Movie Review: The Guest (2014)

November 29, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

The-Guest

The Guest is an unusual one. It takes a simple premise — about a handsome, mysterious stranger who shows up on a doorstep claiming to know the deceased son of a bereaved family — and develops it into a dark, slightly comical psychological thriller where you never really know what’s going to happen next.

Downton Abbey alumnus Dan Stevens is virtually unrecognizable as David Collins, a dark and mysterious stranger who shows up on the doorstep of the Peterson family, claiming to have served in Afghanistan with their dead son Caleb. I had no idea that I had just watched Stevens, who is British, in A Walk Among the Tombstones, where he has dark hair and trimmed facial hair. Here, he looks completely different, almost like a young Nicholas Brody from Homeland, with reddish blonde hair, an All-American smile, and a somewhat sinister brand of charm.

Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and The Guest

Dan Stevens from Downton Abbey, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and The Guest



Anyway, David is gradually welcomed into the family, offering a friendly ear for the father (Leland Orser) to air his grievances at work, taking on the bully problems of the youngest son (Brendan Meyer) at school, and impressing the friends of the young daughter (Maika Monroe) at parties. But of course, David is not quite who he seems, and eventually shit has to go down.

The stuff that happens in the guest feel familiar, and yet it’s not easy to recall where you have seen it before. Collins sets himself up as a likable antihero — he does things seemingly out of kindness and justice, things we wish we had the courage and ability to do, but at the same time he is so obviously unstable that we know we must maintain our distance. Every time a new scenario pops up you wonder if David is to be naughty or nice.

The result is a little cheesy, but it’s also plenty of fun because the film is smart enough to not take itself too seriously. It’s violent and unsettling when it wants to be, but there are times when it allows you take a step back and see how wickedly absurd the whole thing is. 

A film like this wouldn’t work without quality performances, and a big part of why it excels is because of Dan Stevens. He’s cool, he’s charming, and he can also be terrifying. There’s something about the facial expressions of David that he gets just right. Maika Monroe is actually also pretty good, as are the rest of the family.

The Guest ultimately feels like a low-budget B-movie, but boy is it a damn good one. It’s the type of film that will surprise you with how enjoyably watchable it is if you rent on DVD when there’s nothing else or come across it on late night TV. I haven’t seen any of director Adam Wingard’s other movies, but now I am intrigued by his handling of the material and wouldn’t mind checking out seemingly crappy horrors on his resume such as You’re Next and the two V/H/S films.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Stretch (2014)

November 27, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Stretch-Poster

Usually, when a Hollywood film with a list stars ends up having its release delayed, before being pushed to a VOD debut, it means the movie probably stinks. In the case of Stretch, however, it says a lot more about the stupidity and conservative nature of Hollywood more than anything else. Stretch is undeniably weird, wacky, and all over the place, but it is also one of the most original and gut-bustingly hilarious oddball comedy in years.

Patrick Wilson stars as a down-and-out limo driver nicknamed Stretch, who came to Hollywood years ago with dreams of making it big some day. Instead of becoming a star, he’s dumped by his gorgeous gal (Brooklyn Decker) and develops a dangerous gambling habit that has him owing a sizable chunk of money to some very dangerous people. To make ends meet, he works for a limousine service that caters to Hollywood stars and wannabes, taking over the client list of a former driver, Karl (Ed Helms), who blew his brains out because the job made him so depressed.

Stretch’s luck appears to make a turn for the better when he runs into Karos (Chris Pine), a mysterious billionaire who offers to give him a very generous tip for being an extra accommodating driver. And so begins a wild night of mayhem that will involve gangsters, police, hookers, exes, bad acting, brilliant acting, reality TV stars and smartphone hook-up apps.

Stretch is a crazy romp, and I mean that in the best of ways. There’s a sharp satirical edge throughout, taking stabs and bites at Hollywood along the way, and the jokes and one-liners are fast and furious. The pace of the entire film is frantic, as Stretch keeps getting bounced from place to place and bumping into memorable and bizarre characters.

Writer and director Joe Carnahan, who has credits like The Grey, Smokin’ Aces and The A-Team on his resume, does a fine job of making Stretch a finely tuned mess where as audiences we are just happy to go along for the ride.

Patrick Wilson is legendary in this, and Chris Pine is as funny as I have ever seen him. Other supporting cast members such as Jessica Alba, Brooklyn Decker, James Badge Dale and Ed Helms all Play their parts with the requisite amount of fun. The highlights for me, however, would have to be the extended cameos from David Hasselhoff and Ray Liotta playing spoof versions of themselves, as well as Kevin Bigley playing ex-reality TV star Faux Hawk.

The film does get wrapped up a little too neatly and resorts to more conventional Hollywood tactics down the stretch, no pun intended. Notwithstanding its flaws, however, Stretch is an undeniably brilliant farce and one of the most hilarious and energetic popcorn movies I have seen in quite some time.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: As Above, So Below (2014)

November 27, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

AASB

I once had an opportunity to visit the Catacombs of Paris, which stores the remains of about 6 million people, back in 2008. I arrived a few minutes after closing time, however, and the opportunity was lost. I was curious about the place, but I was also secretly glad that I didn’t end up going in. I could feel the creepiness of the place even from the outside on ground level, and given that I don’t love confined spaces, I have concluded that it was probably for the best.

I remember wondering at the time why there haven’t been more horror movies made about the place. Someone must have read my mind, because that’s exactly what As Above, So Below is all about.

If I were constructing the typical premise for a Catacombs movie, it would be about tourists getting lost in there and running into scary things like ghosts or monsters. That’s more or less what I thought As Above, So Below was going to give us. Instead, the film turned out to be more like a treasure hunt movie with elements of a psychological horror and supernatural horror that tries admirably to avoid the most obvious clichés. It ends up being one of those films that’s not exactly good — it does have moments of creepy effectiveness — but it’s at least a little different to what you might have expected.

You get a good feel for how preposterous the film is going to be in its early scenes, when a young scholar (Perdita Weeks) discovers the mythical Rose Key in Iran as part of her goal to track down the Philosopher’s Stone, which can, you know, turn stuff into gold and grant eternal life and so forth. She also happens to be extremely young, attractive, has two PhD’s, and is an expert in martial arts. Totally believable.

Anyway, she travels to Paris, and with the aid of a former lover, translates Da Vinci code-style clues that lead her to the Catacombs. They assemble a local team to guide them in, commencing an adventure that grows more and more bizarre — and terrifying — as they venture deeper into the ground.

While the film explores some of the real-life weirdos that occupy the Catacombs, most of the energy is spent on this fictitious treasure hunt not all that different from those depicted in the National Treasure movies and the Dan Brown adaptations. Actually, it goes even beyond those films, veering into Indiana Jones territory. These parts of the film are not particularly scary, and the way the characters solve the riddles are typically trite. They rattle off various verses no one understands, before realizing they made a mistake, rattling off more versus no one understands to rectify the situation. Stuff like that.

The atmosphere is largely there thanks to the setting, though the film doesn’t really turn into a full-fledged horror until much later. From the point it does, the progression becomes fairly stereotypical, though there are a few effective scare tactics to keep the film afloat for the most part. Credit for not sinking exclusively to “boo” scares and cheap tactics and for coming up with an ending that’s not the same as every other low-quality horror in recent memory, but unfortunately, As Above, So Below is just not consistently frightening enough considering the natural benefits of its premise.

The film is presented as found footage, which I usually hate, but in this instance I can see some merit in taking this route. First person video footage helps in bringing out the macabre atmosphere and claustrophobic nature of the catacombs, giving viewers an idea of just how suffocating and eerie the place really is. Most importantly, The film uses multiple cameras — each of which are attached the heads of the characters — to give us the best view of what is happening. The level of shakiness and incoherence is also kept to a minimum. It may not be realistic, but it’s as good of an approach to found footage I have seen, because it gives us the advantages of the first-person perspective without emphasizing all of the disadvantages.

The end result is an unusual horror film that’s not all horror and not all scary. And yet it is undeniably creepy in moments and semi-interesting because of the premise. I’d therefore say As Above, So Below is above average, below good.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 (2014)

November 25, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

HG

If I’m going to be honest then I might as well say it: The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 is a well-executed disappointment.

I had expected this to be the case when I heard that they were, like every other successful major book franchise these days, splitting the final book of the series into two films. This lit up alarm bells in my mind straight away, because having read the books, I already knew that  Mockingjay had the least amount of action and “wow factor” of the trilogy. It may have barely worked for Harry Potter and Twilight, but the final books of those series are nearly double the length of Mockingjay. 

The story picks up when Catching Fire left off: after destroying the Quarter Quell Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is rescued by the mysterious District 13 while her games partner, Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson), remains a captive of the evil President Snow (Donald Sutherland). With no more excuses to toss her back into the arena, this time the film is all about surviving on the outside and being groomed by District 13 president Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) into the “Mockingjay”, the symbol of the rebellion against the Capitol.

Consequently, Mockingjay  is a very different film compared to the other two. It’s darker and arguably even more intense because there’s a lot more death and destruction and the stakes are no longer just confined to the artificial world of the Hunger Games. The fate of Katniss, all the people she cares about, and even the entire world, lies in her unwilling teenage hands. Rather then making observations about the world of reality television, Mockingjay  explores political propaganda and the sacrifices of rebellion and consequences of war. It’s heavy stuff, but for the most part these themes are handled effectively and delicately.

The decision to split the final book meant that director Francis Lawrence (who did Catching Fire) was forced to stretch about 390 pages of material over what I presume will be about 240-250 minutes. By comparison, the adaptation of Catching Fire was 391 pages into 146 minutes, while for The Hunger Games it was 374 pages into 142 minutes. The first two adaptations were taut and action-packed affairs that largely kept close to the book editions. On the other hand, even if you litter Mockingjay with some additions not from the book, it’s just technically impossible for the film to keep pace with its predecessors.

This is not to say the film is bad — far from it. The overall standard of the production is still very good, on par with its predecessors. Lawrence makes the most of what little action he has to play with, creating some marvellous set pieces filled with high intensity that will keep audiences on the edge of their seats. The additional running time also afforded more opportunities for contemplation and character development, taking the accumulated emotions from the two earlier films and building them up to the next level.

The performances are still top notch. Jennifer Lawrence may have had a tumultuous time recently, but in the Hunger Games world she’s as solid as ever. This was arguably the most difficult performance for her thus far because in this film she has to be a “bad actress” at times and a genuinely inspiring icon at others, and sometimes somewhere along that spectrum — and yet she manages to knock it out of the park. Josh Hutcherson doesn’t get to do nearly as much in this one, but the scenes he’s in are dynamite. Liam Hemsworth, on the other hand, is relatively wooden by comparison. Gale is one of those key characters who has a bit of a raw deal in this story because he’s never really central to the narrative, and Hemsworth doesn’t do much to elevate the character above that.

New additions like the ever-reliable Julianne Moore and Game of Thrones‘s Natalie Dormer are positives to the ensemble while also boosting star power, though for me the standout supporting performance still has to be the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, whose presence as former head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee makes you realise just how much of a loss his death is to the acting community. It was initially a little jarring to see him on screen, but he’s so good that after a while you just see him as the character rather than the deceased actor.

My difficulties with the film ultimately lie in what comes between all of its well-executed moments. Every now and then a scene feels a tad longer than it needed to be. Some reactions and conversations are drawn out when they probably didn’t have to be. It may be imperceptible at first, but they adds up over the course of the film and stick out like obvious time-fillers by the end. You could even argue that, with the exception of a couple of key occurrences, the entire film was one long, unnecessary filler.

It’s a shame, because I think Mockingjay had the potential to be one heck of a 140-150 minute movie that could have been on the same level as the first two films in terms of overall quality. Instead, they had to be greedy and split the book into two films, meaning that each one would be that much slower and that much less eventful. When you break it down, not a whole lot happens in this film. The impact of this decision becomes pronounced when the film ends on what’s supposed to be a semi-cliffhanger but feels more like an anti-climatic “is that it?”

If you’re a fan of the franchise then you’ll have no choice but to watch Mockingjay, Part 1 and then Part II when it comes out next year. And it annoys me that I’ll have to spend double the money for the series finale when a book perfect for a single film adaptation is being stretched unnaturally into two. I’m not saying Part I isn’t still a relatively entertaining and enjoyable experience; I’m just saying it isn’t as good as The Hunger Games and Catching Fire, and more importantly, not as good as it could have and should have been.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Sin City: A Dame to Kill For (2014)

November 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

sin-city-a-dame-to-kill-for-review

It’s hard to believe, but Sin City, the mini masterpiece based on Frank Miller’s graphic novels, was released back in 2005. It was stylistic, brutal, violent, lurid, sexual, and unlike anything we had seen before. It was obvious that a sequel was forthcoming, though no one expected that it would be another nine years before Sin City: A Dame to Kill For would take hit the big screen.

A lot has happened over the last nine years, including the release of several comparable movies, most of which have not been very memorable. As a result, much of the anticipation that would have come from a Sin City sequel had it been made immediately after the original has dissipated. Without the advantages of surprise, novelty and unique visuals, Sin City 2 never really had a chance to live up to its predecessor. The fact that it was a box office flop confirmed my suspicions.

That said, I still had quite a good time with this one. I only remember bits and pieces of the original, and I am glad to say it did not matter all that much. Again, it’s more about the style than the substance, the titillation than the emotion. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Sin City 2 brings back some old faces and introduces some new ones in essentially two separate stories of revenge. The first one revolves around Josh Brolin’s character Dwight,  a tough guy still smitten with the woman who broke his heart. The woman, Ava, is played by the smoking Eva Green, who does an excellent job of making audiences believe that she is indeed a dame who can make a man kill for her. Other characters in this story are played by Rosario Dawson, Jamie King, Ray Liotta, Christopher Meloni, Jeremy Piven, Dennis Haysbert (President David Palmer from 24!) and Jamie Chung.

The second story focuses on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a cocky young gambler who seems to always have luck on his side — that is until he runs into ruthless crime boss Senator Roark (Powers Boothe), the father of the Yellow Bastard from the first film. Bruce Willis returns in what is essentially a cameo, and Jessica Alba does slightly more this time than just dance without stripping, though not much more.

Both stories are interesting in their own way, but they don’t have much of a connection other than Mickey Rourke’s character Marv, who appears throughout as a bridge between the different acts. I think that the scattered narrative was also the approach in the original, but for some reason I remember it to be darker, more violent and more captivating.

The sequel’s still a very stylish film that emulates a lot of what made the original successful, including visuals featuring animation, black and white spliced with an eye-catching primary colour, and loads of bone-crunching violence to go with the squishy sound effects. The characters are comic book caricatures, but they’re very intriguing caricatures played by great actors. Despite possessing so many of the same elements as its predecessor, however, the impact this time around is just not the same.

To be honest I think the film would have worked much better had it be turned into a late-night TV series, with each act representing one 30-minute episode. As a 102-minute feature it just felt like they were forcing several unrelated stories into an uncomfortable package that doesn’t even try to live up the the hype and anticipation built up over the last nine years. Still, as someone who really enjoyed the original I must say I didn’t mind the sequel at all, as un-epic as it was. All style and very little substance rarely works, but in the case of Sin City: A Dame to Kill For it’s about as good as it can get.

3.5 stars out of 5

%d bloggers like this: