finds himself randomly in Minnesota. There, he is looked after by a young girl Linda (voiced by Leslie Mann – The Cable Guy, 17 Again, Knocked Up). Fifteen years later, Tulio (voiced by Rodrigo Santoro – 300, Che I & II, I Love You Philip Morris), a scientist, finds Linda and tells her that Blu is the last of his species. There is only one other blue McCaw and she is in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Thus, the only way to save the species is by taking Blu to Rio.

Once in Rio, Blu is put into a cage with the beautiful, but feisty Jewel (voiced by Anne Hathaway – The Devil Wears Prada, Love And Other Drugs, One Day). Yet, dark forces in the underworld of Rio desire these birds for profit. Not long after Blu and Jewel are caged up, they are stolen by smugglers; much to the consternations of Linda and Tulio. Blu and Jewel are determined to get out of captivity: the latter to fly freely through the Amazon; the former to find Linda. It will not be easy and being chained together makes matters harder for them.

There is nothing especially original about Rio’s plot. It moves at the right pace so as to keep its viewers interested, but it gets a bit naff towards the end. Nevertheless, there are many sweet and funny moments in the film; especially, the singing and rapping by Pedro (Will.i.am. – Madagascar 2, Knight And Day, Freedom Writers) and Nico (Jamie Foxx – Collateral, Law Abiding Citizen, Miami Vice). Anne Hathaway also has a surprisingly powerful voice. But, on the whole, Rio is not as funny as the hilarious Kung-Fu Panda (and perhaps Kung-Fu Panda 2, which is released later this year).

Blu and Jewel being shown the way by another bird who is willing to help them.  Alas, the director and script-writer, Carlos Saldanha (Ice Age I, II, III), has ensured that Rio is not a satire. This could have given the film a sophisticated edge. Additionally, the characters are very two-dimensional: Blu somehow looks and acts just as geeky as Jesse Eisenberg did in The Social Network; whilst Jewel acts throughout like a spoilt princess with no claim to royalty.

On another note, the graphics are fine for what the movie is; although, the 3D effects add little to the film. Indeed, Rio is not Avatar in the sense that, like Legend Of The Guardians and Alice In Wonderland, it was not made to be, primarily, a 3D movie.

All in all, Rio is a movie for children. It is cute and will put smiles on the faces of those who watch it. However, if one thinks that it’s going to be the next Toy Story 3 then disappointment will follow.

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