Reviews – New movies opening December 26th 2014

We review this week’s new cinema releases, including ANNIE, BIG EYES and UNBROKEN…

ANNIE (USA/PG/118mins)
Directed by Will Gluck. Starring Quvenzhane Wallis, Cameron Diaz, Jamie Foxx, Rose Byrne, Bobby Cannavale, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Zoe Margaret Colletti, Amanda Troya.
THE PLOT: Little orphan Annie (Wallis) is a spirited little tyke, but she’s, well, an orphan. So, it’s a hard-knock life, and Annie was just about to receive one of the hardest knocks of them all when mayoral candidate Will Stacks (Foxx) pulled her from the front of a speeding van just in the nick of time. Which was lucky for Annie, but even luckier for Stacks, after footage of his good deed becomes a viral hit – sending his mayor campaign into a dizzying leap. And so it is that Stacks – with a little help from his smart PA Grace (the smart Byrne) – starts taking Annie out on publicity playdates. The fact that all this sudden love and attention is just a publicity stunt isn’t lost on Annie, as she decides to milk the happy families routine for all its worth. But, hey, is there a chance for some life lessons to be learnt here…?
THE VERDICT: It’s like someone gave Willow Smith the greenlight to write, cast and direct a remake of this much-loved comic-strip foster kid story. Yep, ANNIE is that bad.
From its panto casting – former ace comedienne Cameron Diaz, sleazy careerist Jamie Foxx – to the criminally uninspired direction by Will Gluck (FRIENDS WITH BENEFITS, EASY A), Annie fails on just about every front. The fact too that the original Broadway musical is what sparked the 1982 John Huston movie seems to have escaped Gluck and co here, with most of the original songs here being replaced by truly forgettable hip-hop pop. Which is all the more surprising, given that Jay Z – who took a sample-heavy reworking of It’s A Hard-Knock Life to the top of the charts in 1998 – is one of the film’s producers. Alongside Will and Jada Pinkett Smith, naturally enough.
Christmas is a time for turkeys, but this one will knock the festive stuffing out of you.
Review by Paul Byrne

BIG EYES (USA/12A/105mins)
Directed by Tim Burton. Starring Amy Adams, Christoph Waltz, Jason Schwartzman, Danny Huston, Terence Stamp, Krysten Ritter, Vanessa Ross.
THE PLOT: It’s the era that gave birth to Andy Warhol, and so the big-eyed pop art of the artist known simply as Keane is causing a sensation. Like so much of the pop art world, Keane’s work cruises a fine line between kitsch and cool, and as the acclaim and adoration grows, that pop art world could hardly have guessed that the Keane who actually creates the paintings is Margaret Keane – not her new husband, Walter Keane. “People don’t buy lady art,” Walter tells his wide-eyed wife, in full Spector mode, and when the money starts rolling in, she’s initially happy to believe him. But then, the lies become too much. And the lawyers are called in. Hey, as they always say, behind every great man is a woman who’s actually doing all the work…
THE VERDICT: Back in the safe confines of the weird and the low-ish budget, Tim Burton delivers his first worthwhile film since 2007’s SWEENEY TODD. And even that outing was a blip in an otherwise sad trajectory that started with PLANET OF THE APES (2001) and sank deeper and deeper with the likes of 2005’s CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY, 2010’s ALICE IN WONDERLAND and 2012’s DARK SHADOWS.
With both blockbuster cuckoos Burton and Depp having been firmly kicked out of the big-studio nest, it’s back to those quirky roots for the multi-millionaire director. And if Margaret Keane didn’t exist, there’s every chance a young, hungry Burton could have dreamt her up. A kitschy artist with a dark secret, a hidden genius of the pop art world finally ready to be dragged out from the shadows and into the spotlight. What’s not to love? Especially if you’re Tim Burton.
Adams does a fine job as Keane, but it’s the supporting players that really shine here – in particular, Waltz as the manipulating, crazy love husband, Danny Huston as the newspaper columnist who befriends Walter, Schwartzman as the dismissive gallery owner, and Terence Stamp as the vicious New York Times art critic. 
Review by Paul Byrne

EXODUS: GODS & KINGS (UK | USA | Spain/12A/150mins)
Directed by Ridley Scott. Starring Christian Bale, John Turturro, Joel Edgerton, Sigourney Weaver, Ben Kingsley.
THE PLOT: Moses (Christian Bale) and Rameses (Joel Edgerton) were raised as cousins in Egypt, but when the truth is discovered about Moses’ heritage, there begins a struggle between the Hebrew slaves and the reign of Egypt, which leads the two friends to become enemies.
THE VERDICT: What is it about the Old Testament recently? In the last 12 months we have had NOAH’s tale re-told on the big screen, and now Ridley Scott takes on the tale told by Cecil B. DeMille in THE TEN COMMANDMENTS. Sure, the Bible has a wealth of tales, many of them epic, but is there anything new to be said in adapting these ancient tales?
The cast is made up of Christian Bale as Moses, Joel Edgerton as Rameses, John Turturro as Seti, Aaron Paul as Joshua, Ben Mendelsohn as Viceroy Hegep, Sigourney Weaver as Tuya and Ben Kingsley as Nun. Each actors does fine with the job they are given – although Sigourney Weaver is criminally underused – there are problems with the performances, but these are largely due to the characters being vastly underwritten.
Screenwriters Adam Cooper, Bill Collage, Jeffrey Caine and Steven Zaillian have adapted this Bible tale for the screen, and have attempted to make Moses are more sceptical and relatable character. That’s all well and good until this sceptic starts talking to a burning bush, then it seems that all hope is lost. The characters are incredibly thin and under developed, with many of them just using to one character trait and sticking with it. As well as this, the story is so drawn out that the whole affair becomes rather boring. Not only does it take an hour before any bushes burn, but everything is talked about over and over again, so when the set pieces do kick in – and they do – it’s often difficult to remember who’s fighting for what.
As director, Ridley Scott creates the world with the same grand and epic feel that we would expect from the director, but the 3D darkens everything so much that it is often difficult to see the beauty of the cinematography and sets as they become lost in shadow. As well as this, the pacing is a mess and, as mentioned, the characters are so thinly drawn that it is difficult to side with anyone. Oh, and Edgerton’s scene holding a dead baby is farcical.
In all, EXODUS: GODS & KINGS is based on an epic and harrowing struggle, but little of this is actually portrayed on screen. The Bible stories have been imagined by readers time and again, and it is perhaps the difference between imagination and what is seen on screen that is part of the problem. The rest, of course, is trouble caused by an underwritten script, thin characters, bad pacing and terrible 3D. If you’re looking for a film about how much conflict religion causes, perhaps best to watch the documentary HOLY WARS. Everything is implied here and the pieces thrown into the air, but they never truly land.
Review by Brogen Hayes 

UNBROKEN (USA/12A/137mins)
Directed by Angelina Jolie. Starring Jack O’Connell, Domhnall Gleeson, Garrett Hedlund Jai Courtney, Mutsuhiro Watanabe.
THE PLOT: Based on a true story, Unbroken examines the life of former Olympic track star Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) a bombardier United States Army Air Forces who was held as a Prisoner of War in Japan during World War II.
THE VERDICT: UNBROKEN is Angelina Jolie’s third movie as a director, but the first of her films to be released in Ireland. Based on a true story, Jolie’s film examines the life and legacy of a US POW in Japan, who was captured after his plane crashed off the coast of Oahu.
In years to come, it’s fairly clear that Jack O’Connell will remember 2014 as the year that changed his career. Star turns in STARRED UP and ’71, as well as a small role in 300: RISE OF AN EMPIRE have brought the actor to public attention, and he is the heart and soul of Angelina Jolie’s UNBROKEN. Although it seems a rather strange choice to cast a young actor from Derby as an Italian American Olympic runner, O’Connell does well with his role as Zamperini, although his severely coloured hair makes him look a little strange. O’Connell keeps the fire to survive alive in his portrayal of Zamperini, and it is through his triumphs and defeats that the audience goes on the film’s journey.
Domhnall Gleeson plays US pilot Russell Allen ‘Phil’ Phillips, Jai Courtney and Garrett Hedlund play American POWs in the Japanese camps, and Japanese singer Takamasa Ishihara takes on the role of the cruel and violent prison guard Mutsuhiro Watanabe who was later included in General Douglas MacArthur’s list of the 40 most wanted war criminals in Japan. The performances in the film are strong enough to keep the story and the action interesting, so the problems that arise in UNBROKEN have their roots elsewhere.
The screenplay, based on Laura Hillenbrand’s book, went through several incarnations before it hit the screen, and was written by Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson. The Coen Brothers came on board in 2013, to rewrite the screenplay, but fans of the Coens will find little familiar or recognizable in their work on UNBROKEN. The film follows a linear pattern through Zamperini’s life, for the most part, and feels as though it is drifting from scene to scene, event to event. There are often times where important moments are not examined or explained, leaving the audience to wonder of their impact.
There is little doubt that Zamperini lived an interesting life – he shook Hitler’s hand at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, before climbing a flag pole and stealing Hilter’s personal flag – but the attributes and strength that made helped Zamperini to survive terrible torture as a POW is hardly present on screen. Instead, he is portrayed as a stubborn man who survived due to his relationship with his faith.
As director, it seems that Angelina Jolie has not yet developed a strong hand, and the skill to be ruthless with decisions that would have benefitted the film. The performances are strong, but often unfocused, and the film as a whole feels rudderless, as though it is content to drift through Zamperini’s story, rather than tell it.
In all, UNBROKEN attempts to tell an interesting story, but manages to be rather pedestrian and dull. O’Connell, Gleeson and Hedlund shine through, but the film lacks an engaging screenplay, and needed a firmer directorial voice to tell the story.
Review by Brogen Hayes