Monday, 29 August 2016

Film Review: "Ben-Hur" (2016).


"Brother against brother. Slave against empire." This is Ben-Hur. This historical epic film directed by Timur Bekmambetov, adapted by Keith Clarke and John Ridley, and based on the 1880 novel Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace. It is the fifth film adaptation, following the 1907 silent short film, the 1925 silent film, the Academy Award-winning 1959 film and the 2003 animated film of the same name. Judah Ben-Hur, a nobleman, is sentenced to years of slavery after being accused of treason by his adopted brother, Messala. However, he returns to seek revenge by competing with him in a race.

In 2013, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer acquired Clarke's script, an adaptation of Wallace's 1880 novel. In April 2014, Paramount Pictures and MGM announced that they would co-produce a new version of Ben-Hur. After MGM's global success of Skyfall and The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, and Paramount's modest success of Noah, they hired John Ridley to rewrite Clarke's script. It was announced that the new film would differ from the 1959 version, and deal with the formative relationships of Ben-Hur and Messala growing up as best friends. In September 2013, Timur Bekmambetov was hired to helm the film. Bekmambetov was initially reluctant to direct and did not wish to tackle a film whose predecessor had so much impact. After producer Sean Daniel persuaded him to read the script, he ultimately accepted. Unlike the previous adaptations, Bekmambetov felt the need to make a very different version. As a result, he decided to make a realistic drama film rather than a large tent-pole attraction. The director did not set out to make a more stylized version of the past, as he did with Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter; he wanted to make a film that was more grounded and tangible. Producer Mark Burnett stated that the film needed to feel like epic summer blockbusters in order to attract younger and secular audiences. He explained that part of what caused the immensity of the budget – $100 million – are the special effects and the 3D experience that young audiences are expecting. MGM financed 80% of the production costs, while the remaining 20% were covered by Paramount. Tom Hiddleston was originally considered for the title role. Ultimately, Jack Huston was cast. By early February, Toby Kebbell, Morgan Freeman, Nazanin Boniadi, Rodrigo Santoro, Sofia Black-D'Elia, Ayelet Zurer, Pilou Asbæk, and James Cosmo rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and took place at the Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Italy, as well as Matera. In October, the film's release date was pushed back to August 12, 2016 from its initial February 26, 2016.

The performances given by the cast did anything but bolster and justify this cinematic travesty.

Ben-Hur is something quite rare in movies these days - an unqualified disaster. It fails so completely that you might suspect Mr. Bekmambetov sold his soul to the devil to obtain the success of the 1959 Oscar-winning classic, and the Devil has just come around to collect.

Simon says Ben-Hur (2016) receives:



Also, see my review for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

Film Review: "War Dogs" (2016).


"Hustling their way to the American Dream" in War Dogs. This biographical dark comedy-crime film directed by Todd Phillips, written by Phillips, Jason Smilovic and Stephen Chin, and based on Guy Lawson's Rolling Stone article and book Arms and the Dudes. Based on true events, two friends in their early 20s living in Miami Beach during the Iraq War exploit a little-known government initiative that allows small businesses to bid on U.S. Military contracts. Starting small, they begin raking in big money and are living the high life. But the pair gets in over their heads when they land a 300 million dollar deal to arm the Afghan Military - a deal that puts them in business with some very shady people, not the least of which turns out to be the U.S. Government.

The film follows two arms dealers, Efraim Diveroli and David Packouz, who receive a U.S. Army contract to supply ammunitions for the Afghan National Army worth approximately $300 million. The film is heavily fictionalized and dramatized, an exaggerated account of the two young men who physically faced perilous situations abroad. Though Packouz and Diveroli dealt in danger, they mostly did it behind a computer screen. Many of the incidents in the film on Chin's experiences in Iraq. Initially, Jesse Eisenberg and Shia LaBeouf were set to star in the film; however, Jonah Hill and Miles Teller were eventually cast. The real David Packouz met with Teller, where as the real Diveroli declined to meet with Hill. Hill said "I'm used to it. If a person is aggressively against me playing them, it's probably a good sign." By early March 2015, Ana de Armas, Bradley Cooper, Kevin Pollak, Patrick St. Esprit, and Shaun Toub. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and took place in Miami, Florida; Los Angeles, California; Las Vegas, Nevada; Atlanta, Georgia; Casablanca, Morocco; and Bucharest, Romania.

The film stars Hill, Teller, de Armas, Cooper, Pollak, St. Esprit, and Toub. Teller is not entirely convincing playing the straight man and a little of Hill's antics goes a long way. Teller usually has a knack for picking decent movies. But this was not one of them. Hill keeps the laughs coming in the hilarious, banter-filled first half, but as the film descends into explosions, car-chases and awkwardly inserted moments of poignancy, it loses its wit and pacing in favor of predictable stunts. It's a tough double act, but both Teller and Hill pull it off with just enough confidence and some laughs here and there.

Shamelessly derivative and only sporadically funny, War Dogs doesn't live up to the possibilities suggested by its talented director and marvelously mismatched stars. The movie probably contains enough laughs to satisfy the weekend audience. Where it falls short is in the characters and relationships. The film is funny enough, but it should have been funnier. There are very few laugh-out-loud lines, but the situations prompt more curiosity about what will happen and/or how they'll get out of it than actual amusement.

Simon says War Dogs receives:



Also, see my review for The Hangover Part III.

Film Review: "Kubo and the Two Strings" (2016).


"The quest begins" in Kubo and the Two Strings. This stop-motion action fantasy film produced and directed by Travis Knight, in his directorial debut, written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, and produced by Laika. In a small village in an ancient mythical Japan, Kubo and his magic shamisen unwittingly summon vengeful spirits who wish to harm him and his ailing mother. While on the run, he encounters magical creatures, and learns the truth of his earthly family's connection to the heaven and stars.

In December 2014, the project was announced as the directorial debut of Laika's CEO Travis Knight. Knight was pitched the story by production designer Shannon Tindle as a "stop-motion samurai epic". Although the studio had never ventured into the genre before, Knight was enthusiastic about the project; owing partly his affinity towards both the "epic fantasy" genre as well as Japanese culture in general. Knight also took inspiration from Akira Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki, and The Beatles. The art took inspiration from such Japanese mediums as ink wash painting and origami among others. A particular influence came from the ukiyo-e wood block style, with Laika intending to make the entire film "to look and feel as if it's a moving woodblock print". Assistance came from 3D printing firm Stratasys who allowed Laika to use their newest technologies in exchange for feedback on them. Kubo had over forty-eight million possible facial expressions and a total of twenty-three thousand, one hundred and eighty-seven prototype faces were created for him. The Skeleton monster the team created a giant sixteen-foot (4.9m), four hundred-pound (180 kg) puppet, which Laika claims is the record holder for largest stop-motion puppet. The idea to make such a massive puppet was born out of a fear that individual smaller parts (meant to represent the larger monster) would not work well on screen interacting with the other puppets. The resulting puppet was built in two parts which were then attached together by magnets. For movement Laika had to design a robot to easily manipulate it. The team at one point purchased an industrial robot off of eBay but found that it would not work with their setup. The boat sequence took nineteen months to shoot. The film was shot in the 2:35:1 aspect ratio, and consisted of at least one hundred and forty five, thousand photographs. At one hour and forty-one minutes long, this is the longest stop-motion film to date, beating out Laika's Coraline (2009).

The film features the voice talents of Charlize Theron, Art Parkinson, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei, and Matthew McConaughey. Thanks to the terrific performances by the cast, the puppetry is impressive and is a feast for the eyes-and the stop-motion is fluid.

Beautifully animated and solidly scripted, Kubo and the Two Strings will entertain children while providing surprisingly thoughtful fare for their parents. Few movies so taken with Japanese mythology have felt so immersive as this film, the latest handcrafted marvel from the stop-motion artists at Laika.

Simon says Kubo and the Two Strings receives:


Tuesday, 16 August 2016

Film Review: "The Secret Life of Pets" (2016).


"Ever wonder what your pets do when you're not home?" This is The Secret Life of Pets. This computer-animated comedy film co-directed by Chris Renaud and Yarrow Cheney, written by Brian Lynch, Cinco Paul and Ken Daurio, and produced by Illumination Entertainment. Max is a spoiled terrier who enjoys a comfortable life in a New York building until his owner adopts Duke, a giant and unruly canine. During their walk outside, they encounter a group of ferocious alley cats and wind up in a truck that's bound for the pound. Luckily, a rebellious bunny named Snowball swoops in to save the doggy duo from captivity. In exchange, Snowball demands that Max and Duke join his gang of abandoned pets on a mission against the humans who've done them wrong.

In 2012, the film was in development during the production of Despicable Me 2, with Renaud attached as director. At that time, Illumination's CEO Chris Meledandri pitched him an idea on a film about what pets do when their caretakers are away. While Renaud found the premise interesting he and his team did not know what form the story would take, with them at one point considering making it a murder mystery, before deciding to make something "that was a bit more relatable". The team used Jean-Jacques Sempé as an influence in designing the environment and attention was specifically paid to keep the designs "very vertically oriented" In keeping with the tradition of old WB cartoons, the owners faces are almost never seen. The home of the Flushed Pets was created to "hint at the darker side" of pet ownership "without, hopefully, getting too heavy, as well as to explore "this whole mythology in New York of the world that’s unseen," while still maintaining the pet theme. The animation was created entirely in France by Illumination Mac Guff.

The film features the voice talents of Louis C.K., Eric Stonestreet, Jenny Slate, Kevin Hart, Ellie Kemper, Lake Bell, Dana Carvey, Hannibal Buress, Bobby Moynihan, Tara Strong, Steve Coogan, and Albert Brooks. The cast gave engagingly comical performances as the various pets.

The Secret Life of Pets is a surprisingly thoughtful, family-friendly treat with a few surprises of its own. Since animals so often steal the show in animation, the film smartly turns the whole operation over to loveable pets with minds and lives of their own. The setup is pure Looney Tunes, and indeed, the film is at its best when trading in the anything-for-a-laugh prankery that was a specialty of the Termite Terrace crowd. The film is a 3D cartoon comedy of whiplash-quick laughs, funny punch lines and a wickedly gimmicky appreciation for 3D. Kids will dig it, adults will smile with amusement, and no one will be any different afterward than they were walking into the theater. Neither as rich in story nor stunning in animation as Pixar offerings, the film instead settles for simply being goofy good fun, and it hardly seems like settling at all.

Simon says The Secret Life of Pets receives:



Also, see my review for Despicable Me 2 and Minions.

Friday, 5 August 2016

Film Review: "Suicide Squad" (2016).






"Worst. Heroes. Ever." They are the Suicide Squad is. This superhero film written and directed by David Ayer, based on the antihero team of the same name published by DC Comics. The film is the third installment in the DC Extended Universe. U.S. intelligence officer Amanda Waller has determined and assembles a secretly convened group of the world's most dangerous, disparate, despicable and incarcerated individuals, with next to nothing to lose, at the government's disposal, and send them off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic, insuperable entity. However, once they realize they weren’t picked to succeed but chosen for their patent culpability when they inevitably fail, will the Suicide Squad resolve to die trying, or decide it’s every man for himself?

In February 2009, a Suicide Squad film was in development at Warner Bros. Pictures. In September 2014, Ayer signed on to write and direct, Ayer described the film as a "comic-book version of The Dirty Dozen (1967)." By April 2015, Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne and Karen Fukuhara were cast. Principal photography began in April and concluded in August 2015, locations included Toronto, Ontario, Canada with additional filming in Chicago, Illinois. To achieve the camaraderie that Ayer wanted for the squad, the cast spent time together on-and-off set. Even going so far as to every one of them getting the tattoo "SKWAD" in honor of the film. During shooting, Leto got so immersed in playing The Joker that he wouldn't break out of character. He even sent his fellow cast members "Joker-like" presents: a live rat to Margot Robbie and bullets to Will Smith, a soiled Playboy magazine to Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and a dead hog, anal beads and used condoms for the whole crew. Scott Eastwood, commented that Leto frightened him at times with his behavior, and Smith mentioned that he actually never met the real Leto. It was suggested that because of the dark and tormenting nature of the film, an on-set therapist was hired to keep the cast grounded.

The film stars an ensemble cast including Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman, Viola Davis, Jai Courtney, Jay Hernandez, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Cara Delevingne and Karen Fukuhara. The cast their best despite little to no characterisation to work off of. The ones to benefit the most were Smith, Robbie, Kinnaman and Davis. It was unfortunate however for Courtney, Hernandez, Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Delevingne, Fukuhara and Leto. With Leto being the most unfortunate as he was criminally underused when he brought a stand-out performance.

Suicide Squad is far more underwhelming than its genius marketing campaign had suggested, with the film being on the same level as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice rather than surpassing it. However, what redeems the film, to some extent, is Ayer's gritty but fun vision. As he understands and has a passion for these characters to make a film where having super villains saving the world is unlike any other comic-book movie.

Simon says Suicide Squad receives:



Also, see my review for Fury and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

Film Review: "Lights Out" (2016).


"You were right to be afraid of the dark" with Lights Out. This supernatural horror film directed by David F. Sandberg, in his directorial debut, written by Eric Heisserer, and based on Sandberg's 2013 short film of the same title. The film follows Rebecca and her boyfriend who try to investigate the connection between her mother and her imaginary friend, Diana, after her stepfather is murdered by a supernatural entity.

Sandberg, and his wife Lotta Losten, created the initial short film for a film competition. Although the film did not win the competition, the short soon went viral, leading to Sandberg to be contacted by several agents, to the point where he had to develop a spreadsheet to keep track of them all. One of the contacts was Lawrence Grey who wanted to collaborate with James Wan in order to produce a feature-length version. Although Wan enjoyed the short, he was hesitant that it could be turned into a feature until Sandberg produced a treatment for the feature-length version. By June 2015, Teresa Palmer, Maria Bello, Gabriel Bateman, Billy Burke, Alexander DiPersia, Lotta Losten, and Alicia Vela-Bailey were cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in early August. Filming took place in Los Angeles. Sandberg aimed to use as much authentic lighting for the film as possible. Some scenes were only lit by candle lights or fluorescent tubes. Sandberg said that his goal was to keep Diana's appearance in the film as a silhouette. In addition, he decided to focus on practical effects and avoided as much CGI as possible. Diana was created with a photorealistic prosthetic suit that could also function as a green screen suit so as to remove her from the scene when the lights came on. The cast were not shown Diana until filming, in completely dark sets. This was an intentional directorial choice so as to provoke a genuine reaction of fear when first seeing Diana. Vela-Bailey was previously Palmer's stunt double on I Am Number Four (2011), it would have ruined the effect had she seen her prior as she would have recognized her therefore losing the authentic expression of fear. Diana was originally supposed to be more of a demonic presence, but Wan suggested that she have a human background so she could have a relationship to Sophie and add to the connection to the family. Sandberg personally handled several VFX shots himself during post-production with the studio's permission. The film was pushed from a winter to a summer release following positive audience reaction from test screenings.

It stars Palmer, Bello, Bateman, Burke, DiPersia, Losten, and Vela-Bailey. At times, there was no chemistry between the cast, especially Palmer and DiPersia, and thus watching the film was a tedious task on it's own.

So while Lights Out expertly delivers all the bumps in the night that fans of this genre love, it is also haunted by its own paradoxical narratology, engendering something slyly manipulative and deeply irrational.

Simon says Lights Out receives:


Film Review: "Jason Bourne" (2016).


"You know his name." It's Jason Bourne. This action thriller film directed by Paul Greengrass, written by Greengrass and Christopher Rouse, and based on the characters created by Robert Ludlum. It is a direct sequel to The Bourne Ultimatum (2007), and the fifth installment of the Bourne film series. Jason Bourne, the former CIA agent, is drawn out of hiding by CIA director Robert Dewey. He then sets out to discover more about his past, family and his father's death.

In May 2007, prior to the release of The Bourne Ultimatum, Matt Damon stated that he would not be interested in returning for a fourth Bourne film. Ironically, in the subsequent years, Damon has stated numerous times that he would only return to the Bourne series to reprise his role if Greengrass would return to direct. However, Universal released The Bourne Legacy, on August 10, 2012, with Jeremy Renner replacing Damon as Aaron Cross. Despite the mixed reception and commercial disappointment, Universal noted that they planned to continue with the series. Initially a sequel was announced with Renner reprising his role, Justin Lin directing, and a rumoured July 2016 release date. However, in November 2014, it was announced that Damon and Greengrass would return to reprise his role and direct for the next Bourne film, with Greengrass and Rouse penning the script, under the rumoured title The Bourne Betrayal. By early September 2015, Julia Stiles, returned to reprise her role, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, and Bill Camp rounded out the film's cast as new additions. At the same time, with the budget of $120 million, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in early February 2016. Filming took place in London, England; Berlin, Germany; Washington, D.C. and Las Vegas, U.S.A.; and Tenerife island, Canary Islands, Spain. For the Athens, Greece protest scene, the producers asked the Greek Government for permission to shoot the film in the actual location. However, due to high taxes and bureaucracy, this never happened. Tenerife, in the Canary Islands, doubles as Athens in the movie. For the Las Vegas car chase, city officials and the producers reached an agreement to only shoot the Las Vegas car chase sequence from midnight to sunrise. The sequence took five weeks to shoot and at the end, the sequence wrecked 170 cars. In early February 2016, during the Super Bowl 50, the first trailer was released and revealed the film's title as Jason Bourne.

The film stars Damon, reprising his role as the former CIA assassin, Stiles reprising her role, Lee Jones, Vikander, Cassel, Ahmed, Essandoh, Shepherd, and Camp. Damon still has the required intensity and physicality to make his iconic character completely believable. Damon radiates a powerful undercurrent of danger. He is the perfect Bourne.

It isn't quite as compelling as the earlier trilogy, but Jason Bourne proves the franchise has stories left to tell - and benefits from Jeremy Renner's magnetic work in the starring role.

Simon says Jason Bourne receives:



Also, see my review for Captain Phillips.

Monday, 1 August 2016

NZIFF Film Review: "Elle" (2016).


From the director of Basic Instinct and Black Book comes Elle. This French thriller film directed by Paul Verhoeven, adapted by David Birke, and based on the novel Oh... by Philippe Djian. Michèle seems indestructible. Head of a successful video game company, she brings the same ruthless attitude to her love life as to business. Being attacked in her home by an unknown assailant changes Michèle's life forever. When she resolutely tracks the man down, they are both drawn into a curious and thrilling game-a game that may, at any moment, spiral out of control.

After producer Saïd Ben Saïd sent Verhoeven a copy of Djian's novel, Verhoeven's interest was immediately piqued. Verhoeven stated that he felt the movie was an opportunity for him to do "something very different to anything I've done before." During the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, the project was unveiled at the Marché du Film. Verhoeven was looking for an actress who would be "prepared to take that on" and believed Nicole Kidman "could handle this role." However, she turned it down. Charlize Theron, Julianne Moore, Sharon Stone, Marion Cotillard, Diane Lane, and Carice van Houten were also considered for the title role. Verhoeven told The Guardian that he reckons that the only American actress who would have been willing is Jennifer Jason Leigh. However, she also turned it down. Verhoeven's inability to convince a major American actress to play the part left him frustrated. The film was originally supposed to take place in Boston or Chicago but, according to Verhoeven, it proved to be "too difficult" to shoot the film in the United States due to its violent and immoral content. Verhoeven then decided to do it in French and used a significant time before production to learn the language, in order to effectively communicate with the predominantly French cast and crew. In September 2014, Isabelle Huppert signed on to star in the title role. Huppert had expressed interest in a screen adaptation of the book before Verhoeven. She joined the production and accepted the part immediately. By early January 2015, Laurent Lafitte, Anne Consigny, Christian Berkel, Virginie Efira, Charles Berling, Alice Isaaz, Judith Magre, Vimala Pons, Jonas Bloquet, Lucas Prisor, and Raphaël Lenglet rounded out the film's cast. At the same time, principal photography commenced, and wrapped in March. Filming took place in Paris and Yvelines, France, and was shot digitally on the Red Dragon cameras, the first for Verhoeven. Federico Fellini's (1963), Jean Renoir's The Rules of the Game (1939) and Orson Welles' Touch of Evil (1958) served as influences for the film.

The film stars Huppert, Lafitte, Consigny, Berkel, Efira, Berling, Isaaz, Magre, Pons, Bloquet, Prisor, and Lenglet. Terrific performances were given by the cast, especially Huppert. Huppert was astonishing, and if someone were on the ball she'd be world famous sooner rather than later.

In Elle, Verhoeven does not focus on moral discourse but rather on human measure, and with the non-cynical approach of his female lead and of love he has given new colour to his work.

Simon says Elle receives:



Also, see my NZIFF review for Safety Last! and An Eastern Westerner.