Movie Review ~ The Water Diviner

water_diviner_ver5

The Facts:

Synopsis: An Australian man travels to Turkey after the Battle of Gallipoli to try and locate his three missing sons.

Stars: Russell Crowe, Olga Kurylenko, Jai Courtney, Steve Bastoni, Ryan Corr, Yilmaz Erdogan, Cem Yilmaz

Director: Russell Crowe

Rated: R

Running Length: 111 minutes

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review: There’s a moment in Ron Howard’s 1995 space drama Apollo 13 where, in trying to find a solution to the problem the stranded astronauts are facing, NASA technicians dump boxes of equipment onto a table and one of them says “We’ve got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.” I mention this particular scene because it kept playing through my mind while watching director/star Russell Crowe’s tedious drama, The Water Diviner.

Poor Matt Villa. As the editor for this missed opportunity of a film I can imagine Crowe depositing the dailies on his desk and commanding Villa craft a movie out of Crowe’s lugubrious and bloviating   historical shoulda-been-better epic. It’s not like Villa couldn’t do it…this is the guy that brought some sense of order to Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby in 2013 so I can only place the blame squarely at Crowe’s hulking feet and a narrative-less script form two Andrews (Knight and Anastasios).

I’d purposely avoided watching any trailers for The Water Diviner because as of late movie previews in general seem to favor more spoilers than ever before but I was interested to see what Crowe would do with the true-ish story of a man from Down Under that travels to Turkey and the post-wartime shores of Gallipoli as he searches for his enlisted sons he believes are dead. There’s a good movie at the heart of The Water Diviner, which makes it doubly depressing that it’s such a clumsy and yawn-inducing affair.

Running under two hours but feeling three times as long, Crowe doesn’t bother with any kind of character introductions…which is all well and good until full understanding of the characters becomes a necessity to figure out what the hell is going on. Though the three sons play a pivotal role in the latter half of the film and it’s clear we’re supposed to feel some sort of fatherly bond that drives Crowe’s character to follow his quest, there’s precious little onscreen that gives us any indication why we should be invested in Crowe getting the answers he came for.

There’s a lot of sand and dust to trek through and cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (an Oscar winner for The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring) captures the period setting nicely…until Crowe revs up the action and it appears Lesnie tied the camera to the end of a string and started lasso-ing it above the heads of the actors. Production design is generally spot-on, from Tess Schofield’s (The Sapphires) costumes to David Hirschfelder’s tonally observant score.

If only the script and performances had matched the art direction. Crowe (Noah, Man of Steel) never met a character he couldn’t grunt through but he seems particularly lost at sea here. Perhaps pulling double duty left his character development as an afterthought, but you’d be hard pressed to remember that this guy won an Oscar and has been nominated for two more. For a man that’s worked with some of the best directors in Hollywood and abroad, it’s truly amazing how little craft is displayed as both director and actor of The Water Diviner. This had the potential to be an epic drama but just winds up being epically boring.

That’s really the main problem with the film…it’s so surreally uninteresting that I was gob smacked to read that it won Australia’s equivalent of Best Picture (well, it tied with The Babadook) and netted a host of nominations. I chalk it up to hometown devotion for Crowe but it’s quite undeserved. I feel for talented actors like Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace), Jai Courtney (Jack Reacher), and an impressive Yilmaz Erdogan who are saddled with thankless roles. Kurylenko in particular should have just worn a sign around her neck that says “Obligatory Feisty Female Character Desisted to be a Random Love Interest in 5…4…3…2…1” for her cliché-ridden role.

The film is all over the map. One moment it’s like an Aussie spin on Saving Private Ryan and the next it’s Zero Dark Thirty Down Under before incredulously turning into a Casablanca no one asked for. Near the end of the film there’s a bonkers scene where Crowe teaches his would-be adversaries the rules of cricket in a rusty old train car minutes before a slaughter erupts and Crowe has only, you guessed it, a cricket mallet to defend himself. Then there’s the scene where Crowe magically locates a grave he couldn’t possibly know was there…sure he’s a water diviner (a gift shown in the first five minutes and never mentioned again) but now he’s a body diviner? Gulp. Next please.

A movie that thinks so highly of itself it doesn’t make any effort to explain, well, anything is one that is ultimately hard to swallow and should be discarded. So many things in The Water Diviner just happen “because” that it all begins to wash over you and renders you numb by the time the credits blessedly appear. I even hated the font used for the titles and subtitles…

Movie Review ~ The November Man

1

november_man

The Facts:

Synopsis: An ex-CIA operative is brought back in on a very personal mission and finds himself pitted against his former pupil in a deadly game involving high level CIA officials and the Russian president-elect.

Stars: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Eliza Taylor, Caterina Scorsone, Bill Smitrovich, Will Patton

Director: Roger Donaldson

Rated: R

Running Length: 108 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (2/10)

Review:  It was only a few short weeks ago that my review for the trailer of The November Man appeared on this website, indicating my cautious optimism that this late summer action flick might be former 007 Pierce Brosnan’s welcome return to his James Bond/Thomas Crown roots.  Sadly, it serves only as a reminder that Brosnan’s cooly effortless action hero is a relic of the past, replaced by the aging and overly earnest titular character projected for audiences around the globe to (hopefully) not see.

I wasn’t aware of this until after the fact, but The November Man is based on the seventh book in a series of spy novels by the late author Bill Granger.  A pet project for Brosnan that finally moved into production after almost a decade of delay, it’s puzzling that the actor would opt to play a character so similar to Bond yet bring to the role none of the efficiency he lent the legendary spy in four films.

Instead, Brosnan makes the actors fatal mistake of attacking a deeply flawed character without really giving us a reason to understand why he’s all rough edges and fisticuffs.  Surely the script by Michael Finch and Karl Gajdusek (Oblivion) doesn’t seem to mind that it has more plotholes than open road as it bounces from one bland location to another detailing a plot concerning Russian government officials and a possible US cover-up of war crimes.  It all feels like, well, a bargain paperback knockoff of a James Bond plot.

Now I’m not saying the movie doesn’t have some modicum of potential because as an audience member I’ve been craving a tidy action film with political intrigue and near-miss car chases through international locations for some time.  Yet The November Man’s execution is so unruly and unpleasant that it feels like a chore to sit through before you’ve had a chance to get to the bottom of your popcorn.

As sexist as the James Bond franchise has been criticized for being, it pales in comparison to the icky abject misogyny on display here.  Women are treated as mere objects and I think at one point every woman with a speaking line is dragged by her arm around a locale by a gruff man that calls her a word unprintable in full but begins with t and ends with wat.  As brutal as the violence is in the film (and with gunshots to the head and knife wounds galore the film is bloodier than necessary) it’s no match for the distasteful chauvinism on display.

If I’m being honest, I’ve never found Brosnan to be that impressive of an actor.  Though he filled the James Bond suit nicely (in GoldenEye, Tomorrow Never Dies, The World is Not Enough, Die Another Day), Brosnan’s Bond wears thin on repeat viewings and the actor hasn’t found much success in his non-Bond endeavors.  I can see why tackling a character slightly to the left of Bond would be appealing but Brosnan’s teeth gnashing solemnity comes across as more him spoofing his spy thriller past than cutting new ground.

With his Sean Bean looks and Keanu Reeves acting chops, Luke Bracey makes for a lackluster adversary with the young actor unable to make even the simplest of dialogue seem convincing.  He looks too young to be a junior colleague of Brosnan’s well-worn spy and wearing an alarming amount of eyeliner he comes across as an indie-rocker more than the CIA killer he’s supposed to be playing.  An unfortunate subplot involving Brosnan and Bracey locking horns over items in their personal life adds fifteen minutes, one cat, and two extraneous characters to the proceedings.

I’m going to assume supporting players Bill Smitrovich and Will Patton got together and decided to pull one over on the hair team by asking that they switch hairstyles.  Smitrovich’s curly pate is swapped for Patton’s bald chrome dome…and that’s the only good idea either actor brings as both grow fatter as the film drones on from chewing the scenery.  Smitrovich in particular should be absolutely ashamed of himself…as should director Roger Donaldson for casting him.

If there’s one bright spot to the movie, it’s certainly Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) as a woman in need of saving by Brosnan’s off the grid spy.  Though the role is painfully lacking any sort of feminist assuredness, Kurylenko at least makes the wounded bird she’s playing somewhat sympathetic.  Chased by a female assassin (who looks like she was plucked from playing the lead role in a Moscow production of Funny Girl), Kurylenko gets the one true pleasing moment of the film as she brings one character to a nice dénouement.

Still, the film simply cannot overcome its wet noodle leads and a series of plot contrivances so ludicrous that I briefly considered breaking my spoiler-free rule and analyzing them further here.  Yet that would give the film more time than it’s worth because The November Man will be in the discount bin at WalMart before November 2014 is over.

The Silver Bullet ~ The November Man

november_man

Synopsis: An ex-CIA operative is brought back in on a very personal mission and finds himself pitted against his former pupil in a deadly game involving high level CIA officials and the Russian president-elect.

Release Date: August 27, 2014

Thoughts: Though he’s now three films removed from the James Bond series and a sequel to the remake of The Thomas Crown Affair is stalled in development hell, Pierce Brosnan is back on the big screen in full action hero mode with The November Man.  Looking like a nice mix between his 007 days and a Mr. Crown adventure, I’m disappointed that the slick but lengthy trailer seems so full of spoilers but am willing to reserve judgment on the overall experience based on Brosnan’s track record.  Reteaming with his Dante’s Peak director Roger Donaldson (Cocktail), and joined by former Bond babe Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) and newcomer Luke Bracey, we won’t have to wait until November to see if Brosnan’s still got what it takes.

Movie Review ~ Oblivion

oblivion_ver4

The Facts:

Synopsis: A veteran assigned to extract Earth’s remaining resources begins to question what he knows about his mission and himself.

Stars: Tom Cruise, Morgan Freeman, Olga Kurylenko, Andrea Riseborough, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Melissa Leo

Director: Joseph Kosinski

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 124 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review:  I’ll start this review with an admission of bias: I really like futuristic sci-fi films set in a dystopian climate.  From Prometheus to Moon to 2001: A Space Odyssey to 2010: The Year We Make Contact, I just really respond to the chilliness of the whole genre.  So it’s no surprise that early trailers for Oblivion caught my eye and I made it a point to see this film on the biggest screen possible to immerse myself in the world created by director Kosinski (Tron: Legacy) and screenwriters Karl Gajdusek, Michael DeBruyn (who adapted Kosinski original graphic novel)

A lot of people had issues with Kosinski’s Tron: Legacy feeling that it was a meal that looked good but offered no sustenance.  I can see where those detractors were coming from but found that film to be better than its predecessor decades earlier.  Kosinski wisely knows how to use current technology to make a future world look sleek and believable and though Oblivion isn’t as all tech consuming as Tron: Legacy was it’s still a strong entry into the sci-fi genre.

Plot-wise, there’s not a lot here that you haven’t seen before if you’re a fan of science fiction of any kind.  The notion of a future world suffering the after effects of a war with an alien race has been done to death from the truly great films to the very awful direct to television offerings.  What sets this one apart, though, is a focus on stronger character development, impressive visual effects,  and a crack cast that knows exactly what kind of movie they are operating in.

Star Tom Cruise is having a nice renaissance after several years of being the punch line to a never-ending onslaught of couch jumping jokes.  Though he started 2012 strong with Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, his next two films didn’t catch fire like everyone had hoped…though to be fair Rock of Ages was a nightmare film with Cruise the only saving grace.  December’s Jack Reacher was vastly underrated and should have been a bigger hit. Oblivion has put Crusie back into a fighting spirit and for good reason…it’s a role tailor made for the action star and it gives him a chance to kick butt while showing a lighter side too.

He’s supported ably by two strong females.  Andrea Riseborough may be my new star to watch…after turning up in Madonna’s directorial debut W/E, she delivered a layered performance in Disconnect and her role here as Cruise’s partner in work and love is nicely complex. We’re never quite sure what side she’s on and even when we think we’ve figured it out, the film throws some nice twists in to keep us guessing.  Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace) plays a character with secrets I shan’t give away but proves to be more than a woman that Cruise has to merely save.

Don’t be deceived by ads (or the above poster) that show Morgan Freeman playing a main role in the film.  While he does hold some significance his screen time is severely limited, ending up being more of a cameo appearance than anything.  Melissa Leo is one of the most earnest actresses out there so one should watch her performance here carefully…after the film is over her restraint is quite telling.

Seen in an IMAX theater, Oblivion has a lot of sound and fury…signifying something.  It’s a booming picture with amazing visuals and a sound design seemingly meant to test the sound proofing on any theater (as the credits were rolling I was almost out the door to the theater and could still hear the film playing).  The soundtrack by M83 is electronic heavy (I originally though Tron: Legacy composers Daft Punk had been tapped again for the soundtrack) and works nicely into the action.

This is a film that really should be seen first in the theater for the visuals alone.  It’s not going to revolutionize the sci-fi genre, nor does it really aim to.  It’s a compact re-tread of the best parts of other films that works more than it probably should.  I know the film has its nay-sayers and I completely see where they’d be coming from – but the film experience that I had was very rewarding and very unexpectedly entertaining.

The Silver Bullet ~ Erased (aka The Expatriate)

the-expatriate-poster03

Synopsis: An ex-CIA agent and his estranged daughter are forced on the run when his employers mark them both for termination as part of a wide-reaching international conspiracy.

Release Date:  TBD 2013

Thoughts: I’ve long thought that Aaron Eckhart has been underused in Hollywood.  It’s not that he hasn’t had a consistent career over the last decade but it’s been difficult for him to find the right role to fashion a career around. I don’t think Erased is the role to do that but it might be on the right track.  Though the long-delayed actioner feels like a script passed on by bigger A-List actors (or something that was written  in the early 90’s with Mel Gibson, Liam Neeson, or Harrison Ford in mind), Eckhart will be the main reason I check this out when it’s released.  Co-starring Olga Kurylenko (Quantum of Solace and April’s Oblivion), Erased looks like your standard man on the run feature but never underestimate the power of what seems like a simple story…those are the ones that can surprise you.

The Silver Bullet ~ To The Wonder

to-the-wonder-poster

Synopsis: After visiting Mont Saint-Michel, Marina and Neil come to Oklahoma, where problems arise. Marina meets a priest and fellow exile, who is struggling with his vocation, while Neil renews his ties with a childhood friend, Jane.

Release Date:  April 12, 2013

Thoughts: I’m really trying to focus on the pedigree involved with this project, rather than the snooze inducing synopsis and trailer.  Director Terrence Malick has created some of the most beautifully filmed projects in film history…and some of the most divisive as well.  2011’s The Tree of Life caused rifts in many film circles with some labeling it a masterpiece while others were ready to spit nails by the final reel.  I found The Tree of Life a worthy challenge, liking it more than others so I’m ready to give To The Wonder a fighting chance based solely on Malick’s track record and the curious cast assembled.  Though other stars were cast in the film, many including Rachel Weisz and Jessica Chastain didn’t make the final cut!  That says something about Malick that he’s willing to make such deep cuts to a film.  Early reports have To The Wonder being another love it or leave it film…so I’m cautiously optimistic about Malick’s follow-up.

The Silver Bullet ~ Oblivion

oblivion

Synopsis: A court martial sends a veteran soldier to a distant planet, where he has to destroy the remains of an alien race. The arrival of an unexpected traveler causes him to question what he knows about the planet, his mission, and himself.

Release Date:  April 19, 2013

Thoughts: 2012 had its highs and lows for Tom Cruise.  He came into 2012 with a hot film (Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol), turned in a great performance in a box office bomb (Rock of Ages),  went through a very public divorce, and is ending the year with a new film (Jack Reacher) that is getting above average reviews.  It won’t be long before Cruise will be back with this sci-fi epic from the director of the underrated Tron: Legacy that looks quite entertaining.  Add a cast of interesting faces and impressive effects and Cruise may be back on top by this time next year.

Bond-ed for Life ~ Quantum of Solace

2

The James Bond franchise is celebrating its 50th birthday this year and with the release of Skyfall I wanted to take a look back at the 22 (23 if you count the rogue Never Say Never Again, 24 if you count the 1967 spoof of Casino Royale) films that have come before it. So sit back, grab your shaken-not-stirred martini and follow me on a trip down Bond memory lane.

The Facts:

Synopsis: Seeking revenge for the death of his love, secret agent James Bond sets out to stop an environmentalist from taking control of a country’s valuable resource.

Stars: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Olga Kurylenko, Mathieu Amalric, Gemma Arterton

Director: Marc Forster

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 106 minutes

TMMM Score: (6.5/10)

Review:  Into every franchise a little rain must fall and though Quantum of Solace isn’t a fully fledged thunderstorm, it still leaves you feeling a little sad after the blue skies of Casino Royale.  It’s not as if the players entered into the 22nd Bond film with anything other than noble intentions – there’s a lot of good stuff to be found in the movie but seeing that it’s really a direct sequel to Casino Royale there is a sense of feeling cheated out of the opportunity for a totally new adventure.  Though Diamonds Are Forever also carried on a small piece of the story that ended On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, that film at least wrapped things up in its pre-credit prologue.

Without spoiling some of the later events that happen in Casino Royale and spill over into this film, Quantum of Solace opens with Bond seeking vengeance with no less passion than he did in Licence to Kill.  Determined to find the group responsible for a betrayal that’s hit too close to home, the opening moments of the film are a mountaintop chase delivered with breakneck speed and quick cut editing.  The first thing I noticed about this entry was its different filming style that favors the herky jerky hand held camera and flash cuts to its predecessors slow burn sweeping panoramas.  Under the direction of Forster (lensing his first true action film) the film enters the race at 99% so there’s not much room for the rest of the movie to keep pace.  The opening credits and title song are also slightly disappointing with graphic design studio MK12 taking over for Daniel Kleinman  with a mish mash of sand and sun and Jack White’s duet with Alicia Keys sounding slightly off key at time. 

Off key is maybe the best way to describe the movie because everything just seems slightly askew or off the mark…something that grows more frustrating as the film goes on.  At 106 minutes, it’s the shortest Bond film which is probably a good thing considering that it may also be its slowest.  Yes, there are some dynamic action sequences on land and sea but nothing ever takes flight like I think it could have with a better script and stronger direction. 

It’s no fault of the actors on board that the movie drags and I was more sympathetic to Craig in this film than I was in the previous entry.  Here he’s a haunted man that masks his pain with his determined hunt for retribution.  If he was a loose cannon in Casino Royale here he’s as wild animal as he goes above and beyond his call of duty to get the answers he’s looking for.

More depth is given to Dench in this film as well as she achieves duality in her role as Bond’s superior and also an unwitting mother.  Craig and Dench take the roles deeper than one would normally feel is required but the end result are stronger performances because of it.  Dench may be the biggest Bond girl of them all when you really think about it.

The real Bond girl here is Kurylenko that gives off a Catherine Zeta-Jones vibe and not much more.  A character with motivations that I feel we’ve seen before (in For Your Eyes Only, for example), she’s also out for vengeance that may align with Bond’s.  Frenchman Amalric is one of the slighter villains in these films but what he lacks in his physical presence he makes up for in his maniacal plans to steal a valuable natural resource.

I’ve seen the film four times now and I should freely admit that I’ve fallen asleep each time at some point.  I’m usually a pretty alert moviegoer and it’s not that the film lacks for loud action scenes…but around the 60 minute mark my eyelids get droopy.  That being said, watching the film back-to-back with Casino Royale is probably the way to go as both films are really all part of the same story.