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Respectable way to close the franchise

Posted : 1 year, 8 months 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, 8 months 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, 8 months 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, 9 months 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, 9 months 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, 9 months 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, 9 months 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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A safe, generic disappointment

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 14 November 2015 05:43 (A review of Terminator Genisys)

"Come with me if you want to live! NOW, SOLDIER!"

It has now been six years since the abortion that was McG's Terminator Salvation was met with substandard box office and critical mauling, posing a challenge for any filmmaker bold enough to pursue further sequels. There were not many logical places for the series to go, thus 2015's Terminator Genisys functions as both a sequel and a reboot, avoiding another future war movie by forcing a story set before Judgment Day to return the series to its roots. Genisys is barely a movie at all - it's a concept of a movie; a vague mishmash of half-baked ideas and potentially interesting scenes strung together not to tell a worthwhile story, but to fill out a balance sheet. Indeed, it solely exists to plot a workable new path for the franchise, paving the way for more sequels to allow Skydance to keep beating this dead horse for all that it's worth until the rights revert back to James Cameron in 2019. And with a soft PG-13 rating in place forbidding the visceral delights of the first two Terminator movies, Genisys feels safe and generic.

In the apocalyptic future war, human resistance leader John Connor (Jason Clarke) spearheads an attack on Skynet headquarters with help from right hand man Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), in the process delivering a devastating blow that may finally end the war against the machines. But it is discovered that a T-800 Terminator has been sent back in time to 1984 to kill John's mother, Sarah (Emilia Clarke), to ensure that that he is never born. Kyle volunteers to serve as Sarah's protector, but upon arrival in 1984, he discovers that Sarah is already aware of the situation, locked in warrior mode and able to protect herself, aided by her lifelong Terminator guardian “Pops” (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Aiming to prevent Judgment Day, Sarah and Pops have created a time machine of their own, planning to travel forward in time to 1997 to stop Skynet before it goes live. But apparently the timeline has been altered and Kyle has memories of a future which hasn't happened yet, and they need to travel to 2017 instead. And on it goes.

Every time an R-rated franchise is continued with a PG-13 instalment, the press strategies are identical, with the studio, actors, and even the blind fan-boys wanting us to believe that PG-13 is no big deal, because it will (somehow) still be violent, and what matters the most is the script and story. Funnily enough, Arnie actually satirised such blatant lies in Last Action Hero back in 1994, with his character explaining that “In this movie we only kill 48 people. In the last one we killed 119. But we make up for it with a good story, emotions, depth, dimensions.” Big surprise: Genisys's PG-13 rating is a much bigger deal than we have been led to believe. Perhaps it could have worked if it did have a smart screenplay, but Genisys is a dumb action film, lacking the smarts and heart of the original Terminator. It's a numbing succession of brainless action sequences, and without the visceral punch of an R rating, there is not much to see here.

Genisys is not just a Terminator reboot, but a DC Comics-esque multiverse reboot. It's a poor excuse for the filmmakers to create a grab-bag of every single element that people liked from the previous movies; Sarah is already a badass, there's a T-1000 (played by Byung-hun Lee), there's another de-aged Arnold T-800 (with improved CGI), and they've recreated the main plot thrust of T2, with the heroes trying to destroy Skynet before Judgment Day erupts. Genisys also copycats another notable aspect of T2, with a relationship between Sarah and "Pops." A more appropriate title for the movie would be Terminator FanService. But then again, this is a PG-13 movie, so they cannot even do the fan service thing properly. Also, turning Arnie's ruthless T-800 into a sidekick for a wise-ass kid was a bad idea back in 1990, and having him as a gentle father figure is just as ill-advised here. I miss Arnie the hardcore killer.

Genisys is easy to follow, but examining the narrative too closely is a bad idea, with paradoxes and unanswered questions. The question of who sent Pops back in time is a real head-scratcher, and the script politely refuses to answer the query, with the T-800 explaining that his files were erased. But the biggest head-scratcher is the need for Sarah and Pops to build a time machine to go forward in time. Time-travel exists in the Terminator franchise in order for people and cyborgs to go back in time to change things, which is understandable, but why use it to travel forward? Time goes forwards in the first fucking place! Instead of jumping ahead thirty years, Sarah, Kyle and Pops could have spent that time improving their tactics and arsenal, keeping an eye on the Skynet situation, remaining one step ahead, and could have even destroyed Skynet whilst it was still in beta. But instead, they go for the ticking clock of Terminator 3 (hey look, another idea stolen from a past movie), even though it's incredibly idiotic that they aim to show up with limited time on their side, and just wing it.

The marketing campaign for Genisys is one of the poorest in recent memory, with the bargain basement posters, and the trailers which spoiled all of the movie's surprises. The big “twist” is that John is now the villain. But rather than the villain being a Terminator who looks like John, it actually is John Connor whose genetics were tampered with, and now he's Skynet's guardian to safeguard his own future existence. Frankly, this concept is unforgivable. John has always been mankind's saviour in the future war, but now it's all for naught. Perhaps this decision was made to sidestep the need for a sex scene between Kyle and Sarah, because PG-13. There are some interesting thematic undercurrents in the screenplay by Laeta Kalogridis and executive producer Patrick Lussier - particularly in regards to our growing reliance on screens in a modern world dominated by Google, Microsoft and Apple; and with Sarah standing up for her right to choose a mate rather than letting her supposed fate dictate that she must climb into bed with Kyle - but the movie is more interested in prolonged action scenes and terrible humour. Heavens me, the attempts at comedy are woeful, especially a hideous running joke that Pops cannot smile properly despite repeated attempts. Pops even makes a comment about Kyle's endowment, while another scene involves Pops getting a mugshot while the Cops theme plays in the background. Holy shit.

At least there is colour to the movie. One of Terminator Castration's many, many flaws is its desaturated cinematography which rendered it monotonous and visually drab. With Alan Taylor (Thor: The Dark World) at the helm, Genisys retains a far brighter colour scheme, and to its credit it is more watchable than its immediate predecessor. However, the action scenes are a mixed bag. The 1984 sequences are surprisingly proficient, but the bigger set-pieces are boring, even with the mammoth budget. Genisys goes far too over-the-top, sapping humanity and intensity from the material. A certain bus crash is incredibly overdone and should have left people seriously injured or dead, but Kyle and Sarah, who were inside, walk away without a scratch on them. Even the special effects are a mixed bag; the T-1000 looks worse than it did in 1990, the flashy CG-riddled climax looks like vomit, and so on. The young Arnold does look impressive initially, but when he begins fighting Pops, he suddenly looks phoney.

Terminator Genisys does have one benefit to elevate it above Suckvation: Arnie's participation. The Austrian Oak is getting old, but he's still a welcome addition to the cast, keeping the flick watchable even during its worst patches. Unfortunately, the rest of the cast (not to mention the film itself) fail to serve him. Emilia Clarke is hopelessly out of her depth here, exuding minimal screen presence, coming across as a very passionless Sarah Connor. She's nothing compared to the powerhouse that was Linda Hamilton in T2. I do not hate Jai Courtney, but he makes so little of an impression here, and it's painful to watch him attempt to fill Michael Biehn's formidable shoes. Jason Clarke (no relation to Emilia) does what he can as John Connor, but he's just not a believable badass - he looks more like an office worker. The only bright spot (apart from Arnie) is J.K. Simmons as a detective who's caught up in the battle. And it's heartbreaking to see former Doctor Who star Matt Smith caught up in this garbage.

Can this please be it for the Terminator franchise? We as viewers have suffered enough, and even though Genisys is an improvement over Terminator Salvation, we are still far away from the groundbreaking brilliance of Cameron's 1984 masterpiece which started it all. Characters are uninteresting, there's no tension or sense of stakes, the script struggles with a needlessly convoluted narrative, and attempts at comedy are painful. The seeds of a half-decent movie are here, but the potential could not be found in the hands of this creative team. It has been a week since I viewed Genisys, and I am hard-pressed to remember anything I liked about it. Anyone seeking a glossy, expensive studio blockbuster may enjoy Genisys, but give me a violent, bone-crunching '80s sci-fi action-thriller like 1984's The Terminator over this guff any day of the week.


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A dull as hell action flick

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 13 November 2015 08:59 (A review of Spectre)

"It was me, James. The author of all your pain."

After the disappointment of Die Another Day in 2002, the producers of the long-running James Bond franchise realised that they could not keep sticking to the pre-established formula, instead opting to hit the reset button for 2006's Casino Royale. However, they stopped short of actually finding something distinctively new for the series to become in order for it to be as unique and exciting as it was back when it started. Instead, the franchise is now more concerned with aping whatever is popular and successful at any given time. Royale is a visible clone of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins, Quantum of Solace was a Jason Bourne movie, Skyfall went back to the Nolan approach, and now Spectre is a Marvel movie. More specifically, Spectre is Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though the narrative also bears astonishing similarities to the far superior Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation. Once again helmed by Sam Mendes (Skyfall), Spectre may not be an unredeemable disaster, but it does fall towards the lower end of the Bond spectrum, a dull as hell action flick suffering from some of the worst plotting in 007 history.

It is a tense time for MI6, with the proposed merger with MI5 threatening to eliminate the "00" program in favour of employing high-tech surveillance techniques. MI6 is therefore under some intense scrutiny, putting M (Ralph Fiennes) on edge, who's keen to keep James Bond (Daniel Craig) on a tight leash after a destructive stunt in Mexico City. Setting off on a personal mission without permission, Bond seeks out old foe Mr. White (Jesper Christensen), who has information about a shady organisation known as Spectre, led by a certain Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Travelling to Austria, Bond meets with Madeleine Swan (Léa Seydoux), Mr. White's daughter, who has ties to Spectre's history. Back in London, M, Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) are left to deal with all the bureaucratic business, with M wanting to bring Bond back in, but evidence comes to light that 007 may be onto something.

It's difficult to cover the gaping flaws of Spectre's moronic plotting without divulging spoilers, even though most/all of the surprises were either given away or strongly hinted at in the trailers in the first place, and the "twists" aren't nearly as exciting as the movie wants them to be. Nevertheless, a spoiler warning is in place.

Even though Spectre does incorporate elements of the long-running James Bond formula - with some gadgets, the gun barrel opening, an old-school henchman (Dave Bautista), and a beautiful love interest for Bond - the movie is still reluctant to return to the franchise's status quo, with Spectre another needlessly personal mission for 007. This series doesn't need such convoluted rubbish to justify action sequences, since killing people and wreaking havoc is literally Bond's 9-5 workday! He gets paid to travel to exotic locations and kill a bunch of bad guys, therefore the story does not need to be a personal vendetta, and if they had to do this sort of thing, can they at least put in some fucking effort? Worse, Spectre is not a standalone adventure. Whereas you could practically watch any other James Bond film out of order, this twenty-fourth instalment requires intimate knowledge of the last three movies, making it a 007 film only for franchise aficionados. You would think the producers would have recognised the foolishness of this approach after Quantum of Solace.

Following on from Skyfall and digging further into Bond's past, Spectre reveals that Oberhauser is the secret agent's brother, but this daft development only triggers Austin Powers flashbacks. (Except all three Austin Powers movies are much, much better than this garbage.) Worse, Oberhauser murders his father, becomes a global super-villain, and decides to set his crosshairs on Bond simply because his father loved James more than him. Oh boo hoo. Also, yes, Spectre pulls a Star Trek: Into Darkness on us; Oberhauser is the iconic franchise villain Ernst Stavro Blofeld, having changed his name after staging his death. But it makes no fucking sense for Oberhauser to choose to be called Blofeld, because the moniker has absolutely no bearing on the context of this particular story - Oberhauser just picked it out of a clear blue fucking sky.

Marvel-esque world building has become the order of the day in recent years, and it's clear that MGM have taken note. Thus, Spectre wants its largely humdrum events to have the same kind of plot-threads-coalescing weight of the Avengers films, but they try to achieve it after-the-fact, without having actually done any of the prep work. In the most contrived way possible, Spectre ties together the events and villains of the last three instalments by revealing that Blofeld was responsible for everything, lurking behind the curtain and pulling the strings in secret. Problem is, this doesn't actually make any logical sense in the context of the previous movies. It doesn't even make sense in this context, given what his supposed endgame is.

Despite a gargantuan $245 million production budget, Spectre is not a particularly exciting or involving motion picture. The opening sequence in Mexico City is admittedly well-staged, but the succeeding action beats are strangely sedate, failing to raise the pulse. A car chase between Bond and Hinx has to be one of the most bland and uneventful vehicular pursuits in cinematic history, while a chase involving a plane and some cars is a total snoozer, which is a real surprise given director Mendes' past experience. Naturally, the film does look good, especially with the lush, stylish cinematography courtesy of Hoyte van Hoytema (Interstellar), and the sumptuous accompanying score by Thomas Newman, but such surface pleasures ultimately add up to very little. Despite being a watchable motion picture, there's no danger, dread or intensity, with vanilla, determinedly bloodless violence, and romantic/sex scenes that feel bland and perfunctory.

This is Craig's fourth go-round as James Bond, but he's clearly phoning this one in. Craig spent the press tour for Spectre whining non-stop about how much he dislikes playing Bond, despite the gargantuan paydays he keeps scoring. (When was the last time Craig headlined a film outside of Bond that was actually successful?) Waltz is a formidable villain, but his screen-time is seriously limited, while the well-publicised appearance of Monica Bellucci amounts to precisely nothing. Seriously, Bellucci is in the movie for less than five minutes, and could have easily been cut from the finished film. The only one who seems to care here is Bautista as a silent, deadly assassin. Also worthwhile is Sherlock actor Andrew Scott, who makes a positive impressive as a rising British Secret Service leader. Meanwhile, the usual players do their jobs well enough, with Fiennes, Whishaw and Harris all perfectly acceptable as Bond's colleagues.

Spectre is plagued with serious issues, from its studiously forgettable main title song by Sam Smith (set to a laughably naff title sequence) to its underwhelming action scenes. There aren't even any memorable one-liners. It has been nine years since Casino Royale, and the 007 series is already in need of another major rethink.


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Effective low-key thriller

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 11 November 2015 08:23 (A review of Cop Car)

"Boys I know you can hear me. You are in a whole lot of trouble."

2015's Cop Car is the second feature film from director Jon Watts, whose debut endeavour, the intensely creepy Clown, began as a fake YouTube trailer that developed into a viral sensation. With Watts now tapped to oversee the next cinematic outing for Spider-Man over at Marvel, attention will no doubt be drawn to his initial low-budget indie endeavours. Cop Car is best described as a slightly simplified Coen Brothers movie in the vein of No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple and Fargo, with muted performances, plenty of atmosphere, prolonged passages of stillness, and relentless violence, examining the dire price of a mistake. For those with the patience to sit through the movie, it's enormously rewarding, especially with a finale that's both intense and difficult to forget.

Whilst hiking through the middle of nowhere one afternoon, bored young boys Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) happen upon a sheriff cruiser, which piques their curiosity. Unattended and with the keys still in it, the pair take advantage of the situation, taking the cop car on a joyride for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The owner of the automobile is a certain Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), a corrupt cop who's knee-deep in criminal activities and is determined to recover his vehicle, all the while endeavouring to keep the entire incident a secret from his colleagues.

Cop Car is grounded in a sense of reality since Watts visibly understands children. The picture briskly establishes Travis and Harrison as preteen boys without a stable home life, traversing the dusty landscapes to alleviate their boredom. They aren't juvenile delinquents or rebels, but rather regular boys with heightened imaginations, perceiving the car as a really fancy plaything. Better yet, their dialogue and actions are naturalistic and believable. With it being so easy to latch onto the pair, the narrative is nail-biting, particularly since Travis and Harrison are naïve about the grave danger and consequences of this situation that any adult would be able to recognise. There's even a scene in which they find a cache of firearms and try out a bulletproof vest - it's uncomfortable to watch because we as viewers know the potential consequences, but it's precisely what would transpire if ten-year-old boys had access to such items without adult supervision.

To an extent, Cop Car feels like a coming-of-age indie movie, with the perils of the real world corrupting the innocence of youth. Watts favours mood and visuals over excessive dialogue, which may test viewers without the patience to give the movie a chance. But with accomplished cinematography, first-rate direction and taut editing, Cop Car is easy to become invested in; the filmic spell retains a mesmerising hold. Tension also runs rampant, leading to a shootout that winds down the story on an intense note. Miraculously, the gunplay doesn't feel out of place, as this world is established as a violent and brutal place, and it helps that the technical presentation is outstanding. But while there is a bit of dark humour, one cannot help but wonder what the Coen Brothers would have made of this material - I would have preferred more black comedy.

The two child actors are a real find. Finding worthwhile preteen performers is always a challenge, yet Wellford and Freedson-Jackson are sublimely believable and never irritating. But it's Bacon who steals the show, which is no surprise. Sheriff Kretzer is a pure caricature, and Bacon sinks his teeth into the part, even sporting a moustache to amplify the sleaziness. The other notable member of the cast is Shea Whigham, giving Bacon a run for his money on the scenery-chewing front. Whigham making pitch-black threats towards the two boys is one of the greatest moments in the movie; it's so darkly comedic and must be seen to be believed.

The only issue with Cop Car is that it seems unsure of how to end, with the narrative pushing beyond its logical closure point, struggling to find a satisfying note on which to close. It doesn't entirely work, as it feels like the movie is starting to get away from Watts, but it's not enough to sour the experience as a whole.


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