Movie Review: Tracers (2015)

April 18, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Tracers-Poster

A strange thing has happened to the perception that starring in popular film series ruin the careers of young actors. Ever since the world bestowed upon us the Twilight Saga, Kristen Stewart has been in a bunch of movies. Robert Pattinson has been in a bunch of movies. Most of them have been fairly high-profile, well-received movies too. That leaves Taylor Lautner, the third angle in the love triangle, who hasn’t been tearing up the screens since he stopped tearing up his shirt in Twilight for no apparent reason.

Apart from the poorly conceived star vehicle Abduction from 2011, Lautner hasn’t been a top biller for a film since the third Twilight film, and it now appears that his career is heading in the wrong direction with Tracers, a niche-market film about a bunch of young Parkour enthusiasts caught up in a crime ring.

Parkour is exciting to watch, which is why there have been a few movies made about the phenomenon in recent years. I never watched Brick Mansions or the French film it was based on, District 13, though I did catch a little-known film called Run (review here) last year. Tracers is basically a better and more expensive version of Run, mixed with that Joseph Gordon Levitt bike messenger movie Premium Rush.

In fact, Lautner (Cam) actually plays a struggling bike messenger who starts using his athleticism and well-proportioned body for parkour so he can get to know a pretty girl played by the up-and-coming Marie Avgeropoulos. But the girl and her brother are in a gang headed by a criminal who uses parkour to evade police capture, and Cam must find a way out by taking advantage of both his skills and smarts. And yes, Lautner does take off his shirt in this film, but the dim lighting could disappoint those looking for clear shots of his abs.

Tracers is a small film made for just US$11 million, and it shows. It’s a fairly pedestrian script with the familiar dialogue and attempts and character development, and you can pretty much guess what is going to happen next as the story predictably hits the designated checkpoints. The greyish tints and dilapidated settings also mean that the film is not pretty to look at, though to the credit of Daniel Benmayor the parkour scenes are at least done stylishly and with flair. I don’t know how realistic they are, but the running and climbing and jumping all over the place is undeniably thrilling. But that’s about all there is, unless you count the obligatory romance between Lautner and Avgeropoulos which I’m sure his fans are itching to see.

At the end of the day, Tracers is what it is — a low-budget, formulaic action film riding on the popularity of parkour that would have been straight-to-DVD without Lautner’s name attached to it. While it has its moments, you could probably get the same excitement from watching parkour highlights on YouTube.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Cobbler (2015)

April 16, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The Cobbler looked promising in the trailer. A cobbler played by Adam Sandler realises that he can turn into different people (in terms of physical appearance) by wearing their shoes. On its face, the film seems like a fable about what it means to walk in another man’s shoes, though in reality The Cobbler is just a dull comedy-drama that’s neither very funny nor very dramatic, and much shallower than the premise suggests.

Sandler plays Max, a traditional neighbourhood cobbler who lives with his elderly mother. It’s a sad existence for him, getting by alone in his workshop day to day, abused by clients with more money and better lives than him, and still wondering why his father (Dustin Hoffman) left him and his mother years ago. His only friend is the barber next door, played by the legendary Steve Buscemi.

So when one day Max discovers that he can turn into his clients by wearing their shoes, he decides to live the life he wishes he had. He becomes a dashing Brit (Dan Stevens), who has a stunning girlfriend and still gets plenty of attention from the ladies. He tries his hand at being a Chinese man, complete with an accent when he speaks English. But it’s when he attempts to be a criminal that things start spiralling out of control.

Despite an interesting premise, The Cobbler fails to flesh it out, instead going for cheap ideas, bizarre sentimentality (that borders on creepy) and a boring final act that revolves around a nasty property developer (Ellen Barkin). Rather than teaching Max how to sympathise with others by walking in their shoes, he abuses the power for his own benefit before becoming a cliched benevolent superhero of sorts. Everything is on the surface only, and this is confirmed by a predictable and silly ending.

There were plenty of opportunities for humour that went to waste, delivering at most smirks rather than genuine laughter. There also wasn’t much drama to speak of, and the only legitimate attempt involving Max’s father completely weirded me out. Thank God for Steve Buscemi, the only guy who really brought any life to the film with the exception of Method Man, who was menacingly good as a thug.

Having bagged the film out, it’s still probably one of Sandler’s best efforts in years. Seriously, his list of films before this one are all colossal critical flops: Men, Women & Children, Blended, Grown Ups 2, That’s My Boy, Jack and Jill, Zookeeper, Just Go With It, and Grown Ups. It’s frustrating, because anyone who has seen Punch-Drunk Love knows Sandler can act and isn’t exclusively confined to shit movies. The closest thing I can compare The Cobbler to is his 2006 film Click, which is also a magical fantasy comedy supposedly trying to teach a life lesson or two. But while Click at least had a few funny moments and some surprisingly touching scenes, The Cobbler doesn’t even have any.

It wasn’t so bad that it made me want to stop watching, but when you start feeling that a 99-minute film is too long it can’t possibly be very entertaining.

2 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Frankenstein’ by Mary Shelley

April 16, 2015 in Best Of, Book Reviews, On Writing, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I admit I’ve been somewhat slack on my goal to read more books this year, but I’ve finally made an effort and finished a classic I had been meaning to get to over the last few years: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

As it was first published in 1818, I was wary that the classic could be a letdown, given the way novelists wrote and the way characters spoke back in those days. There’s nothing wrong with it per se, though it does require more focus — especially in the beginning — and readers used to more modern styles could struggle getting into a flow. Madam Bovary, for example, is supposed to be one of the best books ever written from a technical perspective, and yet the experience bored me to death.

And so I am glad to report that Frankenstein was an awesome read. It’s a magnificent idea, well thought out, intricately planned and with captivating characters. While it was quite different to what I had expected, the novel’s classic status is well deserved.

Everyone knows that the story is about a young scientist, Victor Frankenstein, who develops and up session with creating life as a stepping stone towards cheating death. He successively brings The Creature to life but upon seeing the abomination he has a sudden change of mind and wants nothing to do with it. Thus begins two intertwining journeys of self-destruction, filled with pain, regret, discrimination, desire, jealousy, and above all, revenge.

The brilliance of the book lies in Shelley’s depiction of The Creature. She could have made him a zombie-like monster and typical murderous villain, but instead she infused him with a brilliant mind and a complicated heart. The agony he feels is comes across as so real that you can’t help but empathise with his unnatural existence and doomed predicament. In many ways, he is much more sympathetic than his creator, and that’s what makes it such a fascinating read.

The style of the novel also impressed me. Yes, the prose and speech do take a little bit of time to get use to because they are so exaggerated by modern standards and the vocabulary is much more precise, though once you get used to it the narrative starts flowing  downstream.

One thing I didn’t expect was the intentional lack of detail in some of the key aspects of the plot. The scene where Frankenstein brings The Creature to life, for instance, is extremely vague and bereft of specifics. You know he did something amazing, but you don’t quite know how he did it. In fact, there is almost nothing concrete about how The Creature was put together at all, and there’s also no description of his exact appearance other than that he is massive (eight feet tall), has dark hair, and is unimaginably grotesque. It leaves a lot to the imagination, something many modern writers fail to do. It also helps explain why so many movie adaptations have failed because they were forced to show things audiences would complain about no matter what.

I also had no idea that the story is told through so many layers — it’s actually a series of letters to his sister from a sailor who meets Frankenstein in the Arctic. The sailor then records Frankenstein’s story, which then recounts The Creature’s narrative as told to Frankenstein. It’s a clever device that offers three first-person perspectives in one — The Creator, The Creature, and the third party bystander.

My enjoyment of the book was helped by the fact that I didn’t really know what was going to happen. The version of the story I vaguely had in my head was the 1994 movie adaptation by Kenneth Branagh and starring Robert De Niro as The Creature. That one took some liberties with the plot, so it was a surprise to me when the novel began to take a different turn to what I was expecting. I know a lot of people hated the movie but I didn’t mind the alternative storyline.

In all, a fantastic reading experience and a good lesson for aspiring writers. Next up, Bram Stoker’s Dracula!

Movie Review: The Pyramid (2014)

April 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

pyramid

Call me a sucker for punishment.

I am one of those losers who watches movies knowing there is a 99.9% chance that it will be crap because I still hold out hope that it might be good. And so I decided to watch The Pyramid, the latest found footage debacle about a group of archaeologists and filmmakers who stumble onto a fictional new pyramid discovered in Egypt. Sounds like a brilliant, original idea bursting with potential, doesn’t it?

But perhaps it was my fascination with pyramids and pyramid curses that drew me to the film, or maybe it was my hope that a movie with a cast that includes recognisable names (at least for me) such as Dennis O’Hare and Ashley Hinshaw couldn’t possibly be that awful. Whatever the reasons, I ignored the warning signs, jus like the idiots in the movie, and took the plunge.

And it didn’t pay off.

To be fair, The Pyramid is not worse than most similar films made in recent years. The closest thing it resembles is last year’s As Above, So Below, which follows an attractive female expert into the Paris Catacombs with a film crew. Naturally, scary stuff happens and people die in gruesome ways. Here, Ashley Hinshaw is the attractive expert, and together with her father (O’Hare) and a film crew, they venture deep into a new and unusual four-sided pyramid (they usually have five, if you count the base). The difference, however, is that the film is not nearly as scary, nor is it as clever.

For starters, the believability factor is down because we know the pyramid they enter doesn’t exist in real life. Secondly, it’s totally unsubtle in its execution, going with cliched scare tactics that get old real quick. The progression of the plot is also formulaic to the extreme, to the extent where you can tell who is going to get picked off next. But the biggest difference between this and As Above, So Below is that the latter at least takes advantage of its claustrophobic setting and goes for some psychological horror, whereas The Pyramid wastes its opportunities by going with the typical curse and monsters routine.

The only thing that worked for me was the crazy monster cats (that didn’t even look realistic because of the poor CGI), and that’s only because feral cats freak me out. Most other people would have found it hilariously stupid.

On top of all that, the characters are typically uninteresting and annoying, and the dialogue is trite, though at least they do like to tell each other how moronic they are when they make dumb and nonsensical remarks.

Remarkably, The Pyramid is not the worst film of its kind. One advantage I can think of is that despite it technically being a “found footage” movie, the whole concept goes out the window quickly and audiences will soon find themselves seeing shots that could not have possibly been captured by any of the cameras on the characters. For some that is a negative, though for me it was great to be able to actually see what’s going on and not feel nauseated from all the shaky footage.

The other positive I can think of is that the film, as hackneyed as it is, never pretends to be anything else. It plays to curiosities about the pyramids and Egyptian legends, and offers a few cheap scares some audiences will feel comfortable with because it’s what they’re used to. For everyone else, it’s better to believe the movie is cursed.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Boy Next Door (2015)

April 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I wonder what was going through JLo’s head when she signed up to co-produce and star in The Boy Next Door, a film that has straight-to-DVD written all over it. Then again, while she is no doubt a star, she’s not exactly a film star, with her last film credit being the forgotten 2013 flick Parker with Jason Statham, and the one before that being the abominable What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

In fact, it’s arguable that JLo has only been in two legitimately good movies, being U-Turn and Out of Sight, released back-to-back in 1997 and 1998, when she was at the height of her popularity. Those good deeds were outdone by her subsequent turkeys, including The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law, and of course, the infamous Gigli.

The Boy Next Door falls firmly in the turkey category, though I would argue it’s not quite as bad as the others simply because expectations are so low. You know how it goes. JLo plays a teacher with a teenage son and a cheating husband (John Corbett). At a time when she feels vulnerable, she gives in to temptation with the hunky next-door neighbour (Ryan Guzman), who happens to be friends with her son. Naturally, she realises she’s made a huge mistake, but of course the hunk is an obsessive psycho who won’t let her go.

It’s a cliche-fest driven by adult themes but (intentionally) adolescent execution. JLo gets to show off that she’s still in good shape, while Guzman pads his stats as a heartthrob with multiple views of his muscular arms and abs. Cheesy dialogue, cringeworthy moments are aplenty, and genuine thrills are difficult to come by. What makes it worse is that there are no decent characters to root for. Apart from being a moron, JLo’s character is a fake tough guy who you simply can’t sympathise with. Her son (Ian Nelson), is such an obnoxious brat that you just keep hoping he gets his face smashed in. The husband is an obvious slimeball, so you can forget about him, whereas the school principal and JLo’s only friend (squeaky-voiced Kristin Chenoweth) is a sacrificial lamb waiting to happen. So that just leaves the psycho, who could have been an antihero of sorts if only he had any semblance of a real personality or more than one facial expression.

The end product is an unoriginal, predictable B-grade thriller people will probably see on late-night TV years from now and assume JLo made it when she was a struggling nobody. The Boy Next Door is not the worst thing JLo has ever made, though a lot of that has to do with the fact that no one could have possibly gone into the movie expecting it to be any good.

1.75 stars out of 5

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