Movie Review: Goodnight Mommy (2015)

August 14, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Goodnight_Mommy

Let me just put this out there. Goodnight Mommy, the Austrian film also known as Ich Seh Ich Seh, is one of the scariest, most messed up movies I’ve ever seen. If you have children as well then forget about it. Sleeping after watching this film is going to be difficult.

Written and directed by Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala, the story revolves around nine-year-old twin boys Elias and Lukas (Elias and Lukas Schwarz). It’s summer, and they don’t have much to do on the beautiful estate they live on in the Austrian countryside other than roam around, collect beetles, feed stray cats and do curious kid stuff. Then one day, their mother (Susanne Wuest) returns with her face all wrapped up in bandages, apparently after plastic surgery. Apart from the freaky bandages, she seems different somehow, and after a while the boys start to suspect that the woman they call mommy might not be their real mother.

That’s all I’d like to say about that, and I’d recommend avoiding all spoilers so the film can wreak maximum havoc on your psyche. Since watching the film I’ve read some ridiculous reviews — from respected publications, no less — that give away some of the best aspects about the film, even just from the review’s bloody headline. Stay way from that shit. If you can, rest assured that you’ll be creeped out, feel very uncomfortable, get queasy, and challenge yourself to keep watching as the film continues to grow darker and crazier before spiraling out of control towards a chilling and jaw-dropping climax.

I didn’t know what kind of movie it was going to be at first. Admittedly, it begins slow, and all throughout the pace is deliberate and controlled. It’s a minimalist production with a simply story and not a lot of dialogue. Not everything the characters do appear to be logical. I can understand if some people find it boring and tune out early. I can also definitely understand if some can’t stick around to the end because they can’t bear the terror.

But man, the atmosphere is so unsettling. The suspense keeps growing and the core mystery — whether the boys are being paranoid or if “mommy” isn’t who she says she is — keeps the tension on high gear. The storytelling is tightly wound and the point of view is subversive. It doesn’t go as far as transcending the genre but it sure pushes the boundaries. Fantastic use of silence too to maximise the persistent uneasiness.

The mother with the bandaged face creepy. Identical twins, let’s face it, are super creepy, especially when they wear the same stuff. There’s just something sinister about kids who never have any facial expressions so you have no idea what’s going on in their little heads. The beetles and bugs are gross. There are visceral dream sequences that are both eerie and shocking. It’s the kind of horror that makes your skin crawl and the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. And the stuff that happens in the second half of the movie is messed up shit. I don’t recall one cliched “boo” scare throughout the entire movie, and yet I don’t remember feeling this nervous and squirming in my seat this much in a movie for a very long time.

Actually, if you can stomach it, Goodnight Mommy is a movie that demands at least one repeat viewing. I suppose the film could be viewed as an exploration of familial trust, paranoia and trauma. There are multiple layers to the story and lots of little hints you’ll be unlikely to catch the first time around. While it is undoubtedly a horror, the film has many psychological thriller elements in that many things only make sense at the end when you start to understand the psychological reasoning behind the characters’ motivations, actions and reactions.

Goodnight Mommy is not a great movie if we’re talking about having an “enjoyable” experience, but if you want to be freaked out, this movie is the shit. And isn’t that what we want from our horror movies? For them to freak the crap out of us?

5 stars out of 5

PS: The film was first screened last year but is only getting a limited release in the US next month.

Movie Review: Ant-Man (2015)

August 10, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

ant man

Paul Rudd gives new meaning to the term “shrinkage.”

All things considered, Ant-Man turned out much better than expected. That said, I’d still preach caution against reading too many overly positive reviews.

That’s what happens with expectations sometimes. People were initially lukewarm on Ant-Man, then they were completely down on it, and now they’re really high on it, perhaps even too high on it. My verdict is that it’s a very solid film, a very funny film, one that might fit uncomfortably in the Marvel cinematic universe but offers a great time as an independent movie experience. Its ambitions are so underwhelming that it’s hard to rank it up there among the other Marvel superhits, though I feel it is strong enough to not drag the franchise down and deserves a place in the hierarchy as one of the more different and refreshing efforts.

One of my favourite actors, Paul Rudd, plays Scott Lang, a Robin Hood-type burglar who is offered an opportunity for redemption by becoming Ant-Man, a superhero capable of shrinking himself down to Honey I Shrunk the Kid proportions and control armies of different breeds of ants. I’ve been a fan of Rudd since Clueless — which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year — and never thought he would manage to survive in Hollywood this long (while Alicia Silverstone basically disappeared into obscurity). But here he is, and he’s excellent as Lang, who makes the most of Rudd’s dry personality as well as his underrated acting chops. The understated Rudd doesn’t dominate the film, and I think that’s a good thing because it plays into the whole apologetic feel of Ant-Man as a superhero.

The plot is fairly standard and revolves around the concept of family, in particular father-and-daughter relationships. In this regard the theme is played out brilliantly by Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly, who star as scientist Hank Pym and estranged daughter Hope van Dyne, respectively. I hadn’t seen Douglas on screen for a while and I had forgotten what a brilliant actor and screen presence he is. He’s a major reason why the film is as good as it is.

On the villain side, the ubiquitous Corey Stoll (naturally bald this time) is Darren Cross, a former protege of Pym who is close to perfecting a similar shrinking suit called the Yellowjacket. I love Stoll as much as the next heterosexual man, but his character in this is pretty one-dimensional and not particularly memorable. Can’t blame the man for collecting cheques when they keep flooding in, though.

Providing additional comic relief are Michael Pena, recording artist T.I. and David Dastmalchian. Pena in particular is at his blistering best, and those who enjoy his style of comedy will have a blast as he rolls off his awesome “tip montages”. Rudd, confined to being the “hero”, almost takes a back seat to all these supporting characters, and fortunately they make the most of the opportunities.

The special effects are of course cool and there are some innovative ideas when Lang is shrunken down to insect size. The film is often silly and it knows it, and the concept alone provides many inherent chances for laughter. One of its biggest strengths is that it straddles the line between comedy and farce very well so that it doesn’t cheapen this massive and complex universe Marvel has been building up since 2008 when it released the first Iron Man.

And that’s pretty good when you realise that Ant-Man originally had disaster written all over it. An idea for an adaptation of the Marvel comic arose back in the 1980s, though nothing came out of it. Then in 2003, Edgar Wright, best known for his Three Flavours Cornette trilogy of Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, became the driving force behind the project, even penning a script and participating in the casting process. But last year, Wright dropped out due to the dreaded “creative differences” excuse and the project brought on a new director, Peyton Reed, best known for Bring It On but had turned in three pretty mediocre efforts since (Down With Love, The Break-Up and Yes Man).

So we’re talking multiple re-writes, different fingers in the pie and a last-minute change of director. The general sentiment was that the film, already facing an uphill battle because of its high concept premise, would be a disastrous mess. It also didn’t help that critics were iffy about Paul Rudd, who has carved out an impressive career as a dry comedic actor but had yet to prove that he could carry a leading superhero role from a juggernaut franchise like Marvel.

Accordingly, almost everyone was pleasantly surprised that Ant-Man defied predictions and turned out to be really good. And it is. I liked it a lot. It was probably exactly what Marvel needed after exhausting everyone with one big blockbuster after another featuring more and more superheros and villains whose powers are growing out of control.

Despite many references to the Marvel universe — such as the Avengers and Age of Ultron, not to mention several notable cameos — Ant-Man works well as a standalone flick that isn’t a spoof but also doesn’t take itself as seriously as the other Marvel entries. It’s more self-contained, more self-aware, smaller and neater, and arguably the funniest Marvel superhero movie to date along with Guardians of the Galaxy.

While there are going to be more superhero films combining all of these various strands in the upcoming “Phase Three” of Marvels cinematic universe, which will begin with Captain America: Civil War next year and end with Avengers: The Infinity Wars Part II and Inhumans in 2019, Ant-Man offers fans a much-needed breather from the familiarities of the Marvel money-making machine. It’s not the type of film that will wow you with mindblowing visuals, creativity or action. What if offers instead is good-natured, light-hearted fun that’s as self-deprecating as its lead star, something many audiences might actually prefer as a change of pace to the excesses of the more “marquee” names. Just keep in mind, however, that it is simply a good film that exceeds low expectations rather than something truly extraordinary that shits all over all its more well-known siblings.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I fully recommend this video of Paul Rudd from Conan, which includes an “exclusive” clip from the movie.

Movie Review: Jurassic World (2015) (IMAX 3D)

August 9, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Jurassic-World-poster-Mosasaurus

Like for many people who grew up in the 1990s, Jurassic Park was a major cinematic event in my life. It was a movie you heard about and just had to see. It wasn’t the first dinosaur movie, but it was the first that made you feel like the dinosaurs were genuinely real and that it was possible for them to be real. And most importantly, it was actually a great movie full of action, suspense and characters we cared about and could root for.

And so of course I was super excited about Jurassic World, the long-awaited “reboot” that has already become the third-highest grossing film of all time after raking in box office earnings of nearly US$1.55 billion in just six weeks (though it appears unlikely to catch Titanic‘s US$2.19 billion or Avatar‘s US$2.79 billion). I knew it wasn’t going to live up to unrealistic expectations, but I wanted to see an enjoyable blockbuster that would bring back some of the magic of the original while taking the spectacle to a whole new level.

The verdict? Mission accomplished.

Jurassic World cleverly mirrors the idea in the its story that consumers, having gotten used to the idea of “living” dinosaurs, can only be impressed by bigger, badder and scarier. The premise, which essentially ignores Jurassic Park II and III, is set 22 years after the original. Despite the disaster that was Jurassic Park, humans fail to learn their lesson as ambitious billionaire Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) decides to give the idea another go by building the massive Jurassic World theme park on the same island. But with kids having grown up in an era where dinosaurs are as real as animals they can see in a zoo, Masrani goes to great lengths to create even more dangerous creatures to draw new visitors.

At a basic level, it’s fundamentally the same film as Jurassic Park in that there’s a theme park of genetically engineered dinosaurs that get loose, a couple of kids who get caught in the middle of the mayhem, and a couple of adults trying to save them. Velociraptors also play a key role again. What it does different is broaden the scale and raise the stakes. This time, the kids are brothers played by Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson, nephews of park manager Claire Dearing (Bryce Dallas Howard), more or less the Laura Dern character from the original. The Sam Neill character is replaced by raptor trainer Owen Grady (Chris Pratt), who naturally has a romantic dynamic with Claire and is a bit of a swashbuckling hero.

How I feel about Jurassic Park and Jurassic World is analogous to how characters in those movies felt about their respective theme parks. Like it was for the kids in the original, Jurassic Park was for an awe-inspiring experience that completely blew my mind. Jurassic World, on the other hand, no longer has that jaw-droppingly awesomeness to it. Just like it is for the kids in this reboot, dinosaurs just aren’t as big of a deal to me anymore. But that doesn’t mean I can’t still have a bloody good time looking at them chasing people around on a giant screen. They are, after all, still dinosaurs, and dinosaurs will always be cool.

The first half of Jurassic World does an excellent job in bringing the theme park to life. It’s as you would expect if such a park existed in reality, with various different sections, attractions and rides, a petting farm, an interactive museum, shops galore and glaring corporate sponsorship. This was something we didn’t get to see in the original because the park was not fully functioning, and I found it to be a lot of fun, especially as it was presented as though we — the film audience — are also visitors to this eye-opening and wondrous place.

The second half, when the dinosaurs predictably run amok, is also well-executed. Director Colin Trevorrow, previously best known for the Indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed, does a solid job of building tension and creating a sense of chaos and despair. It’s always difficult to find the right balance of frights and humour in a film like this, but I think he gets it for the most part by keeping the focus on the action with only the occasional funny one-liner to give audiences a breather.

There is also apparently a lot of references and homages (or rip-offs, if you are a critic) to the original, which I’m not sure is a good or bad idea, though it didn’t really matter to me as I seriously can’t remember most of them anyway.

On the surface, therefore, Jurassic World is fantastic. From a popcorn movie perspective it won’t be easy to find experiences that are as spectacular and exciting. Where it struggles is all the other stuff that holds good films together — like logic, characters, and surprise.

Having been in development for more than a decade and having gone through numerous pairs of hands, Jurassic World is littered with plot holes and filled with nonsensical things galore. For some, this might kill the movie, but in its defense I think a lot of the problems are mitigated by the fast pace and fun factor. To me, it’s hard to avoid noticing the problems plaguing the plot and the script, though at the same time I found it relatively easy to move on from them without dwelling for too long.

The characters in the film are also not very well developed. Bryce Dallas Howard’s female lead is annoying and not particularly likable, while I feel they criminally underused Chris Pratt’s comedic talents in making him more of a typical action hero. He could have been super funny, charming and memorable like he was in Guardians of the Galaxy, but instead he plays a character a dozen other guys in Hollywood could have pulled off without much of a discernible difference. If he ends up playing the new Indiana Jones, which is rumored and which I can totally see, I hope they let him be all he can be.

Flaws notwithstanding, Jurassic World is a rewarding summer blockbuster experience. While it fails to capture the magic of the original from more than two decades ago, as expected, it’s still a highly entertaining film packed with spectacular visuals and plenty of fun, thrills and excitement. It’s certainly a worthy reboot if you can try and ignore all the things that don’t work and just go along for the ride.

4 stars out of 5

PS: I did not want to see Jurassic World in IMAX 3D. It’s super expensive and 3D, as I have said many times before, absolutely sucks balls. But due to timing, it was the only session I could see, and while I enjoyed seeing it all on a massive screen, the 3D did annoy me to no end. The uncomfortable glasses (that kept fogging up), the added shade of darkness and the lacklustre 3D effects all contributed to a lesser experience.

PPS: The only returning character and actor is BD Wong, aka Dr Henry Wu, who doesn’t appear to have aged much over the last 20 years. Maybe he had been injecting dinosaur DNA in himself.

PPPS: Not sure how they will one-up this in the planned sequel, scheduled for release on June 22, 2018. That said, they have clearly and intentionally left a few things open ended, and I can see a few ways in which the story might go.

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015)

July 30, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

rogue nation

We all know he is crazy. But when it comes to making crazy action blockbusters, there’s no superstar in the world equipped with more charisma and intensity to do the job than Mr Tom Cruise.

Despite having hit the big Five-O since Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol, the surprising smash hit that turned out to be the best in the franchise yet, Cruise returns in fine form for Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation, the first film financed by Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. It’s a slick, wild, fun and funny experience, a fantastic popcorn movie that appears to have taken a page out of the Fast & Furious franchise by building on the success and familiarity of the predecessor with even crazier action stunts you’ve never seen before.

Cruise returns as IMF agent Ethan Hunt, who finds himself going head-to-head with his most formidable nemesis yet, Solomon Lane, the head of the mysterious Syndicate terrorist group, played by Sean Harris (who looks like Mason Verger from Hannibal even though he has no facial injuries). Returning are his comedy relief sidekick Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg), last entry’s William Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and good old Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames). New to the cast are Alec Baldwin, head of the CIA, and Swedish actress Rebecca Ferguson (who earned a Golden Globe nomination for The White Queen in 2013), in my opinion a true superstar in the making.

Directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who previously collaborated with Cruise on the underrated Jack Reacher and was also a writer on the excellent Edge of TomorrowMI5 kicks off with a spectacular opening sequence that is basically declaring to its audience that they are in for a treat. And from there, the film takes us on a heart-thumping ride around the world, filled with cool gadgets, technology you never knew existed, fast cars and loads of stunts to push action — and credulity — to the edge.

Not everything makes perfect sense and people never seem to get hurt — or even scratched — despite the most brutal of crashes, falls and collisions, but as is the case with the last few Fast & Furious flicks, MI5 embraces its insanity and outrageousness to the fullest, and in doing so becomes a form of surreal enjoyment that few films of the genre can match.

There are admittedly some pacing issues as there are times when the film slows down too much for my liking, though the set action pieces — in particular one involving an underwater sequence and another involving a motorcycle chase — are absolutely fantastic and rank right up there as the best of the franchise.

Tom Cruise, say what you will about him, can still get it done as Ethan Hunt. It’s no different to the type of intense performance we’ve seen countless times, and despite turning 53 this month, Cruises hasn’t lost a step. Equalling his impressiveness is Rebecca Ferguson, who isn’t necessarily a knockout beauty but is shockingly convincing as Ilsa Faust, a British agent/terrorist. The 31-year-old actress exudes an air of confidence and vulnerability that makes Faust a fascinating character you’re not sure if you can trust, and manages to keep all the difficult action scenes authentic because she makes you believe she is capable of possessing those skills.

ferg

Tom Cruise and Rebecca Ferguson

Simon Pegg gets a very meaty role this time, both in terms of screen time and humour, though sadly neither Jeremy Renner nor Ving Rhames get to show much of what they can do as they are largely confined to operational logistics. Alec Baldwin, on the other hand, is a welcome addition who makes CIA chief Alan Huntley a much more interesting character than he otherwise would have been.

Full credit too to Alibaba, basically China’s version of eBay, for keeping MI5 essentially free of “Chinese characteristics.” In recent years, most high-profile films involving Chinese investment always force in some cheesy Chinese elements or actors, but in this film you almost forget that. They don’t go to China, there’s no mention of China, and the only Chinese actress in it — played by Zhang Jinchu, basically a less famous Zhang Zhiyi — has a tiny role that you barely even notice.

I do have a bit of a complaint about some of the close-range combat sequences because the use of quick cuts get a little too liberal to be coherent at times, but apart from that Rogue Nation is an exceptional action film I had a blast with. It’s not quite on the level of Ghost Protocol, a surprising revelation no one expected to be that good, though that could also be because expectations this time around are might higher. Nonetheless, it’s easily the second best entry in the MI franchise and I hope they keep making more as long as they are this awesome.

4 stars out of 5

PS: Yes, they apparently do plan to make a sixth film.

Movie Review: It Follows (2015)

June 7, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

it-follows

It Follows is more than just a punny title. It’s one of the most original, clever, terrifying and quite simply, best horror movie I’ve seen in a long time. And yes, I’ve seen last year’s revelatory hit, The Babadook.

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the film follows Maika Monroe (who was great in The Guest) as Jay, a Michigan student who begins to suspect, to put it lightly, that a sexual encounter with her boyfriend has made her the recipient of a curse in which she is haunted by a malevolent supernatural force.

I don’t want to give too much more away, though suffice it to say that It Follows soon becomes a film about survival, as Jay, her sister, neighbour and friends try to figure out what is happening to her and whether her fears are even real.

It’s a simple premise but an intelligent and damn effective one. A lot has been made about its symbolism and how it could be construed as a parable about promiscuity, sexually-transmitted diseases and post-coital guilt and anxiety. With elements borrowed from The Ring, it’s also about death and the avoidance of death, and the moral quandaries involved in the prolonging of life. On another layer, it’s just about horny teenagers wanting to get some action with reckless consideration  of the consequences.

All the analytical stuff is just depth gravy — because let’s face it, what ultimately makes or breaks a horror movie is whether it’s scary or not. And in this regard It Follows excels as a masterclass in atmosphere, old-fashioned fright tactics and slick style.

At its core, It Follows taps into our primal fear and paranoia from being followed. That dread from seeing something terrifying coming towards you. The anxiety from never knowing when someone with evil intentions is creeping up from behind.

I could tell from the opening sequence that the film was going to be different to the teen horrors we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Mitchell is a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing and knows how to project his vision to the screen.

I like that there’s no mention of when the story is set, but it looks and feels like it’s in a different era. I like the minimalist approach that limits the use of special effects. I like that it relies more on its creepy atmosphere and growing dread than modern “boo” scares, and that even when it resorts to such tactics athey are implemented timely. I liked the great use of silence and complementing it with an eerie, occasionally blazing score that really gets the heart pumping.

The climax — which is more conventional than it should have been — could have been smarter and executed a little better, but on the whole it’s hard to find much else to complain about.

It Follows is a unique and unsettling horror experience you just don’t see very often, which is why this low budget gem wowed audiences at Cannes last year, went from a limited release to a wide release earlier this year, and is quickly gathering steam as a commercial success.

5 stars out of 5