Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

July 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

dawn

Those who have read an article or two on this blog might have noticed that I have what you might call a bit of a Planet of the Apes infatuation. I declared the franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the best film of 2011. I declared its long awaited sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie of 2014. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s just something about the story, the franchise, that has me going all ape.

This time around, the story takes place about a decade after the end of the previous film, when the so-called Simian flu — the same virus that gave the apes their intelligence — has wiped out the vast majority of the human population. All that remains, as far as we know, is a group of naturally immune survivors living in San Francisco led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Desperate for a source of power, a band of humans led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) venture into the woods, where they run into the protagonist of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his growing tribe of smart apes.

Just like its predecessor, the humans in Dawn take a back seat to the apes, who are far more interesting and dominate the narrative. It was a necessary decision to abandon the human cast from the first film, in particular James Franco’s Dr Will Rodman, the man responsible for creating the Simian flu in the first place (Franco is too busy posting nude photos of himself on the internet anyway). This is because, as an ape film, it’s important to see Caesar’s continued growth into the great revolutionary leader he’s destined to be. In Dawn, he has established societal order in his ape tribe, built a home, and started a family. He is compassionate, loyal and intelligent — but he can still be a total badass when he needs to be.

Key returning ape characters include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the big, clever orangutan who acts as third in command and the apes’ voice of reason, as well as Koba (Toby Kebbell), the tortured, mutilated ape Caesar liberated in the first film who understandably has trouble containing his distrust for humans and his violent temper. The most important new additions are Cornelia (Judy Greer), Caesar’s partner, and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), their rebellious son.

On the human side, the central character is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but apart from him everyone else is underdeveloped. There’s his second wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell), and his teenage son, Alexander (fellow Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee), plus a stereotypical human a-hole named Carver (Kirk Acevedo from Fringe), but none of the supporting human characters get to do much, not even the legendary Gary Oldman.

dawn-of-planet-of-the-apes-malcolm

To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film is driven by the characters and their relationships. Apart from the bond between Caesar and Malcolm, which forms the heart of the film, there’s also well-executed conflicts between Caesar and his son Blue Eyes and with his second-in-command Koba. This could have very easily been a big, dumb action flick with lots of loud explosions, pointless violence and flashy effects (in the vein of Michael Bay), but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who took over the reins from Rupert Wyatt, managed to keep his focus on the things that truly matter.

Dawn is not just a humans vs apes story — it’s a tale of survival that traverses universal themes such as ingrained discrimination, tribal loyalties, political complexities and familial bonds. It’s Reeves’ ability to craft these themes amid the chaos and action that enable the emotions to resonate, and it’s also what makes Dawn more memorable than your average sci-fi.

There were perhaps some missed opportunities to explore relationships on the human side (in particular Malcolm and his son), and some audiences might be disappointed with the lack of prominent female roles (Cornelia, in particular, felt like a wasted character), though on the whole I felt like the script by returning writers Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and new addition Mark Bomback (who has s chequered history with Die Hard 4 and the crap Total Recall remake but also the underrated Unstoppable and last year’s The Wolverine on his resume), was more than adequate.

Part of the reason the ape characters are so compelling to watch is because they come across as real people (even more so than the humans), but at the same time we are constantly reminded of how different they are and how dangerous they can be. All wonderful ape performances are again done by motion capture, and the technology is even more impressive than it was last time as the apes have a more expansive vocabulary and hence more facial movements and expressions. I’m sure real apes don’t look quite like the apes in the film, but what matters is that they look incredibly realistic, not only in their physical appearance but also in the way their bodies move and interact with their surroundings. There was not a second during the film when I thought anything looked unnatural or out of place, and full credit must go to the special effects team and the understated performance capture of the actors.

And it is thanks in large part to the special effects that Dawn contains some of the most epic battle sequences and fight scenes you’ll see this year. As the number of apes have increased dramatically, the scale of the action dwarfs that in Rise, with several sublimely choreographed scenes that had me staring in awe from the edge of my seat. Further, the violence was never without reason or purpose, so unlike some action flicks (cough, Michael Bay) I never felt like I was getting numb from it all. Apes against humans, humans against humans, apes against apes. It’s pure, satisfying, mindblowing entertainment.

dawn-planet-apes

Having set myself up for disappointment by living in ape hype for the last three years, Dawn actually lived up to my unrealistic expectations. Yes, I admit I am partial to the franchise, but how rare does a blockbuster of this magnitude turn out to be as good as you predicted? While the film was different to what I thought it would be, it was still bloody freaking sensational. As tense, emotional and exciting as I had envisioned. As visually stunning as I had imagined. As epic as I had hoped. Sure, if you want to you can nitpick all day, about the weakness in the script, the lack of development of the human characters (especially the females), the Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, the too-obvious exposition in the dialogue, the untied loose ends, and so forth.

Ultimately, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as close as you can get to the perfect summer blockbuster. This goes beyond just living up to its excellent predecessor — Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars, what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. It might not be as intelligent as it wanted to be, but it’s still undeniably thought-provoking. It might not be as emotionally involving as it could have been, but it still tugs at the heart strings. There could have potentially been more action sequences earlier on or a more climatic ending, but you can hardly complain about what’s already there. When you factor in everything the film got right and the complete-package experience that it provides, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply the most flat-out awesome movie of the year.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Now it’s another 2-year wait until the next instalment in the series, currently scheduled for July 26, 2016 release date.

Top 10 films of 2013!

July 15, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

This is probably the best year for cinema in the three years I’ve been doing best and worst lists. Of the 131 films I watched, most were in the middle of the pack, but there were also an incredible 18 that I rated above 4 stars (not including 4-star films) and 12 that I rated 4.5 stars, making it very difficult for compile this list. Fortunately, there was only one 5-star film, so the top spot was never in doubt.

Here we go. 2013. 131 movies. The 10 best. In my humble opinion.

Missing the cut: Films that came very close and might have made my best-of list in most other years – World War Z (best zombie movie in years), The Conjuring (best horror of the year), Iron Man 3 (best action blockbuster of the year), Philomena (one of the most heartfelt true story of the year), Captain Phillips (one of the most thrilling true story of the year), Blue Jasmine (Woody Allen’s best in years), Blackfish (superb documentary), Nebraska (most surprisingly awesome movie of the year)

As per usual, click on the film titles for my full reviews.

 10. American Hustle

We did pretty well, didn't we?

Woo hoo! We made the top 10!

A superb “true story” script, razor sharp dialogue, skillful direction from a director in his prime (David O’Russell), sensational performances from a cast full of my favourite actors (Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jennifer Lawrence, Jeremy Renner) and just a whole lot of fun. For many critics, this was the best all-round film of the year. I don’t know if I’d go that far, but American Hustle was an absolute delight, with an energy and vibrancy few other films of any year can match. The other films ranked ahead of it on this list affected me a little more emotionally or otherwise, but I can’t deny that this was a high a top-notch production deserving of all its accolades.

9. The Place Beyond the Pines

Hey girl

Hey girl

This was a really unconventional film that put me off guard with its unusual structure, but I ended up loving every minute of it. I predicted in my original review that it would make my top 10 list and it has made the cut despite there being many other more highly touted films. Ryan Gosling and Bradley Cooper are both electric in this ambitious epic drama that drew me in and refused to let go. I was blown away by its raw emotional power and its shocking ending. Definitely one of the most memorable films of the year.

8. The Secret Life of Walter Mitty

Time to go full retard

Time to go full retard

This Ben Stiller project was released to mixed reviews, though in my opinion it’s one of the most magical film experiences of the year. If you’re a dreamer with ambitions of grandeur then this is a film that will appeal to your sensibilities. It might be overambitious and overlong, but there’s something about Walter Mitty’s story that shot straight to my heart. And besides, it’s genuinely funny, with some moments of comedic brilliance sprinkled throughout. I was caught up in his magical world and didn’t want to leave.

7. Blue is the Warmest Color

Blue-Is-The-Warmest-Color-2

Hey girl, part 2

French film (ie subtitles), comic adaptation, lesbian theme, controversial sex scenes. I was sceptical when I watched Blue is the Warmest Color, believing I would come away underwhelmed despite the positive reviews. I ended up feeling like I had my heart torn out of me. Fueled by two of the most amazing performances of the year from Adele Exarchopoulos and Lea Seydoux, this is possibly the best romance I’ve seen on depicted on the big screen. It’s raw, it’s realistic, it’s heartbreaking. This is a coming-of-age story anyone — irrespective of your sexuality — can relate to and fall in love with.

6. Before Midnight

Still lookin' good, 18 years later

Still lookin’ good, 18 years later

I loved Before Sunrise. I loved Before Sunset even more. And so I probably had unrealistic expectations for Before Midnight, the finale in Richard Linklater’s magnificent trilogy. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy, wrinkles and all, deliver the least romantic but most grounded experience in the series, with moments of hilarity interspersed with gut-wrenching drama. It’s an absolute delight that will make you question the essence of true love and the perfect ending to one of the greatest film trilogies of all time. You don’t need to have watched the other two to enjoy it, but if you have then you can’t afford to miss out on this gem.

5. 12 Years a Slave

Haven't you seen Shame? It's bigger than that!

Haven’t you seen Shame? It’s bigger than that!

The year’s most difficult film to watch, but also undeniably one of its best. Powered by what should have been an Oscar-winning performance by Chiwetel Ejiofor (damn you, Matthew McConaughey) and the sublime, understated direction of Steve McQueen, 12 Years a Slave is confronting, violent and emotionally draining — but it’s also a movie experience that leaves its impression on you like no other. Combining beautiful images and the ugliest side of humanity, this is a rare motion picture experience that beats you down and lifts you up all at once.

4. Her

I'm not crazy

I’m not crazy

Spike Jonze’s sci-fi romance about the relationship between a man and a computer might be the smartest movie of the year. Not many films can be described as clever, eerie, romantic, heartbreaking and poignant, but that’s exactly how I would label Her, a modern day masterpiece where all the pieces come together in a neat little package. From Joaquin Phoenix’s pained protagonist and Scarlett Johansson’s perfect voice performance as the operating system of his dreams, to the realistic future vision of our electronics obsessed society, Her just works on so many levels. The best type of sci-fi is that which tells a compelling story of its own while also providing reflections on the life we live today. Her does that in such a moving way that it’ll be blasphemous for me to leave it off this list.

3. Rush

I'll race you for it

I’ll race you for it

This will probably be the biggest surprise of the entire list. While most would agree that Rush is a superior drama, I’m not sure many would call it the third best film of the year. But hey, I’m probably as stunned as you are. For someone who knows nothing of and cares little for car racing, Formula One and all that crap, I never expected Rush to provide one of the most engaging, thrilling film experiences of the year. Featuring two outrageously effective performances by Chris Hemsworth and Daniel Bruhl, the usual brilliance of director Ron Howard, and one heck of a riveting true story that even the best fiction writers would have trouble coming up with, Rush completely annihilated all expectations I had, and for that it nabs a spot in my top 3.

2. The Wolf of Wall Street

I'm the king of the world!

I’m the king of the world!

This “true” story polarized viewers with the excess it portrayed on the big screen, but for me, The Wolf of Wall Street is simply the funniest movie of the year. I love black comedies like Fargo, Pulp Fiction and American Psycho, all of which are some of my favourite movies of all time, and now this Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio collaboration will join them on my non-existent mantelpiece dedicated to dark humour. Say what you want about the inappropriate and immoral gags, sex, drugs and the record number of “F-bombs”, but if you ask me there’s no harder task than finding a film from last year that had sharper dialogue, funnier characters and more classic scenes of comedy gold. It’s a carefully planned and executed mess, one that’s too long at 3 hours but feels like it’s not long enough. While it might be far from perfect, there’s only one film I liked more than The Wolf of Wall Street last year.

1. Gravity

Why are we in such an awesome movie?

Why are we in such an awesome movie?

I’ve realized that I don’t give out five stars very often anymore, having doled out the perfect score exactly twice in the last two years out of around 240 movies. And so it follows that it takes a special film to achieve that honour. It takes a film that doesn’t just tick the right technical boxes on paper and/or appeal to my mind and my heart, but also has that extra something to elevate it to a different level. In my view, there’s only one film in 2013 that does that, and that film is Alfonso Cuaron’s sci-fi masterpiece, Gravity. This is a unique motion picture that creates new ground in terms of special effects and ventures into unchartered territory with its risky storytelling. Kudos to Cuaron for sticking to his guns in the face of pressure from studios to change his approach because everything paid off in the end, resulting in a very different, explosive, memorable and thought-provoking experience that’s unparalleled in 2013.

Worst 10 Films of 2013!

July 12, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I don’t like to brag, but I’ve really outdone myself this (last year). I’ve finally completely reviewing my backlog of 2013 films and, according to my calculations, I’ve watched and reviewed a total of 131 movies with a release date of 2013. And out of that group, I’ve selected my 10 worse films of 2013!

The methodology is simple. I simply picked out the films with the lowest stars I gave and ranked them in accordance to rating, applying my judgment to those with identical scores to determine which one was worse. 2013 turned out to be an excellent year in cinema at the lower end of the spectrum, as I only counted exactly 10 films with a rating lower than 2 stars (not including 2-star films). There were a couple that are so bad that they would have topped the list any other year, but on the whole I was pleasantly surprised.

So here goes. As usual, click on the film title for my full review.

Dishonourable mentions: Diana, Runner Runner, Last Vegas, The Bling Ring, The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones, The Hangover Part III

10. Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters

According to this list we're the 10th worst movie of the year!

According to this awesome list we’re the 10th worst movie of the year!

I expected this re-imagining of the classic fairytale to be bad, but not quite this bad. The touches to the revamped story were uninspiring, the action was sub-par, and the dialogue was poor, resulting in a dull, uninvolving experience that felt more like an opportunistic cash grab than a genuine attempt to create a decent movie experience. I like both Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, but this was an obvious misstep for both of them.

9. After Earth

Thanks dad, I won't let you down

Thanks dad, I won’t let you down

Will Smith’s star vehicle for his precious son Jaden was widely panned by critics and deservedly so. Despite a potentially intriguing premise and a whole bunch of special effects, After Earth was a complete and utter bore, stunted by a predictable and cheesy narrative, poor acting and lameness all around. Even I, one of M Night Shyamalan’s biggest apologists, can’t defend him on this monster.

8. Grown Ups 2

Can I take my shirt off yet?

Can I take my shirt off yet?

Adam Sandler movies these days are destined for lists like this, so it says a lot when Grown Ups 2 can’t even make the top 5. And yes, this is a horrible movie with a lot of indefensible attempts at humour, no plot and a plethora of offensive content — BUT the presence of Steve Buscemi and a pretty funny Taylor Lautner as a fratboy douche was enough to make the film suck substantially less.

7. The Counselor

I'd like to grow my hair out too

I’d like to grow my hair out too

Even going into it knowing Cormac McCarthy’s occasional off-the-wall tendencies, The Counselor still turned out to be the year’s most WTF movie. Seriously, what the heck was Ridley Scott thinking? Everyone in this production tried too hard, from McCarthy’s unnecessarily convoluted script to Scott’s direction to the overacting of Javier Bardem. Given what this could have and should have been, it’s possibly the year’s biggest disappointment.

6. The Canyons

Even your knockers can't save this movie, Lindsay

Even your knockers can’t save this movie, Lindsay

Oh poor Linsday Lohan. She has become some uninsurable that she’s resorted to this doomed super-low budget project by Brett Easton Ellis and Paul Schrader. With porn superstar James Deen as the lead, The Canyons ventures dangerously close to amateur porn territory. Better direction and acting, I grant you that, but production and plot-wise not so much. It’s hard to imagine Lindsay reviving her career from this nadir.

5. Paranoia

I'm paranoid this could be one of the worst movies of the year

I’m paranoid this could be one of the worst movies of the year

I support all Aussie actors trying to make their mark in Hollywood, but I can’t bring myself to support Liam Hemsworth’s decision to star in Paranoia, an inexplicably boring, cliched techno “thriller” that makes me wonder if Harrison Ford and Gary Oldman are having cashflow problems. While some films seem OK on paper, only to fall apart on the screen, it should have been obvious Paranoia was going to be awful from the get-go. No excuses for all involved.

4. RIPD

Who you gonna call?

Who you gonna call?

An early contender for worst film of the year, only to be nudged back to 4th place thanks to some truly grotesque efforts in the top 3. RIPD is more or less Men In Black for ghosts and demons, except it’s less exciting, less witty, less interesting, less coherent and with much worse special effects (and we’re talking about a 1997 movie here). One of the worst, if not the worst, comic book adaptations of all-time. I’m sure Jeff Bridges and Ryan Reynolds would love to use that MIB memory wipe stick thingy on all who have seen it.

3. The Host

Let's make out

Let’s make out some more!

If you thought Stephenie Meyers’ Twilight was a shithouse love story, then you might very well die from spontaneous human combustion if you watch The Host. “Bad” is the kindest thing I can say about this pathetically laughable sci-fi romance where the protagonist alien (Saoirse Ronan) spends most of the film literally arguing with herself and finding excuses to make out with two different guys. Apart from being unintentionally hilarious, this disaster is overlong and devoid of any redeeming features. And the ending is just painful.

2. Spring Breakers

We couldn't try harder if we tried

We couldn’t try harder if we tried

I honestly thought I had seen the worst movie of 2013 when I had the misfortune of watching Spring Breakers, the most pretentious, contrived and gratuitous piece of crap I had seen for a very long time. Dull and obnoxious characters, annoying and pointless voiceovers, a moronic storyline and jumbled structure, and the most ridiculous James Franco performance you’ll ever see. The harder this film tries, the worst it gets. Fails in every way imaginable.

1. Movie 43

What the hell have we done?

What the hell have we done?

There was a time when I thought the Farrelly brothers were legends. That was back in 1998 (There’s Something About Mary). Fifteen years later, they’ve made a film so putrid that I was tempted to hand out my first 0-star rating ever (and I only held back because I believe every film deserves at least something). This is one of those films you just have to see to believe. Despite stocking up with the most A-list names you will ever see in an ensemble cast, Movie 43 rolls out one unfunny, offensive skit after another until audiences either walk out or start jabbing sharp objects into their eyes and ears. This goes far, far beyond just being a bad movie. It’s loathsome, vile and unbearable. It’s unfathomable. And it’s the worst movie of 2013.

Movie Review: The Monuments Men (2014)

July 11, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

the-monuments-men-uk-quad-poster

I have a feeling that The Monuments Men will go down as one of the strangest most disappointing movie going experience of 2014. It had everything going for it — an interesting true story premise about allied heroes who try and salvage priceless art stolen by the Nazis during World War II; an excellent director in George Clooney; and a superstar cast including Clooney, Matt Damon, Cate Blanchett, John Goodman, Bill Murray and Jean Dujardin. What could possibly go wrong?

As it turned out, a lot. Technically, The Monuments Men as well made. The performances, the direction, the sets and the cinematography are all strong. And typically, and story about going up against Nazis are well received. But shockingly, The Monuments Men turned out flat, slow and frankly, a little boring.

It was an interesting choice for Clooney to try and make an old-fashioned army adventure movie. It doesn’t have the farcical feel of say something like Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, but it’s also far from the gloomy tones of Damon’s Saving Private Ryan or the intensity of Tom Cruise’s Valkyrie. So the feel of the film is somewhat old, uneven, not comedic but not serious, generally light but occasionally solemn, and always eager to be “respectful” in its portrayal.

The result is just a bunch of guys who spend a lot of time discussing what they plan to do, but not a whole lot of time of them actually doing it. I had envisioned a rag tag team doing something very exciting and clever in the vein of an Ocean’s Eleven. Unfortunately, reality was a lot duller.

One of the problems is that there were too many characters involved, many of them split into smaller groups, meaning we kind of know them all a little bit but not enough to truly care about them. Clooney, in particular, was a leader but it also felt like he was in the background a lot. Instead, the focus shifted to the relationship between Damon and Blanchett, but there wasn’t enough time for anything substantive to blossom. I like all the actors in the movie — I just didn’t really like the characters they were playing.

Perhaps the true reason I struggled with the film is because I’m just not a huge art guy. The protagonists of the film are often asked the question — if any piece of art is worth a man’s life — and to me the answer is always simple: depends on the person who is giving their life up for the art. For them, it was obviously worth it, but for me it was difficult to feel connected with their noble ambitions.

Whatever the reason, I found The Monuments Men to be an unsatisfying, punchless experience. All the pieces were there but just didn’t fit together. An interesting premise blunted by the lack of memorable characters, relationships or dialogue, and a general dearth of anything to get the pulse racing. A shame, and a wasted opportunity.

2.5 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part IX

July 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

This is the last one. Seriously. The best and worst of 2013 coming right up after this!

The Family (2013)

the family

Robert De Niro may be a legend, but his career choices are inching closer and closer to Nicholas Cage territory with every mediocre film he decides to star in. The Family, on its face, should not have fallen into that category, as it’s directed by legendary Frenchman Luc Besson and features an all-star cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron. But somehow, this uneven, largely unfunny black comedy manages to turn itself into a mess that De Niro will likely want to pretend never existed.

De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, Mafia boss who turns to snitching after an attempt on his life. So together with his wife (Pfeiffer) and two kids (Agron and John D’Leo), they relocate to France under a witness protection program under the supervision of FBI agent Stansfield (Jones).

It’s an interesting premise brimming with potential. The central joke is that, as a Mafia family, they can’t be normal even if they tried. They’re scheming sociopaths and borderline psychopaths who just can’t play along and pretend to be a normal family. De Niro can’t stop killing people who offend him; Pfeiffer loves burning stuff down; Agron has a violent streak in her; and D’Leo is a scheming weasel who is the ultimate reconnaissance expert.

There are several key problems with The Family. The first is that Besson never gets the tone quite right. It’s a very dark comedy accompanied by over-the-top violence, but the violence itself is not funny like it is for a film like say Pulp Fiction or Fargo. It felt like the violence never found its role properly.

Secondly, all the central characters are just a little off, and as a result they don’t come across as likable. And it’s hard to root for them when you don’t like them very much. But you can tell Besson is trying to make them likable, which is why it was so strange watching them on screen.

And thirdly, and very strangely, Besson makes French people look like complete a-holes. I understand it was necessary to some extent so that the family can rain their vengeance upon them, but in my opinion it felt obligatory and unnecessary. I know the French are supposed to dislike Americans and vice versa, but this was too much. And they all spoke surprisingly good English too.

In the end I just couldn’t bring myself to like this one. Despite the strong cast, legendary director and best of intentions, The Family is a top-grade disappointment.

2 stars out of 5

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

welcome to the punch

First of all, Welcome to the Punch is a really horrible title for this movie. It makes it sound like an action comedy, when in fact it is a gritty action thriller. But apart from that, it’s actually not a bad British cops and robbers flick with some solid performances, stylish action sequences and a few interesting twists and turns.

James McAvoy is Max Lewinsky, a headstrong London cop determined to catch Icelandic criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), who has surfaced after his son was involved in a heist gone wrong. It’s a complicated case that has been a major headache for the police, and so Lewinsky and his partner Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough) are frequently met with internal opposition — opposition that might be intended to impede their progress, and the only person they appear to have in their corner is their superior, Thomas Geiger (The Walking Dead‘s David Morrisey).

What follows is an intriguing game of cat and mouse that features a lot of well executed gunfights. The plot is a little convoluted for my liking, and I admit McAvoy’s protagonist is somewhat douchey, but on the whole I enjoyed the friend-or-foe dynamic between him and the intense and charismatic Strong, whom I believe has a dominating’s screen presence that is second to none.

Welcome to the Punch is not a superior thriller, but it’s a damn serviceable one that can be quite enjoyable if you go in with moderate expectations. Recommended DVD rental.

3.5 stars 

Devil’s Knot (2013)

DVL00056INTH_DEVIL'S-KNOT.indd

I’m always intrigued by Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s take on grief and loss, and so I was somewhat disappointed to hear lukewarm reviews for Devil’s Knot, a dramatization of the true story of the notorious West Memphis Three. Well guess what, I ended up being riveted by the movie from start to finish, so much so that I went on to devour all four documentaries made on the subject – Paradise Lost and its two sequels, and last year’s West of Memphis, made by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and wife Fran Walsh.

The true story, for those unfamiliar, takes place in 1993 and begins when three young boys in West Memphis disappear one afternoon and are later found dead, naked, tied up and mutilated. Given that hysteria surrounding Satanic worship was at a peak, it came as no surprise that police targeted local “white trash” teenage outcast Damien Echols and his two friends, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley — the trio that would later be known as the West Memphis Three.

The evidence against them is supposedly strong (Misskelley, who is borderline retarded, confesses), and the penalty is potentially death. This leads anti-capital punishment advocate and private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) to lend his services to the overwhelmed defense team. Lax starts out only wanting to prevent the boys from being executed, but the more he digs, the more he becomes convinced that the teens are innocent. On the other hand, Pamela Hobbs (a frumpy Reese Witherspoon, who was pregnant at time of filming), the mother of one of the victims, struggles to deal with her son’s death and the subsequent media circus.

Putting aside the merits of the film, Devil’s Knot is one of those films that’s inherently compulsive to watch simply because of the subject matter. It’s a true story that’s stranger than fiction, complete with a long list of potential suspects, intriguing characters, bizarre pieces of evidence and mass hysteria. The police witch hunt and incompetence is undeniable. And yet, at the end of the day, there are no definitive answers, only suspicions.

I suppose that is why critics were harsh on the film, with many calling it a “frustrating” experience because of the lack of a genuine resolution. I do agree with that to some point, but at the same time it does point us in a certain direction and asks us to draw our own conclusions as to the guilt of the West Memphis Three and the “alternate” suspects. Maybe that was the point Egoyan was trying to get across — that is, this is perhaps a mystery we’ll never truly get to the bottom of, and many true crime stories of immense loss fall in the same category.

For me, this was fantastic filmmaking, backed up by excellent performances. The initial pain and devastating felt real. The subsequent anger and thirst for revenge felt real. And that feeling when everything you thought to be true is turned upside down was expertly delivered. My main complaint about it is how abruptly it ends and how it required a long slab of writing onscreen to explain an aftermath that would extend for another 18 years.

Now having seen all the documentaries, I sort of understand why critics say Devil’s Knot did not provide any new insight and really had nothing to add. I don’t agree. While the film only captures a fraction of all there is to tell, and dramatizes scenes that are already captured in the documentaries, I still think there is something to be gained from the viewing experience. It’s a different medium with a different style, and as a result the emotional impact is also completely different. Perhaps my opinion would be different had I watched the documentaries first, but since I did not, and did not know how things turned out in the end, I found Devil’s Knot to be one of the most haunting and engrossing films of the year. I’d definitely recommend it for people who haven’t seen the documentaries and know little of the true story.

4 stars out of 5

Homefront (2013)

homefront

Feels like we’ve seen it all before, but what the heck. A bit more ass-kicking from  Jason Statham is rarely ever a bad thing.

In Homefront, Statham plays an undercover DEA agent who relocates to a country town with his young daughter after his cover is blown. And guess what? the place is running amok with the rednecks and hillbillies, who present themselves as perfect fodder for Statham to beat the crap out of them.

But wait, there’s more. After a run in with a hillbilly woman played by Kate Bosworth and her fat bully son, Statham becomes embroiled in an increasingly dangerous dispute with her brother and local meth kingpin, James Franco. Yes, James Franco!

From there it’s all very predictable. A lot of danger and a lot of ass kicking. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill action thriller that reminds me of those low-budget 80s classics, though I must say I enjoyed it somewhat on a pure entertainment level. If you want to see Franco get the shit kicked out of him then this is the movie for you. The story is actually based on a book that has been adapted into a screenplay by none other than Sylvester Stallone, so you know it’s overcharged with masculinity and macho dialogue. And of course, realism is not a priority.

I was also surprised by the cast. Apart from Statham, Bosworth and Franco, there was also Winona Ryder in a strange role as Franco’s ex-girlfriend, and everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank, Clancy Brown, playing the local sheriff.

The trailers made Homefront look much more A-grade and intriguing than it really is. I’m not saying it’s bad — as I said I rather enjoyed it — though ultimately it is one of those forgettable films that don’t really matter, and without its all-star cast, it’s hard to see how this film could have gotten a cinematic release.

3 stars out of 5

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