Movie Review: Furious 7 (2015)

April 20, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The Fast & Furious franchise has more or less perfected the craft — a team of familiar characters and stars, suped-up cars, scantily clad women, stylised violence, over-the-top action sequences and a truckload of cheesy one-liners. It’s a formula that has worked wonders for the last few entries, and Furious 7 takes it up yet another notch notwithstanding a major director change from Justin Lin to James Wan. Though Wan is known as a master of horror (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), the Aussie legend doesn’t miss a beat.

As I’m not a car fanatic and can’t stop thinking of Mini-me on steroids whenever I see Vin Diesel’s face, I’ve always been somewhat “meh” about the Fast & Furious franchise. This time, however, I stopped hoping for something I knew I was never going to get and just went along for the ride. As a result, I had a blast. If you’re after the ultimate popcorn movie, look no further — this is it.

The film takes place after the events of Fast 6 and around the time of Tokyo Drift (the third film in the franchise), which unfortunately means we are missing the cool Asian guy (Han) and is hot Israeli girlfriend (Gisele), with Sung Kang and Gal Gadot relegated to brief flashbacks, though Tokyo’s new drift king, Lucas Black, does make a triumphant return in a cameo, looking about 10 years older for some strange reason (racing with Mini-me must have taken a lot out of him).

On the bright side, the loss of Han and Gisele ensures more time for the other characters and offers enough room for the addition of Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays a hacker Kurt Russell wants Mini-me’s gang to track down so the US government can get their hands back on a super surveillance device called God’s Eye. The trade-off is that if Mini-me can get it for Russell he’ll be able to use it to track down supervillain Jason Statham, who plays the big brother of the baddie from the last movie (Luke Evans).

This premise allows the film to do several things. It still gets to do the whole heist thing that has worked well for the franchise the last few times, while also setting up epic set pieces to showcase the talents of the characters and cast. Apart from crazy car stunts, the film is highlighted by several brutal one-on-one confrontations. The Rock, Mini-me, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez all have their own well-choreographed fight scenes, but the best ones of course involve Statham, who absolutely shines in this role with his slick moves and brooding charisma, and elevates the movie several levels above what it should have been. He’s the perfect addition and the most memorable villain in the franchise — by far.

Two other new characters to steal a couple of scenes are MMA queen Ronda Rousey and Thai martial arts expert Tony Jaa, each of whom get to show off their stuff by squaring off against members of Mini-me’s gang. The only guy who doesn’t get to do much is Djimon Hounsou, a bland secondary villain who pales in comparison to Statham.

So just when you thought the batshit insanity of the last two films the franchise could not be topped, here comes this masterclass in how to depict over-the-top action, car chases and violence on the big screen. Cars and bodies are constantly being tossed, crashed into and mangled throughout, in ways that would be laughable had everyone involved not embraced the absurdity with so much genuine enthusiasm and confidence. Everyone’s pretty much indestructible unless they need to die.

This is the type of movie that The Expendables wants to be and what Michael Bay has been trying to make every time he sits in the director’s chair. What sets Furious 7 apart is the creativity and the overall sense of fun. It’s not just big, loud explosions all the time and obnoxious characters shooting things with massive guns. Furious 7 has likable characters who take on their tasks with just the right amount of cheesiness, and they’re put in situations we might not have necessarily seen before. You can complain about the cliches and the bad dialogue and the stupidity of it all, or you can embrace it like I finally am.

Of course, everyone will remember this one as Paul Walker’s last film after the actor died tragically in a car crash before the film was completed. Furious 7 does a great job of finishing off his scenes with his brothers as stand-ins coupled with CGI effects, and more importantly it provides him with a moving tribute by offering his character a fitting send-off. He’ll be missed, but with The Rock and Jason Statham likely becoming franchise regulars, there should be some life left in this series yet.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Tracers (2015)

April 18, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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A strange thing has happened to the perception that starring in popular film series ruin the careers of young actors. Ever since the world bestowed upon us the Twilight Saga, Kristen Stewart has been in a bunch of movies. Robert Pattinson has been in a bunch of movies. Most of them have been fairly high-profile, well-received movies too. That leaves Taylor Lautner, the third angle in the love triangle, who hasn’t been tearing up the screens since he stopped tearing up his shirt in Twilight for no apparent reason.

Apart from the poorly conceived star vehicle Abduction from 2011, Lautner hasn’t been a top biller for a film since the third Twilight film, and it now appears that his career is heading in the wrong direction with Tracers, a niche-market film about a bunch of young Parkour enthusiasts caught up in a crime ring.

Parkour is exciting to watch, which is why there have been a few movies made about the phenomenon in recent years. I never watched Brick Mansions or the French film it was based on, District 13, though I did catch a little-known film called Run (review here) last year. Tracers is basically a better and more expensive version of Run, mixed with that Joseph Gordon Levitt bike messenger movie Premium Rush.

In fact, Lautner (Cam) actually plays a struggling bike messenger who starts using his athleticism and well-proportioned body for parkour so he can get to know a pretty girl played by the up-and-coming Marie Avgeropoulos. But the girl and her brother are in a gang headed by a criminal who uses parkour to evade police capture, and Cam must find a way out by taking advantage of both his skills and smarts. And yes, Lautner does take off his shirt in this film, but the dim lighting could disappoint those looking for clear shots of his abs.

Tracers is a small film made for just US$11 million, and it shows. It’s a fairly pedestrian script with the familiar dialogue and attempts and character development, and you can pretty much guess what is going to happen next as the story predictably hits the designated checkpoints. The greyish tints and dilapidated settings also mean that the film is not pretty to look at, though to the credit of Daniel Benmayor the parkour scenes are at least done stylishly and with flair. I don’t know how realistic they are, but the running and climbing and jumping all over the place is undeniably thrilling. But that’s about all there is, unless you count the obligatory romance between Lautner and Avgeropoulos which I’m sure his fans are itching to see.

At the end of the day, Tracers is what it is — a low-budget, formulaic action film riding on the popularity of parkour that would have been straight-to-DVD without Lautner’s name attached to it. While it has its moments, you could probably get the same excitement from watching parkour highlights on YouTube.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Cobbler (2015)

April 16, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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The Cobbler looked promising in the trailer. A cobbler played by Adam Sandler realises that he can turn into different people (in terms of physical appearance) by wearing their shoes. On its face, the film seems like a fable about what it means to walk in another man’s shoes, though in reality The Cobbler is just a dull comedy-drama that’s neither very funny nor very dramatic, and much shallower than the premise suggests.

Sandler plays Max, a traditional neighbourhood cobbler who lives with his elderly mother. It’s a sad existence for him, getting by alone in his workshop day to day, abused by clients with more money and better lives than him, and still wondering why his father (Dustin Hoffman) left him and his mother years ago. His only friend is the barber next door, played by the legendary Steve Buscemi.

So when one day Max discovers that he can turn into his clients by wearing their shoes, he decides to live the life he wishes he had. He becomes a dashing Brit (Dan Stevens), who has a stunning girlfriend and still gets plenty of attention from the ladies. He tries his hand at being a Chinese man, complete with an accent when he speaks English. But it’s when he attempts to be a criminal that things start spiralling out of control.

Despite an interesting premise, The Cobbler fails to flesh it out, instead going for cheap ideas, bizarre sentimentality (that borders on creepy) and a boring final act that revolves around a nasty property developer (Ellen Barkin). Rather than teaching Max how to sympathise with others by walking in their shoes, he abuses the power for his own benefit before becoming a cliched benevolent superhero of sorts. Everything is on the surface only, and this is confirmed by a predictable and silly ending.

There were plenty of opportunities for humour that went to waste, delivering at most smirks rather than genuine laughter. There also wasn’t much drama to speak of, and the only legitimate attempt involving Max’s father completely weirded me out. Thank God for Steve Buscemi, the only guy who really brought any life to the film with the exception of Method Man, who was menacingly good as a thug.

Having bagged the film out, it’s still probably one of Sandler’s best efforts in years. Seriously, his list of films before this one are all colossal critical flops: Men, Women & Children, Blended, Grown Ups 2, That’s My Boy, Jack and Jill, Zookeeper, Just Go With It, and Grown Ups. It’s frustrating, because anyone who has seen Punch-Drunk Love knows Sandler can act and isn’t exclusively confined to shit movies. The closest thing I can compare The Cobbler to is his 2006 film Click, which is also a magical fantasy comedy supposedly trying to teach a life lesson or two. But while Click at least had a few funny moments and some surprisingly touching scenes, The Cobbler doesn’t even have any.

It wasn’t so bad that it made me want to stop watching, but when you start feeling that a 99-minute film is too long it can’t possibly be very entertaining.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Pyramid (2014)

April 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Call me a sucker for punishment.

I am one of those losers who watches movies knowing there is a 99.9% chance that it will be crap because I still hold out hope that it might be good. And so I decided to watch The Pyramid, the latest found footage debacle about a group of archaeologists and filmmakers who stumble onto a fictional new pyramid discovered in Egypt. Sounds like a brilliant, original idea bursting with potential, doesn’t it?

But perhaps it was my fascination with pyramids and pyramid curses that drew me to the film, or maybe it was my hope that a movie with a cast that includes recognisable names (at least for me) such as Dennis O’Hare and Ashley Hinshaw couldn’t possibly be that awful. Whatever the reasons, I ignored the warning signs, jus like the idiots in the movie, and took the plunge.

And it didn’t pay off.

To be fair, The Pyramid is not worse than most similar films made in recent years. The closest thing it resembles is last year’s As Above, So Below, which follows an attractive female expert into the Paris Catacombs with a film crew. Naturally, scary stuff happens and people die in gruesome ways. Here, Ashley Hinshaw is the attractive expert, and together with her father (O’Hare) and a film crew, they venture deep into a new and unusual four-sided pyramid (they usually have five, if you count the base). The difference, however, is that the film is not nearly as scary, nor is it as clever.

For starters, the believability factor is down because we know the pyramid they enter doesn’t exist in real life. Secondly, it’s totally unsubtle in its execution, going with cliched scare tactics that get old real quick. The progression of the plot is also formulaic to the extreme, to the extent where you can tell who is going to get picked off next. But the biggest difference between this and As Above, So Below is that the latter at least takes advantage of its claustrophobic setting and goes for some psychological horror, whereas The Pyramid wastes its opportunities by going with the typical curse and monsters routine.

The only thing that worked for me was the crazy monster cats (that didn’t even look realistic because of the poor CGI), and that’s only because feral cats freak me out. Most other people would have found it hilariously stupid.

On top of all that, the characters are typically uninteresting and annoying, and the dialogue is trite, though at least they do like to tell each other how moronic they are when they make dumb and nonsensical remarks.

Remarkably, The Pyramid is not the worst film of its kind. One advantage I can think of is that despite it technically being a “found footage” movie, the whole concept goes out the window quickly and audiences will soon find themselves seeing shots that could not have possibly been captured by any of the cameras on the characters. For some that is a negative, though for me it was great to be able to actually see what’s going on and not feel nauseated from all the shaky footage.

The other positive I can think of is that the film, as hackneyed as it is, never pretends to be anything else. It plays to curiosities about the pyramids and Egyptian legends, and offers a few cheap scares some audiences will feel comfortable with because it’s what they’re used to. For everyone else, it’s better to believe the movie is cursed.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Boy Next Door (2015)

April 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I wonder what was going through JLo’s head when she signed up to co-produce and star in The Boy Next Door, a film that has straight-to-DVD written all over it. Then again, while she is no doubt a star, she’s not exactly a film star, with her last film credit being the forgotten 2013 flick Parker with Jason Statham, and the one before that being the abominable What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

In fact, it’s arguable that JLo has only been in two legitimately good movies, being U-Turn and Out of Sight, released back-to-back in 1997 and 1998, when she was at the height of her popularity. Those good deeds were outdone by her subsequent turkeys, including The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law, and of course, the infamous Gigli.

The Boy Next Door falls firmly in the turkey category, though I would argue it’s not quite as bad as the others simply because expectations are so low. You know how it goes. JLo plays a teacher with a teenage son and a cheating husband (John Corbett). At a time when she feels vulnerable, she gives in to temptation with the hunky next-door neighbour (Ryan Guzman), who happens to be friends with her son. Naturally, she realises she’s made a huge mistake, but of course the hunk is an obsessive psycho who won’t let her go.

It’s a cliche-fest driven by adult themes but (intentionally) adolescent execution. JLo gets to show off that she’s still in good shape, while Guzman pads his stats as a heartthrob with multiple views of his muscular arms and abs. Cheesy dialogue, cringeworthy moments are aplenty, and genuine thrills are difficult to come by. What makes it worse is that there are no decent characters to root for. Apart from being a moron, JLo’s character is a fake tough guy who you simply can’t sympathise with. Her son (Ian Nelson), is such an obnoxious brat that you just keep hoping he gets his face smashed in. The husband is an obvious slimeball, so you can forget about him, whereas the school principal and JLo’s only friend (squeaky-voiced Kristin Chenoweth) is a sacrificial lamb waiting to happen. So that just leaves the psycho, who could have been an antihero of sorts if only he had any semblance of a real personality or more than one facial expression.

The end product is an unoriginal, predictable B-grade thriller people will probably see on late-night TV years from now and assume JLo made it when she was a struggling nobody. The Boy Next Door is not the worst thing JLo has ever made, though a lot of that has to do with the fact that no one could have possibly gone into the movie expecting it to be any good.

1.75 stars out of 5

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