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Darkest, deepest, most mature Star Wars film

Posted : 11 months, 3 weeks ago on 15 December 2015 04:18 (A review of Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back)

"Control, control, you must learn control!"

Disclaimer: As with my critique of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, this review will be in reference to the theatrical cut of The Empire Strikes Back, unless otherwise specified.

Surpassing even the most optimistic of expectations in 1977, Star Wars became a phenomenon, earning a mint at the box office and bringing in millions of additional dollars in merchandising. Producing a sequel to such a much-loved motion picture would be daunting for any filmmaker, yet, like its predecessor, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back managed to transcend all expectations with ostensibly effortless aplomb. Released in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back succeeds because it's not just a simple, light-hearted victory lap for George Lucas and his crew - it's a bold, dark sequel which closes on an uncertain note and leaves more questions than answers. It isn't just a terrific sequel on its own terms, but also one of the best follow-ups in feature film history, and it's arguably superior to the motion picture which spawned it. Boasting terrific special effects and the confident directorial hand of the late great Irvin Kershner (RoboCop 2), The Empire Strikes Back is a masterpiece that still endures in the 21st Century.

Three years after the successful assault on the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance have constructed a new base in secret on the ice planet of Hoth, hidden from the Galactic Empire. But when probe droids alert Imperial forces about the location of the rebels, Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse) spearheads an invasion, forcing an evacuation of Hoth. While Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is instructed by the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to travel to the Dagobah system to seek out Jedi instructor Yoda (Frank Oz) for training, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) seeks safety elsewhere, travelling with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and trusty protocol droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). But Vader summons multiple bounty hunters, including the notorious Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), to hunt down Solo's ship.

Although George Lucas wrote and directed 1977's A New Hope, he wisely enlisted outside help for this instalment, with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan working from Lucas' story outline. Due to this, The Empire Strikes Back irons out the little imperfections of the original film, particularly in regards to dialogue. Furthermore, whereas A New Hope was on the simplistic side, this sequel ups the ante and expands the franchise's scope, ditching the light popcorn serial mentality in favour of a darker tone, with its daring ending demonstrating that the good guys do not always win. This is also a far denser tale, even adding a layer of romance by exploring the sexual tension between Han and Leia that was palpable in A New Hope. Furthermore, The Empire Strikes Back expands upon the Jedi religion by introducing Yoda, a wise old Jedi Master who once instructed Obi-Wan. Yoda was brought to life by Jim Henson's legendary creature shop, who created an astonishingly expressive puppet, while Muppets veteran Frank Oz voiced and performed the role to perfection.

A New Hope was produced for a meagre sum, and barely any executives at 20th Century Fox had any faith in the production. But the extraordinary box office performance led to a generous budget boost for The Empire Strikes Back, and as a result this is a more polished, visually striking endeavour. The crew did not have to take as many shortcuts this time, with production design and special effects looking as slick and impressive as ever. Even by 2015 standards, The Empire Strikes Back looks extraordinary, with its reliance on practical effects and location shooting affording the film a tangible, realistic visual aesthetic, while the proficient sound design gives vivid life to this sci-fi fantasy world. Moreover, the spectacular action sequences are also hugely exciting, from the riveting Hoth battle to an exhilarating asteroid field chase, as well as the climactic lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke that doesn't disappoint in the slightest. What's especially notable about the Luke/Vader conflict is that it’s not all about fancy fight choreography, as the duel actually means something and is brimming with emotion and drama. Consequently, it's one of the greatest sequences in the Star Wars saga. Furthermore, The Empire Strikes Back is given an additional boost in the form of John Williams' enrapturing original score. Williams creates an array of effective themes beyond the insanely memorable Star Wars title music, perfectly accompanying the spectacular visuals. It's hard to imagine Star Wars being as exhilarating as it is without the iconic soundtrack.

The acting here is a bit more refined, with Hamill in particular seeming more comfortable in the role of Luke Skywalker. Since The Empire Strikes Back is a darker movie, the characters are given more depth than before, and Hamill's performance during the emotionally devastating climax is really remarkable. Meanwhile, Ford remains effortlessly cool, embodying the kind of edgy, badass hero that all kids aspire to be. The movie also introduces Billy Dee Williams, who's another bright spot playing Han's old friend Lando. But the best newcomer here is fan favourite Boba Fett. The design of Fett's trademark armour is iconic, while his badass demeanour and imposing voice solidifies his status as a memorable character. Fett is perfectly voiced by Jason Wingreen; we will ignore that his voice was replaced with Temuera Morrison for the DVD release in 2004, with the change being carried over to the movie's Blu-ray debut. Admittedly, though, this is the only overly vexing alteration that Lucas has applied to the movie, with the minor digital touch-ups actually serving to bolster the already impressive visuals.

Everything in The Empire Strikes Back simply works, from the flawless action sequences to the incredible visuals and memorable characters, while its thematic undercurrents elevate it above more run-of-the-mill blockbusters. As with A New Hope, some content does border on the cheesy side, yet it's sold with so much sincerity that it's not bothersome at all. This is a superlative movie; the darkest, deepest, most mature and most thoughtful instalment in the Star Wars franchise to date. It's a rare type of classic blockbuster that can be adored by film fans and critics alike without needing to rely on nostalgia, as it confidently holds up years later. If anything, the movie is more breathtaking in 2015 simply because of how convincing the visual effects still look, despite being executed in 1980.


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Still hugely satisfying and enjoyable

Posted : 11 months, 3 weeks ago on 15 December 2015 07:25 (A review of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope)

"The Force is strong with this one."

Star Wars is so much more than just a movie - it's a cinematic experience; an event picture with the ability to appeal to adults, teenagers and children in equal measure. It's an influential pop culture phenomenon which has become omnipresent over the last four decades, leading to video games, comic books, toy lines, animated television shows, and every type of merchandise you can possibly imagine. When it was released in May 1977, there had never been a motion picture quite like Star Wars before. Sure, there had been goofy science fiction flicks, but George Lucas and his team created a believable, successfully straight-faced spectacle, executing an involving character-driven story with state-of-the-art special effects. And in 2015, this first Star Wars movie - which was later re-titled Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope - has lost none of its potency; it's still an insanely enjoyable space opera fantasy epic, imbued with breathtaking action scenes and top-flight technical specs. Adults will appreciate the compelling storytelling, while kids will be enraptured by the film's colourful special effects.

Civil war has broken out across the galaxy, and the Galactic Empire have finished constructing a heavily-armoured space station known as the Death Star, which is powerful enough to destroy entire planets. The Rebel Alliance manage to steal the plans for the Death Star, but Imperial forces led by Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse) board a rebel spaceship, capturing Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) who manages hides the Death Star plans in small droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), along with a desperate message for a certain Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). R2-D2 and fellow protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) escape the captured ship, landing on the desert planet Tatooine. The droids wind up in the possession of young farmer Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who dreams of a more exciting life. Finding Leia's message, Luke sets out to find Obi-Wan, but the Empire is also on the planet searching for the droids. Luke and Obi-Wan enlist the help of space pirate Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his Wookie associate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to help rescue the princess.

Many different iterations of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope exist, with Lucas having altered the film for its 1997 Special Edition re-release, its 2004 DVD debut, and its 2011 Blu-ray release. To avoid confusion, I will concentrate on the original 1977 theatrical cut for this review, which is the preferred edition of myself and the majority of the world's Star Wars fans. Furthermore, even though the film was not initially called A New Hope, I will utilise its newer title in reference to the movie during this review. Got it? Good. We can proceed. 

The central storyline of A New Hope is simple, to be sure, but this is perhaps one of the movie's primary charms. Whereas comparable sci-fi films like 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture get bogged down in chatter and big ideas, A New Hope is, at its core, an engaging Hero's Journey-esque narrative, with background details to enhance the story without harming pace or taking too much focus away from Luke. This first Star Wars movie continues to hold up because it doesn't forsake emotion for action. Whereas the Star Wars prequels amount to self-indulgent special effects demo reels with little in the way of heart or emotion, A New Hope takes its time to develop the roster of heroes, which amplifies the excitement of the action scenes since it's easy to care when the characters are put in danger. A sequel was never a sure thing during filming (what an amusing notion, looking back), thus A New Hope is a self-contained story, and does a superlative job of introducing the world and characters of Star Wars better than any of its sequels or prequels.

A New Hope demonstrates the old adage of "art through adversity." Lucas did not have a blank cheque to fulfil his vision, consulting his talented collaborators to create an achievable vision with the limited funds at their disposal and within the inherent restrictions of the era. It's the resourcefulness of the crew behind Star Wars which gives the picture its magic, as it's amazing what they were able to achieve considering the less-than-ideal conditions. Perhaps the greatest unsung hero of Star Wars is producer Gary Kurtz, who had previously worked with Lucas on American Graffiti and who was hugely influential as Star Wars took shape. Basically, Kurtz overturned many of Lucas' bad ideas and even coached the actors, but he gets barely any credit; people still mistakenly believe that the success of Star Wars is all attributable to Lucas.

The difference between A New Hope and more recent sci-fi movies is substantial. Produced before the advent of digital effects and computer-generated imagery, this first Star Wars is reliant on vast sets, location photography, skilful matte paintings, models, and other methods of special effects that were an absolute breakthrough at the time. And with the movie having been lensed on 35mm film stock, it carries a natural grain structure which makes the enterprise look tangible and real. Moreover, the fact that the props and sets aren't glossy or perfectly polished adds to the movie, as it gives the environment a properly lived-in feel. A New Hope is a movie that you can still watch and enjoy in 2015 without needing to cut the special effects any slack, because the grand illusion still stands. Convincing make-up and prosthetics were used to create the aliens, while the space battles were the result of a lot of hard work using miniatures and model ships. Even though the set-piece are not as dynamic as more recent action-adventures, it hardly matters; if anything, its modesty is precisely why the movie still works.

As stated previously, A New Hope's theatrical cut is the best way to watch the movie. Though some of the tactful digital touch-ups do work, the additional CGI creatures are unnecessary (the Jabba the Hutt scene is dreadful, with dated '90s CGI taking you out of the movie), and there are numerous other alterations which only serve to undermine the visuals and the story. Hell, even the colour grading has changed, making laser bolts look pink at times.

Star Wars is not exactly an actor's movie, but performances across the board are nevertheless effective, particularly Harrison Ford who's an impeccable Han Solo. The cast also boasts some veteran performers, with Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing playing vital roles in the proceedings, affording the production a degree of welcome gravitas. And then there's Lord Darth Vader, who was performed by David Prowse while James Earl Jones provided the unforgettably authoritative voice. Everything about Vader is memorable, from the design of his badass outfit to Earl Jones' ideal vocal performance, making him one of the great all-time villains of cinema. Furthermore, A New Hope benefits from John Williams' iconic score. There are not many themes as instantly recognisable as the Star Wars title music, as it's perfectly majestic and instantly evokes exhilaration. Williams' compositions across the board are note-perfect, amplifying the drama and excitement.

Admittedly, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope is not a perfect film - it can be nit-picked in a few areas, and the dialogue can be clunky and stilted. Nevertheless, it remains hugely satisfying and well-made, especially in the wake of the abominable prequel trilogy which lost sight of the factors which made A New Hope such a great movie.


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It's best to continue ignoring it

Posted : 11 months, 3 weeks ago on 13 December 2015 01:57 (A review of Bates Motel)

"Oh, by the way, if you ever need a room, come on by. Can't say for sure what you'll find, but that is what makes the world go round."

Long before A&E's Bates Motel premiered in 2013, there was the 1987 telemovie Bates Motel, which was designed to be a pilot for a potential television show. Suffice it to say, the show was never picked up by any network, and it's not hard to see why. Written and directed by Richard Rothstein, the movie disposes of everything that made Psycho so fascinating in the first place, and it doesn't even focus on franchise lead Norman Bates. Rather than a disturbing horror like Alfred Hitchcock's timeless classic, Bates Motel is a bewildering thriller/fantasy concoction with very little merit in its premise or execution. For Hitchcock fans, it's a frustrating insult.

After the events of the first movie, Norman Bates (briefly played here by Kurt Paul) is sent to a mental asylum, where he meets troubled young boy Alex West (Bud Cort) who murdered his abusive stepfather. Norman takes Alex under his wing, essentially acting as his surrogate father. Coincidentally, Norman dies in the same year that Alex is set to be released, and Norman's will specifies that Alex is to inherit the Bates Motel as well as the nearby family home. Travelling to the rundown motel, Alex meets a plucky squatter named Willie (Lori Petty), who convinces Alex to let her hang around. Wanting to honour Norman, Alex becomes determined to renovate the old Bates Motel and re-open the establishment to the public. However, Alex begins to see a dark figure lurking around the residence who looks like Mrs. Bates, and things begin to happen which threaten Alex's dream.

Bates Motel ill-advisedly and inexplicably retcons the Psycho sequels, playing out as a direct follow-up to Hitchcock's Psycho. However, there are fundamental flaws and inconsistencies that cannot be ignored by anybody who has actually watched Psycho, let alone those who know it intimately. For instance, in Hitchcock's movie, the motel resides about fifteen miles outside of Fairvale, but in Bates Motel, the establishment is a half-mile away from "Fairville." Worse, in the movies and in Robert Bloch's Psycho novel, Norman's mother is named Norma, but all the characters here seem to think that Mrs. Bates' first name is Gloria. And while the construction crews are working on the motel here, they stumble upon the body of Mrs. Bates, which makes no sense since her body would have been properly laid to rest after being found in Hitchcock's movie. Unless Norman broke out of the asylum to specifically steal his mother's body again, just to bury it at the motel... See how none of this makes any sense? One has to seriously wonder if Rothstein has even seen the Hitchcock film - in all likelihood, he just read a brief plot outline of Psycho before working on his screenplay.

Bizarrely, Rothstein turns Bates Motel into a saccharine supernatural sitcom, with kind-hearted ghosts and no murders. It's a peculiar knockoff of the likes of Twilight Zone and Fantasy Island, involving guests checking in where they confront their fears and emerge as a whole new person. Out of nowhere in the final act, a woman (played by Kerrie Keane) checks into the motel looking to commit suicide, but a group of deceased teens rise from the grave to have a '50s-style party and persuade her to change her mind. Jason Bateman even stars as one of the teens, and all the ghosts pay Alex to rent rooms in the motel. Despite the fact that this subplot is utterly ridiculous, the supernatural has never been part of the Psycho mythology; it's a tale about monsters within. By leaning on this crap, Bates Motel negates the very thing that made the original movie such a unique entity.

The only noticeable tie-in to Psycho is the Bates Motel setting (though it's renovated beyond all recognition), and the brief appearance of Norman, who isn't even played by Anthony Perkins. Worse, the majority of the movie is concerned with the hopelessly humdrum machinations involved in getting the motel up and running again, lacking the type of Hitchcockian suspense that should be omnipresent in a production like this. Even though ostensibly spooky things do happen, such sequences are not scary or unnerving, and climactic reveals fundamentally transform the entire enterprise into an episode of Scooby Doo. On this note, the movie's tone is all over the place, with irritating attempts at comedy - Willie is even introduced wearing a fucking chicken costume. It's an outrage to see such content in a Psycho spinoff, and the film even ends with Alex breaking the fourth wall, because TV.

Things were eventually set right in the Psycho universe with the release of Psycho IV: The Beginning in 1990, which ignores Bates Motel and exists in the same continuity as the other Psycho sequels. Thus, it's easy for fans of the Psycho film series to continue happily ignoring Bates Motel, which is in the same league as the Star Wars Holiday Special - a historical curiosity that's probably better left unseen. Hell, even Anthony Perkins himself detested the film.


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Respectable way to close the franchise

Posted : 1 year ago on 3 December 2015 05:15 (A review of Psycho IV: The Beginning)

"Oh, I've killed before, and now I'm gonna have to do it again."

It has been stated before and it deserves to be repeated: Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho did not need to be sequelised. But that didn't stop sequels from materialising, leading to the unexpectedly strong Psycho II and the underwhelming Psycho III. Released in 1990, Psycho IV: The Beginning is the final instalment in the Psycho franchise (save for the remake and the recent TV show), and the last motion picture to feature Anthony Perkins in his most iconic role. Although the last two sequels were released theatrically, Psycho IV debuted on cable television, hence it's a fairly low-key affair, for better or for worse. The good news is that this fourth movie is better than Psycho III, and is actually a fairly decent movie in its own right, but of course it falls far short of the timeless classic that spawned it.

Rather than another murder spree for Norman Bates (Perkins), Psycho IV functions as a prequel of sorts, which is tradition for horror franchises. Norman now lives peacefully with his wife Connie (Donna Mitchell), who informs him that they are having a baby even though Norman is vehemently against continuing the Bates lineage. Late one night, Norman calls into a late-night radio show hosted by Fran Ambrose (CCH Pounder) who’s covering the topic of why sons kill their mothers. Calling in under the pseudonym of 'Ed' (presumably a nod to Ed Gein, the serial killer whom Bates is based on), Norman relays the tale of his younger years when he lived with his mother Norma (Olivia Hussey). A controlling, demanding woman with severe mood swings, Norma psychologically abused Norman (played as a teenager by Henry Thomas) and repressed his sexuality, driving him to commit murder. And as he tells his story on the radio, Norman also explains that he has the urge to kill just once more...

For a television film, Psycho IV was a fairly ambitious project. After all, it follows in the footsteps of Hitchcock's immortal classic and was even penned by Joseph Stefano, who wrote the screenplay for the 1960 film (adapting Robert Bloch's novel). Even though there's a IV in the title, one doesn't need to have seen the other sequels in order to watch this one - Psycho IV plays out as more of a direct sequel to Hitchcock's movie, though II and III aren't exactly contradicted either. Whereas Norma has been heavily discussed in previous films, this is the first instalment to feature scenes of her when she was alive, providing a firsthand glimpse of Norman's upbringing. However, the relationship is not as layered and nuanced as perhaps it should, with Norma written as an outright evil character. Psycho IV also misses the chance to do something more novel with Bates' backstory, not to mention Stefano neglects the dark comedy aspect that was most notably present in the prior sequels, making this a very serious affair.

Despite the problematic writing, Psycho IV nevertheless does its job well enough. At the helm was Mick Garris, who also directed the likes of Critters 2 and Sleepwalkers. Working from a modest budget, the movie is fairly basic in its cinematography and direction, lacking the spark of visual elegance previously provided by Hitchcock and Richard Franklin (Psycho II). A defter cinematographer might have made the picture more exciting, yet it’s still competent enough, especially for a TV movie produced in 1990. Murder scenes are often thrilling, particularly the intense scene of Norman poisoning his mother and her lover, and Garris keeps the movie chugging along at an agreeable pace for its modest 96-minute duration. The score, composed by Graeme Revell (The Crow, Sin City), often slavishly recreates Bernard Herrmann's iconic sound, yet it's mostly effective.

Perkins, who had directed Psycho III and was perpetually associated with Bates, is note-perfect as to be expected, effortlessly slipping back into his notorious role as if no time had passed. It's hard not to like Perkins, with his boyish good looks and limitless charisma, which gives the film an edge. Meanwhile, Henry Thomas, who was so adorable in Steven Spielberg's E.T., is a superb young Norman Bates, managing to mimic Perkins' traits without coming off as forced - it's easy to accept that this is the same character. He's one of the film's main assets, and he's sympathetic despite the awful acts he commits. And as Norman's mother, Hussey does her best with the overly one-dimensional role, believable as both a loving mother and a cruel sadist. She's also incredibly beautiful. Worth noting that Hussey actually appeared in 1974's Black Christmas, one of the many slasher films that was inspired by Hitchcock's Psycho. The rest of the ensemble are serviceable, with Pounder making a particularly good impression as the radio host.

Psycho IV is frequently criticised, often unfairly so. Of course it pales in comparison to the first movie, but basically every horror movie does. What matters is that it's not an awful sequel, and it doesn't tarnish the franchise. Added to this, it's an improvement over Psycho III, and it's at least admirable that the movie doesn't turn Bates into a mindless slasher like Jason Voorhees or Michael Myers. Though not scintillating, Psycho IV is a perfectly respectable way to close the series, and a fine way to conclude the story of Norman Bates, who still retains sympathy and humanity thanks to Perkins' fine, nuanced portrayal.


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An entertaining Finnish oddity

Posted : 1 year ago on 30 November 2015 04:15 (A review of Big Game)

"Not political, not religious. He is just a certified grade-A psychopath."

By all accounts, Big Game is a relatively inexpensive, direct-to-video action flick, yet it's more skilful than such a description implies, delivered with unique zeal and flavour. Overseen by the same director responsible for the peculiar Finnish export Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale, this is a short but entertaining throwback to a simpler era of action films, playing out like a movie from the '80s or '90s, reminiscent of Toy Soldiers and Air Force One. It's not original in any way, it relishes in genre clichés, and it's pretty silly on the whole, but it's a mostly effective endeavour thanks to the worthwhile cast, snappy pacing and creative premise, not to mention the plot is enriched by the sense of culture. Be aware, however, that this is definitely an oddity.

The President of the United States, Alan Moore (Samuel L. Jackson), is headed to Finland on official business, travelling on Air Force One under the protection of Secret Service Agent Morris (Ray Stevenson). But the plane is threatened, targeted with missiles by big game hunter Hazar (Mehmet Kurtulus) who has sinister plans for the President. With Moore ejected from the plane in an escape pod, he's left alone in the Finnish wilderness, while Morris reveals himself to be aligned with Hazar. However, the President's saving grace arrives in the form of 13-year-old boy Oskari (Onni Tommila), who's in the mountains by himself to complete an animal hunt to prove himself worthy as he enters manhood. With Hazar closing in, Oskari and the President stick together, with the young boy determined to guide Moore back to civilisation.

Whereas Rare Exports was bolstered by its complexity and sense of imagination, Big Game is a far simpler endeavour, and a number of complaints can be levelled against the movie on a script and storytelling level. Often times, the picture cuts to the situation room with the Vice President (Victor Garber) and his usual entourage, but this aspect of the narrative is so undercooked and at times jarringly on-the-nose that it comes off like a perfunctory footnote. There's a conspiracy angle at play here, but it remains unresolved, and the players involved are at times frustratingly careless. Ultimately, however, it's unclear whether this is the fault of the writing or the editing, as there are reports of a 110-minute cut in existence that might have been severely truncated for pacing reasons. Whatever the case, the film in its finished form is far from perfect.

Fortunately, Big Game succeeds in other areas, showing more care with the main thrust of the story involving the President and Oskari. There is a degree of heart at play here, with Oskari's journey into manhood a conventional but nevertheless effective story angle. It is worth noting, though, that the movie doesn't play out entirely as expected - writer-director Jalmari Helander eschews obvious mismatched buddy comedy antics, and Jackson's President is not a man of action. To Helander's credit, he does well by briskly burning through requisite set-up and character development to get into the nitty gritty action stuff. Viewers who enjoy absurd-but-entertaining action flicks of yesteryear should find Big Game fairly satisfying, with Helander showing a deft hand when it comes to the set-pieces. This is a PG-13 movie, and though a full-blooded R-rated movie closer to Air Force One might have worked better, it doesn't knee-cap the picture as much as expected. The budget, though modest by Hollywood standards, is pretty lavish for a Finnish production, thus Big Game is a visually interesting movie, making fantastic use of the eye-catching scenery, even if some of the digital effects shot do look phoney.

Helander has rounded up an impressive ensemble cast of established actors, led by Jackson who is reliably charismatic and watchable. The veteran actor is more grounded than usual, playing it mostly straight, which is appreciated. Alongside him is the young Tommila, a Finnish actor who also appeared in Helander's Rare Exports. Tommila is not hindered by the usual pitfalls associated with child actors, and at no point does he get on the nerves, which is a miracle. He plays well alongside Jackson and he's believable as Oskari, which works in the actor's favour. As Morris, Stevenson sinks his teeth into a bog-standard villain role, which falls right into the actor's wheelhouse, while Garber is his usual disarming self as the Vice President. Also of note is British actor Jim Broadbent, who's something of a highlight as usual.

Big Game is short and sweet, clocking in at under 90 minutes. The movie could have done with more narrative meat on its bones, and perhaps a few additional action beats, particularly for the climax which seems to be lacking something to make it a total knockout. The script is not airtight either, and armchair critics will probably find a fair bit to nit-pick. But even if Big Game lacks edge, Helander knows what kind of movie this is, and has created a breezy, easily-watchable action film with humour and excitement. While it won't work for every taste, I had a good time watching it.


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Has issues, but still worthwhile

Posted : 1 year ago on 29 November 2015 02:39 (A review of Insidious: Chapter 3)

"No matter what happens. No matter what you see. Stay strong."

Let's get the obvious out of the way first: Insidious: Chapter 3 is not as good as the first two Insidious movies, which is disappointing to a certain extent. However, it still confidently rises above the usual low standard for horror movies in this day and age (it's better than Ouija and Annabelle), and in this case, that's just good enough. This second sequel to 2010's Insidious sees usual franchise director James Wan reverting to a producer role, leaving long-time collaborator Leigh Whannell to fill the director's chair (Wan was preoccupied with Furious 7). Whannell, who co-wrote the previous Insidious movies, is not as competent as his predecessor, but Insidious: Chapter 3 is by no means a bust, serving up an interesting prequel angle and still containing a handful of worthwhile horror sequences.

Still devastated over the loss of her mother, 17-year-old Quinn (Stefanie Scott) is attempting to get into acting school, while her overworked father Sean (Dermot Mulroney) struggles to keep the family together. Wanting to make contact with her late parent, Quinn turns to noted psychic medium Elise (Lin Shaye), who has renounced her practise due to previous experiences that utterly drained her. Nevertheless, Elise agrees to help, but whilst communicating with the other side, a sinister entity latches itself onto Quinn. The demon begins to wreak havoc on Quinn's life, leaving her bedridden after a car accident. Powerless to fight the evil, Quinn and Sean turn to Elise, desperate for help, while unproven internet ghost hunters Specs (Leigh Whannell) and Tucker (Angus Sampson) also help out as best they can.

Chapter 3 is not as scary as the first two movies, and it's certainly nowhere near as terrifying as Wan's surprise hit The Conjuring. Whannell was visibly finding his feet as a director here, with a heap of jump scares as opposed to the more carefully-crafted scenes of terror that Wan can now pull off in his sleep. Indeed, the issue here is the lack of anticipation; Wan's movies have the ability to keep us on the edge of out seat for minutes at a time, waiting for something to happen, but Chapter 3 comes up short in this respect. With that said, however, there are some spooky moments that do work, and some of the jump scares do their job reasonably well. The film also introduces some unsettling new demons, with the primary antagonist looking sickly and gross, a nice change of pace from the "Lipstick Demon" or the old lady from the previous pictures. Insidious: Chapter 3 looks slick and refined, with the expectedly modest budget ($10 million in this case) being put to great use. The visuals are bolstered by the typically creepy score courtesy of franchise veteran Joseph Bishara, though the trademark Insidious theme is not used as much as expected.

Being a prequel, Chapter 3 does strive to serve as an origin story of sorts, finding Elise already haunted by the presence of the old lady who eventually kills her. It also traces Elise's working relationship with Specs and Tucker (even though the webisodes for the second movie already revealed how they met). The prequel angle is in no way novel, and now seems customary for any prominent horror franchise, yet it’s still interesting to see, in spite of some overly cutesy prequel touches. What's interesting about Insidious: Chapter 3 is the surprising emotional heft and thematic depth to the narrative, with Sean struggling to move on after the tragedy of losing his wife, straining his relationship with his children. The plot is put in motion by Quinn, who only wants psychic intervention to get closure with her late mother, and the climax is unexpectedly powerful due to this. It's certainly a different dynamic compared to the first two Insidious pictures.

Shaye has always been a pleasure to watch, and Insidious: Chapter 3 gives her a welcomely larger role in the proceedings. As ever, Shaye is note-perfect here as Elise, oozing gravitas and charm, and she's also totally believable as a psychic medium. Equally impressive is newcomer Stefanie Scott, who's easy to connect and sympathise with. Whannell deliberately chose a real teenager as opposed to a twenty-something like most Hollywood movies, and it's a nice touch that enhances the production. The rest of the ensemble submit solid work as well, with the likes of Mulroney, Sampson and director Whannell all hitting their marks. James Wan even has a cameo, which is a nice touch.

Insidious: Chapter 3 has its problems, with a screenplay that occasionally lacks focus, and with a shortage of memorably scary sequences, but it's a decent effort on the whole, and it will be interesting to see if Whannell continues his path of spooky filmmaking after carving out a career as a writer and actor. Too many horror franchises feel compelled to move beyond a trilogy, with the likes of Saw (another Wan/Whannell series) and Paranormal Activity sullied by endless sequels. Although more Insidious films may be enticing simply because this is better-than-average horror franchise, this is the ideal time to close the book on the series and call it quits, especially with the law of diminishing returns already in effect.


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A vapid void of joylessness

Posted : 1 year ago on 24 November 2015 04:03 (A review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2)

"Our lives were never ours, they belong to Snow and our deaths do too. But if you kill him, Katniss, all those deaths, they mean something."

2015's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 confirms that the final novel in the trilogy did not need to be split into two movies. The first two Hunger Games films were long, to be sure, but managed to maintain momentum, even if the first picture in particular is an overly flawed piece of work. However, 2014's Mockingjay - Part 1 was a tedious, one-note slog, though it did at least seem to be setting up a grand finale to properly close the door on this lucrative franchise. Alas, Mockingjay - Part 2 is almost as interminable as its immediate predecessor, robbing the once-promising series of a rousing dénouement. Even under the eye of Catching Fire helmer Francis Lawrence, Part 2 is flat-out dull, incorporating every last corner of the source material to pad out the runtime to 140 godforsaken minutes without paying any mind to critical cinematic concepts like pacing or structure. Frankly, I had more fun watching the final Twilight movie.

Picking up right after where Part 1 ended, Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has been brainwashed after his stay in the Capitol, conditioned to perceive powerful resistance figure Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) as an enemy. Seeing Peeta in his severely tortured state infuriates Katniss, who becomes more determined to fight her way into the Capitol and assassinate President Snow (Donald Sutherland) to end his murderous reign for good. Although President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) wishes for Katniss to remain away from the fighting to keep safe, she defies Coin's orders, pushing for her unit to infiltrate the Capitol. Joining Katniss is Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and Finnick (Sam Claflin), while Coin also sends Peeta purely for propaganda reasons. Snow is prepared for Katniss, however, with his soldiers setting numerous booby traps.

Character and story development afforded by a lengthy runtime is welcome under normal circumstances, but both Mockingjay movies are completely shallow, with poor dialogue and very little in the way of worthwhile story development. It's a pure slog, a depressing and dour motion picture experience in search of a spark to bring it to life. These movies may cater to the young adult crowd, but it's dangerous comparing the subpar Mockingjay - Part 2 to a proper sci-fi film like Children of Men. And hey, the Hobbit trilogy is frequently criticised for its length, but at least those movies are fun. The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies had little in the way of story material, thus it was almost wall-to-wall action to compensate, and it worked. On the other hand, Mockingjay - Part 2 is extremely thin, but is under some misplaced pretense of being a serious sci-fi drama, serving up such a small amount of action that it barely registers. And it fails. It's not even unintentionally funny or goofy; it's a vapid void of joylessness.

Part 1 spent far too long waiting for events to happen, paving the way for what should've been an epic, fast-paced war movie. Instead, Part 2 is talky to extremes, with large portions of the movie spent in dimly-lit abandoned buildings as the characters endlessly talk about their feelings and monitor news broadcasts. The majority of the dialogue-heavy scenes drag on far beyond their logical closure point, and it doesn't help that the characters rarely say anything overly interesting or insightful. The movie keeps telling us that fighting is happening, but it mostly happens off-screen, which severely limits the sense of scope. Director Lawrence is never able to conjure up any momentum, leaving the effort feeling fatigued when it should be blistering and enthralling. Even the ending is an absolute dud, with a good fifteen-minutes of Katnip staring at the wall and yelling at a cat before the credits finally begin to roll, at long last signifying the end of this franchise. Remember how everybody complained about the extended epilogue to Lord of the Rings? It's a hundred times worse than that. Even the ending itself feels oddly anticlimactic, closing with a resounding whimper.

Apparently, many of the flaws inherent in the two-part Mockingjay adaptation stem from the novel, which was unenthusiastically received. But this is no excuse for poor filmmaking. You can make a great movie out of anything - who the fuck expected Guardians of the Galaxy to be the masterpiece that it is? - but sometimes, in order to achieve that, you need to rip out the guts of the source material and create a standalone cinematic adaptation, rather than a slavish page-to-screen translation which doesn't even try to rectify the flaws of the source. Francis Lawrence and the writers should be challenging the material to create big-screen excitement, but instead the film labours through relentless banality.

The mind boggles when pondering just how the budget soared to as high as $160 million. 90% of the funds must have gone to the actors, because the majority of the movie takes place in drab buildings and tunnels, with no eye-catching sets or special effects shots. Photography is just as dull as it was in Mockingjay - Part 1, with the visuals often looking too dark and muddy. It was a mistake for this series to transition from celluloid to digital photography; whereas Catching Fire looks cinematic as a result of shooting on 35mm film, both parts of Mockingjay look cheap in comparison. The actors do what they can, but are ultimately unable to enliven the material. This is Philip Seymour Hoffman's final screen appearance, though his death was clearly more problematic than the filmmakers wanted to admit, as he's barely in the movie, and a climactic speech from Hoffman's Plutarch is delivered through a letter read by Haymitch (Woody Harrelson). One supposes there isn't much they could do, but it's nevertheless jarring.

Action scenes are lifeless and lacking in thrills, especially a major set-piece in a tunnel involving creatures presumably stolen from a Guillermo del Toro movie, which makes minimal sense and is often confusing to watch. Also, where did these sewer mutants come from? Worse, owing to the PG-13 rating, the entire movie feels detrimentally bloodless and sanitised. Lawrence attempts to stage scenes which show the horrors of war, but the impact is seriously diminished by the need to stick to the commercially-friendly rating. One character presumably has his legs blown off, yet he has no visible injuries and there is not a drop of blood. A bomb attack on civilians is also staged, which should have resulted in bloody corpses and missing limbs, but the victims instead look to be having a nap.

Although it would be unfair to say that Mockingjay - Part 2 is aggressively terrible, it is a lifeless piece of work and it's just disappointing that, at the end of this franchise, two of the four movies in the series are below-par, and only one of them is genuinely good. Whereas masterful film franchises like Lord of the Rings leave you feeling rewarded, The Hunger Games feels like a chore as a whole, and I am seriously relieved that it's all over. You know what? I give up. Catching Fire was a good movie, but it's time to get rid of my Blu-ray copy and forget this series ever existed. For shame.


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Simply lovely.

Posted : 1 year ago on 18 November 2015 01:12 (A review of Inside Out)

"Crying helps me slow down and obsess over the weight of life's problems."

Inside Out feels like the first genuine Pixar movie since 2010. The animation studio maintained an unparalleled streak of success for over a decade before bottoming out with Cars 2 in 2011, followed by the pedestrian Brave and the fun but unsophisticated Monster's University. Leave it to Pixar veteran Pete Docter (the mastermind behind Monsters, Inc. and Up) to remind us why we loved the studio so much in the first place. Inside Out is a staggeringly original piece of work, sophisticated and delightfully creative, with Docter and co-director Ronnie Del Carmen dreaming up a unique fantasy world set inside the human mind, dealing with the tumultuous topic of teenage angst and emotion. Inside Out is a challenging movie, but, like all the best Pixar productions, it's also endearing, with lovely visual design and a welcome sense of humour ensuring that it's always a pleasure to watch.

Inside the brain of twelve-year-old Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), a team of emotions guide her through her daily life, tasked with handling her memories and thoughts. At the helm is Joy (Amy Poehler), who anxiously endeavours to maintain control, while Riley's other emotions - Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) - occasionally muck up the works. When Riley's parents (Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan) move the family from Minnesota to San Francisco, things are simply not the same, and Riley's mind begins to go haywire. When an accident at headquarters occurs, Joy and Sadness are ripped away from their command posts, lost somewhere in the labyrinthine of Long Term Memory. As the pair determinedly work to find a way back to HQ, Anger, Fear and Disgust are left to steer the ship, but things are steadily spiralling out of control, affecting Riley's fragile prepubescent mind.

As anyone who has been through puberty can confirm, the teenage mind is overwhelmingly complex, with moodiness, odd thoughts and intense sadness seemingly coming out of nowhere, presenting a challenge to the creative team behind Inside Out. Soften the edges, and the movie loses its potency, but play the material too solemn, and kids will be alienated. Miraculously, Docter and Del Carmen accomplish a staggering tonal balance, and the result is an animated picture with broad appeal. Kids will be joyed by the sumptuous visuals and sublime humour, while adults can watch Inside Out by themselves and be utterly enthralled. What's particularly remarkable about this Pixar production is that, although it simplifies the subject matter, it's not too dumbed-down to be appreciated on more than one level. Indeed, with the movie boiling down to an immensely imaginative metaphor for human psychology, the accomplishments of Inside Out are numerous, and the nuances and layers will likely go over the heads of children.

Docter and Del Carmen refuse to hold back in some of the weightier scenes, with a heart-to-heart talk between Riley and her mother that rings true, while it's painfully relatable to see Riley introduce herself to her new class at school, with her memories of her old life suddenly tinged with sadness. Even though Inside Out does opt for a somewhat generic grand finale, the creators do not let the material get away from them, infusing the climax with utmost grace. The ultimate thesis on the mind of a prepubescent girl is both thoughtful and understanding, and it's sold with the sort of trademark Pixar elegance we have not seen since Toy Story 3. Added to this, the emotion and power of the story is underscored beautifully by Michael Giacchino's original soundtrack.

It's almost customary to point out, but the animation is superlative, maintaining a certain degree of cartoonishness whilst filling the frame with vividly designed characters and colourful backdrops, including the inspired layout of Riley's mind. Comedy is effortlessly derived from the material, with Inside Out dishing up subtle sight gags, some broader jokes for the kids, and even some adult comedy to even out the ledger. One standout sequence involves a brief glimpse into the minds of Riley's parents, with their respective teams of emotions playing into caricatures to hilarious effect. Other noteworthy hilarity occurs towards the end, when Riley interacts with a young boy whose internal emotions declare an emergency because a girl is speaking to him. Be sure to stick around after the credits begin to roll, as we get a glimpse into the minds of several other people and even some animals, leading to some of the picture's heartiest belly-laughs. Inside Out is further bolstered by a spot-on voice cast, with the ensemble submitting great work right across the board.

The 2015 summer season only begat one other hugely successful animated adventure: Minions. Comparing the two, the difference is staggering - whereas Minions is a surface-level experience solely concerned with goofy comedy, Inside Out mixes unforced intricacy and thoughtful psychological commentary with some of the biggest belly-laughs of the year. And best of all, it doesn't feel like homework. There's so much compassion here, and it's easy to relate to, which makes the movie absolutely lovely on top of being an entertaining sit. Inside Out truly is the shot in the arm that Pixar needed to establish that they are still in the game, though we will have to wait and see if this quality is maintained.


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It is what it is.

Posted : 1 year ago on 17 November 2015 02:20 (A review of Minions)


Emerging seemingly out of nowhere, the Despicable Me franchise unexpectedly developed into a box office juggernaut, with 2013's Despicable Me 2 alone earning more than ten times its $76 million budget. With Despicable Me 3 still a couple of years away, we now have Minions to tide us over, which is not so much a movie but rather a feature-length toy commercial. The little yellow guys have proven to be a hit with youngsters around the world, but the concept of giving these one-note characters their own movie did not sound too promising, as there's no emotional resonance or depth to them. Fortunately, the resulting flick is not without merit, with screenwriter Brian Lynch, and directors Pierre Coffin and Kyle Balda pulling together a slight but enjoyable animated adventure. It's not memorable in the slightest, but it is an improvement over the well-received but substandard Despicable Me 2.

As it turns out, the bespectacled titular creatures have existed since the dawn of time, constantly on the lookout for an evil master to serve. However, the Minions find it difficult to hang onto a boss, with their various masters meeting abrupt endings thanks to their careless antics. Settling in the Arctic, the little guys wind up feeling lonely and without purpose, eventually deciding upon a risky venture to the outside world. Bob, Kevin and Stuart (all voiced by co-director Coffin) therefore leave the tribe, ending up in New York City in 1968. The trio are soon thrilled to find that the International Villain-Con is being held in Orlando, whereupon they meet the world's first female super-villain, Scarlet Overkill (Sandra Bullock). Giving the Minions a shot at becoming her new henchmen, Scarlett sends Bob, Kevin and Stuart on a mission to steal Queen Elizabeth's crown so that she can rule England.

Minions moves by briskly enough, amounting to a succession of quirky comedic set-pieces, but there just isn't a strong enough story at the core of the movie. Thus, while there is ample visual ingenuity and the animation is consistently pleasing, the plot cannot sustain a full-length feature film. In fact, many of the vignettes would probably be better served as short movies, especially with so many Minion shorts being produced. Unfortunately, too, with the Minions left unable to talk properly, character development is hard, and the movie also lacks the emotional centre which allowed the original Despicable Me to soar into the stratosphere. Scarlet Overkill is not an especially memorable antagonist, either; she's a bog-standard stock villain, and, unlike Gru (Steve Carell), there is no nuance or complexity to her character. Nevertheless, it is a miracle that the Minions never get on the nerves, and something has to be said of the astonishing voice cast. In addition to Bullock, there's also Michael Keaton and Steve Coogan, while the reliable Geoffrey Rush provides narration.

Naturally, Minions offers up plenty of zaniness throughout, and kids will no doubt have a grand time watching the little yellow guys engaging in their usual shtick. For adults, the period detail does give the picture a boost, infusing the proceedings with '60s music and pop culture markers, including a Beatles nod that this reviewer appreciated. The soundtrack is extremely well-judged, featuring tunes from The Who, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, among others, giving the enterprise a unique flavour. The majority of the comedy is derived from slapstick humour in the vein of The Three Stooges and Charlie Chaplin, while sight gags are also employed to great effect. However, even though Minions does have belly-laughs, there's not enough of them, particularly compared to the still-unbeatable 2010 movie that started it all.

By its very nature, Minions is a one-joke movie, and, without Gru as a main character, there is nothing in the way of heart and soul, while the story could have used some tweaking. For better or for worse, the movie functions simply as a goofy comedy, with nothing to make it engaging or enjoyable on more than one level. Therefore, it does get tiresome after a while. Still, kids will be enraptured by the colourful visual design and the antics of the Minions, and though adults won't be as enthralled, it's still a bright, fast-paced adventure that won't leave you staring at your watch every few minutes.


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A well-intentioned misfire

Posted : 1 year ago on 15 November 2015 02:53 (A review of We Are Still Here)

"It's been 30 years since we've had fresh souls in the Dagmar house..."

In the same vein as You're Next and House of the Devil, 2015's We Are Still Here is a vintage-style horror movie which tips its hat to ghost movies of old, most notably Lucio Fulci’s House by the Cemetery. The feature film debut for writer-director Ted Geoghegan, the movie's heart is in the right place, with the low budget rendering it a modest horror endeavour relying more on practical effects than computer-generated nonsense. However, it's not especially scary or even memorable, kneecapped by mediocre scripting and an amateurish presentation. The poster is exceptional and the movie's final act is killer, but for the most part We Are Still Here is very middle-of-the-road, and in a world where James Wan can create an insanely chilling Insidious movie for $1.5 million, this is simply not good enough.

Mourning the loss of their son, married couple Anne (Barbara Crampton) and Paul (Andrew Sensenig) relocate to rural New England, moving into an old house with a mysterious history. Almost immediately, Anne feels that the spirit of their deceased offspring resides in the house, though Paul is reluctant to believe in the supernatural. Hoping to make some sense out of the situation, Anne invites old friends May (Lisa Marie) and Jacob (Larry Fessenden), hoping to use May's skills as an amateur psychic to communicate with whatever presence surrounds them. In the process, they begin to learn about the secrets surrounding the house that the local townsfolk are hiding.

To accentuate the throwback vibe, We Are Still Here is set in the late 1970s, harkening back to an era before mobile phones and advanced technology, capturing a simpler time for maximum horror efficiency. Geoghegan does well enough in the film's early stages, focusing on Anne and Paul's mundane day-to-day activities while an insidious presence is clearly lurking inside the residence. However, the movie seems perpetually stuck in first gear, with Geoghegan unable to conjure up an unsettling feeling of dread or terror. Despite a few effective horror beats, the film fails to come alive; it's in need of tauter editing and perhaps a more atmospheric score. It's not that the movie needed jump scares, but it's too dull as is, with long stretches of nothingness that grow tedious fairly quickly. It doesn't help that the actors are so thoroughly flat - even horror veteran Crampton seems lost here. Fessenden fares better, but it's not enough to redeem the entire affair.

We Are Still Here at long last roars to life in its the grand finale for which all hell breaks loose. It's wonderful work from Geoghegan and his crew, conjuring up a viciously brutal extended set-piece involving the house's demonic occupants and the seedy locals. We Are Still Here is not a bloodless PG-13 affair, but instead a hard R, with Geoghegan revelling in the possibilities laid out by the movie's admittedly promising premise. Bodies pile up, blood is thrown around with creative abandon, heads explode, and the ghoulies look remarkably convincing, brought to life through a mix of impressive make-up and some subtle but effective digital effects. The movie's prolonged build-up is almost worth it for the climax. Almost.

For a first-time helmer, Geoghegan does show promise, but We Are Still Here is simply not scary, and the freshman filmmaker struggles with storytelling, pacing and character development. Despite a standout third act, We Are Still Here is a misfire, albeit a well-intentioned misfire. It's nothing more than an 85-minute tribute to many superior haunted house features.


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