Movie Review: Annabelle (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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In an era of crappy, derivative horror films, last year’s The Conjuring was a rare gem in the rough. Most people knew what they were in for — they just didn’t realize how effective it would be thanks to director James Wan’s big bag of tricks.

And so I was excited when I heard that they were going to make a prequel called Annabelle, named after the creepy doll seen briefly in The Conjuring. Haunted toys have been subjected to multiple film interpretations, and I was cautiously optimistic that the same crew from the conjuring would be able to deliver again.I was wrong.

Annabelle was nowhere  near as scary as the conjuring, nor was it anywhere close to being as well made. Instead of the definitive scary doll movie I had been hoping for, Annabelle ended up being yet another disappointment.

The film begins with a brief scene from the conjuring for taking us back to the 1970s, where we meet our lovely protagonists, pregnant young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John Form (Ward Horton). For some inexplicable reason, John decides to get Mia the Annabelle doll to go along with her creepy doll collection (I mean seriously, have you seen the bloody thing?), and soon after that, a deranged woman from a Satanic cult decides to pass her soul into the doll shortly before her death. If you think that sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same scenario happens in Child’s Play, the original Chucky classic.

From there, the progression is fairly predictable — we start off with little things which then escalate, prompting the couple to seek outside counsel, eventually leading to a climatic finish. If you’ve seen it once you’ve seen them all.

None of the predictability would have mattered if Annabelle was genuinely frightening. I admit, expectations were probably unreasonably high after I saw the trailer, which scared the crap out of me. Sadly, the trailer pretty much spoiled all the truly scary parts of the film, and what was left over turned out to be a bore. Despite a running time of just 98 minutes, Annabelle felt surprisingly slow. Unlike The Conjuring, which gave us a fine blend of atmosphere and “boo!” moments, Annabelle was dominated by cheap scares and obvious tactics.

It would be a lie to say the film wasn’t scary at all, but I guess that’s what happens when you follow up one of James Wan’s best efforts with a career cinematographer like John R Leonetti. To be fair, Annabelle does have some stylish scenes and is by far Leonetti’s best film, though this is not difficult feat considering his other directorial credits are Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Buttlerfly Effect 2.

One of the other major problems with Annabelle is the acting. It would be nasty to suggest that the doll was the least wooden performer in the cast, but going from established Conjuring veterans like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston to the likes to Wallis and Horton is a jarring experience.

Having said all that, Annabelle probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. It’s disappointing because of heightened expectations, though compared to the vast majority of other trash out there, the film is actually better than most. It’s a shame there couldn’t have been more creativity with the script and better acting, but if you haven’t seen the trailer there might be just enough scares to justify giving the film a try.

PS: For those wondering, Annabelle is even less of a true story than The Conjuring. Check out the real doll. If you’ve done any reading about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghostbuster couple from The Conjuring, you’ll know it’s likely a whole bunch of BS. Check out this article for more details.

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Movie Review: Before I Go to Sleep (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I had wanted desperately to read SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, the bestselling novel about a 40-year-old woman who has that same condition as Drew Barrymore from 50 First Dates — ie, she has no short term memory and wakes up every morning with no recollection of the previous day or what happened to her since her early 20s. But alas, I was stuck on other books, so I decided to take the easy way out and watch the adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong.

While the film blatantly steals from Adam Sandler’s idea (if you can’t tell that’s a joke then I can’t help you), Before I Go to Sleep is no comedy — it’s a mystery thriller with plenty of suspense that will have every viewer trying to guess the outcome. Personally, I thought it was a perfectly solid mystery film that doesn’t manage to fully differentiate itself from similar Hollywood efforts in recent years. I enjoyed the ride while it lasted, and while I wouldn’t call it forgettable (pun unintended), the film clearly will not be as revered as its source material.

Nicole Kidman plays our protagonist, Christine Lucas, who suffers from the — let’s just call it the Drew Barrymore condition — because of an “accident” she was in about 10 years ago, or so her husband Ben (Colin Firth) tells her. Every morning, after waking up and being reminded of who she is by Ben, she receives a call from a neurologist, Dr Nasch (Mark Strong), who tells her that they’ve been secretly working together to help her remember her past.

Naturally, nothing is what it seems, and Christine slowly begins to peel away the mystery, one layer at a time like an onion. Who can she trust? Who is telling her the truth? And why did she really become this way? These are all questions that will get answered eventually, though not before writer and director Rowan Joffe (who was a writer on 28 Weeks Later and The American) throws a bunch of curve balls at us. But anyone who watched this film probably knew that there’d be twists and turns galore, and an obligatory surprise at the very end.

Knowing what’s coming, however, didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the film. Before I Go to Sleep is done and dusted in an extremely manageable (and unlikely for this day and age) 92 minutes. The short running time keeps the film tight and fast paced, and Joffe cleverly finds ways to avoid repetition despite Christine waking up in the same manner every day. Always be kept on the back foot from all the plot twists and red herrings also prevents you from thinking too much about all the potential plot holes and inconsistencies.

I know it is unpatriotic of me to say this, but I have never been the biggest fan of Nicole Kidman. I just don’t think, Oscar notwithstanding, she’s that good of an actress. Having said that, I admit she there is not much for me to complain about here. She gets the job done, I’ll leave it at that. Colin Firth and Mark Strong are also excellent and make full use of their charisma in different ways, such that both come off as trustworthy suspects.

My biggest problem with the film, and films like this in general, is that knowing a “shocking” twist is coming means you likely won’t be shocked when it finally comes. I couldn’t shake that feeling of anticipation throughout most of the film, and I doubt I’m alone when I say I more or less guessed the ending.

While it doesn’t come close to blowing me away like I was by a classic like The Usual Suspects, I think Before I Go to Sleep generally accomplishes what it set out to do. It might not be the most creative or satisfying mystery thriller you’ll come across this year, but in my opinion it’s certainly one of the better ones.

3.5 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Ender’s Game’ by Orson Scott Card

October 23, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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After being thoroughly dissatisfied with last year’s Ender’s Game (review here), the long-awaited big screen adaptation of Orson Scott Card’s 1985 military sci-fi novel, I was advised to give the source material a try, with assurances that it will be “much much better.”

Well, I finally had a chance to get around to it. The book is indeed better than the novel — I don’t think anyone disputes that — though I must admit that I don’t quite get why so many people love the book to death. In a fascinating introduction to the book written in 1991, Card acknowledges that Ender’s Game divided readers, but many of those who loved it thought it was a life-changing book that got them through some tough times.

For me, Ender’s Game was an interesting read but not a particularly impressive one. Perhaps I needed to have read it when I was a child, or at least much closer to Ender’s age than I am today, or maybe I’m just not quite on the same wavelength as Card (I suspect it is a bit of both). Either way, while I was engaged by the book I don’t think the story ultimately resonated with me the way it has with countless others.

Like the movie adaptation I watched last year, Ender’s Game is set in a future where humanity is engaged in a protracted war with insect-like aliens known as “buggers”. The buggers attacked Earth, causing catastrophic damage, but mankind was saved when a brilliant pilot by the name of Mazer Rackham found a way to destroy the enemy fleet, earning humans a short term victory. Now, the International Fleet is recruiting gifted children in the hopes of training them up to become future saviours, and Ender Wiggin is selected to enter Battle School for training, where he quickly excels to become humanity’s best and last hope.

Reading the book, I understood why the film adaptation took so long to be realized. Apart from the special effects that were needed, the adaptation was made difficult because Ender is so young at the beginning of the book (7 years old) and is just 11 by the time the book ends.

To make the adaptation work, The filmmakers made Ender much older (Asa Butterfield was already about 15 when they shot the film) and dramatically condensed Ender’s Time at Battle School. Key characters such as Ender’s sister Valentine and his brother Peter were basically written out of the film completely. Unfortunately, these changes gutted the film, and other aspects could not do enough to compensate.

On the other hand, I was surprised that the book failed to address some of my biggest issues with the movie. I thought the film did a horrendous job in conveying what the kids were doing in the Battle Rooms, which frustrated me because I had no idea what they were doing or trying to accomplish. But now, I realise it’s because the book isn’t exactly clear either. You get bits and pieces, like how to win a game and how to disarm opponents, etc, but there are still so many missing slabs that you never feel like you know enough to be truly immersed in their world.

The other major problem is that the entire premise of using child geniuses to fight a war is a shaky one. I bought into it after having Card repeatedly beat into my head that Ender and his cohort are the best the entire world has to offer, as well as numerous reminders from the characters that these are not “normal” children. But I can certainly understand why some readers just couldn’t swallow the story.

My issue was less with the premise and more with the actions of the children, in particular the Wiggins trio of Ender, Valentine and Peter. Even when I accept that they are extraordinary children I still have difficulty believing many of the things they are capable of. I guess that is why I believe I would have received the book very differently had I read it as a child.

That is not to say that the book is without merit. For starters, the central idea itself is quite brilliant, and Card does not waste the golden opportunity to make some astute observations about human nature and the way we perceive children.

Secondly, Card’s writing is strong and confident, such that you tend to not question (at least not immediately) the plausibility of his narrative. There is an enviable clarity and simplicity to his voice and style; even though the sci-fi terms can sometimes get a little technical, Card appears to have the uncanny ability to always explain things in the most straightforward manner.

Thirdly, Card does an excellent job of developing Ender’s character, which is not easy considering that he is not a normal child nor your typical protagonist. Yet, Card makes us care about Ender and empathize with his plight. The book is at its most engaging — by far — when Ender is put through one grueling challenge after another and is pushed to the limit, both physically and emotionally, while trying to cope with the stresses of training as well as the jealousy and prejudice of his fellow cadets. Notwithstanding how unlikely the situations are, there is an air of genuineness about the interactions between the characters.

Overall, I can’t say I was fully satisfied with Ender’s Game, even though there were sections I either really enjoyed or thought were executed with impressive skill and creativity. I think the book ends on an apt note, so I have no interest in checking out any of its sequels.

3.5/5

Movie Review: Dracula Untold (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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If I had gone into Dracula Untold knowing only of the horrendous reviews I had glanced, I probably would have really enjoyed it and thought that critics were completely overreacting. However, I had also received several positive endorsements from friends, who said the film is nowhere near that bad and was actually a perfectly acceptable dark fantasy reimagining/mashing of a classic story and a historical legend. In the end, my impression of Dracula Untold lies somewhere in the middle — it definitely is not as bad as the reviews say, though on the other hand I had so many issues with it I found it difficult to conclude that it is any more than just a passable effort.

In essence, Dracula Untold is a superhero movie. We have a protagonist who obtains super powers beyond his imagination, but of course the powers comes at a very steep price. Here, Prince Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) is a hero who turns himself into Superman…oops,  I mean vampire (with the help of Games of Thrones‘s Charles Dance) – with super strength, speed, healing capabilities and the ability to fly – in order to save his family and his people from the nasty draconian Turks led by his evil “brother” Mehmet (Dominic Cooper, whom I coincidentally often mistake for Evans for some inexplicable reason). The problem, of course, is that he wants to drink human blood and has a weakness for direct sunlight and silver.One of the key strengths of Dracula Untold lies in Vlad’s internal struggle. Instead of the historical villain who loved to impale his victims, Vlad is depicted as an astonishingly capable warrior who is righteous in everything he does — even when he is impaling people. He is an all-round family man who dearly loves his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his young son (Art Parkinson), which is why he chose to become a monster to protect them, even though he’ll constantly want to drink their blood. First time feature director Gary Shore does a solid job of milking this inner conflict so that we might care about our protagonist. Kudos also to Evans for putting in as good of a performance as one could have hoped in a role like this.

Further, while the film is not scary at all, there is a gloomy mood that works well with the film’s themes. The action sequences are surprisingly exhilarating, in the way that superhero flicks can be when executed right. Admittedly, watching Dracula turn into bats and take on thousands of soldiers by his lonesome is pretty cool, even if you sometimes feel like you’re watching a video game.

Up to this point, Dracula Untold just about ticks all the right boxes for an enjoyable Hollywood guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, the film is also plagued with so many gaps in logic and physics and missing or puzzling details that I found myself asking, “Did that really just happen?” more than a couple of times (see below this review for some slightly spoilery examples). Granted, most Hollywood flicks suffer from similar problems, but the ones here are so glaring and sloppy that they snapped me out of the film’s flow. Some of the flaws are less abhorrent once you realize that they are apparently planning a sequel — which also partly explains the stupid ending — though I doubt we’ll ever get to the bottom of most of these mysteries.

Apart from Vlad, there are also no other characters to give a crap about. Gadon’s loving wife is sadly a thankless character who doesn’t do much except whinge and cry and wait to be rescued, and the son is more or less a prop. Vlad also has a couple of loyal right-hand men whom we don’t even get to know before they die, but then are expected to care. And there’s this weird “servant” dude who pops out of nowhere to act creepy but we have no idea who he is, where he came from or what his motivations are.

In all, Dracula Untold flashed glimpses of promise. The premise itself is not bad, the lead star is solid and the action sequences are relatively exciting. It’s also, thankfully, a very tightly-packed 92-minutes that never feels boring. At the end of the day, I’d rank it above abominations like I, Frankenstein and below more fun, less serious efforts like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

2.75 stars out of 5

(SPOILER ALERT) Here are some of the questions I asked myself while watching Dracula Untold:

- Is Charles Dance’s vampire restricted to living in that cave or just at night? If he’s always stuck in there then where do all the bones come from? Why would so many people go to extreme lengths to get into that cave so they could be eaten? Why is he stuck there and Vlad can roam around freely? And if Vlad “sets him free” by replacing him in the end, then why can Vlad still go wherever he wants?
- Doesn’t Charles Dance’s vampire want to seek revenge against the one who made him that way? What’s he doing still following Vlad around — 600 years later? What the heck are these “games” he’s talking about?
- Why could Vlad not save Mirena when she fell off the cliff when he can fly she she was just free-falling? He can fly so fast he basically teleports, and he’s likely falling quicker because of his greater mass!
- So did he get to her in time or what? If so, why is she dead? If not, why did she not splatter and why could she still talk so much?
- How did Vlad’s kid get from the top of the cliff onto a horse at the bottom of the cliff basically during the time it took for his mother to fall to her death?
- So Mirena reincarnated into Mina 600 years later? Is that what they’re saying? Seriously?
- Is Vlad more powerful than the other vampires he created? Why? Why does he look so much better than them? Why didn’t he look like Charles Dance even though he “replaced” him? Why can he cover the sky with clouds? And how can he (and Charles Dance) be walking around in daylight at the end of the film?
- Why am I thinking so much about things that don’t make sense in this movie?

Sant-AnGeLo (Osaka)

October 23, 2014 in Food, Japan, Reviews, Travel by pacejmiller

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So I recently went to Osaka on a short family trip. Meals were scarce, so we were sure to book ahead, and one of the recommendations we decided to try out was Sant-AnGeLo, allegedly one of the best Italian joints in the city.

It took us a bit of time to find the place, which is situated inside one of the food alleys connected to Namba Parks (near the very end of the strip). It has a nice Italian atmosphere, with traditional tablecloths and plates on the walls. They do have English menus so there’s no need to panic, and the waiters seem to be able to communicate in English if your Japanese isn’t up the scratch.

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Their menu is fairly extensive, with a nice range of traditional pizzas and pastas. With four adults, we decided to go with two pizzas and two pastas. Based on the recommendations of the waiters, we went with these:

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Quattro Formaggi, basically a “four cheese” pizza that comes with gorgonzola, mozzarella, taleggio, parmigiano. 

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The Pescatore, a seafood pizza with a tomato base

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The Bolognese

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The Carbonara

The food may look unspectacular but it was truly awesome. The pizza crust is hand made and wood fired, and the cheese seems like it’s good quality stuff. It’s hard for me to rank one pizza above the other because they were both so good in their own way, with the Quattro Formaggi full of cheesy flavour and the Pescatore so flavoursome and deluxe. The pastas were also deceptive tasty, especially the tangy bolognese, which the kids absolutely loved. The carbonara was also not too creamy and had a little bit of an extra zing.

For dessert we tried the tiramisu, but it was so enticing that we gobbled it up before I had the chance to take a photo.

In all, it was a splendid experience. Great atmosphere, friendly and speedy service and delicious, traditional Italian cuisine. Would love to come back if the opportunity presents itself in the future.

8.5/10

Details

Sant-AnGeLo (サンタ・アンジェロ)

Website (Japanese): http://www.anjou.co.jp/shop/angelo/index.html (pizza menu third tab, pasta/dessert menu fourth tab)

Address: 5-1-60 Nanba, Chuo Ward, Osaka, Osaka Prefecture (walking distance from Namba stations)

Phone: +81 (0)6-6644-2855

Hours: Mon-Fri 11:30-14:00, 17:30-22:00; Sat-Sun 11:30-22:00

Price: about 1,000 yen per person for lunch, 2,500 yen per person for dinner

SA

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