Reviewed this week: Serena; Love, Rosie; The Babadook; This is Where I Leave You; The Book of Life
Oh Jennifer Lawrence, where did it all go wrong? Once was a time you could do no ill, flitting from box-office smash to cult classic and back again, with luminous candour gracing every awards bash. Now, you're dating Chris Martin and deflecting attention about hacked photos. And starring in dross like Serena.
The same could be said for Bradley Cooper, the actor most fancied as a natural foil to Lawrence. Danish director Susanne Bier probably loved how the duo lit-up the screen in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle and decided their good looks and youthful promise were ideal for a turgid Depression-era drama about love, logging and laborious story-telling.
Cooper is George Pemberton who breezily weds the beautiful but damaged society girl Serena (Lawrence). She follows him back to his lumber estate in North Carolina and sets about elbowing her way into the business and ruffling the feathers of men not accustomed to taking orders from a woman.
There is something about an illegitimate child, a local mountain lion and some good old-fashioned murderous hysteria. If you've stopped noticing what exactly is going on, just look out for the glaring visual metaphors rammed into the screenplay.
Pretty though the leads and landscapes may be, it is not enough. Ron Rash's source novel is well-regarded and a fine cast steps up - Rhys Ifans, Toby Jones - but it still is not enough. No, Serena's faults lie squarely at Bier's feet, from the jerky editing and rhythm, to the lazy characterisation and rambling tone. A mess.
Editor's Pick: Fury
The expression "boots on the ground" has appeared often in recent media discourse in connection with possible American intervention in the Middle East. If it's a phrase that can be said to sugar-coat the reality of the grisly horrors that inevitably ensue when said boots actually hit the ground, then this pulsating war movie, directed by Bill Ayer and starring Brad Pitt, can be viewed as a chilling reality check.
The backdrop is Germany in 1945 and with the Nazi war machine on its last Lugers, Hitler has introduced the concept of "Total War" in a final attempt to halt the Allies. It basically means that surrender is not an option for German soldiers or civilians, and their fight-to-the-death mentality makes the Fatherland a very dangerous place for advancing Allies.
Enter a compelling Brad Pitt as sergeant Don "Wardaddy" Collier, a tank commander at the cutting edge of that advance. A monument to machismo and valour, Collier's main focus is survival during the final push, but he fears the safety of his four man crew is compromised by the arrival of an innocent rookie played by Logan Lerman. Tensions surface as "Wardaddy" and "Fury"(the tank that contains his band of brothers) are assigned an impossible mission behind enemy lines.
Viscerally violent and action-packed, the finished product is almost guaranteed to take you to the edge of your seat. Pitt, above, delivers an Oscar-worthy performance in the central role and while attempts to mix the populist and the profound don't always work, it remains a captivating piece.
You don't have to be a fully signed-up believer in fairy tales to properly appreciate director Christian Ditter's eagerly awaited rom-com, Love, Rosie, but it's certainly going to help. Adapted from Cecelia Ahern's novel Where Rainbows End, the title may be changed but the fantasy-fiction template that has worked so successfully previously remains untouched. Think Cinderella for slow learners and you're well on the way to knowing what to expect from this unapologetic froth-fest.
Filmed in Dublin, the story follows the relationship between two childhood friends over the course of a 12-year period. It's clear from the beginning that these two lovebirds, played by Sam Claflin and Lily Collins, are made for each other but destiny seems to have other plans.
When bona fide babe magnet Alex (Claflin) wins a scholarship to study medicine in America it seems the ideal opportunity for these best buddies to bring their respective hopes for happy-ever-after to fruition. Rosie dreams about opening her own hotel one day, and the idea is she would travel with Alex to the US and acquire experience the better to facilitate this fantasy.
An unplanned pregnancy with a randomer puts the kibosh on Rosie's plans, however. The pair stay in touch but their career trajectories diverge dramatically. Alex moves in circles that lead to relationships with babes played by Tamsin Egerton and Suki Whitehead, while Rosie is reduced to relative socio- economic squalor back home, working as a hotel cleaner. Just when you think Cupid is out of arrows with these two, everything changes. Courtesy of a chain of events that would have made Hans Christian Anderson blush, hope springs. Will Cinders - sorry, Rosie - make it to the ball?
No prizes for guessing the answer to that poser. Polished production values and pitch-perfect performances ensure there's much to admire about the overall package but, ultimately, the cartoon characterisation left me nursing a bad case of froth fatigue. Bridesmaids, it ain't. But if you can treat the experience as an extended bubble-bath and remember the whole affair is to depth and substance what Boyzone were to Bob Dylan, you won't go far wrong.
We all know the drill by this stage: the creepy child with an "imaginary friend"; terrorised parents who can't operate light switches; unpleasant forays into the basement/attic. Modern horrors, especially those charting demonic possession, have been poor at breathing new dread into this threadbare template.
But now, 41 years after William Friedkin changed the planet's attitude to pea soup, The Babadook has found a new trick or two. Aussie writer-director Jennifer Kent drew from the early silent horror era, both in aesthetic - washed colours, gothic edges, the titular demon's top-hat-and-cape combo - and in the quirky elements between the frights, macabre laughs which feel oddly antipodean.
In one of the best lead turns you'll see (in any genre) this year, Essie Davis plays Amelia, a young nurse trying to control her seemingly brattish son Samuel (seven-year-old Noah Wiseman). They have a strange relationship, too close at times, distant at others. One day they find a pop-up book about an unpleasant character called the Babadook. Soon after, Amelia starts to reassess the visions Samuel is seeing and the enclosing darkness she experiences. Pillow time.
Cheap scares are refreshingly absent in the pair's brush with hell. It turns out they're not needed when you can drop temperatures effectively by way of precision ratchet clicks in tension, excellent sound design and chilling allegorical nods to the monsters within.
This is Where I Leave You
That's the problem when families try to keep skeletons locked in closets. It's usually only a matter of time before one or two manage to jemmy the lock and come spilling out. That's a fair summation of the circumstances that are visited on the family at the heart of proceedings in director Shawn Levy's star-spangled family drama, This Is Where I Leave You.
So let's meet the Altmans. The sudden death of father Mort has acted as the catalyst for a reunion of this designer middle-class family, and the early scene-setting revolves around dial-a-cliche snapshots of their respective fractured lives. There's central player Judd (Jason Bateman) who's just discovered his wife has been indulging in horizontal extra-conjugal activity with his shock jock boss. Then there is sis Wendy (Tina Fey) whose businessman husband hasn't got any time for her. The situation isn't much more favourable for those who never got away as eldest brother Paul's (Corey Stall) fertility issues are never too far from centre stage. You can throw in the feckless Philip (Adam Driver) to complete the family album.
Family matriarch and yummy grandmummy wannabe Hillary (Jane Fonda) has decided that the family "sits shiva" which means seven days of mourning will be held in memory of Mort. For anyone outside the ranks of the easily pleased, it's likely to turn out to be about six days too long.
There are some good moments but considering the star power on display, the end product has to be deemed underwhelming. The cast all acquit themselves admirably but they're fighting a losing battle with a script that's punchline-poor and too anxious about nailing its politically correct colours to the mast.
I wouldn't say I hated it but my dislike knew no bounds.
The Book of Life
It is often said that children deal better with death than adults do. One explanation is that they simply don’t understand the finality involved, but then perhaps they know more than their grown ups think. The Book of Life describes death as just a single strand in an existence which has many realms, and according to this Mexican story, after life as we know it people pass into the other realms — one is happy and joyous, for the dead who are remembered, and another, altogether sadder, is for people who aren’t.
The film opens with a group of children in a museum transfixed by the lovely curator (Christina Applegate) who tells them the story from the Book of Life. Manolo and Joaquin are two boys in Mexico, both in love with Maria when they are all children. As adults Maria is voiced by Zoe Saldahna, Joaquin by Channing Tatum and Manolo by Diego Luna.
Joaquin is a great hero with a fabulous moustache, Manolo a reluctant bullfighter who wants to be a musician and they both want Maria. Whom will she choose?
They know they live in the shadows of their parents’ expectations, what they don’t know is that they are playthings in a wager between Otherworld overlord Xibalba (Ron Perlman) and La Muerte (Kate del Castillo).
Jorge R. Gutierrez directs his own screenplay (co-written with Douglas Langdale) in this gorgeous animation. Busy, intricate, 3-D and colourful, it should be visually overwhelming but isn’t. The story elements with the different worlds may lose smaller children but the action will keep them entertained.
Despite a soundtrack with covers of Mumford and Sons and Radiohead it feels quite Disney at times, it has humour that will appeal and the setting makes it interesting and unique for a mid-term outing.