Movie Review: Area 51 (2015)

June 14, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Area 51

There was a time I was semi-obsessed with Area 51, the alleged secret US military base in the Nevada desert where alien secrets dating back to Roswell are said to be stashed. And so I thought I’d give the film Area 51 with an attitude akin to how I approach UFO sightings these days — sceptical but hopeful.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be even worse than what I thought it would be. In short, Area 51 epitomises everything wrong with the found footage sub-genre. It uses every trite tactic in the book, looks cheap, feels cheaper, uses little-known actors to play stock characters spewing pathetic dialogue, and most of all, offers zero scares, thrills or creativity.

The premise is as formulaic as you imagined. A bunch of young people decide to break into Area 51 to uncover the alien conspiracy and government lies. Despite been terrified of getting caught and going to jail, they do a lot of stupid illegal stuff and record it all on cameras while complaining about it the whole time.

As it turns out, security at Area 51 is worse than your local supermarket, allowing the teens to get in with ease. They see a lot of lame stuff they try to trick you into thinking is impressive with their fake excitement and shock, before — you guessed it — aliens break out and start killing people.

The film’s whole idea of horror is people running around with shaky cameras while breathing loudly. That and brief glimpses of a “monster” before people are suddenly snatched away are pretty much the only two tactics of the entire movie. I guess I should not have been surprised given that it is directed by Oren Peli, whose previous directorial effort was the first Paranormal Activity.

The characters do stupid stuff and say stupid things non-stop, such as “What’s that noise?”, “Where’s that sound coming from?”, and my personal favourite, “Do you think we should be here?”

Shamefully, the film doesn’t even offer much legitimate information about the real Area 51, or at least what sources believe the place is like. Come on, at least educate us a little.

So yeah, Area 51 is a flaming turd, a combination of everything that annoys me about movies. I disliked it immensely.

1 star out of 5

Movie Review: Project Almanac (2015)

June 11, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Project-Almanac-poster

Found-footage movies just need to die. Not next year, not tomorrow. Now. The gimmick isn’t not fooling anyone anymore and hasn’t for a long time, and any perceived benefits are heavily outweighed by the forced and nonsensical execution, the vomit-inducing shakiness and the way it cheapens the overall feel.

And so it’s not hard to guess that I think the found-footage approach ruins Project Almanac, an otherwise barely-passable teen travel movie. There are some interesting ideas early on, though when you break it down it’s really a fairly pedestrian effort that doesn’t offer anything we haven’t seen before in the genre.

Directed by Dean Israelite, who has reportedly been selected for the new Power Rangers reboot, Project Almanac  tells the story of high school inventor David (Jonny Weston), who discovers the blueprint to build a time machine in his basement left behind by his late father. After some trial and error, David and his sister (Virginia Gardner), his friends (Allen Evangelista and Sam Lerner), and the girl he pine after (Sofia Black D’Elia) start using the machine to go back in time and fulfill their dreams.

The best way to describe Project Almanac is a mix between Chronicle and The Butterfly Effect. The film wants to capture the slick style of Chronicle with the found-footage approach and the change the teen characters go through as they struggle to deal with the inheritance of a grew power (and thus responsibility). It also takes, quite directly, the time-travel concept of The Butterfly Effect in that every decision we make creates ripples we might not expect.

All that is fine; there are almost no truly original films these days anyway. The problems with Project Almanac have more to do with the script and the execution. I don’t need to discuss how annoying the found-footage thing is again. It doesn’t add to the realism and is a complete distraction. It just makes no sense why they would film some of the scenes that exist in the movie.

Secondly, the film wastes far too much time testing the time machine. It’s pretty obvious they’ll eventually get it to work, or else that would make one very lame movie, so what’s the point of showing us failure after failure — other than padding time and showing off special effects?

Thirdly, the film gets bogged down by a toothless and predictable romance. It’s embarrassing that something so boring and cringeworthy could end up being such a pivotal device in the film, and what makes it worse is that the human reactions to it make zero sense, especially for people who are supposed to be intelligent.

Fourthly, there are some obvious logic gaps in the time travel concept that are never explained. Time travel movies usually involve actually changing the past and thus changing the future, or finding out that time is a loop you may think you are changing but can’t. Project Almanac inexplicably adopts both.

The one thing I will give the film credit for is the way it depicts that exhilaration of discovering you have he ability to change the past, and how the characters first decide to take advantage of this power. Think about what you might do if you were an American teenager, and it’s probably not that far off. I found this part of the film, at least at the start of it, rather satisfying, and it’s a shame the plot later descended down the wrong path.

Project Almanac is not without its moments, but on the whole there are just too many flaws that bring it down, with the annoying found footage gimmick being arguably the biggest culprit.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Heaven Is for Real (2014)

June 9, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

heaven

When I read Heaven Is for Real by pastor Todd Burpo (and Lynn Vincent) last year (review here) , the movie trailer for the adaption had just been released. It looked pretty good, but I was curious as to how they would tackle some of the book’s trickier elements.

I got my answer recently when I grabbed a copy of Heaven Is for Real, starring Greg Kinnear as Burpo, Kelly Reilly as his wife, and with Randall Wallace (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Braveheart) directing and co-writing the script. I still don’t know if heaven is for real, but I do know if there is a hell it would involve watching Heaven Is for Real on loop for eternity.

Look, it’s not a bad film, strictly speaking, but it’s so obviously directed at a certain group of audiences — Christians who already have their minds made up or desperately long for confirmations like this one — that it leaves no room for interpretation or imagination. Leaving aside the debate over whether the experience is real or not (something I don’t want to get into because it has little to do with the merits of the movie), I found the film much less effective than the book. The characters didn’t convince me and the depictions of heaven and Jesus were as awkward as you’d expect them to be.

From what I remember, the screenplay follows the book quite closely. Burpo is a pastor hit by a string a bad luck, from his personal health to finance problems. During a family trip his four-year-old son, Colton, falls perilously ill and requires surgery to save his life. Even though the surgery report suggests that he did not have a near-death-experience (both his heart and brain were fine), Colton starts to tell his dad that he went to heaven — where he hung out with Jesus, angels, the whole shebang — and came back to tell the tale. He also saw some deceased family members he never met and witnessed some things when he was floating around.

Burpo, despite being a pastor, has his doubts about what Colton says he experienced, though he seems like he wants to believe the little boy. His wife, on the other hand, pretty much dismisses it as a child’s imagination. When the story gets out, others are naturally not so kind and give the family a hard time.

The positive things I can think of about this movie are…well, Greg Kinnear is pretty good, and the kid who plays Colton (Connor Corum) is cute, even though the way he spoke sometimes made it hard to understand what he’s saying. Wallace also does a fairly good job with what I call the John Edward moments — ie when Colton says something about the dead he couldn’t have known! Apart from that, I can’t really think of anything nice to say.

I understand the source material is difficult to adapt to the screen, which is why I thought they might tinker with it to make things more subtle and leave room for viewers to decide for themselves whether what Colton experienced was real, made up, or a hallucination. Give us the pros and the cons, make us think and question our beliefs, wherever they may lean.

This is what Jesus apparently looks like, according to Colton Burpo, as painted by Lithuanian prodigy Akiane Kramarik

This is what Jesus supposedly looks like, according to Colton Burpo, as painted by American prodigy Akiane Kramarik

Instead, the film takes a very straightforward approach and essentially presents Colton’s story as real, complete with a visual retelling of his experience, such as seeing angels, chatting with Jesus (face covered by shadows, but still, with the white robes and sandals and all), hanging out in “Heaven park” and so forth. It’s more vague in the book, but in the movie, we have no choice but to be shown what it’s like, and the results are lamer than I anticipated. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it tacky, but I was laughing for the wrong reasons. Rather than making the experience more real and tangible, the depiction had the opposite effect of making it less believable.

OK, so a decision was made to appease the target audience by shoving Colton’s experience in our faces so we’d believe him, but then why make his parents such unreasonable skeptics? This was something that just didn’t sit well with me. Maybe I am overestimating the faith of American pastors, but I thought it was odd for Todd to be so desperate to search for a “rational” explanation to his son’s experience. He’s in church every Sunday trying to convince everyone how wonderful God is, so if anyone was to jump to conclusions, he’d be the perfect candidate. And he’s actually the person most willing to take a leap of faith. It made even less sense to me that his wife — who married a pastor, goes to all his sermons and sings (terribly) regularly in the church choir — would so readily dismiss Colton’s experience and refuse to even contemplate the possibility that his experience could have been real.

Is the whole point of this to tell Christians that it’s OK to have doubts but you still ultimately need to have faith in God? Or are the filmmakers so naive that they think this approach would connect with non-believers or fence-sitters and convince them to start believing? Maybe I’m giving them too much credit by thinking that the film is aimed only at Christians and wannabe believers.

And I don’t know if it is because I had read the book and already knew what he was going to say, because I didn’t find any of the drama particularly engrossing. They tried to add in some extra conflict that wasn’t there, and it showed. It wasn’t as trite as it could have been, but it was intentionally sappy and had a TV-movie vibe to the heavy-handed execution.

Notwithstanding everything I’ve written here, I didn’t hate Heaven Is for Real. It’s a film that knew what it was doing and who it was catering to. It’s just not very good and not very convincing. All things considered, it’s not nearly as bad as it could have been, and it’s certainly not as good as it had the potential to be.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Maggie (2015)

June 8, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Maggie-2015-poster

The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back in the post-apocalyptic depressor, Maggie, about a young girl’s final days before turning into a zombie.

I heard a lot of mixed things about the movie before I finally had a chance to watch it, and I think much of it is misleading. For starters, I don’t think much of Arnie’s performance, which has been hailed as the best of his career — like that’s saying much. It doesn’t even feel like he’s in it all that much, as the story focuses more on the eponymous protagonist (played by Abigail Breslin). Yeah he’s fine in the role and probably showed a wider range of emotions than usual, but I actually think a large handful of other actors could have done it better. Am I crazy for thinking that the film is better at demonstrating Arnie’s limitations rather than shattering them?

Secondly, I don’t think the film feels like it has ripped off the bestselling PS3 game The Last of Us, as several people have pointed out. I should know, because I just played it twice and think it’s the best video game of all time. Sure, there’s the zombie angle and the father-daughter-ish relationship, but apart from that there’s not a lot of similarities.

So what is Maggie really like? Slow and really depressing. It starts with Arnie finding Maggie, who has been bitten and has been given several weeks before she finally loses herself and becomes a flesh-eating zombie. The problem is treated as a “virus”, and as such the infected are allowed to return home until they reach a certain point, when they will have to be forcibly moved to quarantine.

The rest of the film requires you to sit through Maggie’s agonising transformation and constant reminders of what she’ll eventually become and the terrible decision Arnie will have to make. It’s an interesting idea, because typically in zombie movies people don’t get a lot of time before they turn.

In many ways, Maggie is not all that different to a story about a young patient having to deal with a life-ending disease like cancer, though I suppose the zombie idea puts a slightly different spin on things. But does it really conjure up enough different emotions to justify it as a plot device? I’ll say yes, but only barely.

My main gripe about the film is that it’s just not a very enjoyable experience, and it doesn’t make up for it in other ways. As if the premise is not bleak enough already, the visuals are very grey and very dark all the way through. The pace is also deliberately slow, without a lot of ups and downs, making the 95-minute running time feel uncomfortably long. Moreover, there is a sense of inevitability considering there’s really only one way things can end. It’s not a film that gives itself a lot of room to maneuvre.

For a zombie movie there’s not much zombie action, with most of the scenes of the undead aimed at generating sympathy as opposed to fear. It’s a horror film where the horror comes from the depressing knowledge of what Maggie will become. Some of it is scary, but it’s more sad than anything.

The drama, the clear focus of the movie, is solid thanks to the strong performance of Breslin and Arnie doing the best he can. While it is effective at making you feel upset, there was never a time when I felt overwhelmed by emotion, perhaps because there weren’t any emotions I wasn’t expecting. Maybe if there was a bit of hope — even false hope — I would have found it more meaningful, and accordingly, more powerful.

Having made Maggie sound a lot worse than it actually is, I will admit that I found it to be an interesting premise with a few nice moments of reflection on the pointlessness of fighting a disease that will rob you of your dignity and who you are before the bitter end. There was one excellent scene in which Maggie attends a bonfire party where her friends — including an infected boy — and they discuss the difficult options faced by the infected and those caring for them. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of these moments to take advantage of the premise and make Maggie the type of well-rounded, rewarding experience it could have been.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Big Game (2015)

June 7, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Big-game

Samuel L Jackson has done it all and then some, so it only makes sense that he would headline Big Game, in which he plays the president of the United States, who forms an unlikely alliance with a weird Finnish boy after Air Force One is shot down and terrorists start hunting him down in the European wilderness.

As one would expect, Big Game is more apeshit than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Jackie Chiles would no doubt call it outrageous, egregious, preposterous. And yet it is embraces its insanity so whole-heartedly that it becomes one of those fun popcorn experiences every moviegoer needs every now and then.

This shit is whack!

This shit is whack!

I like that Jackson is less hardass in this film than we are accustomed to. He’s the most powerful man in the world, but he’s also just an ordinary dude with no real survival skills. It’s great to see him scream like a lunatic and get the shit kicked out of him by everyone, which cleverly enhances the moment when he finally gets the chance at the end to be the bad motherf$@ker he will always be in our hearts.

And that Finnish kid, played by Onni Tommils, is great too. He’s so weird looking, so awkward and so cute, and it makes absolutely no sense that his character, a useless 13-year-old, would be out there hunting in the wild to prove himself to his tribe. In fact, few of the things that the characters do or have happen to them in the film make any sense whatsoever, though it only adds to the hilarity of the ride.

I don’t know if this is a criticism or a compliment, but it’s actually difficult to tell whether most of the humour in the film is intentional or accidental. I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s funny, right?

Not everything works — some scenes do fall a bit flat — and there is actually less action than you would expect. It’s actually quite hard to see what the filmmakers were aiming for. There’s no shortage of bloody violence and profanity, even though narratively and tonally the film feels more like a children’s or young adolescent film. It reminds me of those 1990s adventure films like Masterminds and Toy Soldiers, where underdog kids have to go up against big bad adults, forcing them to become unlikely heroes along the way. Like those films, it’s all about making the protagonists seem really helpless at first before finding ways to make them look extra cool, be it with heroic posturing or dramatic music.

Remember the 1997 Masterminds?

Remember the 1997 Masterminds?

toy soldiers

Or Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton’s Toy Soldiers from 1991? PS: Is that MC Hammer?

It’s a formula that works, though in this case it’s hard to see if that was the intention because it’s a little all over the place. In any case, and notwithstanding all the nonsense, Big Game is good for 90 minutes of relatively fun and funny entertainment that you’ll likely forget soon afterward, but it should at least offer enough to satisfy while it lasts.

3.25 stars out of 5

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