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The most refreshing rom-com in years

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 10 March 2014 01:08 (A review of The Spectacular Now)

"The best thing about now, is that there's another one tomorrow."

The Spectacular Now was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the two scribes who were also responsible for 2009's indie smash (500) Days of Summer (let's forget about The Pink Panther 2). In a perfect world, all romantic comedies should be penned by this pair, as their scripts are full of raw honesty and tender humour, eschewing a Hollywood approach to present a realistic rom-com tale that manages to be both satisfying and entertaining. Based on the acclaimed novel by Tim Tharp, and directed by relative newcomer James Ponsoldt, The Spectacular Now is simply enchanting. Most every scene throughout the movie's 95-minute duration possesses such a natural disposition that it often feels like we're watching real people unaware that they're being filmed.

Going on an all-night drinking bender to numb the pain of a recent break-up, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) wakes up on the front lawn of a random house in a hungover state. He unexpectedly meets young Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a somewhat unpopular girl from school who's firmly outside of Sutter's friend circle. Sutter is a raging alcoholic who cares very little his studies, but he finds Aimee endearing, joining her on a morning paper route and getting to know her along the way. Sutter is not concerned about her social status, studying with her and even inviting her to parties, which leads to the two striking up an unexpected relationship. However, Sutter's time with Aimee compels him to think about his future, wondering if he is actually worthy of her affections.

Any other rom-com filmmaker would paint Sutter and Aimee in broad strokes of black and white, but Neustadter and Weber's script is too smart for that. Although Aimee initially comes across as a bit of a do-gooder prude, she nevertheless seems adventurous during sex, and even sips alcohol from Sutter's flask. Thus, she's not exactly uptight - rather, she's simply a regular girl who's open to new things, making her far more relatable than the thousands of other rom-com females we're introduced to on an annual basis. Likewise, Sutter may seem like the type who simply drinks and parties, but he also has a deep respect for Aimee, and is wholly aware of his own shortcomings and mistakes. It's insanely relatable. The relationship they forge is so beautiful and distinctly organic - they start out as hesitant friends, but before they even realise what's happening, they're more deeply involved than perhaps either of them had ever counted on.

The Spectacular Now hits home on several occasions, as it delves into heavy thematic material that definitely struck a chord with this reviewer. Perhaps the most substantial thematic strand relates to living in the now vs. living in the future, therein justifying the title. Sutter is consistently living in the now, making him ponder his relationship's longevity since Aimee has the potential to do something special with herself in life. Aimee's mother wants to keep her on a short leash and forbids her from leaving town to attend college, but Sutter selflessly encourages her to stand up for herself and pursue her dreams, even if this may lead to a future which jeopardises their relationship. Likewise, Aimee encourages Sutter to find the whereabouts of his father (Kyle Chandler), whose location is a closely-guarded by his mother. But Sutter meeting his dad is an almost traumatic experience, as Sutter witnesses the future that he's likely travelling towards. It's a dark future, and he doesn't want to drag Aimee into it, compelling him to contemplate whether he should selfishly keep her, or push her away to protect her.

As Aimee, Shailene Woodley is not the type of super-hot goddess that we expect to see in rom-coms. Yet, we understand why Sutter falls for her, because she possesses understated beauty and a warm charm; she's a lovely soul deep down inside, making her more appealing than any characters played by the likes of Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl. Teller is likewise remarkable as Sutter, which is completely unexpected considering the other dreck that he has appeared in lately (21 and Over, anyone?). Teller's frat boy persona makes him ideal for the role, yet his ability to infuse Sutter with actual depth is a testament to his talents as a performer. Teller and Woodley deservedly won the acting award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival - they are such an appealing on-screen couple who share great chemistry. Their interactions feel so natural, and watching them share their first kiss is actually affecting. The rest of the cast are fortunately just as good, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead particularly excelling in the small part of Sutter's older sister. Chandler is also worth mentioning, as he sheds all movie-star charisma to play Sutter's pathetic father who's so much lost his way in life that he cannot even realise when he's doing something wrong.

Director Ponsoldt elects a gentle, almost raw filmmaking approach, shooting on 35mm film stock to amplify the realistic aesthetic. There's nothing intrusive or glossy about this production - it's a motion picture which trusts in the power of its script and performances, rather than flashy visuals or an intrusive musical score. Admittedly, The Spectacular Now does hit a few rough patches as it goes through its final third, struggling to find an endpoint that's satisfying without being a copout. It's not overly successful, but it's not enough to diminish the strength of the rest of the movie. The Spectacular Now may not be groundbreaking, but it is refreshing; a touching story that's well-told, full of sensitive moments and featuring two very talented young actors. It definitely deserves to be seen.


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First must-see actioner of 2014

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 9 March 2014 05:16 (A review of 300: Rise of an Empire)

"Better we show them, we chose to die on our feet, rather than live on our knees!"

A long-rumoured, long-delayed follow-up, 2014's 300: Rise of an Empire arrives seven years after Zack Snyder's breakout graphic novel adaptation grossed an absolute mint at the global box office. More a companion piece than a straight sequel, Rise tells a parallel story which takes place before, during and after the events of the 2007 flick, shedding light on the naval aspect of the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Although Snyder relinquished the director's chair this time around, he nevertheless produced and co-wrote Rise, loosely basing the screenplay on the as-yet unpublished Frank Miller graphic novel Xerxes (itself a sequel to his 300 graphic novel). The new director here is Noam Murro, tasked with mimicking Snyder's style without coming off as a cheap copycat. Thankfully, Murro fast finds his footing, resulting in an often organic-feeling second instalment that has its own voice. Thrilling and entertaining, it's an unapologetically manly movie, the first must-see actioner of 2014.

With King Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler in the original flick) preparing to battle the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) prepares to defend Greece by sea. Leading the Persian navy is ruthless commander Artemisia (Eve Green), who was also responsible for Xerxes' transformation from mere mortal to super-being. Themistokles hopes for a united Greece in order to face off against the Persian invaders, but Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) refuses to join forces, instead trusting in Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans to defend their city. With Artemisia's army outnumbering Themistokles' men, he endeavours to rely on strategy and brutality to fight for their freedom, no matter the cost.

Written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (who also contributed to the original film), the storytelling of Rise is all over the place, and that's putting it mildly. It's simultaneously a prequel and a sequel to 300, while most of the narrative runs in parallel to its predecessor. It's an uneasy proposition, and unfortunately it doesn't always work, with some of the flashbacks running so long that the flow of the picture is majorly disrupted. Rise is hugely convoluted, tackling too much material considering that the appeal of 300 is boobs, blood and gore. Added to this, the majority of the male characters are completely one-dimensional, blending into one another and lacking distinctive character traits. Snyder's picture wasn't a profound drama, but the main Spartan players were distinguishable from one another, a characteristic not retained for this endeavour.

Considering Murro's only other feature film credit is 2008's uninvolving misfire Smart People, the director was an unlikely choice to orchestrate this orgy of R-rated ultra-violence and sexuality. He was also tapped to direct the fifth Die Hard movie before electing to helm Rise of an Empire instead. Who the hell saw any of that coming? Although the deck was stacked firmly against him, Murro ably proves his worth as an action filmmaker, staging a multitude of hugely entertaining set-pieces which benefit from superlative choreography and gorgeous visuals. Snyder's stylised digital recreation of Miller's comic panels was the defining aspect of 2007's 300, and Murro follows suit, using desaturated colours and slow motion to nice effect. The scope of Snyder's original feature was restricted, but Rise feels much larger with its scenes of ocean combat, and it's often hard to tell where the sets end and the CGI begins. Although this reviewer did not view the picture in 3D, it seems like a smart fit for the format.

Retaining the R-rating of its predecessor, Rise of an Empire is a monumentally violent effort, with scores of blood and viscera thrown all over the screen with reckless abandon. There are numerous tracking shots throughout the big action sequences, observing the visceral effects of sharp blades against human skin in slo-mo. Murro's work is ferocious, and his camera never baulks from capturing graphic displays of bodily harm, set to a pounding score courtesy of Junkie XL. It's very over-the-top as well, but in a fun sense; Murro even throws in a horse galloping across ships, and sea creatures swallowing fallen men in the water, retaining a healthy sense of the fantastical to ensure we never mistake this for a proper history lesson. But while the film's violence pushes NC-17 boundaries, and there is nudity and sex to boot, Rise remains orderly and often gorgeous to observe. Framing is sophisticated and the flick was clearly assembled with a sure hand, boasting top-flight technical specs across the board. If there's anything to criticise, it's the digital bloodshed. It's effective from time to time, but on other occasions it looks distractingly phoney, and not in a stylised sense like the original movie. There is still an immense visceral punch to the action, but the blood effects simply look too cheap, and superior craftsmanship in this aspect could've yielded a stronger experience.

As Themistokles, Stapleton is a decent performer who acquits himself respectably, but he lacks the presence of Gerard Butler, whose authoritative, loud performance in Snyder's movie rendered him a memorable protagonist. Picking up most of the slack is Green as Artemisia, relishing the chance to play a menacing villain. It's ultimately her who runs away with the movie; she hams it up with glee, and is given all of the best one-liners. Reprising his role of Xerxes, Santoro is fine once again, though he's given a lot less to do for this go-round. Butler reportedly chose not to feature in the sequel, though Leonidas does appear beyond archive footage from the original movie. Likely a stand-in with a digital makeover, the result is incredibly awkward, with Leonidas saying absolutely nothing. On a more positive note, David Wenham returns here, and his performance is robust, while Headey makes a strong impression as Queen Gorgo.

300: Rise of an Empire concludes in an extremely open-ended fashion, leaving plenty of room for a third instalment if the box office is as bountiful this time around. Despite its abrupt ending, the movie is nevertheless an enjoyable sit, the very definition of a big-screen spectacle. It's goofy to extremes, with cheesy one-liners and hilariously over-the-top kills, but the enterprise is played with the right amount of sincerity to prevent it from descending into a dumb self-parody. Rise is not as good as its predecessor but it's definitely a worthwhile follow-up, skilfully delivering the type of stuff that fans of the original will come looking for.


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McG ruins another movie

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 3 March 2014 01:15 (A review of 3 Days To Kill)

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life killing for you..."

Luc Besson's EuropaCorp production company are renowned for bankrolling modestly-budgeted action films featuring recognisable actors. The likes of Guy Pearce, Liam Neeson, Jason Statham and John Travolta have all gotten a look-in, and now it's time for Kevin Costner to step into the Besson-produced spotlight. However, 3 Days to Kill was helmed by McG, a talentless hack who is renowned for fucking up can't-miss projects - Terminator Salvation was crippled by the director's incompetency, while This Means War was leaden and joyless. Unsurprisingly, 3 Days to Kill is another miss for the Charlie's Angels helmer. It's a standard Luc Besson creation mixing comedy and action, but such a concoction clearly confused McG, who's absolutely clueless about how to approach the material. 3 Days to Kill is a very European movie, but McG brings his rah-rah American tendencies to the production, resulting in woeful unevenness as the filmmaker struggles to figure out how serious he wants the enterprise to be.

A veteran C.I.A. operative, Ethan Renner (Costner) is diagnosed with cancer that has spread to his lungs, leaving him with mere months to live. Hoping to tie up loose ends before he shuffles off, Ethan returns home to Paris seeking to reconnect with his teenaged daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) and patch things up with estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen). But before long, Ethan is pulled back into duty by rogue C.I.A. agent Vivi (Amber Heard). In return for his services, she can offer him an experimental drug that may cure his cancer. Amid this, Ethan also offers to watch over Zooey for a few days when Christine leaves town. Oh, and Christine is under the impression that Ethan is out of the spy game for good.

Writing a plot synopsis for 3 Days to Kill amounts to jotting down action cliché after action cliché, but the familiarity of the enterprise - and its rampant idiocy - is actually the least of its problems. It's unclear whether the screenplay (by Besson and Adi Hassak) was underwritten or the finished cut was butchered in the editing suite, but the movie's structure is dreadful. In one scene, Zooey is yelling at her father and lecturing Ethan about how much she resents him, but in literally the very next scene Zooey is acting civil towards Ethan, who proceeds to teach her how to ride a bike. Did they patch things up off-camera? Did the editor mess up and accidentally delete a few scenes? Or maybe the problem is just McG, who probably decided to just senselessly turn up the dramatics, turning the scene of Zooey's outburst into something it was never meant to be. The characters also make no sense, with Vivi a bewildering enigma in particular. She's meant to be C.I.A. (I think?), but forces Ethan to kill and puts him in awkward situations, not to mention her actions at the end make no sense.

McG seems to be the key issue with 3 Days to Kill, utterly kneecapping what could've at least been a guilty pleasure. While he may excel with surface polish, he's tone-deaf for atmosphere, rhythm and tone. Direction is slapdash and hopelessly bland, while editing is choppy and the movie never gets into an agreeable groove. The script apparently wants us to enjoy the ride, but McG insists on a "dark" tone too often, clashing with the moments of humour that border on slapstick. One minute the tone is playful as Ethan interacts with the African squatters inside his apartment, but the next minute he's threatening them with a pistol as sinister music plays. The tonal change is jarring and uncomfortable. There is also a running gag involving Ethan's new ringtone (I Love It by Icona Pop), which would be funny if only Ethan wasn't always so mean-spirited ten seconds after answering the phone. Another running gag involves a bike that Ethan buys Zooey for her birthday that she doesn't want; again, it's funny for a while, but then Zooey throws a massive temper tantrum and says harsh things, undercutting the comedy. What the fuck was McG aiming for? Talented filmmakers can smoothly guide such tonal changes, but McG is not talented. Not in the least. Why the hell does this guy keep getting work after showing time and time again that he cannot handle action-comedy?

Basically, the screenplay tries to take on too much, and McG buckles under the pressure. 3 Days to Kill feels random and haphazard rather than detailed, rendering the experience utterly leaden. On top of Ethan's spy mission and familial dramas (not to mention the African squatters), the film also concerns itself with Zooey's French boyfriend (the movie literally has no idea who this kid is or how we should feel about him), and Ethan's dealings with an insider who helps him with his mission and provides parenting tips. Hell, the movie is so concerned with all this excess bullshit that the main baddies only bookend the story. We should be able to enjoy the action if nothing else, but the set-pieces are far too scare, and McG cannot muster up much excitement. The PG-13 rating is bothersome, too - violence feels restrictive and deaths are often bloodless, not to mention there's no nudity when Heard is clearly on hand for her good looks. Jesus Christ, this movie is a fucking mess.

This is Costner's first real starring role since 2006's The Guardian, and, if nothing else, the movie reminds us that the underrated actor still has real acting chops despite his advanced age. It's nice to see Costner going through something of a career resurgence, starring in movies like Man of Steel and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to bring him back into the spotlight. He hasn't lost his touch, and remains an eminently watchable, badass leading man. Likewise, Steinfeld is hugely impressive, far too good for this flimsy material. Meanwhile, Heard does her best to chew the scenery, but she is unable to overcome the lack of a consistent character. And at one point she disappears from the movie for so long that you completely forget about her existence.

With a script polish, a good (or even a half-good) director, and an R rating in place, 3 Days to Kill could have been a real keeper, but instead it's a big fat disappointment full of wasted potential. It's frustrating to watch the movie unfold on-screen, witnessing the poor craftsmanship ruin a brilliant promise for a fun guilty pleasure. It's not completely unwatchable, but there are far better action movies out there (see Taken), and Costner deserves a lot better. McG needs to retire before he ruins even more potentially fun movies.


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Almost unbearably poignant

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 2 March 2014 03:52 (A review of Fruitvale Station)

"They fucking shot him! They shot him in the fucking back for no reason, man!"

On New Year's Day of 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot by a nervous BART police officer who had apparently intended to use his taser, and the young man died in hospital soon afterwards. Fruitvale Station sets out to recount Oscar's last day, constructing a portrait of the young African-American who was working towards putting his life back together following a drug-related stint in prison. Trying to cover for losing his grocery store job due to tardiness, Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan) spends his New Years Eve figuring out his future, hoping to land a steady job and continue providing for his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). After celebrating his mother's birthday, Oscar and a number of his friends take a train into the city to watch the NYE fireworks, unaware that this will lead to Oscar's terrible fate at Fruitvale train station...

Written and directed by newcomer Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station is dense in resonant messages and themes, giving the simplistic narrative a great deal of weight. Coogler is especially keen to emphasise that there's a story behind every fatality that we hear about in the media. Deaths are so common that we no longer think much of them, but Coogler reminds us that every deceased person had hopes, dreams and loved ones. Oscar Grant's story is especially potent, as he was cut down at the time he gained clarity and was determined to clean up his life. Not to mention, his death was an accident that could've been easily prevented. The main thematic through-line of Fruitvale Station is the fragility of our existence, as any one of us could be killed at any time. At one stage in the story, Oscar encounters a kindly stray dog just moments before it's struck by a car, astutely underlining life's unpredictability and also poignantly foreshadowing what is about to come.

Coogler actually opens Fruitvale Station with authentic, grainy cell phone footage of the stomach-churning moment when Oscar was shot after being detained following a fight that broke out on the metro. It establishes a chilling reality, and our enlightenment about how the story will end only serves to accentuate how beautiful, crucial and fleeting each second of the feature - and of Oscar's life - really is. Commendably, Coogler portrays Oscar as a real person: he has a big heart, but he also has a bad temper and has gone astray with the law. He flirts, lies and deals drugs, and lost his job because he continually failed to show up. Yet, despite all of his bad choices, there is tenderness to this man - he loves his family and daughter, and hopes to patch things up with his girlfriend and start a proper family life. Coogler paints a full, rich portrait of Oscar, who's imperfect but lovable, and in no way deserved to meet such a tragic end.

Even though Fruitvale Station runs a very economical 90 minutes, it's enough time for us to feel properly acquainted with Oscar, coming to know him on a profound level. It's possible to become immersed in this world, and feel familiar with all of the people in this story. The tragedy feels all the more painful and real due to this intimacy, and it's borderline impossible to remain unaffected during the final act. We know what Oscar's ultimate end is, but the moment is nevertheless horrifying, and his valiant fight for life in hospital is unbearably upsetting. You want Oscar to pull through and continue improving his life, hence his death really hits home. Fortunately, Fruitvale Station is also a beautifully crafted motion picture. This was Coogler's first feature, yet the movie is robust and competent - it was shot on 16mm film, yielding a beautifully gritty cinematic look that suits the material.

Another of Fruitvale Station's strongest assets is its cast, led by Jordan who's extraordinary in the pivotal role of Oscar Grant. Jordan utterly disappears into the character, and he's so amicable and down-to-earth that it's easy to latch onto him. The supporting cast are just as good, delivering focused and nuanced work all-round. Coogler could have taken the easy way out and portrayed the offending police officers as flat-out evil, but the performers give depth to their characters, leaving it ambiguous as to whether Oscar's death was deliberate or accidental. Considering that Coogler is so firmly on Oscar's side, this detail is commendable, making the experience far richer.

No doubt Coogler embellished and fictionalised several events in retelling Oscar Grant's final day, and a few reviewers have criticised this. But to slam the film on this basis would be foolhardy - it is prudent to judge Fruitvale Station on its own merits; as a motion picture which tells a story. After all, films like Zero Dark Thirty, Gladiator and Braveheart are famously inaccurate, yet this aspect does not diminish the worth of those endeavours at all. Fruitvale Station is a masterpiece, one of the most important movies of 2013. It teaches us that every life is an intricate tapestry of the good and the bad, and it reminds us that before every death, there was a life. It's incredibly moving, rendering Fruitvale Station absolutely unforgettable.


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Minimalist filmmaking at its finest

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 28 February 2014 07:58 (A review of All Is Lost)

"I'm sorry... I know that means little at this point, but I am. I tried, I think you would all agree that I tried. To be true, to be strong, to be kind, to love, to be right. But I wasn't."

Written and directed by J.C. Chandor (Margin Call), All is Lost is one of the manliest movies of 2013. It does not earn its manliness by including action, violence or cigars - rather, All is Lost is a low-budget man vs. the elements survival thriller which warrants its "manly movie" label through its depiction of one man's determination, grit and courage in a desperate situation. This is not exactly a plot-driven movie, but rather a cinematic experience - it allows us to experience being trapped in the middle of the ocean surrounded by nothing but water. If Life of Pi was stripped of its cloying philosophical bullshit, it would look a bit like All is Lost. The movie is also structurally similar to Alfonso Cuarón's critically-acclaimed Gravity, but with a far more interesting leading man in Robert Redford.

There is not a great deal of story to All is Lost. It contains maybe twenty lines of dialogue in total, therefore the script reportedly ran for only thirty-two pages. In a nutshell, the movie is about Man (Redford), who has embarked on a yachting trip in the Indian Ocean. Awakening one morning to find water flooding into the cabin, Man realises that his vessel has struck a wayward shipping container, causing a sizable gash. He does his best to repair the damage, but both his laptop and his radio were damaged by the water, leaving him alone in the middle of nowhere on an unstable boat. Making matters worse, massive storms begin to hit, putting Man's survival instincts to the test as he uses all available resources to stay alive and find rescue.

On paper, All is Lost shouldn't work, as it's a 105-minute motion picture featuring only one actor who says very little. Nevertheless, it's a marvellous achievement in visual filmmaking, and for the most part remains a compelling sit. The fact that All is Lost works is a testament to the well-judged direction, cinematography and editing, as well as the Oscar-nominated sound design which generates a breathtaking sense of atmosphere. The score by Alex Ebert is hypnotic as well, but not intrusive - he provides understated musical cues to enhance the viewing experience. At times the meagre budget is obvious in some rocky digital effects, but for the most part the sense of stark realism is unbroken. It's mesmeric cinema to watch as the Man is battered and beaten by Mother Nature, and the intense sequences are punctuated by well-judged moments of tranquillity. Chandor even takes advantage of the possibility for underwater oceanic shots, observing schools of fish circling underneath Man's raft.

Experienced yachtsmen will likely be able to nit-pick the Man's actions and decisions throughout, but we're never led to believe that he's a veteran seaman. Without a background, for all we know he could be some rich old man seeking an escape who decided to buy a yacht, and his knowledge of survival is very basic. This is why he's so easy to latch onto; he's resourceful but, at his core, he's an Everyman whose actions reflect what any old Average Joe would do in this situation. It helps that Redford is such a compelling actor who looks perpetually focused. Redford might be in his 70s, but he remains an exceptional performer who's more than capable of carrying the movie. It's a performance of stillness and nuanced facial expressions, and Redford nails it, conveying the Man's emotions and thoughts with practically no dialogue. Redford also sells the Man's unravelling due to exposure and isolation, with dehydration and sunburn making the ordeal all the more gruelling.

All is Lost might look simple on the surface, but the movie's thematic undercurrents shouldn't be overlooked. It's an absorbing examination of Man dealing with his mortality, and it explores the relationship that mankind has with nature. We may have technology at our disposal, but the natural world is just too dominant and unforgiving, reminding us that we are always at nature's mercy. Chandor does make one mistake, though, by opening the picture with a flash-forward that finds Man several days into his predicament penning a letter to his estranged family. It's an interesting opener in theory, but we feel as if the ending is a foregone conclusion. Thankfully, however, this misstep does not dilute the picture's sense of tension throughout, and it's definitely not enough to ruin the experience. Furthermore, All is Lost eventually culminates with an ending that manages to be satisfying without selling out. This is minimalist filmmaking at its very finest, and it definitely deserves your attention.


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Too dreary and lacklustre

Posted : 1 year, 1 month ago on 26 February 2014 06:48 (A review of Apocalypse Pompeii)

"Pompeii will be under sixty foot of lava within four hours..."

Credit where credit is due: The Asylum's business model always fools me. Although the infamous studio continually releases stinker after stinker, I frequently come back for more, simply because they have a tendency to entice me with awesome plot set-ups. Alas, they also have a more notable tendency to fuck up awesome ideas, and here we are again with 2014's Apocalypse Pompeii, a "mockbuster" which hopes to be confused with Paul W.S. Anderson's big-budget Pompeii. High on concept but low on creativity and funds, the resultant picture is at least marginally better than crap like Sharknado, but it's far from genuinely good. In fact, the whole thing is just so dreary and lacklustre that it's hard to muster up any strong feelings towards it.

Set in present-day, former special ops soldier Jeff Pierce (Adrian Paul) travels to Naples, Italy for an important business meeting. Along for a holiday are his wife Lynne (Jhey Castles) and daughter Mykaela (Georgina Beedle), who's an avid history buff with extensive knowledge about Pompeii and the eruption which buried the city hundreds of years ago. Jeff immediately feels that things are a bit off due to minor earth tremors, and his fears are confirmed when Mt. Vesuvius wakes up with a vengeance, spitting lava and flaming rocks all over the surrounding area. Unfortunately for Jeff, Lynne and Mykaela are stuck in Pompeii, prompting him to call upon his former job skills to rescue his family before the mountain wipes them out.

It's hard to fault the basic idea, as Mt. Vesuvius is overdue for a massive eruption that would annihilate Naples and once again bury Pompeii. But there is a problem with setting such a story in 2014, as there are modern measures in place to monitor the mountain. Thus, if Vesuvius was to wake up, the public would get fair warning, and evacuations would commence before the eruption. Oh well, I guess Asylum writers can't get everything right. Though, to be fair, they don't really get much right - the sciencey stuff here is primary school level. Exacerbating the picture's logical issues is the lack of tension throughout. Apocalypse Pompeii would have been better served as a survival disaster movie, but the military angle spoils this.

At the helm of Apocalypse Pompeii is Ben Demaree, making his feature-film debut as a director. But while this is his first directorial outing, Demaree has a long history with schlock - he was the cinematographer for Sharknado, for instance, and has crewed Asylum productions since 2006. To Demaree's credit, this is probably one of the most competent efforts from The Asylum to date, with location filming adding an agreeable sense of authenticity to the production. Likewise, the digital effects are not too bad on the whole. In fact, some CGI looks borderline impressive, and only a handful of moments are phoney enough to take you out of the movie. Considering the usual standard for Asylum productions, this is a freaking miracle. What a shame, then, that the movie is kneecapped by its chintzy score and often flat-looking cinematography, revealing the low-budget origins with sharp precision.

Interestingly, Apocalypse Pompeii features John Rhys-Davies as a military corporal who knew Jeff back in his career heyday. Unfortunately, Rhys-Davies is on autopilot from start to finish, making him look just as untalented as his god-awful co-stars. Indeed, it would seem that casting agents for Asylum productions simply pull random people off the street and try to pass them off as real actors. Furthermore, Apocalypse Pompeii has its fair share of idiotic moments - for crying out loud, some of Jeff's old army pals walk around carrying machine guns. Do they plan to shoot the mountain? Oh yeah, and of course Jeff gets paranoid before the eruption and gives satellite phones to his family, and of course they will come into play...even though everyone conveniently forgets about them until the very end. The picture's finale is a pretty big waste of time, too, lathering on forced plot obstacles to wring every last bit of possible tension out of the story. Except there's no tension, and these complications are just frustrating rather than nail-biting.

Perhaps the biggest sin of Apocalypse Pompeii is that it's mostly boring. Aside from some halfway decent special effects, the movie is pretty dreary and uninteresting from a visual standpoint, and the actors can't bring the drama to life in any convincing or engaging way. I miss the days when B-movies were produced as proper studio movies, with real budgets and actual actors. Remember Dante's Peak and Volcano? Although Apocalypse Pompeii is slightly better than it could've been, it's still another miss for The Asylum, which is disappointing but nevertheless unsurprising.


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Underwhelming effort

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 25 February 2014 06:52 (A review of Battle Ground)

"A forward assault on those machine guns is suicide!"

Even though Australia is not exactly perceived as a leader in global cinema, war films are more or less a specialty of Aussie filmmakers. Peter Weir's Gallipoli remains a true classic, while more recent efforts like Kokoda and Beneath Hill 60 have managed to tell compelling tales with limited resources. 2013's Forbidden Ground (also known as Battle Ground) was a low-budget, reportedly self-financed endeavour on the part of directors Johan Earl and Adrian Powers, making it a passion project that should've yielded something special. Alas, the finished product is burdened by an amateurish feel pervading most every frame. Forbidden Ground is a flat, underwhelming effort all the way through to its core, and it's hard to see anything but wasted potential on-screen.

Following a British charge on German lines in France during World War I, only three soldiers are left alive - Sergeant Major Arthur Wilkins (co-director Earl), Corporal Richard Jennings (Martin Copping), and Private O'Leary (Tim Pocock). In the aftermath, the men are left stranded in the middle of No Man's Land, with a matter of hours to return to allied trenches before the area is hit with an artillery bombardment. With Jennings suffering from a missing leg, it's a slow crawl across the treacherous, muddy terrain in the dark, with hostile German soldiers on one side and on-edge British soldiers on the other side.

The minimal budget of Forbidden Ground is clear from the outset. As a result, the picture is never quite convincing - it gets close at times, but Earl and Powers are never able to push it over the line. Costuming and firearms look authentic enough, but CGI is extremely rocky and over-used, with phoney-looking bullet hits and various other elements that look too obviously digital. Added to this, the film carries a cheap appearance - visuals look consistently flat, and the colour palette is just excessively washed-out, a done-to-death technique that hasn't been innovative in about a decade. Close-ups are frequent, restricting the film's scope and again making the budget pretty obvious. Added to this, the majority of Forbidden Ground takes place at night in presumably pitch-black conditions in the middle of No Man's Land, yet lighting is too harsh and illuminating; artificial light sources are clearly being used. And with underwhelming sound design, pacing is much too dreary throughout - the movie simply refuses to come to life in any substantial way.

Dramatically, Forbidden Ground is very flat, which is also due in large part to the dull acting. It's difficult to connect with any of the soldiers on-screen, and it's even harder to recall names to go with the faces. The put-on British accents by the predominantly Australian cast are never quite convincing enough, either. Forbidden Ground also revels in typical anti-war film clichés - for instance, there are snobby, arrogant commanding officers who have no problem sending soldiers to their death for no good reason. You could say that this is historically accurate, but the depiction here borders on cartoonish, lacking conviction and depth. German soldiers are also shown, but, even to casual viewers, it's obvious that they are merely Australian actors speaking in German with no attempt to emulate European tonal inclinations or accents. It's just really false. And this is to say nothing of the pretentious, moralising screenplay, which also contains bone-headed anti-abortion themes.

To the credit of Earl and Powers, some parts of Forbidden Ground are exciting and/or touching, but other moments are marred by choppy editing and slapdash direction. There's just not a great deal of flair or tension here; it's all very ordinary. Forbidden Ground looks and feels every bit the straight-to-video war drama that it is, and that's extremely unfortunate. It gets points for ambition considering it was a virtually no-budget movie, but ambition is not the same as achievement. There are far better war movies out there.


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A worthy successor

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 24 February 2014 06:16 (A review of Wolf Creek 2)

"Obviously you don't know the first rule of the outback, hero. You never, ever stop!"

Despite its mixed critical reception, 2005's Wolf Creek transformed into something of a sleeper hit at the global box office, becoming a cult film with some revering it as the Australian answer to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. Arriving nine long years after its forerunner, Wolf Creek 2 is not an unnecessary direct-to-video follow-up, but rather a robust, vicious blast of Aussie horror produced with a competent sleight-of-hand. The sequel was directed and co-written by Greg McLean, who masterminded the original picture before going on to create the 2007 crocodile thriller Rogue. Wolf Creek 2 is a slight step down in quality from its forerunner, but its a worthy successor which doesn't diminish its integrity, and feels like an organic continuation of the 2005 chiller. It's hard to imagine any long-time fans being disappointed.

When a pair of German backpackers (Phillipe Klaus and Shannon Ashlyn) begin trekking through the Wolf Creek area of the Australian outback, they attract the attention of deranged ocker Mick Taylor (John Jarratt), who delights in torturing and killing tourists who dare to venture into the area. Before long, Englishman Paul Hammersmith (Ryan Corr) becomes unwittingly entangled in Mick's exploits, commencing a non-stop pursuit across the harsh outback landscape where Mick has the upper-hand.

The mystery of 2005's Wolf Creek was one of its most effective assets, as we were left to decide if Mick actually exists in the context of the story. With a sequel, McLean ran the risk of cheapening Mick as a character, dissipating his mythological status by turning him into a run-of-the-mill slasher like Jason Voorhees. But McLean again bases the movie on a true story (the accuracy of this claim remains up in the air, though), and Mick's existence is still open for interpretation. Wolf Creek 2 also begins with title cards that are identical to those which preface the original film, pointing out how many backpackers go missing every year, and how many are never seen again. McLean and co-writer Aaron Sterns also cleverly toy with viewer expectations and keep us guessing about where the story is headed. In fact, the script seems to have taken its cues from Psycho, as potential protagonists are killed and we have no idea when the buck will stop.

Produced for a more generous sum than the original movie (reports place the budget at $7 million), Wolf Creek 2 is a smoother experience than its predecessor, with a larger scope and more polished production values. (Though a handful of shots look surprisingly low-quality, as if filmed with GoPro cameras.) It seems as if a bit of CGI was used, but there are some impressive moments pulled off with practical effects. A set-piece involving the destruction of a truck is sensational, the type of practically-achieved special effect that we rarely see these days. Another of Wolf Creek 2's biggest assets is its dark sense of humour. McLean peppers the movie with amusing vignettes that you'll likely feel guilty for laughing at, including a sequence of Mick demolishing kangaroos with his truck to the tune of The Lion Sleeps Tonight. Later, pleasant classical music plays over a brutal slaughter, a hilarious juxtaposition which gives the movie further flavour.

It's amazing to consider just how much the cinematic marketplace has changed since the original movie, with the torture porn genre essentially disappearing in favour of PG-13 horrors and found footage productions. Fortunately, Wolf Creek 2 is a fucking brutal affair. Trimmed to avoid an R18+ rating in Australia, the film is nevertheless exceedingly violent and gory, but McLean also displays a surprising amount of tact. While Hostel and Saw dwell on the nastiness, McLean is smart enough to grasp that we don't need to see everything, leaving some of the more horrific moments to the imagination. Wolf Creek 2 is not exactly scary like, say, The Conjuring, but it is terrifying. A scene set in Mick's underground lair is the stuff of nightmares - it's an unnerving sequence beset with chilling, horrific imagery; a testament to the effectiveness of the minimalist set design as well as the outstanding prosthetic and make-up effects.

Unfortunately, McLean does make one fairly notable error. To set the tone, Wolf Creek 2 begins with a scene of Mick slaughtering a couple of police officers who issue him a speeding fine simply out of boredom. The cops are one-dimensional cartoons, and the scene comes across as an excuse to increase Mick's kill count. It's enjoyable, to be sure, but it doesn't entirely fit in with the tone of the franchise. Still, Mick's one-liners are in full force here, with McLean again feeding the crazed murderer a stream of colourful dialogue to disperse. Mick is terrifying and borderline insane, but he's such an entertaining character to watch, and Jarratt again sinks his teeth into the role with gusto. It's hard to overstate the impressiveness of Jarratt's work - he becomes Mick Taylor. Inevitably, the rest of the performers don't make quite as much of an impression, though Corr is rather notable due to how believable he is. He manages to sell his fear quite commendably, and a late scene allows Corr to give his character some meaty personality.

Regrettably, the focus of the Wolf Creek 2 is shifted to Mick, leaving his victims to receive ancillary roles. Indeed, it takes a while for the "main" character to even be introduced, and there's very little time to get to know him before Mick begins his relentless pursuit. It took a solid half-hour for Mick to show up in the original Wolf Creek, as we were given time to acquaint ourselves with the three leads. The victims here are ciphers, making this sequel a bit less successful than its predecessor. Still, Wolf Creek 2 does play surprisingly well on its own merits, making it an enjoyable companion piece to the 2005 movie.


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Exhaustively moronic and too long

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 23 February 2014 08:08 (A review of Battleship)

"We are going to die. You're going to die, I'm going to die, we're all going to die... just not today."

There's a long-running online myth that, once upon a time, a respected chef attempted to perfectly replicate a McDonalds Big Mac despite not knowing the recipe, assuming it'd be easy considering that it's such a cheap, nasty, low quality burger. But although he tried his hardest, he could never get it just right. Battleship feels quite a bit like that infamous failed experiment - it's what happens when otherwise smart people attempt to purposely create a product that's below their abilities. In this case, director Peter Berg ostensibly set out to ape Michael Bay's Transformers formula by turning an '80s toy property into a dumb blockbuster with loud explosions and jingoistic military propaganda. But, alas, he cannot quite get there, leaving us with a second-generation Transformers that nobody wanted. Battleship wants to be a fun ride, but it's also exhaustively moronic and much too long, not to mention it features an incredibly bland acting ensemble who put in zero effort.

A reckless underachiever, Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is pushed to join the Navy by his brother (Alexander Skarsgård) who hopes that it will set Alex on the correct life path. Alex may be smart, and he's a naturally gifted sailor, but he's unable to control himself, and needs to learn how to shape up, be a team player and take some responsibility. He's also dating the impossibly hot Sam (Brooklyn Decker), who happens to be the daughter of his commanding officer, Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson). After a few disastrous mishaps, Alex's career in the Navy looks to be over, but he's thrown a curveball when aliens arrive on the planet, trapping part of the fleet inside a powerful force field. When Alex becomes the most senior officer on his ship left alive, it's up to him to captain the vessel, compelling him to shape up, be a team player, take responsibility, blah, blah, blah.

It's foolhardy to expect meaningful character development in a summer blockbuster of this ilk, but the story's dramatics are absolutely woeful, serving up cliché after cliché with relish. Alex dating the Admiral's daughter is basically 1998's Armageddon, while Alex's character arc is just a rehash of what James Kirk went through in J.J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot. It doesn't help that the first act of the picture is a complete bore, trudging through half-hearted attempts at character development that only induce yawns. The script by Jon and Erich Hoeber (last seen behind Whiteout and Red, a double whammy of awfulness) also adheres to the alien invasion template to the letter. After all, it assumes that an alien race would travel a long way and expend many of their resources to wage war on humankind. It also assumes that their defeating the aliens will mean an end to all future conflicts since they apparently won't try again. However, there is some interesting stuff buried deep inside the movie. For instance, the aliens appear to be using tactics and have a game plan, setting out to establish communications with their home planet rather than just mindlessly killing.

Nominally, Battleship is based on the classic board game of the same name, but you would hardly know it. This is simply a generic alien invasion movie tagged with the title of Battleship for brand recognition, though the film does incorporate one sequence in which the humans and aliens more or less play Battleship as they blindly fire into the darkness due to lack of radar. It's an interesting idea, but Berg does fuck all with it; the sequence lasts all of five minutes. The movie is also a powerfully stupid endeavour aimed at the lobotomised. For instance, when the aliens land, they only attack the ships that open fire on them, but seem to have no problem demolishing highways on the mainland and killing civilians. And it's seriously unbelievable just how much slack the aliens cut Hopper's boat. One ship is blown apart after firing one warning shot, but Hopper gets away with far more before his vessel is targeted. It's really bone-headed writing.

After spending more than 90 minutes stuck in a cinematic coma, Battleship at long last roars to life for its finale. Low on options, Alex fires up an ancient decommissioned Battleship to make their final stand against the alien invaders, enlisting the help of the ship's former crew who can still kick ass despite their advanced age. The ensuing set-piece is somewhat fun, but over too soon. It's a shame that these old dogs weren't recruited much earlier into the narrative, especially since they're manning the only Battleship in a film called fucking Battleship. Apart from the finale, the action sequences are for the most part lethally dull, an aesthetic mishmash of the filmmaking tendencies of Michael Bay and J.J. Abrams. There's some shaky handheld camerawork peppered throughout, and the frame is filled with far too much obvious CGI and distracting lens flares. This is a really ugly-looking film, and its ugliness is exacerbated by the aggressively teal colour palette. Battleship was reportedly produced for a massive $209 million, yet the money is not visible on-screen - most of the digital effects look incredibly phoney. What happened to the days of actors in make-up and costumes portraying aliens? Someone should've gotten Rob Bottin to work on this film.

2012 really wasn't a good year for Kitsch, with Battleship becoming the second box office disaster that he had headlined in a matter of months. It's clear why the actor's career as a lead never really took off, as he's completely bland and charisma-free. It's all the more disappointing considering that Liam Neeson also stars and could've been the movie's hero, but instead he's utterly wasted, disappearing for pretty much the entire second act only to achieve absolutely nothing in the finale. Making her acting debut here is singer Rhianna who's utterly ineffectual, attempting the Michelle Rodriguez brand of gung-ho female badassery but ultimately coming off as forced. And for a film intended to launch her film career, Rhianna's dialogue is often restricted to single sentences of clichéd action movie speak (read [Link removed - login to see]">this). Is this what passes for a strong female character in an action movie these days? None of the other actors make much of an impact, with a completely interchangeable Brooklyn Decker and a flat Alexander Skarsgård.

I'm not opposed to mindless popcorn-munching entertaining, and I didn't expect Battleship to be a great deal more than explosions and mindless action. But at an interminable 130 minutes, Berg's blockbuster is lethargic and uninvolving, requiring all viewers to literally switch off their brains. If you're in a really unfussy movie-watching mood, then you might overlook the awful dialogue, dreary performances and manufactured drama for the sake of a few halfway enjoyable action set-pieces. But there are far better blockbusters out there which deserve your attention. If you can make it through to the end, there's a post-credits scene which sets up a possible sequel, but it's unlikely that it will ever materialise considering the limp box office.


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Harrowing contemporary war picture

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 18 February 2014 06:55 (A review of Lone Survivor)

"There ain't nothing I can't do. No sky too high, no sea too rough, no muff too tough."

The last time director Peter Berg attempted a contemporary war picture, the result was 2007's The Kingdom, an average-at-best action film kneecapped by its overt patriotism and wobbly execution. Added to this, the rest of Berg's résumé fails to inspire much confidence, with titles ranging from serviceable (The Rundown) to interminable (Battleship, Hancock). How pleasantly surprising and refreshing, then, to witness 2013's Lone Survivor, which is arguably Berg's best movie. Based on a tragic true-life story, this is a powerful, harrowing war movie, permeated with enough gravitas and emotion to emerge as one of the year's most impressive motion picture achievements. It's very much the cousin of Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down, as it depicts a disastrous military operation with a violent, boots-on-the-ground sensibility.

In mid-2005, a military operation known as Red Wings went into effect. The objective was to find and apprehend Taliban leader Ahmad Shah (Yousuf Azami), who was responsible for a number of military casualties in the Middle East. As part of the operation, a four-man team of Navy SEALs - including Marcus (Marl Wahlberg), Michael (Taylor Kitsch), Danny (Emile Hirsch) and Matthew (Ben Foster) - are sent to carry out surveillance and reconnaissance in the remote mountains of Afghanistan. Bonding while dealing with their respective personal issues, the men are thrown a curveball when a few locals stumble into view just as their communications equipment cuts out. Without a line to home base, the men decide to cut the locals loose as they retreat to higher ground in a bid to restore communications. Before long, Taliban forces swarm the area, leaving the four men stranded as they battle hundreds of armed soldiers while attempting to get a clear line to their commanding officer back at base (Eric Bana).

Reportedly, Universal were unwilling to finance Lone Survivor unless Berg directed Battleship for the studio, which perhaps explains why that blockbuster was so slipshod. In a satisfyingly ironic twist, Battleship was a money-losing flop for the studio, whereas Lone Survivor has developed into quite a sleeper hit. Berg, who also wrote the film, really threw himself into the project, conducting extensive research and even embedding himself in a Navy SEAL team to experience service life firsthand. To heighten authenticity, the opening credits unfold over authentic video footage of SEAL training, and Berg employs an R-rating to soak the dialogue in f-words and military jargon. To be sure, there isn't an enormous amount of character depth here, but Berg spends enough time developing the protagonists during the film's first act, which gives them all a distinct identity and presence. Moreover, we see these tough guys depicted as human beings with loved ones back at home, and we feel that they're fighting for something meaningful.

Although the title of Lone Survivor is a spoiler, Berg ruins all sense of surprise for the uninitiated by including an idiotic flash-forward in the very first scene. It's a dumb move, but, miraculously, it doesn't diminish the tension or horror of the movie's action scenes. Lone Survivor is one of the most visceral war movies in history, right up there with Saving Private Ryan due to the realism of the carnage on display. Berg establishes a lived-in feel, giving us the experience of what it would be like on the battlefield surrounded by Taliban forces. The shootouts here are viscerally exciting, to be sure, but they're also downright horrifying, as these highly-trained soldiers look to be in utter agony as they get hit by bullets on a consistent basis, but are forced to suck it up if they want any chance of escaping. Added to this, they tumble down unforgiving rocky terrain which leads to gashes and bruises, making their chances of survival look bleaker by the minute. The intensity that Berg brings to the material is undeniable, and this reviewer winced several times. The stunt guys went through hell to bring this gripping story to the screen, and the results are something to be proud of. Furthermore, Berg resists the urge to employ shaky-cam; his direction is steady and clear, and the results are fucking beautiful.

The picture takes a fascinating turn into its third act, finding the titular lone survivor being picked up by Afghani villagers who vow to protect him due to their religious beliefs. It gives dimension to the Afghani people, showing that not everyone in the country is a Taliban soldier. Added to this, it emphasises the great courage of Taliban-resisting villagers in Afghanistan, who are given a special mention in the end credits. However, Berg unfortunately turns to unnecessary popcorn-munching clichés for the climax, staging a battle scene that never happened in real-life and feels too Hollywood. It may be entertaining, but it comes off as hoary and forced, especially when the Americans show up to save the day. A gentler conclusion would have worked far better.

It's to the credit of the performers that, despite heavy costuming, each of them were able to create a distinct on-screen persona which allows us to distinguish them from one another. The acting is top-flight right down the line, with the four leads delivering believable, compelling performances. Receiving top billing is Wahlberg, though he doesn't receive any special focus once the fire-fight breaks out. These guys are in the same life-threatening situation, and Wahlberg, Foster, Hirsch and Kitsch are emotionally rattling as they're forced to confront their own mortality. Kitsch is perhaps the biggest surprise - his woefully flat performances in John Carter, Battleship and Savages instilled very little hope for the thespian, but he's an unexpected standout here. Also in the cast is the always-reliable Eric Bana, who's sensational.

One of the most touching aspects of Lone Survivor is the postscript which closes the picture. Images of the real people from this tale are shown, including intimate photographs and videos, and brisk captions cap off the experience beautifully. If you are able to hold back a tear, then you are a stronger man than this reviewer. Berg has clear admiration for men in uniform, and this film is a testament to their courage, toughness and, more importantly, humanity. It doesn't quite join the ranks of Saving Private Ryan, but it's an exciting R-rated manly movie which pulls no punches in its depiction of modern warfare.


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