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

Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction (2014)

September 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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It’s a sad world we live in that Michael Bay’s Transformers: Age of Extinction, is 2014′s most successful movie, not only in Taiwan but around the world.

To be honest, I actually quite the first Transformers film — watching special-effects-made giant transforming robots battle it out on the big screen while humans ran around screaming and making cheesy jokes was kinda fun. The second film, Revenge of the Fallen, was more of the same, but made some improvements both visually and stylistically, and though I found the experience wearing me down by the end I still felt there were some positives to take out of it. By the time Dark of the Moon rolled around I was firmly entrenched in the anti-Michael Bay crusade. It was far too loud, too long, too abrasive, too obnoxious. It was just too…everything, and it made me wonder how the hell I ever enjoyed the first two.

And so I thought the fourth Transformers film would be a welcome and much-needed fresh start. They kept the machines but got rid of unbearable leading man Shia LeDouche, replacing him with the likable Marky Mark Wahlberg. Instead of unrealistic love interests in the form of Megan Fox and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley, they got Marky Mark a daughter (Nicola Peltz), who probably never (mistakenly) thought she’d be a in worse movie than The Last Airbender. They also threw in a new hunky race-car-driving boyfriend, played by Irish actor Jack Reynor. The rest of the cast was filled out by solid veterans like Stanley Tucci and Kelsey Grammar, all of whom are, let’s face it, looking for a paycheck. Surely it couldn’t be worse, or so I thought.

I don’t know if Age of Extinction is worse than Dark of the Moon when judged as a standalone film, but if you’ve seen the other ones in the franchise you’ve effectively seen them all, and the accumulated damage is something that’s almost impossible to overcome.  Age of Extinction is vintage Michael Bay. It’s 165 minutes of robots blowing shit up and beating the crap out of each other, with the gaps filled in by bad acting, trite dialogue and cheesy humour.

Marky Mark is a struggling — albeit very buffed — inventor (yeah right) who finds a dormant Optimus Prime while trying to ways to pay for his daughter’s college education. Meanwhile, there are some government agents who are trying to kill all robots, good and bad (makes sense to me), a Transformer bounty hunter wreaking havoc, and a desperate need to get the film to China at all cost to appease its Chinese co-producers.

If the film was cut down to about 100-120 minutes and it was the first time I ever watched a Transformers movie, then I can see how I might have enjoyed it. Instead, I spent the entire film trying to shake the feeling that I had seen all of this before, except not as loud, not as excessive, and certainly not as long. After a while, I became totally numb to all the colourful robots causing carnage to each other and their surroundings. Ironically, all the “action” made the film less exciting. It actually wasn’t that easy to tell who were the good guys and who were the bad guys amid all the rolling around and explosions and shit, and frankly, I didn’t care. And every time I thought the movie was about to end, more stuff happened.

It was just too much of the same, cranked up to 11 (and that’s Michael Bay’s 11, which is like 37 for everyone else). There’s always some special, magic object that bad guys want to get their hands on. For some strange reason humans, who are basically like ants to the Transformers, always tend to be tasked with important things and are the key to saving the universe. The male leads love to act macho but are goofy and love to spew one-liners. The girls are always dressed in tight outfits, love to scream, and have no brains. And there’s always some massive battle in the end where half a city gets destroyed before the humans help the good robots claim an unlikely victory.

I do see attempts to add something fresh to the franchise, like the idea of the Transformer bounty hunter. But seriously — Tranformer dinosaurs? Transformer rabid dogs? Transformer laser guns that are perfectly human-sized for some reason? Ken Watanabe as a Samurai Transformer? And that whole “Chinese elements” crap that dominated the whole second half of the movie. I was more distracted by Li Bingbing trying to speak English and all the cameos from Hong Kong and mainland actors — and even Chinese boxing Olympic gold medalist Zou Shiming — than trying to keep up with what was happening in the movie.

Fans of the over-the-top nature of the franchise — and they are clearly in abundance — will likely lap this shit up as they wait for the fifth and sixth instalments, which will probably be exactly the same as every entry except longer and louder. Personally, I can’t imagine anything worse. Transformers was never that good to begin with, but at least it was fun and flashy. What Age of Extinction proves is that the franchise is in dire need of a new direction, something I doubt Michael Bay will grant us as long as he’s raking in the big bucks.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Chef (2014)

September 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Chef is 100%, completely unabashed, unapologetic food porn. Written and directed by Iron Man director Jon Favreau, it tells the story of a master chef (Favreau) who loses his way before rekindling his passion for scrumptious cuisine by starting a food truck. On its face, Chef is a road trip movie about one man’s quest for redemption, but in reality it’s more or less one delicious course after another that will probably make viewers extremely hungry and foodies like myself spray their shorts in uncontrollable excitement (and envy) .

No one will deny that Chef is a vanity project. Favreau clearly loves his food (as evident by his sizable girth) and he has a passion for making it. There are lots of big names in the film, from Robert Downey Jr and Scarlett Johansson to Dustin Hoffman and Sofia Vergara, but you get the feeling that all of them agreed to appear as a “friendly” favour to Favreau.

But as another great self-indulgent piece of entertainment once said, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.” In fact, some of the best movies and TV shows of all-time are self-indulgent, and it is in my humble opinion that one of Favreau’s greatest claims to fame lies in his role as Eric the Clown on the show that made the abovementioned line famous.

Anyway, Chef is essentially a very simple, family-friendly story about a guy who likes to make food. While working for a top gourmet restaurant in LA, Carl (Favreau) becomes engaged in a very public spat on social media with a prominent online food critic (Oliver Platt), resulting in a humiliating fall from grace. Then, with the help of his buddy (John Leguizamo), son (Emjay Anthony), his ex-wife (Vergara) and her other ex-husband (Downey Jr), he starts a food truck selling Cuban sandwiches. This time, he uses social media to his advantage in promoting the new venture as he makes a road trip back to LA via some other cities known for their culinary delights.

The story and the script could not be simpler, and you get the feeling watching the film that everything is secondary to the food. I saw the movie after a big meal and I was still getting hungry. Whether it’s gourmet cuisine or basic roadside snacks like Cubanos, Chef makes the food all look scrumptious enough to die for. It’s not as easy as it seems because I’ve seen plenty of food shows where all the grubby hands and sweaty chefs have turned me off. Watching Chef,  however, I felt like I could channel Favreau’s passion and almost smell the saliva-inducing aromas.

If you take away the food (no pun intended), Chef would be a barely passable movie with a cliched message telling everyone to do what they’re passionate about (with a side message about the dangers and powers of social media). There are some poignant moments between Carl and and his son, the core relationship in the film, but apart from that the film’s just an excuse to keep shoving delicious stuff in our faces.

My main problem with Chef is that after Carl’s initial fall from grace there’s almost no tension or conflict the rest of the way. It’s all just one big, smooth-sailing ride back up to the top. Even the ending is too neatly tied up into a perfect bow, and the cynic in me couldn’t help but cringe at all the mushiness. I guess it will work for audiences who are after nothing but a feel-good experience — which the film delivers expertly — but personally I wanted my emotions to be challenged a little more.

At the end of the day, Chef is what it is. Feel-good food porn that should be a hit with families and foodies alike. The foodie in me thinks it’s sensational, while the movie critic in me says “Meh.” My overall impression probably falls somewhere slightly above the average of the two (I am, after all, a pig).

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

September 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Little boys just love training their dragons. Following the relatively successful How To Train Your Dragon from 2010, Dreamworks is back to milk that cash cow, or more accurately, that cash dragon, with the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I actually really enjoyed the original (review here), which was an entertaining, sweet little story about the friendship between a kid viking called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his cute but powerful dragon Toothless. It’s not one of the more memorable animated features in recent years, but it’s in the upper echelons in terms of quality, excitement and fun.

In the sequel, Hiccup and Toothless are back, five years older and closer than ever. Pretty much all the old cast is back too, with Gerard Butler playing Hiccup’s father, Craig Ferguson as Butler’s right hand man, America Ferrera as Hiccup’s girlfriend and Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as fellow viking friends. Cate Blanchett also joins the cast as a female viking whom I won’t spoil.

Since learning about prejudice and making peace with the dragons in the first film, everyone in Hiccup’s village of Berk has changed for the better. But of course there is a brand new villain (Djimon Hounsou) hell bent on conquering all dragons for his own benefit, and it is up to Hiccup and Toothless to try and stop him with the help of their family and friends.

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is as good as its predecessor when it comes to visual thrills and tugging the heart strings. The story itself is relatively stock standard, predictable even, so film’s biggest strength lies in the stunning visuals from all the dragon-riding action sequences that make fine use of some creative and skilled camera work. The dragon designs, and especially all the beautiful mix of colours, really added to the visual feast the film provides.

It’s more or less a continuation of both Hiccup and Toothless’s coming of age, and I’m glad to say that the title is not misleading because there actually is more legitimate dragon training in the film. Like its predecessor, it’s not the funniest animated film out there, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 more than makes up for the dearth of laughs with the exciting action sequences and emotional resonance.

Last word: A good film for the family that builds upon the solid foundations of the original by taking things to a new level.

4 stars out of 5!

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