Movie Review: Annabelle (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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In an era of crappy, derivative horror films, last year’s The Conjuring was a rare gem in the rough. Most people knew what they were in for — they just didn’t realize how effective it would be thanks to director James Wan’s big bag of tricks.

And so I was excited when I heard that they were going to make a prequel called Annabelle, named after the creepy doll seen briefly in The Conjuring. Haunted toys have been subjected to multiple film interpretations, and I was cautiously optimistic that the same crew from the conjuring would be able to deliver again.I was wrong.

Annabelle was nowhere  near as scary as the conjuring, nor was it anywhere close to being as well made. Instead of the definitive scary doll movie I had been hoping for, Annabelle ended up being yet another disappointment.

The film begins with a brief scene from the conjuring for taking us back to the 1970s, where we meet our lovely protagonists, pregnant young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John Form (Ward Horton). For some inexplicable reason, John decides to get Mia the Annabelle doll to go along with her creepy doll collection (I mean seriously, have you seen the bloody thing?), and soon after that, a deranged woman from a Satanic cult decides to pass her soul into the doll shortly before her death. If you think that sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same scenario happens in Child’s Play, the original Chucky classic.

From there, the progression is fairly predictable — we start off with little things which then escalate, prompting the couple to seek outside counsel, eventually leading to a climatic finish. If you’ve seen it once you’ve seen them all.

None of the predictability would have mattered if Annabelle was genuinely frightening. I admit, expectations were probably unreasonably high after I saw the trailer, which scared the crap out of me. Sadly, the trailer pretty much spoiled all the truly scary parts of the film, and what was left over turned out to be a bore. Despite a running time of just 98 minutes, Annabelle felt surprisingly slow. Unlike The Conjuring, which gave us a fine blend of atmosphere and “boo!” moments, Annabelle was dominated by cheap scares and obvious tactics.

It would be a lie to say the film wasn’t scary at all, but I guess that’s what happens when you follow up one of James Wan’s best efforts with a career cinematographer like John R Leonetti. To be fair, Annabelle does have some stylish scenes and is by far Leonetti’s best film, though this is not difficult feat considering his other directorial credits are Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Buttlerfly Effect 2.

One of the other major problems with Annabelle is the acting. It would be nasty to suggest that the doll was the least wooden performer in the cast, but going from established Conjuring veterans like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston to the likes to Wallis and Horton is a jarring experience.

Having said all that, Annabelle probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. It’s disappointing because of heightened expectations, though compared to the vast majority of other trash out there, the film is actually better than most. It’s a shame there couldn’t have been more creativity with the script and better acting, but if you haven’t seen the trailer there might be just enough scares to justify giving the film a try.

PS: For those wondering, Annabelle is even less of a true story than The Conjuring. Check out the real doll. If you’ve done any reading about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghostbuster couple from The Conjuring, you’ll know it’s likely a whole bunch of BS. Check out this article for more details.

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Movie Review: Before I Go to Sleep (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I had wanted desperately to read SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, the bestselling novel about a 40-year-old woman who has that same condition as Drew Barrymore from 50 First Dates — ie, she has no short term memory and wakes up every morning with no recollection of the previous day or what happened to her since her early 20s. But alas, I was stuck on other books, so I decided to take the easy way out and watch the adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong.

While the film blatantly steals from Adam Sandler’s idea (if you can’t tell that’s a joke then I can’t help you), Before I Go to Sleep is no comedy — it’s a mystery thriller with plenty of suspense that will have every viewer trying to guess the outcome. Personally, I thought it was a perfectly solid mystery film that doesn’t manage to fully differentiate itself from similar Hollywood efforts in recent years. I enjoyed the ride while it lasted, and while I wouldn’t call it forgettable (pun unintended), the film clearly will not be as revered as its source material.

Nicole Kidman plays our protagonist, Christine Lucas, who suffers from the — let’s just call it the Drew Barrymore condition — because of an “accident” she was in about 10 years ago, or so her husband Ben (Colin Firth) tells her. Every morning, after waking up and being reminded of who she is by Ben, she receives a call from a neurologist, Dr Nasch (Mark Strong), who tells her that they’ve been secretly working together to help her remember her past.

Naturally, nothing is what it seems, and Christine slowly begins to peel away the mystery, one layer at a time like an onion. Who can she trust? Who is telling her the truth? And why did she really become this way? These are all questions that will get answered eventually, though not before writer and director Rowan Joffe (who was a writer on 28 Weeks Later and The American) throws a bunch of curve balls at us. But anyone who watched this film probably knew that there’d be twists and turns galore, and an obligatory surprise at the very end.

Knowing what’s coming, however, didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the film. Before I Go to Sleep is done and dusted in an extremely manageable (and unlikely for this day and age) 92 minutes. The short running time keeps the film tight and fast paced, and Joffe cleverly finds ways to avoid repetition despite Christine waking up in the same manner every day. Always be kept on the back foot from all the plot twists and red herrings also prevents you from thinking too much about all the potential plot holes and inconsistencies.

I know it is unpatriotic of me to say this, but I have never been the biggest fan of Nicole Kidman. I just don’t think, Oscar notwithstanding, she’s that good of an actress. Having said that, I admit she there is not much for me to complain about here. She gets the job done, I’ll leave it at that. Colin Firth and Mark Strong are also excellent and make full use of their charisma in different ways, such that both come off as trustworthy suspects.

My biggest problem with the film, and films like this in general, is that knowing a “shocking” twist is coming means you likely won’t be shocked when it finally comes. I couldn’t shake that feeling of anticipation throughout most of the film, and I doubt I’m alone when I say I more or less guessed the ending.

While it doesn’t come close to blowing me away like I was by a classic like The Usual Suspects, I think Before I Go to Sleep generally accomplishes what it set out to do. It might not be the most creative or satisfying mystery thriller you’ll come across this year, but in my opinion it’s certainly one of the better ones.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Dracula Untold (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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If I had gone into Dracula Untold knowing only of the horrendous reviews I had glanced, I probably would have really enjoyed it and thought that critics were completely overreacting. However, I had also received several positive endorsements from friends, who said the film is nowhere near that bad and was actually a perfectly acceptable dark fantasy reimagining/mashing of a classic story and a historical legend. In the end, my impression of Dracula Untold lies somewhere in the middle — it definitely is not as bad as the reviews say, though on the other hand I had so many issues with it I found it difficult to conclude that it is any more than just a passable effort.

In essence, Dracula Untold is a superhero movie. We have a protagonist who obtains super powers beyond his imagination, but of course the powers comes at a very steep price. Here, Prince Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) is a hero who turns himself into Superman…oops,  I mean vampire (with the help of Games of Thrones‘s Charles Dance) – with super strength, speed, healing capabilities and the ability to fly – in order to save his family and his people from the nasty draconian Turks led by his evil “brother” Mehmet (Dominic Cooper, whom I coincidentally often mistake for Evans for some inexplicable reason). The problem, of course, is that he wants to drink human blood and has a weakness for direct sunlight and silver.One of the key strengths of Dracula Untold lies in Vlad’s internal struggle. Instead of the historical villain who loved to impale his victims, Vlad is depicted as an astonishingly capable warrior who is righteous in everything he does — even when he is impaling people. He is an all-round family man who dearly loves his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his young son (Art Parkinson), which is why he chose to become a monster to protect them, even though he’ll constantly want to drink their blood. First time feature director Gary Shore does a solid job of milking this inner conflict so that we might care about our protagonist. Kudos also to Evans for putting in as good of a performance as one could have hoped in a role like this.

Further, while the film is not scary at all, there is a gloomy mood that works well with the film’s themes. The action sequences are surprisingly exhilarating, in the way that superhero flicks can be when executed right. Admittedly, watching Dracula turn into bats and take on thousands of soldiers by his lonesome is pretty cool, even if you sometimes feel like you’re watching a video game.

Up to this point, Dracula Untold just about ticks all the right boxes for an enjoyable Hollywood guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, the film is also plagued with so many gaps in logic and physics and missing or puzzling details that I found myself asking, “Did that really just happen?” more than a couple of times (see below this review for some slightly spoilery examples). Granted, most Hollywood flicks suffer from similar problems, but the ones here are so glaring and sloppy that they snapped me out of the film’s flow. Some of the flaws are less abhorrent once you realize that they are apparently planning a sequel — which also partly explains the stupid ending — though I doubt we’ll ever get to the bottom of most of these mysteries.

Apart from Vlad, there are also no other characters to give a crap about. Gadon’s loving wife is sadly a thankless character who doesn’t do much except whinge and cry and wait to be rescued, and the son is more or less a prop. Vlad also has a couple of loyal right-hand men whom we don’t even get to know before they die, but then are expected to care. And there’s this weird “servant” dude who pops out of nowhere to act creepy but we have no idea who he is, where he came from or what his motivations are.

In all, Dracula Untold flashed glimpses of promise. The premise itself is not bad, the lead star is solid and the action sequences are relatively exciting. It’s also, thankfully, a very tightly-packed 92-minutes that never feels boring. At the end of the day, I’d rank it above abominations like I, Frankenstein and below more fun, less serious efforts like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

2.75 stars out of 5

(SPOILER ALERT) Here are some of the questions I asked myself while watching Dracula Untold:

- Is Charles Dance’s vampire restricted to living in that cave or just at night? If he’s always stuck in there then where do all the bones come from? Why would so many people go to extreme lengths to get into that cave so they could be eaten? Why is he stuck there and Vlad can roam around freely? And if Vlad “sets him free” by replacing him in the end, then why can Vlad still go wherever he wants?
- Doesn’t Charles Dance’s vampire want to seek revenge against the one who made him that way? What’s he doing still following Vlad around — 600 years later? What the heck are these “games” he’s talking about?
- Why could Vlad not save Mirena when she fell off the cliff when he can fly she she was just free-falling? He can fly so fast he basically teleports, and he’s likely falling quicker because of his greater mass!
- So did he get to her in time or what? If so, why is she dead? If not, why did she not splatter and why could she still talk so much?
- How did Vlad’s kid get from the top of the cliff onto a horse at the bottom of the cliff basically during the time it took for his mother to fall to her death?
- So Mirena reincarnated into Mina 600 years later? Is that what they’re saying? Seriously?
- Is Vlad more powerful than the other vampires he created? Why? Why does he look so much better than them? Why didn’t he look like Charles Dance even though he “replaced” him? Why can he cover the sky with clouds? And how can he (and Charles Dance) be walking around in daylight at the end of the film?
- Why am I thinking so much about things that don’t make sense in this movie?

Movie Review: Gone Girl (2014)

October 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I honestly had no idea what to expect when I rushed to see Gone Girl, the highly-anticipated adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough novel directed by the legendary David Fincher (The Social Network, Fight Club, Seven). The early buzz was overwhelmingly positive, but through word-of-mouth I also learned that many who had read the book first found the film underwhelming.

As a huge fan of the book, I can’t say that surprises me. A significant part of Gone Girl’s allure stems from its delicious twists and turns, and knowing exactly how things will turn out will obviously dampen the experience. There’s just no way around it. No one would be able to enjoy The Usual Suspects or The Sixth Sense as much if the twists in those films had been spoiled in advance either.

With that in mind, I thought Gone Girl was brilliant. I had been curious to see how Fincher would handle the multi-layered material, the difficult themes, the portrayal of the main characters and the controversial ending — and he delivered about as well as I could have imagined, with a steady, confident, yet understated control that captures the tones and essence of Flynn’s writing.

Keeping in line with my usual effort to be as spoiler-free as I can, I thought adapting Gone Girl to the screen would have been a nightmare because of its multiple view points, shifts in time, and the clever use of a diary plot device. I was therefore surprised at how seemingly straightforward it was for Fincher and Flynn, who adapted her own novel, to make everything work so well. The result was a film that followed the novel — both in plot and progression — very closely, so much so that I can’t think of any salient things that didn’t make the jump successfully.

If you’ve seem the trailer or heard about the film in passing you’ll know the story is about a beautiful woman (Rosamund Pike) who goes missing in a small town and her husband (Ben Affleck) becoming the prime suspect for her murder because he’s not acting the way a loving husband would. It sounds like such a simple, cliched premise, and yet the amazing thing about Gone Girl is that it explodes and snowballs into so much more, asking complex questions about relationships, marriage, parents, children, sacrifice, compromise, honesty, sexual politics, the economy, the public psyche and role of the media. I could probably write an entire essay about all the things about the book/film that fascinate me, but that would involve dreaded spoilers, and I can’t possibly have that. What’s relevant is that all these questions from the movie are also asked in the film, and that’s what kept me interested and on the edge of my seat.

I had mixed feelings when I heard about the casting. I love Ben Affleck as a director, but as some of you may know, I’m not the biggest fan of his acting. As the douchey Nick Dunne, however, Affleck has found a role that was custom made for him, and he absolutely blitzes it. I don’t think it’s hyperbole to call it the best performance of his entire career. I’m not encouraging award voters to jump on Affleck’s bandwagon, but if they did I would resent it a lot less than when they went nuts for Matthew McConaughey.

As Affleck’s other half, Rosamund Pike is a low-key choice for Amy Dunne considering all the other big names that were being rumored for the role at the time. I didn’t love her performance at the beginning, but there were reasons for the way she acted the way she did, and by the end of the film I was sold.

The supporting cast was also very strong. When I first heard Neil Patrick Harris was involved I was still picturing him as his alter ego in Harold & Kumar, so I thought he would be cast as Nick’s flamboyant lawyer Tanner Bolt. Instead, he was fantastic as Amy’s wealthy, creepy ex-boyfriend Desi, and the even bigger shock was that Tyler Perry (yes, Tyler Perry!) was awesome as Tanner Bolt. Those casting choices completely bowled me over.

I was also impressed with the performances in two supporting female roles — Carrie Coon as Nick’s twin sister Margo, and Kim Dickens as lead detective Rhonda Boney. Both extremely important characters who served their functions well without stealing the show from the stars of the show.

The film is quite long at 149 minutes and occasionally feels like it, especially towards the end as the story searches for the perfect point to end on. But Fincher’s pacing is superb, and his ability to manage the subtle shifts in the film’s tone throughout all its twists and turns — it’s sometimes drama, sometimes black comedy, sometimes horror — is what glues the story together. A lesser director might have turned Gone Girl into a clunky mess, but Fincher gets it just right.

The ending is something I was curious to see because apparently Flynn had “rewritten” it for the big screen, though the changes are more artificial than substantial. I’m not disappointed, however, because I loved the book’s chilling ending.

Having said all that, I’m sure I am less enthusiastic about the movie than I would have been had I not read the book first. It helps that I have a terrible memory and that I read it more than a year ago, but like I said, there’s just no way around it. I’d say that the book is better at keeping the twists hidden while the movie can struggle to conceal what’s coming, though that’s a natural advantage given that readers can be manipulated easier on the page than on the screen. Still, I would recommend those who have seen the movie to give the book a try, and vice versa, because the two present two rather different, but equally rewarding experiences.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

October 8, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Like most people who had never heard of the book series, I was hugely sceptical about The Maze Runner, which looked suspiciously like yet another young adult sci-fi action flick trying to cash in on the success of The Hunger Games. Even the film’s very first scene, which I won’t spoil, was rather Hunger Game-sy. But I’m going to defend The Maze Runner against a lot of the unwarranted criticism it has received because it’s actually — despite its rather minuscule budget of $34 million — a very intriguing and original story with a good dose of suspense and action. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but in terms of quality and the overall experience it delivers, The Maze Runner deserves to be in the upper tier of films in the same genre along with The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.

The story follows the adventures of an initially unnamed 16-year-old boy (Dylan O’Brien), who is delivered into a large open space enclosed by a giant mechanical maze. With no memory of who he is or where he is from, the boy is forced to co-exist with a bunch of other boys of all ages, races and sizes, who all appear to have been put through the same experience. It’s a community where everyone has their own duties and roles, and one of the roles is a Maze Runner, someone who spends most of their day in the maze trying to map it and find a way out before the giant metal doors close for the night, ensuring certain death for anyone who fails to return in time.

Much of the film’s appeal comes from the group trying to solve the mysteries of who they are, why the have been put in this bizarre maze and how they can possibly escape it, and of course, what lies on the other side if they do. Like any community, there are conflicting personalities and desires, and a significant portion of the film’s near-perfect 113-minute running time is spent on the protagonist trying to find his place among his peers and the group’s leaders.

The Maze Runner is part Hunger Games, part Lord of the Flies and part Labyrinth, with a big dash of that underrated 1997 Canadian sci-fi horror flick Cube, but I never got the feeling watching the film that it was simply a mishmash of the above. Director Wes Ball, probably best known as a visual effects and graphics artist, does an enviable job of keeping the focus on the character development and playing up the intrigue of the maze by not spending too much unnecessary time in there. The effect is that when the characters are finally in there and running for their lives, the action is that much more riveting and exciting.

The film is not free from usual problems such as plot holes, occasional contrivances and unexplored opportunities, and the ending is largely unsatisfactory because answers are scarce (it is, after all, the first film of a series), though on the whole I had a great time with The Maze Runner. I found the maze to be an interesting and thought-provoking concept, and the action sequences were executed with ample exhilaration. The performances from the young and largely unknown cast was also unexpectedly strong. Dylan O’Brien I knew vaguely from TV’s Teen Wolf , Will Poulter I recognised from the Narnia movies and We’re The Millers, and of course Thomas Sangster is from Game of Thrones, but I was not familiar with most of the other kids (like Aml Ameen, Kee Hong Li, Blake Cooper and Kaya Scodelario), all of whom were solid.

Which is why I take issue with some of the scathing reviews from critics, most notably from Andrew Parker, who called The Maze Runner “one of the worst films I have ever had the immense displeasure of ever sitting through.” Now, Parker is entirely entitled to his own opinion, but the vitriol he spewed out against an adaptation that was technically sound and with holes no worse than most films of its kind was clearly hyperbolic and likely predetermined. No wonder Will Poulter found it difficult to hold back in starting a public feud with Parker on Twitter over the review.

Let’s face it, The Maze Runner probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of films like The Hunger Games, but it’s not fair to single it out for being derivative and opportunistic because just about every film made these days is guilty of that in some respect. The book by James Dashner on which the film was based was actually written before Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games (though published a little later). In the hierarchy of teen flicks released in recent years, I’d place The Maze Runner alongside the likes of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. It might not come with the same fanfare as Twilight, but it’s definitely above the second-tier adaptation franchises such as Percy Jackson, Vampire Academy, His Dark Materials (Golden Compass), the Tomorrow series (Tomorrow, When the War Began), and Red Dawn (which should really be third-tier).  I was pleasantly surprised by The Maze Runner and I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, set to be released in September next year.

4 stars out of 5

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