Based on a true story, it's the historical aspect of these events that holds the attention, even though the filmmakers kind of let the drama slip through their fingers. It's an impressively designed film, with vivid characters and some rather amazing situations. But the script's structure is too fragmented to build the story's momentum.
It opens in 1906 London, where Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) is assigned to accompany a geographical expedition to the jungles on the border of Bolivia and Brazil. While there accompanied by the intrepid Costin (Robert Pattinson), he discovers signs of a massive ancient city, which he names Z, the ultimate human achievement. Back in England, he reacquaints himself with his fiercely independent wife Nina (Sienna Miller) and plans a return trip with Costin and wealthy benefactor Murray (Angus Macfadyen) to find this lost pre-European civilisation. But Murray causes so many problems that they return empty-handed. The outbreak of the Great War delays Percy from going back to South America, so he heads off to the front to fight. Later, he organises a final expedition to find Z, accompanied by his now-adult son Jack (Tom Holland).
The screenplay has simplified Percy's attempts to find Z (he actually travelled to Brazil around 10 times). But the three trips depicted here begin to feel oddly repetitive, broken up by scenes of impatient domesticity in Britain. All of these sequences are sharply well shot and played, but the overall impact is lessened by all of the travelling back and forth. And many of the long sequences back in Europe feel like asides to the main story of Percy's all-consuming obsession with finding this ancient city, which we now know exists. Hunnam is terrific in the role, with his cut-glass accent and stiff upper lip even in the face of impending doom. He's likeable and passionate, and his scenes with the superb Miller sparkle. Patterson and Macfadyen add some texture as loyal and obnoxious colleagues, respectively. And Holland's quiet charisma very nearly steals the show.
Continue reading: The Lost City Of Z Review
With a premise that feels almost eerily current, this stylish thriller revolves around a phone app game that takes its users out into the streets, where they cause additional mayhem. The energetic cast and crew keep the story moving at a brisk pace, generating moments of comedy, emotion, romance and some genuinely breathless suspense along the way.
It's set in New York City, where creative teen Vee (Emma Roberts) lives with her single mother (Juliette Lewis) in Staten Island, frustrated that she can't afford to attend her chosen art college in Los Angeles. Her best pal Sydney (Emily Meade) has just started playing the gaming app Nerve, in which watchers goad players to take increasingly bold dares for cash prizes. Tired of being the quiet good girl, and clearly in need of money, Vee gives in and signs up to the game herself. Watchers then team her up with fellow player Ian (Dave Franco) for an escalating series of dangerous pranks around Manhattan. And as this outrageous night continues, suspicions grow that there's something sinister behind the game.
Directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman (Catfish) give the film a colourfully kinetic visual style, with acrobatic camerawork and a variety of social media imagery, from text graphics to video-streaming sequences. Rather than just noise, these elements pull the audience into the action, adding a first-person point of view that's involving and exciting. Jessica Sharzar's script doesn't dig beneath the surface, and her cautionary observations on gaming culture aren't terribly subtle, but there's a genuine sense of both fun and life-threatening chaos in each set-piece.
Continue reading: Nerve Review
After a post-apocalyptic dystopia (The Road) and Prohibition-era America (Lawless), Australian director John Hillcoat brings his edgy Wild West sensibilities to this gritty present-day heist thriller. The film is fierce and stylish, and utterly gripping even though there's the nagging sensation that nothing is happening under the surface. Thankfully, the actors add plenty of terrific texture to their characters.
It's set in Atlanta, where Terrell (Chiwetel Ejiofor) leads his crew of thugs (Anthony Mackie, Clifton Collins Jr., Aaron Paul and Norman Reedus) through a riotously dangerous bank robbery. They're working for the cold-hearted Russian mobster Irina (Kate Winslet), who demands an even bigger heist before she'll pay them. Terrell has a child with Irina, so feels like he has little choice in the matter, but his team is made up of unstable hotheads and corrupt cops who have their own opinions. One of the cops also has a new partner in Chris (Casey Affleck), a tenacious good guy who's the nephew of a cynical detective (Woody Harrelson) who's just beginning to crack this case. So the gang decides to distract the city's police force with a triple 9, code for a downed officer, while they carry out their next elaborate robbery. The question is who will take the bullet.
Matt Cook's script is a bundle of mad twists and turns, usually the result of impulsive gang members who act without thinking. The tension is very high, as each person's morality is warped at every turn. All while Chris tries to remain upright in the middle of a storm he doesn't quite understand. Each character is up against a wall, ready to do whatever it takes to survive in a situation that is getting increasingly out of control. And without more subtext, or at least a sense of these people's back-stories, no one on-screen is very likeable.
Continue reading: Triple 9 Review
More than just a misfire, this attempt at a rude comedy goes so spectacularly wrong that it actually contradicts its own jokes even as it's telling them. But then it undermines everything as it goes along, for example indulging rampantly in comical cruelty before trying to say something meaningful about the dangers of bullying. The real question is how the cast members could have agreed to make a movie in which they all come across as incoherent idiots.
The story opens as Dan (Vince Vaughn) clashes with his boss Chuck (Sienna Miller) then quits dramatically, taking newly retired Tim (Tom Wilkinson) and airhead newbie Mike (Dave Franco) with him to start a new sales company. But after a year, business isn't good, and the future hinges on making a massive deal with Bill and Jim (Nick Frost and James Marsden). The problem is that Chuck is also bidding for the business, so Dan, Tim and Mike fly off to Maine and then Berlin to seal the deal with a handshake. Impossibly they arrive in Berlin at the same time as Oktoberfest, the marathon, a gay S&M festival and the G8 Summit, with its accompanying anarchist protest. Meanwhile back home, Dan's wife (June Diane Raphael) is having problems with the kids.
Frankly, there is so much going on in this film that it's exhausting. It's as if screenwriter Conrad just threw everything he could think of onto the page and didn't worry if it made even a lick of sense. Every scene feels interrupted by a bit of random chaos that isn't remotely amusing. And despite making a movie that's obsessed with sex, the filmmakers are unable to decide whether they want to make fun of it or are terrified of it (so they end up being both at the same time). Each time something interesting or funny threatens to happen, it's sideswiped by something so breathtakingly bungled that we don't know where to look.
Continue reading: Unfinished Business Review
Much more than a film about 19th century slavery in America, this sharply well-told true story has a lot to say about the world we live in today. And as he did in Hunger and Shame, filmmaker Steve McQueen puts us right into the middle of the story so we live it ourselves. Watching this film is a riveting, unnerving and ultimately moving experience.
It's based on a firsthand account by Solomon Northrup (Ejiofor), a musician who is living with his family in 1841 Saratoga, New York, when two friendly men offer him a great gig. But they drug him and sell him to slave traders, who send him to New Orleans and strip him of his identity. He spends the next 12 years working for two masters. Ford (Cumberbatch) is a fair man who puts him under the watchful eye of the cruel Tibeats (Dano). Then he is sold to Epps (Fassbender), a harsh boss who sends him into cotton fields and angrily suspects that Solomon is more educated than he admits.
Made with an earthy, realistic style, there's a clear sense that McQueen and screenwriter Ridley stuck closely to the details of Northrup's memoir, which was published shortly after his release and became a bestseller at the time. By never indulging in Hollywood-style exaggeration, the events remain grounded in the characters, drawing on the spiky interaction between them. At the centre, Ejiofor is utterly magnetic, delivering a transparent performance that takes our breath away. In his terrified eyes, we experience this horror ourselves.
Continue reading: 12 Years A Slave Review
An all-star cast very nearly goes down with the ship as filmmaker Justin Zackham (The Bucket List) indulges in relentlessly farcical silliness. Thankfully the actors play it relatively straight, injecting moments of dark emotion and sharp wit in between the corny wackiness. But the script is more interested in humiliating its characters than finding any genuine humour.
The eponymous nuptials are between Alejandro and Missy (Barnes and Seyfried), who haplessly watch their families implode as the big day approaches. Alejandro's adoptive dad Don (De Niro) and his long-time girlfriend Bebe (Sarandon) are planning the event, but Alejandro's deeply religious birth-mother (Rae) is coming from Colombia, so he asks his dad to pretend to still be married to his ex-wife Ellie (Keaton). Meanwhile, Alejandro's sister Lyla (Heigl) is having her own marriage crisis, while his brother Jared (Grace) can't keep his libido under control.
As the preparations continue, the plot gets increasingly tangled. But it also becomes strangely ingrown, as if these people have never met anyone outside their small circle of family and friends. Past secrets are revealed and dark peccadillos come to light, leading to a series of manic confrontations. Through it all, the film remains blandly amusing, although its rather extreme moments never quite escalate to Meet the Parents hilarity. Thankfully they avoid the strained goofiness of Death at a Funeral.
Continue reading: The Big Wedding Review
Moral murkiness makes this hitman thriller gripping to watch, mainly because we're never quite sure where it's going. Even though it's set in 2008, Australian director Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James) shoots it like a 1970s thriller, which gives the whole film a superb sense of moral murkiness. And since it's based on a 1974 novel (Cogan's Trade by George Higgins), the film has an almost timely feel to it, using offbeat rhythms and complex characters who refuse to do what we want them to do.
At the centre is Jackie Cogan (Pitt), hired by a bookish mafia executive (Jenkins) to clean up the mess after a mob card game was robbed. The problem is that the two guys behind the heist (McNairy and Mendelsohn) are dimwits who have no idea what they've stumbled into. But Cogan is also annoyed by mob bureaucracy, which takes far too long to get anything done. And he's even more short-tempered with his old pal Mickey (Gandolfini), who he brings in to bump off a middleman (Liotta), except that Mickey is too interested in alcohol and sex to get the job done properly. Clearly, Jackie will have to do everything himself.
Pitt plays the role with a terrific sense of world-weary charm. He has no time for the losers around him, but takes pride in his work, preferring to kill his targets softly rather than causing pain. Meanwhile, Gandolfini is playing an alcoholic twist on Tony Soprano, Jenkins is doing his usual officious schtick, and Liotta is a more soulful version of the mafioso he's played many times before. By contrast, McNairy and Mendelsohn are hilariously clueless. Like characters from a Coen brothers movie, they're likeable even though we never have any hope that they'll get anything right.
Continue reading: Killing Them Softly Review
And that's a genre we don't see too often anymore: romantic drama. Today's cinematic romances are usually steeped in light comedy (even decent ones like Definitely, Maybe) or predictable form posing as drama. But Two Lovers is hardcore drama, with desire at its center. Or more accurately, two desires.
Continue reading: Two Lovers Review
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