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Review – The Light Between Oceans (12a) [2016]

tlbo-title-banner

Star Rating: 2/5

Director:

  • Derek Cianfrance – Blue Valentine, The Place Beyond The Pines, Metalhead

Cast:

Music Composer:

There are some films that look like Oscar material. They have stellar actors in the main roles, a seemingly interesting plot, and wondrous cinematography. Yet, the film remains in post-production for longer than it should and, upon viewing, the movie simply does not work. 2014’s Serena was one such film. The Light Between Oceans (TLBO) is another.

A stunning view of the lighthouse and the ocean from Janus Rock.

A stunning view of the lighthouse and the ocean from Janus Rock.

  TLBO is a film based on the novel with same title by ML Stedman. It is December 1918 and Tom Sherbourne (Michael Fassbender) has returned to Australia from the Western Front. World War I (WWI) has taken his toll on him. To recuperate, he applies for a job as a lighthouse keeper on a remote Australian island, called Janus Rock.

After getting the job, he meets Isabel (Alicia Vikander). The two marry and go to live on the island. Life is going all right for the happy(ish) couple, until a baby and a dead man wash up on a lifeboat one day. Tom and Isabel are presented with a dilemma: one that will have consequences for the both of them.

Let’s deal with the good elements of TLBO first. The scenery is spectacular. The producers have chosen a beautiful island to represent Janus Rock and the cinematography captures the wonders (and dangers) of this isolated island. Enhancing the sense of isolation is Alexandre Desplat’s beautiful score. It tugs at the heart at times and makes us feel the eerie remoteness of the place at others.

Additionally, Alicia Vikander and Michael Fassbender, with Rachel Weisz in the chief supporting role, are attractive and perform decently. But their Australian accents are glaringly non-existent and their characters are bafflingly boring.

The happy couple, Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and Tom (Michael Fassbender), dancing at their wedding. This photo may be genuine show of affection from the two actors since they are a couple in real life as a result of this film.

The happy couple, Isabel (Alicia Vikander) and Tom (Michael Fassbender), dancing at their wedding. This photo may be genuine show of affection from the two actors since they are a couple in real life as a result of this film.

Nevertheless, actors can only work with what they are given. Even the finest of our current crop of actors cannot make something out of a poor script and a frustratingly uninteresting plot. It does not help that at 140 minutes TLBO is a long film. Nothing of significance happens for the first 45 minutes when finally the moral dilemma (i.e. the turning point of the story) arrives. That is at least 30 minutes too late. And even when it does arrive, the conundrum is handled in a woefully sentimental manner, well beyond the point of incredulity. It could even be argued that TLBO trivialises child abduction and Stockholm Syndrome, since the former is dealt with as well-meaning and the latter as a non-issue. Director Derek Cianfrance really should have done more research into these highly sensitive subjects as then the reactions of the characters would not be perplexing. Either that, or Cianfrance got the wrong end of the stick, completely.

But these are merely the start of TLBO’s problems. The film feels badly disjointed. This is despite the director’s best efforts to stitch scenes together that bear no link, using the trick of fading one scene into the next. But it does not make the movie flow any easier and makes one realise that TLBO has some fundamental storyline issues. This could explain why the movie spent more time than it should have done (near two years) in post-production.

The issues regarding the storyline are not helped by the movie trying to cover a plethora of topics, including love, grief, trauma, moral dilemmas, and the consequences of one’s actions. All of these can make for fascinating viewing if they are done well. Yet, none of them are properly fleshed out and there is too much telling and not enough showing in the film. This all makes for a recipe of unsatisfying viewing.

The parallels with Serena could not be more apparent. That film had an attractive cast, starring Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper, Toby Jones and Conleth Hill (better known as Lord Varys from Game of Thrones); it had gorgeous cinematography; and dealt with a lot of interesting subject matters, such as starting up one’s own business in North Carolina during the Great Depression, law enforcement, corruption, and mafia. But it was a mess of a movie. This led to questions of what director Susanne Bier had initially wanted from the film, what she had cut out in the editing room, and how she had come to release the final draft of the film because Serena was a muddle that did not know what story it was trying to tell.

A distraught Hannah (Rachel Weisz) looking for her husband and daughter. They disappeared at sea and no-one has seeing them since to her knowledge.

A distraught Hannah (Rachel Weisz) looking for her husband and daughter. They disappeared at sea and no-one has seeing them since to her knowledge.

TLBO is not on the same scale as Serena. But many of the questions that applied to Serena apply for TLBO. It would be nice if, one day, Cianfrance spoke about what he set out to achieve with TLBO, what he succeeded on, what he failed on, and why he failed on them. Ironically, that would make for a much more interesting tale than the one consisting of Alicia Vikander, Michael Fassbender and Rachel Weisz.

Over-all, TLBO is a disappointing movie. It has the cast, the setting, and the ideas to be an Oscar contender. Yet, it is a dysfunctional tangle of half-baked plots that go in directions that aren’t plausible. If that does not vex viewers, the movie’s sentimentality will take them over the edge. Indeed, soppiness of the movie will make them wish that The Light Between Oceans had remained in post-production permanently.

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Review – Room (15) [2016]

Room - title banner

Star Rating: 4/5

Director:

  • Lenny Abrahamson – Adam & Paul, Garage, What Richard Did, Frank

Cast:

  • Brie Larsson – Scott Pilgrim Vs The World, 21 Jump Street, Don Jon, The Glass Castle
  • Jacob Tremblay – The Smurfs 2, Shut In, Before I Wake, The Book Of Henry
  • Joan Allen – Face/Off, The Notebook, Bourne II-IV, A Good Marriage
  • Sean Bridgers – Sweet Home Alabama, Deadwood, Dark Places, The Magnificent Seven
  • William H Macy – Fargo, Psycho, Sahara, ER, Blood Father

Music Composer:

  • Stephen Rennicks – Garage, Eden, What Richard Did, Frank, L’accabadora

The Woman In Black, The Possession, Mama and It Follows have illustrated the general paucity of horror films in recent years and how the paranormal subgenre isn’t scary because it cannot happen in real life. In contrast, Misery, Requiem For A Dream, We Need To Talk About Kevin and The Gift have demonstrated that when films portray situations that can happen to people, it can be infinitely scarier and more unnerving to watch. Add Room to the latter category.

Joy (Brie Larsson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) playing with a snake they have made out of string and egg-shells.

Joy (Brie Larsson) and Jack (Jacob Tremblay) playing with a snake they have made out of string and egg-shells.

  Room is adapted from the book with the same title by Emma Donohue. The film begins with Joy (Brie Larsson) and her five year old, feral-looking son, Jack (Jacob Tremblay), in a small, squalid shed. It transpires that Joy was abducted by a man known only as ‘Old Nick’ (Sean Bridgers) seven years ago and has been locked in the shed ever since. Jack has never been outside it and believes the shed (or ‘Room’ as he calls it) to be the entire world. However, Joy wants to get out of the shed. She thinks up a plan and, for it to succeed, it will involve Jack experiencing the outside world for the first time.

Room is an engaging film that succeeds in many ways. Immediately, people can empathise with Joy’s predicament. One may not find the threat of silly Gollum-like monsters and/or evil spirits attacking (imbecilic) individuals realistic or scary. Yet, the threat of being abducted and locked up in some hell-hole is a very real and terrifying one. The cases of Natascha Kampusch, Elizabeth Smart and Gilad Shalit emphasise this and highlight how harrowing the experience can be for the abductee and their families. Room effectively shows some (and implies others) of the horrors that the abductee may suffer in a mature, non-gratuitous way. This quite rightly makes for uncomfortable viewing.

Viewers, however, would not feel the abductee’s pain if it were not for Brie Larsson’s acting. She powerfully shows us the different stages that abductees can suffer from and, for this, she fully deserves the acclaim she is receiving. The only surprise is that Larsson is the only one receiving the plaudits and awards, as her main co-star, Jacob Tremblay, is also brilliant. For one so young, his acting is remarkable and completely realistic of how a five year old would see the world and behave under such traumatic circumstances. And his/Jack’s relationship with Brie Larsson/Joy is life-assuring and overwhelming for all the right reasons.

Joy desperately trying to explain to Jack that there is more to the world than 'Room,' despite Jack's protestations.

Joy desperately trying to explain to Jack that there is more to the world than ‘Room,’ despite Jack’s protestations.

Nevertheless, despite Room’s terrifying premise and outstanding acting, the film is not flawless. Joy’s plan to escape is fanciful at best (and unrealistic at worst). Additionally, the events leading up to Joy’s abduction are never fully expounded upon, and the same can be said about Joy’s family and the effects that her abduction have had on them. These two issues are particularly frustrating as it would not have been difficult for director Lenny Abrahamson to have elucidated upon them to make the movie more complete.

Over-all, Room is a very convincing film. The acting is wonderful and enables audiences to understand the characters and their predicaments, whether it be how an innocent child would see the world if he/she had only lived in a small shed, or how the torment of being abducted effects adults.

Nevertheless, Room is not an enjoyable movie. It is harrowing. What happens to Joy can happen to anyone. Thus, Room is a real horror film: one that upsets and unsettles viewers to the core.

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Review – The Martian (12a) [2015]

The Martian - title banner3

Star Rating: 4.5/5

Director:

Cast:

Music Composer:

  • Harry Gregson-Williams – Shrek I-IV, Kingdom of Heaven, Unstoppable, Blackhat, Life Briefly

On this blog, much has been made of the paucity of Ridley Scott’s films over the last fifteen years. For a director who once made Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator, it is astonishing that Scott has made terrible film after terrible film since Gladiator was released in 2000. So going into The Martian, what was one to expect? Another terrible film to add to Scott’s bloated collection? Actually, nothing of the sort: a pleasant surprise.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) with the NASA crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, sitting down), before they go out to explore.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) with the NASA crew, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain, sitting down), before they go out to explore.

The Martian is based on Andrew Weir’s 2011 novel with the same title. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is exploring Mars with a NASA team, led by Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). The team are out on the Red Planet when a freak storm occurs, knocking Mark away. Believing that he is dead, and fearing that the storm will destroy the team’s means of getting home, Melissa orders an evacuation.

However, Mark is not dead and wakes up to find that the team have left Mars without him. Considering that the next NASA flight mission to Mars is not for another four years, Mark knows he’s going to be stuck on his own on Mars for a while. Yet, he only has enough food for a few months. So how will he survive?

At its core, The Martian has a simple premise: how Mark, all on his own, is going to keep himself alive. One might ask oneself how interesting such a plot could be. Yet, surprisingly, The Martian is an entertaining, innovative and engaging movie. Undoubtedly, it is Ridley Scott’s finest film since Gladiator! (Then again, with Kingdom of Heaven, Prometheus, The Counsellor and Exodus among his recent films, that is not saying much at all.)

The sudden (contrived) storm that knocks Mark away.

The sudden (contrived) storm that knocks Mark away.

Part of the reason why The Martian is so good is because the desert scenery of Mars (or, rather, of Jordan, where the movie was filmed) is beautifully shot. Seeing the landscape of this foreign planet is as wondrous as any awe-inspiring place on Earth, as evidenced in The Way Back, True Grit, Sanctum and Macbeth, to name but four. Moreover, The Martian is an extremely interesting film. Our main character, Mark, is a (genius) botanist, and it is fascinating watching him carry out scientific experiments using natural elements in order to survive.

But while the scenery is wondrous and the experiments are ingenious, The Martian would not have been half as engrossing without really good acting. Matt Damon has such a magnificent screen presence that he, alone (quite literally), can hold audiences’ attentions. Sean Bean is good as the honourable (Ned Stark-like) man, as is Chiwetel Ejiofor. Jeff Daniel’s is also decent as the NASA director, with the (legitimate) counter-arguments to Bean’s and Ejiofor’s suggestions. And, lastly, the crew (headed by Jessica Chastain) play decently enough with the little time that they’re given on screen.

Assisting the cast, however, is a really good script, which ensures that The Martian surpasses recent, phenomenal space films such as Gravity and Interstellar. This is because the former was let down by a B-movie script, while the latter suffered from an incoherent storyline. The Martian, by contrast, has all the best elements of those movies, plus humour. The humour, in itself, warrants that viewers empathise with the characters and (cleverly) enables audiences to ignore the scientific technicalities if they don’t understand them.

Upon waking up and returning to the base, Mark sits alone and wonders what he is to do. Not least, what will he do about food as his supplies are low?

Upon waking up and returning to the base, Mark sits alone and wonders what he is to do. Not least, what will he do about food as his supplies are low?

Scott gets a lot right with The Martian. Nevertheless, that is not to say that the movie is not without its faults. First, the storm at the beginning of the film is massively contrived to get the plot moving. And, second, the movie is predictable and the ending is an utter cliché. Yet, if these are the main flaws of the film, they are quite trivial, thereby emphasising just how well Scott has done with this movie.

All-in-all, The Martian is a very entertaining film. It has no significant faults, it is innovative and it is funny. To think that the movie is predominantly about a man stuck on Mars on his own, trying to survive against the elements, underlines how impressive The Martian is. It also highlights that Ridley Scott still can direct excellent movies, despite his atrocious recent record. Let’s hope that The Martian can inspire Scott to cease making films of the poverty of Prometheus and Exodus, so that he can return to making films of the brilliance of Alien, Blade Runner and Gladiator.

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Review – The Hunger Games (12a) [2012]

Star Rating: 3/5

Over the last decade, there have been a multitude of reality TV shows/series targeted for children and teenagers. Big Brother, The X Factor and The Apprentice are three such programmes that have gripped the nation, despite becoming sterile in recent years. Based on a similar, yet darker premise, The Hunger Games entertains its audience prior to running for too long.

Katniss (Jeniffer Lawrence) hunting in the woods to find food for her family, wherein she meets her childhood friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth).

The Hunger Games is based on the book with the same title by Suzanne Collins. It’s based in a dystopian, post-apocalyptic country called Panem, which was once territory in North America. As punishment for a people’s rebellion, each one of the twelve now-impoverished districts has to put forward their boys and girls, between the ages of twelve to eighteen, to compete in a tournament called the Hunger Games. At random, one boy and one girl are chosen to compete in the games, which are watched by thousands throughout the country. The tournament, controlled by a repressive leadership, is a fight to see who will survive. Only one, out of the twenty-four chosen, will return home.

After her younger sister, Primrose (Willow Shields), is picked to compete in the tournament, 16-year-old Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence – Winter’s Bone, X-Men: First Class, X-Men: Days of Future Past) volunteers to take her sister’s place. Katniss has spent years illegally hunting with her friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth – Knowing, The Last Song, Independence Day II: Resurgence), for food in the woods outside of District 12. Now, taken to the affluent capital for pre-tournament training, along with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson – The Polar Express, The Kids Are Alright, Red Dawn), Katniss must use her skills and learn other arts from her mentors, Haymitch (Woody Harrelson – No Country For Old Men, Friends With Benefits, Seven Psychopaths) and Cinna (Lenny KravitzThe Rugrats Movie, Precious, The Blind Bastard Club), to survive the games.

The plot for the film is quite accurate to the book, despite missing the Avox sub-plot and changing the skin-colour of some of the characters, such as Katniss and Rue (Amandla Stenberg – Texas Killing Fields, Colombiana).

Katniss’s main opponent in the games, Cato (Alexander Ludwig). He is vicious and ruthless.

Nonetheless, The Hunger Games is an interesting movie, not least due to its brutal, Orwellian premise. (Note how down-trodden and miserable the common people are in comparison to the powerful elites.) Moreover, the film offers a refreshing change to the fantasy/science-fiction genre by having an outwardly tough, mentally-strong woman in a combatant role as the lead character (unlike the feeble Bella from the Twilight series).

However, at 142 minutes, The Hunger Games is far too long. A movie needs to be something special to hold its audience for that length of time, and The Hunger Games loses its viewers almost as soon as Katniss enters the tournament. One feels little suspense during the games, and one also feels that Katniss is never in real danger (unlike in Game of Thrones, where one never knows how long any of the characters will live).

Furthermore, the film lacks the violence it deserves. In 2000, a Japanese film with a comparable theme, called Battle Royale, was released. (Suzanne Collins denies being influenced by the movie.) That film acquired an 18-rating, due to the vicious content. But, just as The X-Factor has to adhere to rules so minors can watch it (even if Christina Aguilera and Rihanna stuck two fingers up to those in 2010), director Gary Ross (Pleasantville, Seabiscuit, The Free State of Jones) had to make the violent aspects of The Hunger Games implicit to the movie’s detriment. It makes the film less realistic; and, by merely shaking the camera, Ross makes the fight scenes hard to follow.

Fighting for one’s life in a forest is what the games are about. Yet, Katniss appears remarkably relaxed throughout. One only has to watch Vietnam War films, such as Apocalypse Now and Platoon, to realise soldiers’ edginess whilst in the jungle. Katniss, though, not only sleeps well, she’s even willing to help out others (seemingly unbothered that they could kill her when she’s not looking or asleep). It is astonishing that for someone so mentally hard, she’s unwilling to do what’s necessary to survive.

Despite Katniss’s inherent contradictions, Jennifer Lawrence gives a credible performance as the lead character (who always looks lovely and clean after rolling around in the dirt). Likewise, Donald Sutherland (The Italian Job, The Eagle, Sofia), as the pitiless President Snow; and Woody Harrelson, as the alcoholic mentor, also perform decently. But the rest of the cast, including Josh Hutcherson, as the wimpy Peeta; Stanley Tucci (The Devil Wears Prada, Captain America: The First Avenger, The Company You Keep), as Caesar Flickerman, the daft-smiling hand of the president; and Alexander Ludwig (The Seeker: The Dark Is Rising), as Cato, Katniss’s nasty and fierce opponent in the games, give pathetic, one-dimensional displays.

Katniss, looking much like Tulisa Contostavlos, in tightly-fitted leather, training before the games with Peeta (Josh Hutcherson). She and him are receiving advice from Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) on how to beat Cato and his gang.

It is a shame that most of the actors give poor performances. The movie has been put together nicely, James Howard (Love And Other Drugs, The Tourist, Snow White And The Huntsman) has composed a respectable score, and the special effects are brilliant. Panem’s capital has been wonderfully constructed and is a sight to behold.

All-in-all, The Hunger Games has a strong, but flawed, main character, with an intriguing, 1984-like basis to a reality TV show. But, ultimately, the movie has been hamstrung to cater to children and teenagers. Consequently, it is predictable and, like most reality TV shows/series, the film peters out before it ends.

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Review – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (15) [2011]

Star Rating: 4/5

The Bourne series, 24 and Munich, in their different ways, show audiences that the world of the secret services is a murky one, where mistrust and paranoia are rife. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (TTSS) may not be a standard catch-and-shoot the bad guy thriller. Nevertheless, with a star-studded cast, TTSS is an excellent, if puzzling, portrayal of the nature of the top echelons of the secret services.

George Smiley (Gary Oldman), adopting his standard pose, explains a few things to his assistant, Peter Guillam, in one of the secret places where they do their work.

TTSS is based on the novel by John Le Carré, who worked for the best part of 20 years in MI5 and MI6; the movie is also a shortened remake of the 1979 TV series. TTSS is set in early-1970s Britain, during the Cold War. There is a mole in the ‘Circus’, the MI6 internal nickname for the highest levels of the British intelligence services. Someone is giving classified information to a Soviet agent called Polyakov (Konstantin Khabenskiy – Wanted). But who is it?

Control (John Hurt – V For Vendetta, Harry Potter VII(i) & VII(ii), Immortals) brings back his former colleague, George Smiley (Gary Oldman – Air Force One, Harry Potter III-V & VII(ii), The Dark Knight Rises), from retirement in order to discover who is behind the leak. But Smiley and his personal assistant, Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch – Atonemment, Star Trek II, The Hobbit II), must do their work in secret. This is to make sure that the other members of the ‘Circus’ – Percy Alleline (Toby Jones – Frost/Nixon, Captain America: The First Avenger, Snow White and the Huntsman), Bill Hayden (Colin Firth – The Importance of Being Earnest, The King’s Speech, Before I Go To Sleep), Roy Bland (Ciarán Hinds – Munich, Harry Potter VII(ii), The Debt) and Toby Esterhase (David Denick – War Horse, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) – don’t find out what they’re up to. Any one of them could be the traitor.

The plot for TTSS may sound straight forward, but it is not. Rather, it is slow and very confusing. The movie is also hard to follow because it does not follow a linear timeframe. Viewers are rarely certain if they’re watching the past or the present. Moreover, the director, Tomas Alfredson (Let The Right One In), does not give the complete context of the story; for example, there is no hint of the five Cambridge pro-Soviet traitors that riddles the book.

Peter Guillam (Benedict Cumberbatch) looking through files to find information on the mole.

This is not to say that Alfredson has made a bad film. On the contrary, the slowness of TTSS is, arguably, a reflection of the world of espionage, which Le Carré, who assisted in the movie’s production, understands so well. Seen in this light, even the many seemingly pointless short, silent scenes of Smiley going into a room or a house on his own have a purpose, since they give TTSS a greater feel for the workings of MI6.

In addition, the brilliant acting throughout the movie aids our understanding of the type of people that tend to be at the top echelons of the secret services. A lecturer of mine at university told me that Hilter’s military intelligence chief (and double-agent), Wilhelm Canaris, upheld a persona to make it seem to others that he was not on the ball. In a similar vein, all the men in the ‘Circus’ in TTSS have their manufactured character guises. No-one in the film has this more than Smiley. In the lead role, the ever-sound Gary Oldman plays Smiley exceptionally well. Whilst no James Bond, Oldman never loses his concentration as Smiley; he always remains head-down, calm and monotonous, yet perspicacious, even when there is emotion stirring within him. It is a shame for Oldman that many subtleties of Smiley’s character, from the book and the TV series, have been taken out by Alfredson.

All of the supporting cast suffer from the same problems. Everyone plays very well, but since the film is only 127 minutes (and may seem longer to those not enjoying it), there is not enough time for all of the nine main characters, including Jim Prideaux (Mark Strong – Kick-Ass, The Eagle, Zero Dark Thirty) and Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy – Layer Cake, Inception, Warrior), to have real depth. To the cast’s credit, none of them appear shallow on screen, and some of them are given the time to express themselves to a degree.

Ricki Tarr (Tom Hardy) as the active secret agent on the streets to help find people who may be connected to the mole.

The impressive acting is matched by the settings throughout TTSS. From the clothes; to the hairstyles; to the cars; to the fax machines (and lack of mobile phones); to the smoking, everything has the appearance of the late-1960s/early-1970s. Remarkably, nothing is out of place.

The music used throughout the film is, perhaps, the exception to this. While the music is not of its era, its strangeness, more often than not, enhances the confounding plot and the tension in some of the scenes.

TTSS is not a conventional spy/secret-agent thriller. The film moves at a measured pace and is very confusing to the extent that one may go home without having completely understood the movie. One may even need to be a fan of this niche genre to truly appreciate it. Yet, with fantastic acting – particularly from Gary Oldman – TTSS depicts its era and the underhandedness of the inner workings of the top levels of the secret services down to a tee.

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