Movie Review: The Curse of Downers Grove (2015)

September 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


I was quite shocked to discover that The Curse of Downers Grove is written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of one of my favourite books of all-time, American Psycho. Yes, it has that brutal violence Ellis is known for, but in terms of logic and common sense, it’s as though the script was written by Patrick Bateman.

Starring not one but two Aussie starlets, the film is marketed as a supernatural horror about a curse that kills one senior student at Downers Grove High School every year. In reality, the curse is nothing but a red herring, as the bulk of the 90-minute film is a violent teen psychological thriller in the vein of something closer to Cape Fear — where the protagonist is forced to defend herself against an insidious miniacal threat.

The protagonist in this case is Chrissie (played by Neighbours alum Bella Heathcote), who against her better judgment ends up going to a party with her skanky best friend (played by fellow Aussie Penelope Mitchell), where she fights off the sexual advances of a local football star Chuck (played by Kevin Zegers). This sets off a chain reaction in which Chrissie, her brother and her friends become the victims of stalking, threats and abuse at the hands of Chuck and his drugged-up goons, while his typical sports dad (Tom Arnold) keeps his cop buddies at bay.

So The Curse of Downers Grove is a completely different film to what it is being promoted as, which I find strange because teen supernatural horrors are a dime a dozen these days while teen psychological thrillers are rarer and arguably more intriguing.

In any case, the film just doesn’t work. While there are moments of tension, the narrative is all over the place. None of the things any of the characters do in the film make any sense whatsoever, and the two worst culprits are the most important characters to the story, Chrissie and Chuck. It’s hard to list example without giving away plot spoilers, but let me just say that it’s easier to count the instances where their actions and decisions make sense than those that don’t. Normal human beings don’t act in this way, even extremely stupid and naive ones. And yet the film had me wondering whether there was some kind of psychotic fantasy thing going on because no characters were behaving rationally. It didn’t help that there were occasional flashes of what appear to be random visions that had no reason to be in the film at all.

This weird, jarring experience is capped off by a grotesquely violent third act that’s also full of logic gaps before a pretty obvious “twist” ending brings the whole mess to a merciful end. I don’t know what Ellis and director Derick Martini were aiming for here, though it feels like a waste of a talented cast. I think Bella Heathcote has real star potential. She was a standout in the 2012 big screen adaptation of Dark Shadows and has the unique look and acting abilities to take her fame to the next level, which is bound to happen after she stars as Jane Bennett in the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I also quite like Kevin Zegers, who always plays fantastic bad-boy types and will always be remembered by me for snapping his legs sideways and then getting devoured by wolves in the underrated 2010 horror Frozen, not to be confused with the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Alas, The Curse of Downers Grove turned out to be a frustratingly crap film. There are elements that appear promising, but Ellis’s lunacy and Martini’s ability to shape it into a logical coherent experience killed whatever chance it might have had.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Child 44 (2015)

September 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

child 44

I remember first seeing Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 in a bookstore, reading the back cover, and thinking to myself that the story will likely make a great movie. Stalinist Russia, a child killer on the loose — what’s there not to like?

Hollywood execs clearly agreed with me, and that’s why we now have the film adaptation of Child 44 by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), starring the always-brilliant Tom Hardy as an MGB officer at the center of the story. Playing his wife is the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, whom Hardy previously worked with on The Drop. Rounding out the superb cast are Robocop Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman and the ubiquitous Aussie Jason Clarke.

All the ingredients for a brilliant political mystery thriller are there, but for whatever reason, Child 44 turned out to be a mild disappointment. It’s one of those films where you keep watching intently, expecting it to get better and blow you away at any second, but all you end up doing is wait and wait and wait, until suddenly you realise it’s all over and none of your expectations were met. And that’s not a good feeling after you just sat through 137 minutes.

I sense that some of the blame must go to the story itself. It’s actually very misleading to market this film as being about the hunt for a child serial killer. In reality, Child 44 is a political thriller with a tangential child serial killer subplot. The “mystery” is something that’s always lingering in the background, something the film comes back to repeatedly, but is never the focal point. Instead, the vast majority of the film is about depicting the terror of Stalinist Russia — how you always need to keep an eye over your shoulder, how people and the state can turn on you at any second; never knowing who to trust; the constant fear and paranoia.

As for the killer? There’s never really a proper investigation. There’s no real mystery, no shocking revelations. It’s just some guy who suddenly shows up halfway through and is revealed to audiences as the killer. I also had some trouble understanding the motivations behind Hardy’s and Rapace’s characters wanting so badly to find the killer. They don’t even have children and they have enough life-and-death problems of their own to deal with. As a result it’s almost like the whole child killer thing is just a hook to suck people in. It’s a red herring.

That said, I shouldn’t be penalising Child 44 for not being the type of film I anticipated. On the plus side, it is quite effective in its depiction of that period of history, and Tom Hardy delivers a superb performance as the complex protagonist. I also wasn’t as distracted as some people have been by the Russian-accented English — or at least the varied attempts at it — as I accepted early on that it’s just something viewers have to live.

What fails the movie, however, is a lack of genuine intrigue and sustained tension. There are perhaps too many subplots, none of which manage to gather any momentum. It’s just not that interesting, a shocker considering that the book is considered to be a riveting page-turner. And that’s a shame, because I’m sure there’s a compelling story buried in there somewhere.

On the whole, Child 44 isn’t terrible. It’s a solid production with strong performances, but it’s also quite a dull adaptation that is unable to bring out the most of the fascinating premise and whatever it is that made the book such a supposedly compulsive bestseller.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Gift (2015)

August 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


I’ve always been a big fan of Joel Edgerton, one of the most underrated and talented actors to come out of Australia in recent years. And I’ve now become a super huge fan after seeing his directorial debut, The Gift, a seemingly cookie-cutter suburban thriller that’s anything but.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robin, a couple who move from Chicago to LA for reasons that become apparent as the movie progresses. Shortly after moving in, they bump into Gordon “Gordo” Mosley, played by Edgerton, who claims to have gone to high school with Simon decades ago. And so begins an awkward and tense relationship between the couple and the mysterious blast from the past, who as the title and trailer suggest, likes to deliver creepy gifts to their doorstep.

That’s all I can say about the plot without giving away spoilers, and on the face of that description, The Gift may dredge up memories of 90s surburban/family thrillers like Pacific Heights and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But even if that’s all it is — ie, a typical genre film — The Gift is a pretty good one. With well-developed characters, an uneasy atmosphere and genuine edge-of-your-seat suspense, it’s already a few steps ahead of more recent efforts such as 1999’s Arlington Road, 2001’s Domestic Disturbance and 2008’s Lakeview Terrace.

However, The Gift is much more than a typical genre film. It’s a subversive journey full of twists and turns, challenging audiences to put aside preconceived notions. Edgerton’s direction and script (yes, he wrote it too) plays with our knowledge and expectation of such thrillers, manipulating us into thinking one way and then shocking us with another. But it’s not all about tricking us either, as there are times when he chooses more conventional thriller paths and cliches — it’s just that we never know which approach he will take. It’s clear Edgerton, with his wealth of experience as an actor, knows how certain filmmaking techniques will make audiences think and feel, and he has taken full advantage of that.

I don’t want to overstate things here — we’re not talking about genius-level brilliance like The Usual Suspects or anything like that — though for a debut feature it’s hard to deny that Edgerton is impressive and has a wonderful future ahead of him if he decides to focus on more behind-the-camera work.

Full credit too to the cast. I love Jason Bateman, so don’t get me wrong, but he’s always more or less playing a variation of  Michael Bluth from Arrested Development (think about it — Horrible Bosses, The Switch, The Change-Up, Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, This is Where I Leave You, etc). The Gift is the first time I’ve seen him play a completely different character, and I’m frankly quite shocked by how great of a dramatic actor he is. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from him by far.

The lovely Rebecca Hall also gets to show off her acting chops more than I’ve seen from her in any film probably since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In many ways, she’s actually the centre of the film, as audiences are closer to her point of view than anyone else’s. She’s vulnerable, she’s sympathetic and she’s tough when she needs to be. It’s a complex, multi-layered performance and Hall hits it out of the park.

By comparison, I was actually least wowed by Edgerton’s own performance, which is still a very good one but more difficult to gauge because Gordo is the “outsider” of the story. Edgerton undergoes a bit of a physical transformation to play this role, dying his hair red and dialling the creepiness meter to the max to make audiences as standoffish about Gordo as the protagonists are.

Also worthy of mention is Allison Tolman from TV’s Fargo. She only has a small role as the neighbour, but she manages to make her character more noticeable and memorable than it otherwise would have been.

As clever and crafty as The Gift is, the film does descend into more familiar thriller territory in its third act, veering towards improbable and preposterous plot developments that don’t always make sense. Some might think this “ruins” the film; for me, it’s just the consequence of trying too hard to come up with an explosive climax, a trap that — let’s face it — 99% of thrillers fall into. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to take the film to the next level.

A less than optimal conclusion notwithstanding, The Gift is a superb thriller fuelled by skilfully moulded tension and conflicts, strong performances and a promising directorial debut from Joel Edgerton. I hope this film will open the door for us to see more efforts like this from him down the track.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Longest Ride (2015)

August 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

longest ride

I’m as shocked as you. The Longest Ride, the 10th Nicholas Sparks film adaptation, isn’t vomit-inducingly bad. In fact, it might just be the best Nicholas Sparks film since The Notebook.

Petite blonde Sophia (played by Tomorrowland‘s rising star Britt Robertson) follows her college sorority sisters to a bull riding event in North Carolina and meets the gentlemanly rider Luke (Clint Eastwood’s son, Scott). A natural attraction develops, but as a young woman with aspirations in the art world, Sophia is from a different world to the thrill-seeking Luke, and besides, she has secured an internship in New York that is set to commence in a couple of months.

For some contrived reason, the two also meet a mysterious old man named Ira (played by Alan Alda), who for another contrived reason starts telling Britt the story about the love of his life from back in the WWII era. The young Ira is played by Jack Huston and his girl is Charlie Chaplin’s real-life great-granddaughter Oona Chaplin.

So as with many of Sparks’s stories, The Longest Ride is a passionate love story that spans multiple generations and features an impossibly dashing, considerate, perfect man. It has old people, saccharine dates, romantic letters, contrived obstacles that get in the way of true love, and of course trips to the hospital. It’s a well-worn template, but a damn effective one judging by the fact that we’re now into double figures.

If they ever make a biopic about Sparks it should be titled What Women Want, because he seems to certainly know exactly what some members of the fairer sex demand. I think I’ve started to figure it out — it’s a man who is not just charming, handsome and ripped but also driven, annoyingly persistent, romantic, caring and always madly in love with you and only you until the end of time. In other words, it’s a man who doesn’t exist in reality.  It’s the same conceit that made Twilight and Fifty Shades commercial successes. Whoever creates a female version of the same character for a male audience he would be vilified, but a male version means $$$.

That said, The Longest Ride is less manipulative and cringeworthy than I expected. The opening scenes of when the young lovers meet had me worried, though as the story slowly progresses you start to get the feeling that these characters may be more “real” than they’ve been in any Sparks film for a long time. Some of the more emotional interactions, as ashamed as I am to admit, got to me.

Some of the credit has to go to the solid performances. Robertson and Eastwood do have chemistry and might be the better looking couple, though the romance between Huston and Chaplin’s characters is the stronger and more heart-string-tugging of the two. It’s supposed to be a secondary story that allows the core characters to reflect on their own lives, but in my opinion it overtakes them and becomes the heart and soul of the movie.

I didn’t really care for the bull riding aspect of the story. Like the way some people don’t get boxing, I don’t get bull riding. Why anyone would risk death and/or serious pain to stay on the back of an animal for a few seconds is a mystery I will probably never understand. I will say though that inserting bull riding into the romance is at least a little different and adds an old-fashioned, Americana charm to the film that I didn’t mind.

The Longest Ride is vintage Sparks in that it is corny and schmaltzy and a complete fantasy. It is also predictable, though, without giving too much away, not as predictable as some of Sparks’s other efforts, especially in how he decides to bring the story to a close. It’s not a conclusion I liked, but at least it doesn’t go down the exact same bittersweet path as some of his other films. And look, Sparks’s movies are the opposite of a box of chocolates — you always know what you’re gonna get — and in this case the quality of the chocolates are better than usual. What I’m trying to say, against my better judgment, is that I quite enjoyed it.

3.5 stars out of 5

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