At last we have a trailer that doesn’t tell us the whole story in two and a half minutes or less. With Ben Is Back, all we have is a two-part mystery: where has Ben (Lucas Hedges) been, and why is he back now, on Christmas Eve (okay, the trailer doesn’t tell you when he’s come back, but that’s when it is; is it relevant? Who knows). It may well be that this is a teaser trailer, and there may well be a further, longer trailer before the movie is released in December, but right now this is a nigh on perfect way to introduce a movie. There are so many questions prompted by this trailer that it’s actually refreshing not to be spoon-fed the answers in advance. Along with where has Ben been, and why is he back now, you could also be asking why he doesn’t have any belongings with him, or why is his sister (Kathryn Newton) so wary of his reappearance? And if she’s wary then why isn’t his mother (Julia Roberts)? Is she just relieved to have him home? And from that, why did he leave in the first place, and how long has he been gone? So many questions, and no answers – yet. Full marks then to the trailer’s creators, and the movie makers who signed off on it. Now let’s hope that further, longer trailer never appears, but if it does, here’s another question: with a teaser this good, would watching a longer trailer that reveals a whole lot more be a good thing? Would it? Would it really?
D: Stephen Chbosky / 113m
Cast: Julia Roberts, Owen Wilson, Jacob Tremblay, Izabela Vidovic, Mandy Patinkin, Noah Jupe, Bryce Gheisar, Elle McKinnon, Daveed Diggs, Millie Davis, Danielle Rose Russell, Nadji Jeter, Sonia Braga
Imagine you’re at a restaurant and pancakes are on the menu. Now imagine that you’ve ordered said pancakes and they’ve just arrived at your table. The waiter (or waitress; let’s keep this fair) offers you maple syrup. You say please, and they begin to pour the maple syrup over the pancakes. And they continue pouring… and pouring… and pouring… Soon, the pancakes are swimming in maple syrup, and just the mere thought of tucking into them has become as desirable as if the waiter or waitress had poured an okra smoothie over them. This is the gourmet version of Wonder, a movie so glutinously nice, and so determinedly uplifting that it should come with a health warning. It not only tugs unashamedly at the heartstrings, but inspires lashings of sympathetic responses and unabashed sentimentality. It’s a massive sugar rush for fans of emotionalism and softheartedness.
For once, though, all this wistful sensitivity actually works – although you’d still be wise to wear waist-high waders in order to combat the rising tide of persistent romanticism that the movie fosters. In adapting R.J. Palacio’s novel, director Chbosky, along with co-screenwriters Steve Conrad and Jack Thorne, have retained the book’s wholesome dramatics, and tried extra hard to ensure there isn’t a dry eye in the house by the time they’ve finished. What this means for the movie as a whole, is that August “Auggie” Pullman (Tremblay somewhere under all the prosthetics), and his first time in school at the age of ten, becomes an exercise in survival for him, and a precautionary tale for the viewer who must overcome several instances where the script goes for the emotional jugular in its efforts to “hit home”.
August “Auggie” Pullman (Tremblay) suffers from Treacher Collins syndrome, a genetic disorder that is characterised by deformities affecting the eyes, ears, cheekbones and chin. It’s incurable, but the symptoms can be managed, and life expectancy is normal. Auggie has been home-schooled by his mother, Isabel (Roberts), but now it’s time for him to attend a school where there are other pupils and other teachers. Isabel insists everything will be alright, and Auggie wants to believe her, but inevitably he’s treated differently by all the other children. He’s bullied by one child, Julian (Gheisar), but finds a friend in another, Jack Will (Jupe). As the school year continues, Auggie learns that being different has both its ups and downs, and he grows in confidence as a result. Meanwhile, his older sister, Via (short for Olivia) (Vidovic), has problems of her own: her best friend, Miranda (Russell), isn’t talking to her, and her first day in high school has her feeling lost and alone.
Wonder‘s appealing sense of family dynamics makes the Pullmans seem impervious to external harm or misfortune; they even argue amongst each other with good grace. No problem is too big for them to overcome, and no issue is allowed to stop them from remaining as tight-knit and loving a family as you could ever wish for. And that’s the beauty of the narrative: it’s a fairy tale where the frog prince is welcomed into the fold despite never being able to turn into a handsome prince. It’s a wish fulfilment fantasy where everyone – even those who are initially horrible to Auggie and bully him at every turn – comes to be his friend and appreciates him for who he is and not what he looks like. Let’s be serious about this. This is a movie that has no grounding in any reality that any child with Treacher Collins syndrome would experience. Instead it’s a movie whose reality seems based on what that child would wish for. It’s a dubious conceit, but because the script is unequivocal in its approach – Auggie will triumph over all his adversities – there’s little room to manoeuvre. Either you go with the flow of the movie and give yourself over to its ultra-positive nature, or you struggle against it and allow yourself to be weighed down by its unabashed mawkishness.
If you choose the former, then thankfully there’s much to enjoy, not least from the performances. We haven’t really seen enough of Julia Roberts in recent years, but here she gives an impressive portrayal of a mother who has willingly put her career on hold to look after her son, and who has found a tremendous sense of purpose in doing so. Roberts is the movie’s anchor, her role the one that stabilises it and gives it meaning in the face of so much untrammelled sensitivity. Without her, Wonder would have a hollow centre where Isabel should be. Alongside her is Wilson, essaying much the same character he played in Marley & Me (2008), and offering a comic foil to Roberts’ more serious portrayal. He’s the light relief when things threaten to become too serious and the movie needs to right itself. Under all the make up, Tremblay continues to impress as the smart but emotionally smarting Auggie, and the young actor plays the role as the natural that he is. Sometimes it’s hard to express appropriate emotions from under a layer of latex, but Tremblay has no such problem, and he’s perhaps the perfect choice for the role.
Kudos too to Vidovic, who invests Via with an independence that allows the character to operate separately from the Pullman family dynamic, and Jeter as Via’s eventual boyfriend, Justin, a role that requires him to hang around and be nice a lot, something he pulls off without making it seem too weird. There’s plenty of weird going on elsewhere, but in a good way, as the movie allows Auggie triumph after triumph and keeps him away from any drama that might affect his slow rise to middle school stardom. The movie is with him all the way, knocking down obstacles and pushing aside unwanted nuisances. By the movie’s (slightly preposterous) end, Auggie’s luck will be left unchallenged and his family will remain as good-natured and eternally supportive as they were at the beginning. But this is still a good thing, and though the movie does look and sound as if it’s deliberately trying to induce tears in its audience, going against such a thing is, ultimately, too tiring and too much of a struggle to keep up for nearly two hours. As the Borg would say, “resistance is futile”.
Rating: 7/10 – an immensely appealing slice of unreality, Wonder is completely uninterested in making any of its characters suffer for very long, and by extension its viewers too, as it strives to make itself the feelgood movie of 2017; you’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll laugh and cry some more, but in the hands of Chbosky and his talented cast, and despite some very high levels of romanticism and unrestrained poignancy, this is something of an unexpected treat.
D: Jodie Foster / 98m
Cast: George Clooney, Julia Roberts, Jack O’Connell, Dominic West, Caitriona Balfe, Giancarlo Esposito, Christopher Denham, Lenny Venito, Chris Bauer, Dennis Boutsikaris, Emily Meade, Condola Rashad, Aaron Yoo
Lee Gates (Clooney) is the host of TV show, Money Monster. Gates acts as an advisor for anyone looking to invest their money in stocks and shares, but he does so in a hyped-up, devil-may-care fashion that makes him seem sharp and ahead of the game. From the opening dance routines to his frequently ad hoc approach to any scripted segments, Gates talks and behaves as if he can’t ever be wrong. As he gears up to present the latest edition of the show, Gates is expecting to interview Walt Camby (West), the CEO of IBIS Clear Capital, an investment company whose main trading algorithm has developed a glitch and “lost” $800 million, leaving some of their investors high and dry. But Camby is off the grid, and his chief communications officer, Diane Lester (Balfe), is left to field Gates’s questions.
Once on air, the show is interrupted by a delivery man (O’Connell) who appears on set and reveals he has a gun. He forces Gates to put on a vest that’s crammed with C4, and threatens to detonate the explosives unless he gets some answers as to why IBIS’ algorithm went so badly wrong. The delivery man, whose name is Kyle Budwell, is appalled that Gates, and everyone else, is just accepting Camby’s line that it was all just a glitch. Why, he asks, isn’t anyone asking how it could have happened, and why is everyone not as angry as he is, especially as Gates, on a previous edition of the show, told his viewers that investing in IBIS was safer than investing in savings bonds.
The police are quick to arrive, and the show is allowed to carry on broadcasting live. Gates’s producer, Patty Fenn (Roberts), is stuck in the unenviable position of having to keep both Gates and Kyle calm, and to keep the on-set camera and sound team from being hurt as well. Soon the police – and Gates – learn that Kyle inherited $60,000 when his mother died and he invested it all in IBIS shares; now he has virtually nothing except a job that pays fourteen dollars an hour and a pregnant girlfriend, Molly (Meade). Meanwhile, Diane begins to suspect that all isn’t as it seems at IBIS when her senior colleagues prove less than helpful as she tries to piece together what happened to make the company lose so much money in one hit. And as she begins to work out what happened, so too does Patty and Gates. As the mounting evidence points to fraud on a massive scale, Camby resurfaces, and he and Gates and Kyle find themselves on a collision course to reveal the truth.
If you’re thinking that Money Monster sounds like a fast-paced financial thriller where Wall Street is the bad guy, and Clooney portrays a champion for the little guy who exposes fraud and corruption wherever they rear their ugly heads, then you’re going to be disappointed. It is a financial thriller, that much is true, but the pacing is a little haphazard, and any tension inherent in the material is worn down by director Jodie Foster’s unwillingness to have the movie edited appropriately (and it’s not as if her editor, Matt Chessé, hasn’t any experience in this area – he’s worked on both World War Z (2013) and Quantum of Solace (2008) before now). This is best expressed in a horribly lengthy sequence that sees Gates and Kyle walk from the TV studios to Federal Hall, surrounded by armed police and baying crowds. With precious little happening apart from Clooney looking anxious and O’Connell looking like he can’t work out what’s going on, the sequence comes to a contrived end long after you’ve begun hoping that they’ll get there already.
With the movie’s thriller elements lacking energy or defined purpose, there’s the small matter of the McGuffin, the $800 million. Such is the muddled approach to the story as a whole, that the script – by Jamie Linden, Alan DiFiore and Jim Rouf – never really decides if it’s important or not. That Camby is behind its disappearance is never in doubt, but Kyle’s motivations for challenging its public perception as a glitch manage to change from scene to scene. One minute he wants the money back so all the investors who’ve lost out can be remunerated, the next he wants an explanation as to how the money could have vanished in the first place, and then he’s looking for an admission of guilt. With the script unable to decide what Kyle wants, it leaves O’Connell adrift and having to do the best he can with a character who keeps telling Gates he’s not stupid, but who is then outed by his girlfriend as being exactly that (and when she does, it’s harsh).
Clooney is left stranded a lot of the time, especially in the twenty minutes or so after Kyle’s arrival on set. But when Gates is given stuff to do – argue about the state of his life against Kyle’s, plead with the public to buy IBIS shares in order to save his life – he’s stuck with dialogue that feels and sounds clunky and unconvincing. Clooney is a very good actor, but not even he can do anything with lines such as, “We take care of each other. It’s in our DNA. Not because an equation tells you to do it, but because it’s the right thing to do.” Roberts is likewise hampered by a role that requires her to be too many things at once: TV producer, hostage negotiator, amateur detective, and grudging friend (to Gates). She does her best but in the end has to coast along with the vagaries of the script like everyone else.
The script tries to make the apparent complacency of ordinary investors as much to blame for financial disasters as it does the banks, the investment companies and the government, an argument that sounds edgy but is quickly shelved once Camby’s apparent perfidy is placed front and centre, and there are some Gosh No! moments when Kyle trots out a few financial conspiracy theories, but on the whole this is a movie with a script that doesn’t know exactly what it wants to say, and sadly, a director who doesn’t quite know how to get it into better shape. There are stretches where Money Monster is quite listless, content to cruise along in neutral and wait until the next plot development hoves into view. What that means for the viewer though, is a movie that never grips as it should, and never engages consistently with its audience.
Rating: 5/10 – only moderately rewarding, Money Monster lacks discernible energy and stumbles around trying too hard to be an efficient thriller (without quite knowing how to be one); a disappointment then given the talent involved, this could have been a lot more interesting, and a lot more entertaining, if it hadn’t been so rambling in its approach and its execution.
D: Billy Ray / 111m
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman, Julia Roberts, Dean Norris, Michael Kelly, Joe Cole, Alfred Molina, Zoe Graham
Remakes of foreign language movies are never easy. Not everything translates as well in another language, and some of the idiosyncracies or nuances of the original movie will be lost in the process. But that’s not to say that foreign language movies shouldn’t be remade in English, or that movie makers shouldn’t try to put their own stamp on an existing idea/concept/storyline, just that if they do, we shouldn’t be too surprised if the end result isn’t as compelling or as satisfying as the original.
Such is the case with Secret in Their Eyes, the English language remake of El secreto de sus ojos (2009), an Argentinian thriller that was a bit of a surprise when it was released, and which garnered critical acclaim around the world. It’s a gripping, very stylishly realised movie, and easily one of the best movies of that particular year, a fact supported by its taking home the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. With that version being so successful, the question that needs to be asked is: do we need this one as well?
The answer is not really, no. It was always going to be a difficult challenge, but when it was announced that the writer of Captain Phillips (2013), Billy Ray, was going to write and direct the movie, and the services of Messrs Ejiofor, Kidman and Roberts had been secured for the trio of lead roles, you could have been forgiven for thinking that this was one remake that couldn’t go wrong. But right from the start there’s a sense that something’s not quite right, that whatever magic made the original such a breath of fresh air is missing, and that what follows is likely to be more disappointing than rewarding.
And so it proves. The basic plotting and structure are retained but where the original wove its connected stories over a distance of twenty-five years, Ray reduces it to thirteen (perhaps to avoid having to cast two sets of actors in the lead roles). He also retains the cutting back and forth between the two time periods, as Ejiofor’s obsessed FBI Counter-Terrorism expert Ray Kasten investigates the death of his friend and colleague Jess Cobb’s daughter (Graham). While Jess (Roberts) is overwhelmed by grief, Karsten determines to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, but soon finds himself in hot water when his main suspect, Marzin (Cole), is connected to a surveillance operation he’s a part of, and none of his superiors, including DA Martin Morales (Molina), want to know anything about his potential involvement in a murder.
While Kasten battles political expediency, he finds an ally in newly appointed Assistant DA Claire Sloan (Kidman). Together they try to build a strong enough case against Marzin, but their efforts go unrewarded. Thirteen years later, and with Marzin having gone to ground in the meantime, Kasten stumbles across new evidence that points to Marzin’s whereabouts. He gets back in touch with Claire (now the DA, having succeeded Morales) and Jess, and vows that this time they’ll get Marzin. Claire is hesitant and unconvinced, while Jess seems unimpressed and unwilling to help. Kasten presses on, but as before his plans go awry, and catching Marzin proves as difficult as it was thirteen years before.
By retaining the twin storylines and having them run side by side as the movie unfolds, Ray strives to keep the audience guessing as to the eventual outcome of both, but in the process he robs the material of any pace, and makes some scenes appear out of context to what’s gone before. Others seem to have sprung out of thin air, with certain relationship developments – a lukewarm romance between Kasten and Claire being the main culprit – stuttering in and out of life. It’s as if certain editorial choices were made in the cutting room, and the structure was the ultimate loser. It also makes for several frustrating moments when the viewer has to stop and remind themselves of where they (and the movie) are.
And unfortunately, Ray isn’t anywhere near as good a director as he is a writer. Too many scenes lack the appropriate energy, and his use of the camera doesn’t always show a knack for effective framing, leading to some shots where his cast are marginalised unnecessarily at the expense of the broader composition. He and the audience should be grateful then that, despite all these bars to their doing so, Ejiofor and Roberts both come up with terrific performances (Kidman is good but as with so many of her performances in recent years, she somehow manages to fall just shy of impressing completely). Kasten’s dogged, guilt-charged determination gives Ejiofor the chance to flex his acting muscles to highly charged effect, while Roberts steals every scene she’s in as the detached, grief-stricken mother who is a shadow of her former self; her de-glammed features display Jess’s sorrow so perfectly it’s heartbreaking to look at her.
But these are two unexpected positives in a movie that steadfastly refuses to provide its audience with anything other than a concerted diet of perfunctory plot and character developments, and which also asks said audience to take several leaps of faith in terms of the narrative and how it plays out (at one point, Kasten and Claire make a deduction – which Ray clumsily illustrates – that they can’t possibly have arrived at in the way that they do). And the end, which should be quietly powerful, as well as disturbing, lacks the necessary heightened emotion to provide the payoff the movie so badly needs by this point.
Thanks to an ill-considered approach to the material, Ray’s adaptation lacks appeal and falls flat far too often to be excusable. As remakes of foreign language movies go it’s not up there with the best, but rather occupies a place much lower down the table, and serves as an object lesson in how not to compensate for the loss of nuance and subtlety present in the original. Some movies, as we all know – and studio executives should know by now – deserve not to be remade, and this is as good an example as any that El secreto de sus ojos should have been one of them.
Rating: 4/10 – laborious, and lacking in too many departments to be anywhere near as effective as it needs to be, Secret in Their Eyes may well be too much of a chore for some viewers to watch all the way through; however this would be doing a disservice to Ejiofor and Roberts, but their performances aside, there’s really very little to recommend this particularly unnecessary remake.
When The Secret in Their Eyes, an Argentinian thriller, was released in 2009, it was perhaps inevitable, given its critical success, that Hollywood would attempt a remake at some point – and here it is. Boasting a fantastic cast, including an almost unrecognisable Julia Roberts (could they have made her look more dowdy?), Secret in Their Eyes looks edgy and dark and compelling, and with Billy Ray in the driving seat as director and writer (bear in mind his last script was for Captain Phillips), this has all the potential to be as riveting as its predecessor, and pick up a healthy clutch of awards come 2016.