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REVIEW: Contagion
Friday 25 November 2011, 04:59PM
  106 minutes Rating: G   The most lavishly feel-bad movie of the year, Contagion is Steven Soderbergh’s well-researched, convincing, and courageously bleak drama about a lethal virus threatening to wipe out humanity. Contagion, though, is not an action film, nor is it a romance, a heroic tale, or even a zombie flick. It’s more of a dramatised documentary, a filmic portrayal of how a viral epidemic would sweep the world, and an examination of just how interconnected and vulnerable the human race is. The film opens on day two of the soon-to-be-crisis, as Gwyneth Paltrow, returning from a trip to China, exhibits signs of illness. We montage around the world to see others suffering similar symptoms. Paltrow arrives home, hugs her son, and minutes later, both are dead. What follows is half an hour of gripping exposition and glorious cinematic expression of the most terrifying real world threat imaginable. Unfortunately, in an effort to provide a fresh, realistic take, Soderbergh’s film never really finds a central character or hero. We instead follow eight, in a crammed, multi-protagonist storyline. In this sense, the scriptalmost imitates the virus that drives its plot forward. The film moves from character to character, dispatching certain people with cruel efficiency before moving on to new “hosts” for the story to follow. The characters combating the deadly virus are scientific minds trained to be as unflinching and efficient as their viral opponent, and so the actors playing them are cold and clinical (a stellar line-up that includes Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Lawrence Fishburne) even in the face of potential Armageddon. It’s all interesting intellectually, but hard to connect to any particular character on an emotional level. The result is two acts of buildup, but an aching absence of payoff. In sum, Contagion is a bleak yet realistic case study of a global pandemic, but its impact is lessened by having too many cast members and little attachment from the audience to their fate. Like a mundane flu, Contagion hits us like a hammer but it lacks a big finish, instead petering out with a sniffle. –Dane Halpin   3 ½ stars
REVIEW: Tower Heist
Friday 18 November 2011, 02:27PM
  104 minutes Rating: 13+ It may seem like a back-handed assessment, but maybe the best way to sum up Tower Heist is that it is not as terrible as you might expect. Ben Stiller plays Josh Kovacs, manager of ‘The Tower’, one of Manhattan’s most luxurious addresses, and home to billionaire financier Arthur Shaw (played brilliantly by Alan Alda). Shaw is eventually busted on fraud charges, a situation made especially sticky since Kovacs trusted Shaw to invest the pensions of the entire Tower staff. When he’s informed by FBI agent Claire Denham (Téa Leoni) that there is little chance of recovering the lost pensions, Kovacs decides he must take matters into his own hands by stealing back the money from Shaw's penthouse. There are no real surprises in how the plot pans out from here, but needless to say people seeking a rich and intelligent heist film should search elsewhere. In saying that, director Brett Ratner (Rush Hour trilogy) keeps the film moving at a nice steady pace, and scene to scene, the movie tends to keep the viewer engaged and entertained. It's kind of like a painting done by a toddler – it's not very good, but they're trying so hard to impress that you can't help but smile. Ratner also has a penchant for odd-couple casting, and while on paper, a cast that consists of Stiller, Eddie Murphy, Alda, Leoni, Casey Affleck, Michael Peña, Precious star Gabourey Sidibe and Matthew Broderick would seem pretty strange, this eclectic group has great chemistry and keep things light and humorous. Nobody in the cast is wasted, and they in fact become the real strong suit of what would have otherwise been a very average film. Perhaps the highlight of Tower Heist though is the return of Eddie Murphy. After so many years lost in the vacuum of kids movies playing cheap, hammed-up stereotypes, he returns to the realm of adult comedy, showing glimpses of what made him such a prodigy so many years ago. On a less positive note, Tower Heist can’t overcome the sense that in aspiring to be a movie of so many different genres, it doesn’t really satisfy any one particularly well. As a straight comedy, it’s hardly laugh-out-loud. As a heist film, it doesn’t take itself seriously enough to maintain interest in the plot. Typically, a heist movie has to be somewhat believable in its execution of the actual heist, and offer a few surprises along the way. Upon close inspection, very little of what happens in Tower Heist’s third act can be construed as believable, the misdirection is pretty transparent, and the surprises will have you laughing out loud at the ridiculousness of it all. But at the end of the day, Tower Heist is a carefree popcorn flick that succeeds in being fun, often funny, and is generally very enjoyable – so long as you don’t look too hard at the plot and all of the many, many, holes that riddle it. –Dane Halpin 3 stars
REVIEW: Killer Elite
Friday 11 November 2011, 10:43AM
    116 minutes Rating: 18+ Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert DeNiro – it’s a formidable acting lineup that should translate into breakneck, head-cracking, fast-paced action. But if you’re expecting the standard Statham fare, you may be pleasantly surprised by what can only be described as a gentle change of formula. Unfortunately, the formula is missing a few ingredients. Killer Elite is branded as being ‘based on a true story’. That is probably a little misleading – it is very loosely based on the Ranulph Fiennes book The Feather Men, which in itself was rather controversial in its claim of being non-fiction (it was later released as fiction). Danny Bryce (Statham) is a mercenary, and the protege of veteran soldier-of-fortune Hunter (De Niro). After retiring, Bryce is pulled back into the game when Hunter is kidnapped by an Arabian sheik. His demand: that Bryce hunt down and kill the three former SAS soldiers that killed the Sheik’s sons. Accepting the assignment, Bryce ends up in the cross hairs of Spike (Clive Owen), a former SAS officer who’s now the point man for a secret organisation called ‘The Feather Men’, dedicated to protecting former SAS officers from violent retaliation. We can all pretty much picture how it pans out. But the film’s pacing is actually surprisingly slow and very deliberate, which is refreshing when mixed with the regular injections of explosive and well-choreographed action. At almost two hours though, it is probably a little too slow to win over the hardcore action fan, and the story feels like it drags about 40 minutes or so longer than it should considering how little substance there is to it. The film itself feels dark and gritty. It is set in the 1980s, and does a fair job of recreating the environment of the time, without overstating it. The plot though strays into some very murky moral territory, and one of the main problems with Killer Elite is the fact that there is no discernible person to root for. Both Statham and Owen’s characters are working against each other, and instead of having a hero to follow the entire story through, it’s easy to identify with both sides being in the right. Boasting three such enormous names in the action genre, it is also disappointing how little time DeNiro, Statham and Owen actually spend together on screen. Their three character arcs develop largely independently of each other, and we get only glimpses of what could have been. The surprising scene-stealer though is Dominic Purcell (of Prison Break fame) as one of Statham’s cronies; an Aussie hard-man sporting a glorious handlebar moustache (there is some fine moustachery in this film) and has a major axe to grind with the Special Air Service. In the end, this is a film that, with a little more care, could have pleased both lovers and haters of the standard Jason Statham violence-fest. In the end, it does little to win over either side, though remains a passable, if forgettable, action flick.   –Dane Halpin 2 ½ Stars    
REVIEW: In Time
Thursday 3 November 2011, 10:48AM
  It’s ironic that director Andrew Niccol’s (Gattaca) new film centres on the concept of trading time – you may just want someone to refund you the two hours wasted by watching it. In Time is a film with a fantastic premise – a world operating under Ben Franklin’s adage of “Time is money”. People are bio-engineered to stop aging at 25, at which point their implanted digital clocks countdown whatever time is afforded them. The rich get wealthy by hording years in their vaults – effectively becoming immortal if they take no risks – while the poor cheat, steal or kill just to last another 24 hours. Once your clock runs out, you die. That interesting concept, though, is unfortunately unable to corral into a quality story. By a chance encounter, our protagonist Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is gifted more than a century to spend as he pleases. And so the stage is set for him to correct the social injustices that exist in this dystopian future, through a fairly generic, muddled and downright boring script. Niccol has an obvious talent for blending sci-fi elements with human drama in order to raise larger philosophical points about our society. In Time attempts to follow that trend, only it is unable to synthesise any strong points or conclusions from the socio-economic issues it so clearly (and heavy-handedly) touches on. The idea of time as currency has huge thematic potential, and in the first act it seems as though the film will utilise this by exploring issues such as what it is to ‘live’ versus ‘exist’. However, once the formulaic action-movie tropes work their way into the second act, the whole “time is money” metaphor deflates into shallow word substitution. (Lines like “Clean your clocks”, “don’t waste my time”, “Can you give me a minute’’ are used to the point where they could spawn their own drinking game.) Much of what occurs with both the plot and characters during the latter part of the film feels cobbled together and confused, and sucks whatever momentum the premise had right out of the film. At times (see, it’s contagious), it feels like there are three or four plots going that could have made great films in their own right. Instead, they become jumbled, and the film loses track of the unique sci-fi concept that really is the best thing it had going for it – despite what Timberlake fans might say. Even Cillian Murphy’s character as a gruff Timekeeper (a police force created to “keep time”) is only half-explored, and the end of his arc feels wasted and redundant compared to the amount of screen time he eats up, especially given his potential as by far the most interesting character in the film.   In the end, In Time is frustrating not because it’s an awful movie, but because it misses so many opportunities to be a good one. The pieces are there for it to succeed, but each passing scene just can’t connect and put it together. The last thing a movie like this should do is have you checking your watch the way the characters check theirs.   – Dane Halpin 2 stars
REVIEW: Dream House
Friday 28 October 2011, 01:03PM
It might boast an impressive cast and a few twists and turns, but Dream House, ironically enough, needed a little work before being put on the market. The film stars Daniel Craig as a writer who settles into a quaint home with his wife (Rachel Weisz) and two daughters, only to learn that their house was the scene of a horrific crime five years earlier. When strange things start going bump in the night, Craig’s character starts to uncover a connection to the tragic murders and his neighbour (Naomi Watts). That’s about as much of the plot as can really be revealed, as this is a hard movie to review – or even describe – without revealing too many of its twists and turns (that is of course, unless you’ve already seen the trailer, which gives away most of them). Technically-speaking, Dream House is visually sound and richly textured in its disparity between the warm hues of the family home and the harsh, snow-ridden world outside – or, at times, the grit and grime of homes that have been overrun with rot and despair. The film’s cast is its principle strength though. Craig, Weisz and Watts are all skilled actors and keep a lot of the more ridiculous aspects of the story grounded in believable performances. Craig – often stone-faced and grim, as is his way – even manages to display some warmth and smiles in his role as a loving father, though he gets ample time to stone-face it as well. Weisz is good as always, making her character stand out as a unique and fully-formed person, while Watts is given a harder task, playing a pivotal character that has to be balanced just right to be believable at all. She almost pulls of that balancing act, but not quite. There are also a truckload of logical flaws, and plot holes so wide they are nearly impossible not to fall into, reducing Dream House to a movie that is hard to get into – and stay in – despite the talented actors and director working to keep it grounded and engaging. –Dane Halpin 3 stars



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