Movie Review: Backcountry (2015)

July 24, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Backcountry

Contrary to what many people have asked me when I tell them the title, this is not a sequel or prequel to Brokeback Mountain.

Backcountry is a actually low budget (wo)man-versus-wild thriller that is supposedly inspired by a true story. The premise is simple: a young couple head into the wild on a hiking trip and get lost. They eventually find themselves being hunted by a giant grizzly bear who seems really hungry for flesh, especially the tasty human kind.

I admit I was sceptical. Man vs wild films (like The Grey), or more specifically, man vs bear films (like The Edge) are usually anchored by a big-name star and have a more intricate plot and/or more characters to kill off. Here, it’s mostly just a typical couple walking through the woods, talking and bickering and not doing much else.

Surprisingly, the simplicity of Backcountry actually works to its advantage. There’s not a lot of distractions, allowing audiences to focus on the characters and their relationship, and the small cast enhances the feeling of isolation and dread.

Both Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop are pretty good as the couple. They don’t play likable characters, but you feel like you get to know them well enough to empathise with their situation and their fate. It’s a fairly cliched relationship, but at least the script is well written enough and the performances are solid enough to sustain the film through its slower moments.

These moments are necessary, because the film relies on the build-up of tension to deliver a sense of unease and creeping dread. Much of the horror ultimately comes from the bear, though an argument can be made that the most chilling part of the movie is an earlier encounter with a mysterious stranger played by familiar B-grade star Eric Balfour. I don’t know how good his Irish accent is, but the performance is a fantastic one.

As often is the case with simple yet effective horror/thriller flicks like this, I preach reasonable expectations to avoid disappointment. For instance, I can definitely see how some viewers mate be bored by the couple’s relationship, while I myself was frequently annoyed by their stupidity in the face of mortal danger. Flaws notwithstanding, Backcountry is a solid, more-than-serviceable thriller with the potential to satisfy a lot of unsuspecting audiences.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Cinderella (2015)

July 23, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

cinderella

There have been a lot — some would say too many — fairytale reimaginings over the last few years. Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Beastly, Jack the Giant Slayer, Maleficent, just to name a few.

Kenneth Brannagh’s Cinderella, I’m glad to say, is not like any of those movies. It’s a return to roots; a reminder that such stories don’t necessarily need a makeover, and that perhaps keeping them the way they are might be for the best. It’s basically the studio reminding us — and let’s face it, they’re right — that reimaginings might not be as good the originals.

That’s not to say Cinderella is merely a lazy live-action remake of the old 1950s Disney animated film. Brannagh and writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy, and soon, Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One) manage to inject new life into the story with some subtle but welcome variations while maintaining the overall structure and spirit or the original tale. The humour is light and Brannagh-ish, and the special effects and costumes are pretty but not overwhelming. Fuelled by solid performances, this is an authentic and charming adaptation. Notwithstanding how straightforward it is, the results are surprisingly effective and strangely refreshing.

You know the story already so there’s no point in giving a proper overview. Skinny-waisted Lily James from Downton Abbey plays the titular heroine, who is left to the mercy of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) after her parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) pass away. Richard Madden (holy crap I just realised he’s Robb Stark!!!) plays the Prince, Derek Jacobi plays his father the King, Stellan Skarsgard plays the Grand Duke, and Helena Bonham Carter is of course the Fairy Godmother.

However, rather than just being about a pretty girl who falls for and gets rescued from poverty and slavery by a stud muffin — with the help of some magic — this adaptation tries to add some workable dimensions and cover up flaws of the original story.

Cate Blanchett’s stepmother character, for instance, isn’t just evil for the sake of being evil. We’re given glimpses of her genuine concerns, which helps us understand why she has become the way she is. Plus Blanchett is really good in the role, as she seems to be relishing the opportunity to play a devilish, multi-faceted villain.

Recurring themes include kindness and forgiveness, duty and love, and a lot is said about economic and social status. Bear in mind most of it is just on the surface, but kudos to Brannagh for at least trying to insert some layers and depth into what is still ultimately a fairytale. I don’t agree with criticisms that it’s not “feminist enough.” This Cinderella is progressive; not every woman wants to go full Joan of Arc like Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Despite Brannagh’s efforts, there are still some things that a live-action movie adaptation of a flawed story cannot work around. The whole glass slipper thing — you know, getting every girl in the kingdom to try it out when they know what she looks like — still makes no sense.

Quibbles notwithstanding, Cinderella is a strong film, one that is suitable for children and adults alike. Humour, romance, magic and a good lesson or two, it’s a feel-good experience the whole family can enjoy. I’d rank it just behind my second-favourite Cinderella film, Ever After, and there’s no shame in that.

3.75 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part VIII

July 20, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Cut Bank (2014)

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This was a strange attempt to emulate the magic of Fargo, one of my favourite movies of all time.

The story begins when the central character, played by Liam Hemsworth, accidentally films a supposed murder in the corn fields of the titular small town while training his girlfriend (fellow Aussie Teresa Palmer) for a beauty pageant. But nothing is as it first seems, and soon  Billy Bob Thornton and John Malkovich are on the case. Bruce Dern plays an old nutjob and mailman, while Michael Stuhlbarg plays a psychotic killer. Oliver Platt rounds out the star-studded cast.

Just like Fargo, Cut Bank is brutally violent and has plenty of unexpected events where the shit keeps hitting the fan and the mess keeps getting murkier and out of control. It even has a big Native American dude playing a tough guy. But it’s nowhere near as darkly comedic, and I wouldn’t be surprised if some viewers fail to  get the humour amid all the carnage and mayhem. It’s also not as intelligent or original. Watchable? Yes. Good? Not quite.

One of the biggest problems with the movie is Liam Hemsworth, who hasn’t really done anything that deserves praise thus far in his career. Yeah sure, he’s in The Hunger Games, but in that he’s a distant third fiddle who is more of a minor character than a major one. The charisma of his elder brother just isn’t there.

There are some decent moments, most involving Bruce Dern, and also when Teresa Palmer performs for the pageant, but for those most part Cut Bank doesn’t deserve anything more than a straight-to-DVD fate.

2.5 stars out of 5

Time Lapse (2014)

time-Lapse-Poster

This low-budget time travel thriller went completely under my radar. It’s better than the most recent time travel film I watched before it, Project Almanac, and the superb storytelling is good enough to make up for most of its flaws.

The premise of Time Lapse is simple. A guy, his girlfriend and best friend, all living under the same roof, discover a camera machine in a neighbour’s house that takes periodic photos through their apartment window. The photos reveal the scene in the apartment exactly 24 hours into the future.

Writer and debut director Bradley D King does a solid job of getting the most out of this interesting idea, taking advantage of the notion that the protagonists can use the device to send messages to their past selves but also requiring them to act out what they see in the photo 24 hours later to avoid a time travel paradox. It raises questions of free will, fate and whether we can really change the future.

I liked how the movie utilises a limited form of time travel that doesn’t require special effects, and how it focuses on the relationship dynamics of the three central characters. The ending is also quite clever and requires a bit of thought for everything to fall into place.

The performances of the central trio — Danielle Panabaker, Matt O’Leary and George Finn — are also strong, taking attention away from the aspects that don’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense, or reactions that stretch credulity. I thought it was pretty silly, for instance, for them to try to get rich through betting with dodgy bookies. A lotto ticket would have been so much easier and less dangerous.

Flaws aside, it’s still a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment, with enough intrigue and character development to deliver a thought-provoking experience.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Skeleton Twins (2014)

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Don’t think you’re in for a comedy just because you see Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader on the cover. The Skeleton Twins is one of the saddest and most depressing films I’ve seen in a while.

The comedic duo play fraternal twins Maggie and Milo. I don’t want to spoil too much, so let’s just say both are going through a lot in their lives and are likely suffering from depression. Milo’s problems are a lot more overt because he’s gay (and obviously so) and has a dark past, while Maggie’s are more hidden under the surface because she appears to have a wonderful marriage to a lovely, gregarious husband (played by Luke Wilson).

Deep down, however, both are broken, and the film is about how they deal with life’s disappointments and messy situations. There are scenes of genuine heartbreak that really resonated with me, in particular some of the one-on-one conversations involving Milo, and much of the credit has to go to both Wiig and Hader for turning in such fantastic dramatic performances. Hader, in particular, is so convincing as a gay man that I had to check his Wikipedia page just to make sure he’s not gay in real life.

The pair are funny when they want to be, though it’s usually a one-liner here or a mildly humorous situation there; the overall melancholic tone never goes away in this film, a brutally honest look at life without rose-tinted lenses, full of difficult stretches and little moments of joy and laughter.

It’s undoubtedly well-made and driven by superb performances, which also include Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell and Boyd Holbrook, whose Aussie accent barely gets over the line for me (it’s just a hard accent for Americans to do, I guess). That said, I don’t usually like such dark, depressing films because they put such a downer on my mood. I suppose I’ll have to make an exception for The Skeleton Twins, as it has enough sweetness and poignancy to justify a hearty recommendation.

3.5 stars out of 5

Annie (2014)

annie

Am I crazy, or is the universally panned remake of Annie actually not that bad? I had basically put off watching the film (I’m not that interested in musicals anyway) because of all the bad reviews, so I entered this without any expectations. I came out of it pleasantly surprised. Yes it’s cliched and saccharine and Cameron Diaz overacts even more that usual, but I still thought Annie got the job done with some nice homages to the original 1982 film, a modern makeover, some clever jokes, and a couple of catchy — albeit super autotuned — tunes.

Quvenzhané Wallis (who rose to stardom after earning an Oscar nomination for Beasts of the Southern Wild) plays the titular character, Annie Bennett, an orphan who longs to one day meet her real parents. She’s stuck with the nasty and single Miss Hannigan (Diaz) in foster care, I suppose for the government funding, until one day a stroke of luck makes her cross paths with mobile phone mogul and germaphobe William Stacks (Foxx). Sensing an opportunity, Stacks’ mayoral race campaign manager (Bobby Cannavale) gets Stacks to temporarily take Annie into his care to boost his popularity. And you know the rest.

The singing is OK — it’s at least better than Mamma Mia (Pierce Brosnan still gives me nightmares). Cameron Diaz isn’t great, and Rose Byrne is decent, but Jamie Foxx has a nice set of chords. I’m sure there’s a lot of autotune, but that’s what you’re expected to get these days when you cast a musical for star power as opposed to singing. The songs are relatively catchy, better than a lot of other musicals in recent years, and songs only pop up when they need to, unlike say Les Miserables where just about every line comes with a melody.

Look, it’s not great, but the tone is light and lively, and Jamie Foxx and Rose Byrne are funny enough to carry this well-intentioned remake through to the end, hitting a fair share of right notes along the way. I don’t get why people had such an acidic reaction to it.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Terminator Genisys (2015)

July 17, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

genisys

When Arnie famously said, “I’ll be back,” he clearly forgot to add, “over and over and over again.”

Let’s face it: the Terminator franchise has been on a downward trajectory since the highs of the iconic Judgment Day. None of the subsequent films have been bad, but they haven’t been great either. And now, six years after the ill-fated reboot, Terminator Salvation (which I actually thought was underrated), we have the reboot of the reboot, Terminator Genisys.

I liked where they were going with the premise — the idea that everything that happened in the earlier films never happened because someone went back even further (before the 1984 film) and changed how the future would pan out.

First off, it allows them to pay homage to the earlier films by taking audiences down nostalgia lane, reciting popular catchphrases and bringing back memorable characters and events — but with time-travel induced twists to make it fresh and unexpected.

Secondly, it gives the franchise new life by creating a completely different storyline that opens up possibilities of further sequels. That’s what good reboots do — they keep the best of the original and revamp and update other bits and pieces. This one goes even further to turn the franchise’s existing universe on its head by changing everything we thought we knew.

This should all be fantastic — as the T-800 would say repeatedly throughout this film — “theoretically.”

Unfortunately, Terminator Genisys isn’t nearly as effective in practice. It’s a messy effort with a plethora of problems, from from a nonsensical storyline and contrived plot devices to poor casting and cheesy dialogue. It is still enjoyable on an purely entertainment level, though it ultimately comes across as a commercial cash grab as opposed to a genuine effort to recapture the magic of the first two classics.

Allow me to break it down. The original Terminator paints a future in which robots take over the world in 1997, and in 2029, the machines decide to send a killer cyborg with an Austrian accent back to 1984 to kill Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton), the future mother of John Connor, the last remaining human resistance. John Connor sends back his trusted soldier, Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn), back to the same time to protect his young mother. It’s a frightening action thriller with a clever time travel twist attached to it.

Terminator 2: Judgment Day, released in 1991, follows on from the original. The machines send back a liquid metal cyborg (Robert Patrick) to kill teenage John Connor (Edward Furlong), and the future John Connor sends back an old model killer cyborg with an Austrian accent to protect him. By this time, Sarah Connor has also turned into a badass, and in the end they appear to have change enough of the past to suggest that the 1997 judgment day doesn’t happen. The movie is one of the best and most iconic action and sci-fi films of all time.

Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, is a continuation of the second film. The 1997 judgment day is indeed averted, but it appears to only be postponed because somehow robots are still in control of the future. The machines send a cyborg who looks a lot like actress Kristanna Loken to 2003 to wipe out future members of the human resistance, and the humans send back a really old killer cyborg with an Austrian accent to protect them. Loken is ultimately unsuccessful in killing John Connor (Nick Stahl) and his future wife (Claire Danes), but judgment day happens anyway at the end of the movie. It’s not as good as the previous two but it’s still pretty entertaining.

Terminator Salvation, released in 2009, is mostly set in 2018, and presumes that judgment day happened around 2003 as opposed to 1997, meaning it accepts the events of its predecessor. Apart from that, the film is more of a side story, with the only major tie-in to the franchise being a cameo from an eerie-looking CGI Arnie at the very end.

Now, Terminator Genisys goes back to when the robots and John Connor (Jason Clarke) send Arnie and Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney), respectively, back to 1984 (ie, the first film), but this time the past has changed because Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke, no relation to Jason) has already become a badass after being trained from the age of nine by an even older Arnie. Things obviously progress differently from here, creating a brand new timeline.

The first thing to note about the plot of Genisys is that it goes back to assuming that judgment day took place in 1997 as opposed to 2003, meaning it is essentially ignoring everything that happened from T2 to T4. I’m not sure if this was an intentional decision or oversight, but what it does is complicate the Terminator universe a whole lot more. T1 was a simple time loop. T2-4 was all part of a single alternate timeline. Genisys, on the other hand, seems to have created multiple intertwining alternate timelines. That is a risky move because the idea of a universe where there are infinite versions of a reality arguably cheapens the meaning of all the other films in the franchise.

The second thing to note is that a lot of the isolated time travel stuff that happens in Genisys don’t make a whole lot of sense. Granted, most time travel movies have holes in them if you think about them long enough, but in this film you don’t even have to think about it to realise it lacks logic.

Worse still, the film is filled with trite plot devices to help progress the narrative. It’s as though the writers would first think of something they would like to happen in the storyline, then drop something in just before it happens so that it would conveniently make sense all of a sudden. Frustratingly, this happens again and again, especially towards the end when the stakes get high. One particular twist of fate at the end is laughable.

Casting is another issue I had with the film. I am glad Aussies are getting work in Hollywood, I really am, and I think Jason Clarke is not bad as John Connor. But Jai Courtney as Kyle Reese? Seriously? I have no idea why Courtney keeps getting so many roles despite not having been in any genuinely good films or put in any good performances — ever. He doesn’t have a “good guy” vibe, for starters, and he has zero charm for what is supposed to be a charismatic character.

Emilia Clarke may have appeared like a good choice on paper because she’s young, popular because of Game of Thrones, and as Khaleesi proved that she could play both vulnerable and super tough. But Emilia, as much as I like her, doesn’t hold a candle to Linda Hamilton. She doesn’t have any of the physicality the character needs (remember, she’s been trained by a Terminator since youth), plus she is a mismatch for Courtney and Arnie. Standing next to those two makes her look like the way Peter Dinklage looks when standing next to her in Game of Thrones.

The casting of Oscar-winner JK Simmons as a police officer makes up for the bad lead choices a little bit, and I quite liked the move of choosing Lee Byung-hun as the new T-1000 because he looks just like Korean Robert Patrick, but on the whole the cast is problematic and causes issues for the next two instalments of this planned trilogy.

Additional concerns include poorly written and executed dialogue, as well as Arnie’s badly timed one-liners that tend to fall flat, though admittedly these things get better as the film progresses and evens out by the end.

What the film has going for it includes excellent special effects, in particularly the anti-aging technology applied to Arnie, who plays three different ages throughout the movie because, apparently, the cyborgs are covered by human tissue that ages over time — albeit, as the film indicates, very inconsistently. Still, it’s much better than the weird version of Arnie was got at the end of Salvation, showing that movie technology has indeed improved (though it also shows just how ahead of its time Judgment Day was).

The action is pretty decent, close to being on par with what we got in every film of the franchise except Judgment Day, and I do like that it doesn’t take itself — for the most part — too seriously, with a handful of tongue-in-cheek gags that hit the mark. Brownie points for also updating the machine threat to cloud computing to be more relevant to today’s technology. As a piece of popcorn entertainment, Genisys is acceptable without being remarkable, and for some that might be good enough if you tack on the goodwill of the franchise and Arnie’s “old but not obsolete” presence.

Overall, however, Genisys is a disappointment, a muddled effort with loads of issues that could have and should have been ironed out. It’s a sobering reminder of how good this franchise used to be and why reboots of classics are seldom necessary. Viewers with low expectations who catch the it in the right mood could still enjoy the film because it does have strengths, can be fun at times, and takes full advantage of the franchise’s cache, though considering its full potential it’s safe to say Genisys fell well short.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: I decided to use a teaser poster as a protest to the geniuses in their marketing department putting one of the biggest spoilers there is in the film’s most widely used poster. It’s impossible to miss.

Movie Review: When the Game Stands Tall (2014)

July 13, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

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American football movies are a dime a dozen, but few have stood out to me like When the Game Stands Tall, the remarkable true story of legendary high school coach Bob Ladouceur, who led California’s De La Salle Spartans to a record 151 consecutive victories. Unfortunately, I’m going to remember this one for all the wrong reasons.

I give every movie, no matter how bad they might seem, a fighting chance. But it took just a couple of minutes before I told the guy next to me, “This is really bad.”

From the first scenes I could tell this was going to be one corny, sentimental journey riddled with cliches and painfully obvious plot points that hit all the boiler plate markers at exactly the moments you’d expect them to. I was of course right, as the film stayed true to itself all the way to the predictable end.

Instead of the uplifting emotions the film was aiming for, all I got was manipulation as obvious as dogs’ balls. Insane amounts of awkward, expository dialogue; catchphrases and monologues you expect to only hear on televised evangelist sermons or sports parodies; cringeworthy moments and characters galore. It’s laughably bad (I’m not exaggerating; I literally laughed out loud several times at the unintentional humour).

The film actually starts toward the end of the winning streak, beginning on such a high that you know exactly where it is going to go: fall from grace, start over, work hard, minor conflicts along the way, big “f*%$ yeah!” climax at the end.

The themes are ones you’ve seen a million times. Doubts about God, passion railroaded by health, neglecting family for job, battling poverty, overbearing parents, and the jock “brotherhood.” Players clash, family members clash, but everything they say is cliched and none of it feels genuine. Everything is shoved in your face like someone handing out flyers on a street corner. The worst was the vomit-inducing heart-to-hearts between the players before the big game, barely outdoing the “inspiring” visit to see rehabilitating war veterans to give them a new perspective. Of course, this visit never happened in real life.

On top of all that, the film’s characters are harder to fathom existing than the team’s impressive winning streak. Fair enough, they attended a Catholic school and Ladouceur is, by all accounts, extremely devout, but seriously, come on. I know he’s played by Jim Caviezel, but in this film, Ladouceur is more Jesus than Jesus. He’s the complete opposite of every caricature “win at all costs” evil high school sports coach in film history. He cares for everyone (I mean really really cares), puts players before wins, always knows what’s right, spews Bible verses verbatim. And his biggest flaw is — wait for it — is that he’s a closet smoker. God forbid! He even as an obnoxious assistant coach to make him look even holier.

Among the players, the two that stand out are Ladouceur’s son Danny, played by Matthew Daddario, brother to the smoking Alexandra Daddario, and the fictional running back Chris Ryan, played by The Hunger Games‘ Alexander Ludwig. Much of the focus is placed on Ryan’s relationship with his father, played by Shawshank guard Clancy Brown, who is a caricature that combines every repugnant high school sports dad ever depicted on screen.

The only thing I can honestly say the film has going for it is some well-executed football game action. The plays look real enough to me, and even when you know what’s going to happen they offer a bit of a rush. But a lot of football films have good game sequences, and it’s not enough to offset the plethora of negatives.

When the Game Stands Tall might not be the worst film of 2014, but it will likely go down as the most unbearable. As well-intentioned as it may have been, even Jesus couldn’t bring salvation to this hackneyed melodrama.

1.5 stars out of 5

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