Posted : 3 months, 2 weeks ago on 19 November 2013 03:45
(A review of Devil's Pass
"We're recreating a trip in which nine people died..."
Renny Harlin's filmography varies wildly in quality, ranging from fantastic action films (Die Hard 2
, The Long Kiss Goodnight
, Deep Blue Sea
) to borderline unbearable dreck (Driven
, 12 Rounds
). After showing a slight glimmer of hope with the mildly competent 5 Days of War
, Harlin is back in the doldrums with Devil's Pass
(also known as The Dyatlov Pass Incident
). Bewilderingly, this is actually a found footage horror picture, looking to cash in on the Blair Witch Project
phenomena about five years too late. Harlin and first-time screenwriter Vikram Weet were palpably enamoured with Blair Witch
, as Devil's Pass
rehashes every single narrative beat of the 1999 picture. While some aspects of the film do work, it's ultimately the script that kneecaps Devil's Pass
early into the proceedings.
In February 1959, ten Russian hikers journeyed into the snowy, freezing cold Ural Mountains. One of them turned back early into the expedition, while the other nine were found dead a few weeks later, some of whom had bones seemingly crushed from the inside while another apparently tested positive for radiation. To this day, there is still no definitive answer about what happened to them. In Devil's Pass, psychology student Holly (Holly Goss) becomes fascinated with the incident, and sets out to make a documentary movie with friend Jensen (Matt Stokoe) and audio engineer Denise (Gemma Atkinson). Travelling to Russia with expert climbers Andy (Ryan Hawley) and JP (Luke Albright), the young filmmakers aim to recreate the footsteps of the doomed hikers, hoping to find some sort of answer for the questions that have baffled investigators for decades. Suffice it to say, the group are unprepared for what's waiting for them in the Ural Mountains.
Devil's Pass shoots itself in the foot very early by showing an after-the-fact news report before the ten-minute mark. It makes the ending a foregone conclusion, rendering the following 90 minutes a long-winded drag towards a spoiled climax. One supposes that Harlin and Weet chose to include it to heighten intrigue, but it does the exact opposite. Unfortunately, the found footage approach scarcely works. The question of “Why don't they just put the camera down?” pops up consistently, with characters continuing to film for no reason other than contrivance. In an ideal world, Harlin would've mixed found footage with a traditional cinematic approach, something akin to End of Watch, which would have made more sense due to the news report. Plus, due to something that happens at the end of the feature, it suddenly makes no sense that the footage was even found, and that's a huge problem. Logic is perhaps the script's biggest enemy.
Admittedly, the craftsmanship isn't bad, with lavish locations and a strong sense of atmosphere. Devil's Pass does work in fits and starts during its first half, when the movie is locked in investigation mode. Early into the expedition, the students encounter strange footprints, and the mystery about what made said footprints is truly unsettling. There are other discoveries, too, not to mention the students interview a witness who believes she saw eleven dead bodies back in 1959. But Devil's Pass soon goes off the rails completely, and not in a good way. Weet's script elects the most far-fetched answers to simple questions, pushing the movie into the realm of sci-fi fantasy with ties to the Philadelphia Experiment. It's possible that nobody will ever know what happened to the hikers in 1959, but the explanation here doesn't fit the film, especially when Harlin begins to orchestrate silly sequences of mayhem. Worst, the digital effects are truly dreadful. When CGI creatures begin to appear, they look phoney and obvious, killing the found footage illusion. The performances are strangely inert as well, lacking the naturalistic spark of all the best found footage productions.
At this stage, it's hard to deny that the found footage genre has worn out its welcome. There are the occasional found footage gems ([Rec], Grave Encounters), but for the most part these efforts are perfunctory and unsatisfying. We are now too cynical to take such productions seriously, as we know that the footage isn't real. We cannot be tricked anymore. Devil's Pass had potential, but the end result is underwhelming. It's destined to be forgotten.
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Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 18 November 2013 06:16
(A review of Planes
"I've flown thousands and thousands of miles, and have never gone anywhere."
At its inception, Planes
was designed to be a straight-to-video picture, with Disney seeking to cash in on the merchandising success of Cars 2
with minimal effort. A theatrical release was eventually spearheaded, but it's unclear exactly why. Impressive (and expensive) voice cast notwithstanding, Planes
is a straight-to-video feature from top to bottom, with underwhelming animation and awful writing. It literally feels as if the screenplay was regurgitated by a computer, as the dialogue is tin-eared and plot points are so
by-the-book that no amount of slick visuals can compensate for it. It's utter wank, a thoroughly disposable kiddie flick aimed at the simplest audience possible, and it contains none of the storytelling sophistication or emotional resonance of Pixar's usual output. All the goodwill that Disney instilled with last year's animation gem Wreck-It Ralph
In the sleepy town of Propwash Junction, Dusty Crophopper (Dane Cook) is a plane who dreams of bigger things, aspiring to become an ace air racer despite the obvious limitation of being a crop duster. But Dusty gets help from his friends, bringing in fuel truck Chug (Brad Garrett), forklift mechanic Dottie (Teri Hatcher) and war plane vet Skipper (Stacy Keach) to train and nourish him. Accepted into the Wings Around the Globe Rally, Dusty looks positively ill-equipped to take on his fierce opponents, including the arrogant Ripslinger (Roger Craig Smith), Indian champ Ishanti (Priyanka Chopra), and Mexican flyer El Chupacabra (Carlos Alazraqui). Dusty becomes the subject of ridicule and jokes, but he begins to realise his potential, emerging as major competitor as the race around the world takes shape.
The screenplay is credited to Jeffrey M. Howard, but if he was paid anything for his efforts on this malarkey, Disney were too generous. There's not a modicum of wit or heart to be seen here; the movie is a mishmash of cultural stereotypes, lazy plane-centric wordplay and bathroom humour, rendering it a special kind of awful. Planes is a victim of awkward structuring, as well. With the story closing at around the 85-minute mark, the movie ploughs through its narrative with tone-deaf rhythm and little cohesion. It takes all of half an hour to reach the major race, whereas a more skilful movie would spend at least an hour building up to the climactic event. Thus, none of Dusty's achievements feel earned. He manages to make the qualifying race without any practice or skill-honing, and his "training" for the race literally amounts to a five-minute montage before he's deemed to be ready. As a result, the movie is completely flat throughout, and there's no connective tissue to allow Planes to soar in any meaningful way. It's also just not funny at all.
With the climactic world race commencing before the halfway mark, it fast grows very tedious. Of course, the fact that the planes are going around the world inherently means it will be a long race, but Planes fails to do anything interesting to justify its length. Thus, we get random detours like Dusty helping El Chupacabra find love, and a very strange scene in which Dusty is rescued by the air force in the middle of the ocean. Unfortunately, the movie neglects the most important aspect of its story: making Dusty a likeable, sympathetic character. Because Planes treats its set-up as homework, we're never given a compelling reason to care. The fact that Dusty is extremely underdeveloped is most obvious in the character's fear of heights - in a better movie, Dusty's personal demons would be handled in a profound way, but here it's only brought up in three scenes: when it's introduced (and Skipper doesn't even think he needs to overcome it before the race), when he gets scared and fails to overcome it, and later when he finally does overcome it out of nowhere. It's jarring, and as a result this ostensibly major character arc gains no traction. It doesn't help that Dane Cook is completely ineffective in the role, failing to give Dusty any personality or spunk. John Cleese is also on hand here to voice a plane...but he's given nothing to do. Planes is so bad that even Cleese can't salvage it.
Even Pixar's harshest critics must admit that the Cars pictures are easily the studio's weakest, with Cars 2 in particular an outright disaster. But despite lukewarm box office for both movies, Disney made a killing from toy sales. Indeed, thanks to toys, the Cars movies grossed not just millions but billions, and Disney visibly hoped to recreate this immense success with Planes. Thus, the decision to create this quickie spinoff was motivated purely by money, rather than artistry (if it was about artistry, we'd have The Incredibles 2 by now). It's hardly surprisingly, then, that Planes walks and talks like a toy commercial, aiming to fill the frame with as many colourfully designed characters as possible. For fuck's sake, even cinemas were selling Planes toys while it was being screened.
The only positive thing which can be said about Planes is that it's marginally better than Cars 2, a rotten-to-the-core sequel without any redeeming qualities. It's also fortunate that Planes is so short; judging by how awful every frame of the movie is, if this particular creative team attempted proper character development, it might've resulted in an even more agonising creation. With underwhelming animation, no laughs to be had, and nothing interesting for adults, Planes is a total washout.
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Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 17 November 2013 02:13
(A review of The Butler
"I'm Cecil Gaines. I'm the new butler."
The official title of The Butler
is in fact Lee Daniels' The Butler
, as The Weinstein Company were forced to make a slight alteration due to peculiar studio politics. It may seem like a trivial change, but it's actually very appropriate, reinforcing that this is not so much a sweeping historical drama but rather a Lee Daniels movie slathered with all of his directorial trademarks. As evidenced in films like Precious
and The Paperboy
, Daniels is not one for subtlety, opting for a manipulative, heavy-handed approach as opposed to something more dignified. Making matters worse, The Butler
is an extremely overstuffed picture, hoping to cover far too much in a 130-minute runtime. With that said, however, it's miraculous to report that The Butler
is not too bad on the whole. It's a hugely flawed endeavour, but there's undeniable passion to Daniels' efforts, and there are enough isolated moments of greatness to make this recommended viewing for the demographic who enjoy low-key dramas over big blockbusters.
As a little boy working in the cotton fields of Georgia in the 1920s, Cecil Gaines (Forest Whitaker) witnesses the death of his father who dared to speak up about the brutal rape of his wife. Brought into the house by matriarch Annabeth Westfall (Vanessa Redgrave), Cecil is trained to be a server, gaining experience that bodes well into adulthood. Moving from job to job, Cecil makes his way to Washington, D.C., where he is given the chance to work as a butler in the White House under President Eisenhower (Robin Williams) with fellow servers Carter (Cuba Gooding Jr.) and James (Lenny Kravitz). Becoming a family man, Cecil marries alcoholic Gloria (Oprah Winfrey), with whom he has two sons, including hothead Louis (David Oyelowo) who takes part in protests and marches to fight for civil rights. Cecil serves at the White House for decades, becoming a spectator of great political and social turmoil from the late 1950s up until his retirement in 1986.
Written by Danny Strong (who, funnily enough, played geek Jonathan in Buffy the Vampire Slayer), The Butler is based on the real-life story of Eugene Allen, a black man who served as a butler under eight Presidents during his many decades at the White House. But for reasons most likely related to manipulating viewers, Strong and Daniels fictionalise Allen's story, renaming him Cecil Gaines and changing a lot of the details about his life. Biopics must alter various things for dramatic purposes, but to this extent is borderline offensive, as Strong and Daniels are basically saying that Allen's actual life is not worthy of being depicted in a motion picture. Worse, The Butler is clearly a Lee Daniels movie from its earliest stages, opening with a shot of two dead African-Americans hanging in the moonlight, with an American flag behind them. Cecil's father is murdered very early into the movie, in an act of violence that's not justified beyond the fact that the shooter is an "evil" white man. It's too much.
The narrative of The Butler splits its focus between Cecil and Louis. The movie observes Cecil as he immerses himself into White House regality, becoming a passive Forrest Gump-esque observer to a number of major historical events during which he is forced to be politically disconnected and surrender his individuality. Meanwhile, Louis submerges himself into the civil rights movement, changing radically as he participates in protests and is regularly sent to prison. As long as you're able to accept the contrivance of Cecil's son being a major player in the quest for equality, this arc is one of the aspects of The Butler that succeeds the most, giving us a welcome glimpse of the civil rights movement involving characters we grow to care about. While Daniels does go overboard with histrionics in some scenes, various moments are staged extraordinarily well, including a bus being attacked. For a $30 million movie, production values all-round are competent, with convincing period detail and attractive cinematography. Admittedly, this is a PG-13 endeavour, and a bit of R-rated flavour might've increased the authenticity of several scenes (there's no blood when Cecil's father is shot), but it's not too much of an issue.
The Butler is beset with stunt casting, but the heart of the picture is Whitaker, who's wonderful as the film's namesake. Whitaker plays Cecil across numerous decades, from early adulthood all the way through to old age, and the actor never misses a beat, selling the character's age at any given time through spot-on body language and delivery. Cecil is a conduit of sorts, but with Whitaker we believe him as more than a symbol; he emerges as a flesh-and-blood human. Also superb is Oyelowo, submitting passionate work as Cecil's son Louis. The film observes several changes in Louis, and Oyelowo manages to sell them with seemingly little effort. Meanwhile, Oprah (yes, Oprah is an actress, too) displays unexpected maturity and depth as Cecil's wife, and the likes of Gooding Jr. and Kravitz provide solid support. Also in the film are a string of well-known actors as various presidents; a stern Williams as Eisenhower, a chirpy James Marsden as Kennedy, Liev Schreiber as Johnson, John Cusack as Nixon (yes, it's true), and Alan Rickman as Reagan. The standout is Marsden, who embodies Kennedy nicely; as for the rest, we mostly see the actors rather than the historical figure they're playing.
While watching The Butler, one gets the sense that the film is excluding a lot of detail; Kennedy's assassination is glossed over, Nixon's Watergate scandal isn't dealt with at all, the Vietnam War ends without the audience, and so on. There is too much American history for a single 130-minute flick to cover, but then again Daniels is more interested in African-American struggles, eventually fast-forwarding to Barack Obama's Presidential election win in 2008. Indeed, it's hard to deny that the movie's premise would be better-served as a miniseries on HBO, as The Butler feels unfinished in its current state. Nevertheless, Daniels' movie still has merit due to its more powerful scenes, and one has to admire what he was trying to do here. Personally, I'll take an almost-great drama over most of the other dreck polluting multiplexes in this day and age. It will not deserve all of the inevitable Oscar chatter, but its heart is definitely in the right place.
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Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 16 November 2013 05:23
(A review of Insidious: Chapter 2
"In my line of work things tend to happen when it gets dark."
Disclaimer: This review will not spoil Insidious: Chapter 2, but it's recommended that you do not read ahead unless you've seen the first Insidious, as the surprising ending of the first film leads directly into Chapter 2 and will be discussed.
It's doubtful that 2011's Insidious
was designed with a franchise in mind, but the micro-budgeted horror picture was a rousing success, grossing almost $100 million from a $1.5 million budget, and receiving surprising critical acclaim. Because it's easy to get filthy rich from such investments, we now have Insidious: Chapter 2
, a direct sequel to its predecessor which brings back practically all of the original cast and crew. Whereas the first movie was fundamentally a take on the Poltergeist
storyline, Chapter 2
is closer to The Shining
. With a change in focus, this sequel feels like less of a continuation of the original Insidious
and more like a follow-up to the original movie's last act. Luckily, director James Wan and writer Leigh Whannell have assembled an overall solid film in Chapter 2
, even if it's not perfect. It is a tad overwritten, but the film definitely delivers where it counts.
With paranormal medium Elise (Lin Shaye) dead after being strangled by the malevolent spirit that inhabits the body of Josh Lambert (Patrick Wilson), the police begin an investigation, discounting all claims that something supernatural is involved. To allow for things to calm down, the family move in with Josh's mother Lorraine (Barbara Hershey), who's hospitable towards Josh, his wife Renai (Rose Byrne), and kids Dalton (Ty Simpkins) and Foster (Andrew Astor). However, Renai is wary of the situation, curious about sudden changes in her husband, and terrified by supernatural occurrences around the house. Lorraine recruits paranormal investigators Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson), who team up with Elise's old friend Carl (Steve Coulter) to get to the bottom of the situation. Meanwhile, the real soul of Josh is stuck in the spiritual realm of The Further.
Insidious was a fairly simple picture, with screenwriter Leigh Whannell putting a fresh spin on the haunted house genre, purposely avoiding the most hoary clichés to create something distinctive. It paid off, but Whannell and Wan only scratched the surface of the movie's mythology, leaving a lot of baggage for a sequel to deal with. Unfortunately, Chapter 2 attempts to do too much, working to build an extensive backstory behind the old woman in the first flick, and spending more time in The Further. The material is admittedly interesting, but it only occasionally translates to a chilling viewing experience, often neglecting the type of primal thrills that worked so well in the original film. It's not a deal-killing decision, but the end result pales in comparison to its predecessor, with expository dialogue rendering the storytelling oddly leaden. Fortunately, however, the proceedings eventually click into gear and Wan settles into a satisfying groove, leading to plenty of momentum as well as a finale that raises the pulse, silly moments notwithstanding.
The original film's sense of pervasive dread was lightened by a somewhat campy final third which turned the experience into a fun old-fashioned fright flick, but Chapter 2 shows minimal interest in this type of material, only providing a smattering of gallows humour courtesy of Tucker and Specs. It's amazing how much Wan is able to do with so little. Even though Chapter 2's budget has marginally increased since the original flick, it was produced for a scant $5 million, minuscule by Hollywood standards. There is no denying that Wan is a master of building a sense of unease, and his talents are visible throughout the movie. Even despite the uneven pacing, this is a highly atmospheric movie, and it's easy to fall under Wan's spell. It's the director's use of careful camera angles, shadows, eerie images and above all the perfectly spine-chilling sound design which gives Insidious: Chapter 2 a great deal of power. Achieving true cinematic terror in 2013's cynical movie-going climate is nigh on impossible, yet Wan continues to demonstrate his ability to do so, and seemingly with little effort.
Patrick Wilson was given an ostensibly impossible task, asked to play the role of a demon within a human body. It would be easy to overplay the character, but Wilson strikes the perfect balance, being subtle in his body language that's just a little bit off, and being suitably scary when he needs to be. Furthermore, Wilson had to play Josh as well, and admirably pulls that off too, although we don't see much of the real Josh during the movie. Byrne, meanwhile, is expectedly strong, but it's Barbara Hershey who fundamentally becomes the heroine of the movie, with her role of Josh's mother having been beefed up considerably. Fortunately, Hershey does a fine job, and she's served well by the other returning players. Whannell and Sampson are delightful, and Lin Shaye returns here in a handful of scenes to nice effect.
Wan scored another mega-hit earlier in 2013, with The Conjuring attracting the type of acclaim, hype and box office dollars that most horror movies can only dream of accomplishing. It's a shame that Insidious: Chapter 2 is a noticeable step down in quality, but it's still more creative than the glossy, PG-13 spook films that less skilful filmmakers inundate us with. When it works, it's an intriguing continuation of the strong first movie, and it leaves room wide open for a Chapter 3 to follow. And honestly, another sequel would be enticing, as Insidious is more of a traditional horror series rather than found footage (Paranormal Activity, which shares Insidious producer Oren Peli) or torture porn (Saw, which was ironically spearheaded by Wan). Plus, Insidious: Chapter 2 is far better than either of the Poltergeist sequels.
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Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 15 November 2013 06:53
(A review of Bad Grandpa
"I'm taking you to your dad's so he can take care of you."
2013's Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa
is very much a Jackass
movie, but it's not the type of film that long-time fans might be anticipating. It's a fresh direction for the ageing brand name, replacing the haphazard structure of the previous movies with a scripted story, though there are still plenty of mischievous shenanigans and pranks involving (supposedly) unsuspecting members of the general public. It takes its structural cues from Borat
in this sense, though Bad Grandpa
plays as an actual movie rather than a mockumentary. Opinions will no doubt be divided on the film; some will be outright repulsed, while other folks might be let down by the lack of genuine Jackass
-style stunts. But it's difficult to imagine a better movie being carved out of this premise - for what it is, Bad Grandpa
is a home run, representing one of 2013's comedic high points. It's silly and rude, yet also hilarious, maintaining an agreeable pace as it goes about its goofy business.
When 86-year-old Irving Zisman (Johnny Knoxville) loses his wife after decades of marriage, he's overjoyed, looking forward to the prospect of hitting on as many women as possible. However, the funeral attracts Irving's drug-addicted daughter (Georgina Cates), who informs the old man that she's going to prison and he must take care of his grandson Billy (Jackson Nicoll). Afraid that the kid might ruin his newfound sexual liberation, Irving desperately searches for somewhere to offload Billy, asking the boy's estranged deadbeat father Chuck (Greg Harris) to accept parental responsibilities. Chuck agrees, but only because it will mean he'll receive a $600 government payment per month, and Irving must travel across the country to deliver the boy. Hitting the road with Billy in the passenger seat and his dead wife in the trunk, Irving gets himself mixed up in all sorts of shenanigans, all the while developing somewhat of an unexpected bond with his grandson.
Suffice it to say, the story is completely flimsy and has been done to death, but the movie doesn't require an intricate narrative. People watch Bad Grandpa for the jokes and the mischief, and the thin set-up thankfully succeeds well enough to give the skits some purpose (as opposed to the completely plotless disposition of the other Jackass flicks). With that said, however, veteran director Jeff Tremaine and his crew do deserve credit for actually paying attention to the plot, threading together an intelligible narrative and never breaking the illusion that this is a movie. Indeed, the movie never "winks" at us, and nobody ever acknowledges the cameras.
Naturally, Bad Grandpa can be hit-and-miss, but misses are rare, and when the flick hits...it really hits. Tremaine is careful to include the types of moments that the Jackass fanbase demand, leading to a few disgusting scenes and a handful of dangerous stunts. But many of the laughs are generated by seeing the candid reactions of the victims, who seem to be oblivious to the fact that Knoxville is actually fucking with them beneath a heavy layer of make-up (the make-up artists deserves a lot of credit for their convincing efforts). Since the candid camera antics rely on hidden lenses, there is a noticeable difference in image quality at times, with many shots looking grainy and unfocused, while others look positively immaculate. Miraculously, a lot of the funnier moments were kept out of the promotional materials, even though the trailer does unfortunately spoil the movie's climactic set-piece. This can't be held against the picture, of course, as the studio handled all the marketing, but it is disappointing that the experience might not be as satisfying to those who know what to expect when Irving and Billy crash a beauty pageant.
The heart of Bad Grandpa is the relationship between Irving and Billy, with Knoxville and Nicoll sharing great chemistry and playing off each other beautifully. Nicoll is game for anything, saying and doing the most inappropriate things while relishing the chance to be so mischievous. They're a really fun pair to watch, and there are scenes between the shenanigans that are somewhat heartfelt. None of the dramatic stuff is overly profound, but it's convincing enough in the context of this movie, with Knoxville delivering his most credible acting performance to date (though that's not saying much).
To be sure, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa is a kinder, gentler Jackass, but it remains crude and R-rated nevertheless, and it's just as fun as the Jackass creations which came before it. It's often extremely funny, delivering a number of belly-laughs and maintaining a playful spirit, making it a solid movie to watch with friends and pizza on a lazy evening. Whether or not any of the candid camera moments are staged remain up to the viewer, but it doesn't diminish the experience. Capping the movie off is an extended end credits montage containing the usual outtakes and behind-the-scenes craziness, while also showing how pranks were pulled off and revealing reactions of the victims after being informed that they're in a movie. Bad Grandpa is dedicated to Ryan Dunn, one of the Jackass performers who died in 2011.
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Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 14 November 2013 02:40
(A review of The Counselor
"The truth has no temperature."
A number of Cormac McCarthy's novels have been adapted as motion pictures in the past decade or so, most notably by the Coen Brothers for 2007's Oscar-winning No Country for Old Men
. But 2013's The Counselor
finds McCarthy as a screenwriter, producing his first original work written directly for the big screen. Suffice it to say, the resulting film is full of the author's idiosyncrasies; The Counselor
is a dark story inhabited by unpleasant, duplicitous characters. It was appropriate material for director Ridley Scott to sink his teeth into, giving vivid life to the unsettling situations dreamed up by McCarthy. It's a fairly solid effort with moments of greatness, but it's somewhat dead around the eyes, in need of a spark to generate a truly riveting viewing experience.
A lawyer who's fallen on hard financial times, the Counselor (Michael Fassbender) seeks to join a drug deal alongside Reiner (Javier Bardem) and Westray (Brad Pitt). However, the deal goes south when the shipment is hijacked by unknown armed enforcers, and suspicion falls on the Counselor. Concerned for both himself and his loving fiancée Laura (Penelope Cruz), the Counselor becomes overwhelmed with panic, hoping to negotiate a deal with the men who are trying to kill him.
The story of The Counselor is dense and intricate, eventually devolving into a convoluted mess of half-explanations, vague motives and double-crosses. It's simply hard to discern who's doing what – the Counselor's actual role in the drug deal remains vague, for instance. Consequently, it feels as if fragments of the narrative are missing (especially the beginning of the story), and it doesn't help that some character actions stick out as odd. For example, the Counselor uses a stranger's phone to call his fiancée in fear of his mobile being traced. But later, he uses a known associate's phone to set up a meeting with Laura, which seems careless since he knows that people are watching him and might be listening to the call. Nevertheless, McCarthy's screenplay benefits from some real positives, most notably in the borderline poetic dialogue. The conversations between characters sizzle with intelligence, and there's more sophistication on hand here than in usual blockbusters. There are a number of scenes which stand out, especially a strange vignette in which Reiner casually describes an incident involving Malkina (Cameron Diaz) literally having sex with his car.
Scott brings to the project his usual proclivity for solid visuals and deliberate pacing. This is a handsome picture which excels in terms of composition and all-round production values, and Scott doesn't baulk from staging viciously violent sequences from time to time. Indeed, there is gunplay and decapitations, accentuating the ruthlessness of this story. Furthermore, the acting is solid from top to bottom, amplifying the production's sense of professionalism. Fassbender plays it straight, making for a stable lead as the titular Counselor. There are times when Fassbender truly soars, too, including an unforgettable scene towards the film's end when he breaks down in a hugely realistic fashion. He shares terrific chemistry with Cruz, too, whose believability is a huge asset. More colourful is Bardem, with his spiky hair and spray tan, while Pitt seems to be enjoying himself as a cowboy type. Less successful is Diaz, who simply fails to make much of an impact. Angelina Jolie was initially cast in Diaz's role, which would've been more on target. The rest of the actors more or less receive single-scene cameos, including Rosie Perez, Bruno Ganz, John Leguizamo and Dean Norris.
Unfortunately, The Counselor seems stuck in first gear for most of its runtime, packing very little in the way of thrills or suspense. It looks visually interesting as it unfolds on the screen, but it only occasionally come to life. And when the climax approaches and deaths mount, the movie still stays pretty sedate, becoming more elusive to emotional grasp. Ironically, the story would've probably been better served in novel form, as it's underwhelming as a motion picture, with its clinical, aloof nature making it difficult to become genuinely invested in. Perhaps McCarthy always needs someone else to adapt his works for the screen. The movie is dedicated to Ridley's sibling director Tony, who committed suicide in the middle of shooting.
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Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 13 November 2013 08:07
(A review of They Live
"I've come here to chew bubblegum and kick ass... and I'm all out of bubblegum."
Although director John Carpenter masterminded a number of cinematic gems during the 1980s, They Live
is arguably his coolest and most enjoyable effort from the decade. Written by Carpenter himself, it's a delightful sci-fi action romp, bolstered by an astute screenplay which mixes social commentary, exciting action and terrific one-liners, approaching RoboCop
levels of greatness. And despite being made in 1988, They Live
has aged remarkably well, remaining every bit as sharp and entertaining as it has always been. They Live
has to be one of the most underrated and overlooked pictures on Carpenter's filmography, too, which is a shame because it's absolutely worthy of a large audience.
At the centre of the story is a nameless, unemployed drifter referred to as "Nada" (Roddy Piper) - the Spanish word for "nothing." Arriving in Los Angeles, Nada is soon hired at a construction site, and takes shelter at a local shantytown with the company of co-worker Frank (Keith David). Nada begins noticing strange activities at a church across the street, and his interest piques all the more after it's raided by a SWAT team. He soon happens upon a box of strange sunglasses inside the church, which essentially allow the wearer to see "the truth." Putting on a pair, Nada realises that the world around him is populated with extraterrestrials who have assimilated themselves into human society, transmitting secret messages through signs and billboards. Taking up a firearm, Nada sets out to fight back against the invaders, enlisting the assistance of Frank in his quest.
As with most of Carpenter's filmmaking oeuvre, They Live is packaged with societal commentary and political satire, endowing the production with more class than a typical shoot-'em-up. To be sure, the satire is not exactly subtle, with the sunglasses revealing that billboards and magazines actually say simple words like "Obey," but it's effectual nevertheless, and it has only grown more pertinent with each passing year. In this sense, They Live is perhaps the ultimate conspiracy theory movie. Even though it's fiction (at least we hope this stuff isn't real), there is a sense of truth to the proceedings, playing out as a warning sign to those who blindly follow the lead, unwilling to be open-minded enough to accept that the world around us may not be as cut-and-dried as we're led to believe by the powers above us. They Live is nuanced in this sense, but it's not heavy-handed - the movie still plays as a fun actioner, rather than a dour exploration of big ideas. And while the satire plays out in the context of a simplistic action movie, the core ideas linger and the film is open-ended, making it a rousing example of entertaining, thought-provoking cinema.
They Live again demonstrates that Carpenter knows his way around a set-piece. The action is slow to start, but once Nada discovers the glasses, They Live almost never relents, delivering in a big way. Perhaps the highlight of the entire production is an achingly funny alley fight between Piper and David, which is exceedingly brutal and beset with some of the best, funniest tough guy dialogue in the history of cinema. The sequence was meant to be short, but Piper and David went for broke, and Carpenter allowed the behemoths to do their thing. It's great stuff. They Live also comes alive in several other scenes, with awesome gun battles spotlighting Piper in ass-kicking mode. Admittedly, the film does seem to end a bit too quickly, with budget constraints visible during the rather slight climax, but this is nit-picking. What matters is that They Live plays beautifully and is scarcely boring, thanks to Carpenter's skilful pacing.
For a WWE wrestler, Piper is not that bad of an actor, playing his role of Nada with assurance and flair. He understands the art of one-liners, spouting several witty zingers that has this reviewer in fits of laughter. He's a hell of a lot better than the wrestler-turned-actors of more recent years. Piper also shares wonderful chemistry with Keith David, who's every bit as good as his co-star. David is a charismatic presence, and he's really on top of his game here, proving to be another reason why They Live is so damn enjoyable.
They Live deserves more credit than it receives. It's not Carpenter's best movie, but it's definitely one of his definitive masterworks, an excellent demonstration of his trademarks idiosyncrasies and quirks as a filmmaker. Plus, the focused direction, clever writing and top-flight acting has allowed They Live to date gracefully - in 2013, it has lost practically none of its charm or impact. In fact, it probably plays better today than it ever did, as the thematic undercurrents continue to become more relevant, and the movie possesses a special brand of goofy '80s charm that today's blockbusters just cannot replicate. Better, it finishes on a high note - the final scene closes the door with a huge laugh, reminding us that Carpenter has always had a good sense of humour.
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Posted : 3 months, 3 weeks ago on 12 November 2013 08:01
(A review of All-Star Superman
"Your trip to the sun overexposed your cells to solar radiation more than even your body can metabolize."
The tenth instalment in Warner Premiere's series of DC Universe Animated Original Movies, All-Star Superman
is based on the twelve-issue comic book series of the same name by Frank Quitely and Grant Morrison. The comics were fundamentally a discontinuity reboot of Superman, telling a new story arc which doesn't explicitly link with anything that came before it. For this animated adaptation, writer Dwayne McDuffie had the difficult task of creating a relatively brief 75-minute feature distilled from over 320 pages of comic content. As a consequence, All-Star Superman
does feel episodic and underdone, facing the same issues which have plagued several other movies from the animated DC canon. Nevertheless, the picture does come together in an effective enough way, thanks to the competent animation and voice work, and the emotional power of this remarkable story which brilliantly humanises the Man of Steel.
When the first manned mission to the sun goes awry, Superman (James Denton) arrives to save the ship and crew, but becomes exposed to a lethal dose of solar radiation. Unbeknownst to the Man of Steel, it was all part of a plan concocted by Lex Luthor (Anthony LaPaglia), and now Superman is left with only a few months to live. Keeping the crisis a secret, Superman seeks to put his affairs in order, revealing his true identity to Lois Lane (Christina Hendricks) and preparing his final will and testament, all the while continuing to protect the world from threats old and new.
The story of All-Star Superman is surprisingly powerful, as the borderline invincible Man of Steel is forced to confront his own mortality and consider his life and legacy. Although the movie is full of colourful action scenes, there are some effective thematic undercurrents here, focusing on ideas such as forgiveness, empathy and love. However, the big problem with All-Star Superman is its episodic structure. Since the screenplay is based on a twelve-issue miniseries, such a structure was practically inevitable, but it feels like too many side plots and detours are crammed in, and as a result barely any of them amount to much in the end. McDuffie's script should've focused on the main story threads involving Lois and Lex, as these are easily the most interesting constituents of the movie. Other random detours - including two guys trying to woo Lois, and a pair of Kryptonian survivors who disappear as abruptly as they appear - simply feel unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. And with its 75-minute runtime not permitting any of the additional story threads to take flight, it feels like The Flash edited the picture.
Fortunately, the visual treatment of the material is for the most part solid, making for another very entertaining animated superhero extravaganza. Being a budget production, All-Star Superman does not feature the most lavish animation, but it looks fine nevertheless, with bright, fluid visuals that imitate the look and feel of the comics. Director Sam Liu is somewhat of an animation veteran, having also helmed the likes of Planet Hulk and Superman/Batman: Public Enemies. Composer Christopher Drake has also become the go-to guy for DC Universe Animated Original Movies, and his efforts here remain outstanding, providing a sweeping score that bestows All-Star Superman with a sense of grandeur, belying its straight-to-video origins. This is a well-made movie in spite of its flaws.
Carrying on tradition, All-Star Superman features a strong voice cast packed with talent. Desperate Housewives actor James Denton makes for a fairly charismatic Superman, though he's not the best Man of Steel we've seen. Without a doubt, the star of the show is Anthony LaPaglia, who's a gruff and arrogant Lex Luthor. He brilliantly embodies the evil genius, and it's hard to imagine anyone else doing a better job.
Of all his motion picture appearances, Superman has never been as vulnerable, human or heroic as he is in the final act of All-Star Superman. It's downright affecting at times, something which can't be said for many of the other DC Universe Animated Original movies. Nevertheless, the finished product remains a tad underwhelming. It was too ambitious to attempt to cover so much ground in a single 75-minute movie - the source material would be better suited for a miniseries.
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Posted : 3 months, 4 weeks ago on 11 November 2013 01:06
(A review of Captain Phillips
"Listen up, we have been boarded by armed pirates. If they find you, remember, you know this ship, they don't. Stick together and we'll be alright. Good luck."
Director Paul Greengrass' first motion picture in a number of years, 2013's Captain Phillips
finds the seasoned filmmaker back in familiar territory, utilising his intense documentary-style approach to tell the true story of the first pirate takeover of an American vessel since the 19th Century. It's a riveting, incredibly intense picture, but it also feels like Greengrass is playing it too safe; it's closer to Green Zone
than United 93
, eschewing the sophistication and emotional impact of the latter film in favour of the more simplistic storytelling of the former. Nevertheless, it's easy to be impressed with Captain Phillips
, with its superb technical presentation and strong acting right down the line. Nails will be chewed and armrests will be clenched, which is more than what can be said for a lot of movies coming out of Hollywood these days.
Taking command of freighter ship the Maersk Alabama, Captain Richard Phillips (Tom Hanks) is tasked with transporting cargo through the Gulf of Aden in Somalia. It's dangerous waters for the crew, as piracy runs rampant, prompting Phillips to keep his men alert by staging consistent drills. Unfortunately, Phillips is soon faced with real danger when four armed Somali pirates, led by Muse (Barkhad Abdi), successfully board the vessel, seeking to hold the crew hostage in exchange for millions of dollars in ransom money. While Phillips' crew remain in lockdown in the engine room, the captain is captured at gunpoint, careful to cooperate with his kidnappers to minimise casualties. Events begin to turn against the pirates, though, forcing them into the ship's lifeboat. But they choose to take Phillips with them in a last-ditch attempt for fortune.
Adapted from Phillips' own memoirs, Billy Ray's script unfortunately omits a vital component of the real-life story. See, Phillips was specifically advised to remain at least 600 miles off the Somali coast, but purposely ignored this order, navigating through dangerous pirate territory nevertheless. Phillips is thus at fault for what happened, a fact that has been emphasised by Phillips' crew, who launched lawsuits and have publically stated this his recklessness put their lives in danger. By excluding this aspect, Greengrass' film paints Phillips as an all-round hero, neglecting what had the potential to be a fascinating moral undercurrent. Sure, the film should be judged as an adaptation rather than a documentary, but it nevertheless feels overly vanilla and safe, and a layer of absorbing complexity would've been added if Phillips was forced to confront the fact that he has to shoulder some of the blame.
Fortunately, Captain Phillips ultimately gets more right than wrong. Before the pirate takeover of the vessel, Greengrass offers efficient scenes of character development, depicting Phillips as just a regular guy who kisses his wife (Catherine Keener) goodbye before leaving for what's expected to be another simple job. Greengrass also shows the other side of the coin, contrasting this against the hostile lifestyle in Somalia, where Muse carefully chooses a crew of pirates. Miraculously, there's a sense of realism to all of this, as Greengrass refuses to add any Hollywood sensationalism to the proceedings. The actual pirate takeover is one of the most enthralling sequences of the year due to its sheer intensity; it's more terrifying than most horror movies from the past few years. Hanks sheds his movie star sensibilities to play Phillips, placing forth his most believable work in years. It's possible to get lost in the illusion, which is a massive credit to Hanks. You feel his anxiety and fear, and towards the end you genuinely believe that he's in shock. He's getting older, but Hanks is still one of the most reliable thespians in the industry.
The immediacy of Greengrass' filmmaking ensures that nothing in Captain Phillips feel staged or fake. The ship was not reconstructed in a Hollywood studio - filming took place on the Alabama's sister ship, hence everything from the bridge to the mess hall looks authentic. Greengrass keeps the picture grounded throughout, infusing it with maturity and class, justifying all of the Oscar chatter. The movie eventually leaves the Alabama's decks, taking to the seas inside a tiny lifeboat. There's an immense sense of claustrophobia during these scenes, and you feel the sweltering, aggressive atmosphere as Muse and his dispirited men keep Phillips hostage while the U.S. Navy considers its options. Barry Ackroyd's cinematography is exceptional throughout, though Greengrass struggles to maintain an agreeable pace once the action shifts to the lifeboat. The second half is too overlong, with the experience eventually becoming gruelling and repetitive. At least ten or fifteen minutes could've been cut to tighten the pacing, but Greengrass thankfully redeems himself for a marvellous climax. Captain Phillips does not deliver the gut-wrenching emotional sucker-punch of United 93, but the finale is nevertheless very powerful. In fact, the final five minutes are borderline unforgettable, with harrowing images of Phillips' kidnapping ordeal being brought to an end.
It's perhaps best to watch Captain Phillips with minimal knowledge of the real-life occurrences, as you feel more tension. We know that Phillips will survive, but if you don't know how the situation was resolved, you will be chewing your fingernails to the bone, wondering what's about to happen next. And even if you do know all of the specifics of the event, Greengrass' film gives you the opportunity to experience what it would be like to be stuck in such a terrifying predicament. It's a true slice-of-life movie, and it's both absorbing and intense.
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Posted : 3 months, 4 weeks ago on 9 November 2013 09:25
(A review of 1408
"Even if you leave this room, you can never leave this room."
Released in 2007, 1408
was the first theatrical Stephen King adaptation in a number of years, and it serves as a shrewd reminder as to why so many of the horror maestro's works have been adapted for the screen. 1408
actually started life as a short story as opposed to a fully-fledged novel (or novella), hence screenwriters Matt Greenberg, Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski were compelled to beef up the source material, altering and adding various things to produce a feature-length product. Luckily, the resultant movie captures the chilling spirit of King's work, making for a predominantly effective thriller that also stands as one of the stronger adaptations of a Stephen King story. If you like being spooked out without having your intelligence insulted, then 1408
is for you.
A non-fiction writer, Mike Enslin (John Cusack) has made a career for himself from writing about his experiences in supposedly haunted attractions. He has never seen a ghost or experienced a paranormal phenomena, and is therefore sceptical about every locale he visits. For his latest novel, Enslin decides to spend the night at New York City's Dolphin Hotel, in room 1408. According to the hotel's manager, Gerald Olin (Samuel L. Jackson), it's a cursed room which has been the site of countless deaths. Although Olin vehemently objects to Enslin's desire to stay in 1408, Enslin pushes ahead nevertheless, determined to stay overnight in the dreaded room. However, Enslin begins to change his tune when unexplained visions occur. Before long, Enslin is stuck in a nightmarish predicament, fighting for his life to avoid becoming another victim of the room's supernatural power.
Unfortunately, the concept for 1408 is not entirely suited for a 100-minute feature film. It's based on a short story, after all, hence a shorter movie would probably be more appropriate. It takes about half an hour to get to the feared hotel room, and once we're in, there's not a great deal for director Mikael Håfström to do, as he desperately fills the narrative with as much creepy imagery, suspense, and character dimension as possible. A bulk of it does work, but some of it doesn't, most notably a prolonged third-act detour which goes on for far too long and does not entirely work. Furthermore, it's clear that Håfström and the writers weren't sure how best to wrap up the movie, thus there are a handful of alternate endings. The director's cut ending is perhaps the most satisfying due to how dark it is, but none of the conclusions work particularly well, which is a shame considering how strong most of the lead-up is. It's not a deal-killer, of course, but it doesn't leave you with much of a lingering impression.
Nevertheless, 1408 is bolstered by some real positives. Håfström's direction is slick and effective, building an eerie claustrophobic atmosphere and displaying a proclivity for Hitchcock-inspired compositions. Håfström is a terrific visual stylist, and he has created some arresting images here. When the room reveals its true evil nature, the shocks are unsettling and inventive, even if the film does begin to wear out its welcome by the third act. 1408 is a PG-13 thriller, yet it doesn't feel gutted by the rating, with brief glimpses of disturbing images and plenty of honest-to-goodness tension. The experience is especially unnerving since Håfström never explains the exact nature of what Enslin is dealing with. Is Enslin being toyed with by the hotel staff? Is he in Hell? Could his sanity be eroding? Is Enslin projecting his inner turmoils on the room itself? None of these possibilities are debunked throughout the movie, and nothing is conclusive by the end. And even if 1408 is actually supernatural, we don't know what the cause is. Olin provides the best explanation: "It's an evil fucking room."
For the most part, 1408 is a one-man show, spotlighting Cusack alone in the hotel room struggling to deal with whatever horrors befall him. It's the actor's finest performance in years, calling upon a wide range of emotions, and transforming from aloof sceptic to a terrified man who's utterly out of his depth. Enslin is forced to confront demons from his past, and these scenes have emotional impact thanks to Cusack, who lends them the right amount of weight. Cusack is simply terrific, and the picture would be doomed without him. Meanwhile, the supporting cast are barely seen; the only notable performer is Jackson, who brings his usual vitality and cool to the role of the hotel manager.
Although uneven, 1408 is well worth watching, as it really soars from time to time. Not since In the Mouth of Madness have The Carpenters been so creepy, and never has Cusack been this deranged. 1408 is not about to set the world on fire, but it's so refreshing when compared to the usual dull standard for Hollywood horror movies, especially all the soulless PG-13 endeavours. Torture porn enthusiasts will find the movie lacking, but fans of creepy mysteries in the vein of The Twilight Zone will likely enjoy it.
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