Sunday, 30 March 2014

Film Review: "Noah" (2014).

“’ This is the end of everything isn't it?’ ‘The beginning. The beginning of everything.’” Which is what Noah is all about. This biblical-based epic film is directed by Darren Aronofsky, written by Aronofsky and Ari Handel, and is based on the story of Noah's Ark. The film tells how Noah sees visions of an apocalyptic deluge and takes measures to protect his family from the coming flood by building an ark.

Aronofsky first discussed Noah with The Guardian in April 2007, telling the paper that the figure of Noah had fascinated him since he was thirteen years old. Aronofsky explained that he saw Noah as "a dark, complicated character" who experiences "real survivor's guilt" after the flood. Aronofsky was working on early drafts of the script for Noah around the time his first attempt to make The Fountain (2006) fell through when actor Brad Pitt left the project. Ari Handel – Aronofsky's collaborator on The Fountain, The Wrestler (2008) and Black Swan (2010) – helped Aronofsky develop the script. Before they found financial backing for Noah, they collaborated with Canadian artist Niko Henrichon to adapt the script into a graphic novel. The first volume of the graphic novel was released in French by Belgian publisher Le Lombard in October 2011 under the title Noé: Pour la cruauté des hommes (Noah: For the Cruelty of Men). After the creation of the graphic novel, Aronofsky struck a deal with Paramount and New Regency to produce a feature film of Noah with a budget of $130 million.

The film stars Russell Crowe as Noah, along with Jennifer Connelly, Ray Winstone, Emma Watson, Logan Lerman, Anthony Hopkins, and Douglas Booth. The performances in this film were brilliantly and superbly portrayed, especially with Crowe. Crowe gives a performance for the ages, a characterization that is ultimately a richly affecting, heart-wrenching yet ultimately redemptive one.

In its remarkable settings and décor, including an overwhelming superstructure that is the ark from which the story is centered on, and in this dark, gritty and glowing picture—Aronofsky has worked epic wonders with Noah. The film hits the peak of Aronosky’s directorial efforts since Black Swan. Aronofsky's direction, in terms of conceptual audacity and meticulousness of execution, is similar to that of Stanley Kubrick. It’s vivid storytelling at its best, with the rise of the ark as the highlight of the film. However, whether it deals with biblical themes or even human themes, no matter now visually rich, the film suffers from its own unfocused ambitions. Its supporters admire the film's beauty and find it daring; its detractors find it overblown and hokey. For me, it is both these cases. It's difficult to swallow the amalgamation of Biblical, Buddhism, Taoism, New Age and even Atheism, all of these different religions tossed into one big stew. To conclude, it's a movie that's as deeply complex as it is visually striking. It is already set to be one of the year's most love-it-or-hate-it movies.

Simon says Noah receives:

Tuesday, 25 March 2014

Film Review: "Cuban Fury" (2014).

The tagline of the film’s poster reads "All’s fair in love and salsa”, this describes perfectly what Cuban Fury brings to the dance floor! This romantic comedy film starring Nick Frost, Rashida Jones, Chris O'Dowd, Olivia Colman and Ian McShane. The film centers on a former teen salsa champion whose career was ruined, Bruce Garrett, is now a sad-sack engineer. But his passion for dancing is re-ignited by his crush on his gorgeous new boss, Julia, and he attempts to make a comeback. But the only way he can win her over is by mastering the art of dance. Now all Bruce needs to do is rediscover his inner passion (and lose 15 stone).

The performances in this film were all brilliantly and hilariously portrayed. Thanks to the cast of Jones, O'Dowd, Colman and McShane. But mostly to Frost's performance and contribution behind the scenes as he conceived the idea for the film. The film rides on Frost, who carries it with charm, grace and plenty of heart. Frost on the dance floor was like a peacock on amphetamines. He struts like crazy. Nick Frost delivers one of the great physical performances of the year. Frost gets so far inside the role he seems capable of a human and dramatic note; even the dramatic moments are unerring. Though I thought the sexual innuendoes, between the characters of Frost and O'Dowd, was quite excessive but still managed to keep its lustre from becoming a pile of cliches.

I enjoyed other dance films such as Billy Elliot (2000), Dirty Dancing (1987), Footloose (1984), Saturday Night Fever (1977) and Shall We Dance? (1996) so much. But Cuban Fury offers pleasures of its own. Five minute into the film and you know this picture is onto something, that it knows what it's talking about. The way the film has been directed and shot, we feel the vigorous pull of the salsa esque world, and the poppiness is transformed. These are among the most hypnotic salsa dance scenes ever filmed. At its best, the film gets at something deeply heartfelt: the need to move, to dance, and the need to be who you'd like to be. The film rocks to an exhilarating beat. However, it’s a tired and relentlessly predictable story of love between a man who is desperately trying to impress the woman of his dreams, who is way out of his league, with salsa dancing. It's not a bad gimmick, but the movie turns tediously sentimental fast. If the ending of the film is too neat and inspirational, the rough energy of the film's song and dance does carry one along, past the whispered doubts of better judgment. To conclude, there's nothing groundbreaking in the film, but it's a pleasant diversion starring the always amiable Nick Frost, with Chris O'Dowd relishing his role as a slimeball. If the film launches Frost into bigger and better films, it's worth it.

Simon says Cuban Fury receives:

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Film Review: "The Past" ("Le Passé", "گذشته‎") (2013).

From the director of A Separation comes The Past (Le Passé, گذشته‎ ). This French–Italian–Iranian drama film written and directed by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. An Iranian man returns to Paris for his divorce hearing. However, while mending his relationship with his stepchildren, he finds himself getting entangled in unexpected events.

Farhadi wrote the script in Persian and then lived in France for two years in order to better understand the rhythms of the French language so that he would be able to more accurately judge the translation of his script and the performance of his actors. By early October 2012, Bérénice Bejo, Tahar Rahim, Ali Mosaffa, Pauline Burlet, and Sabrina Ouazani were cast. Marion Cotillard was originally cast in the lead role, but dropped out due to scheduling conflicts. When the shootings began in September 2012, her film Rust and Bone was selected to participate in many film festivals and Cotillard had to travel and promote it. Bejo replaced her. During Bejo's audition, Farhadi had her fill her cheeks with cotton and put makeup on because he was looking for someone with a round face to better express doubt and thought Bejo's face was too oval. Mosaffa, an Iranian native, learned French two months before filming began with the help of his wife, Leila Hatami. Burlet was chosen by Farhadi for the role of Lucie because of her similarity with Cotillard. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in early January 2013. Filming took place in Paris, France. Farhadi insisted on a two month rehearsal period beforehand. As Farhadi is not a native French speaker, he had to direct the film through a translator.

The film stars Bejo, Rahim, Mosaffa, Burlet, and Ouazani. The acting's uniformly strong, always at the service of a somewhat knotty story.

Atmospheric and evocative, It's not the best of Farhadi, but even a lesser Farhadi is better than most films. Farhadi is a master of the drama, his gifts are a perfect fit for a family drama. A film of heart-wrenching moments that really lands a telling emotional bow. Farhadi is an excellent screenwriter and an impressive handler of actors, and the film definitely adds up to more than the sum of its parts. A great finish could have save an otherwise ho-hum film, just as a flat ending can undo an otherwise strong one. Luckily, the film is an example of neither. It's involving and entertaining for everybody involved. Its drama is intense, yet subtle, refraining from being over-the-top, but still delivering a good wallop. Though, a much better film would have drawn out the class distinctions that are at the heart of this story. Nonetheless, there is something about a story which peels back the layers so gently that really gets under the skin and when it's the secrets and lies of everybody involved - this is even more delectable. Farhadi demonstrates once again human nature is the greatest puzzle of all.

Simon says The Past receives:

Also, see my review for A Separation (جدایی نادر از سیمین‎).

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Film Review: "Wadjda" (2012).

The Wall Street Journal said Wadjda is "Funny and Touching. Discover what can make us happy, both as moviegoers and citizens of the world." This Saudi Arabian drama film, written and directed by Haifaa al-Mansour. The film follows a rebellious Saudi girl as she enters a Koran recitation competition at her school and hopes to win enough money to buy her own bicycle.

It was the first feature film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, and the first feature-length film made by a female Saudi director. According to al-Mansour, it took five years to make the film. She spent most of the time trying to find financial backing and getting filming permission, since she insisted on filming in Saudi Arabia for reasons of authenticity. She received backing from Rotana, the film production company of Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. However, she very much wanted to find a foreign co-producer because "in Saudi there are no movie theatres, there is no film industry to speak of and, therefore, little money for investment". After her selection for a Sundance Institute writer's lab in Jordan, al-Mansour got in touch with the German production company Razor Film, which had previously produced films with Middle-Eastern topics (Paradise Now (2005) and Waltz with Bashir (2008)). Al-Mansour was influenced by neorealist cinema, such as Vittorio De Sica's Bicycle Thieves (1948), Jafar Panahi's Offside (2006) and Rosetta (1999). The final scene recalls the final scene of François Truffaut's The 400 Blows (1959). Al-Mansour based the character of Wadjda on one of her nieces and also on her own experiences when growing up. The main themes of the story are freedom, as represented by the bicycle, and the fear of emotional abandonment, as Wadjda's father wants to take a second wife who will provide him with a son. Because of restrictions placed on women in Saudi Arabia, Al-Mansour was not allowed to interact with her mostly male crew. She had to direct the street scenes from a nearby van, watching through a monitor and giving instructions via walkie-talkie.

The film stars Waad Mohammed, Reem Abdullah, Abdullrahman Al Gohani, Sultan Al Assaf, and Ahd Kamel. Terrific performances were given by the cast. They , especially that of Mohammed, are so emotionally attached to their characters that we really feel the title character's intense suffering and even get to know her very well. 

Again the Saudi Arabia have sent us a brilliant and devastating film in this rueful drama of modern city life, Wadjda. Anchored by a performance of absolute determination and child-like instincts from its lead actress, the film is an extremely small Middle Eastern art movie from fist-time female Saudi Arabia director, Haifaa al-Mansour, that will alienate as many viewers as it wins over. Lutz Reitemeier's naturalistic, quasi-documentary cinematography helped Al-Mansour enormously but what the director herself provides is a sense that though there is no easy answer to the problems of growing up, there is a hope that will never be wholly denied.

Simon says Wadjda receives:

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Film Review: "Le Week-End" (2013).

"Nick & Meg are returning to Paris for a second honeymoon... and a last chance." Prepare for Le Week-End. This British-French drama film directed by Roger Michell, and written by Hanif Kureishi. The film follows a British couple who return to Paris many years after their honeymoon to rejuvenate their marriage.

In 2005, Michell and Kureishi developed the story and script after a weekend trip to Montmatre, Paris.

The film stars Jim Broadbent, Lindsay Duncan, Jeff Goldblum, and Olly Alexander. Broadbent and Duncan, who have a wider range than we sometimes realize, finds the human core of this couple and presents it tenderly. As adorable as Broadbent and Duncan may be, the ride feels low-rent, and the experience doesn't measure up to seeing Goldblum playing... basically himself. Goldbulm's screen presence is normally always welcome, however this time he is a victim, like the rest of the cast, of weak characterisation that never really delivers.

Though bolstered by thoroughly charming performances by Broadbent and Duncan in the lead roles, Le Week-End is a romantic comedy drama that lets down both its audience and its subject. The slapdash manner in which the film is assembled is genuinely shocking, It's simply prevailing idiocy. The film may have the look of a prestige picture, but it plays more like a version of a couple's romance and life as told by your boring grandparents, focusing on boring details and ignoring the interesting implications of the events depicted. The film insists on an unearned sentimentality and nostalgia about a situation and a period that is never fully evoked or explored. A frustrating, wasted opportunity, destined to remain in the shadow of Michell's other more worthwhile cinematic efforts. The film simply fizzles out a romantic effort and as a character study of two personages rekindling their dreary marriage that has potentially life-shaping consequences. A languid, tedious effort that never bothers to get to the heart of its characters, the film is a shallow reading of a significant narrative told mostly from the viewpoint of lifeless characters. Presenting two parallel narratives about the importance of love and fraternity, the film does a remarkable job of taking neither narrative strands particularly seriously. It seems there is no end of things to cringe at in this mess of a movie. Jeremy Sams' mildly piquant score and the mannered characterizations would suggest, making this piece of awards bait more shameless than most. The film is all setting, nothing but Parisian backdrops, and absolutely nothing to say. It's a real snore. The possibilities are endless, but none of them are explored with any depth herein. A tedious affair about a tedious affair. Even though it's uneven and ultimately underwhelming, there's plenty to admire and enjoy here nonetheless. The film has a particular kind of merit. It conveys something of a transparent experience, suggesting that the power of the subject escapes the attempt to contain it in a film and makes its way directly—albeit incidentally or even accidentally—to the viewer. 

Simon says Le Week-End receives:

Also, see my review for Hyde Park on Hudson.

Film Review: "Non-Stop" (2014).

"The hijacking was just the beginning" in Non-Stop. This action thriller film directed by Jaume Collet-Serra and written by John W. Richardson, Chris Roach and Ryan Engle. A US air marshal receives threatening messages demanding that his airline transfer a hundred and fifty million dollars to an offshore account, in the absence of which the passengers of his flight will be killed.

By early November 2012, Liam Neeson, Julianne Moore, Scoot McNairy, Michelle Dockery, Nate Parker, Corey Stoll, Lupita Nyong'o and Shea Whigham were cast in an action thriller with Collet-Serra as director and written by Richardson, Roach and Engle. At the same time, principal photography commenced and took place at York Studios in Maspeth, Queens, New York City; JFK Airport in Queens, New York, and Long Island MacArthur Airport in Ronkonkoma, New York. The set for the plane was built at York Studios and was built slightly larger than a standard commercial airliner, to accommodate Neeson's 6'4" height for filming. The film was the first from Silver Pictures to be distributed by Universal Pictures since the end of Silver's deal with Warner Bros

The film stars Neeson, Moore, McNairy, Dockery, Parker, Stoll, Nyong'o and Whigham. The film was well-performed thanks to the strong cast. Neeson is such a solid screen presence that he's able to anchor this outlandish Bourne-style conspiracy thriller. It's all tosh, of course, but great fun if you can suspend your disbelief. Even when the film doesn't quite work in the small details, we have Neeson as our point of identification, his inherent gravitas giving weight to that which otherwise might be quickly forgettable

While this wants to be much more important and deep than it is, it's ultimatley a mediocre suspense film that morphs into an action vehicle along the way. As anonymous as its title suggests, just another thriller in a sea of similar thrillers that, at their core, all seem basically the same. With little going for it and a laughable script, the film coasts along at a fast enough pace to justify the hundred and six minute runtime. As the film progresses, it becomes incomprehensible. The twists are too preposterous and the plot holes are too plentiful, making Unknown an absolute mess. The film, directed by Spanish genre hack Jaume Collet-Serra, seems to have confused itself with a sedate character piece when the premise demands relentless brain-off fun. However, the thriller is fun and action-packed but a few major plot holes and a few lazy twists definitely weigh it down. An exciting film that moviegoers will enjoy - even if they leave with a somewhat ambiguous understanding of the story that was unfolding outside of Neeson's character. With its intriguing story and thrilling action sequences, the film is worth checking out for those who are into action films as well as those who like a good mystery that needs solving. May eventually surrender to convention and implausibility in equal measure, but until then, Collet-Serra grounds the conspiracy with a proper sense of mystery and mood.

Simon says Non-Stop receives:

Film Review: "Lone Survivor" (2013).

"Based on True Acts of Courage." This is Lone Survivor. This biographical military action film adapted and and directed by Peter Berg, and based on the 2007 non-fiction book Lone Survivor: The Eyewitness Account of Operation Redwing and the Lost Heroes of SEAL Team 10 by Marcus Luttrell with Patrick Robinson. The film follows Marcus Luttrell and three Navy SEALs who are sent to locate Taliban leader Ahmad Shah in the Hindu Kush region of Afghanistan, where they become targets of enemy attacks.

Following its publication in 2007, producer Barry Spikings met Luttrell's attorney Alan Schwartz, who was interested in making a film adaptation. Schwartz suggested that Spikings' son-in-law Akiva Goldsman to pen the adaptation. However, Goldsman did not believe he was the right screenwriter for the project, and suggested that Berg write and direct the film. Spikings and Goldsman passed the book on to Berg's producing partner Sarah Aubrey. Berg first learned of the book while filming Hancock (2008), and after he and Aubrey read it, they arranged several meetings with Luttrell to discuss a film adaptation. Luttrell also viewed a rough cut of Berg's then-upcoming film The Kingdom (2007), and was impressed by his direction. The film rights to the book had become the subject of a bidding war among a host of established studios, including Warner Bros., Sony Pictures Entertainment, Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks, and Universal Pictures. In August 2007, Universal secured the rights for more than $2 million. Berg then chose to direct Battleship (2012) for Universal before resuming production on the film. Prior to writing the screenplay, Berg met with the families of the deceased. Berg also expressed that he was motivated by the families to make the story as realistic as possible. To provide authenticity, Luttrell moved into Berg's home for one month while Berg was writing the script. He acted as a consultant. Berg later embedded with a Navy SEAL team—becoming the first civilian to do so—and lived with them for a month in Iraq while he continued writing the screenplay. Berg had discussed the project with Mark Wahlberg, Taylor Kitsch, Hirsch, and Foster years earlier. When Wahlberg read the script and expressed an interest in portraying Luttrell. By early October Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch, Foster, and Eric Bana were cast. Although Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch and Foster had physically trained for their roles prior to filming, Luttrell organized a three-week training regimen at a bootcamp in New Mexico, where the actors were trained by military advisor Mark Semos in weapons, military communications, and tactics. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in mid November. Filming took place throughout New Mexico.

The film stars Wahlberg, Kitsch, Hirsch, Foster, and Bana. Wahlberg leading his team of experts into uncharted territory, which then leads to the longest, best action sequence of the year. Like the film, the cast unapologetically shows U.S. Navy SEALs knocking off terrorists.

While providing several top-notch action scenes and performances, Lone Survivor ultimately collapses under the weight of formula and muddled politics.

Simon says Lone Survivor receives:

Also, see my review for Battleship.