Snowden (2016)

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With a neat common theme of modern like gloss layered over this political drama it’s hard not to feel some moments are heightened for cinematic effect, but the true life and accounts its portraying are truly interesting, thrilling and I liked the film quite a lot.

After being ruled out of the U.S Army, Edward Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) explores his passion for computers and joins the CIA impressing Corbin (Rhys Ifans). At the same time, Snowden is developing a connection with photographer and liberal Lindsay Mills (Shailene Woodley). As his roles develop, Edward Snowden questions the ideas of these huge government groups and winds up releasing date about American security reviling him as the notorious whistleblower.

I do find that with these type of films, there is never a running jump as to who the director wants to place their chips with, leaving us to walk out mulling over our own thoughts. That for me is something annoying and at least here, director Oliver Stone makes it clear that he’s on Snowden’s side. Of course that gives this movie an obvious bias but he’s having the confidence to put his foot down and direct his own mind.

Edward Snowden was someone I’d always heard of, knew of the whistle blowing status and what he had done to a small degree, but this movie explores a lot more which is great. I liked what the whole feature had to say, as it doesn’t just shed light on this man and how not only his work changed his decisions and therefore life but gives us enough to make an opinion even if Stone is leaning us to the fact that what he did was a necessary thing to kick-start a change in American surveillance.

I too will stake my place and agree that what Snowden was for the benefit of a hopeful world, with big countries needing to be more open about their spying on everyday people. The opposite side is agreeable too, concerning how he definitely threatened pivotal date to possible terrorists and stole information but then this is why I liked the film because there’s a huge meaty conversation starter to be had about the actions of an ethical and technological 29 year old.

Structurally the movie is done as you’d imagine, starting at the most recent point in his timeline as he’s about to leak the information before jumping back every now and then with the the newest 2013 scenes interspersed from time to time. It’s never confusing or muddled and sometimes the scenes blend nicely together. There are some beautiful little touches, for example the kaleidoscope hotel corridor as Snowden walks along, almost a visual parallel to the different stands of his career.

What hit me most is when we watch him use a program that hops from a tracked person if interest and links him/her to contacts they have, then contacts those people have and so on and so on. That was an alarming realisation that I’d just ignorantly never thought to think about and it really demonstrates how mostly innocent people are being watched constantly. It’s all cleverly awash with a neon blue and ends on a graphic circle melding into a shot of Snowden’s eye before pulling out and seeing Edward watch that program unfold.

Gordon-Levitt is great, the change to his voice matches the sound of Snowden very well and he looks remarkably like him as the stubble appears. Woodley is radiant as the antithesis to her partner, she acts playfully but shows emotion too as his commitment to work affects their relationship. Rhys Ifans is a sort of formidable character, on the brink of villainy because of what he knows, this characteristic is illuminated further as his faces looms over Snowden on a screen through a Facetime call. Melissa Leo, Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson aren’t in it too much but do enough to become believable intrepid allies to the cause and likewise Nicolas Cage has little screen-time but is a friendly if typically Cage-like role helping Edward out.

The very biased construction of the film, shining Snowden in a radiant light might be off-putting to some, but he is an icon whichever way you look at him. There’s plenty to think about after seeing this and for me that just outweighs the idealistic siding they’ve taken to their own hero.

7/10

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

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Cue magical music and the Warner Brothers logo in the clouds and rejoice because we’re back into the wizarding world of Harry Potter. This time we’re across the pond and in the jazzy 20’s as J.K Rowling steps up for her first screenplay and David Yates is back to kick start another series of fantastical fantasies.

Hufflepuff member and Hogwarts alumni Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) is in New York with a suitcase filled with interesting and exotic creatures. Unluckily some escape and with the help of non magical aka No-Maj Jacob (Dan Fogler) he tries tracking them down and evading the attention of Graves (Colin Farrell) who is a director for Magical Congress in America. Whilst they find beasts, humans are rising against the fear of witches and one group may harbour something more powerful than they know.

Managing to avoid spoilers myself I will refrain from any hint of ruin for people that may read this and not have yet seen the film. I can 100% say though that the dazzling effects and wide-spread world conjured up by the amazing Rowling is on form. As soon as the movie begins you cannot help but feel that Potter nostalgia wash over but gladly it starts moving away and feels tonally different as we enter the busy streets of the Big Apple.

It’s the mythology and attention to detail that truly sells this film and makes it the enjoyable spectacle it is. The moment we follow Newt stepping into his suitcase is a brilliant sight to behold and a great scene to watch. The landscapes and animals contained in his travelling pack like the TARDIS-esque tents from ‘Goblet of Fire’ are incredible and it’s the earlier fun segment of the movie that is better than the latter portion.

J.K Rowling takes her small Comic Relief funding book and transports it to the big screen with what feels like ease. Newt and his love of beasties is believable and the 1920’s American set era helps lift the story, giving it an intriguing edge. This newness lets us see the expanding world of magic and how our trans-Atlantic cousins deal with wizards amongst the towering scenery.

Another highlight in the film is when we see a speak-easy and I was happy to hear some 20’s inspired music, though that’s all we get. The scene flows nicely and though it’s small it features a new character that screams perfect 20’s NYC. Yates returns as director and though he doesn’t provide anything wholly special or creatively outstanding, he brings the audience back into that comforting mould we like from the previous HP outings.

On the whole I really found myself wrapped up in this film and liking it; I only have three complaints. One was probably down to me because I guessed a twist from literally 2-3 minutes in. Secondly the latter half as mentioned nearly lets down the more adventurous gleeful first half, as we drift into the reveal of a dark force rattling through the city. All this wreckage with swirling smoke and black fire is quite messy and feels like too much, like a stitched on story to compete and fail with the better Newt journals of finding beasts and clearing his name. Thirdly, the end seemed to drag out and for me should have came before the last tiny scene which felt tacky.

I know that looks like a big paragraph but trust me, I enjoyed the move a lot. Positives totally outweigh the negatives and the cash cow is mooing heartily I’m excited for the announced sequels to come. This new look into the wizarding world with a great Redmayne had me mostly under their spell and is very entertaining.

7.5/10

American Pastoral (2016)

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Attempting to show the decline of happiness and that big ol’ American Dream ideal is this so-called crime drama which is dramatic in more than a few places but the crime aspect is sorely missed and overall it feels like a bland film.

Meeting at a reunion, Nathan (David Strathairn) is told about the crumbling life of high school star Swede aka Seymour (Ewan McGregor). Seymour has a beautiful wife in Dawn (Jennifer Connelly) and a daughter who may stutter but has a motivated attitude in life. It’s this that leads Merry (Dakota Fanning) to have possibly set off a bomb and killed someone and all Seymour wants is to know the truth and get his girl back.

It’s a directorial debut for Ewan McGregor and he does at least know how to capture that period style, the slow moving sense of building our view on the family to see the cracks appearing as more prominent and tragic but the entire subject matter of Lyndon B. Johnson era politics, protests and family failure seems to evade his management and he loses a grip on what could have been a more gripping story.

Everything does look right, costuming and locations put us in a believable time and espicially when we see Merry masked up and wandering through dingy homeless filled streets, that’s the nervous unfolding of drama I’d wished to have seen more often. The plot follows Seymour way too often, from glove factory boredom to odd hotel encounters whereas I’d rather witnessed Merry’s journey and what she did, it may have lost the mystery crime aspect but it could have lifted the interest of the picture.

The heartfelt and probable emotional ties I think this movie was going for never connected with me, I looked at my phone time a couple of times thanks to the tedious slow moving pace and I left feeling underwhelmed and unattached. Considering the real power and trauma I imagine America went through post Vietnam and people rising up against the government, I didn’t ever grasp that power in the movie, it felt too sentimental and the silly last scene at a cemetery did little to rid that notion.

McGregor brings a steady stern and a reliable frown as he tries uncovering where Merry is and what his daughter may have actually done but he’s never more than just a journeying father. Connelly seems left behind as she hopes to change herself after Merry leaves. Fanning delivers a convincing stutter but is also left with little to do as her character is left to be found by Seymour.

Nothing about this drama is special or different, like a paint by numbers book that you give up on after 1 page, not even Desplat on music or a trying McGregor can save this stodgy bore.

4/10

Keeping Up with the Joneses

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The idea is great and the cast are greater but sadly it falls apart like some botched ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’ mission thanks to a quite tame and laugh free screenplay.

Cul-de-sac parents Jeff (Zach Galifianakis) and Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher) get more than they bargained for as apparent perfect neighbours Natalie (Gal Gadot) and Tim Jones (Jon Hamm) move in. Karen is suspicious and after some digging, she and her husband find out their next door folks are spies.

Greg Mottola who directed the still fantastically funny ‘Superbad’ displays a good hand at the action style drama blended in with the suburban set-up and though this mix of action and comedy sometimes works, Mottola cannot do much to save the day as the Joneses may have and that’s down to the writing.

Michael LeSieur seems to forget the cleverness of what a cool premise is on his hands and instead pratfalls, sex jokes and shrieking fill that missed gap. It’s not helped along by the fact this movie feels kind of long, which isn’t top stuff considering the zippy attempts at spy like frenzy produced on the screen. Where perhaps another writer or British studio would have gifted this plot some wit and smart humour, this film just feels like most other average American comedies that fit into a box and don’t even sniff of trying to break out of it.

Saying this, I found the office scene of texting instead of speaking mildly amusing, the smouldering tension between Gadot and Fisher as they meet in a mall changing room is written well to show off one half of the Jones’ power play. The car chase with the Gaffney’s aiding the escape does stretch to a near boring point but doses some nice adrenaline into the film. The odd yet out there snake restaurant was another neat touch giving Galifianakis lots of room to do his funny shtick.

Hamm and Gadot are the perfect good looking, tall and mysterious pair. They stare and smoulder with ease but don’t have much in the way of development even if the film thinks they’re giving them rounded personalities. Galifianakis gladly isn’t the Alan role here, he’s less weird and acts a helpful talkative man well. Fisher…well she’s just…impossibly forgetting the lingerie moment, she plays off Zach nicely and portrays some degree of strength in knowing people and has a chance to pull funny faces, scream and move through scenes in a way that’s put her Jacques Lecoq training to good use.

The whole suburbia thing of hum-drum people attempting to step out of their comfort zones to live a little is made no less predictable and less bland here.The story is not great and I didn’t laugh out loud but then I inwardly chuckled on occasions and found enough of the film enjoyable.

5.5/10

Bad Moms (2016)

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Mildly funny but a movie I feel caters more for the female spectator, with plenty of lady laughs in my screening backing up that point. It has humour, solid cast performances but it feels long and nothing special.

Frantically running errands day in and day out hardly backed by her childish husband is Amy Mitchell (Mila Kunis). Her kids school is pretty much run by obsessive PTA mom Gwendolyn (Christina Applegate), so when Amy decides to say no to her rules and become a bad mom along with wild Carla (Kathryn Hahn) and home-bound Kiki (Kristen Bell) it causes major friction.

It’s a pretty obvious rom-com, as soon as the clearly hunky male comes into the picture who just happens to be a manly widow then you know Amy will end up with him. The characters are all types we’ve seen before, the awkward one, the overly sexual one and the typical lead who needs a boost in morale to be her true self. Though everything is predictable, the movie chugs along nicely.

Well, actually on the most part it does, there are some times when it feels long. It’s an odd one as there’s points where the film doesn’t appear smooth like each scene feels tacked on and not wholly part of what we’ve seen before. At least the struggles of female parenting are handled well and there’s nice poignant moments about how hard it is for mums, single or otherwise, to raise children and work and live.

The laughs themselves seem to land more appreciated with the women watchers, as a mid twenties male I did chuckle from time to time. There’s humour with a tacky glossy PowerPoint presentation about a bake sale, the cattiness of Gwendolyn is great and the house party with Martha Stewart is comedic for a while but mostly it’s average. They run crazily past the comedy rule of three as at least six mums get up and say why they’re bad, concluding in a poorly added ‘Mean Girls’-esque quip from a lonely parent.

Change wise, you know the characters have to progress but the transformation the three go through feels odd and rushed, Kiki gets control and a sultry black dress, Hahn covers up and makes her son lunch and Gwendolyn de-ices herself for the gals as if all it took for them to alter their personalities were a couple of samey speeches from Amy. On the plus side the opening madness of Amy’s duties is well done, the hipster world of her workplace is on point and to their credit the credits are interesting as we see the actors real mothers discuss their lives.

Mila Kunis is a capable lead and shows she can be funny, smart and affable. She bounces off the other two bad moms and they make for an engaging believable posse of trouble. Kristen Bell is fun to watch as she looks on panicked often, espicially as they play with her pink hoodie. So when she lets loose and drinks it’s amusing to see her shift character. Hahn excels in this role, the mad electric wire frayed with energy and sexual confidence gives the film the copious amounts of cursing. Applegate is the best to watch, lapping up her role as the steel faced bitch.

It has comedy in places and balances the serious side of parental issues but it never feels like it goes anywhere or knows where to take itself. At least it’s backed by a healthy group of exciting and watchable actresses who give the movie drive.

5.5/10

Some Like it Hot (1959)

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After only seeing clips and general imagery from this all time classic, I have finally watched it fully from beginning to end and luckily on the big screen too. The atmosphere in the screening was great and truly added to the feeling of how loved and humorous this movie was and 100% still is.

In 1929, two musicians playing between bands for cheques end up witnessing a shooting and run for their lives. To both hide from the gangsters and try gaining more money they join a female group in Florida. Joe/Josephine (Tony Curtis) becomes drawn to ukulele player Sugar Kane (Marilyn Monroe) and poses as a millionaire whilst Jerry/Daphne ends up annoyingly further from Sugar yet closer to his own wealthy partner.

Usually the idea of camp drag acts stirs visuals of poor comedy or the tacky ‘Little Britain’ sketches but here, over 50 years ago the whole notion never feels that gaudy or cheap. There’s a fun cleverness to the two men fleeing Chicago and donning dresses; from the way they admire the hard work women go through to just walk to Daphne him/herself getting very used to the possibility of being a girl.

Billy Wilder fantastically directs this motion picture, the way everything is set up is clear, the plot progresses at a great pace and little touches from ‘Spats’ to the dialogue Wilder and I. A. L. Diamond write are smart and laugh out loud funny. A line about the cake not agreeing with someone is a dumb but great example of the witty humour involved. Of course there’s some, if not a lot of comedy revolving around the objectification of women as the two male runaways gawp at their new female friends but as they’re stuck with no way to progress on this lustful feelings it becomes a joke also at their expense.

A yacht seduction is a neat scene of twisting the gender stereotype of making first moves and gives the movie it’s romantic genre subplot, what makes this sequence ever better is the cutting away to a long tango session between Daphne and rich man Osgood. The film develops along and so does Jerry’s obsession with an ideal of being with this elderly gentleman, the hints of homosexuality are very clear and reinforced in the last scene as Jerry explains himself.

Sugar Kane may have been used and so their whole romance feels a little wrong, her knowing of how not smart she is doesn’t even come across like much of a valid excuse for them pairing her up with a man who manipulated her into feeling things for him, thanks to pretend money, an accent, glasses and a stolen yacht. This is the only element of the movie that didn’t work, apart from that I adored every second.

Marilyn Monroe delivers a healthy amount of laughs as she dumbly parades her beauty through the script, you feel for her when she believes she’s losing a possible love though it’s still clear she’s present as a big sex symbol and songstress. Tony Curtis has the best pout as Josephine and has a brilliant determination, his voice change as Junior is so bad it’s great and he works so well with partner in crime Jack Lemmon. Lemmon himself is wonderful; stealing the show as he shrieks, cackles and gurns through the film.

The comedy is one of a grand scope for all to enjoy but can be refined to intelligence too. One of the finer funny films for sure and an out and out American great that will always be.

8.5/10

Hot Rod (2007)

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Goofball comedy has never been goofier in this, an American comedy about a man-child wannabe stuntman. It’s not always funny and the offbeat strokes sometimes suffer from being less clever than I imagine the Lonely Island trio think they are, but it’s silly and mad enough to warrant a watch.

Rod Kimble (Andy Samberg) has always wanted to follow in his father’s footsteps and be an impressive stuntman, alas he owns a chugging moped and can’t even jump one vehicle. So when his step-dad Frank (Ian McShane) suffers a heart problem, Rod tries proving himself by jumping 15 buses to earn enough money for Frank’s surgery. It’s up to him, his buffoonish team and the girl of Rod’s dreams; Denise (Isla Fisher) to make the stunt successful.

Firstly I commend the chemistry of the cast, the stupidity created by Samberg, Bill Hader, Jorma Taccone and Danny McBride is crackling. They’re like a dumb boy band playing school tricks aiming to be cool but utterly utterly failing. It’s generally them as morons and the running trend of moronic humour that keeps this film amusing enough to pay attention.

When the idiot comedy isn’t there or not quite hitting the mark, then the movie feels poor and messy as it tries hurling things into one big jumble. People may find it hilarious but an example of this messiness is as Rod and his half brother Kevin repeat the phrase ‘cool beans’ which transitions into an odd 30-40 second remix of them saying those two words. I love absurd ideas in comedy but at times, more often than not, ‘Hot Rod’ goes down that slippery road and can’t come back.

Akiva Schaffer of Lonely Island fame, directs this comedy certainly knowing how to capture the wilder side of the action. He can also make sure that Samberg plays up to the camera as the dreamer with a brain as small as his stunt talents. The set up and building to the final crazy stunt is well done and does provide a necessary amount of tension even if you can guarantee the result of Rod’s efforts. What I loved the most was the playing around with film, from the Footloose spoof that ends up crashing down a hill to the mention of a convenient monetary amount for the stunt.

I admit openly that I thoroughly enjoyed the soundtrack for this feature. It pounds with a energetic 80’s beat from Cutting Crew to Europe. It actually works having so many songs in the film, giving it an extra spin of goofiness as Rod lives a life so right for a 1980’s movie.

Andy Samberg is a good shout for Rod, as he knows how to play that shouty awkward role well. He can be arrogant yet nervous with ease and stupidity is second nature to him so Rod is perfect thanks to his performance. Bill Hader brings in a lisp and a childish manner as friend to Rod, the skating rink and acid story are his finest moments. Isla Fisher is a sweet addition, thankfully giving a fresher less idiotic chunk to the group as she plays the hopeful and kind love interest with positivity. Ian McShane is great when simply smiling just to rile up the main character. Also an odd kudos goes to Chester Tam as Richardson who steals the show for his disregard for posters and his love for pelvic thrusts.

It’s very easy to see why this film didn’t fare well on release but on the other hand it is clear to see why this is a movie that has cult status and people love. It’s not well written and it’s too silly but there’s a skit-like comedy that works in places which is just fine.

5.5/10