Movie Review: The Gift (2015)

August 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

gift

I’ve always been a big fan of Joel Edgerton, one of the most underrated and talented actors to come out of Australia in recent years. And I’ve now become a super huge fan after seeing his directorial debut, The Gift, a seemingly cookie-cutter suburban thriller that’s anything but.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robin, a couple who move from Chicago to LA for reasons that become apparent as the movie progresses. Shortly after moving in, they bump into Gordon “Gordo” Mosley, played by Edgerton, who claims to have gone to high school with Simon decades ago. And so begins an awkward and tense relationship between the couple and the mysterious blast from the past, who as the title and trailer suggest, likes to deliver creepy gifts to their doorstep.

That’s all I can say about the plot without giving away spoilers, and on the face of that description, The Gift may dredge up memories of 90s surburban/family thrillers like Pacific Heights and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But even if that’s all it is — ie, a typical genre film — The Gift is a pretty good one. With well-developed characters, an uneasy atmosphere and genuine edge-of-your-seat suspense, it’s already a few steps ahead of more recent efforts such as 1999’s Arlington Road, 2001’s Domestic Disturbance and 2008’s Lakeview Terrace.

However, The Gift is much more than a typical genre film. It’s a subversive journey full of twists and turns, challenging audiences to put aside preconceived notions. Edgerton’s direction and script (yes, he wrote it too) plays with our knowledge and expectation of such thrillers, manipulating us into thinking one way and then shocking us with another. But it’s not all about tricking us either, as there are times when he chooses more conventional thriller paths and cliches — it’s just that we never know which approach he will take. It’s clear Edgerton, with his wealth of experience as an actor, knows how certain filmmaking techniques will make audiences think and feel, and he has taken full advantage of that.

I don’t want to overstate things here — we’re not talking about genius-level brilliance like The Usual Suspects or anything like that — though for a debut feature it’s hard to deny that Edgerton is impressive and has a wonderful future ahead of him if he decides to focus on more behind-the-camera work.

Full credit too to the cast. I love Jason Bateman, so don’t get me wrong, but he’s always more or less playing a variation of  Michael Bluth from Arrested Development (think about it — Horrible Bosses, The Switch, The Change-Up, Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, This is Where I Leave You, etc). The Gift is the first time I’ve seen him play a completely different character, and I’m frankly quite shocked by how great of a dramatic actor he is. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from him by far.

The lovely Rebecca Hall also gets to show off her acting chops more than I’ve seen from her in any film probably since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In many ways, she’s actually the centre of the film, as audiences are closer to her point of view than anyone else’s. She’s vulnerable, she’s sympathetic and she’s tough when she needs to be. It’s a complex, multi-layered performance and Hall hits it out of the park.

By comparison, I was actually least wowed by Edgerton’s own performance, which is still a very good one but more difficult to gauge because Gordo is the “outsider” of the story. Edgerton undergoes a bit of a physical transformation to play this role, dying his hair red and dialling the creepiness meter to the max to make audiences as standoffish about Gordo as the protagonists are.

Also worthy of mention is Allison Tolman from TV’s Fargo. She only has a small role as the neighbour, but she manages to make her character more noticeable and memorable than it otherwise would have been.

As clever and crafty as The Gift is, the film does descend into more familiar thriller territory in its third act, veering towards improbable and preposterous plot developments that don’t always make sense. Some might think this “ruins” the film; for me, it’s just the consequence of trying too hard to come up with an explosive climax, a trap that — let’s face it — 99% of thrillers fall into. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to take the film to the next level.

A less than optimal conclusion notwithstanding, The Gift is a superb thriller fuelled by skilfully moulded tension and conflicts, strong performances and a promising directorial debut from Joel Edgerton. I hope this film will open the door for us to see more efforts like this from him down the track.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Longest Ride (2015)

August 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

longest ride

I’m as shocked as you. The Longest Ride, the 10th Nicholas Sparks film adaptation, isn’t vomit-inducingly bad. In fact, it might just be the best Nicholas Sparks film since The Notebook.

Petite blonde Sophia (played by Tomorrowland‘s rising star Britt Robertson) follows her college sorority sisters to a bull riding event in North Carolina and meets the gentlemanly rider Luke (Clint Eastwood’s son, Scott). A natural attraction develops, but as a young woman with aspirations in the art world, Sophia is from a different world to the thrill-seeking Luke, and besides, she has secured an internship in New York that is set to commence in a couple of months.

For some contrived reason, the two also meet a mysterious old man named Ira (played by Alan Alda), who for another contrived reason starts telling Britt the story about the love of his life from back in the WWII era. The young Ira is played by Jack Huston and his girl is Charlie Chaplin’s real-life great-granddaughter Oona Chaplin.

So as with many of Sparks’s stories, The Longest Ride is a passionate love story that spans multiple generations and features an impossibly dashing, considerate, perfect man. It has old people, saccharine dates, romantic letters, contrived obstacles that get in the way of true love, and of course trips to the hospital. It’s a well-worn template, but a damn effective one judging by the fact that we’re now into double figures.

If they ever make a biopic about Sparks it should be titled What Women Want, because he seems to certainly know exactly what some members of the fairer sex demand. I think I’ve started to figure it out — it’s a man who is not just charming, handsome and ripped but also driven, annoyingly persistent, romantic, caring and always madly in love with you and only you until the end of time. In other words, it’s a man who doesn’t exist in reality.  It’s the same conceit that made Twilight and Fifty Shades commercial successes. Whoever creates a female version of the same character for a male audience he would be vilified, but a male version means $$$.

That said, The Longest Ride is less manipulative and cringeworthy than I expected. The opening scenes of when the young lovers meet had me worried, though as the story slowly progresses you start to get the feeling that these characters may be more “real” than they’ve been in any Sparks film for a long time. Some of the more emotional interactions, as ashamed as I am to admit, got to me.

Some of the credit has to go to the solid performances. Robertson and Eastwood do have chemistry and might be the better looking couple, though the romance between Huston and Chaplin’s characters is the stronger and more heart-string-tugging of the two. It’s supposed to be a secondary story that allows the core characters to reflect on their own lives, but in my opinion it overtakes them and becomes the heart and soul of the movie.

I didn’t really care for the bull riding aspect of the story. Like the way some people don’t get boxing, I don’t get bull riding. Why anyone would risk death and/or serious pain to stay on the back of an animal for a few seconds is a mystery I will probably never understand. I will say though that inserting bull riding into the romance is at least a little different and adds an old-fashioned, Americana charm to the film that I didn’t mind.

The Longest Ride is vintage Sparks in that it is corny and schmaltzy and a complete fantasy. It is also predictable, though, without giving too much away, not as predictable as some of Sparks’s other efforts, especially in how he decides to bring the story to a close. It’s not a conclusion I liked, but at least it doesn’t go down the exact same bittersweet path as some of his other films. And look, Sparks’s movies are the opposite of a box of chocolates — you always know what you’re gonna get — and in this case the quality of the chocolates are better than usual. What I’m trying to say, against my better judgment, is that I quite enjoyed it.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Return to Sender (2015)

August 27, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

return-to-send-exclusive-poster

It’s inevitable that everything Rosamund Pike does from now on is going to be compared to the remarkable Gone Girl. Unfortunately, that comparison will also be made for her latest, Return to Sender, and the results are not pretty.

Pike plays a surgical nurse who is violently assaulted in her home — just as she was preparing to move out of it — by a scumbag of a douche played by Shiloh Fernandez, who is quickly apprehended and sent to prison. Clearly damaged by the trauma, she starts doing the unthinkable by writing to her rapist and striking up an unlikely relationship…

It’s an uncomfortable film — especially as it nears its climax — but more than anything it’s just a weird one. There is tension and suspense, but it’s not exactly a thriller. There are dramatic elements, though it’s not a drama either. And most importantly, all throughout this film I knew exactly where it was heading, and I suspect most other viewers would too. I just don’t think you can call the so-called “twist” a twist when it’s so obvious that’s what was going to happen.

Accordingly, I’m not really sure why Pike would sign on to this project. It’s getting a mainstream release in Taiwan, but in all honesty it’s a limited release film at best (and that’s what it has received in the States) and a likely straight-to-DVD or VOD film in most other locations. Sure, Pike is very good in this, exuding some of the iciness and fortitude that scored her an Oscar nomination for Gone Girl. Fernandez, who has had some interesting roles (White Bird in a Blizzard, Evil Dead) is actually also impressive; he has this bad-boy look and vibe that’s really convincing.

But at the end of the day, I don’t really know what director Fouad Mikati was aiming for. I don’t want to give anything away, though what I will say is that there are similar-themed films that have done it better, or at least with much more conviction in what it is trying to achieve.

The ending was also just so lacking in punch that it makes you wonder what all the build up was for. It doesn’t help that Nick Nolte, who plays Pike’s father, typically slurs his way through all his lines, reminding you that you’re watching Nick Nolte as opposed to this poor woman’s father.

I was never bored by the film thanks to how uncomfortable it made me feel, but there’s just not enough here to make Return to Sender a genuinely enjoyable, compelling or even interesting experience.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Attack on Titan (2015)

August 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Attack-on-Titan-Movie-Poster

I thought I had sworn off live-action manga/anime adaptations since the abysmal Dragon Ball: Evolution (you know, the one where Goku’s a white American high school kid), but a recent trailer I saw of Attack on Titan, based on the Japanese manga of the same name, got me interested. Plus several people have raved on to me about how good the manga/anime is, but given that there are so many volumes now and I don’t have the time to start, I thought I’d cheat a little and try to get up to speed through this 98-minute movie.

Now, since watching the film, I have read that fans of the manga/anime are up in arms because of the liberties the filmmakers took in adapting the source material. None of that is relevant to this review.

Accordingly, my impression of the movie is probably better than he general consensus, which is that it sucked more balls than there are Dragon Ballz. Still, that doesn’t mean I liked it. Attack on Titan straddles an uncomfortable line often seen in manga/anime live-action adaptations, where it tries to be “realistic” to differentiate itself from its source material but stay true to it at the same time to appease fans. The result is a film that pisses everyone off for not being able to do either effectively.

Allow me to backtrack a little. The premise of the film is a very interesting and imaginative one. Some time in the future, these naked humanoid giants with no genitals begin roaming the land and eating people for no apparent reason. After humanity is nearly driven to extinction, the remaining survivors manage to build massive concentric walls to keep these giants out. A hundred years pass and no one has seen a titan — until now.

The story focuses on youngster Eren Jaeger (Haruma Miuru) and his two friends, Mikasa Ackerman (Kiko Mizuhara) and Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongo) when they first encounter the titans, and then skips forward in time to when they are members of a human resistance army dedicated to fending the titans off.

The first part of the film, when the titans emerge, is executed quite well. Though the special effects are not up to Hollywood standards, there is an anime-esque aesthetic to the CGI that suits the eerie tone of the movie — at least that part of it anyway. The titans are grotesque and creepy ass looking, with randomly deformed body parts and facial features. Their expressions are what the Japanese refer to as “hentai”, which basically means perverse sexual desire. These initial sequences are brutal, extremely violent, and highly terrifying, the kind of stuff you’d expect to see in a horror film.

And honestly, that’s what I thought Attack on Titan — a title which, in typical Japanese fashion, doesn’t even make sense anyway — was: a monster horror movie. If it stuck to being that kind of movie, I think I would have liked it a lot. It didn’t take long, however, for the movie to steer towards a more traditional fantasy manga plot. As it turns out, the titans can only be killed by severing something in their nape, and accordingly, the humans develop some kind of mechanical outfit that more or less turn them into Spider-Man ninjas. Yeah, they shoot wires from their belts and fly around in the air, bouncing off walls and shit while carrying swords.

Once this happens, Attack on Titan evolves into a war movie of sorts, but it’s just not a very compelling one. The flaws in the special effects also become a lot more obvious when the characters are flying all over the place. There’s simply not enough story advancement and the characters are all poorly developed, to the extent where I was beginning to get some of them confused with each other. Admittedly, some of the quirks are probably cultural, but none of them came across as real people.

There is a nice twist towards the end (not sure how close this is to the manga/anime), and then the film finishes abruptly. I was like, “WTF?” before I realised, shockingly, that there is a second part to the movie — Attack on Titan: The End of the World —  set to be released in September. When I put that into perspective, I suppose the first part of Attack on Titan didn’t finish on too bad of a note. It remains to be seen whether more thought will be put into the characters in the second part.

On the whole, there are some positives to take out of Attack on Titan, especially in its early stages thanks to some effective and perverse horror imagery. However, it felt like so many aspects of this fascinating world and its characters were barely given any attention at all, and I fail to understand why they couldn’t have extended its relatively short 98-minute running time to 2+ hours to deliver a much more well-rounded film.  Still, by manga/anime adaptation standards, Attack on Titan is a passable piece of entertainment, just not a very good one.

2.5 stars out of 5

The 10 Best Movies of 2014

August 25, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

At last, my 10 best movies of 2014. Some controversial choices in here, and as usual, it’s probably not what my list would be like today, though I’ve stuck with the ratings I gave at the time of initial review (which can be accessed by clicking on the film title).

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

The iconic Quicksilver scene

The iconic Quicksilver scene

With several movies on the same rating, I had to make a decision as to which film I wanted to squeeze into the 10th spot. After some self-deliberations, I decided I had to put a comic book adaptation in there. X-Men: Days of Future Past was my second-most anticipated film of the year and it lived up to expectations by effortlessly fusing the older and younger X-Men franchises through a complex but well-told time-travel concept that also cleverly inserted some historical events into the narrative. Terrific cast, superb special effects and a whole lot of action-packed fun, it paves the way perfectly for next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse.

9. Wild

WILD - 2014 FILM STILL - Reese Witherspoon as "Cheryl Strayed" - Photo Credit: Anne Marie/Fox    © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox

Reese Witherspoon sure looks terrible without makeup

On its face, this is basically a female version of Into the Wild, one my all-time faves, though there are enough differences across the board — whether it’s characters, plot or themes — for Wild to be a wildly satisfying emotional journey. It’s a great film for people who are past the innocence of their youth and are struggling to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Powered by fantastic performances from Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, this is a special experience I found both moving and uplifting.

8. Gone Girl

GONE1

Ben Affleck was perfect as the douchey husband

I didn’t expect Gone Girl to be so high on the list, only because I had already read the book when I saw it and many of the surprises had already been spoiled. But it’s hard to deny that David Fincher did a masterful job in adapting a difficult, multi-layered book with complex and difficult characters who are hard to root for. He captured the dark tones of the book superbly and had me on the edge of my seat even when I knew what was going to happen. Rosamund Pike was wonderful and Ben Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris both surprised in how well they played their respective parts. A very impressive, unsettling experience.

7. Stretch

Stretch is one wild ride

Stretch is one wild ride

Probably the biggest surprise on this list. Not for me though. Stretch was hands down the funniest movie of the year. With Patrick Wilson at his all-time best, rampaging through the streets of Hollywood as a limo driver to the rich and famous, Stretch was weird, wacky and all over the place, but it was also a laugh a minute and so frenetic in pace that I was glad to have gone on this fantastic ride. I’m still shocked that the film has barely registered a blip on the radar of most audiences, but its 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes feels like vindication in my books.

6. Whiplash

Tense

Tense

I went into Whiplash with my expectations raised already, and it still impressed the hell out of me. Never did I think a movie about drumming could be so intense, and yet it turned out to be arguably most suspenseful film of the year thanks to the brilliant writing and direction from Damien Chazelle and the performances of JK Simmons and Miles Teller. Energetic, powerful and pumping with adrenaline, Whiplash is a unique instant classic that deserves all the superlatives.

5. The Babadook

Terrifying

Terrifying

It’s not often that a horror film makes the list, let alone an Australian horror film. The Babadook, however, is a legitimate masterpiece that also happens to be the scariest movie of the year. It’s the anti-modern-horror flick in the sense that the characters are well developed, it’s creepy and atmospheric, genuinely tense, and the scares are not merely cheap tactics. You could tell it was going to be different from the very first scene. Rather than make you jump, The Bababook makes you squirm and quiver because the terror penetrates beyond just the surface and seeps all the way to your core. People with children will get an additional layer from the experience.

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Nothing beats talking horseriding apes

Nothing beats talking horse-riding apes

I doubt this movie is on anyone else’s top 10 list of 2014, but if you know me or have been following this blog, you’ll know that I have a certain bias towards movies with talking apes. And talking apes who ride horses and shoot guns? Forget about it. I know Dawn of the Planet of the Apes probably isn’t, objectively speaking, one of the best films of the year, but it’s easily one of mine. Granted, Dawn is not as jaw-droppingly awesome as its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It makes up for that, however, with more apes, more ape character development and more large-scale ape action. Losing James Franco also helped. Dawn is the only movie I watched twice at the cinema in 2014, and it was just as spectacular and powerful the second time around. I can’t wait for War of the Planet of the Apes in 2017.

3. The Imitation Game

I think I just invented Playstation!

I think I just invented Playstation!

Every year there seems to be a highly regarded movie that I love even more than everyone else (that is, apart from the one that has talking apes), and this year that film is The Imitation Game, the tragic “true story” of British code-breaker Alan Turing. I just found the film to be a captivating experience. It’s a multi-layered drama-thriller filled with intriguing characters, educational and exciting plot developments and moving moments. With the incredible Benedict Cumberbatch steering the film, it turned out far more interesting and compelling than a code-breaking story should have been. I was engrossed from start to finish. It’s probably one of the few films I saw last year where I can’t really nitpick about anything.

2. Interstellar

So pretty

Alright…

When I first saw Interstellar I thought everyone would love it as much as I did, but as I realised later on, a lot of people hated it for various reasons. Too long, too slow, too corny, too little logic, too little real science, too “out there”  — all of these criticisms could be considered valid, though for me the biggest challenge was always getting past the fact that I’d have to stare at the smug face of Matthew “Alright Alright Alright” McConaughey for nearly 3 hours on an IMAX screen. In all seriousness, I think Interstellar is perhaps one of the most epic and beautiful sci-fi films ever made. From the scale to the ideas to the risks that Christopher Nolan was willing to take with the plot and the characters, it’s everything that I want from an epic cinematic experience. Sure, it got a bit melodramatic at times, though I think it’s a film needs melodrama more than it doesn’t need it, especially given Nolan’s past catalogue of films. I enjoyed the visual spectacle, I enjoyed the story and I enjoyed the sci-fi concepts and ideas. In terms of pure entertainment and visual splendor, Interstellar sits atop all other films of 2014.

1. Boyhood

Ethan Hawke is the only person who doesn't age in the film

Ethan Hawke is the only person who doesn’t age in the film

It’s a shame 5 stars is the most I can award to a film because there are rare occasions when I feel it’s just not enough. Boyhood is one such film. As remarkable as the fact that it was shot over 12 years with the same actors, what is even more impressive about Boyhood is director Richard Linklater’s ability to mould all that footage into a deeply human, poignant and emotional movie that’s as close to depicting real life on film as a fictional motion picture can be. It’s a film like no other, one that truly has to be experienced personally to appreciate what the fuss is all about. It’s now in my pantheon of favourite movies of all-time.

Honourable mentions: A Most Violent Year, The Lego Movie, Horns, The Good Lie

So there you have it, my best and worst of 2014. Some surprises, some controversy, for sure, but a list I’m very happy with when it’s all said and done.

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