Movie Review: Predestination (2014)

December 31, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Predestination wins the award for the most ambitious sci-fi movie of the year. I don’t mean ambitious in terms of scale and scope, like Interstellar, but ambitious in terms of its central conceit and its execution of it. I have a feeling this will be one of those cult classics people either love or hate, and, despite its flaws, I find myself falling into the former category.

This is one of those movies where you can’t really say too much about the plot or else you’d give away too much. Suffice it to say that it is a sci-fi film with a time travel foundation. Ethan Hawke plays what is known as a Temporal Agent, someone who travels back in time to catch criminals before crimes are committed. Aussie Sarah Snook, in a star-making performance, plays two roles, a young woman who grew up in an orphanage before trying out for the Space Corps, and an older man who tells his story to Hawke’s character in a bar.

All of this will make sense as the movie progresses, but what should be noted upfront is that Predestination is not just a time-bending movie. It’s also a gender-bending movie as well as a mind-bending one. It’s by no means impossible to follow or even figure out the twists and turns in advance, but like many time-travel movies, it’s complex and circular, and may require multiple viewings if you want to make sense of it all.

Directed and written by Aussie brothers Michael and Peter Spierig, who last made the underrated political vampire movie Daybreakers (also with Hawke) in 2010, Predestination is based on a the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein. It feels like a short story adaptation too in that it requires some level of suspension of disbelief and is told through unconventional narrative methods, jumping around in time and delivering stories within stories.

In some ways, the make-or-break point of the film is whether you can buy the idea of Sarah Snook, as good as she is, playing a believable male character. If you can, then all the other pieces of the puzzle fall into place. If not, then the whole thing begins to crumble. In my humble opinion, she was more than good enough to make me believe in the characters and their emotions, which is why I found the journey to be so engrossing. For the first half of the movie, at least, I had no idea where the story was heading and why it was being presented in the way that it was — and yet I felt as though I had been entranced by the peculiar narrative. At a certain point, the whole point of it all becomes clear, and even if you think it’s stupid you still have to be impressed by its creativity and audacity.

With a relative lack of action and a narrower, personal scope, the film is not as well-rounded or as exciting as some other time travel films like 12 Monkeys or the more recent Looper, but it makes up for it with stronger character development and a distinct Twilight Zone-feel.

At the end of the day, Predestination is a strange film and an acquired taste — one that happens to be my cup of tea. I love sci-fi and fascinating time travel stories, and I enjoy films that challenge you — for better or for worse — to pick apart its logic. Throw in the excellent performances of Hawke and Snook, and the stylish direction and visual style of the Spierig brothers, and Predestination is turning out to be one of my dark horse highlights of the year.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (2014) (2D)

December 29, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I more or less knew what to expect when I decided to see The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies at the cinema over the weekend. Not much plot and loads and loads of battle action. Both predictions turned out to be accurate, though I must admit there was a little bit more plot than I anticipated and, amazingly, probably even more battle action than I was prepared for.

The whole film is essentially a massive, extended climax. At a relatively short 144 minutes, and with much of the running time dedicated to battle, it feels much swifter than An Unexpected Journey and The Desolation of Smaug. As such, it might be better to regard the film as pure popcorn entertainment and fantasy nerd eye candy as opposed to the resounding final piece of the Middle Earth puzzle. As a standalone movie, Five Armies comes across as fairly soulless in comparison to the other entries. But as a 144-minute climax to a 447-minute film — or if you include LOTR, a middle-climax to a 1005-minute film (a couple of hours longer than that if you add director’s cut versions) — it actually kinda makes sense. I suppose it all depends on your perspective.

By now you should be well aware that Five Armies deviates substantially from its source material. Of course it had to, considering there weren’t many pages left in The Hobbit by the time The Desolation of Smaug finished. This might irk Tolkien loyalists, but for me it didn’t matter. It helps that I don’t remember much of the book, which I was never that fond of since I first read it as a pre-teen, and then again at university.

To be honest, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t remember much from the first two films either, because Five Armies is all about the spectacle. Say what you want about the rest of the movie, but there’s no denying that Five Armies is one of the most impressive visual feasts you will ever see. While it is dominated by special effects, I never got the sense that the film was overwhelmed by CGI. The war sequences were also spectacular and rarely felt repetitive, with long group battles involving all types of creatures and lengthy one-on-one duels. That said, the “wow” factor is no longer there. It’s undeniably good, but my mind was not blown like it was when I first watched the Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers.

The drama offered by the film obviously pales in comparison to the action, but you can still tell that Peter Jackson really tried. The humans (led by Bard the Bowman — Luke Evans) head to the Mountain for refuge after their Laketown village is ravaged by Smaug the dragon (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch), while the dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) are holed up in Mountain with their gold, refusing to share. The elves (led by Thranduil — Lee Pace) want their share of the treasure in the Mountain, and the Orcs (CGI) are looking to kill everyone and claim the Mountain for themselves (I think that’s about five armies, no?). Throw in the love triangle between Legolas (Orlando Bloom), Tauriel (Evangeline Lilly) and Kili (Aidan Turner) for some romance, a bit of comedic relief in the form of a cowardly, greedy politician’s aide (Alfrid — Ryan Gage), old regulars like Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Elrond (Hugo Weaving), Saruman (Christopher Lee) and Galadriel (Cate Blanchett), and don’t forget the the stoic protagonist, Biblo Baggins (Martin Freeman), and you can see how there’s more than enough characters and subplots to go around. The emotional resonance may be lacking if you compare it to LOTR, but at least Jackson gave it a shot.

Martin Freeman, whom I will never see in the same light again after watching him in the Fargo TV series, feels more like a supporting character here. He does what he can in his allocated slot of screen time, though I never got the feeling that the story was truly about him. But then again, the hobbits have always felt more like observers of the action than participants. Also, Richard Armitage might be no Viggo Mortensen and Thorin Oakenshield might be no Aragon, but Armitage still makes Thorin an awesome, memorable character who offers something different to what Aragon did for LOTR.

There will be a lot of people who hate this movie, or at least deeply disappointed by it. Lovers of the book might not like the liberties Jackson took with Tolkien’s story, or how he expanded just a few pages of text into a 2.5 hour movie. But if you accept all that and watch the movie for what it set out to be — and that’s an exciting fantasy epic filled with extensive and well-executed battle sequences — then it might turn out to be pretty thrilling.  There’s dragons (well, dragon), elves, dwarves, orcs, trolls, goblins, hobbits and giant eagles and bats, and they’re all killing each other. If fantasy adventure is what you want, then what more can you ask for?

I remember a time when each new installment of LOTR felt like Christmas (though that might have been because it was always released at Christmas). Hands down, it would always be my most anticipated movie of the year. With The Hobbit, on the other hand, watching each new entry felt more like an obligation. You’ve seen all of them, so you might as well keep going.

That said, it’s still hard to believe that it’s finally over. After 14 years — nearly half a lifetime for me — JRR Tolkien/Peter Jackson’s Middle Earth franchise has drawn to a close. If you consider the film part as of a six-entry series, then fair enough, it’s probably a disappointment. On the other hand, if you think of LOTR and The Hobbit as two separate trilogies, then you might find it as enjoyable as I did, for Five Armies is clearly the best of the three films (though not on the same level as any of the LOTR flicks). Either way, it’s both sad and a relief to see this magnificent world come to an end. Unlike Star Wars, there’s no more cash to milk from this cow, and that’s a good thing.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

December 25, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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So everyone was urging me to see this cool new Aussie horror flick called The Babadook. I didn’t think it would be particularly good, to be honest, but the 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes managed to persuade me in the end.

And wow, what a great horror movie. What a great Aussie movie.

The story, at least from the trailer, seemed kinda cliched. A mother (Essie Davis) starts to become terrified that the titular monster depicted in a pop-up children’s book she reads to her son (Noah Wiseman) might actually be real.

But fortunately, The Babadook is nothing like the typical boogeyman, monster-under-the-bed horror I had expected. While there is a handful of “boo” moments, the majority of the scares in this movie are psychological. It’s that eerie, uncomfortable feeling that creeps up on you and makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. There’s not much blood, and there’s very little use of computer-based special effects, and yet The Babadook is definitely up there as one of the scariest films I’ve seen for a very long time.

Another thing that sets The Babadook apart from most horror films in recent years is that the characters are actually well developed, meaning that you actually worry about them when something bad is happening to them. Essie Davis delivers a marvellous performance as Amelia, whose sanity appears to be hanging by a thread as her energy and patience is ground down to nothingness by her troubled son. Anyone who has had to deal with troubled children, or even normal children, will be able to appreciate what she’s going through and sympathise with her impossible predicament.

The way things begin to unravel for Amelia is executed with impressive skill, as one incident after another piles onto her despair, exhaustion and feeling of helplessness. She’s terrified not just of the Babadook, but of her own son, and even herself — or at least what she might do to him. That’s the brilliance of the film — for the most part, you don’t know whether the creature is a supernatural being, a real manifestation or her fears and anxieties, or just a figment of her imagination.

With this stunning debut, writer and director Jennifer Kent has set up what should be a career to look out for. It’s clear she knew exactly what she was going for from the very first scene, and the sombre color scheme she adopts really brings out the melancholy of the film’s tone.

What also stood out for me was the way Kent manages to un-Australianise the film. Not that there’s anything wrong with Aussie films per se, but the lack of strong accents and ambiguous settings do help open the story up to a wider audience and offer something that is more relatable to international viewers.

I don’t want to overstate the scariness of the film, because as we all know, bloated expectations can ruin even the best movies. My wife, for example, thought it was scary, but not that scary. Others have said they actually get more freaked out by cheap scares. That’s why I recommend checking it out so you can decide for yourself.

4.5 stars out of 5

Getting back on track, ever so slowly

December 23, 2014 in Blogging, On Writing by pacejmiller

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It’s been a long time since my last post. I knew it wouldn’t be a while, but as usual, I did not expect it to be this long. There was the planned overseas trip that was expectedly hectic, and my mind has not been in the right place after the tragic events at Martin Place last week, which unfolded as we were preparing for our flight back. You hear of terrible tragedies almost every day, but sometimes it takes a personal connection to really make it seem real. In this case, Martin Place siege hit too close to home, and it really shook me up.

The subsequent atrocities in Pakistan and then Cairns really had me in an emotional rut, but it was the physical exhaustion — from the trip, the flight, and the sick, restless toddler upon our return — more than anything that prevented me from feeling the urge to write again. Actually, that’s not entirely accurate. The urge was there, but the energy was not.

And so for the first few days I was half in battle mode, trying to simply get through the day — be it work or home duties — with tremendous inefficiency, and half in zoning-out mode, staring at whatever mundane stupidity the computer screen had to offer.

Slowly but surely, however, I’m getting my mojo back. I restarted on my Pacers blogging yesterday and blogged again today. I got back into my exercise routine as well and will start watching my diet again after I stuff my face at a couple of celebratory meals I can’t avoid. None of this seemingly has anything to do with my writing, but I tell you: it’s all connected. I need to be in optimal condition — mentally and physically — for writing to commence.

As for my unofficial, two-month, split NaNoWriMo project…well, there’s always next year. I do plan to start again shortly, but any plan of completing something substantial before the end of the year is unlikely. I’ve reached a stage where I am beginning to realise that maybe I should just stop writing about intending to write, and just bloody write.

PS: One thing I have done reasonably well this year is keep up with my movie reviews. I have a couple of reviews coming up, and hopefully not that many movies left to watch before I can do my best of and worst of list for 2014.