Last Vegas (2013) – Movie Review

Last Vegas (2013)

Cast: Michael Douglas, Robert De Niro, Morgan Freeman, Kevin Kline, Mary Steenburgen, Jerry Ferrara, Romany Malco, Roger Bart, Joanna Gleason, Michael Ealy

Writer: Dan Fogelman

Director: Jon Turteltaub

Viewed: Wednesday 19 February 2014 @ Event Cinemas Myer Centre, Brisbane.

Well colour me surprised. Recently, gathering a group of “big name” stars for a comedy hasn’t always meant great results (I’m talking about you Valentine’s Day & New Year’s Eve). Then there is the fact that De Niro has been in some truly terrible films over the last few years, Freeman spent most of 2013 phoning in his performances, and I can’t remember the last time I saw Douglas or Kline in anything, let alone something good (yes, I know Douglas has Behind the Candelabra, but I haven’t seen it so my statement stands). Understandably, I had low expectations heading in to Last Vegas, and I was pleased beyond belief to have them greatly exceeded.

Legend...wait for it...

Legend…wait for it…

When Billy (Douglas, The Game) proposes to his less-than-half-his-age girlfriend (Bre Blair, Quarintine 2: Terminal) while delivering a eulogy at a friend’s funeral, his best friends of the last 60 years decide to throw him a bachelor weekend in Vegas. There are some long simmering tensions in the group but Sam (Kline, Wild Wild West) wants to escape his wife (Gleason, Sex and the City) who he is bored with, Archie (Freeman, The Shawshank Redemption) wants to escape his overbearing son (Ealy, Underworld: Awakening), and Paddy (De Niro, Silver Linings Playbook) wants to escape his empty apartment after the death of his wife a year earlier, so they all end up in the city of sin. There they meet lounge singer Diana (Steenburgen, Step Brothers), confront issues from the past and present, and “party like it’s 1959”.

Ok, yes, Last Vegas is as cliché as they come. Everything you think would happen in a “fish out of water” story of a group of 70 year olds partying it up in Vegas certainly does. People laugh at them, they try to get in to clubs, they ogle big breasts, they declare that they must take naps. You’ll also know exactly how the movie is going to end in the first 20 minutes. The thing is, it’s still so much more than that. It’s genuinely funny for one. There was only a small audience in the theatre but everyone was LOLing very often. The comic timing and delivery of the leads is perfect (Morgan Freeman drunk on Red Bull Vodkas comes straight to mind). I actually can’t remember a joke that didn’t work. It’s also extremely moving in a number of places. De Niro doesn’t do vulnerable very often, but he should. Paddy’s anger at Billy and subsequent softening towards him is some of his best work in my recent memory. Billy’s inevitable epiphany towards the end of the movie that he hasn’t been as good a friend as he could and he’s not as young as he used to be also caused a tear to well in my eye. Freeman and Kline get their chance to shine too.

There are a couple of very small negatives. There’s an odd cameo from LMFAOs Redfoo that doesn’t really work (though I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when they explained to De Niro what would be happening to him during this scene). A later, smaller cameo hits a better note. A storyline involving Sam and a cross-dressing Roger Bart (The Stepford Wives) doesn’t really evolve into anything (I think it’s supposed to show Sam that “odd couples” can work, but we don’t know enough about he and his wife for this to really resonate). Finally, Billy and Sam aren’t always the most sympathetic of characters. Both of these guys have women at home but are in Vegas acting like single men. Again though, these are all minor and don’t affect the enjoyment of the movie.

This was clearly a very fun movie to make. It’s obvious throughout the entire viewing. There are great performances all round with a couple of the leads even going some way towards mending past transgressions in my mind. The film’s conclusion is rife with sequel opportunities but that’s something I definitely hope doesn’t happen. It works as it is and needs to stay as a standalone (remember how much you loved The Hangover? Remember how fast it went downhill with the sequels? In fact there have been a lot of comparisons between this and The Hangover but the two are completely different brands of comedy). Comedies are hard to judge because everybody has a different sense of humor but I had a great time watching this. For all these reasons I give Last Vegas 4 Rant and Rave points.

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The Wolf of Wall Street (2013) – Movie Review

The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)

Cast: Leonardo DeCaprio, Jonah Hill, Margot Robbie, Kyle Chandler, Rob Reiner, Jon Bernthal, Matthew McConaughey

Writer: Terence Winter

Director: Martin Scorsese

Viewed: Wednesday 22 January 2014 @ Event Cinemas Indooroopilly, Brisbane.

Arguably the most hotly anticipated, non-sequel (Desolation of Smaug, Catching Fire) release of late 2013/early 2014, The Wolf of Wall Street has finally arrived. The internet has been buzzing for more than a year about this movie, with stories of 4-hour running times, issues with ratings, setting records for the use of profanities, extreme drug use, sex and nudity, and glorifying the life of its criminal protagonist, Jordan Belfort, and this was before it was nominated for a slew of Oscars (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay). It is not an exaggeration that The Wolf of Wall Street had a lot of hype to live up to. Could it ever possibly have a chance of meeting such high expectations?

Insert high-pitched howl here.

Insert high-pitched howl here.

After learning the “true” ways of Wall Street and becoming a licenced stockbroker under the tutelage of Mark Hanna (McConaughey, Mud), Jordan Belfort (DeCaprio, Django Unchained) has soon created his own company, consisting of a group of his friends in an old garage, selling useless “penny stocks” to unsuspecting fools. The scam takes off successfully and soon Belfort and his best friend/partner, Donnie Azoff (Hill, This is the End), have a large office full of workers, are millionaires and are living a high life of sex, drugs, yachts, mansions, and money smuggling. Things begin to come undone for Belfort when an FBI agent (Chandler, Super 8) starts investigating him, but it is ultimately Belfort’s own arrogance that is his true downfall.

Well, expectations met. This movie is great fun. Scorsese has created a world and characters you will love to hate. Belfort is a douche-y as they come, but DeCaprio is so energetic and mesmerising in his performance that you can’t help but understand how the real-life Belfort was easily able to suck so many people in to his schemes. Really, the whole cast has this effect. It’s perfect. McConaughey, in what amounts to a small cameo role, leaves an impression that lasts through the entire film. Hill is just going from strength to strength in Hollywood. Both he and DeCaprio deserve the Oscars they have been nominated for. Margot Robbie (About Time), wow, all of Australia should be proud of the girl from Ramsey Street as she holds her own against some of America’s most famous stars. Her role could have so easily become a caricature, but Robbie keeps that from happening. There just isn’t a single mistake made in the casting process.

If there is anything stopping The Wolf of Wall Street receiving a perfect score, it’s its running time. Three hours isn’t too long for a movie by any means, it’s just that the first two acts are so fast-paced and engrossing that you barely realise they are passing. In the third act, however, when things begin to unravel for Belfort, the film slows down ever so slightly, but it’s enough to make you start checking you watch. Cuts could have been made (well, more cuts anyway, since considerable cuts have already been made to reach the current run time). That is a very small criticism though. It’s not as if you’ll be sighing in relief when the credits start to roll. Possibly quite the opposite because you will be wanting to spend more time with DeCaprio in the role of his career.

It’s impossible to deny that Martin Scorsese (Goodfellas) is a brilliant filmmaker and The Wolf of Wall Street continues his legacy. Plus, who doesn’t love a Scorsese/DeCaprio collaboration (the two of them appear to be working to undo the record kept by Burton and Depp). All his signature techniques are present here, the New York setting, the slow motion, beginning the movie with a scene from further along the storyline. The difference between Scorsese and other directors’ techniques (J.J. Abrams’ lens-flares for example) is that Scorsese never over uses them or makes them feel forced down our throats. In a movie where the subject matter and characters are so horrid and offensive (I can’t imagine any other situation where I would laugh so hard after hearing the words cerebral palsy), he manages to create a perfect balance so you have no choice but to find yourself entertained by what you are experiencing. For all these reasons I give The Wold of Wall Street 4 ½ Rant and Rave points.

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Saving Mr. Banks (2013) – Movie Review

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

Cast: Emma Thompson, Tom Hanks, Colin Farrell, Ruth Wilson, Annie Rose Buckley, Paul Giamatti, Bradley Whitford, B.J. Novak, Jason Schwartzman, Rachel Griffiths

Writers: Kelly Marcel & Sue Smith

Director: John Lee Hancock

Viewed: Friday 17 January 2014 @ Event Cinemas Indooroopilly, Brisbane.

A quick Wikipedia search on the woman who penned the Mary Poppins books makes for a compelling read and the life of P.L. Travers would certainly make for an interesting film. Apparently though, Hollywood was not so interested. That is until it was decided to focus on the production of the Mary Poppins movie. And so we have Saving Mr. Banks, a dramatisation of Travers’ time as a part of the wonderful world of Disney.

Perhaps one of the best movie posters in recent memory.

Perhaps one of the best movie posters in recent memory.

It’s the early 1960’s and Pamela Travers (Thompson, Love Actually) is running out of money. Walt Disney (Hanks, Cast Away) has been chasing the rights to Mary Poppins for 20 years now and, against her better judgment, Travers relents and decides to meet with Disney and his team, including scriptwriter Don DaGradi (Whitford, The Cabin in the Woods) and songwriters Robert (Novak, Inglourious Basterds) and Richard (Schwartzman, Moonrise Kingdom) Sherman, in L.A.. Travers, however, insists on complete creative control over the film and proceeds to make life extremely difficult for everyone involved in the project. Travers’ time in Los Angeles is intercut with flashbacks to her childhood in Australia were her father (Farrell, Fright Night) struggles with alcoholism, her mother (Wilson, The Lone Ranger) with depression and the young Helen “Ginty” Goff (Travers’ birth name) meets the real-life inspiration for the magical Nanny.

People are saying that Tom Hanks has been “robbed” by not receiving an Oscars nomination for his portrayal as Disney, but it is Thompson who has truly been robbed (although, admittedly, Cate Blanchet deserves the win for Blue Jasmine). As the stern and harshly blunt Travers, Thompson delivers every eye roll, every sigh, every criticism and demand with absolute perfection. The whole cast is indeed in excellent form (Colin Farrell, particularly, delivers his best performance since In Bruges), but this is definitely Thompson’s film and she carries it brilliantly. Don’t get me wrong, Hanks is great too, but not Oscars great.

Other standouts are the set and costume designs, which will have you believing you’ve been transported back to the 60’s. From downtown L.A. to Disneyland, from Disney’s offices to modes of travel, everything looks legit. The scenes in early 1900’s Australia are also well done. They work. Flashbacks aren’t always everybody’s cup of tea but the story being told in these add to the overall narrative of the film and are edited into the main story in such a way that they are never distracting, in fact I found myself waiting for them to find out what would happen next. Annie Rose Buckley, in her first role besides one episode of Home and Away, proves herself extremely capable as the young Travers and has great chemistry with Farrell.

“Based on a true story” films always need to be taken with a grain of salt, and this one probably needs to be taken with a teaspoon on salt (see what I did there?). It has obviously been Disney-fied to the extreme. Travers was not a nice person and almost certainly never softened towards the Mary Poppins movie or the team behind it in the way it is presented for us here. It’s hard to imagine the same woman who demands the exclusion of any songs (along with the colour red) from the movie dancing around the room with the Sherman brothers to on one of the musical inclusions in a matter of a couple of weeks in their company. Making Travers a little more sympathetic than she was in real-life is understandable though. The film wouldn’t work quite was well if she was just an absolute bitch the whole time. As dishonest as it may be, it is a brilliantly made, acted and entertaining movie. For all these reasons I give Saving Mr. Banks 4 ½ Rant and Rave points.

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2013) – Movie Review

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2013)

Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightly

Writers: Adam Cozad & David Koepp

Director: Kenneth Branagh

Viewed: Thursday 16 January 2014 @ Event Cinemas Myer Center, Brisbane.

Well this was inevitable. I had been having such a good run of seeing great movies that something had to come along to ruin it all. A movie so bad it would finally let me have a good rant. A movie so bad you wonder how the name Kenneth Branagh could be listed in the credits as an actor let alone as the director! A movie so bad you wonder how anyone involved in its production could have ever been taking it seriously. A movie so bad you feel the  company and people responsible for it should be paying you to suffer through it instead of the other way around. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is that movie.

The best thing about this movie: the poster

The best thing about this movie: the poster

The movie opens, inexplicably (maybe this is covered in the books but it is certainly given no explanation here) with Jack Ryan (Pine, Star Trek) studying in London. He sees coverage of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on a television and in the next scene is in the military serving in Afghanistan. In a sequence so ridiculously edited you have absolutely no chance of deciphering what is happening a missile hits the helicopter Jack is travelling in and he is horrifically injured. Now he’s in an army hospital learning to walk again and “flirting” with Cathy (Knightly, Atonement), the med student responsible for his rehab. While he’s there Jack is creepily being watched by Thomas Harper (Costner, Waterworld) who may or may not work for the CIA and thinks some reports Jack wrote back in his Afghanistan days were good enough to warrant him becoming a CIA analyst. This is all enough for Jack to really want to walk again. Ten years flash by and Jack and Cathy are together and Jack is, indeed, an analyst for the CIA who works undercover in banks uncovering terrorist financial activities. There’s some suspicious stuff going on with some Russian associates of the bank and, of course, nobody but Ryan is suitable to travel to Moscow and meet with the (possibly) Russian terrorist, Viktor (Brenagh, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets). Soon Ryan is killing people, Cathy is assisting in CIA sting operations and Russians are trying to start “the next great depression”.

Where do I even start with this garbage? Well, I certainly have nothing positive to say so I’ll jump straight in to the negative. Firstly, every casting decision is terrible. Pine does not at all convince as Ryan and Knightly is flat and boring. Put them both together on screen and there is zero chemistry. It’s like they don’t even know each other when they have supposed to have been together for years. Brenagh as the Russian bad guy? Please. It’s probably his worst performance ever. Costner comes off the best of the bunch, but that isn’t saying much. The script is awful. Events occur simply to progress the “storyline” and rules are established and then broken as soon as it’s convenient. There is never any tension established. You never care for any of the characters or about anything taking place. The direction? Oh dear. There is not a single flourish or shot of originality. There is no love engrained in any of it. No care. It’s lazy, pedestrian work on Branagh’s part and it’s severely disappointing.

“Let’s reboot the Jack Ryan franchise!” they said. “It’ll be great!” they said. They were so very, very wrong. Instead, it’s a piece of shit. There is absolutely nothing to recommend this movie. It’s not worth the price of admission to the cinema and it won’t be worth the price of renting or buying it when it is released on bluray. Hell, it isn’t even worth the time or space it would take up on your computer to illegally download it (not that I would ever condone such a thing). For all these reasons I give Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit 0 Rant and Rave points.

Read my good friend, Doctor Ry’s review here.

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The Book Thief (2013) – Movie Review

The Book Thief (2013)

Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Ben Schnetzer, Sophie Nelisse, Nico Liersch, Roger Allam

Writer: Michael Petroni

Director: Brian Percival

Viewed: Sunday 12 January 2014 @ Event Cinemas Indooroopilly, Brisbane.

The 2006 novel The Book Thief, written by Markus Zusak, is a superbly written story. The concept of Death narrating the life events of a small girl he encounters during Nazi Germany is so brilliant, and so wonderfully done, that the book is a pretty perfect entity in itself, making, in my humble (yet all-important) opinion, a film adaptation completely unnecessary. Nethertheless here it is. So how does the story of The Book Thief stand up on the big screen?

That there's some terrible CGI fire.

That there’s some terrible CGI fire.

After the death of her little brother and abandonment by her Communist mother, Liesel Meminger (Nelisse, Pawn Sacrifice) is taken to live with Hans (Rush, The King’s Speech) and Rosa (Watson, Red Dragon) Hubermann during the rise of Hitler in Germany. In between stealing books whenever the opportunity presents itself, Liesel develops relationships with her “new parents”, the neighbour-boy, Rudy (Liersch, Afrika Ruft Nach Dir), the wife of the Mayor (Barbara Auer, The Weekend), and a Jew named Max (Schnetzer, Ben’s Plan), who has a connection to Hans’ past and shows up on their doorstep one night seeking refuge. Through these friendships Liesel begins to understand the world she is growing up in and that “sometimes when life robs you, you have to rob it back.”

I freely admit it is hard for me not to compare the book and the movie. I really do love the book. That being said though, the movie is pretty damn good too. Geoffrey Rush and Emily Watson are both perfectly cast as the Humbermann’s, in fact the whole cast is impressive (the child actors, which can so often ruin a movie, are great); the friendship between Liesel and Max is developed well (the two of them together have some great chemistry and generate most of the movie’s LOL moments); the young love between Liesel and Rudy is sweet, innocent and believable; and the whole town and community of small-town Molching, Germany during WWII is beautifully realised on screen. The film left almost as much of an impression on me as the book (if you don’t have tears in your eyes during the film’s final few minutes there’s every chance you might be missing a small part of your soul).

Sure, some sub-plots from the book have been exercised, but that is necessary and expected. Much of Death’s witty, hauntingly accurate narration has been lost, but again you can’t have everything. Overall it’s still a great story being told, and told well. When watching book adaptations I always wonder: would the author be happy with this? In this case I can’t see how Zusak couldn’t be. For all these reasons I give The Book Thief 4 Rant and Rave points.

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The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013) – Movie Review

The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (2013)

Cast: Ben Stiller, Kristen Wiig, Adam Scott, Shirley MacLaine, Sean Penn

Writer: Steve Conrad

Director: Ben Stiller

Viewed: Wednesday 08 January 2014 @ Event Cinemas Indoorooilly, Brisbane.

Going to see Ben Stiller star in a movie can be a big of a gamble. For every Zoolander there is a Little Fockers. For every There’s Something About Mary there’s a Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian. Going to see a movie that Ben Stiller directed and starred in however, is usually a pretty good investment.  That trend continues with his latest (and easily best) effort, The Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Sweet dreams are made of this...

Sweet dreams are made of this…

Walter (Stiller) is the type of guy who, if this were a Marvel movie, by the one-hour mark would have been injected with some kind of super serum or bitten by a radioactive centipede and developed some crazy powers. He’s the quiet, reserved type who spends his days daydreaming about how his life could be more interesting and pining for the woman (Wiig, Bridesmaids) he doesn’t think could ever even notice him. Having worked at Life magazine for 16 years Walter’s job is suddenly in jeopardy when the publication is bought out and the film negative for the cover photo of the final print edition, for which he is responsible, can’t be found. Clues from other negatives sent in by the photographer, Sean O’Connell (Penn, The Game) lead Walter on an adventure to not only find the missing photo, but also maybe himself.

I didn’t really know what to expect walking in to this movie. The trailer didn’t really give too much away and I have never seen the original 1947 movie or read the short story on which it is based. I hadn’t even heard about the “developmental hell” in which this remake has apparently been stuck in for years. All I know is I was blown away by what I experienced. Walter Mitty is a spectacular work of art. It is shot after shot of beauty. From scene transitions, to landscapes, to the soundtrack (including perhaps the best use of David Bowie’s Space Oddity ever), everything combines perfectly to create something exquisite to watch. The funny, LOL occasions work with moments of heart to create an equilibrium that so few movies successfully achieve. I could not be happier that this was the first movie I saw on the big screen in 2014.

Any negatives I felt while viewing this were only very minor. Sure, there isn’t a great deal of depth to the storyline. It’s very simple. A put-upon guy embarks on a life-changing adventure. It’s been done many times before, but not with so much style. There are a couple of scenes which seem a little OTT, like Walter’s encounter with a shark and a Benjamin Button fantasy sequence, but they still generate laughs so I can’t judge them too harshly. Overall, Stiller has outdone himself here and created something I’ll remember for a long time. I couldn’t recommend it more. For all these reasons I give The Secret Life of Walter Mitty 4 ½ Rant and Rave points.

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The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013) – Movie Review

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2013)

Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellan, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Benedict Cumberbatch

Writers: Fran Walsh, Philipa Boyens, Peter Jackson, Guillermo del Toro

Director: Peter Jackson

Viewed: Sunday 29 December 2013 @ Event Cinemas Indooroopilly, Brisbane.

Here we go again. Another Boxing Day brings us another bloated piece of Peter Jackson’s Hobbit trilogy puzzle. I wasn’t the biggest fan of Part One (looking back at my review I was surprised to find I was rather generous in giving it 3 Rant and Rave points), but early buzz about Part Two was that it was more exciting, more action orientated, and generally just more entertaining. So…is it?

Best. Lighter. Ever.

Best. Lighter. Ever.

Bilbo (Freeman, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy) continues his unexpected journey to help Thorin (Armitage, Captain America) and the rest of the dwarfs reclaim their homeland of Erebor from the dragon, Smaug. Along the way they encounter a skin shifter, lots of elves, lots of giant spiders, lots of orcs, lots of men and lots of water. Meanwhile, Gandalf (McKellan, X2) goes off to meet up with Radagast (Sylvester McCoy, Doctor Who) and investigate the return of an enemy from the past.

The main problem with this whole NEW trilogy is still glaringly present in that it is trying so damn hard to be so much like the OLD trilogy. There are too many occasions to count while watching Desolation where you find yourself thinking: This is just like what happened in insert name of one of the original The Lord of the Rings trilogy! I’ve never read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, but I have it on good authority that there are many, many inclusions to these movies that aren’t in the written version at all, and important events from the books are rushed through or completely missing from the movies. You would think having three long movies to adapt one short book would mean that everything could be included, but Jackson and Co. appear more interested in remaking The Lord of the Rings.

All that being said, Desolation is definitely better than Journey. In many ways. Not only for the reasons mentioned in the first paragraph, which are indeed true, but also because there is finally some progression to the overall story. While Journey was just an unnecessarily long introduction, Desolation actually has something to tell. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment in Desolation though is Smaug the dragon. This is easily the best dragon ever depicted on film. The design is flawless and Cumberbatch (Star Trek Into Darkness) is perfect. You can tell there was A LOT of time and effort put in to bringing this beast to life and it was well worth it. I also viewed this in the higher frame rate (I didn’t bother seeing Journey in 48fps) and was pleasantly surprised. I had heard many negative opinions on Jackson’s decision to present these films like this, but I loved it. Everything was so sharp and clear, even in 3D. I hope more directors embrace this in the future.

In the end it doesn’t really matter what is said about these movies. At this point Peter Jackson could probably film a short person with hairy feet taking a three hour dump in some random, lush New Zealand (which is practically a character too. There are some amazingly beautiful landscapes shown here) field and people would flock to see it. The Box Office takings for these films speaks for itself. He’s unarguably a great storyteller though, and he has certainly learned how to create a cliffhanger! Unlike last year, this time around I am absolutely looking forward to the next (and final) installment of The Hobbit trilogy. For all these reasons I give The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug 4 Rant and Rave points.

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