The Mountain Between Us (2017)

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Every once in a while you stumble upon something that makes you fall in love all over again, with that irresistible magic that first sparked your passion. Every movie lover can trace their journey back a few years, or possibly decades, to the moment that they first realised movie magic existed. I honestly never thought that Idris Elba and Kate Winslet would take me there, back to that dim little movie theatre on the corner of James and Robertson Street. Looking back now, I realise this is probably a movie I enjoyed a lot more than I “should have” (because in reality The Mountain Between Us has almost altogether flopped,) but I at least hope you can agree that there is nothing not to love about Elba and Winslet on a snowy mountain, battling for survival in what is almost an adventurous romance.

Kate Winslet is the free-spirited Alex, a photojournalist eagerly awaiting her wedding the following morning, while Idris Elba is the straight-laced Ben, a brain surgeon who must desperately operate on a dying 10 year old boy interstate. An impending storm has stranded them both at Salt Lake City Airport, with little choice but to wait out until the morning. With everything at stake, the pair persuade a local charter pilot to fly them across deadly mountain ranges, with little concern for local aviation or the pilot’s failing personal health. And so it goes, a sudden fatal stroke cascades the plane into the snowy peaks of Utah and we are left to pick up the pieces of their extraordinary battle for survival. I don’t have to fill in the gaps here, as I’m sure your mind is already drifting to the many injuries, hypothermia … or maybe even mountain cougars, you’ll see it all.

Kate Winslet once survived a sinking ship in Titanic, and Idris Elba once thrived on the streets of Baltimore in The Wire. There is no reason why these dynamic actors shouldn’t carry enough dramatic weight between them to elevate a trek through the desolate snow-blanketed mountain ranges. But instead, they find themselves floating somewhere between drama and soap opera. But here I’ll attribute Elba’s surprising awkwardness to his first-ever crack at romantic lead, (p.s. just as you might have hoped he is nothing short of dreamy.) Based on the novel by Charles Martin, and propelled by the screenplay collaboration of Chris Weitz and J. Mills Goodloe, who share a wide scope of successful romance films between them, The Mountain Between Us has all of the mesmerising elements to succeed. Add Palestinian director Hany Abu-Assad, the visionary behind Paradise Now and Omar (a love story, mind you) and there’s no room for fault. But here the once epic vision fails and instead the beautiful mountains begin to look more like molehills.

Right – but coming back to my dramatic spiel in the beginning. For a reason unbeknown to me, I was enveloped in the charasmatic charm, mystery, drama and unfolding romance, so much so I almost shed a happy tear. The film may have altogether tumbled and it might have been dramatically corny, but my romantic soft spot overcame. So if you’re weighing up whether to watch this one, you need to first consider the pros and cons for yourself in order to really derive a solution. If you read this review and at any moment in time you felt compelled to throw up, I am inclined to tell you that this is definitely not a movie I would recommend for you. It’s so bad that it’s really good!

Here’s what the professional critics had to say … ‘This romantic drama is most compelling as a mild story of survival adventure. Contemporary romances often stumble over the first hurdle: Their dramatic obstacle.’ – Michael Ordona, Common Sense Media or ‘A perfect title for a movie in which neither the subzero temperature nor the romantic heat penetrates more than skin deep.’ – Peter Debruge, Variety

IMDb – 6.2  Rotten Tomatoes – 43%

★★★☆☆

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Ghost in the Shell (2017)

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“The filmmakers think little of the emotional and intellectual connection fans already have with this property, and have put all their chips on the aesthetic.” Vulture

“Ghost in the Shell struggles to dig below the surface of its thought-provoking concepts and bring real depth to its striking visuals.” Screen Rant

The simple fact of film is how could you possibly improve what is considered to be one of the greatest predecessor films? The groundbreaking 1995 original Ghost in the Shell, directed by Mamoru Oshii was to many viewers … a masterpiece. The influence of the anime sensation reached far outside its die-hard fanatics and instead made a mark on the prominence of Japanese film making in the West. The much talked about remake with Scarlett Johansson bombed at the Box Office Weekend, not to mention its current predicament standing face to face with a $60 million dollar loss.

The line between humans and machines is blurred. In a time when we expect jobs to disappear to machines in coming years, this idea doesn’t sound so absurd. Ghost in the Shell takes place in a future where cybernetic enhancement isn’t simply routine, but it is widely accepted. Humanity is enabled with technological abilities that far outweigh real life, allowing them to survive harrowing accidents or abolish alcohol poisoning with a silver liver. Major Mira, played by Scarlett Johansson, is rescued in the wake of a refugee attack that left her so gravely injured that only her brain survived. Government-funded Hanka Industries grasps the opportunity to give Mira’s brain a new life by inserting it into a completely artificial body – she’s the first of her kind. The perfect blend of mind and soul (Ghost), Major Mira is coupled with astounding advantages in agent work.

The cerebral element and extraordinary pacing of the original anime scared off the non-Japanese audience in its release. Yet, the film’s worldwide cult success developed later with the video release and gradual word of mouth. This cannot be the same result with the live-action Hollywood Remake, so director Rupert Sanders has evidently dialed down the introspection, dialed up the action and tweaked the plot to resonate with an ‘orphan come hero’ plot us Westerns eat up like a juicy burger. But yet, he could not help but grapple with the knotty philosophical questions couped up in cyber-implants and human souls, because at the end of the day that’s kind of the big idea behind the film.

It is clear to any viewer, that the predominant selling point of the film is its absolutely breathtaking visual impact, that draws you away from the comfort of the theatre to a world of holographic advertisements the size of skyscrapers, robot fashioned geisha’s and mechanical body parts. Peel back the neon and artifice and underneath is a concrete jungle of cyborg shops and street dealers peddling implants – its thrillingly sensational. But here most importantly, Sanders pays a generous tribute to the original anime, drawing out the themes and ideas that grew so beloved by viewers. Particularly well, Ghost in the Shell marries the original impressive physicality of the leading lady with the emotional vulnerability and real life determination of Scarlett Johansson. Johansson has proven to be a mesmerising actress time and time again, bringing intelligence and fearlessness to every aspect of her work, and this time she sells the philosophy of the film with the depth of the human identity.

Of course the visual beauty of Ghost in the Shell is parallel to a weaker narrative than its overwhelmingly successful predecessor, but it carries an authenticity and thought provoking nature that differentiates this film from the rest.

★★★☆☆

Imdb – 6.9/10  Rotten Tomatoes – 46%

Kong: Skull Island (2017)

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All monster films fall into two kinds of categories – one that takes its time to reveal the monster and one that shows you the monster straight away. The star of this show is front and center for the entire 118 minute running time. We’re all accustomed to the mighty King Kong from Merian Coopers’ 1933 original all the way to 2005’s Jack Black reboot, there are just way too many spiels to list. But you’ll be happy to know this remake is engaging, mesmerising and Tom Hiddleston (I’m sold).

Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ reset of the Kong legend returns to 1973, as the last American troops are pulling out of Vietnam. Colonel Packard, played by Samuel L. Jackson (I’m sold sold), is reluctant to leave the battlefield, suspended in an existential crisis as the war draws to a close. Packard’s right-hand man Chapman, Toby Kebbell, looks forward to returning home to his son, as do all of the other helicopter squadron members do. But on the other side of the world, Government representative John Goodman relentlessly pursues a hollow-earth theory expedition on Skull Island. A land mass perpetually overcast by violent storms, there is no limit to what could be discovered. He hires James Conrad, Tom Hiddleston, to be the skilled tracker on the mission to chronicle any findings, and piggybacks on the helicopter squadron to discover monsters, bombs and a grizzly John C. Reilly (Step Brothers).

Vogt-Roberts and the film’s screenwriting trio play out the occasionally troubling conflicts of Vietnam on the backdrop of a panicked survival group attempting to escape a forbidden island. The period setting throughout Skull Island is based on an appealing soundtrack by the stooges and Jefferson Airplane, but the updated man-vs-beast conflict of previous King Kong tales roots in the blood-soaked anxiety of war. The cycle of war is astonishing, and superbly written – unlike anything you’ve seen in any other King Kong film. The island is richly bathed in colour of both natural and post-production, but this unique style sets it apart from any modern re-imagining. Designs are impressive, creations are emotive and breathtaking … it’s showy … but it works.

Skull Island takes on the role of mixing in memorable actors in even the smallest parts of the film. Few of the characters are built upon more than an introduction or a rapid-survival failure. John C. Reilly is particularly spot-on, with a mix of mania and sorrow, in the middle of an extravagant tale of monsters. Goodman is a selfish deadpan, Jackson derails with his eyes fuming with rage and Larson delivers a kind of kindness and compassion that causes Hiddleston to run around in gas masks for her. The cast is sensational really, and in my opinion a great combination for an epic spiel like this one.

Perhaps the most satisfying part of Kong comes after you’re done reeling from the fun of the film. This definitely won’t be the last we see of this fantastic ape, but it’s the kind of messy enjoyable throwback that will leave you wanting more.

★★★☆☆

Imdb – 7.1/10  Rotten Tomatoes – 79%

Hell or High Water (2016)

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“Taut, tense and burnished by Jeff Bridges at his best. This is a deceptively simple tale of Texan cops and robbers that drags the Old West into the modern age.” – Empire ★★★★☆

It took a while to notice that David Mackenzie’s Hell or High Water had made the list of Best Picture nominees at the Academy Awards this year, while we were so overwhelmed that Martin Scorseses’ Silence and Tim Miller’s Deadpool had lost the race. Here comes a throwback to the dusty rambling glories of Hollywood new wave Westerns, inspired by Depression-era thrillers, to reveal arguably the most understated and contemporary socio-political film of last year. That’s a mouthful.

Brothers Toby, played by Chris Pine, and Tanner, played by Ben Foster, first arrive at a remote Texas Midland Bank branch to rob every penny they can fit in their sacks. They make off with some loose bills, and proceed to rob every other bank in the region. Here, Toby is the mastermind, conveying his sincere and potent grievance from the foreclosure on the mortgage of his family property. But of course, with the death of their mother and an oil discovery on the property, Toby is infuriated with immediate eviction and recruits ex-prisoner older brother Tanner to help earn the property back. It’s the story of cowboy’s and Indians – onetime kings of the plains now suspended in a place where both are pushed to near extinction, and what evolves is greed, pain and utter heartlessness.

David Mackenzie’s direction makes the robbery sequences bubble with jolts of extravagant yet realistic violence, getaway action and car chases, on the backdrop of dusty plains. The casting of each character enhances the regional colour and tone of the film, drawing out incredible performances from Chris Pine and of course the highly praised Jeff Bridges. The present day atmosphere and lack of open-carry laws, mixed in with rowdy cowboys creates an amusing and unpredictable vigilante of local distress. But the script is notably the most powerful in this film, and the exchanges are superb in a film so entirely thick with it. The low-key humour, the poignant loneliness, the undercurrent teasing, Hell or High Water is nothing like anything you’ve seen before.

Hell or High Water is talking, character and western backdrop thick. Riding on the back of films such as No Country for Old Men, it draws out weathered storefronts, abandoned pastures, rusted farm equipment and oil derricks on the premise of a film set to define regional identity. Only enhanced by an overly impressive score, Hell or High Water is pleasant but not extravagant, and a delight for anyone with a soft spot for Texas.

★★★★☆

Imdb – 7.7/10  Rotten Tomatoes – 98%

The Great Wall (2016)

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“A hybrid between a historical epic and an action fantasy, The Great Wall manages to be only a passable example of each genre, which makes it less memorable than it had the potential to be.” – Common Sense Media ★★☆☆☆

Matt Damon has earned his merits for action spectaculars with Saving Private Ryan, The Martian and the Bourne films, yet veteran Chinese filmmaker Zhang Yimou is an action world class master. Following Hero, House of Flying Daggers and the unforgettable 2008 Beijing Olympics ceremonies, Zhang Yimou teams up with the US for the co-production of the century, a whopping $150 million dollar project. And the result in a nut shell? It takes a white Hollywood A-List actor to save the Chinese world.

The Great Wall, a monument decorated with history, prestige and nobility, a place where the walls whisper ancient myths- and this is one of them. Matt Damon is William and Pedro Pascal is Tovar, two 12th century European mercenaries who scope the deserts of Western China looking for mysterious black powder. In the search for riches and fortune, the two best-friends push toward the Great Wall to make a deal, where they are met with a spray of arrows and an immensely organised and colourful Chinese army. Zhang keeps this swirl of colour, light and dizzying action as almost a distraction from the plot, which unfolds miraculously from a plan to escape.

The Great Wall’s action scenes exemplify a sense of fierce determination and precision, a shared responsibility that one will rarely discover in action spectaculars. Not only is the film thrillingly large scale, but it is visually euphoric, an artwork of colour and beauty amidst a prominence of computer-generated imagery. Although the film is often well-choreographed, it is very easy to be seduced by scenes of impersonal warfare and battle. But as the fighting slows down, and the characters evolve, there is little spark between our Caucasian and Chinese performers. But this is simply because The Great Wall is unlike any American blockbuster you’ve ever ever ever seen, and character development is minimally the focus in the inventive and thrilling action pieces that evolve before your very eyes.

I was born into battle.

I have little to say about The Great Wall, other than its fantastic ability to work as an action-adventure spectacular. In this, we see the triumph of the Chinese as sacrificial, determined and relentless warriors, in what can only be described as a tribute to China’s war history. But in the midst of this fierce patriotism is an entertaining blockbuster with eye-popping and breathtaking cinematography – that only follows the simplistic plotting of a Chinese myth. Watch this blockbuster on the biggest cinema screen you can find.

★★☆☆☆

Imdb – 6.3/10  Rotten Tomatoes – 36%

Allied (2016)

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Right up to the most recent cinematic illustration of war, in the breathtaking Hacksaw Ridge, WWII films have gone to great lengths to stress the horror of war and its consequently intense physical and psychological dismay. In Allied, Robert Zemeckis takes a sharp turn toward Hollywood war films of the 1950’s – mixing together action, politics, drama, humour and romance to portray a world of heartbreak on a sparkling canvas.

As the film opens in 1942, Canadian intelligence officer Max Vatan gracefully parachutes into North Africa, and the very heart of Casablanca. Paired with a mission to assassinate the German Ambassador, the wildly passionate French Resistance Fighter Marianne Beausejour appears as his partner in crime. Under threat from local Nazi bigwigs, they establish themselves as a loving married couple, to avoid arousing any local suspicion. Over the course of the following days, the make-believe marriage blossoms into an unprecedented attraction, setting the stage for intriguing love scenes and a spectacular escape. But the story really picks up when his now real wife Marianne is accused to be a German spy, and settling accusations against execution becomes Vatan’s most prominent battle yet.

Allied carries bold influences of its predecessors with impeccable style and remarkable cinematography. Written by Robert Zemeckis and Steven Knight, whose previous credits attain to romance-fuelled drama thrillers, Allied generates excitement with little attention to anything but the characters at the heart of the film. Over the years, Zemeckis has elicited some of the greatest film performances, not to mention Bob Hoskins in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Denzel Washington in Flight and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. But Allied unfolds with characters who shine effortlessly throughout the film. In his third war appearance following Inglorious Bastards and Fury, Brad Pitt brings debonair and dignity to his seamless romance with dazzling Marianne Cotillard. Pitt and Cotillard bring such depth to their characterisation we become utterly enraptured with their identity and intentions as the story unfolds. (Cue sobs during credits)

Allied, for me, was a film that clicked in a precise and effective manner. Not to mention Alan Silvestri’s contribution of top notch compositions, that wove together scenes almost magically – and of course Joanna Johnston’s costume design, that delivered effortless style and charm. All in all, a homage to Hollywood war films that graced the screen long before my time, and a beautiful story of romance on the backdrop of war and destruction. Allied is a breath of fresh air.

★★★★☆

Imdb – 7.2/10  Rotten Tomatoes – 61%

Jason Bourne (2016)

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This weekend, nine years after the anticipated release of The Bourne Ultimatum,  Jason Bourne hit theatres in what can only be described as a shattering return. This latest iteration reunites Damon with director Paul Greengrass, who displays his mastery of muscular, deafening and frenetically edited action sequences. Co-written with editor Christopher Rouse, Greengrass whisks us to cities all over the world, culminated in an eye-poppingly enormous finale in Las Vegas.

Jason Bourne, reticent and carb-free, hurries through various European capitals – Rome, Athens, London – with the grim determination of a tourist desperately seeking a men’s room with far too much pride to ask for directions. I’m not casting shade on Matt Damon, who looks terrific at 45, with the complete opposite of a dad bod and a residual Will Hunting twinkling in his eye. Jason, for all of his prodigious talent and honed technique, finds himself in a generational pincers grip, squeezed on one side by a self-aggrandising and sentimental boss and on the other side by a tech-savvy millennial rising through the ranks. But if I can simply the plot for you: Jason Bourne is the target of a radical pursuit by heavy surveillance, where his former employers in the CIA track him as if he were the quarry in a high-stakes game of Pokemon Go.

At the heart of it, Jason Bourne is a semi-beloved pop-culture throwback brought into circulation primarily because it’s summer (in the States) and winter (in Australia). Lets face it, aussie’s need something to do, and while the shrimps and the barbecues are extinct, two-hours of make believe paranoia might provide a soothing respite.

Jason Bourne was so bad, it made me retroactively reconsider my love for the franchise…

But not to worry, the thrill isn’t entirely gone, just a little more subdued. Unfortunately, Damon is subdued as ever. Jason Bourne envelopes a uniquely passive action hero, a man who runs on pure survival instinct as he attempts to draw conclusions of his past. But there is also a rote quality to the film, an absence of passion and skill. Just as the initial Damon-driven trilogy wrapped up Bourne’s business but left us wanting more, this sequel offers closure even as it entices us with the possibility of his return.

★★☆☆☆