Movie Review: Return to Sender (2015)

August 27, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


It’s inevitable that everything Rosamund Pike does from now on is going to be compared to the remarkable Gone Girl. Unfortunately, that comparison will also be made for her latest, Return to Sender, and the results are not pretty.

Pike plays a surgical nurse who is violently assaulted in her home — just as she was preparing to move out of it — by a scumbag of a douche played by Shiloh Fernandez, who is quickly apprehended and sent to prison. Clearly damaged by the trauma, she starts doing the unthinkable by writing to her rapist and striking up an unlikely relationship…

It’s an uncomfortable film — especially as it nears its climax — but more than anything it’s just a weird one. There is tension and suspense, but it’s not exactly a thriller. There are dramatic elements, though it’s not a drama either. And most importantly, all throughout this film I knew exactly where it was heading, and I suspect most other viewers would too. I just don’t think you can call the so-called “twist” a twist when it’s so obvious that’s what was going to happen.

Accordingly, I’m not really sure why Pike would sign on to this project. It’s getting a mainstream release in Taiwan, but in all honesty it’s a limited release film at best (and that’s what it has received in the States) and a likely straight-to-DVD or VOD film in most other locations. Sure, Pike is very good in this, exuding some of the iciness and fortitude that scored her an Oscar nomination for Gone Girl. Fernandez, who has had some interesting roles (White Bird in a Blizzard, Evil Dead) is actually also impressive; he has this bad-boy look and vibe that’s really convincing.

But at the end of the day, I don’t really know what director Fouad Mikati was aiming for. I don’t want to give anything away, though what I will say is that there are similar-themed films that have done it better, or at least with much more conviction in what it is trying to achieve.

The ending was also just so lacking in punch that it makes you wonder what all the build up was for. It doesn’t help that Nick Nolte, who plays Pike’s father, typically slurs his way through all his lines, reminding you that you’re watching Nick Nolte as opposed to this poor woman’s father.

I was never bored by the film thanks to how uncomfortable it made me feel, but there’s just not enough here to make Return to Sender a genuinely enjoyable, compelling or even interesting experience.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Attack on Titan (2015)

August 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


I thought I had sworn off live-action manga/anime adaptations since the abysmal Dragon Ball: Evolution (you know, the one where Goku’s a white American high school kid), but a recent trailer I saw of Attack on Titan, based on the Japanese manga of the same name, got me interested. Plus several people have raved on to me about how good the manga/anime is, but given that there are so many volumes now and I don’t have the time to start, I thought I’d cheat a little and try to get up to speed through this 98-minute movie.

Now, since watching the film, I have read that fans of the manga/anime are up in arms because of the liberties the filmmakers took in adapting the source material. None of that is relevant to this review.

Accordingly, my impression of the movie is probably better than he general consensus, which is that it sucked more balls than there are Dragon Ballz. Still, that doesn’t mean I liked it. Attack on Titan straddles an uncomfortable line often seen in manga/anime live-action adaptations, where it tries to be “realistic” to differentiate itself from its source material but stay true to it at the same time to appease fans. The result is a film that pisses everyone off for not being able to do either effectively.

Allow me to backtrack a little. The premise of the film is a very interesting and imaginative one. Some time in the future, these naked humanoid giants with no genitals begin roaming the land and eating people for no apparent reason. After humanity is nearly driven to extinction, the remaining survivors manage to build massive concentric walls to keep these giants out. A hundred years pass and no one has seen a titan — until now.

The story focuses on youngster Eren Jaeger (Haruma Miuru) and his two friends, Mikasa Ackerman (Kiko Mizuhara) and Armin Arlert (Kanata Hongo) when they first encounter the titans, and then skips forward in time to when they are members of a human resistance army dedicated to fending the titans off.

The first part of the film, when the titans emerge, is executed quite well. Though the special effects are not up to Hollywood standards, there is an anime-esque aesthetic to the CGI that suits the eerie tone of the movie — at least that part of it anyway. The titans are grotesque and creepy ass looking, with randomly deformed body parts and facial features. Their expressions are what the Japanese refer to as “hentai”, which basically means perverse sexual desire. These initial sequences are brutal, extremely violent, and highly terrifying, the kind of stuff you’d expect to see in a horror film.

And honestly, that’s what I thought Attack on Titan — a title which, in typical Japanese fashion, doesn’t even make sense anyway — was: a monster horror movie. If it stuck to being that kind of movie, I think I would have liked it a lot. It didn’t take long, however, for the movie to steer towards a more traditional fantasy manga plot. As it turns out, the titans can only be killed by severing something in their nape, and accordingly, the humans develop some kind of mechanical outfit that more or less turn them into Spider-Man ninjas. Yeah, they shoot wires from their belts and fly around in the air, bouncing off walls and shit while carrying swords.

Once this happens, Attack on Titan evolves into a war movie of sorts, but it’s just not a very compelling one. The flaws in the special effects also become a lot more obvious when the characters are flying all over the place. There’s simply not enough story advancement and the characters are all poorly developed, to the extent where I was beginning to get some of them confused with each other. Admittedly, some of the quirks are probably cultural, but none of them came across as real people.

There is a nice twist towards the end (not sure how close this is to the manga/anime), and then the film finishes abruptly. I was like, “WTF?” before I realised, shockingly, that there is a second part to the movie — Attack on Titan: The End of the World —  set to be released in September. When I put that into perspective, I suppose the first part of Attack on Titan didn’t finish on too bad of a note. It remains to be seen whether more thought will be put into the characters in the second part.

On the whole, there are some positives to take out of Attack on Titan, especially in its early stages thanks to some effective and perverse horror imagery. However, it felt like so many aspects of this fascinating world and its characters were barely given any attention at all, and I fail to understand why they couldn’t have extended its relatively short 98-minute running time to 2+ hours to deliver a much more well-rounded film.  Still, by manga/anime adaptation standards, Attack on Titan is a passable piece of entertainment, just not a very good one.

2.5 stars out of 5

The 10 Best Movies of 2014

August 25, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

At last, my 10 best movies of 2014. Some controversial choices in here, and as usual, it’s probably not what my list would be like today, though I’ve stuck with the ratings I gave at the time of initial review (which can be accessed by clicking on the film title).

10. X-Men: Days of Future Past

The iconic Quicksilver scene

The iconic Quicksilver scene

With several movies on the same rating, I had to make a decision as to which film I wanted to squeeze into the 10th spot. After some self-deliberations, I decided I had to put a comic book adaptation in there. X-Men: Days of Future Past was my second-most anticipated film of the year and it lived up to expectations by effortlessly fusing the older and younger X-Men franchises through a complex but well-told time-travel concept that also cleverly inserted some historical events into the narrative. Terrific cast, superb special effects and a whole lot of action-packed fun, it paves the way perfectly for next year’s X-Men: Apocalypse.

9. Wild

WILD - 2014 FILM STILL - Reese Witherspoon as "Cheryl Strayed" - Photo Credit: Anne Marie/Fox    © 2014 Twentieth Century Fox

Reese Witherspoon sure looks terrible without makeup

On its face, this is basically a female version of Into the Wild, one my all-time faves, though there are enough differences across the board — whether it’s characters, plot or themes — for Wild to be a wildly satisfying emotional journey. It’s a great film for people who are past the innocence of their youth and are struggling to figure out who they are and who they want to be. Powered by fantastic performances from Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, this is a special experience I found both moving and uplifting.

8. Gone Girl


Ben Affleck was perfect as the douchey husband

I didn’t expect Gone Girl to be so high on the list, only because I had already read the book when I saw it and many of the surprises had already been spoiled. But it’s hard to deny that David Fincher did a masterful job in adapting a difficult, multi-layered book with complex and difficult characters who are hard to root for. He captured the dark tones of the book superbly and had me on the edge of my seat even when I knew what was going to happen. Rosamund Pike was wonderful and Ben Affleck and Neil Patrick Harris both surprised in how well they played their respective parts. A very impressive, unsettling experience.

7. Stretch

Stretch is one wild ride

Stretch is one wild ride

Probably the biggest surprise on this list. Not for me though. Stretch was hands down the funniest movie of the year. With Patrick Wilson at his all-time best, rampaging through the streets of Hollywood as a limo driver to the rich and famous, Stretch was weird, wacky and all over the place, but it was also a laugh a minute and so frenetic in pace that I was glad to have gone on this fantastic ride. I’m still shocked that the film has barely registered a blip on the radar of most audiences, but its 83% rating on Rotten Tomatoes feels like vindication in my books.

6. Whiplash



I went into Whiplash with my expectations raised already, and it still impressed the hell out of me. Never did I think a movie about drumming could be so intense, and yet it turned out to be arguably most suspenseful film of the year thanks to the brilliant writing and direction from Damien Chazelle and the performances of JK Simmons and Miles Teller. Energetic, powerful and pumping with adrenaline, Whiplash is a unique instant classic that deserves all the superlatives.

5. The Babadook



It’s not often that a horror film makes the list, let alone an Australian horror film. The Babadook, however, is a legitimate masterpiece that also happens to be the scariest movie of the year. It’s the anti-modern-horror flick in the sense that the characters are well developed, it’s creepy and atmospheric, genuinely tense, and the scares are not merely cheap tactics. You could tell it was going to be different from the very first scene. Rather than make you jump, The Bababook makes you squirm and quiver because the terror penetrates beyond just the surface and seeps all the way to your core. People with children will get an additional layer from the experience.

4. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Nothing beats talking horseriding apes

Nothing beats talking horse-riding apes

I doubt this movie is on anyone else’s top 10 list of 2014, but if you know me or have been following this blog, you’ll know that I have a certain bias towards movies with talking apes. And talking apes who ride horses and shoot guns? Forget about it. I know Dawn of the Planet of the Apes probably isn’t, objectively speaking, one of the best films of the year, but it’s easily one of mine. Granted, Dawn is not as jaw-droppingly awesome as its predecessor, Rise of the Planet of the Apes. It makes up for that, however, with more apes, more ape character development and more large-scale ape action. Losing James Franco also helped. Dawn is the only movie I watched twice at the cinema in 2014, and it was just as spectacular and powerful the second time around. I can’t wait for War of the Planet of the Apes in 2017.

3. The Imitation Game

I think I just invented Playstation!

I think I just invented Playstation!

Every year there seems to be a highly regarded movie that I love even more than everyone else (that is, apart from the one that has talking apes), and this year that film is The Imitation Game, the tragic “true story” of British code-breaker Alan Turing. I just found the film to be a captivating experience. It’s a multi-layered drama-thriller filled with intriguing characters, educational and exciting plot developments and moving moments. With the incredible Benedict Cumberbatch steering the film, it turned out far more interesting and compelling than a code-breaking story should have been. I was engrossed from start to finish. It’s probably one of the few films I saw last year where I can’t really nitpick about anything.

2. Interstellar

So pretty


When I first saw Interstellar I thought everyone would love it as much as I did, but as I realised later on, a lot of people hated it for various reasons. Too long, too slow, too corny, too little logic, too little real science, too “out there”  — all of these criticisms could be considered valid, though for me the biggest challenge was always getting past the fact that I’d have to stare at the smug face of Matthew “Alright Alright Alright” McConaughey for nearly 3 hours on an IMAX screen. In all seriousness, I think Interstellar is perhaps one of the most epic and beautiful sci-fi films ever made. From the scale to the ideas to the risks that Christopher Nolan was willing to take with the plot and the characters, it’s everything that I want from an epic cinematic experience. Sure, it got a bit melodramatic at times, though I think it’s a film needs melodrama more than it doesn’t need it, especially given Nolan’s past catalogue of films. I enjoyed the visual spectacle, I enjoyed the story and I enjoyed the sci-fi concepts and ideas. In terms of pure entertainment and visual splendor, Interstellar sits atop all other films of 2014.

1. Boyhood

Ethan Hawke is the only person who doesn't age in the film

Ethan Hawke is the only person who doesn’t age in the film

It’s a shame 5 stars is the most I can award to a film because there are rare occasions when I feel it’s just not enough. Boyhood is one such film. As remarkable as the fact that it was shot over 12 years with the same actors, what is even more impressive about Boyhood is director Richard Linklater’s ability to mould all that footage into a deeply human, poignant and emotional movie that’s as close to depicting real life on film as a fictional motion picture can be. It’s a film like no other, one that truly has to be experienced personally to appreciate what the fuss is all about. It’s now in my pantheon of favourite movies of all-time.

Honourable mentions: A Most Violent Year, The Lego Movie, Horns, The Good Lie

So there you have it, my best and worst of 2014. Some surprises, some controversy, for sure, but a list I’m very happy with when it’s all said and done.

The 10 Worst Movies of 2014

August 24, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Here we go, my worst 10 films of 2014. I saw a lot of terrible movies, but none worse than these 10.

As with previous years, this list is based on my ratings at the time of review, and I made it extra easy for myself this year because there are exactly 10 films I rated 1.5 stars or below.

I still had some difficult decisions to make, however, as movies 8-10 on this list all had the same rating. It does mean though that the top 2 were clearly head and shoulders above (or should I say below) the rest.

Unfortunately, that means some truly terrible movies missed the cut. These dishonourable mentions include Scarlett Johansson’s Lucy, Nicholas Sparks’ The Best of Me, and Samuel L Jackson’s Reasonable Doubt.

10. Sniper: Legacy

I need the money

I need the money

I had a long hard think about placing this film, an obvious B-grade, straight-to-DVD abomination, higher on the list. Strictly speaking it is probably worse than some of the other films ranked above it, but the difference is that no one expected Sniper: Legacy to be anything but a low-budget cash grab milking the legacy (pun intended) of the original film released 21 years ago. Its shittiness is almost anticipated, so I can’t claim an ambush. I totally deserve this one.

9. Winter’s Tale


Colin Farrell’s hair sums up this movie quite well

On paper, Winter’s Tale should have been pretty good, a magical fantasy romance fable with big stars (Colin Farrell, Russell Crowe, Will Smith). Sadly, all it did was make me cringe and bored. Non-sensical, contrived, manipulative and just plain silly at times, it’s the perfect example of what works on the page won’t necessarily work on the screen.

8. The Other Woman

Yes, it's as stupid as it looks

Yes, it’s as stupid as it looks

As annoying as the self-righteous women are in this film, it’s worst sin is still the most serious one when it comes to comedies: a dearth of laughs. You would think a movie that’s supposed to about female empowerment would have some positives, but the fact that it’s branded as mysognistic shows how far off the mark it was.

7. Ouija


All signs point to “crap”

I think Oujia boards are really scary and I knew it was only a matter of time before a horror film based on this theme is made, but Oujia turned about as cliched and unimaginative as it could have been. The characters don’t act remotely like how normal human beings would act. The dialogue is cringeworthy and full of obvious exposition. Silly, non-sensical and employing only the most typical scare tactics, this is a disappointment that’s even more disappointing than usual.

6. Transformers: Age of Extinction


Oh god…

Let’s face it, no “worst of” list is complete without an entry from Michael Bay. Strictly speaking, Transformers 4 is not the worst of the franchise, but the accumulated annoyance from the same old loud noises, boring characters and formulaic execution makes it difficult to bear for 90 minutes, let alone an inexcusable 165. Additional demerit points for all the awkward “Chinese elements” they forced into the film.

5. Walk of Shame

It is indeed a shame

Don’t shoot me for making this movie

It’s hard to hate a film when it’s so “meh.” And that’s what Walk of Shame is, an unfunny, boiler-plate screwball comedy that shits all over the lovely and talented Elizabeth Banks. I didn’t find it as sexist or racist as lot of other offended viewers and critics, though when a movie is so lacking in wit and pathetic perhaps a bit of controversy would have at least stirred up some interest.

4. I, Frankenstein

Aaron Eckhart worked out for this?

I got ripped for this shit?

I knew it wasn’t going to be great, but I, Frankenstein crashed below the low expectations I already had and was a complete waste of the talents of Aaron Eckhart and his impressive workout regime. Incredibly silly even by graphic novel standards, the film takes Mary Shelley’s source material as fact and throws in a bunch of gargoyles, demons and angels into a war with poor fight sequences shocking and shockingly bad CGI effects. The 2014 “blockbuster” that will be remembered for all the wrong reasons if it hasn’t been erased from memories already.

3. When the Game Stands Tall

What would Jesus do?

What would Jesus do?

Now we get to the three films of 2014 I loathed for reasons that are beyond objective and even generally subjective. First up, When the Game Stands Tall — relatively recently watched and still fresh in my mind– an infuriating corny and melodramatic film with sickening sports cliches, unbelievable characters and unashamedly overpowering religious themes. Laughably horrible trash masquerading as a triumphant true story.

2. Extraterrestrial

I'd rather be probed than sit through this shit again

I’d rather be probed than sit through this shit again

I love aliens and I love alien conspiracy movies. Extraterrestrial has turned all that on its head. Apart from being in the dreaded found footage format, this monster slasher also takes home the award for least frightening horror movie of the year, most annoying characters of the year and worst ensemble acting of the year notwithstanding the efforts of Shawshank’s Gil Bellows to bring up the average a little bit. This is so bad that it even destroys the possibility of a so-bad-it’s-good film.

1. Left Behind

Nicholas Cage. 'Nuff said

Nicholas Cage. ‘Nuff said

Of all the horrible 2014 movies I’ve seen, one film dominates all others — and honestly, it’s not even close. And you know that this film is entering a different stratosphere when I proclaim that it could very well be Nicolas Cage’s worst film ever. It’s just one of those surreal experiences where you have to pinch yourself to make sure it’s not a nightmare. It’s actually easier to conceive a world in which Christians are beamed into heaven while everyone else is left behind to suffer Hell on Earth than fathom how a film this shit could have ever been made.

So there you go, my worst 10 movies of 2014. Next up, the 10 best.

‘Seriously…I’m Kidding’ by Ellen DeGeneres

August 22, 2015 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


I like Ellen, I really do, and I know she hates people who are judgmental. But I’m going to be judgmental here: her new book, Seriously…I’m Kidding, is not very good. Seriously, and I’m not kidding.

The reason I chose this book is because I haven’t read anything for about four months and wanted to get back into it with something light and easy. And this book is very light and very easy. I finished it while riding on various forms of public transport during a single day.

First, I want to talk about the positives. Ellen definitely wrote this book — as opposed to some ghost writer — because her voice permeates every chapter, every page and every sentence. She’s sharp, charming and kind. She’s personable, affable and funny. It’s watching her on her popular TV show.

And if you like her brand of witty, irreverent, self-aggrandisingly self-deprecating style of sarcastic humour, you’ll find plenty of it in this book. Some of it is almost like a written version of a standup routine.

Being the wonderful human being that she is, Ellen also infuses the book with a few pearls of wisdom about life and how to be a better person. Stuff like not not throwing trash out the window, the courtesy of being punctual and being honest, and enjoying life to the fullest. She doesn’t do it in a preachy way either — most of her messages have a jokey tone will give you a couple of chuckles.

Having said that, this is not the book you would read if you actually want to find out anything new or insightful about Ellen. And really, isn’t that why people would want to read her books in the first place?

In line with the book’s theme, just about everything is a joke. You think she’s telling a story or some vignette that will lead somewhere and reveal something about her, her relationships or experiences, but soon you realise she just made the whole thing up for a laugh. It happens over and over, and before long it becomes clear that you can’t take anything she says in the book seriously.

That’s not a deal breaker, but it can get frustrating. What is even more frustrating is the feeling that Ellen’s just phoning it in with this book. I haven’t read her two previous books so I can’t compare, but I would be shocked if her first two books are of the same quality.

There are some shockingly lazy chapters where she rambles on without making a real point. There are way too many incoherent short stories (some just a paragraph), a bunch of short lists about what to do and what not to do, etc, and even pages of random drawings for children to colour in.

There’s a chapter called ‘The Longest Chapter’, the majority of which just discusses why it’s the longest chapter. There’s a chapter of ‘Additional Thank-Yous’ to people she didn’t thank in the acknowledgments at the start of the book. There’s a chapter comprising just a 140-character tweet called ‘Tweet Chapter’. There’s an aptly titled chapter called ‘Boredom’. By the time you get to the last chapter entitled ‘Last Chapter’, you start to get the feeling that maybe Ellen was just finding ways to pad the page count.

It’s wrong to say this because I’m sure she put a lot of thought and effort into the writing. But if I’m being honest, there were times I suspected that the entire book may have been an extremely elaborate prank on her readers– in which case, bravo — and I couldn’t shake the feeling that I just wasted a whole lot of time. In a book of more than 60 chapters, each with a different topic, I would be able to count the number of genuinely good chapters on one hand. And that just doesn’t cut it.

There are indeed moments of enjoyment the book has to offer, though these all come in bits and pieces as opposed to part of a well-structured narrative. And to me, Ellen has always been this kind of a comedian, great at eliciting a lot of chuckles through her quick wit but never a master at generating the big belly laughs. That is magnified even more in the context of a written book, which is much more difficult to make people laugh than standup.

As such, Seriously…I’m Kidding comes across as a much less funny version of the brilliantly irreverent The Timewaster Letters by Robin Cooper. In the case of that book, however, it’s at least obvious what the aim was.

If you just want to kill some time and read a bunch of random, silly, mildly amusing jokes from Ellen, then by all means give Seriously…I’m Kidding a try. But if you’re looking for genuine insights about Ellen and her life and experiences or jokes that will make you laugh out loud, regrettably, you’re probably not going to find them here.


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