The Big Short ****

the-big-short

Let me tell you about the 2008 banking crisis… Listening. It all starts with the misselling of dodgy US subprime mortgages… Switching off. It’s what the likes of informative 2010 documentary Inside Job, narrated by Matt Damon, tried to do – and failed for the mass audience. So unless you have one iota of curiosity in the technicalities of the financial crisis – or are just plain livid at banker power, even the lure of a A-lister storyteller could not make you take your cinema seat at the time.

However, writer-director Adam McKay – the other half of the Ferrell-McKay writing machine behind such films as Anchorman and Talladega Nights – may have found a way to explain the banking blurb and its absurd workings with super-slick and wickedly funny dramedy The Big Short, complete with narrator who ‘reads/answers your inner thoughts’. McKay enlists the help of other Hollywood big hitters Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and even Brad Pitt to portray real-life city folk who cashed in on the foreseeable Armageddon for the US economy.

After eccentric ex-physician turned hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale) predicts the US housing market’s bubble will burst when subprime lending goes sour, he starts betting against the market with the big banks. They think Burry is mad and are only too happy to accept his proposal, as the mortgage market has always been a sure thing.

Deutsche Bank’s Jared Vennett (Gosling) gets wind of Burry’s crackpot idea, and strikes a deal with traders from FrontPoint Partners, led by Mark Baum (Carell), an idealist who is fed up with the corruption in the banking sector. Meanwhile, a chance find in an investment bank lobby puts novice investors Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) and Charlie Geller (John Magaro) on the scent too, but they need the help of ‘zen’ ex-trader Ben Rickert (Pitt) to make a bid. All the players now have to do is wait for the market to fall.

The financial jargon is made simpler by the distraction of actor Margot Robbie sipping champers in a bubble bath while explaining what derivatives are, while TV chef Anthony Bourdain uses cooking parallels to explain traders ‘cooking the books’. The end result is still slightly long in areas – enough to make you begin to drift, until someone says or does something outrageous to bring you back on track. The latter doesn’t take that long either. Just like its anti-heroes (those going ‘short’), the film takes no prisoners as it thunders along with the momentum – and banter – escalating as the heat is turned up. The Big Short is aimed at The Wolf on Wall Street fan for both sheer decadence and outright worshipping of greed.

Bale, Carell and Gosling each play very different Wall Street men with aplomb. The most surprising, against-type is Carell as highly stressed, socially-inept basket case Baum who likes to shout at people, wherever and whenever. Bale is a triumph as equally antisocial hedge fund manager Burry, a victim of his own brilliance. In fact, all in focus here, from Wall Street to ex-college bright kids Shipley and Geller, don’t have it easy, creating albatrosses of mounting debt around their necks until ‘pay day’ arrives. As they secretly sweat, it’s fascinating to witness how the different personalities cope in their own ways with one common goal ever in sight: money.

The sleaziest rogue resembling a DiCaprio-Belfort character is Gosling’s suave but unscrupulous banker Vennett. Although slippery, ironically, he’s Baum’s genie in the end, granting his team’s wishes, even when they wish they could re-cork the bottle. However, Vennett is far from the hero of the hour either. In fact you don’t actually like any of them, but you can’t help admire their audacity and secretly revel in their power to attack the banks’ collective arrogance. It’s like backing the better of two evils.

The Big Short enlightens, appalls and thrills in equal measure. It does rely on a modicum of interest in the banking crisis and its causes and effects, but it has far more opportunity to grab an audience’s imagination with the all-star cast it delivers, the financial lingo translated, and the likes of The Wolf on Wall Street (2013) paving the way to our collective outrage/titillation. Banking on screen never had it so easy in the last few years.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2014: Fury ****

Fury-Movie

War makes for a powerful cinematic theme. It’s the backdrop for many a personal struggle. End of Watch (2012) writer-director David Ayer’s Fury is no exception. While about the physical horrors of combat, it’s also a sobering coming-of-age drama, told through the eyes of a new tank recruit. It also addresses the psychological effect on the battle-hardened men who have begrudgingly made their Sherman tank their ‘home’.

In fact, that’s exactly how the metal monstrosity feels – a place of both danger and perverse sanctuary. Ayer juxtaposes the confines of the tank’s interior with the outer world that’s equally constraining, set behind enemy lines in Germany. It’s a very different take on WWII than we’re used to seeing.

It’s April 1945, a few months before WWII ends, and as the Allies make their final push into Nazi Germany, a US tank commanded by experienced and hardened army sergeant Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt who is also exec producer on the film) is central to securing the route along the way.

Tragically, Wardaddy has recently lost one of his five-man crew, but the Allies need his and his men’s help, so send rookie Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman) to join them, totally unprepared for tank life or the immediate horrors of war. Ellison soon learns the hard way, toughening his resolve. The final confrontation sees the crew out-numbered and out-gunned with the enemy marching towards them.

You can really taste the blood, sweat, dirt and primal fear within the tank as Ayer vividly recreates the unimaginably cramp conditions – complete with pans across the interior’s ‘décor’. It’s certainly a unique dimension, but one Ayer is no stranger to with his leads riding around in a patrol car in the 2012 film. He is expert at revealing the interpersonal moments between characters, the camaraderie, before the action kicks in.

In the action stakes, Fury is a triumph. One of the most exhilarating scenes is a tank-to-tank standoff in a field that ramps up the tension to breaking point. In others, Ayer sets out to shock with cold, hard realism – no character is safe, it seems, and it becomes unclear as to whether anyone will be left standing to tell the tale. On the contrary, the resultant ending seems a little incredulous and very Hollywood-stylised ­– probably to win over American audiences, although Team Wardaddy should have heroically done that already without much effort. That said the parting post-battle aerial shot of the fallout mitigates any thoughts of stylisation.

The casting is exemplary. Pitt is his usual charismatic self, though as Wardaddy who has faced many demons, he switches from being deplorable and apathetic to protector and trusted mentor, as he witnesses elements of his former self in the terrified Ellison. So, still the good guy but he has to work at keeping the balance more here.

Lerman (of Percy Jackson fame) has clearly moved on from teen productions, making a significant impression in this serious role. However, the standout performance on the night – possibly career reinvigorating – goes to Transformers’ Shia LaBeouf as the faith-wavering Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan, one of Wardaddy’s loyal team members. LaBeouf redefines himself in this, playing a damaged character clinging to humanity and civility. It’s the most powerful performance of the lot, supported by some excellent turns from Michael Peña (of End of Watch fame) and Jon Bernthal as the rest of the motley tank crew.

Ayer excels at character pieces, and Fury is such, first and foremost. It’s compelling in every sense, a tank western to appeal to all those into final shoot-outs. This is also Pitt, grittier than Lt. Aldo Raine, just pure damaged goods playing out his own kind of rough justice, questionable even as survival tactics. Fury also serves as a stark reminder of the graphic horror of WWII – as Ayer puts us right in the middle of it, when the usual American portrayal of this period is very much romanticised. That’s the big whammy setting it apart from its wartime peers.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Counsellor ***

It’s hard to fathom the big picture of the anticipated Ridley Scott-Cormac McCarthy collaboration, The Counsellor, apart from the obvious that greed is bad news, as is being embroiled in the drugs trade at any level. As a thriller, it’s stuffed with well-intentioned but wordy statements uttered by a crowd-pulling cast looking rather grand, including Michael Fassbender, Brad Pitt, Javier Bardem, Cameron Diaz and Penélope Cruz, in rather flash places (on the whole). However, the character ambiguity is utterly frustrating. Still, The Counsellor will be remembered for one car fetish scene, in particular.

The Counsellor (Fassbender), soon to be married to Laura (Cruz), gets more and more involved in the dangerous world of drug trafficking, even though he is warned about the fatal consequences by other key players.

This brief synopsis again highlights the ambiguity of the whole affair: None of the characters are what they seem, even the greedy Counsellor. We have no idea what makes the lawyer tick, except his woman and his money, and no gauge as to where our protagonist has come from to be in the mess he’s in now. This is both brilliantly realised and the film’s Achilles heel. Fassbender does the best he can as a broke man listening to one piece of advice – or muttering – after another. The fact remains that all the characters feel closed off, with no amount of monologues helping proceedings to unlock their personalities. The only one vaguely ‘open’ to interpretation is Bardem’s flamboyant drugs courier and businessman Reiner, with the Spaniard a tonic to watch.

Diaz as the mirror-taloned Malkina – note a new fashion craze after this – starts off rather promising and alluringly dangerous in a refreshing femme fatale role for the bubbly actress. However, as baffling as Malkina’s true identity actually is, this character begins playing to type by the end and we are still none-the-wiser. Diaz is nevertheless memorable as the Grace Jones-lookalike and THAT car scene will forever associate Diaz’s lady parts to a catfish, further cementing this as a milestone role for the actress.

That said the rest of the film is heavy on style with a strong odour of sexuality, perforated by moments of evil bloody-mindedness and gruesomeness. In all fairness, once you’ve been overstuffed on these superficialities, The Counsellor probably needs a second viewing to grab anything of significance to what is said in novelist McCarthy’s rather clunky script – if you have the patience (and the funds). The Coen Brothers’ scriptwriting expertise is sadly missed here after adapting McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.

And that’s the problem; in trying to be too worthy and mysterious, in painting a menacing, faceless picture of the drugs trade and its collaborators, The Counsellor grabs then loses our attention. Maybe that’s best, in that there is detail to be mulled over but it’s mainly a smokescreen for what seems to be a rather lacking plot, however much you want it to be more.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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World War Z ***

Brad Pitt tries his hand at some zombie dodging in Quantum of Solace director Marc Foster’s new latter-day nightmare, World War Z. Just the title alone strikes fear into our hearts of global wipe-out, least an epidemic that could kill off mankind through some failing of our own making. It’s this that initially sets the chills for this epic, followed by Pitt as former UN investigator Gerry Lane witnessing the first chilling and swift transformation of humans into zombies in the midst of NYC’s rush hour. Naturally, he has his family to save before the rest of the planet – you get the drift thereafter.

The plot is such that retired Lane is brought back (kicking and screaming) into the fore to help investigate the root cause of the rapid zombie transformation that is spreading like wildfire across the global. The chase ends in Wales (the location of W.H.O. HQ) where Lane is on the trail of a possible deterrent…

Let’s face it, it’s Pitt, hubby of Jolie and real-life ambassador of various global causes, so stretching the imagination to picture him in this role is hardly an issue. Indeed, dressed in globetrotting, frontline journo attire, he depicts a humble picture full of strength and purpose, as well as a softer side of a man who cares. As it’s Pitt, his name alone will seal the deal at the cinema. The second thing to guarantee intrigue is just how much attention Foster has paid to his special effects in this countlessly re-written final product; the swarm-like the zombies multiplying, in particular, like some video game on speed. There is a fantastic shot of the mounting Undead trying to break into Israel’s Holy Land, followed by a breakdown of the defences that sticks in the mind long after viewing.

The rest feels rather like other apocalyptic action dramas we’ve seen before, from Contagion to Perfect Sense to Zombieland itself (minus the dark humour). It seems downtown NYC is always hit first with flying debris that always ‘just’ misses our fleeing hero and family. Plus there’s the regulation offshore Naval vessel housing the best technology can offer, as well as sanctuary for top brass, all kitted out ready (having been tipped off from the start). Still, with elements copied straight out of other dramas, there are some nice one-to-one moments of action between Pitt and others in the calmer moments between zombie feasting, where Pitt can demonstrate Lane’s humanitarian nature and family-man caring side.

All Lane’s tireless zombie dodging that leads him around the world (including Korea etc) ends in Wales (of all places). The answer to the Earth’s human demise lies in Pitt as Lane creeping around laboratories trying not to disturb an (unintentionally) hilarious bunch of brain-dead scientists gumming the windows. It’s not so much terrifying but does provide a few thrilling moments and jumps, complete with Malcolm Tucker aka actor Peter Capaldi biting his nails as he watches the ‘action’ unfold. The ending is as clichéd as they come but is order restored? It doesn’t really matter, as long as Pitt wins the day (for now).

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Killing Them Softly ****

Brad Pitt reunites again with writer-director Andrew Dominik (The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) to adapt George V. Higgins’s novel, Cogan’s Trade for the big screen. It’s another successful outcome, entitled Killing Them Softly – referring to hits by strangers on strangers in the underworld. As Cogan, Pitt embodies his standard cool and articulate criminal stance once more, a character type that snugly fits him like a glove, trying to negotiate the present situation with an alluring presence of menace. He also has a highly impressive and engrossing ensemble cast to work opposite in James Gandolfini, Richard Jenkins, Ray Liotta, Vincent Curatola and Scoot McNairy.

In hard economic times, even the criminal world is struggling to make decent money. Johnny Amato (Curatola) tasks petty criminal Frankie (McNairy) to find a partner to do over a high-stakes card game run by Markie Trattman (Liotta), protected by the Mob. Frankie turns to erratic, ‘entrepreneurial’ addict Russell (Ben Mendelsohn) to help out, and surprisingly, the job goes well. With Trattman already on thin ice with the bosses for another raid, the finger is automatically pointed at him for causing the local criminal economy to collapse. Jackie Cogan (Pitt), an enforcer, is hired by the mysterious Driver (Jenkins) to track down who is to blame and restore order, calling on old-school hit men like Mickey (Gandolfini) to help out.

Killing Them Softly is a totally enthralling verbal conquest from the word go, complete with some very fine acting from all involved. There is a calculated calmness and tension to every heavily dialogued scene; every word is absorbed, even though the sense of urgency and immediate threat looms, and at times, brilliantly intercepted by historical newsreel moments of financial gloom and political lobbying. This gives the whole piece a unique feel to the run-of-the-mill crime drama, as each character plays the money game as best as they can within a timely framework.

Mob-genre stalwarts Gandolfini and Liotta take the infamous images that have personified their individual careers to play pitiful shadows of their former glory days in parts that feel like ‘end of era’ roles. Gandolfini is magnificent as incompetent, hard-drinking and womanising Mickey in all his scenes opposite charismatic Pitt as Cogan. There is a surprising sense of empathy felt for the old dog, even though his character is despicable in every way. Liotta as Trattman is the fall guy, trying to earn a dishonest living but choosing the wrong profession for a quiet life. Again, he is a miserable husk of a gangster in this, which casts a commiserative gloom over their parts of the tale, as well as reflecting the miserable demise of dead old wood in the criminal fraternity.

As the ‘newcomers’ cutting their teeth, McNairy as Frankie and Mendelsohn as Russell display a wonderful double act in this, certainly making their mark, with Mendelsohn stealing the scene each time. They portray the naivety and ‘innocence’ of the bottom-rung of the industry, living on borrowed time but grabbing as much profit from the moment in the hope that they survive and prosper. As with each character, Cogan is the judge and jury as to their fate, and it’s intoxicating viewing watching the experienced player toy with his inexperienced prey, especially opposite Frankie. Again, the waiting game is a very big part of Dominik’s film, favouring word power over action until completely necessary.

This cerebral crime offering portrays victims not winners, as in other films in the genre. The only winner is capitalism, which gleefully presides over the lot. Dominik’s film with its strong cast is very topical indeed, almost depressing, as it is highly entertaining to watch. Pitt is at his very best too. Although each scene’s intention is set up by Cogan as the adjudicator, the character opposite him is given the space to hang himself in a fascinating way that by the time any violence rears its ugly head, the main damage is done. For fans of the crime-gangster genres, it’s a must-see in acting prowess.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Happy Feet Two (3D) ***

More penguins, more dancing set-pieces is what Happy Feet writer-director George Miller gives us again, probably because they make for vibrant family entertainment. Short of the penguin musical, the second film that had some huge boots to fill after the Award-winning first is rather a colourful, sing-song whirl of incoherent plot-lines and snatched, throwaway character comments, even if it does spell mega cute in places.

In Happy Feet Two, toe-tapping penguin Mumble (voiced by Elijah Wood) is all grown up with a young, incredibly shy son called Erik (voiced by Ava Acres) who has two left flippers and can’t join in with the Emperors’ routines. Like father, like son, Erik struggles to fit into this world, and goes off to find Antarctic pastures new with friends Atticus (child rapper Lil P-Nut, Benjamin Flores Jr.) and Bo (Meibh Campbell).

They discover the Adélie penguins, where other ‘misfit’ pal Ramon (Robin Williams) comes from. Their group worships Sven (Hank Azaria), a puffin who can fly, and who Erik is inspired by. Meanwhile, Mumble goes off in search of his son, and after he leaves, an iceberg breaks up, trapping the Emperor colony. These results in meeting and bringing new species onboard and mounting a mammoth rescue. Oh, and there are some krill in the water’s depths called Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon) who decide to be adventurous one day, separating them from their kind and finding waters new…

Four separate writers, means four inputs into this story, including Miller again, which is obvious in terms of the convoluted plot. It’s as though Miller, Gary Eck, Warren Coleman and Paul Livingston pigheadedly opted to get their individual tastes in this to keep everyone happy. In fact the funniest parts – and ones that run as a separate story it seems – are the krill episodes, especially the banter between Pitt and Damon. You do expect the writers to join up the dots in the end to give their separate adventure some purpose, but they don’t. The krill merely live in parallel below the ice surface. Still, as well as the witty repartee, these parts of the film are an excuse for some of the most electric animation on offer.

Apart from the krill, comedy heavyweights Williams and Azaria do not disappoint in trying to inject some much-needed personality into their individual characters to save this film from hinging from one musical set-piece to another. The rest of it is fairly unmemorable long after the event, to be honest. The only astonishing penguin moment is when Erik finds his true talent and massive voice, breaking into a startling operatic rendition, which is quite unexpected and quite magnificent.

The other problem film Two has is all the settings feel like one, so even when the adventure goes off course in another direction there is no visual separation, expect miles of while snow and waddling penguin bodies – the krill moments come as welcome relief. This is an issue – and caused some restlessness among younger viewers – when you have introduced too many characters.

That said the values and morals are the same inspiring and honourable ones, and there are no darker elements in this, unlike other animations in recent years, making it trustworthy and solid family entertainment. Rocker Pink is also a penguin in this – Erik’s mother, Gloria, adding to its music medley, as well as Queen classics, We Are The Champions and Under Pressure, for older members of the audience to nod along to. What Happy Feet Two lacks in robust narrative is made up in song and dance, which provides the thrills – as well as the stars of the hour, the krills.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Moneyball ****

At first glance, Moneyball will ignite interest among Brad Pitt fans. On second glance, it will turn some away because of its baseball subject matter. Sports films are an acquired taste and will never fully convert those who are not into the sport in question. Therefore, as one of the latter, Moneyball is a real eye opener, and not because it suddenly stirs a dormant interest in the sport, but because the baseball could be argued as being the parallel theme to the overriding one of the ‘little guy’ taking on and shaking up the system from within. In this sense, there is something to be gained from it.

It’s based on the true story of Billy Beane (Pitt), the once would-be baseball superstar who still hurts from his failure to live up to expectations on the field and turns to baseball management. It’s nearly the start of 2002 season, and Billy’s small-market Oakland Athletics (the A’s) have lost their star players to the bigger, wealthier clubs. Billy must rebuild the team and compete on a third of the payroll. He discovers and hires whizzkid, Yale-educated economist Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) who believes in Bill James’ computer-driven statistical analysis to win games, previously ignored by the baseball establishment. Together they challenge the old baseball guard by installing overlooked or dismissed baseball players, based on a combination of key skills, and begin winning several games in a row.

Moneyball plays out much like any other baseball film but with a couple of narrative twists. Even though you don’t necessarily need to know anything about baseball, naturally, Moneyball will have a greater impact on someone who does possess the historical and factual elements of the game. It’s essentially an inspirational David verses Goliath film, a topical corporate shakedown story that anyone can relate to in this day and age, and it’s all down to the Pitt-Hill chemistry that keeps you engaged.

As co-producer and star, Pitt takes on by far his biggest film challenge yet with Beane and shaping this story to appeal to a wide-ranging audience. He is as courageous as his dynamic and daring character that’s the film’s driving tour de force. Pitt is strikingly reminiscent of a younger Redford and his gutsy turn in the 1984 baseball film, The Natural. Everything really hinges on Beane’s actions and reactions that keep things scintillating to watch, with Hill as Brand as the ‘voice of reason’ in the corner in a straighter stance, much like his character Cyrus in the 2010 film. In fact, Hill again demonstrates that taking on the straighter-laced roles where he can diffuse the tense with intelligent, deadpan humour input is his true acting forte.

Thankfully, Pitt’s infectious energy transcends the wordy baseball mumbo jumbo, and the passion that all involved feels for the game shines through. Part of this is the sense that both you and the characters are venturing into the unknown and want to see change in an unbalanced system. The script glosses over the ones and zeros and endless charts of the analysis and manages to make a coherent narrative out of Michael Lewis’ complex book “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game”. Again, this is down to the winning onscreen team of Pitt and Hill, but more so because of award-winning The Social Network writer Aaron Sorkin being part of the scriptwriting team.

Capote director Bennett Miller turns to his muse, Philip Seymour Hoffman, to portray the stubborn face of the old system by casting the actor as Art Howe, the A’s team coach. Although against the statistical invasion of the game, Howe is delivered a chance to know what it feels like to succeed against all adversity, with the A’s winning 20 games in a row, which broke an actual AL record in 2002. As an underdog himself with little say in his team’s makeup, Howe begins to appreciate how the ‘misfit toys’ – as the players are called – can have their glory, and it’s spiritually uplifting to watch.

Thankfully, Miller does not take the conventional, backslapping route at the end, and throws up a few satisfying surprises where his lead character is involved. Sadly, the system wins, which admittedly does have the sense of defeated purpose. However, Moneyball has to be taken as one of those films where the journey is more important than the end result, and it’s one of guts, determination and sporadic humour. Full credit to Pitt, too, for creating an ingenious and unorthodox career-defining role for himself at this stage in his varied career.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Tree of Life ***

Film-maker Terrence Malick is an enigma, much like his films. With secrecy and speculation surrounding his latest ‘creation’ at Cannes this year, the industry prepared itself to be in awe of another Malick abstraction. And it didn’t disappoint Robert De Niro and jury, as The Tree of Lifewon the coveted Palme d’Or.

Opening with a quotation from the Book of Job, when God asks, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation … “, the story is an impressionistic one that refers to the concept of a multi-branched tree, where the idea that all areas of life (theology, philosophy, mythology etc) are interconnected. The tree also acts as a metaphor for the human spirit. The story then follows the origins of life and its creation and meaning through the experiences of one 1950s Texan family – headed by strict patriarch Mr O’Brien (Brad Pitt) – that suffers a tragic personal loss in the process. In the present day, one of the three sons, Jack (Sean Penn), still struggles to come to terms with his loss and his father’s influence on his character.

The Tree of Life is yet another meticulously crafted and richly depicted Malick signature piece, full of the wonders of nature, the power of lone narration and emotive music, and fond memories of yesteryear. However, this time, it feels like the elusive film-maker has become more indulgent than before, using less subtle musical emphasis and being almost subversively disparaging to those who embrace and take comfort in nostalgia, as he allows his fragile screen family life to unravel and never reach a comforting conclusion.

There is a lot of extravagant visual padding, which Malick fans will embrace, such as the celestial lights hinting at a greater being and our maker (look closely at the very last illuminated image, in particular), and footage of the earth ‘being born’ and evolving. There are even spurious dinosaur scenes, like something from BBC’s Walking With Dinosaurs that just need an Attenborough narration over them to make them complete. However, non-Malick aficionados may take umbrage at all this lavishness, seemingly superfluous nature-cosmos trail, expecting more screen time for their buck with the film’s top-billed names, Pitt and Penn.

It is the family dynamics that are the main crux and interest of the whole evolutionary story of how children copy habits from their elders and form personalities through a range of influences, almost pre-conditioned by the time they’ve even had a stab at independence in the adult world. It’s this head-spin – triggered by bad news – that sends Penn’s character Jack into near meltdown, allowing Malick to visualize this with some stunningly constructed and contorted shots, before Jack is ‘comforted’ by a higher presence. However, moving backwards and forwards in time gets very confusing, and merely emphasizes how overly long the film is – even allowing for pause for thought and time occurrences.

In terms of the acting, Pitt, Penn and the rest of the cast, including highly impressive newcomer Hunter McCracken as a young Jack are top of their class, as though Malick has painstakingly given them as much guidance and encouragement to draw the best out of them. McCracken is reminiscent of a young River Phoenix as his performance echoes scenes like those in the iconic, 1986 coming-of-age drama, Stand By Me. As in that film, there is a timeless, dreamy quality at moments, when we try to pointlessly slow down the rapid loss of youth, innocence and adventure.

Very much ‘poetic art-house meets mainstream’, The Tree of Life moves in and out of time and space to prove how small we are in the greater universe, how our predisposition is either governed by ‘nature’ (hardwired, like Jack and his father) or by ‘grace’ (carefree and creative, like Jack’s brother). It’s the connections between our vulnerable mindset and the universe’s many elements that make for compelling post-debate, but are portrayed by an almost perfectionist cinematic artist, whose vision is certainly an acquired taste.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Megamind – 5*

Everybody loves a superhero, especially one who is not so ‘super’ at what they do, and one that has flaws we can relate to. Meet Megamind, a large, blue-headed klutz who just wants to be loved and accepted, which is what makes him so endearing from the word go.

Megamind is the most brilliant super-villain the world has ever known, but is also the most unsuccessful, propelled to Earth in a Superman fashion, after the demise of his own planet. Over the years he tries to conquer Metro City, but fails, thanks to his nemesis, the perfect and gallant caped crusader, Metro Man. Then one day, Megamind succeeds, but far from feeling elated, the criminal mastermind realises his game and purpose is over with no adversary to tackle. That is, until a new villain threatens Metro City, and Megamind finds himself in the unusual position of the people’s hero who gets the girl. Yes, it’s textbook stuff, but it’s the execution that makes this animation of the same name stand out from the chaff of 3D offerings of late.

Megamind is a sharp, vibrant and nutty example of why DreamWorks is light years ahead in 3D-animated storytelling. It’s super energetic super-villainy at its finest that delivers a mega-lovable, oddball rogue for all ages, within a solid, good-verses-evil tale that tugs on the nostalgic strings. It also delivers just the right balance of endless imagination and adult humour that won’t bore the kids, even if it does provoke the odd groan at times.

It’s also a true 3D experience, with no shadowing or unnecessary indulgence, but effects of the highest production values seen this year that only add to the fun you’ll have following Megamind’s antics. For entertainment value, it’s fair to say this is on a par with The Incredibles, even if it emulates the latter, complete with wit that’s laced with sarcasm from its animated cast, with Will Ferrell a pure tonic as Megamind’s voice, Tina Fey as his love interest, Roxanne Ritchie, and an almost unrecognisable Brad Pitt voicing testosterone-fuelled Metro Man.

Megamind is a real pre-Christmas 3D treat for all the family that can only be seen on the big screen for full, eye-popping effect and zeal. You’ll be tickled and touched by Megamind, and walk away with a big, soppy grin on your face and a feeling of contentment greater and more delicious than any Christmas dinner.

5/5 stars

By L G-K