2013 Movie Blitz: Part IV

April 11, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Dead Man Down (2013)

dead man down

Colin Farrell is back as his gritty self in Dead Man Down, a neo-noir thriller that’s not bad but probably at best a good video/DVD rental.

Farrell plays Victor, a seemingly depressed fellow who works for a ruthless drug kingpin, Alphonse, played by Terrence Howard. Alphonse is receiving death threats, and it seems Victor might not be who he really says he is. At the same time, he starts seeing a scarred woman across the road, played by the original girl with the dragon tattoo, Noomi Rapace. It’s all dark and gloomy; people are scheming, and many of them are going to die.

The cast is excellent, and there’s not much to complain about the aforementioned trio of Farrell, Howard and Rapace. The supporting cast which includes Dominic Cooper, Armand Assante, F Murray Abraham and Isabelle Huppert is also very strong.

I wouldn’t call Dead Man Down boring, but it’s not exactly super exciting either. There are a few moments of tension, but for the most part it’s just a bunch of moody gangsters plotting to kill each other. It’s a dark and serious tale of vengeance, but there’s nothing really helping it stand out from a lot of similar flicks that have been released on the market over the years. There are some interesting plot twists which can be viewed as genius or absurd, depending on your point of view, but at the end of the day it’s just a decent albeit forgettable thriller.

2.75 stars out of 5

Phantom (2013)

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Submarine movies were pretty popular for a while (The Hunt for Red October, K-19, U571), so I was looking forward to seeing Phantom, supposedly based on a classified true story about how Russia and the US came perilously close to coming to blows during the Cold War.

Unfortunately, despite the great cast headed by Ed Harris, Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Shredder (William Fichtner), Phantom turned out to be a strangely dull and unfulfilling film that fails to live up to expectations.

The first thing that should be noted is that the story is told from the Soviet’s perspective and all the aforementioned actors play Russians. But of course, they speak English, which already removes a layer of realism to the narrative.

Putting that aside, Phantom struggles because it’s not exciting. Submarine movies are known for their claustrophobic tension and friction between members when critical life-altering decisions need to be made. Phantom has those elements too, but for some reason the film’s pulse is flat and never projects a genuine sense of the scope of the danger. I thought this was perhaps it’s because we know nothing will happen, though the brilliant Thirteen Days, about the Cuban missile crisis, shared the same problem and was absolutely riveting cinema.

And the whole time I was watching the film I couldn’t stop thinking that I was listening to Fox Mulder because even as a Russian Duchovny can’t seem to get rid of that hypnotic voice.

It also has a really bizarre ending that is completely at odds with the rest of the film.

2.25 stars out of 5

The Numbers Station (2013)

numbes station

Is John Cusack still an A-list star? The Numbers Station suggests that he isn’t one any more.

It’s not a bad film, but it’s not a very good one either. Cusack plays a burned-out CIA operative who is sent to a secret US numbers station in the UK countryside. It’s basically a government information station that transmits secret messages via code, and Cusack has to protect it from attackers along with a female agent played by Malin Ackerman.

Of course, the station comes under attack, and Cusack is told that help will come in four hours. Meanwhile, he is given an order to secure the station by killing those related to the compromise. There’s a bigger plot involved that could effectively change the world, but that’s about as far as I’ll go with the spoilers. To be honest I found it a little too confusing and convoluted to remember anyway.

Cusack and Ackerman are good individually, but they don’t develop any genuine chemistry. The numbers station concept itself I also found very interesting, and some of the shootouts are well-executed, but for some reason it just didn’t give off the vibe of a high quality action-thriller. Was it because they were mostly stuck in one place? Was the plot unnecessarily convoluted? Was it just a lack of freshness in the way the story unfolded? Or a little bit of all of the above?

In any case, I felt The Numbers Station was somewhat of a letdown because it had the potential to be a lot more than what it was — which is passable, but forgettable entertainment.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Lifeguard (2013)

lifeguard

The Lifeguard, produced, written, and directed by Liz W Garcia, is an interesting little indie film about a depressed 29-year-old journalist (Kristen Bell in a daring performance) who leaves her life in New York to head back to her small hometown in Connecticut, where she begins working as a lifeguard at the local pool. There she meets a bunch of local kids and begins a relationship with one of them (David Lambert).

It’s a deeply personal film about life’s disappointments, failed expectations and vulnerability that comes from loneliness and isolation. It’s one of those films where you either connect with it or you don’t, and given the closeness in age between myself and Kristen’s character I could definitely feel her pain and frustration.

As good as Bell is in this film, her thunder was stolen a little bit by Mamie Gummer, a high school assistant principal who is coming to terms with the problems in her own life and marriage. The only thing I had seen Gummer in before was The Good Wife, where she plays a really annoying bitch of a lawyer, but here she is a revelation.

On the other hand, I don’t think The Lifeguard is ultimately anything special. There are some mildly amusing moments here and there but I think it would be false advertising to add “comedy” to film’s categorization as a drama. This is a serious film that with a melancholic tone, and as such it’s not easy to develop a lot of enthusiasm for the story. And as is usually the case with such films you have a pretty good idea of how it’s going to end.

Still, I quite liked it, though I also recognize that it probably won’t be everyone’s cup of tea.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

April 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Snowpiercer poster

It’s not often that a film with mostly western actors gets released in Asia nearly a year before in the US, but that’s the case with Snowpiercer, a wild sci-fi action thriller starring big names such as Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and Octavia Spencer. The reason why Snowpiercer isn’t released in the US yet (apparently it will get a limited release on June 27, 2014) is because it’s actually a South Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho (what a great name), best known for the wacky monster movie The Host (not to be confused with the Stephenie Meyer adaptation) from 2006.

Anyway, despite all its flaws, I had a fantastic time with Snowpiercer, which I think is one of the more original sci-fi flicks to hit our screens in some time. It’s actually based on a French graphic novel and is about a post-apocalyptic world where the survivors of a disastrous anti-global warming experiment that has frozen the entire planet live on a never-stopping train that travels in loops around the planet. There is of course a class system on the train, with the elites up the front and the poor stuck in the back in horrific conditions. The film focuses on a man called Curtis (Chris Evans), who is sick of the mistreatment and decides to launch a revolt from the back of the train.

Snowpiercer  is ludicrous in many ways and requires a certain level of belief suspension, but it works in the end because Bong manages to balance a weird, wacky sense of surrealism often seen in Korean films with violent action and gritty drama while not forgetting about the political messages and clever satire. It’s a unique blend that sometimes treads a fine line and occasionally gets a little too surreal for my liking, but on the whole I think it gets the job done. I’m convinced a Hollywood director wouldn’t have been able to create the same type of feel, and I’m glad there won’t be any America remakes because they won’t be necessary with only two key Korean characters (The Host’s Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, who again play father and daughter).

For me, the greatest strength of the film is the depiction of the idea itself and the world in which they live in. The special effects are not exceptional, but they are good enough for a Hollywood blockbuster. The action also fits in with the rest of the film — it’s brutally violent in some respects but lacks genuine realism — in a good way — so that you never get the urge to turn away or categorize it as gratuitous.

The performances are solid, though not many characters are properly developed given the focus on the action. I had just seen Chris Evans and his blonde locks in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and he was almost unrecognisable here with the scruffy brown hair and dark stubble. Tilda Swinton is also fantastic and equally unrecognisable with her huge teeth as the nasty Minister Mason, while a special mention goes out to Alison Pill (from The Newsroom) for her small but important role as a creepy school teacher.

Snowpiercer is the type of film that doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny because of how crazy its premise is, but thanks to the skillful direction of Bong and the fast-paced action it’s an excellent and thought-provoking piece of sci-fi entertainment that would make an awesome DVD rental or on-demand stream if it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves at the cinemas.

4 stars our of 5

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

April 7, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I’ve done a complete 180. With The First Avenger and now The Winter Soldier, Captain America has gone from, in my opinion, the most boring Marvel superhero with his own movie to the most interesting. He has impressive strength, speed and agility, but he’s not “superhuman” or invincible like Thor or the Hulk, nor is he aided by impressive technology like Iron Man. He may be the face of American heroism, but the 70 years he spent in frozen limbo has turned him into a vulnerable young/old man struggling to find his place in the new world order.

I was surprised that 2011′s The First Avenger turned out to be such a good film, one that cleverly made fun of the patriotism Captain America stood for while providing well-executed action sequences. That raised the hype for the sequel, and I’m glad to report that The Winter Soldier does not disappoint. With a few caveats, the film is a success, at least on par with its predecessor and ranks a few steps behind the first Iron Man and The Avengers as the best of the whole Avengers franchise.

The story is a natural progression from the events in The Avengers. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is still working for SHIELD as a loyal soldier following the “incident” in New York (as they keep referring to in each post-Avengers film). Following a rescue mission aboard a SHIELD vessel along with the Black Widow, Natasha Ramanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the Captain begins to question the organization he works for and the motives of its frightening new project. It’s the catalyst that puts Captain America on a dangerous new journey of self-discovery that will force him to confront demons from his past and a battle against a new villain, the mysterious Winter Soldier.

The film plays out like it should, with a few minor but not completely unexpected surprises along the way. It’s biggest strength is its ability to mix things up a little so that the film doesn’t simply feel like its predecessor. The modern setting of course helps, but I enjoyed the insertion of new stakes and ideas, including being out of touch with the modern world, dealing with post-traumatic stress, the problems with unquestioned loyalty and pondering whether increased government surveillance is for the safety of the people or to control them with fear. Unfortunately, none of the ideas come close to being fully explored — this is a superhero action blockbuster, after all — but it’s better than not having anything intelligent to say at all.

It’s also great to see Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury FINALLY doing something after doing nothing but talk a big game in every Avengers movie to date. One of the best sequences in the entire movie is when Nick is under siege and must pull out all the stops to try and escape death. I also didn’t realise Scarlett Johansson would play such a big role either — she’s essentially the female lead and has the most screen time outside of the Captain himself. And if you think she’s just there for eye candy you better think again, because she kicks ass with the best of them.

There are plenty of other cool positives, such as the presence of screen legend Robert Redford as a senior SHIELD executive, Anthony Mackie as the new sidekick, and a touching sequence where we find out what has happened to Captain America’s first love, Peggy Carter. I did find the addition of Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter a little jarring, but that’s because I’ve come to think of her as an annoying psycho in TV’s Revenge.

Fans of the comics and the Avengers universe will also be happy to learn that there are many references and hints to other characters who may or may not appear in the franchise in the future. I won’t spoil them (I actually didn’t know most of them) but there are articles which explain for those who want to find out.

I personally enjoy these nice little Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout the film, including a great Pulp Fiction reference right at the end. By the way, I should mention that there are TWO post-credit sequences and you should stay for both of them (I only stayed for one as I didn’t know about the other). One of them ties into the next Avengers film while the only is an epilogue that will no doubt play a role in the third Captain America movie scheduled for 2016.

On the downside, the movie is a slightly overlong at 136 minutes with a couple of unnecessary slow slabs that could have been easily cut out. And while I enjoyed the action scenes I would have preferred less rapid cuts and shaky camera business so we could actually see what was going on. Lastly, The Winter Soldier receives the dubious honour for having the least amount of humour in the entire Avengers franchise. There were a few effective jokes and one-liners here and there, but for the most part the film is incredibly straight, just like its hero.

Overall, this is a highly enjoyable superhero movie and a solid sequel that will ensure that the Marvel money train continues to steamroll everything in its path.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Legend of Hercules (2014)

April 2, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

the-legend-of-hercules-poster

First of all, The Legend of Hercules is the Hercules movie starring Twilight beefcake Kellan Lutz, not the yet-to-be-released one with The Rock. Secondly, despite everything you’ve heard about it, The Legend of Hercules is not THAT bad. Its 3% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is misleading because it means only 3 out of 100 critics thought it was a good movie, not that the average rating of the movie is 3 out of 100 (or 0.15 stars out of 5). In truth, The Legend of Hercules is just terribly average and lacking in originality, and likely inferior to that other Hercules movie. But it’s not THAT bad. Really.

Where do I start? In ancient Greece, of course. King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins from The Expendables 2) is the king of the world, but he’s also a selfish, warmongering dude who’s extremely villainous. His estranged wife prays for guidance and “boom”, she’s doing the naughty with Zeus, who is apparently a wham-bam-thank-you-mam kinda fellow. The result is a baby who would grow up to become Hercules (Kellan Lutz).

I’ll stop there, but essentially Hercules is the story of a prophecised half-man, half-god pretty boy who has to find the strength within himself to take on the evil regime of his adopted father and wimpy half-brother while finding time to woo a pretty blonde lady played by Gaia Weiss. Without giving too much away, the film is part Gladiator, part The Passion of the Christ, part Braveheart and part Thor – in that order.

That’s one of the biggest problems with The Legend of Hercules – it feels derivative and lacking in passion. It borrows liberally and shamelessly without putting its own twist or stamp on things. The pedestrian script doesn’t do the film any favours either, but despite the Herculean efforts of director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) the film can’t quite shake its “cash-grabbing” vibe.

The film was made for US$70 million, which is a relatively small budget for a “blockbuster” like this. And it shows. From the weak special effects (like the bizarrely fake-looking lion) to the overall look of the sets and its visual texture, The Legend of Hercules is lacklustre all over.

To be fair, however, I did enjoy some of the action sequences in the film, both in and out of the gladiator arena. They were well choreographed and occasionally exciting, and it helps that Scott Adkins is a professional martial artist who knows what he’s doing. The scenes of Kellan Lutz doing his best impersonation of Kratos from God of War were fun too.

Speaking of Kellan Lutz, aka “charisma vortex”, it seems more than plausible that he’s the biggest reason the film has been a worldwide flop. He seems like a nice guy and a fine physical specimen who looks like he just jumped straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch print ad, but it might come as a shock to many of you that he CAN’T ACT.  He has two facial expressions — blank, for when he doesn’t need to do anything, and an ape-like grimace for every other emotional expression. He’s basically the opposite of Daniel Day-Lewis.

I don’t profess to be an expert at judging male aesthetics, but Lutz is also one weird looking dude. There are some angles where he appears conventionally handsome and others where his face looks like an orangutan stuffed into a glass cube. The orange fake tan doesn’t help either.

Still, he’s an upgrade over Liam Garrigan, who plays Hercules’ half-brother Iphicles. Garrigan, I’m sure, is a good-looking man in real life, but here he sports a haircut that makes Tom Hanks’ rug in The Da Vinci Code look like a masterpiece. With a hairstyle like that you might as well have stuck a sign on his head that says “wimpy, gutless, jealous older brother with inferior complex who will die and no one will care.”

Anyway, as much as I have shit all over it, The Legend of Hercules is not THAT bad. For all its flaws, the fight scenes are solid and it’s only a merciful 99 minutes long. If you treat the bad script, bad dialogue, bad haircuts and Kellan Lutz’s performance as comedy, it’s actually not an unentertaining movie.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

March 31, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

300-Rise-of-an-Empire

Hard to believe, but Zack Snyder’s 300 was released in 2006. It came out to mixed reviews, but personally I found it to be a revelation, a campy, delightful bloodbath of stylized action and popcorn fun of the purest kind, the closest thing we have to a direct translation of a graphic novel to the big screen. There is also no other film that makes people want to work out more than this one.

There was talk of a sequel almost immediately after it became a big hit, but it has taken nearly 8 years for 300: Rise of an Empire to be made. Any time it takes that long for a sequel to be made (I even remember seeing posters and trailers as long as two years ago), you have to be concerned — is there a reason? Was it a troubled production? Were there financial difficulties?

I have no idea, frankly, but what I do know is that much of the goodwill leftover from the original had just about dissipated by the time this film came out. They left it too long, and fans of the first film had either forgotten how much they enjoyed it or hyped it up so much that the sequel was doomed to unrealistic expectations.

Directed by Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire is not a direct sequel but rather a companion piece that examines events before, during and after the events in 300. There’s no Gerard Butler screaming “This. Is. Sparta!!!” this time, but his wife, played by Lena Headey, is still around looking like she just stepped off the set of Game of Thrones. The two central characters are General Themistocles, played by Aussie Sullivan Stapleton (who was brilliant in Animal Kingdom), and the ruthless naval commander Artemesia, played by the sultry Eva Green. Rodrigo Santoro returns as the God-King Xerxes (the man who killed Butler in the first film) and David Wenham also makes a cameo as Dilios, a survivor from the 300 (the one with bandages around one eye).

EW-300-rise-of-an-empire-banner

The story is more convoluted that necessary, but essentially it’s all about Themistocles leading the Greeks against Artemesia’s Persian forces. The action is, like its predecessor, bloody and stylistic, with plenty of flying fluids and severed limbs interspersed with rapid and slow-mo mass battle sequences. The distinctive colour tone is again grey with splashes of red and this time blue, and the special effects, though not noticeably improved since 2008, are as good as any blockbuster made in 2014.

The biggest positive about the film, apart from it being ab absolute visual feast, is that it feels like part of the 300 universe without being exactly the same. The films look similar but there are also plenty of differences, with the most obvious being that most of the battle scenes are on the sea, whereas in 300 they are all on the mountains and in the plains. It doesn’t come close to regenerating that freshness of its predecessor but still stands firm on its own.

The cheesy lines are harder to find this time, which is a shame, because it takes a lot of fun out of the film. As for the performances, Eva Green dominates and shines through the gloomy greys. She takes what is otherwise a fairly pedestrian script with a typical baddie and turns Artemesia into a memorable villain; a wild, vengeful nutjob who makes Stapleton’s Themistocles seem boring by comparison. Not to crap on Stapleton, who has already proven to me he can carry a role, but here his character feels sorely lacking in charisma.

At the end of the day, 300: Rise of an Empire is still a fairly enjoyable romp. It lacks the awe factor from the first film but the action sequences are still impressive and Eva Green is fantastic as the psycho villain. It’s a solid companion piece to the original but will likely be remembered as yet another sequel that didn’t really have to be made. Perhaps when another sequel is made (it’s being planned) to extend the series into a trilogy it will be viewed upon more favorably in hindsight.

3.25 stars out of 5

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