Movie Review: The Prince (2014)

August 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

the prince

The Prince is yet another one of the those action flicks inspired by Taken (one of the best action flicks in the last decade) — about a father with considerable man-killing skills doing a lot of man-killing to rescue his daughter from people who totally deserve to die.

I didn’t have a problem with the rip-offish premise — and I admit the film looked great on paper with an A-list cast featuring Jason Patric, Bruce Willis, John Cusack, 50 Cent and Korean superstar Rain (donning the worst haircut since Tom Hanks in The Da Vinci Code) – though  I can’t say I was surprised that The Prince received virtually no attention or critical acclaim. The film is getting a limited theatrical showing along with a simultaneous VOD (video on demand) release, meaning they have pretty much resigned themselves to low expectations.

Instead of a former government agent like Taken’s Bryan Mills, Jason Patric plays Paul, a widowed father working as a mechanic in some country bumpkin town. His finds out that his daughter Beth (Gia Montegna, daughter of legendary actor Joe Montegna!) is no longer at college and has gotten mixed up in some nasty business with a drug kingpin (50 Cent). But Paul is no ordinary mechanic — he’s a former crime boss and psycho killing machine known as “The Prince”. And so Paul goes off looking for her with the aid of Beth’s skanky friend Angela (Jessica Lowndes) and old buddy (Cusack) and starts beating up and killing whoever gets in his way. Meanwhile, all that killing has Paul coming up on the radar of a former foe (Willis), who is determined to ruin Paul’s life as payback. For some reason he has hired a Korean “consultant” (Rain) to do the dirty work for him.

The pieces look to be in place for a semi-enjoyable popcorn action flick, but The Prince fails due to a couple of big reasons. First of all, the characters are boring. Paul might be deadly, but he’s is a sleep-inducing hero without a proper mean streak or edge to him. Bruce Willis is now just signing up for supporting roles in movies for the cheques. And so is John Cusack, who does close to nothing in the entire film. Jessica Lowndes is not uneasy on the eyes, but she’s a pointless character. It’s not like she’s a love interest, so all she does is try to act seductive and annoying for no reason. The worst has to be poor Rain, whose Hollywood dreams appear to have fallen so far that he’s been relegated to a “henchman” role in which he is forced to spew out crappy lines in strained (albeit much improved) English. And I haven’t even talked about 50 Cent’s…um…cameo.

Secondly, and more importantly, the action is laughable. Everything else can suck in a movie like this, but not the action. I say it’s laughable not because it’s badly shot — it’s because it defies all logic. Paul might be a super killing machine, but in this film he’s the luckiest man alive. Guys shoot at him with machine guns from point blank and all miss him, while he picks them off one by one with his trusty hand gun. He walks up a set of stairs without noticing that a bunch of guys are pointing their guns at him. They don’t shoot for some reason, and then they all miss from within 20 feet, just in time for him to look up and kill them all. Rain sneaks up on Paul from behind and could shoot him dead at any time. But what does he do instead? He disarms Paul so they can have a shitty hand-to-hand combat scene. So predictable and so lame. Bruce Willis holds Paul’s daughter hostage and says he will kill her in front of him, which is what he has wanted to do for years. But he doesn’t. And he waits and waits and waits for no reason whatsoever while telling Paul he’s going to do it, until of course he loses his opportunity.

I didn’t think The Prince was THAT bad when I saw it, but the more I think of it now the more I think it sucked. Great cast but crap characters, stupid action and completely devoid of the pace, style and charisma of the film it was trying to emulate.

1.75 stars out of 5

Orange is the New Black: Book vs TV Series

August 26, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

OTNB

They say the truth is stranger than fiction, but that’s not the case with Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman, the inspiration for Netflix’s hit series of the same name.

Orange is the New Black, the TV show, was last year’s best new series, full of wonderful characters, witty humour and compelling drama. It was intriguing, exciting and dangerous, while at the same time making some insightful comments about society, human nature and the US prison system. The second season, which aired earlier this year, started off a little slow, but by the end of it I was convinced that it was just as good, if not better, than the first season.

It was with such high expectations that I decided to read the book on which the series is based. Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison details how Piper Kerman (Piper Chapman in the show) served 13 months of her 15-month drug trafficking sentence at FCI Danbury, a minimum security prison in Connecticut. I wanted to find out more behind-the-scenes stuff and learn about what the “real” Piper is like, but instead the book turned out to be a strange and disappointing read. There were familiar names and characters, and a few incidents here and there that I vaguely recognized, but for the most part the book and the show could not be more different.

To be honest, the book was a so much less interesting and boring than the show, which says two things: 1. Women’s prison in real life is nowhere near as dangerous or exciting as the show makes it out to be; and 2. The people who make the TV show are geniuses for creating such compelling television from this source material.

The book, published in 2010, is a fairly straightforward, mostly chronological memoir with 18 chapters for a total of 327 pages (paperback). It begins with some early details of Kerman’s life and how she got into a lesbian relationship with a drug smuggler, and how that dalliance came back to bite her a decade later when she was charged for her minor role in the drug ring. After making a plea bargain, she is sent to Danbury for 15 months, while her fiance Larry (played by Jason Biggs in the show) waits for her patiently on the outside.

The central narrative is Kerman’s individual experience, and each chapter deals with different aspects of minimum-security prison life, whether it is her fellow inmates, their families, strip searches, wardens, prison workshops, labour or meal time. Kerman is a fairly good writer and knew exactly what kind of book she wanted to write, and many of her observations are astute and reflective, especially those about how poorly the US justice and prison systems are run. There are dashes of humour, but most of the book is dedicated to documenting her journey of self-discovery, the people she met and how she came to accept responsibility for her actions, and in doing so became a stronger, better person.

Piper Kerman, right, with Taylor Schilling, the actress who portrays her in Orange is the New Black

Piper Kerman, right, with Taylor Schilling, the actress who portrays her

Fans of the TV show will recognise many of the names in the book (most of which were changed from their real life counterparts). Of course there’s Piper and Larry, but a lot of the other characters on the show are completely new inventions or a mish-mash of people from the book. Alex (played by Laura Prepon), for example, is Nora, and she never sets foot in Danbury. Characters with names like Crazy Eyes (Uzo Aduba) and Pennsatucky (Taryn Manning) exist, but they are different people, while Red (Kate Mulgrew) is known as Pop in the book (though there is another Red) and “Pornstache” (Pablo Schreiber) is known by the significantly less witty nickname of Gay Pornstar. Kerman’s relationship with each of these characters is also nothing like they are in the series. In other words, don’t read the book if you are looking to learn more about the series.

After two seasons and 26 episodes of around 50-60 minutes in length (and another season coming), the TV show has outgrown its source material. In the book, we only see things from Piper’s perspective, and even her closest friends in the prison are only given brief intros. As a result, we don’t get to know them as well as we do in the series, and we don’t care about them nearly as much. It’s not a knock on the book or Kerman’s writing, just an inevitable truth that comes with a more expansive and dynamic medium.

More importantly, the book sticks largely to the facts (as far as we know), whereas the TV series has been given free rein to exaggerate and embellish. This is why, after seeing how much conflict and danger and backstabbing and sex there is in the show, I got bored reading the extremely bland lifestyle in Danbury, where the most exciting thing for the inmates was wondering whether Martha Stewart would be sent there (she wasn’t). At Danbury, Kerman was rarely involved in any conflict with other inmates (if at all), and there were few suggestions that other inmates were in conflicts with one another. She was not starved, she was not beat up, she did not engage in a sexual relationship with anyone, and she certainly was never in danger of being stabbed or sent to the SHU. Good for her, but not so good for us readers expecting something more explosive and scandalous.

Ultimately, I found Orange is the New Black to be a solid read — nothing special but insightful enough to keep my attention. If you’re a big fan of the TV series like I am, however, it’s not a book I would recommend, especially if you think it might help you learn more about the characters or what might happen to them further down the track.

3/5

Movie Review: The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

August 24, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

grand-budapest-hotel

Wes Anderson films are an acquired taste. I respected and appreciated his previous efforts, most notably The Royal Tenenbaums back in 2001 and the animated Fantastic Mr Fox in 2009, but I have not been able to enjoy them as much as some others, who think his flicks are the best thing since the invention of air conditioning. Anderson’s films are just so tightly-wound and choreographed — to the extent that they come across almost like animations or stage productions — that the surreal air about them often make it difficult for me to engage with the narrative for the entirety of the running time.

Anderson’s latest entry, The Grand Budapest Hotel, has been lauded as a masterpiece, and I went into it thinking that this might finally be Anderson film that I can truly enjoy. And while I did enjoy it a lot, I still don’t consider myself a convert. It’s a finely crafted motion picture full of imagination, confidence, and a ridiculous A-list cast that spews out witty lines at a frenetic pace, and yet it is so whimsical and farcical that its deeper undertones and poignancy tend to be overwhelmed, resulting in one of those fun but ultimately forgettable experiences.

The fictional eponymous hotel, located in the mountains of a fictional European Alpine state, is the setting of this wild madcap caper about the adventures of a concierge, Mr Gustave (Ralph Fiennes), and a lowly lobby boy, Zero (Tony Revolori, and later F Murray Abraham). Mr Gustave is a smooth, fast-talking sleazebag who makes a habit of courting wealthy, elderly women, and when one of them (Tilda Swinton) dies under mysterious circumstances, all fingers are suddenly pointed in his direction — and it is up to Zero to help prove his boss’s innocence. 

The Grand Budapest Hotel is full of twists and turns, most of which are completely unexpected because it runs so fast and furiously that all your attention is spent simply trying to keep up. If you’ve seen any of Anderson’s past films you’ll have an idea of what you are in for, though this one, with cute miniatures and hand-made art, is arguably his most stylish and visually-impressive effort. It’s decidedly meta; there are delicate layers upon layers, stories within stories, the narrative moving from character to character and through different times and eras.

The cast is outrageous — apart from the aforementioned Fiennes, Abraham and Swinton, there’s Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Saoirse Ronan, Edward Norton, Jude Law, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Lea Seydoux, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson and Tom Wilkinson. Thanks to Fiennes’ superb performance and comedic timing, however, it did not feel jarring to have so many superstars in the one film, often for just a scene or even a second or two. Who knew Voldemort was so funny?

And that’s the biggest strength of The Grand Bupadest Hotel – it’s probably Anderson’s funniest film ever. The wisecracks are razor sharp, and, unlike much of the humour we tend to get in comedies these days, actually witty. The use of well-timed profanity is spot on. It might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I giggled often and hard.

The first half is funnier than the second half, where my difficulties with the film start to seep through as the story begins to take a slightly more melancholic turn. As often can be the case with Anderson’s movies, the tone can come across as unmistakenly smug. You just get the feeling that it’s getting too smart and witty for its own good — to the point where you react to the jokes with “that’s funny”, but without actually laughing. It wasn’t so much of a problem in the first half of the film because everything was so fresh and frantic and fun, though later, when you can tell the film’s also trying to be poignant and send a deeper, more emotional message, it becomes much easier to see through the contrivances. And once you lose your focus it becomes very difficult to get back on track.

Consequently, the overall package is a mixed bag, albeit one that is weighed heavily towards the positive. I loved the look of the film and the brilliant cast. It was undoubtedly funny and clever; stylish and precision-crafted. And yet its irreverent, artificial feel made the film difficult to sustain an emotional connection for its 99-minute running time.  I like to think of the experience as sampling a series of beautifully designed, tightly controlled set pieces, each of which stands up well on its own, though together the pieces don’t quite deliver something greater than the sum of its parts. Having said that, The Grand Budapest Hotel is an easy film to appreciate and enjoy, and so far it’s my favourite Wes Anderson film to date.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I have yet to see Moonrise Kingdom and I cannot recall much of Rushmore.

Movie Review: Maleficent (2014)

August 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

maleficent

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Maleficent, the new re-imagining of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairytale, is that I didn’t mind it. That’s already saying a lot, given that I have not withheld my disdain for similar efforts in recent years, from Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror to Snow White and the Huntsman and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Maleficent is the most visually stunning film of the lot, with colorful creatures, fairies and a magical world full of wonder. It is also far more emotionally engaging than those other films thanks to Angelina Jolie, who is magnificent as Maleficent (see what I did there?) and deservedly singled out for her performance.

It was a relief to discover that Maleficent was not a supporting character — ie, the film was not simply trying to use Jolie’s fame to promote a film that is otherwise dominated by other lesser known actors. True to its title, Maleficent is all about Jolie’s character, who has been tweaked to become both the (wronged) villain and hero of this revisionist fairytale. 

Without giving too much away, Maleficient starts off as a cheerful young fairy who befriends a young human boy after saving him from the wrath of the creatures he stole from. Years later, as required by the story, an ultimate act of betrayal turns her into a vengeful bitch determined to exact her vengeance on the human world. Her fury ends up being manifested in a curse on a baby Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister from 2011′s Super 8), who grows up to become — you guessed it — Sleeping Beauty.

The rest of the film goes off on a very different tangent to the Disney cartoon, and, as with most of these re-imaginings, contain plenty of action and obligatory fighting sequences, though to the film’s credit it does feel slightly less coerced. A big reason is because Jolie is so good as the titular character that you actually feel something for her, to the point where all the special-effects-fuelled violence — unlike other films of this kind — begins to means something.

The problem Jolie’s superb performance, and her dominance, is that it renders everyone else in the movie insignificant (even the special effects, prosthetics and makeup used on her seemed more advanced than the others). Apart from Sharlto Copley, who barely holds his own as the King, just about all other characters fail to hold our attention, from Maleficent’s useful shape-shifting sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) and the boring prince (Aussie Brenton Thwaites) to the three “good” pixie fairies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville.

Elle Fanning, in particular, came across as a poor choice for Sleeping Beauty. Her beauty is a subject for debate, but the strange thing is that she feels too young for the role, despite being the same age in real life as her character (16). I guess it says a lot about Hollywood’s tendency to cast much older actors for younger roles. More pertinent is Fanning’s “acting,” or lack thereof, as all I can pretty much remember of her is the fakish stupid grin she had plastered on her face throughout most of the film.

The other issue I had with Maleficent was how much they had to twist the story so that it fit within the scope of the Sleeping Beauty narrative. There’s a fine line between changing too little and changing too much, and in this case I think they couldn’t find the right balance because it opened up too many plot holes and occurrences that were illogical, even for a fairytale. Part of it is because they tried very hard to make Maleficent a villain you could root for, so that every bad thing she did was justified, and even when she was being “evil” she wasn’t really. What they ended up with was a completely new standalone story, rather than a side story that complemented the original fairytale and filled in the gaps to give audiences Maleficent’s perspective. There is nothing wrong with that, except they still tried to squeeze in too many elements from the original Sleeping Beauty story, resulting in a weird hybrid that didn’t fully work.

But as I said at the start of this review, I didn’t mind Maleficent. It’s a flawed film with a saggy middle act, but thanks to Jolie’s film-saving performance, it’s much better than it otherwise would have been. Coupled with my low expectations, I admit I don’t regret seeing it.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

August 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

the-purge_anarchy_ver2

Sequels to thrillers — even ones that aren’t very good — are never as good as the original. Or at least that was what I thought before I watched The Purge: Anarchy.

The Purge (review here) was a promising film released last year that failed to live up to expectations. It revolved around the concept of a yearly Purge, where all citizens are free to do whatever they want — steal, rape, kill — without any legal repercussions whatsoever. It’s supposed to cleanse the soul, or something like that, so that they won’t feel the urge to do it on the 364 other days of the year. Apparently, it works, as violent crime has become almost nonexistent.

Notwithstanding an all star cast including Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones queen Lena Headey, The Purge missed a great opportunity to create something thought-provoking and original, instead opting for a typical home invasion thriller involving creepy, deranged, mask-wearing intruders. It had its moments, though the experience ultimately felt hollow.

On its face, The Purge: Anarchy seems like one of those B-grade, straight to DVD type sequels. No returning actors or characters (I believe with the exception of one), no big names, and noticeably less marketing. And yet, somehow, it ended up being a more rewarding experience than the original by taking a approach that better utilizes its unique premise.

Instead of focusing on a single family in their home on the yearly Purge night, Anarchy splits the attention between three groups of people with different motivations and socioeconomic backgrounds — a Hispanic mother and daughter pair (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) caught up in the carnage when their apartment is attacked; a white couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) trying to get to safety after their car broke down; and a police sergeant (Frank Grillo) hell-bent on seeking revenge against people who he believes ruined his life.

In contrast to The Purge’s creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere, Anarchy is more of a direct action thriller with a typical narrative thread in which a group of people must come together for a common cause: survival.

By taking this approach, Anarchy is able to explore the concept of the Purge with more depth and from more perspectives than its predecessor. It tackles the question of why the Purge was implemented in the first place and ponders the social, political and economic fallout from such a decision. Who does the Purge benefit most? Which people are most vulnerable? Are the underlying justifications more sinister than we realize?

This is not to say Anarchy is a great film. The film had a budget of just 9 million, and sometimes it showed, from the distinct lack of star power To the largely unimpressive action scenes. There is nothing special about the acting, and the stock standard characters were often annoying in their stereotypical reactions to situations. I also expected more originality and creativity in some of the deranged discoveries you would come across in a world like this, but they ended up being rather uninspiring and predictable.

Having said that, Anarchy does do better than its predecessor in making the most of the premise, resulting in a more complete and satisfying film. Given that the Purge happens every year, this is one of those franchises that can roll out a new film every summer. And apparently the wheels are already in motion for a third film, a prequel that well look at the events surrounding the very first Purge. Maybe it can continue to iron out the kinks and become one of those film series that can keep improving as it expands on the world it has built.

3.25 stars out of 5

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