Brad’s Status movie review

For inSing

BRAD’S STATUS 

Director : Mike White
Cast : Ben Stiller, Austin Abrams, Jenna Fischer, Michael Sheen, Jemaine Clement, Luke Wilson, Shazi Raja, Luisa Lee, Mike White
Genre : Comedy/Drama
Run Time : 102 mins
Opens : 2 November 2017
Rating : M18

           It’s a familiar, painful feeling: the sense that everyone else has overtaken you, that your peers have gone on to bigger and better things, and you’re left wondering what you’ve done with your life. This might sound depressing, but it’s the basis for a comedy. Well, a comedy-drama.

Brad Sloan (Ben Stiller) is 47, married to Melanie (Jenna Fischer) and runs a non-profit organisation. Every day, he seems reminded of how successful his college classmates are: Craig Fisher (Michael Sheen) went from a job at the White House to being a bestselling author and sought-after speaker, Jason Hatfield (Luke Wilson) is a wealthy hedge fund manager, Billy Wearsiter (Jemaine Clement) sold off his tech company and has retired to Hawaii, and Nick Pasquale (Mike White) is a Hollywood filmmaker who lives in a mansion in Malibu.

Brad takes his 17-year-old son Troy (Austin Abrams) on a tour of potential colleges. Troy, an aspiring musician and composer, hopes to get into Harvard. As Brad attempts to reconnect with his old friends to call in a favour for Troy, he is forced to re-evaluate his disillusionment, discovering that perhaps the grass really isn’t greener on the other side.

Writer-director Mike White makes many pithy observations about the anxiety of feeling one doesn’t measure up. This is not the first movie about a man navigating a midlife crisis, but it’s done in a largely down-to-earth, relatable manner. The debilitating practice of comparing oneself to one’s peers isn’t particularly healthy, but it’s something everyone catches themselves doing. Brad’s Status punctuates the mundanity with dream sequences and flights of fancy, in which Brad imagines how glamorous and exciting his friends’ lives must be, as well as imagining how his own son might end up.

The film makes heavy use of voiceovers, but these sequences feel organic. Hearing Brad’s internal monologue makes audiences feel like they’re in the protagonist’s headspace, understanding how he ticks and becoming intimately familiar with his crippling insecurities. This is a role that fits Stiller to a tee – he isn’t do any forced, over-the-top mugging here, but is tapping on his appeal as a beleaguered everyman. Brad openly wallows in self-pity, and yet, he’s sympathetic because we’ve all been there. There’s a point in the film when Brad is told point blank that the world doesn’t revolve around him, and that his obsessing over his perceived shortcomings is a sign of self-centredness. There are no drastic leaps in his belated journey of self-discovery, and it’s easy for viewers to go along with him on this ride.

Abrams comes off as an ordinary kid, delivering an understated, amusing performance that parents of teenagers are sure to find thoroughly authentic. The relationship between father and son is convincingly developed, and the tensions that arise between the two during the college tour seem natural. Brad is at once anxious that his son achieve greatness, and simultaneously afraid that his Troy will eventually end up more successful than he is. There’s enough awkwardness and sincerity in the relationship for it to work as the film’s emotional core, without things coming off as overly saccharine.

The supporting cast is smartly selected, with Michael Sheen being the standout. Sheen grins his way through the performance, coming across as glib and self-satisfied, but not necessarily a bad person. Brad does a lot of projecting onto his friends, fantasising about how much better their lives are than his, when he has plenty to be thankful for. Shazi Raja is memorable as Troy’s friend Ananya, who winds up challenging Brad’s worldview. Luisa Lee, a violinist whom you might have seen on YouTube, also appears.

Brad’s Status doesn’t make any grand statements, but it is poignant and thought-provoking. It highlights the exhausting pointlessness of feeling like one never has enough and that everyone else has it so much better, without taking time to be grateful and to assess one’s priorities and maintain the personal relationships that truly matter. As a gentle takedown of entitlement, Brad’s Status might sting those who feel indicted by it, but it’s funny and heartfelt.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Passengers

For F*** Magazine

PASSENGERS 

Director : Morten Tyldum
Cast : Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Laurence Fishburne
Genre : Adventure/Sci-Fi
Run Time : 1h 56min
Opens : 22 December 2016
Rating : PG13 (Scenes of Intimacy)

passengers-posterMany of us have pleaded for “five more minutes” when struggling to get out of bed in the morning. Compared to Jim Preston’s (Pratt) predicament in this sci-fi romance, that’s nothing – Jim is awoken 90 years too early. He is among the 5000 passengers on the starship Avalon, bound for the colony planet Homestead II. A malfunction in his hibernation pod results in Jim’s 120-year-long slumber being cut short. Doomed to live out his days in solitude aboard the Avalon and with no way of returning to hibernation, Jim only has the android bartender Arthur (Sheen) for company. That is, until another passenger awakes: Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer from New York. Jim and Aurora fall in love – it’s not like they have too much else to do. However, the hibernation pod malfunction is only the first warning sign as it soon becomes apparent that the state-of-the-art ship is in jeopardy, putting the lives of Jim, Aurora and their fellow voyagers at risk.

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Jon Spaiht’s screenplay for Passengers landed on the 2007 Black List of most-liked unproduced scripts in Hollywood, with Keanu Reeves and Reese Witherspoon once attached to the project. It’s safe to say that Lawrence and Pratt have significantly more star wattage. They were the top-earning female and male movie stars of 2014 respectively, and while making the promotional rounds, the pair has given some entertaining interviews. While there’s a novelty in the premise of a sci-fi film carried mostly by two actors, Passengers ends up feeling too familiar. With Oscar-nominated director Morten Tyldum at the helm, it is solidly assembled, but the romance central to the film borders on the simplistic. There is conflict and a rom-com-style big misunderstanding writ large, but the film relies more on its stars’ charm than its wit.

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Passengers’ gleaming, futuristic aesthetic is pleasing, if not terribly ground-breaking. The corkscrew-like exterior of the Avalon is a departure from the traditional bulky star cruisers from most sci-fi media, but the interiors conform to expectations of Apple-esque sleekness. The Avalon is meant to be a space-borne luxury cruise liner, with the passengers spending the last four months before arrival to Homestead II enjoying its plush surrounds. This is one of several ways in which Passengers resembles WALL-E. Production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas, known for his work on Inception and Interstellar, does some beautiful work here and is successful in making the Avalon seem like an awesome place to take a vacation. Infinity pools have got nothing on infinity-and-beyond-pools.

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Both Lawrence and Pratt are interesting case studies in stardom. It’s affected the former more than the latter so far, but there are large swathes of moviegoers who find themselves put off by a perceived sense of ‘trying too hard’ projected by both actors. Lawrence has spoken up about pay inequality after being paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle, and secured a $20 million salary for Passengers – $8 million more than Pratt, despite Pratt having more screen time. Behind the scenes politics aside, they do make for perfectly-matched romantic leads, and their immense chemistry helps the film overcome some contrived moments of character development. Rodrigo Prieto’s cinematography also makes them both look as glamorous as ever.

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Michael Sheen’s Arthur the android bartender deliberately invokes Lloyd, the ghostly bartender in The Shining. The character is a clever creation, Arthur’s polite friendliness belying an unsettling uncanny valley vibe. Despite its fantastical setting, the film’s depiction of loneliness and despair resulting from isolation and the desire for meaningful companionship is relatable, if not exactly profound.

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Thomas Newman’s score is frequently guilty of being too obvious and intrusive, loudly dictating what the audience should feel rather than hinting at it. It’s a bit of a shame, given how many of Newman’s scores have been lyrical and moving.

The posters for Passengers feature the ominous tagline “there’s a reason they woke up”. This reviewer was hoping for a mind-bending conclusion and an audacious reveal of a massive conspiracy that Jim and Aurora get caught up in. There are flashes of wit in Spaiht’s screenplay – why yes, Sleeping Beauty’s real name is Aurora – but when it is explained why Jim’s hibernation pod opened early, this reviewer was disappointed. Passengers promised a marriage of fiendishly clever sci-fi with a tearjerker romance, but only takes audiences partway to that destination.

Summary: There was never any doubt that Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt would work wonderfully off each other, but past its sci-fi context, it’s a bit of a let-down that Passengers is as straightforward as it is.

RATING: 3.5 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

 

Nocturnal Animals

For F*** Magazine

NOCTURNAL ANIMALS 

Director : Tom Ford
Cast : Amy Adams, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Shannon, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Isla Fisher, Ellie Bamber, Armie Hammer, Laura Linney, Michael Sheen, Andrea Riseborough
Genre : Drama
Run Time : 1h 57min
Opens : 1 December 2016
Rating : M18 (Nudity)

nocturnal-animals-posterTom Ford shows off his night moves in his second directorial effort, a neo-noir psychological thriller. Susan Morrow (Adams) is a wealthy L.A. art gallery owner, whose relationship with her second husband Hutton (Armie) has soured. Susan receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward Sheffield (Gyllenhaal), titled ‘Nocturnal Animals’ after Edward’s nickname for Susan and dedicated to her. The novel centres on Tony Hastings (also Gyllenhaal), a mild-mannered man whose wife Laura (Fisher) and daughter India (Bamber) are abducted after a violent encounter with local ruffians during a road trip through Texas. Detective Bobby Andes (Shannon) helps Tony track down the culprit, handyman Ray Marcus (Taylor-Johnson), in the hopes of finding Laura and India. The brutality and rawness of the story shocks Susan, who reflects on the circumstances that led to the dissolution of her marriage with Edward. With Edward back in town and Hutton away on business, old wounds are reopened as Susan plans to meet with Edward for the first time in years.

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Nocturnal Animals is based on Austin Wright’s 1993 novel Tony and Susan. In addition to directing, Ford adapted the novel for the screen and produced the movie, meaning that his stamp is all over the film. Ford’s directorial debut A Single Man was critically acclaimed and netted star Colin Firth and Oscar nomination. Critics and audiences were curious to see what Ford would follow the period piece with. While it is reductive to say that Nocturnal Animals is a case of “style over substance”, that’s essentially true. Ford has a distinct vision, but much of the imagery can’t help but come off as pretentious. We realise we’ve dug ourselves a hole by trucking out the ‘p’ word, but bear with us. Nocturnal Animals is at once subtle and overwrought, and we have a feeling that this was intentional. Ford appears to enjoy toying with the form and the ‘story within a story’ structure, but it’s difficult to get at what the film really is about.

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Two stories sit side-by-side and gradually intertwine. The ‘real world’ is cold and manicured, while the world of the novel is earthy, gritty and raw. The transitions which jolt us out of the book’s narrative and back into Susan’s reality are effective, and there are moments of intensity which reel the viewer in. However, the larger approach seems designed to hold the audience at arm’s length, and there’s the sense that Ford is playing a game of pushing us away then pulling us close as he pleases. Individually and stripped of the atmospherics provided by Seamus McGarvey’s cinematography, neither of the two stories is all that riveting. There’s some satisfaction to be derived in seeing how they fit together, but one can almost feel Ford dancing about behind the camera, shouting “isn’t this all very artsy? Isn’t that delightful?”

As Nocturnal Animals parcels out information about Susan and Edward’s marriage, there are heart-rending scenes and the film approaches being relatable. In a flashback, Susan’s obnoxious mother Anne (Linney) haughtily cautions against marrying Edward. Anne warns her daughter that as a writer, Edward won’t be able to make a stable living, and the qualities she’s drawn to will soon be the things she hates most about him. This is a scene straight out of this reviewer’s nightmares. The film conveys the tumult of the creative process, how difficult it is to make a living as an artist and the price one has to pay for falling in love with a creative type. Its portrayal of heartbreak rings true, but this is buried beneath layers of posturing and overblown metaphors.

The performances contain glimmers of shattering power, but many scenes are also stilted and over-directed. Adams has proven herself to be an actress of considerable depth, getting across the war that roils within Susan without resorting to histrionics. Clad in Arianne Phillips-designed costumes, Adams is the picture of glamour – this is, of course, a façade.

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Gyllenhaal plays both Edward and the author’s surrogate within his novel, Tony. The violent revenge tale set against the dusty, desolate west Texas landscape is reminiscent of True Detective or Justified, and Gyllenhaal does enough to differentiate Edward and Tony. Tony is the physical manifestation of Edward’s angst, a vehicle for the author’s catharsis. It’s a moving turn from Gyllenhaal, but it can also be perceived as a romanticising of the “tortured artist” archetype.

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Shannon is at his best when he gets to be nuanced, since he is often typecast as blustery villains. Bob Andes is the archetypical crusty small-town sheriff helping the stranded outsider, a southern-fried seeker of justice. Shannon brings what could have been a cartoon character to three-dimensional life. In the meantime, Taylor-Johnson’s Ray is equal parts pathetic and menacing, though he does have trouble with the accent.

The aloof, handsome and ultimately unfaithful husband, Hammer’s Hutton Morrow is a walking plot device. Linney, Andrea Riseborough, Michael Sheen and Jena Malone all show up for one scene each, filling out Susan’s social and professional circle. Ford has some fun in casting with a metafictional eye – Adams and Fisher are often called looklikes, and Fisher plays Adams’ surrogate in the story-in-a-story. In Tony and Susan, Tony and Laura’s daughter was named Helen. In the film, Helen is renamed ‘India’. Susan’s adult daughter Samantha is played by India Menuez. It was fun tid-bit to discover.

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Like the contemporary art that fills Susan’s gallery, some will laud Nocturnal Animals as deep and wise, while others will dismiss it as showy and hollow. The striking visuals and impactful vignettes make this worth a look, but the film’s refusal to arrive at a point and its flights of arthouse fancy are often alienating.

Summary: If you’re prone to using “artsy-fartsy” as a dismissive term, Tom Ford’s sophomore work as a filmmaker will leave you cold. However, there are moving performances and heart-rending statements about love and art that resonate.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars

Jedd Jong

Kill The Messenger

For F*** Magazine

KILL THE MESSENGER

Director : Michael Cuesta
Cast : Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Paz Vega, Michael Sheen, Ray Liotta, Andy García
Genre : Biography/Crime/Drama
Rating : NC-16 (Some Drug Use And Coarse Language) 
Run time: 112 mins
The archetype of the “intrepid reporter” has always had its allure and while we’re gripped by thrilling stories of journalists who will chase a story at any cost, it’s easy to forget that in real life, situations like this don’t often end well. It is 1996 and Gary Webb (Renner) is a reporter for the San Jose Mercury News who uncovers a shocking connection between the CIA and drug-runners in Nicaragua. He writes “Dark Alliance”, a three-part exposé for the newspaper that grabs the nation’s attention. The African-American community in particular is angered by the possibility that the CIA intentionally introduced crack cocaine into their communities. Soon, the scrutiny that comes from life in the spotlight proves to be more than Webb, his wife Susan (DeWitt) and their three children can take as he feels his life is in danger.

            Kill the Messenger is adapted from Nick Schou’s book Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack-cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb as well as Webb’s own Dark Alliance: The CIA, the Contras, and the Crack Cocaine Explosion, an expansion of his articles. Like other conspiracy thrillers that examine the cost of uncovering the truth, Kill the Messenger is driven by a righteous indignation and has the David and Goliath aspect of a reporter from a small local newspaper going up against the CIA. Director Michael Cuesta has dealt with similar subject matter directing episodes of the TV series Homeland. There is a sense that he is striving not to over-sensationalise the actual events that took place but perhaps as result of this, the second half of the film lacks the propulsive urgency promised in the first half.

            The film places a fair amount of focus on Webb’s family life and how his pursuit of the truth behind the CIA’s alleged partnership with the Contras in Central America affected them. We see his exuberance slowly fade as he slides towards a meltdown as much of the journalism community turns against him and the big boys at the L.A. Times and the Washington Post become ravenously envious of his scoop. It feels as if a good chunk of what made the real-life case so compelling has been omitted from the film. Ideally, a thriller should pull one in deeper and deeper as it progresses, but Kill the Messenger hits a disappointing plateau midway through.

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            Director Cuesta claims that in this film, Jeremy Renner delivers his best performance since The Hurt Locker and he’s pretty much right. Renner can’t quite seem to attain A-list action hero status despite appearing a number of popcorn movies over the last few years and perhaps projects in this vein are what he should be pursuing. There’s a charisma and hunger as well as a dash of idealism that Renner doesn’t overplay and it is truly crushing when we see things start to collapse before Webb’s eyes. The supporting cast is studded with semi-recognizable-to-pretty-famous faces including Oliver Platt, Ray Liotta, Tim Blake Nelson, Michael Sheen and Andy García. Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Rosemarie DeWitt, as Webb’s editor and wife respectively, are especially convincing and their performances contribute to Kill the Messenger’s credibility as an account of actual events.

            Kill the Messenger brings an event and a personal story that has been largely forgotten by the public back to the forefront. Gary Webb died in 2004 from being shot twice in the head; this was ruled a suicide. There are still lessons to be learnt from Webb’s story, particularly for those interested in investigative journalism. While Kill the Messenger is admirable in how it doesn’t turn the whole thing into an overblown melodrama, it slides a little in the opposite direction, rendering its subject matter not quite as compellingly as it could have.

SUMMARY: While Jeremy Renner puts in an excellent performance, Kill the Messenger doesn’t dig deep enough into its subject matter and falls short of being a searing account of journalist Gary Webb’s ordeal.

RATING: 3 out of 5 Stars
Jedd Jong