The following reviews - listed in alphabetical order - were published in either the Berlin Film Journal, YAMU or the Daily Mirror. 



Argo


By Rehan Mudannayake


★★★


Ben Affleck's come a long way from the schmaltzy rom coms and vaccuous blockbusters of the early noughties. Formerly the butt of every American animated television show's jokes, the 40-year old actor-director seems to have finally hit his filmmaking prime, Argo being his third directorial effort.

When CIA specialist Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck) is called in to rescue six American Embassy Officials who are in hiding from Iranian militants in Tehran, the agent devises a bogus sci-fi flick to act as a cover for a kidnap mission. Mendez sets up a fake studio with film producer Lester Siegel (Alan Arkin) and Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers (John Goodman), and then travels to Tehran, pretending he is there to scout movie locations with a group of "Canadian filmmakers"...who he then plans to smuggle out. False personas are assumed, tensions rise high and lives are risked...

Argo is aptly paced and exceedingly entertaining. This is best reflected in its audience earnings, which have been overwhelmingly positive: $187m earned from a budget of $44.5m. Affleck is the key driving force behind the piece, creating heavy anticipation from beginning to end. An optimist may even claim it to be one of the few Best Picture nominees that actually stands a chance of beating Lincoln at the Oscars. Despite garnering several best director gongs at the critics’ awards and the Globes, Affleck has been overlooked for a Best Director Oscar. Pi's Ang Lee and Beasts' Zeitlin over Argo's Affleck? Unfair by any measure.

Arkin is on top form here, the 78-year old doing his best ironic impression of a cocky, toughminded Hollywood producer, a role reportedly based on Jack Warner. Arkin is famous for being typecast as the wisecracking old geezer, a role he executes endearingly but one that will likely wear thin in the near future. He will win Best Supporting Actor, provided the Academy don't go all gaga over Tommy Lee Jones.

Despite all its accolades, Argo arguably lacks the panache of Silver Linings Playboook, the unbridled confidence of Django Unchained and the intellectual potency of Amour, its superior fellow Best Picture nominees. Nevertheless, it is still an admirable cinematic achievement which I would highly recommend.

August: Osage County

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★★

Stage-screen adaptations can be arduous, implausible and melodramatic. The last two contemporary disappointments that fit this bill were Closer and Carnage. I’m going to be honest with you: I was quite ready to put writer Tracy Letts’ August: Osage County in the same category.

That is, until I actually watched it.

When alcoholic poet Beverly Weston (Sam Shepard) drowns, his immediate family flock to Oklahoma to spend a few days with his deranged widowed wife Violet (Meryl Streep). The troubled family comprises Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margot Martindale) and three daughters: the fiery Barbara (Julia Roberts), docile Ivy (Julianne Nicholson) and the foolish Karen (Juliette Lewis). Everything that could possibly go wrong does, slowly uncovering the family’s problematic past.

Make no doubt about it, Osage County is an actor’s picture: the cinematography, editing and other technical elements play second fiddle to the acting and script. Many have found this to be the drama’s biggest fault but frankly, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Focusing an audience’s attention purely on a picture’s acting and script is a risk but with a rich and talented ensemble cast like this one, director John Wells undoubtedly made the right decision. In any case, the cinematography, editing, production design and so forth are there to aid in the telling of the story rather than to be an entity in themselves: the more invisible these components are, the better.

And what of this rich and talented ensemble cast? Streep steals the show, yet again. Considered by many to be the finest actress in Hollywood, she has the gargantuan task of portraying Letts’ most insane character. Unsurprisingly, she does so with great dexterity, disturbing us all with her foul mouth and her questionable parenting. It is her most impressive performance of the last five years and one that does not – thankfully – stray into melodrama. Sadly, she’ll lose out to Cate Blanchett at the Academy Awards next month.

And what of Roberts? I couldn’t have predicted a better comeback role than this one. After turkeys like the Tom Hanks helmed Larry Crowne, she wows us with an explosive performance. It is through her character’s eyes that we view much of the narrative, so it is really Roberts who holds the entire picture together. Furthermore, her Oscar nomination reminds us that she has not lost her touch and is still a formidable actress.

As always, Stevenson and Martindale shine in their supporting roles: here are two actresses who really ought to be bagging meatier roles in Hollywood.

Currently, my favourite film of 2013. Not to be missed.

Bachelorette


By Rehan Alexander Mudannayake


★★


The realism that audiences found highly amusing in Bridesmaids was attributable to its cast of real-life female comedians, Judd Apatow’s fondness for fresh farce and the narrative’s sincere focus on companionship amongst women. In comparison Leslye Headland’s Bachelorette, a low-budget B-movie spin off produced by Will Ferrell, is undoubtedly the opposite: a quotidian chick flick mired in predictability.

When rigid Regan (Kirsten Dunst), blonde redhead Katie (Isla Fisher) and unconvincingly unconventional Gena (Lizzy Caplan) rip bride to be Becky’s (Rebel Wilson) dress, hilarious consequences ensue. Now, replace ‘hilarious’ with ‘arduous’ and you have how I felt.

A slew of mawkish situations arise: the fat nerd hooks up with the dumb blonde, the insecure rebel turns soft, and cheesy high school mixtapes are reminisced over. Sadly, novice Headland seems to be as talentless at directing as she is at writing. Good comedy is almost always dependent on timing. In cinema, it is the editing that delivers audience reaction; however no measure of good timing could ever save a script of such low calibre.

A-Lister Kirsten Dunst’s presence puzzles me: how badly did she need that bread and butter money? Last year, Lars von Trier’s Melancholia turned her into something of a film festival darling, now this? Dunst is comically capable (see Cameron Crowe’s Elizabethtown), yet she is given a one-dimensional role as the ice queen. Isla Fisher is – yet again – typecast as the amorous airhead, a facile role admittedly pulled off with great gusto. Lizzy Caplan certainly fits Gena’s appearance but is made to cower under the shadow of bad dialogue, rendering her obstreperous character rather shallow.

This picture is not available in cinemas. Consider yourself lucky.

The Fault In Our Stars


By Rehan Mudannayake


★★★★


I have a habit of judging features by their front covers. The moment I saw The Fault In Our Stars cover – two romantically attached teenagers sitting side by side – amidst a chalky title, I was convinced this was either going to be mawkish, depressing or both. 


Analyzing a movie by its picture and title usually works with run-of-the-mill refuse: college B-movies, Hollywood blockbuster sequels, plotless Indian remakes of those very Hollywood blockbuster sequels etc.


The Fault In Our Stars certainly came close to being depressing and mawkish but was neither.

After being forced to attend a support group, sixteen-year-old cancer patient Hazel Grace (Shailene Woodley) meets Augustus Waters (Ansel Elgort), a previous sufferer of osteosarcoma. After Hazel introduces Augustus to An Imperial Affliction, a novel that matches her own experiences, he becomes intrigued by its lack of a conclusion. The two of them decide to track down the novel’s author – Peter Van Houten (Willem Dafoe) – who resides in Amsterdam. What happens next is highly unpredictable and a little heartbreaking....


22-year old Shailene Woodley is fast becoming the poster child of the contemporary critically acclaimed teenage drama, last year’s The Spectacular Now being her first foray into romantic indie territory. Woodley’s powerful performance and her unconventional beauty make her the perfect choice for Hazel. Hell, Paul Thomas Anderson even cast her in his upcoming extravaganza Inherent Vice. Take that, Jennifer Lawrence!


Adapted from the John Green novel of the same name, the Fault In Our Stars proved to be a box-office behemoth, earning a whopping $300m from its modest budget of $12m. Unsurprising, given that this is a well-made picture almost anyone of any age can appreciate. A slew of sequels and copycat features will surely follow; India’s Fox Star Studios is already doing a Hindi remake.


The Fault In Our Stars thoroughly deserves all the praise it has received. It is moving, truthful and remarkably realistic; a gripping adolescent drama that is not to be missed.

Before Sunrise

By Rehan Alexander Mudannayake


★★★★★


This week, your humble columnist would like to draw attention to a picture he is dearly close to: a minimal dialogue-based piece viscerally imbued with a hauntingly real portrait of a young man and woman. This contemporary classic is hailed as being one of the finest romantic dramas of the ’90s and arguably auteur Richard Linklater’s chef d’oeuvre.


Following a brief but enlightening conversation on a train, Jesse (Ethan Hawke) convinces Celine (Julie Delpy) to explore Vienna with him. The result is captivating. Wine glasses are stolen, phone conversations are imitated and a kiss on a ferris wheel is shared. The pair discuss life and love, eventually spending the night with each other. The next day, the two part: each has a train or a plane to catch.


What would you do if you met the perfect person but were forced to bid them farewell a day later? Celine and Jesse’s homes are an ocean apart, not an impossible distance, but certainly enough to obstruct a possible relationship. Both make a promise to each other in their final minutes together – one that is tackled in the sequel, Before Sunset.

I’m not entirely sure how well I’ve sold Before Sunrise to you. If I’ve made it sound pathetically schmaltzy or like mental masturbation, I’ve clearly failed at my objective. All I can say is this: Linklater writes dialogue like no other director of his generation. Few could have rendered a two-hour conversation between two ostensibly ordinary individuals electrifying. Forget the technicalities; through this masterclass in acting, Linklater proposes that cinema’s most powerful components are its cast and dialogue.

This is the picture every arthouse director longs to make. This is the picture every cynic cannot help but fall in love with. This is the picture you should be watching right now.


RIGHT NOW.

Bad Words

★★★★★

By Rehan Mudannayake

Apparently Jason Bateman’s a damn fine director. In fact, I’d argue he’s a better director than actor. When Bateman proclaimed he’d been performing for twenty years with the sole intention of getting into directing, I was more than a little intrigued. Could Jason Bateman, star of some of the most overrated Jason Reitman dramas of recent times, successfully direct a feature?

In a word: yes.

When foul-mouthed forty-year old Guy Trilby (Bateman) spots a loophole that allows him to take part in the Golden Quill Spelling Bee, he decides to go for gold…along with a bunch of bemused 10-year olds. He is accompanied by journalist Jenny Widgeon (Kathryn Hahn) and later befriended by fellow contestant Chaitanya Chopra (Rohan Chand), both of whom take a liking to him. Shameless sabotage, parental persecution and an unexpected twist follow, leaving one feeling supremely satisfied with Bateman’s barnstormer.

One would be hard pressed to find fault with Bateman’s indie debut: it is rich in content, potent in vulgarity and unpredictable in narrative. In other words, a gamble. Did it pay off? Hardly. The film made below three quarters of its $10m budget. And the reviews? Sadly, mixed. This may have been due to the black comedy’s unusually dark sense of humour: easily one of its strengths. Perhaps audiences were shocked or confused at the profanity exercised in front of several preteens by a largely unlikable lead character? A shame, really.

Bateman appears to be part of a recent division of actors-turned-directors: think Josh Radnor, John Turturro and Jon Favreau. However, unlike the aforementioned actor/directors (barring Radnor) it is this critic’s belief that Bateman is headed toward auteurship status. Thus far, Bad Words is undoubtedly this year’s finest indie and I predict a successful directorial career from the man.

A must-watch.

The Place Beyond The Pines

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★

Think back to 2010: remember the headlines created by Blue Valentine? Shot on a minuscule budget – a million dollars – by little known director Derek Cianfrance, the indie flick was highly commended for its verisimilitude. This compliment was directed mainly at its stars – Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams – and its director, who relied on improvisation to create a harrowing love story. Critics named it one of the most powerful dramas of the year.

Hence, it was with combined excitement and trepidation that I rented The Place Beyond The Pines, Cianfrance’s latest, starring stalwart Gosling and Bradley Cooper. Hey, Peter Bradshaw had given it four stars: it had to be amazing, right?

A narrative made up of three chronologically depicted strands, we begin with the story of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), who upon discovering a baby son Jason (Dane DeHaan) by his ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes), is keen to win back her affections. So, he does what any of us would do - he begins robbing banks! This ends badly when – spoiler ahead! – he gets shot by a police officer: Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The second strand of Cianfrance’s story follows the guilt-ridden Cross who feels he has deprived Jason of a loving upbringing. Fifteen years later, we are onto the third strand: Cross’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) unknowingly befriends Jason. Things don’t go so well but eventually end rather unexpectedly.

Cianfrance is mainly to blame for this feeble cavalcade of incoherent stories that leave us so unsatisfied. A director of his caliber should be aware of the limitations of storytelling: one cannot simply kill off a picture’s protagonist 50 minutes into a film, insert another protagonist into the second act and then casually introduce two more major characters in the final act; oh, and expect us to empathise with each. If a close relationship has not been built up between the audience and a particular character throughout a picture, one’s story inevitably suffers.

Gosling’s story is easily the most beguiling, however this is only because of his character’s bank heists, which are highly exhilarating to watch. Gosling’s decline as a serious actor is a sad one indeed: as the years have gone past, his acting abilities have taken a turn for the worst. The man who wowed us with Lars and The Real Girl and Blue Valentine, has sunk into a pit of predictable, typecast Hollywood roles where he plays the quiet, contemplative protagonist – think Drive, Crazy Stupid Love and now this – mediocrity at its finest.

A shame really – such potential, such daring, yet so incompetently written. Don’t bother.

Brave

By Rehan Alexander Mudannayake

Pixar’s latest disports tremendous visual panache, vivacious voice casting and a dose of wicked humour.

As I bought my ticket for Brave, I thought of Lars von Trier’s aversion to animation in The Five Obstructions:

“I hate cartoons.”

Being an absolute film Nazi, I felt inclined to agree.

Brave just may have proved me wrong.

The thirty-three year old animation studio’s first fairytale follows the tomboyish Princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) who refuses to consent to an arranged marriage championed by her parents. Convinced that a simple witch’s spell will persuade her mother otherwise, Merida inadvertently turns Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) into a bear. Chaos ensues, complete with your obligatory happy family ending, conveniently free of forced marriage.

Conventional as the rosy outcome of Brave’s troubled mother-daughter relationship might sound, it does not resort to the saccharine. Out of the clichéd teenage angst develops an engaging poignancy that is paralleled in few contemporary Hollywood animated flicks. Special mention must go to Kelly Macdonald: the driving force behind screenwriter Brenda Chapman’s ginger-haired protagonist. Reeling from the well-deserved success of HBO’s Emmy-winning Boardwalk Empire, Macdonald dazzles in this delirious role; it is evident her talent is in no way limited to live-action.

Brave may not contain the most realistic denouement nor is it likely to win a Best Animated Feature Oscar (like six of its predecessors) but it is an achievement for Pixar. Go watch it.

N.B. Throw on a pair of jeans or a jumper before you enter the cinema: Brave’s family fantasy may warm the cockles of your heart but you will almost certainly freeze under the wrath of Majestic City’s air-conditioning system!

California Solo

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★★

A Sundance-selected indie about a man down and out on his luck; California Solo may sound like a cliché, but Marshall Lewy’s picture is not only skillfully constructed and exquisitely shot, but poignant and heartwarming. This is partly down to its harshly realistic script: a glimpse into the world of an alcoholic, estranged father and failed musician.

When Britpop-rocker-turned-farm worker Lachlan (Robert Carlyle) is caught drink-driving, the state threatens to deport him from the USA, where he has been living for over a decade. Lachlan is forced to confront his ex-wife Catherine (Kathleen Wilhoite) and his 13-year old daughter Arianwen (Savannah Lathem) – both of whom he has not seen in 10 years – and the only people with the power to convince the authorities to let him stay…

Robert Carlyle is one of Scotland’s most talented. Sadly, the man’s international fame peaked with his work for Danny Boyle: in particular, Trainspotting’s Begbie. the world’s favourite sociopath. California Solo is Carlyle’s first lead role in years: arguably, Carlyle’s second chance with Lewy’s indie is akin to Lachlan being given a fresh opportunity to start off a new life. Masterfully acted, Carlyle injects his character with an unhealthy dose of deep pessimism, acute nostalgia and reckless driving. Our love-hate relationship with Lachlan is intensified by Carlyle’s sincere depiction of the flawed man; arguably, one eventually sympathises with his situation.

James Laxton’s cinematography is breathtaking; from the plush greens of the vegetable farm Lachlan works on, to the softly lit interiors of his house. These idyllic shots help us comprehend and appreciate the value of his rejuvenated life in the USA. California Solo raises the question as to why most low-budget independent films contain more sophisticated lighting and elegant framing and less gratuitous camera movement than several of their higher budget Hollywood counterparts? Sure, in the filmmaking process, cinematography may not be as important as a clever script but neither is it simply a spoke in the wheel: it is a critical component that has the power to influence the look and feel of a picture. Has Hollywood simply given up on the finer aspects of filmmaking? Or is it worried audiences won’t notice? One simply hopes we are not witnessing the further decadence of mainstream American cinema.

Five stars. For its spectacular cinematography, accomplished lead actor and heart-rending script.

Dans la maison

★★★★

By Rehan Mudannayake

Francois Ozon is one of contemporary French cinema’s heavyweights, 8 Women being his most internationally successful picture to date. He is part of the ‘new’ French New Wave of directors, Dans la maison being his thirteenth picture to grace a film career that has spanned 15 years, thus far. His latest has a particularly powerful plot with an exceptionally underwhelming conclusion.

When cynical high school literature teacher Germain (Fabrice Luchini) discovers that his enthusiastic pupil Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer) is basing his creative writing homework on his friend Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto) and his family, he chooses to ignore this ethically problematic action. Instead, realizing Claude’s passion and gift for writing, he encourages the teenager to spy on the family’s movements and meet him after class: to develop his observations into a full-fledged, cliché-free narrative. Predictably, this has dire consequences…

As this very self-conscious picture unfolds, we dig deeper and deeper into the Artole family and, consequently, Germain’s own life. One comes to realize that he is using Claude’s prose as a way of satisfying his own unfulfilled ambition to become a writer. Eric Rohmer stalwart Luchini is the driving force of the entire picture, portraying the encouraging teacher with unbridled confidence and pernicious pessimism.

One feels irritated by the lead’s foolishness but sympathetic toward his unrealized dreams, whilst becoming increasingly intrigued by the relationship Ozon builds between teacher and student, author and reader. A gripping hour and forty five minutes, indeed.

A highly fascinating, self-reflexive watch – a writer’s wet dream. Ozon scores yet again.

Django Unchained

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★

Ask any English film student who their favourite contemporary writer-director is and chances are they won't immediately list Michael Haneke. Or the Coen Brothers. Or even Paul Thomas Anderson. The first name that will likely escape their lips is Quentin Tarantino, one of cinema's modern day mavericks, famous for his non-linear narratives and aestheticization of violence. His first two pictures, Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction, arguably his best, are two of cinema's most beloved films, having gained humongous cult followings amongst critcs and students alike over the past two decades. His last effort, the riotous Inglorious Basterds, signalled a return to form, partly due to the acting chops of Christoph Waltz. A story about slavery in the guise of a spaghetti western, Django Unchained effectively demonstrates that no director pays better homage to genres of past than Tarantino.

When German bounty hunter Dr King Schultze (Christoph Waltz) frees American slave Django (Jamie Foxx), the two set off on a mission to free the latter's wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the callous Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), a plantation owner with a penchant for orchestrating violent "Mandingo" fights between his slaves. When Candie's loyal house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) figures out the duo's ruse to rescue Broomilda, all hell breaks loose....

Since his accomplished Oscar winning turn as Ray Charles in Taylor Hackford's Ray, Foxx's acting career has taken a nosedive. Django sees him back on form as the vengeful anti-hero, keen to protect his honour and his wife. It is not a particularly complex role, however, it is one he executes with considerable gusto and for that he must be lauded.

Waltz is Tarantino's crowning success. His character is the polar opposite of Django's: he is cool, calm and collected, reviewing each dire situation encountered with optimism. Waltz is effortlessly humorous, depicting Schultze with great enthusiasm and nuanced subtlety. Django

Unchained, like Inglorious Basterds, is likely to have misfired if Waltz had not filled Schultze's shoes. There is a likelihood he may win Best Supporting Actor, though the pessimist in me would argue that Alan Arkin will bag it instead.

Django has earned treble its whopping budget of $100m, a potent indicator of its popularity. Tarantino has a knack for entertaining his audiences with fascinatingly trivial dialogue and wildly exaggerated brutality (the denizens of Django fly backwards whenever shot, their blood spattering in all directions). Django may not win Best Picture Oscar but 50 years from now, it will still be fondly remembered alongside Tarantino's previous masterpieces.

Tarantino’s latest is hilarious, ludicrous and perhaps overly long at 2 hours and 45 minutes: a rollercoaster ride of hyperbole you really ought to experience.

The Expendables 2

By Rehan Alexander Mudannayake

Cinema: Majestic City

Homoerotic masculinity, American jingoism and indiscernibly stilted dialogue spouted by cult veterans of yesteryear: the future certainly seemed bleak for this columnist’s review of The Expendables 2. That is, until the lights dimmed.

When Billy the Kidd (Chris Hemsworth) is knifed during a mission, Barney (Stallone), Lee (Statham), Gunner (Lundgren), Hale (Crews) and Toll (Couture) vow to avenge his death…..by, um, annihilating his murderer Jean (Van Damme) and stealing plutonium from him…..because that’s what big boys with big toys do!

Barring Bruce Willis and (to a lesser extent) Jason Statham, our merry little band is, of course, a talentless troop of titans whose typecast acting careers tanked in the 90s. However, this is not the point; if one fails to see the irony (and indeed, parody) of it all, one inevitably misses out on the magic of Simon West’s ensemble.

This is a cast that acknowledges it is well past its sell-by date but refuses to deny itself the star status it had 20-30 years ago. Rarely does one observe self-mockery in a Hollywood blockbuster, especially from those who inadvertently descended into oblivion, after temporary success at the top of the food chain. Proof: toward the denouement, Mr Church (Willis) claims that Barney’s dilapidated plane belongs in a museum to which the latter jokingly responds that they all do.

With enough laddish humour to rival a rugby team’s locker room, the Expendables 2 delivers. 

Finding Nemo

★★★★

Pixar’s fifth flick isn’t quite a barrel of laughs but it is masterfully constructed. Released by Disney, this computer-animated picture was 2003’s second highest grossing film, beaten only by The Return of the King; a feat not to be sniffed at.

When overprotective clownfish Marlin (Albert Brooks) loses son Nemo (Alexander Gould), he embarks on a journey of gargantuan proportions to find his offspring. He is joined by Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), a Regal tang suffering from short-term memory loss. They encounter vegetarian sharks, surf-cultured sea turtles and a rather large whale who swallows them whole.

As a twelve year old in 2003, your columnist found the obsessively obnoxious Dory rather tiresome to watch. She is still insufferably obstreperous; the result of irritating characterization and a highly unamusing Ellen DeGeneres. Still, $907m: the kids obviously enjoyed it.

And I think I did too.

Director Andrew Stanton’s script has its moments: when Marlin loses Nemo to the humans, a shark claims, “Humans think they own everything”, to which his companion replies, “Probably American…”. A smidgeon of biting satire on U.S. foreign policy….in an animated American comedy drama for kids? Definitely laudable. Moreover, the sea world depicted is dark and foreboding, providing the perfect arena for some skillfully devised anticipation. The sound design, in particular, is flawless; from the roar of a boat to the squeal of a disposable camera, nothing in this computer-generated world is ignored by Pixar’s team.

This underwater odyssey is a modern classic. Do go watch it; hopefully you’ll get over Ellen sooner than I did!

Now showing at Majestic City

Flight

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★

Denzel Washington’s done a lot of saving in his career. In The Taking of Pelham 123, the actor saves a train full of hostages. In John Q, Denzel saves his son from heart failure. In Man on Fire, Denzel saves Dakota Fanning from Mexican crime lords. And in Déjà Vu, he saves the world from terrorists.

Sadly, Denzel has failed to save these films from disastrous reviews.

This is not to say the man can’t act. Malcolm X, Mississippi Masala and Inside Job are all great examples of Washington’s acting prowess: arguably, under the right director he produces gold. Of late, however, it’s been more miss than hit.

I rented Flight with mixed expectations. As I read the description, I rolled my eyes…Denzel Washington saves an airplane…drunk? There really seemed to be no end to this man’s life saving capabilities.

When intoxicated pilot William Whitaker (Denzel Washington) crash-lands a defective airplane, the alcoholic saves the lives of several passengers and survives. A toxicology screen, however, reveals alcohol and drug consumption: a report that threatens to send him to jail. Hostages, sons, terrorists….and now himself. Can he sober up? Can this man save himself?

Jokes aside, Flight is impressively executed. The actor is back on form after a damaging spell of Tony Scott turkeys. He plays the stubborn, alcohol-abusing Whitaker to perfection, painting a visceral depiction of a miserable man who has lost it all to drink. Is Denzel headed toward Oscar glory? A nomination, perhaps. The Academy enjoys alcoholics; furthermore, it has no reason not to enjoy this barnstorming performance by Hollywood’s most popular black actor.

Bob Zemeckis, the director of the much-adored Back to The Future series and the highly overrated Forrest Gump, presents us with a sharp, moving piece that gravitates away from cliché and offers us truth. The somewhat moralistic denouement may be predictable, but it is also sincere: a trait that contemporary Hollywood lacks.

Do watch Flight. It’s really the story of how one man saved his career.

Frances Ha

★★★

By Rehan Mudannayake

Noah Baumbach’s dazzling 1995 debut – Kicking and Screaming – is about a group of sophisticated but lazy college graduates who refuse to move on with their lives. They sit around having philosophical conversations, postponing their professional lives and refusing to face reality.

Baumbach’s latest protagonist – the 27-year old Frances – does not seem entirely different. She may not be as much of a layabout as the aforementioned liberal arts loafers but she is most certainly still a child.

Frances (Greta Gerwig) and Sophie (Mickey Sumner) are best friends; that is, until the latter moves out of the same apartment to live with her boyfriend. This destroys their long-standing friendship and leaves the self-proclaimed “undateable” Frances friendless, forcing her to finally figure out how to live her own life….

The Queen of Quirk – Greta Gerwig – is once again typecast as the goofy, foolishly idealistic and idiosyncratic protagonist in an eponymous role she co-wrote with Baumbach. Do we mind? Not really. She plays the part to perfection, winning the audience’s approval during the opening montage of the picture. Her story is believable: we’ve all encountered a Frances along the way – that one graduate who’s directionless, irrational and oh-so spontaneous with decisions – ring any bells? (If you can’t think of anyone, it’s probably you….) Yet, for all their flaws, you can’t help but adore them. This is Frances, in a nutshell, and it is her likeable character that holds the entire picture together.

Baumbach reveals Frances to us in short bursts – to reflect her erratic, fickle personality – and titles each section of the picture by address (to denote her current position). Whilst the titles are characteristic of his early work, Baumbach’s ultra-brief glimpses into Frances’ life are new to his style, signaling his transformation as a director. Director of Photography Sam Levy’s intimate black and white portraits fondly remind one of Raoul Coutard’s work on Francois Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel trilogy. An example would be the choreographed performance at the end of the picture, in which the camera focuses on each of Frances’ delighted friends, portraying her progression as an individual.

Is Frances Ha anywhere near as magnificent as Truffaut’s classics? Or as impressive as Baumbach’s chef d’oeuvre, The Squid and the Whale? Not really. But it’s still a thoroughly entertaining story of friendship and one girl’s struggle to figure herself out.

Go watch it. Trust me, it’ll leave you feeling incredibly satisfied.

Gambit

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★

The Coen Brothers have long been revered as contemporary American cinema’s almighty saviours. Many a time, they have successfully bridged mainstream and arthouse fare to bring us their own brand of black humour, often eclectically concocted together with some particularly unforgiving violence. The Coens’ success lies primarily in their ability to write sophisticated dialogue, effectively appropriated to larger-than-life characters, wildly exaggerated circumstances and slick visuals. Gambit is a remake of Ronald Neame’s 1966 movie, this time directed by Michael Hoffman and written by the talented twosome.

Is it any good? Well, sort of.

When art curator Harry Deane (Colin Firth) teams up together with Texas rodeo queen PJ Puznowski (Cameron Diaz) to trick his cold-hearted boss Lord Lionel Shabandar (Alan Rickman) into buying a fake Monet, he views the end result a little too optimistically. Unfortunately, the bespectacled buffoon loses his confidence, his wildly capricious Texan and erm, his pants……at the Savoy Hotel.

Gambit has received disastrous reviews from critics, many of whom were clearly expecting gold from the usually sensational siblings. Are these critiques unfounded? Not entirely. Firth does disappoint as the bumbling Clouseau-esque curator: slapstick is clearly not his forte. As the picture progresses, he becomes embarrassingly unfunny, to the point where one wishes he would simply stop trying to emulate Peter Sellers. I suspect Hoffman’s shady direction is to blame.

Contrastingly, Rickman radiates as the unpleasant Shabandar, spectacularly dislikable and eccentric. The actor is continually typecast as the miserable grump, however he frequently manages to pull it off with great gusto. Normally used to supporting roles as the antagonist, it really is time Rickman was cast as the lead protagonist. Unsurprisingly, the picture’s real prowess lies in the genius of its writing – witty and eloquent, rarely ever missing a beat. The conclusion is such that one does feel genuinely happy for Firth’s lead, irritating as he may be.

Gambit is certainly not an indicator of the Coens at their zenith; that prize goes to No Country and Fargo, both behemoths they directed. Neither is it the dynamic duo at their nadir: remember The Ladykillers? It lies somewhere in between these two realms, perhaps closer to the latter, if I was to be harsh. One almost wishes the Coens would stop trying to churn out a script a year and instead follow Paul Thomas Anderson’s example: quality not quantity, anyone? Nevertheless, Gambit is good fun; it may not be the tour de force critics were expecting but it is thoroughly enjoyable. 

Ice Age 4: Continental Drift

By Rehan Alexander Mudannayake

Cinema: Savoy

Another week, another sequel. Hollywood, have you absolutely no shame in churning out mindless garbage, devoid of structure and sentiment? Oh wait, of course you don’t!

After mammoth Manny (Ray Romano) denies daughter Peaches (Keke Palmer) the company of teenage crush Ethan, he is separated from her. Conveniently reunited with old friends Sid the sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the sabre-toothed cat (Denis Leary), yet another journey of saccharine self-discovery transpires, replete with dizzying chase sequence upon hauntingly dull musical number upon cliched family didacticism. The oh-so-predictable finale between father and daughter will leave even the youngest of infants vomiting everywhere.

Or not.

Blue Sky Pictures and 20th Century Fox hit the jackpot with this one: Ice Age Four grossed $764 million from a $95 million budget. This really does make one lose faith in today’s toddlers. Produced for kids with short attention spans, this is animation at its absolute nadir. Why this film needed two directors (whose names I won’t even bother mentioning) is anyone’s guess.

It might even bore you to know that each depthless supporting character is voiced by an equally depthless musician: mammoth jock Ethan by Drake, sultry sabre-toothed cat Shira by J-Lo, mama mammoth Ellie by Queen Latifah and sassy mammoth Steffie by, um, Nicki Minaj. Yes, Ice Age Four’s characters sound more like cast of The Wire. And don’t even get me started on those 90s hairstyles.

Bizarre and unadventurous as the stereotypical casting may be, it is Jason Fuchs’ and Michael Berg’s appallingly written script that is the primary letdown. Descending into platitudes, the audience is even fed little nuggets of studio wisdom when Ellie claims, “piracy doesn’t pay”…as she stamps out a pirate, of course. I mean, really?

Save yourself four hundred rupees and go rent the first Ice Age picture. It’s poignantly funny. Unlike this.

Keep The Lights On

★★

By Rehan Mudannayake

Ira Sachs’ Independent Spirit-nominated gay drama is so feeble and feelingless that it is a wonder it has managed to garner any positive feedback. An autobiographical account of a relationship he once had with a literary agent, Keep The Lights On is Sachs’ fifth feature, though one would be forgiven for thinking it was his first.

After breaking up with his HIV-positive boyfriend, filmmaker Erik Rothman (Thure Lindhardt) begins an intermittent 9-year relationship with Paul Lucy (Zachary Booth), a drug-abusing lawyer. In between, a male prostitute is hired, rehab is visited and phone sex lines are called…..

The picture’s principal problem is that we are only ever shown glimpses into Erik and Paul’s volatile relationship; hence, the audience is unable to build a lasting connection with either of the characters. This makes us incapable of empathizing with their issues. As the drama progresses it becomes increasingly irritating to observe: it is akin to a petulant child whose whining grows infuriatingly louder by the second. When the denouement finally approaches, one not only rejoices that their relationship is over but that the picture is too.

A more serious flaw, however, is the casting of Lindhardt as the drama’s lead: the Danish actor’s contrived performance leaves us unable to take him seriously. He stumbles through his lines, often appearing unsure of what he really means to say. In the most heated scenes, he is wooden and emotionless; a horrific misfire at the very least.

Sadly, Sachs’ silver screen portrayal of his relationship does not make for compelling cinema. My guess is that the final product is little more than a step-by-step account of what really happened: the script’s most glaring blunder. To create good cinema one has to murder one’s darlings –

exaggerate details, delete gratuitous scenes and relentlessly revise – so that every moment serves a greater purpose.

Someone go tell Sachs, please?

Lawless

★★★

Following hot on the heels of HBO’s hugely successful Boardwalk Empire, John Hillcoat’s Palme D’Or nominated Lawless is set in the Prohibition era amongst a hotbed of law-breaking bootleggers and mafia bosses. The Aussie director’s fifth picture is an admirable cinematic achievement, chock-full of bloodshed, bravado and baddies.

The Bondurant brothers – Jack (Shia LaBeouf), Forrest (Tom Hardy) and Howard (Jason Clarke) – run a profitable moonshine operation in Franklin County. When newly appointed Special Deputy Charlie Rakes (Guy Pearce) barges in and demands a cut, the stubbornly proud Forrest, somehow convinced of his own immortality, refuses. Torture, rape and throat-slashing follow in the most gruesome fashion possible.

Often, one can predict the quality of a picture from the production studios that back it: in this case, The Weinstein Company and Annapurna Pictures, owned by the Weinstein brothers and Megan Ellison, respectively. The two Hollywood moguls and 25-year old billionaire heiress have come to the rescue of an ailing American movie industry suffering from laughably low standards: a consequence of its reluctance to take risks. Both have on many an occasion funded refreshingly original pictures by respected directors.

Lawless is an apt example of their tasteful selection. LaBeouf dazzles in a performance that will likely alter critics’ impressions of him as a substandard blockbuster poster boy. Gone are the days of half-baked Michael Bay travesties; the young actor seems to have slunk into arthouse fare – up next is a leading role, Lars von Trier’s predictably controversial The Nymphomaniac.

Pearce is virtually unrecognizable underneath a plethora of make up, transforming his face into the twisted cop we are led to hate. The film’s fatal flaw for many viewers may well be Nick Cave’s somewhat sentimental script which expects us to support the Bondurant brothers. However, crucially, this sentimentality does not lapse into mawkishness, thereby preserving the feature’s credibility.

The Weinsteins and Ellison deserve the $51m raked in at the box office: they are assets to filmmaking talent and the future of the industry. Go support them.

Liberal Arts

★★★★

Who the hell knew Ted Mosby was a director? Liberal Arts is the second directorial endeavour of How I Met Your Mother actor Josh Radnor, the comedy-drama receiving an overwhelmingly positive critical response since its premiere at Sundance early last year. Rightly so? Rightly so.

Upon returning to his alma mater after being dumped by his girlfriend, the introverted admissions officer Jesse (Josh Radnor) chances upon English major and improv student Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), coincidentally, also the only Olsen sister who can act. Letter writing, literature and a love for classical music are a few of the mutual interests the emotionally damaged 35-year old and the intellectually mature 19-year old share. Jesse, however, seems to think their age will be a hindrance to the relationship…

Jesse could not be more unlike Ted: he is socially awkward, scholarly snobbish and severely pessimistic at the best of times. Writer-actor-director Radnor demonstrates great dexterity in contrasting his own character’s defeatist attitude with Zibby’s optimism, one of the picture’s notable strengths. Radnor’s intriguing second effort ties itself together rather conveniently by the denouement but it follows a largely unpredictable narrative; one that is heartfelt and pragmatic.

Zibby’s own maturity ironically reflects that of the young Olsen’s, a possible deciding factor in her casting. The 23-year old is an acting maestro, supremely gifted beyond her years, unlike her more famous siblings. Rising to prominence in the underwhelming but nonetheless critically acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene, she is in the same ranks as the more mainstream under-25 star Jennifer Lawrence. The actress seems set to become the indie poster girl of our times.

Something tells me this is only the beginning of a long and fruitful career for both Radnor and Olsen. I predict Oscars somewhere down the line.

By Rehan Mudannayake

Lola Versus

The last couple of years have seen Greta Gerwig emerge from a predominantly mumblecore background into the public spotlight. There have been big name directors – Whit Stillman and Woody Allen. There have been big name stars – Ben Stiller and Natalie Portman. And every so often, a big budget film –Arthur. And then there is Lola Versus. An indie flick without any of the aforementioned traits. Oh, and minus any talent, whatsoever.

When Lola’s (Greta Gerwig) marriage is broken off at the last minute by her fiancée Luke (Joel Kinnaman), she embarks on a series of sexual flings. These bring her little happiness and successfully dissolve all her close friendships. That is, until she realizes true happiness comes from within…. (cue gut-wrenching groans…)

Daryl Wein’s second flick is an unmitigated disaster, replete with perceptible plot holes, poor characterization and paltry performances. From the get-go, one is left wondering why an undeniably one-dimensional fiancé bizarrely calls off a promising relationship. It doesn’t help that Kinnaman has the acting prowess of Tommy Wiseau: vacant stares and melodramatic reactions, anybody?

Gerwig struggles to portray the erratic decisions and peculiarities of such a flawed character. This is not entirely her fault – it is impossible to portray a poorly written character. As the picture progresses, it becomes crystal clear to us that it is her writer-director’s fault.

Why would someone of Gerwig’s caliber choose such a turkey? Put simply, she has always tended to select this variety of independent fare: the low-budget offbeat (sometimes romantic) comedy where she plays an eccentric lead, alongside idiosyncratic characters who exhibit a bizarre sense of humour. Did she miss working with fresh talent after all that Hollywood fame? Perhaps. This is an actress who enjoys taking risks. It’s just a shame this one didn’t pay off.

Even the most talented actor’s CV contains flops. Hopefully, this will be poor Greta’s first and last. 

LUV

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★

Sheldon Candis’s Sundance Grand Jury Prize nominee is really rather good, despite a glaring glitch. Expertly cast, LUV boasts Danny Glover, Michael K. Williams and Dennis Haysbert: an impressive feat for an indie of this size. A coming of age story set in Baltimore, it contains several surreal elements that may well bear some resemblance to the recent work of Terrence Malick.

A young boy, Woody (Michael Rainey Jr.) and his ex-convict uncle Vincent (Common) drive around in an attempt to pull money together to fund a seafood house. Despite a shady past and a stint in prison, Vincent has cleaned up his act and is determined to go legit. That is, until he realizes he can fund his seafood house by performing a few more dodgy favours for dubious friends….

Michael Rainey Jr. delivers a polished performance beyond his own years. Convincing child actors are few and far between; kudos to Candis for spotting such a gifted young man for the lead role. The weight of the film rests on Rainey Jr.’s shoulders, yet the boy never missteps a line: his hero’s transformation by the end of the picture highlights the actor’s effortless versatility. Will he continue to receive roles in bigger and better films that challenge his acting instincts further, or will he melt into obscurity?

Sadly, the primary problem with this indie flick is Nuno Malo’s score: ambient, electronic, dreamy...and ultimately indulgent, like many other contemporary indie scores. Malo’s music pervades the entire picture, awkwardly thrusting itself into scenes where it is clearly extraneous. This is the picture’s one faux pas, and it very nearly destroys its powerful poignancy.

Thankfully, the talents of its two leads are still accomplished enough to make one ignore the lackluster musical arrangements and focus on the gritty narrative.

Good effort, Mr. Candis.

Nebraska

By Rehan Mudannayake

Alexander Payne is one of a handful of contemporary American auteurs who is constantly capable of constructing critically acclaimed pictures that also appeal to a mass audience. His last three were made for under $30m and grossed well over $100m, whilst garnering praise from critics and fans alike. Naturally, I expected his latest to be as popular as his previous efforts.

I was wrong.

The usher confirmed it was the right room. So…why was there no one inside? “Well it is Nebraska…”. Convincing myself that cinemagoers were at the Berlinale instead, I sat down to watch the Palme D’Or nominated Nebraska.

It blew me away.

When Woody Grant (Bruce Dern) receives a mail scam informing him that he’s won a million dollars, he insists on travelling all the way from Montana to Lincoln, Nebraska to pick it up. Despite acknowledging the fraudulent nature of the leaflet, his son David (Will Forte) decides to humour his father by travelling with him via his hometown of Hawthorne. Yes, it turns into another one of those wacky Payne roadtrips…

The picture is bitingly satirical, particularly in its portrayal of Woody’s family and Hawthorne’s small town nature. Notable caricatures include Woody’s irritating adult nephews: piggish, potbellied troublemakers who sit in front of the television all day discussing cars. The characters of the drama provide a stark contrast to the intellectuals present in Payne’s earlier endeavours.

Payne pays homage to his home state by shooting the entire film in gorgeous black and white; in many ways, it is his anti-Manhattan. His Nebraska is not magnificent, diverse or indeed educated like Woody Allen’s New York but it has a certain je ne sais quoi to it. Despite its greedy, ignorant citizens we are subject to its warmhearted inhabitants, many of whom have some sort of prior connection to Woody. This intimate glimpse into his life is a reminder of how well liked he was as a young man.

It is interesting to note that Payne’s protagonists are often lovable losers who eventually redeem themselves – think Warren Schmidt, Miles Raymond, Matt King – and Woody is no exception. Each of these leading characters is teetering on the edge of self-destruction but undergoes a transformative experience. We come to realize that Woody’s intentions are respectable: as the picture progresses, his charitable qualities emerge, particularly his motive behind claiming the ‘million dollars’.

It’s a real shame Nebraska received a lukewarm response at the box office: it is as brilliant, soulful and indeed powerful as Payne’s first five films. Maybe more so.

A must watch.

New Bollywood

By Rehan Mudannayake

Pirated DVD stores are ubiquitous in Colombo, many housing vast quantities of contemporary Hollywood fare (your run of the mill live-action/animated blockbusters, mixed in with the odd indie flick) and the latest Bollywood offerings. However, if one is more irritated than amused by the selection i.e. the gratuitous number of plotless American sequels/prequels, or the repetitive Indian remakes of those very pictures with complimentary song and dance situations thrown in, one should probably look elsewhere.

Enter New Bollywood.

Don’t be misled by the name – you’re not likely to find any predictable south asian love (lau?) stories in here. Situated opposite Colombo Jewellery Stores, under a blue board with the aforementioned title in purple letters, sits the city’s finest DVD retailer. Something of a haven for cultured film enthusiasts, New Bollywood offers a wealth of classic and contemporary cinema, much of which is foreign.

An abundance of diverse film movements awaits: from German Expressionism (Fassbinder) to Italian Neorealism (Rossellini, De Sica, Visconti), from the French New Wave (Godard, Truffaut etc) to the British New Wave (Loach, Anderson). There’s also a liberal sprinkling of Asian masters, present (Mehta) and past (Kurosawa, Ray).

The exceedingly influential American greats haven’t been forgotten either: you’ll find your Kubrick and Hitchcock in there. The same goes for all those modern-day mavericks with devoted followings: Paul Thomas Anderson and Michael Haneke, anyone?

Arranged in alphabetical order, the DVDs are cheap: classics are 150 bucks a pop, new films are Rs 100 and Blu Rays are Rs 300. NB’s enthusiastic owner may well give you a discount if you buy in bulk.

Now comes Catch 22: New Bollywood closes in a couple of months. Terribly tragic for those of us regulars who frequent the place on a weekly basis. I guess there’s not much more you can do than attempt to buy out their supplies?

There’s no silent or experimental film to be found here but it’s a price worth paying for a rather spectacular collection.


Only God Forgives

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★

If you think back to 2011, you may remember the waves caused by an overrated, overtly stylized neo-noir starring a tediously taciturn Ryan Gosling. Cannes’ fickle audiences gave it a standing ovation, it earned nearly 6 times its budget of $13m and helmer Nicolas Winding Refn was hailed as this decade’s Tarantino.

All of which I still fail to understand.

Winding Refn’s Palme D’Or nominated pseudo-arthouse follow up – Only God Forgives – contains double the gore, half the narrative and Ryan Gosling.

When Billy Thompson (Tom Burke) is murdered, brother Julian (Ryan Gosling) and psychotic mother Crystal (Kristin Scott Thomas) plot their revenge on his killer. If you think Winding-Refn wrote this painfully laconic film in the space of 2 hours, you may well be correct.

The entire picture is highly stylized, comprising rectilinear compositions, neon lighting and static framing. All to achieve the effect of a neo-western. These methods and effects may dazzle for the first 10 minutes but become tiresome as there is little narrative to support them. Regardless of genre, story is always key to making a film. Will Winding-Refn ever realize this? Perhaps never.

(I won’t waste any space on Gosling: a monotonous, predictable sellout, he is truly excruciating to watch in any current picture. End of story.)

Thompson truly deserves a Golden Razzie for her vacuous performance: stilted, sedate and a sure misfire. However, given her passable resume, it is clear that Refn is almost certainly to blame. It is the director that extracts the actor’s performance; a great director fully utilizes the actor’s potential to its full use. A 90-minute deadpan performance from one’s cast does not count.

This decade’s Tarantino? Pfft. At least this one was booed at Cannes…

Piranha 3DD

By Rehan Alexander Mudannayake

Piranha 3DD comprises the usual horror-parody symptoms: self-referential humour, a facsimiled character list of jealous jocks and vacuous virgins and a cast of B-movie mediocrities with horrifically-humongous Double-D breasts. Hell, the mere sight of Gary Busey is enough to make even the most cold-hearted critic cackle.

Me? I laughed. Occasionally.

When a multitude of menacing piranhas threatens to infiltrate and massacre the “Big Wet” waterpark’s visitors, Maddy (Danielle Panabaker) rushes to the rescue, calling for the waterpark to be shut down. Her stepfather Chet (David Koechner) and ex-boyfriend Kyle (Chris Zylka) ignore her. A hysterical holocaust transpires, drawing Maddy and childhood friend Barry (Matt Bush) together. Then, David Hasselhoff does the Baywatch run. (Playing himself, the Hoff satirizes his own ironic fame and his CV of cult television shows.)

Piranha 3DD was received unfavourably by critics and has thus far, returned only a quarter of its whopping $20 million budget. Did it deserve this disappointing response? Probably. Delving into its history revealed rather a sad revelation: Piranha 3DD is not just a sequel to a Jaws spoof, it is a sequel to the second remake of a Jaws spoof. Yes, this is Piranha picture NUMBER FOUR. It is Hollywood’s attempt at making a quick buck out of a lackluster sequel. I’m surprised they didn’t just call it Piranha 3(2)DD.

Sure, there are funny moments. During the carnage, Chet encounters a young girl crying over her mother’s dead body. Instead of consoling the child, Chet chucks a wad of dollar bills in her face. The kid responds by checking to see whether they are authentic. This is one of about four decent jokes in 82 minutes. The rest of director John Gulager’s flick lacks true comic value and resorts to half-baked clichés, making it, well, laughable.

Ruby Sparks

★★

Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris are the dynamic husband and wife duo who brought you 2006’s hit comedy-drama Little Miss Sunshine. An indie masterpiece that exhibited the couple’s flair for authenticity in casting and direction, it was Michael Arndt’s unique script that wowed audiences the world over. A bidding war erupted between studios at Sundance. Arndt won an Academy Award. The flick became a modern classic.

The pair’s latest contains elegant cinematography and tastefully stylised production design but is bogged down in tropes.

When the protagonist of Calvin’s (Paul Dano) new novel, Ruby (Zoe Kazan), turns up in his kitchen one morning, flesh and blood, the author realizes that she is no longer a figment of his imagination. She is a real life girlfriend whom he has created and wields power over. All it takes is a few keystrokes on his typewriter.

Sound like Marc Forster’s Stranger Than Fiction? The resemblance is uncanny. An already unoriginal feature descends into cliché, echoing the ‘be careful what you wish for’ platitude – the last possible avenue that should have been considered. Scriptwriter Kazan is mostly to blame. She has successfully created the twee archetype we all love to hate: ginger hair, chubby cheeks and excessive daintiness – Zooey Deschanel, anyone? And don’t even get me started on the 1970s Belgian punk rock (Plastic Bertrand, no less) and the hackneyed nods to the French New Wave.

Unsurprisingly, Paul Dano delivers. One of the finest young actors of his generation and Kazan’s boyfriend in real life, he breathes life into an otherwise stale, predictable screenplay. Still, a mediocre script is the biggest possible hindrance to any picture; if you begin with mediocrity, you’ll probably end up with it too.

Don’t bother.

Searching For Sugar Man

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★

Malik Bendjelloul's Oscar-winning documentary is the heart-warming story of the search for Sixto Rodriguez: an iconic figure, a fine musician and a legend amongst South Africans. Never heard of Rodriguez? That's alright, neither had I. Nor anyone else outside South Africa for that matter. Shades, skinny jeans, long hair and a husky voice, Detroit folk singer Sixto Rodriguez made music that failed miserably in the USA but gained a cult following in Cape Town.

When stories of Rodriguez's suicide - that he burned himself on stage, that he shot himself whilst performing - reached South Africa, two fans, Stephen "Sugar" Segerman and Craig Bartholomew Strydom, vowed to dig deeper. Convinced that this mysterious figure was still alive, they created a website in an effort to find him. Years later, Sugar and Strydom tracked him down....to Detroit, where he was working as a construction labourer. Rodriguez had descended into deeper oblivion, giving up his music and instead choosing to campaign for worker's rights and run for Mayor. What follows is a moving tale of how a virtually unknown artist's dreams became realized overnight and received the acclaim he deserved.

In the first half of the picture, Bendjelloul successfully builds up Rodriguez's persona, presenting to us stories of his suicide in the most nonchalant manner possible. Never is there a hint of an idea that we will actually meet him. Yet, when we are presented with the icon, we are dumbstruck. Bendjelloul, in keeping with the singer's simple lifestyle introduces us to Rodriguez by means of a scene where he opens a side window and stares straight into the camera. Magic.

Rodriguez reveals himself to be something of an introvert: a quiet, humble man leading the frugal life. The money he eventually earned from gigs was given away to relatives and close friends, a potent indication of his generosity. It is touching to see an impressive soloist without the airs and graces that normally befall most in the music industry.

Bendjelloul's magnificent picture will force sceptics to sit up and listen to Rodriguez's music, something of a catchy cross between Peter Sarstedt and Bob Dylan. As the picture progressed, I found myself falling in love with it. Perhaps this documentary will finally give the silent star the worldly recognition he deserves?

Shadow Dancer

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★

Oscar-winning director James Marsh's latest picture is a harrowing tale of lost love, misjudged loyalty and brutal suffering. From the opening scene, it becomes clear to us that Marsh's thriller is a bleak one, its characters shot in tones of grey and light blue to portray that no one in this story has escaped hardship. The general course of the narrative is wildly unpredictable; it includes a hard hitting opening scene and a shocking denouement.

When IRA member Colette McVeigh (Andrea Riseborough) is kidnapped by MI5, she is coerced into being an informant by one of its agents, Mac (Clive Owen). What follows is a series of ruthless IRA attacks and a segue into a rather brief but unexpected love story. Colette is trapped in between these two organisations, forced to choose between the country that may have killed her little brother and the Irish terrorist organisation who already suspect her of being a spy for the British.

;

Andrea Riseborough is perfectly made up as Colette: her pale, weary, teary face indicating she is unsure of whose side to pick. Riseborough plays her part with gripping conviction, progressively causing us to lose sympathy for her character and the sticky situation she is in. A difficult role to take on, she pulls it off with quiet subtlety.

Rob Hardy's cinematography is particularly potent: the hand-held urgency of the camera creating anticipation, even in the quietest moments of the picture. The empowering long takes draw the audience into the action, continually surprising them with each new plot turn. When Colette and her IRA counterparts assassinate an important figure outside his house, the unexpected shooting of one of the assassins she has given away is heightened by the tension the long take creates. This scene continues all the way into the house of the shot man: Colette marches in, bumps into the deceased man's wife and their baby, and demands the back door key, amidst the baby's crying. It is bizarrely reminiscent of an earlier Clive Owen film, Children of Men, during which much of the action is conveyed by means of heart-racing long takes.

Great contemporary British films are few and far between: I half expected Shadow Dancer to be as mediocre as an overrated Tom Hooper flick. Boy, was I wrong. Don't miss out: this is one thriller that'll electrify you from start to finish.

Silver Linings Playbook

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★★

If there’s a genuine contender for 2012’s finest film, it is not Spielberg’s tedious Lincoln or Benh Zeitlin’s absurdly indulgent Beasts of the Southern Wild. It is David O. Russell’s hysterically dysfunctional Silver Linings Playbook.

When bipolar Pat Solitano (Bradley Cooper) meets recovering sex addict Tiffany Maxwell (Jennifer Lawrence), the former is still obsessed with a cheating wife Nikki (Brea Bee) who has moved on, whilst the latter becomes infatuated with the former. Tiffany agrees to deliver Pat’s love letters to Nikki in return for a favour: he must take part in a dance competition with her. Bets are made, tempers are lost and neuroses reign supreme.

After frequenting a multitude of roles with promising premises but average outcomes – think Limitless or The Words – Bradley Cooper finally appears to have hit a home run with Pat Solitano, a character so mentally unstable, it is a wonder he has made it this far in life. This is a career-defining role: the kind that is not easily followed up. Cooper brings to his character a potent mixture of moody volatility and borderline insanity but packages this together in the form of rib-tickling hilarity. However, it’s unlikely he’ll win the Best Actor gong at the Oscars in February considering the competition he’s up against – the acting behemoth that is Daniel Day Lewis.

Lawrence, one of Hollywood’s most successful young actresses, outshines her co-stars in her meatiest role since 2010’s Oscar nominated turn as Ree Dolly in the outstanding indie drama, Winter’s Bone. It is riveting to see her do justice to another, albeit more lighthearted but still complex character, following a slew of high-grossing but half-baked blockbusters. If she wins Best Actress next month –

a likelihood, provided Jessica Chastain doesn’t snatch the gong away from beneath her eyes – she’ll certainly deserve it.

Acting aside, writer-director O. Russell is the real star of this barnstormer. Without him there would be no spontaneity, no sharp dialogue and certainly no madness. This is his crowning glory and he has every right to be proud of it. He won’t win out against the Academy’s unwavering favourite – Spielberg – but no matter, this picture will keep audiences coming back for more, unlike the 2 ½ hour Lincoln.

Silver Linings is riotous beyond reason. I implore you to watch it. At least twice.

Skyfall

★★★★

Never having been a fan of Daniel Craig’s Bond, I was rather bemused by the overwhelmingly positive fan reaction to MGM’s makeover of the world’s favourite MI6 agent. Call me old-fashioned or stubbornly traditionalist but Craig’s ruggedly ruthless rendition left me unimpressed because the character had lost much of his suaveness and humour. Differences aside, Skyfall’s the most impressive of the Cheshire actor’s tenure, thus far.

After a failed assassination attempt on M (Judi Dench) by former MI6 agent Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), Bond pursues his leads on the cyberterrorist, ending up in Shanghai, Macau, London and finally, his gloomy childhood home: Skyfall Lodge in Scotland. Silva’s objective is to murder M, whom he holds responsible for his imprisonment and torture by the Chinese. Bond girls Eve Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) and Severine (Berenice Lim Marlowe) seem more like afterthoughts in this grim narrative….

Director Sam Mendes is one of England’s finest filmmakers, veracious and versatile. He brings us a more stylized Bond; one in which attention to detail is meticulous, from the elegantly skinny costume design disported to the rectilinear compositions. Simpler gadgets, fewer chase scenes and stronger characterization, his is a slower, more subtly intriguing 007 interpretation.

Mendes introduces Silva to us by means of a highly anticipatory long take in which he walks slowly from the opposite end of a warehouse space toward the camera. Blonder, paler and more homoerotic than you’ve seen him before, Bardem will make you squirm, not least of all when he strokes Bond’s torso. He is the real star of this twenty-third Bond outing and arguably one of the most menacing villains to cross the suited spy’s path, yet.

A triumphant effort I will no doubt watch again. Join me?

Now showing at Majestic City

Snow White and The Huntsman

By Rehan Alexander Mudannayake

Charlize Theron’s oeuvre is a clash of visceral dramas (Monster, North
Country, Young Adult) and vacuous blockbusters (Aeon Flux, The Italian
Job
remake, Hancock). Snow White and the Huntsman falls into the
latter category.

The Grimm fairytale receives an epic reboot, replete with
grandiloquent speeches, copious computer generated imagery and Kristen
Stewart. When husband killer and all-round despot Queen Ravenna
(Theron) is informed that her stepdaughter is the fairest in the land,
snow hits the fan. (One has to be Fair to be Lovely in fairy tales
too, not just in Colombo!) The Magic Mirror, a hooded figure with the
voice of God (a black man’s, Morgan Freeman anyone?) suggests that
immortality can only be achieved through consuming Snow White’s heart.
Conveniently, Snow White escapes in the nick of time. She is later
assisted by arrogant but charming huntsman Eric (Chris Hemsworth) who
decides not to hand her and her heart over to the Queen. He frowns a
lot, changes accent gratuitously and helps her win a battle against
the rest of Middle-Earth. Oh and they also meet seven dwarves along
the way and – well, you know the rest of the story.

Theron is mostly to blame. She is clearly a capable actress who seems
unafraid of exploring mammoth roles, whether it be a character study
of a spectacularly
psychotic serial killer (Aileen Wuornos!) or a portrayal of an
insensitive narcissist (the magnificently unsympathetic Mavis Gary).
Then, why this? The hefty paycheck, one assumes. Stewart, on the other
hand is supremely talentless and can add this performance to her
repertoire of vacant stares.

Now, perhaps you are of the view that a picture that has grossed $370m
(well over twice its budget) in less than two months is worth a watch.
Or perhaps your 8-year old daughter is pestering you to go see it with
her. Or perhaps you are that 8-year old daughter! Well, if you do fall
into any of these categories and enjoy the sounds of Sri Lankan radio
drifting in from the projectionist’s room and playing alongside
Charlize Theron’s booming voice, this is the fantasy flick for you!
But just consider this: Snow White was co-produced by John Lee
Hancock, who brought you the painfully saccharine The Blind Side and
directed by Rupert Sanders who, um, brought you the television
advertisement for Halo 3. I trust you get the idea. So go if you must, and take your 8-year old daughter with you.

Something Real and Good

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★

Luke Rivett’s debut dialogue based romantic drama is an attempt at meaningful conversation; a Before Sunrise for the 2010s, if you will. Sadly, his modern day tete-a-tete fails to live up to Richard Linklater’s landmark feat, instead resorting to quirky clichés and hipster tropes.

When nerdy twenty-something male (Matt Jones) spots cute twenty-something female (Alex Hannant) sitting opposite him in an airport lounge, waiting for the same plane, he knows he must make contact. When the plane is forced to re-route and dock in Denver, their discussion continues all the way through to the hotel they stay in. Potential pillow fights, stolen souvenirs and a cockblocking teenager feature….not to mention several early morning hotel trolley rides.

It is easy to admire the premise of such a picture: two unfulfilled young adults exchanging anecdotes and deliberating personal problems in the hopes that they may find an answer. What’s not to like, right? Wrong. Many of the characters’ internal issues also happen to be - to quote a hackneyed phrase - first world problems. For one, our 22-year old female protagonist claims that Hollywood gave her unrealistic expectations about love: you don’t say? (Give her a break, she’s only 22….) She goes onto speak of being unable to engage in conversation without responding in an ironic or sarcastic manner: yes, positively heart-rending. Our male protagonist articulates the difficulties of breaking away from his trust fund status at the age of 27: I mean, what part of Colombo 7 is this guy from? It really is impossible to feel genuine sympathy for a picture’s leads when their subject matter is so vacuous and trite.

Both characters also feel unconvincingly idiosyncratic. For example, our female has a penchant for tapping pens on desks and fiddling with soda cup straws: the kind of unrealistic peculiarities only an amateurish screenwriter would draw unnecessary attention to in an already eccentric picture. To top it all off, neither is given a name: yes, despite their individuality, the screenwriter Erin Carroll wants us to believe that despite their quirks, they’re normal human beings with normal lives and normal problems….like the rest of us! Right.

Given this is Rivett’s debut, one should probably reserve judgement for later. However, there is so little to admire in Carroll’s script – its characters lack the poignancy and sincerity of Linklater’s beloved Jesse and Celine – that it becomes too feeble to be taken seriously. 

Ted

By Rehan Alexander Mudannayake

★★★★

Seth MacFarlane’s debut is not only a barnstormer but a welcome injection of new blood into the ailing heart of contemporary Hollywood comedy. Gone are the days of half-baked Frat Pack productions and irredeemably defective Sandler vehicles. Ted sees the Family Guy creator successfully construct an endearing CGI character, replete with convincing realism.

The eponymous Ted (Seth MacFarlane) is a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking, teddy bear with an obnoxious sense of humour and a best friend in hedonistic rental car agency worker John Bennett (Mark Wahlberg). Their companionship is challenged when John has to choose between his long-term girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis) and the pint-sized stoner. Drunken karaoke, Flash Gordon and naughty salt follow….

What may sound clichéd on paper is in fact remarkably executed on screen. This is largely due to screenwriter MacFarlane’s biting pop culture satire: bold, beautiful and certainly cleverer than the cheap, facile cutaway gags exhibited in Family Guy. The plot may be predictable but the picture is poignant. This is best illustrated by the denouement: unsurprising, yet far from sugar-coated.

Where to from here, one wonders? A sequel, I’m told. Will MacFarlane eventually suffer the fate of numerous modern comic predecessors and succumb to mediocrity? Or will he maintain his legitimacy and fuel an epoch of memorable hilarity? I’m going to be optimistic and forecast the latter.

MacFarlane’s sincere bromance has thus far, raked in a colossal $500m at the box office. Go join the masses.

The Angel’s Share

★★★

Ken Loach’s film festival darling deserves every plaudit bestowed on it. The British social realism master’s comedy-drama is a masterful concoction of poverty-driven desperation, sheer dumb luck and whisky.

After a trip to a whisky distillery, lawbreaker Robbie (Paul Brannigan) and his community service group, Albert (Gary Maitland), Mo (Jasmin Riggins) and Rhino (William Ruane) realize there is a killing to be made from stealing a priceless cask of scotch that is due to go under the hammer. What follows is a seemingly simple heist of Machiavellian proportions, the consequences of which are unashamedly fortuitous.

Our protagonists’ luck may seem implausible at first but upon further analysis, it is also the first they have ever experienced. These are the poorest of England’s working classes, born into broken homes, penniless lives and misery; it is no wonder they inevitably turn to petty crime. Thus, when Robbie realizes the only way he can provide for his wife and his newborn child is through this heist, we feel nothing but guiltless pleasure for him.

Whilst stealing is by no means the morally correct path by which to improve one’s life, the larger picture Loach is attempting to illustrate here is that there is no other way out for our leading characters. The group’s desperation is a consequence of Mr Cameron’s unsympathetic Tory government, which is slowly guiding the country to rack and ruin through its prejudice against the poor. Unsurprisingly, Loach is its most vocal critic and his picture is in many ways a farcical tale of woe.

Cannes loves Loach. The Angel’s Share – his 11th film in 31 years to compete at what is the world’s most prestigious film festival – came third with the Jury Prize. A particularly strong year for arthouse cinema, the English veteran’s picture beat out competition from the likes of Abbas Kiarostami, Alain Resnais and Ulrich Seidl, to name a few.

An hour and a half well spent. However, if you are renting this one, it would probably do you good to switch on the subtitles: those Glaswegian accents may well mystify you……

The Bling Ring

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★

Is Sofia Coppola’s oeuvre simply a product of her famed father Francis Ford’s success? In other words, would her pictures get made if she wasn’t a Coppola? The Academy Award-winning female filmmaker would probably answer yes; a reply I would disagree with vehemently. Sure, her first two films – The Virgin Suicides and Lost In Translation – were passable but the following two? Marie Antoinette was only good for its soundtrack and Somewhere was implausibly minimal: both superficial, pseudo-arthouse efforts, with little substance.

Is her latest any different? Well, arguably, it’s worse.

The Bling Ring is based on the real life stories of a group of celebrity-obsessed teenagers who raided the houses of several household names: Paris Hilton and Orlando Bloom, amongst others. As the film progresses we follow Marc (Israel Broussard), Rebecca (Katie Chang), Nicki (Emma Watson), Chloe (Claire Julien) and Sam (Taissa Farmiga) as they gallivant around California, breaking into houses, stealing expensive goods, partying at clubs and, um….that’s about it. Repeat cycle multiple times.

This, in a nutshell, is why the film is so problematic: it is a depthless, step-by-step account of a series of events, blindly intercut with a few shallow character interviews, post-jail. Bizarrely, the obligatory character studies crucial for a picture of this nature are missing. For instance, Coppola largely ignores what it is that drives the film’s adolescents to thieve, neither does she examine the roots of their celebrity infatuation: both pertinent issues any other discerning director would have considered to be of the utmost importance. Instead, the audience is subjected to a lazy, facile, one-dimensional view of the circumstances: in short, there’s nothing in this film that isn’t already on Wikipedia.

Emma Watson overacts. Again. Sporting an artificial American accent – after a year and a half at an Ivy League school – she stumbles through the picture, embarrassing herself at every possible turn. (One struggles to think of a suitable English replacement: Gemma Arterton? Too old. Carey Mulligan? Never. Juno Temple? Maybe.) Next to her largely unknown but gifted co-stars, Watson crumbles. Broussard exhibits much talent; sadly, he is likely to have profited better under a more competent director.

Like Coppola’s previous two efforts, I don’t see a point to the picture. Why base a feature on such a fascinating story if one does not plan on delving deeper into the murky depths of a troubled teen’s mindset? There’s so much more on offer here, yet Coppola simply chooses to scratch the surface and ignore the real issues pervading these delinquents, in the process clumsily repeating herself.

Poor effort, Sofia. Time to make a real film.

The Bourne Legacy

Cinema: Majestic City

The Bourne Identity was a landmark achievement. The Bourne Supremacy was unnecessary. The Bourne Ultimatum was an improvement on its predecessor. The Bourne Legacy? I’m not entirely sure how to put this so I will resort to a cliché: it’s a long way to go with no punch.

After Jason Bourne exposes the Treadstone Project and Operation Blackbriar, Eric Byer (Ed Norton), fearing a repeat, orders a hit on all constituents of Operation Outcome. This includes our protagonists: Agent “Number Five” Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner) and Dr Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz). Narrowly escaping assassination, Shearing and Cross spend half the picture running from the authorities, attempting to ‘viral off’ Cross’s enhancing meds. That’s about it. It’s all rather silly, really.

Clocking in at 2 hours and 15 minutes, Tony Gilroy’s action thriller is just that little bit longer than its predecessors – and for what reason, you might ask? A chase scene, naturally! Cross and Shearing weave in and out of Manila’s marketplaces, massacring everything in sight. Foreseeably, the customary vehicle/parkour pursuit does tend to bore and I found myself losing interest as this seemingly endless sequence persevered.

Worse, once you’ve made it through the aforementioned grueling 15 minutes, the most abrupt denouement awaits. (The crowd I was with was smart enough to sniff out the resulting possibility of a sequel.)

Renner is Gilroy’s only saving grace: sporting a rugged exterior (Daniel Craig, anyone?) and a gruff disposition, he plays a refreshingly candid Cross, a welcome departure from Matt Damon’s surreptitious Bourne.

The Bourne Legacy is average, though worth a watch by all means. Just prepare yourself for a disappointing finale!

chathura@uol.lk

The Dark Knight Rises

By Rehan Alexander Mudannayake

Cinema: Majestic City

Chris Nolan is the auteur who reinvented modern mainstream editing (Memento, anyone?), simultaneously enthralled and confused viewers with magic (2006’s dazzling The Prestige) and frightened audiences with a low budget neo-noir (his debut, Following). But sad to say, his recent efforts have been dreadful and there is a feeling that he lost his touch sequels ago.

When baddie Bane (Tom Hardy) bankrupts Wayne Enterprises, Bruce (Christian Bale) ceases to be reclusive, buys more fancy toys from Lucius Fox (Morgan Freeman) and reassumes the caped crusader’s, erm, crusade. But then Bane cripples Wayne, discombobulates us all with his speech impediment (at least I could understand Darth Vader!) and spouts cheese (“I was wondering what part of you would break first. Your spirit OR YOUR BODY!”). Worse, he throws Wayne into a pit that no one has escaped from. (Actually, one person: a child.) Then he threatens to destroy Gotham. Noooooooo!

Nolan is currently Britain’s most powerful director. Scrub that: Hollywood’s most powerful contemporary director. Remember: this man sold Inception to the masses, with its plot-hole ridden storyline, overbearingly corny Hans Zimmer score (refer South Park’s bitingly satiric Insheeption) and its uncanny ability to make stupid audiences feel smart.

The Dark Knight Rises is an improvement on Inception. However, it will always be subordinate to its predecessor, The Dark Knight; Heath Ledger’s skillfully portrayed Joker is second to none. Granted, Bane initially showed promise – his villainously hoarse 5.1 SURROUND SOUND voice was at first chilling. An hour later, the novelty wore off, prompted primarily by Nolan’s inability to write him convincing dialogue. (Moreover, Hans Zimmer is back with yet another grandiloquent score that tries a little too hard to create anticipation….)

No doubt, you’ll still watch this picture (and I don’t blame you – I myself was rather curious), and perhaps enjoy it but I do warn you, Nolan’s lacklustre ending may render those 2 1/2 hours something of a waste of time. 

The Great Gatsby

★★

By Rehan Mudannayake

The decision to ‘update’ one of the 20th century’s best loved works of literature – F. Scott Fitzgerald’s magnum opus, no less – in the form of a BAZ LUHRMAN FILM, provoked mixed reactions. Fans were dubious when a trailer cut to music by Jay-Z and Kanye West, among others, was released. Being one of the few books that had a profound impact on my childhood, I felt increasingly fearful of what was to come.

When Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire) moves to Long Island, he becomes close friends with Jay Gatsby (Leo DiCaprio) – a hopeful man with a shady background – who is in love with a married woman, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). The romance is a forbidden one: Daisy is married to Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton), a racist brute of a man and college acquaintance of Nick. Things don’t end too well.

Stylistically, Gatsby is a disaster on multiple levels. Arguably, Luhrman is one of the few directors with the chutzpah to cut a 1920s period piece like a modern day trailer. Fade ins, fade outs, dissolves, jump cuts – all utilized tastelessly. Exacerbating this tacky trailer-like trimming is the irritating use of contemporary chart topping music, which purposefully screams black opulence…against the backdrop of a white 1920s cast: slight problem there? It is clear Luhrman wanted his soundtrack’s ostentatious themes to reflect the Roaring ’20s own vulgar display of luxury; sadly the link is so tenuous, that he should have had one or the other but not both. Or perhaps translated Gatsby into a modern day fable?

Moreover, the soundtrack is often employed unsubtly. Playing a cover of Beyonce’s Crazy In Love over a sequence where Gatsby decorates Nick’s house to impress Daisy is one cheap example of a hackneyed, saccharine sequence.

Mulligan is arguably one of Luhrman’s most uninspiring casting choices in decades: a terrifically, talentless excuse for an actress, she has not a single half-decent performance under her belt (no, Shame does not quite cut it). Next to the masterful DiCaprio, she crumbles.

DiCaprio, on the other hand, is the picture’s only saving grace: the man can do no wrong. Enough said.

The casting of Bollywood veteran Amitabh Bachchan is perhaps the most ironic decision of all: the Indian superstar is famous for his grandiloquent, Bollywood roots which contain much melodrama, a trait which forms the basis of Luhrman’s oeuvre. Sadly, Luhrman overlooked a few crucial problems: Bachchan doesn’t really look that Jewish, nor does he sound it. No Baz, we’re not blind, neither are we deaf. But thanks for trying.

If you can stand the copious amounts of CGI, the kitsch approach to this Great American Novel and some truly appalling acting, perhaps check Gatsby out. See how far you get before you wish you were the one being run down by a car. 

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

It’s been awhile since Peter Jackson wowed us. The early noughties saw the critically acclaimed behemoth The Lord of the Rings grace the silver screen, a magnificent feat he has not topped since. King Kong was unexceptional and The Lovely Bones simply unwatchable. Hence, it was with trepidation that I approached The Hobbit, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most beloved literary works.

When the dwarf kingdom of Erebor is forcefully occupied by dragon Smaug, twelve dwarves headed by Thorin (Richard Armitage) team up with hobbit Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) and wizard Gandalf the Grey (Sir Ian McKellen) to reclaim it. However, this is only the first part in a trilogy that is being created out of a single book. By all means, a cash cow for New Line, MGM and Wingnut but are the fans really complaining?

They have little reason to, considering that An Unexpected Journey is surprisingly satisfactory. Audiences may find the content rather tame considering LOTR had plenty more to dazzle with, nevertheless Jackson’s epic beginning seldom lags. He fleshes out backstory, documenting the most minor encounters and major battles, throwing in passably cheesy humour, all the while keeping the layman entertained. This will likely satisfy the die-hards who were discontent with a more condensed LOTR. WETA Workshop and Digital have produced yet another spectacular Middle-Earth, replete with dazzlingly convincing mise en scene and plausible computer graphics – a rarity nowadays in a CGI-driven Hollywood.

What did irritate was the recycling of much of Howard Shore’s LOTR score: Jackson conveniently slots it into similar situations that occur in this picture, creating awkwardly predictable scenarios. However, this repetition – Jackson’s way of pandering to his fans – does not take its toll on the picture as it is occasionally put to relevant use in key scenes.

Bilbo Baggins is Freeman’s forte: he is an apt choice. Normally known for bagging supporting parts, he claims the lead in this piece, bringing an inkling of slapstick to the role.

If sequels The Desolation of Smaug and There and Back Again are anything like their predecessor, Jackson will have certainly hit another home run.

Now showing at Savoy Cinema in 3D

The Hunt

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★

In 1998, director Thomas Vinterberg reached Cannes superstardom with his groundbreaking, Jury-prize winning drama Festen. The first Dogme 95 picture –

a turning point in Danish cinema – it was the deeply distressing tale of a paedophilic father whose molested sons spill the beans on his abusive activities at his swanky 60th birthday party. Racism, assault, incest, suicide: a real Danish barnstormer!

The Hunt is not nearly as harrowing but will still make the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.

When five year-old Klara (Annika Wedderkopp) falsely claims her pre-school teacher Lucas (Mads Mikkelsen) showed her his genitals, the rest of the school kids follow suit with unfounded accusations of sexual abuse. Unfortunately for Lucas, the school staff and the rest of the village accept these poisonous lies as fact and decide to ostracize him. Unlucky.

At first glance, The Hunt may appear stylistically different to the rugged, rule-driven Dogme 95 approach (no special lighting, no superficial action, no external props allowed) in that it is a visually polished, narrative-driven drama. However, this does not conceal the brutality of the storyline but instead exposes and intensifies it: for example, the jerky handheld camerawork and the harsh lighting of the piece subject us to a slice of the savagery Lucas is exposed to. We genuinely feel the violence, loss and persecution he suffers from almost every individual he faces.

He is no method actor, but I like to think of Mikkelsen as a Danish Daniel Day Lewis: accomplished, acclaimed and a real actor’s actor. One of European cinema’s finest contemporary performers, Mikkelsen bagged Best Actor at Cannes last year for Vinterberg’s feature. As the erroneously victimized lead, one cannot help but sympathize with his character’s plight. Mikkelsen portrays his already taciturn character with the utmost understatedness; as the picture progresses we begin to feel as helpless as Lucas. When he punches a grocery worker he has just been beaten up by, we do not disapprove of his hostility but in fact, root for him. It is a complex role but one that Mikkelsen pulls off with sheer ease and for this he must be commended.

The picture appears to resolve itself, with the exception of a startling incident in the final scene: a reminder that Lucas will have to live with these allegations his entire life.

A splendid eighth film from Vinterberg – one to be watched immediately.

The Monuments Men

By Rehan Mudannayake

I was lucky enough to be invited to the Berlin Film Festival earlier on this month. The following is a review of The Monuments Men, which premiered at the festival.

It’s bizarre how few people realize George Clooney is a fine director; his chef d’oeuvre being Good Night and Good Luck. The man is something of an icon – he’s a sharp actor, a smart screenwriter, a discerning director and a pretty boy, let’s not forget.

The Monuments Men had to be brilliant: a stellar cast, an intriguing premise and Clooney behind the reigns.

Right? Wrong.

When the Fuhrer decides to steal most of France’s great art, Lt. Frank Stokes (George Clooney), Lt. James Granger (Matt Damon), Lt. Jean Claude Clermont (Jean Dujardin), Sgt. Walter Garfield (John Goodman), Sgt. Richard Campbell (Bill Murray), Pvt. Preston Savitz (Bob Balaban) and eventually Claire Simone (Cate Blanchett) take it upon themselves to steal it back for the sake of future generations. Cue cheesy voiceovers, mawkish melodies and an oversimplified script that could have been an engaging narrative…

One of the war comedy’s biggest crimes is that it does not take advantage of its talented cast. Sadly, Murray and Balaban – both brilliant actors – are relegated to secondary roles: namely, the stereotypical bumbling duo. This becomes tiresome as Clooney and his co-writer/co-producer Grant Heslov insert them into sequences merely for comic relief, rather than as a way of progressing the plot. By the end of the picture, one is glad to be relieved of them.

The only characters that do advance the narrative are – unsurprisingly – Stokes, Granger and Simone. In other words, the three prolific A-List actors. Damon stumbles through the picture, reciting Clooney’s painful gags – in this case, we are made to laugh at his poor French – over and over and over again. Goodman, Dujardin and Hugh Bonneville loiter around the narrative adding, well….what exactly was the point in including them? The mind boggles.

Similarly, the entire picture feels like one big bad joke, peppered with sentimental narration. The story’s history is, um, brushed over and we’re left with the unfunny scraps. Clooney and Heslov really ought to have known better; if one is making a comedy, one has a responsibility to make it at least mildly amusing.

It is interesting to note that Clooney seems to cope better with serious political fare: think The Ides of March or the aforementioned Good Night. This is ironic given his penchant for practical jokes and his comic demeanour. A more relevant use for Monuments’ poorly structured story may have been a daytime television series: Dad’s Army, anyone? The man maybe one of the highest grossing actors of all time with $1.56b to his name but I believe he’s finally slipped up with this turkey.

Give it a miss, folks.

The Place Beyond The Pines

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★

Think back to 2010: remember the headlines created by Blue Valentine? Shot on a minuscule budget – a million dollars – by little known director Derek Cianfrance, the indie flick was highly commended for its verisimilitude. This compliment was directed mainly at its stars – Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams – and its director, who relied on improvisation to create a harrowing love story. Critics named it one of the most powerful dramas of the year.

So it was with combined excitement and trepidation that I rented The Place Beyond The Pines, Cianfrance’s latest, starring stalwart Gosling and Bradley Cooper. Hey, Peter Bradshaw had given it four stars: it had to be amazing, right?

A narrative made up of three chronologically depicted strands, we begin with the story of Luke Glanton (Ryan Gosling), who upon discovering a baby son Jason (Dane DeHaan) by his ex-lover Romina (Eva Mendes), is keen to win back her affections. So, he does what any of us would do - he begins robbing banks! This ends badly when – spoiler ahead! – he gets shot by a police officer: Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper). The second strand of Cianfrance’s story follows the guilt-ridden Cross who feels he has deprived Jason of a loving upbringing. Fifteen years later, we are onto the third strand: Cross’s son AJ (Emory Cohen) unknowingly befriends Jason. Things don’t go so well but eventually end rather unexpectedly.

Cianfrance is mainly to blame for this feeble cavalcade of incoherent stories that leave us so unsatisfied. A director of his caliber should be aware of the limitations of storytelling: one cannot simply kill off a picture’s protagonist 50 minutes into a film, insert another protagonist into the second act and then casually introduce two more major characters in the final act; oh, and expect us to empathise with each. If a close relationship has not been built up between the audience and a particular character throughout a picture, one’s story inevitably suffers.

Gosling’s story is easily the most beguiling, however this is only because of his character’s bank heists, which are highly exhilarating to watch. Gosling’s decline as a serious actor is a sad one indeed: as the years have gone past, his acting abilities have taken a turn for the worse. The man who wowed us with Lars and The Real Girl and Blue Valentine, has sunk into a pit of predictable, typecast Hollywood roles where he plays the quiet, contemplative protagonist – think Drive, Crazy Stupid Love and now this – mediocrity at its finest.

A shame really – such potential, such daring, yet so incompetently written. Don’t bother.

The Sessions

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★

The Sessions is arguably 2012's most unusual picture, based on the true story of a man completely paralysed from the head down. Mark O' Brien was Berkeley graduate, poet, journalist and activist, despite being confined to an iron lung for most of his life. Writer-director Ben Lewin's picture was made on a modest budget of $1m and based on an essay by O'Brien. The result is a magnificent one.

When polio victim Mark O'Brien (John Hawkes) decides to lose his virginity at the tender age of 38, he seeks out sex surrogate Cheryl Cohen Greene (Helen Hunt). During the course of six sessions, the two meet up in a hired bedroom to help the former pop his cherry. A deeply religious man, Mark seeks advice from his local parish priest, Father Brendan (William H.Macy), along the way. As the sessions progress, Mark and Cheryl's working relationship inevitably develops into something further and more intimate.

This may well be John Hawkes' most accomplished performance to date. In an attempt to emulate O' Brien as authentically as possible, Hawkes learnt how to dial phone numbers using his mouth. Similarly, he kept a football sized hunk of foam under his spine, in order to imitate O'Brien's curved spine. His accent and timbre of voice are perfect mirrors of O'Brien's. Such dedication to a role should surely have led to an Oscar nomination?

It's good to see William H. Macy finally play a role in which he is not typecast as the self-pitying victim. He provides much of the comic relief, purely through facial expression and one line responses to O'Brien's anecdotes. Will the 62-year old, one day, play the lead role in a picture (think Jerry Lundegaard in Fargo)? Probably not, but here's hoping.

Little has been heard of Helen Hunt in the film world in the past 10 years, so it is rather impressive to see her make this daring comeback at the age of 49. As the sessions progressively become more graphic, Hunt becomes more comfortable with her role, tackling it with ease and grace. It is streets ahead of her unremarkable Oscar winning performance in the supremely overrated As Good As It Gets. Sadly her Oscar nominated turn as Cheryl will go unnoticed as Anne Hathaway will statuette this year.

The Sessions may make you bawl your eyes out and rethink everything you've taken for granted but it is not a heavy picture that aims to guilt trip you: it is simply there to show you how one man stuck it out for 44 years and fought for the same normal life we all lead. Go be inspired.

The Watch

★★

It’s been so long since Ben Stiller and Vince Vaughn starred in anything vaguely credible that it just isn’t funny anymore. Have the two Hollywood comedy giants lost their touch? Should Ben Stiller still make Night at the Museum 3: Time to Throw in the Towel? That Zoolander…he’s so not hot right now…

When extraterrestrials attack the fictitious town of Glenview, Ohio, uptight model citizen Evan (Ben Stiller), overprotective daddy Bob (Vince Vaughn), halfwitted oddball Franklin (Jonah Hill) and purported nerd Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade) set up Neighbourhood Watch to serve and protect. Half-arsed one-liners, Ridley Scott’s Aliens and unexpected neighbourhood orgies follow.

Sure, this beats Stiller’s insufferable kiddie flick Night at the Museum but it’s far from a return to form. Imperfect dialogue may be half the reason, but Stiller seems to have lost it in the delivery too. And this is truly disturbing for the acclaimed comedian who brought us the bumbling Gaylord Focker and the riotously obsessive Chas Tenenbaum. Vaughn? Ditto.

Hill and Ayoade are the Frat Pack’s latest additions; the former breathing life into Seth Rogen’s underwhelming script, the latter simply embarrassing. Hill’s articulation of Franklin’s imbecilic comments immediately sets the actor apart from his older, more famous American co-stars, signaling the staleness of their hackneyed humour. Ayoade, a British export, has been written into a clichéd role, albeit one he is far too familiar with. The twist at the end may justify his strange behavior but does not make up for an unamusing performance.

Roll on Zoolander 2? Er….

Titli

★★★★

By Rehan Mudannayake

Whilst I was digging through the Colombo Film Festival schedule, a rather unusual picture caught my attention. Not only was the trailer mesmerizing but it had already been selected for the Un Certain Regard section at Cannes: an honour for any director, especially a first-timer. I could sense that Kanu Behl’s directorial debut, Titli, was something special.

I was wrong. Titli wasn’t just special. It was utterly captivating.

The story follows the eponymous Titli (Shashank Arora) – the youngest brother of a violent carjacking family – who dreams of a way out of all the bloodshed and bad memories. After being forcefully married off to Neelu (Shivani Raghuvanshi) – a young woman his cutthroat brothers plan to use as an accessory in later heists – he hatches an escape plan. If executed properly, the plan would allow him to purchase a parking lot and Neelu to marry her lover. As always, complications arise: hands are broken, secrets are uncovered and more blood is spilt, culminating in a conclusion some may find mildly dissatisfying.

As the lights came back up, the editor of my own film, Elephant, leaned over and gushed about the cutting of Behl’s fractured family drama. For one, the use of slow motion felt hypnotizing, illustrating the weight of past crimes on Titli’s guilty mind. The unpredictability of Titili’s actions is further heightened by the intensity of sequences where the character reveals his darker, damaged side to the audience or when his brothers nonchalantly beat a car salesman to death with a hammer. Brutal, but effective.

Amazed and intrigued by the verisimilitude of the drama, I questioned Behl on his methods: did the director use improvisation? Yes, came his answer. Much of the film was built on improv exercises, the script being used merely as a guide. A stark contrast to much of the rehearsed Hollywood fare one sees in cinemas nowadays, perhaps this is the way forward?

Sadly, one will have to wait until December for Behl’s barnstormer to hit cinemas, where it will almost certainly be a hit.

Don’t miss out. This one’s well worth the wait.

To Rome With Love

★★★

Woody Allen is a polymath – writer, director, actor, playwright, comedian and musician – with an addiction to helming comedies. Spanning 43 pictures, his oeuvre is chock-full of masterpieces (Annie Hall, Manhattan), mediocrities (Sleeper, Bananas) and misfires (Cassandra’s Dream, Vicky Cristina Barcelona). Still, of the 30 I’ve seen, I’ve yet to come across one I haven’t enjoyed. To Rome With Love is rather average. But terribly entertaining.

Comprising an Italian and American ensemble cast, we follow four concurrent stories. There are the plebeians who become overnight sensations: office worker Leopoldo (Roberto Benigni) inexplicably transforms into a household celebrity and mortician Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato) becomes an operatic phenomenon. Then there are the happy couples seduced into infidelity. The first: Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi), the former enticed by a prostitute, the latter by an actor. The second: Jack (Jesse Eisenberg) and Sally (Greta Gerwig), the young but naïve male architect besotted with the deceitful Monica (Ellen Page). Chaos ensues, mired in the usual Allen tropes – neurosis, pseudo intellectuality and peculiar parents – yet not to an unhealthy extent.

Allen’s Midnight in Paris, released last year, was lauded by critics and fans the world over, being recognized as a return to form following a decade of dismal failures. Any fan expecting the seventy-six year old auteur to surprise them again will likely be disappointed. To Rome With Love is run of the mill Allen, i.e. somewhat forgettable. But I lapped it up. Call me a die-hard fan but I will never tire of Allen’s wit.

It is impossible for any director to recurrently produce movie gold at Allen pace – a feature a year since ’71! – let alone Allen himself. But this is a man who will not give up; much like his character Jerry, he fears mortality. And for that, he must be admired.

To conclude: don’t expect change, do expect Woody Allen.

Wish You Were Here

★★★★

Rarely does one view a Sundance picture that one feels compelled to write about soon afterwards; the United States’ largest independent film festival usually selects terribly average indie flicks. Kieran Darcy-Smith’s barnstorming debut, however, will keep you glued to the screen until the very end.

When Steph Flannery’s (Teresa Palmer) boyfriend Jeremy (Antony Starr) goes missing on a holiday in Cambodia, brother-in-law Dave (Joel Edgerton) and his wife Alice (Felicity Price) are determined to find him. Secrets are revealed in the process, adversely affecting Dave and Alice’s marriage.

If Before Sunrise is a picture built upon the foundations of great dialogue and acting, Wish You Were Here is built upon judicious editing. Darcy-Smith relays his simple but subtle plot in fragmentary fashion; editor Jason Ballantine skillfully skips back and forth, portraying Dave and Alice’s married life before the trip, the holiday in Cambodia and its consequences back in Australia. The further we progress, the more painful the lies unraveled are.

This low-budget mystery stars one of Australia’s finest, Joel Edgerton, known far and wide for his impressive turn as drug dealer Barry Brown in 2010’s Oscar-nommed Animal Kingdom. Edgerton depicts his character, a man with the weight of multiple falsehoods on his shoulders, with commendable gravitas. It is a monolithic performance.

Both Cambodia and Australia are shot in dark green, dark yellow and dark blue hues; cinematographer Jules O’ Laughlin ingeniously hints at the debauchery of Cambodia accompanying Dave back to his home. Made on an admirably meagre budget of $2.5m, this film is a glowing example of just how much can be achieved on so little.

Easily one of 2012’s finest. You’d be a fool to miss out on this one.

Wreck-It Ralph

By Rehan Mudannayake

★★★★

Wreck-It Ralph is Disney’s most recent animated flick, executively produced by animation guru John Lasseter: the man responsible for groundbreaking feats such as the Toy Story films, A Bug’s Life, Finding Nemo, Ratatouille and most recently, 2012’s Oscar-winning Brave. In short, the most powerful and highly revered figure in the today’s animation world. Hence, it should come as no surprise that the man’s latest greenlit piece, helmed by The Simpsons and Futurama director Rich Moore, is a work of genius.

Frustrated with his life as an outcast and a bad guy in arcade game Wreck-It Ralph, the eponymous 2D character Ralph (John C. Reilly) attempts to gain acceptance by winning a medal in the neighbouring first person shooter game Hero’s Duty. This medal is lost along the way, forcing him to train Vanellope von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a glitch in the kart racing game Sugar Rush, to win it back.

Filled to the brim with subtle (and not-so subtle) references to videogames of past and present, Moore’s movie is as visually vivacious as its female protagonist. From the plush, candy-coloured world of Sugar Rush to the gloomily glossy high-definition of Hero’s Duty, Disney expertly illustrates each gleaming game with just the right amount of polish. However, its lacquered look does come dangerously close to being an eyesore at times.

Reilly is an apt choice for Ralph, the warm, fuzzy dulcet tones of his voice contrasting his boisterous character: a protagonist whom the audience can’t help but root for. He provides the ideal contrast to Silverman’s miniature, baby-faced high-pitched squeak of a glitch. Disney’s underlying narrative structure – the outcast, determined to prove himself to the rest of the world – is glaringly clichéd. Similarly, the course Ralph and Vanellope’s friendship takes is highly predictable – yet, it magically manages to steer clear of mawkishness and retain a sense of credibility.

Yet another win for Disney – go Lasseter!

Your Sister’s Sister

★★★★

Lynn Shelton’s fifth flick is nitty-gritty, witty but certainly not pretty. Previously, a film editor and experimental short filmmaker, Shelton has created a character study unlike no other. She masterfully explores each of her three flawed protagonists, brutally hacking away at their personalities to reveal a refreshing candidness that is rarely exhibited in American cinema.

Strongly affected by the bereavement of his brother a year after his death, Jack (Mark Duplass) is convinced by the aforementioned sibling’s ex-girlfriend Iris (Emily Blunt) to take some time off at her father’s isolated cabin. Here, he encounters Iris’ half-sister, Hannah (Rosemarie DeWitt), a lesbian whom he drunkenly sleeps with. Iris unexpectedly turns up the next day, putting the other two in an awkward position. Pranks are played, poignant moments are shared and ulterior motives are revealed.

A tremendously talented trio, Duplass, DeWitt and Blunt deliver. It is the realism they disport that carries this vivid script forward; but what of improvisation? Generally known for expecting extemporization from her casts, this time around Shelton worked up a 70-page script as a security blanket and then had them use this as a loose structure to play off. The result is highly successful, if not a tad shocking.

Razor sharp editing coupled together with hard-hitting handheld camerawork ensure a visceral product, albeit a sensational one made on an infinitesimal budget of $125,000. Shelton deserves eternal praise for what may well go on to become a modern indie classic.

You’d be a fool to miss this!

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