Movie Review: The Lazarus Effect (2015)

May 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


Jesus may have raised Lazarus from the dead, but in the case of the Lazarus Effect, death would actually be a welcome relief from this disaster of a horror flick.

I didn’t have high hopes for this film, but I figured anything with a star like Olivia Wilde in the lead role can’t be that bad. Wilde plays a medical researcher (really believable already) who along with her fiancé (Mark Duplass) and a couple of other guys who could not look less like medical researchers (Evan Peters and Donald Glover) develop the “Lazarus” serum, a magical concoction they believe can bring the dead back to life.

You already see where this is heading, right?

The catalyst for moving the plot along is the arrival of a young and attractive videographer (Sarah Bolger), who has asked to tape their experiments — though thankfully, this is not a found-footage film.

I don’t consider the following a spoiler because it’s obvious from the poster. Naturally, after attaining some level of success, something happens that ends up requiring Duplass to inject Wilde with the serum. And of course, she “comes back”, but is not quite the same, and shit soon starts to happen.

The biggest problem I had with The Lazarus Effect is its complete sense of predictability. The premise is actually quite good, but the script pulled out every horror cliche in the catalogue and the story went along exactly as you would have guessed for a movie of this kind. I don’t claim to know what they could have done differently, I just know whatever they did failed to work.

There were a handful of times throughout the movie when I said to my wife, “X is going to happen” or “Y is going to say Z”, and each time I was proven right, and right on cue. Maybe I’ve seen too many horror films, but it was just disappointing to not experience anything unexpected, including the scare tactics, most of which were “boo” moments we’ve seen many times.

The cast is nice to look at and their performances are fine, though they don’t get to do much because of the insipid characters they’ve been given.

It’s a shame, because The Lazarus Effect has some interesting themes and questions about life, death and the afterlife, but none of these are even close to being fleshed out. Instead, the experience was bogged down by familiar horror tropes, wasting a promising premise and cast.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Ex Machina (2015)

May 21, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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In the superhero era, sci-fi movies these days are bigger, louder and more special-effected (is that a word?), and so I was really looking forward to Ex Machina, the low-budget (US$15 million) directorial debut of career screenwriter Alex Garland, best known for penning the scripts to sci-fi semi-classics like 28 Days Later, Sunshine and Never Let Me Go (and he wrote the novel The Beach, which was made into that movie with Leo DiCaprio and Virginie Ledoyen).

The film received an avalanche of hype as early as last year, and I’m glad to say it does not disappoint. As a pure sci-fi story that goes back to the roots of the genre, Ex Machina delivers. Despite very little action and a deliberately mellow pace, the film is gripping, thought-provoking, tense and claustrophobic all the way through.

Without giving too much away, the film begins with a young programmer Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) from the world’s largest search engine company, Bluebook (basically Google), winning a contest to meet the company’s enigmatic billionaire CEO, Nathan (Oscar Isaac), who lives in a secluded research facility that requires a helicopter to access. Nathan invites Caleb to participate in an experiment involving his latest creation, a beautiful humanoid android named Ava (Alicia Vikander). It’s Caleb’s task, through conversations and observation, to judge whether Ava has consciousness, or whether she’s just simulating consciousness. And so begins an intriguing series of “sessions” between Caleb and Ava as Nathan looks on through surveillance video.

As you would expect, things are not as simple as they appear, and soon Caleb finds himself with a lot of unanswered questions. There are mini twists and turns galore, with Caleb growing more paranoid about both Ava and Nathan, and eventually, himself. Who’s telling the truth and who’s lying? Who’s playing whom? It’s one of those films where you never stop questioning the characters’ motives and what they are trying to achieve, and it’s this mystery that provides the strong pulse to the heart of the tale. It helps that it’s not a hackneyed plot that relies on one massive twist to shock audiences — this is a fascinating sci-fi story from start to finish.

In typical classic sci-fi fashion, there is a surrealistic feel to the experience that is almost dreamlike. The high-tech facility where the bulk of the film is set is grey and sombre, and the windowless walls seem as though they are closing in on Caleb as his paranoia and claustrophobia grows. The facility is juxtaposed nicely with the outdoor scenery the characters occasionally escape to, providing a technology vs nature dichotomy that plays into the film’s layered themes.

The film would not be what it is without the spectacular performance of Alicia Vikander, a Swedish actress whom I had only seen once prior, in the disappointing Seventh SonVikander is a perfect blend of beauty, sexuality and grace, and her dancing background really helped provide the right mix of human and robot to Ava. You believe what she is — a highly intelligent robot who could easily be mistaken for an attractive human but for the see-through limbs and mid-section. Everything about her performance, from the way she moved to the facial expressions and even the way she spoke contributed to making Ava so authentic that she bordered on creepy. Most importantly, she makes you believe in Caleb’s reactions to her. Vikander’s going to be a star, no doubt about it.

Oscar Issac also impresses as Nathan, a genius with demons to exorcise. After seeing him shine in Inside Llewyn Davis, The Two Faces of January and A Most Violent Year, I knew this was going to be the case. Isaac is a chameleon capable of playing anyone, and the intensity he brings to Nathan elevates the character into more than it should have been. Can’t wait to see him in the new Star Wars film at the end of the year.

By contrast, Gleeson is the weakest link. He’s pretty good as Caleb — just not as eye-catching as the other two — though I suspect the burden of suppressing his Irish accent in favour of an American one affected his performance to some degree. Interestingly, the first time I saw Gleeson was in an episode of Black Mirror, the brilliant Charlie Brooker sci-fi series, where he played a life-like android himself. That was a phenomenal story with parallels to this one, and I’d recommend fans of the movie to check out the “Be Right Back” episode of Black Mirror if they haven’t already.

Ex Machina does have a few holes in it as the story veers towards its tense conclusion, a problem common to even the best sci-fi films, though on the whole it’s hard to ask for much more from Garland in his directorial debut. It’s also a fine film from an aesthetics perspective; the special effects are used sparingly but effectively — mostly on Ava’s semi-transparent body — and the cinematography does a solid job of balancing the emotional and visual aspects. This is a fable that will make you think about the inevitable fallibility of human nature and the future of technology, especially in an age when artificial intelligence is making it difficult to distinguish sci-fi from reality. Even Stephen Hawking said recently that he believes “the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” Now think about that.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Run All Night (2015)

May 16, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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In 2008, director Pierre Morel and actor Liam Neeson gave us Taken, an action film so unexpectedly awesome that it redefined the genre and spawned a new industry of copycat efforts, usually about a dude with a particular set of skills kicking ass all over the place in a life-or-death race against time. These days, just about every action movie with an “old” actor — be it Nicholas Cage, Pierce Brosnan or Sean Penn — is directly compared to Taken, whether justified or not.

Neeson himself, who discovered a brand new career thanks to Taken (and its uninspiring guilty-pleasure sequels) has made a couple of copycat efforts himself, two of which were made with the formidable Jaume Collet-Serra. Both Unknown and Non-Stop were completely preposterous and silly, but still relatively enjoyable in their own ways. Their third collaboration, Run All Night, is more grounded and serious, and it’s arguably the best of the lot. Perhaps I’d even go as far as to say that it’s Liam Neeson’s best Taken-like action film since Taken (though opinions will probably be split between The Grey — if you put it in that category — A Walk Among the Tombstones and Non-Stop).

In Run All Night, Neeson plays a retired mob enforcer named Jimmy “The Gravedigger” Collins. He is a man with a very particular set of skills, and if he finds you, he will kill you. But he’s tired of all the crap and the demons of his past actions are catching up to him. He’s abandoned his family, including his son, former boxer Michael (Joel Kinnaman, ie, the new Robocop), who wants nothing to do with his old man. When Michael witnesses a crime committed by the son of Jimmy’s boss (played by Ed Harris), however, he is drawn into their world of murder and corruption, and it’s up to Jimmy to redeem himself by making sure his son makes it through alive.

You know they’ll be running all night. The title says so. There’s no chance they won’t be running.

So what make Run All Night more enjoyable than a lot of other similar efforts in recent years? First of all, the action is superb. From car chases to the hand-to-hand combat, everything is well-choreographed and suspenseful. I don’t know about realistic, but it gets the job done.

Secondly, while the plot is relatively cookie-cutter, there is a surprisingly level of emotional heft due to the strained relationship between Jimmy and his son. We know Jimmy’s not a good guy, but we root for him because we know how much he loves his son and would do anything to make up for his regrets. It doesn’t hurt that Michael is a good guy and isn’t annoying, like say Maggie Grace is in the Taken movies.

Thirdly, the cast is wonderful. Neeson is who he is — kicking ass and taking names, so you get what you expect from him. Joel Kinnaman, on the other hand, is a solid piece of casting as his son. He’s got the height, and you can believe from his build that he could be a former boxer. Add on top of that you’ve got the reliable Ed Harris, who delivers a complex villain that is miles better than the bad guys in the other flicks, as well as Common, who is pretty good too as a contract killer. Even Vincent D’Onofrio makes his “good cop” character better than it should have been.

In terms of style and execution, Collet-Sera’s approach is rather straightforward. You get his usual grit and dark tones, and as such Run All Night doesn’t really stand out from the pack. It’s not a classic by any means, but it’s definitely entertaining and one of the best post-Taken Neeson action films to date. Fans of this type of movie wouldn’t be wasting their time checking it out.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Jupiter Ascending (2015)

May 14, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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I wanted to be the guy to tell everyone that Jupiter Ascending is actually pretty good and completely unworthy of the 25% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Unfortunately, I can’t be that guy. While typically ambitious and visually eye-popping, the whole thing was just too bonkers and incoherent to be appreciated, especially as a once-off viewing experience. I could like it more if I watched it again, but it’s just not good enough to warrant another go.

I don’t even know where to start with the plot synopsis. Mila Kunis plays a domestic cleaner by the name of Jupiter, and it turns out she’s really important to a bunch of powerful aliens in space. Some want to kill her, some want to save her. Falling in the latter category is Channing Tatum and his blonde eyebrows. Tatum is a human spliced with wolf DNA and he has super anti-gravity rocket boots and a projected force-field shield. They fight off aliens and fly to distant galaxies and blow lots of shit up while flying through the air.

That’s an ultra simplistic description of the premise of Jupiter Ascending. In reality there is a plethora of discoveries and plot twists that I couldn’t really keep track of and gave up trying after a while. To be honest I may not have been paying my fullest attention to the conversations.

The problem with the film is that it’s just completely all over the place. The first few minutes or so, which detail Jupiter’s birth and her grown-up life, were quite interesting. But once the first alien appears on screen, all hell breaks loose. People just start bouncing off the walls, shooting blasters, smashing through buildings, falling out of the sky, kicking each other in the face, going invisible — you name it, they did it.

To make matters worse, they also tried to fit in all this convoluted exposition in between, so you’d end up going from crazy action one minute to boring explanations the next. With so many characters to keep track of — there’s a trio of alien “royalty” played by Eddie Redmayne, Douglas Booth and Tuppence Middleton, as well as a bunch of bounty hunters, Sean Bean, his daughter, and many other aliens and Jupiter’s extended family members — I was constantly lost trying to keep track of who’s who, which side they’re on and what motivations they have. It didn’t help that some characters were duplicitous, telling lies one second and the truth another, and people were being duped by secret schemes and nasty plans and so forth.

I also had trouble understanding what some of them were saying, including these crazy winged kimodo dragon-type aliens and Eddie Redmayne, who delivers a so-bad-he’s-good pussy villain with a permanently husky whisper. It’s hard to fathom that this is the same guy who just won an Oscar for portraying Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything.

I’ve been a fan of the Wachowskis when they were still the Wachowski Brothers (before Larry became Lana), even though their directorial efforts have arguably been sliding in the wrong direction since The Matrix. I like that they push the boundaries and challenge themselves with home-run projects– as evidenced by the polarising Cloud Atlas in 2012 — but this time I believe they bit off far more than they can chew.

There’s simply too much stuff to swallow in Jupiter Rising. The characters, their complex relationships, the unnecessarily convoluted plot, the twists, the gadgets, the weapons, the technology, and all the different alien races. Remember, much of this is sci-fi world building, so audiences have to take some time to accept and digest it. When it comes so fast and furious you’re just left wondering WTF is going on. In the end, the only thing I cared about was whether Sean Bean’s character was going to die. It’s like squeezing four Game of Thrones seasons worth of characters, backstory and world-building stuff into just a little over two hours. It’s too much. That’s why I think Jupiter Rising would have worked better as a TV series, where the concepts and characters could be introduced at a slower pace.

Mila Kunis is as good as Jupiter, though despite the praises of feminists her character is only marginally better than your typical damsel in distress in love with the hunky Channing Tatum. Speaking of which, Tatum’s physical performance is decent, but his acting is still not the greatest. He’s not the best actor in the world, and acting primarily against a green screen doesn’t help his wooden expressions. As for Eddie Redmayne, I don’t think it’s a horrible performance. It’s just that you can’t take his character seriously because of the voice and the eyeliner.

In fact, it’s impossible to take the entire film seriously. If you can forget about everything wrong with the movie, ignore the incoherent script and the WTF moments, and just go along for the insane, CGI-fuelled, action-packed ride, Jupiter Ascending could possibly pass as an entertaining experience. The bigger the screen, the higher the odds.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

May 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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Kingsman: The Secret Service is entirely bonkers. It’s also entirely enjoyable.

Based on the a UK comic book series created by Dave Gibbons (Watchmen) and Mike Millar (Spider-Man, Wanted, Kick-Ass), it tells the story of Eggsy Unwin (Taron Edgerton), a white trash Londoner who is recruited to a top secret spy agency headed by “Arthur” (Michael Caine) and “Galahad” (Colin Firth).

Like its source material, Kingsman channels the most famous spy who ever lived, James Bond, with loads of super cool gadgets and outrageous action sequences. It’s not quite Austin Powers — ie, it’s more tongue-in-cheek homage than parody — but it’s so deliciously over-the-top and unapologetically so that you can’y help but admire its audacity and sense of fun. The villain, for instance, is a lispy eco-terrorist played by a crooked-baseball-cap-wearing Samuel L Jackson, whose sidekick, Gazelle (Sofia Boutella), is essentially “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorious with actual blades as prosthetic legs and Bruce Lee-like kung fu skills. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

What really elevates Kingsman above your typical action-comedy, however, is the direction of Matthew Vaughn, best known for Stardust, Kick-Ass and X-Men: First Class. There’s a genuine energy to his approach that got my blood pumping, and he adopts a slick style that can only be described as cool. He’s a real talent who knows what works and has the skills to turn vision into reality on the big screen. One thing my wife said during the movie that stood out to me is that it doesn’t feel like a typically gloomy, drab British flick. And she’s absolutely right. In addition to the Bond films, Kingsman reminds me a little of the first Men In Black movie with the cool kid learning the ropes to be a new recruit angle, the innovative gadgets and the irreverent tone, as well as Kick-Ass for its stylistic — and shockingly graphic — violence. I’m sure there will be complaints about how violent it is,

The action is spectacular, as you would expect from the guy who delivered Kick-Ass, though here Vaughn takes it to another level with some of the best choreographed fight scenes in recent memory. One ridiculously complex set piece, forever to be known as “The Church Scene”, was a symphony of absolute mayhem executed with no rapid cuts and all swirling long takes. Epic stuff.

It doesn’t hurt that the cast is superb. Colin Firth looks and acts the part as Galahad, and the presence of Caine and one of my faves, Mark Strong, lifts the overall class of any film. Even Samuel L Jackson, who has been a “keep gettin’ ’em cheques” guys for a while now, appears to be having more fun than usual. I had never heard of Taron Edgerton before, but I’m sure I’ll be seeing a lot more of him after witnessing how he held his own against all these big stars without a hiccup. He’s equally convincing whether as a scared delinquent or a suave secret agent. Looking forward to seeing him later this alongside the likes of Tom Hardy, Emily Browning, David Thewlis and Christopher Eccleston in the true crime drama Legend.

It has already received fairly good reviews, though I have a feeling Kingsman will be looked upon even more favourably years from now. It’s adventurous, edgy, sharp, funny, and filled with energy and style. It’s acutely aware of the traditions of the genre, but instead of overturning them it plays along with a cheerful wink and throws in a couple of wild surprises so audiences can’t quite put their finger on what’s going to happen next. While it spirals into ridiculousness towards the end, the film’s complete lack of sense actually helps the kind of popcorn experience Vaughn is trying to achieve. When it’s all said and done, Kingsman could very well turn out be the best action-comedy of the year.

4.25 stars out of 5

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