Movie Review: Big Game (2015)

June 7, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

Big-game

Samuel L Jackson has done it all and then some, so it only makes sense that he would headline Big Game, in which he plays the president of the United States, who forms an unlikely alliance with a weird Finnish boy after Air Force One is shot down and terrorists start hunting him down in the European wilderness.

As one would expect, Big Game is more apeshit than Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Jackie Chiles would no doubt call it outrageous, egregious, preposterous. And yet it is embraces its insanity so whole-heartedly that it becomes one of those fun popcorn experiences every moviegoer needs every now and then.

This shit is whack!

This shit is whack!

I like that Jackson is less hardass in this film than we are accustomed to. He’s the most powerful man in the world, but he’s also just an ordinary dude with no real survival skills. It’s great to see him scream like a lunatic and get the shit kicked out of him by everyone, which cleverly enhances the moment when he finally gets the chance at the end to be the bad motherf$@ker he will always be in our hearts.

And that Finnish kid, played by Onni Tommils, is great too. He’s so weird looking, so awkward and so cute, and it makes absolutely no sense that his character, a useless 13-year-old, would be out there hunting in the wild to prove himself to his tribe. In fact, few of the things that the characters do or have happen to them in the film make any sense whatsoever, though it only adds to the hilarity of the ride.

I don’t know if this is a criticism or a compliment, but it’s actually difficult to tell whether most of the humour in the film is intentional or accidental. I guess it doesn’t really matter as long as it’s funny, right?

Not everything works — some scenes do fall a bit flat — and there is actually less action than you would expect. It’s actually quite hard to see what the filmmakers were aiming for. There’s no shortage of bloody violence and profanity, even though narratively and tonally the film feels more like a children’s or young adolescent film. It reminds me of those 1990s adventure films like Masterminds and Toy Soldiers, where underdog kids have to go up against big bad adults, forcing them to become unlikely heroes along the way. Like those films, it’s all about making the protagonists seem really helpless at first before finding ways to make them look extra cool, be it with heroic posturing or dramatic music.

Remember the 1997 Masterminds?

Remember the 1997 Masterminds?

toy soldiers

Or Sean Astin and Wil Wheaton’s Toy Soldiers from 1991? PS: Is that MC Hammer?

It’s a formula that works, though in this case it’s hard to see if that was the intention because it’s a little all over the place. In any case, and notwithstanding all the nonsense, Big Game is good for 90 minutes of relatively fun and funny entertainment that you’ll likely forget soon afterward, but it should at least offer enough to satisfy while it lasts.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: It Follows (2015)

June 7, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

it-follows

It Follows is more than just a punny title. It’s one of the most original, clever, terrifying and quite simply, best horror movie I’ve seen in a long time. And yes, I’ve seen last year’s revelatory hit, The Babadook.

Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the film follows Maika Monroe (who was great in The Guest) as Jay, a Michigan student who begins to suspect, to put it lightly, that a sexual encounter with her boyfriend has made her the recipient of a curse in which she is haunted by a malevolent supernatural force.

I don’t want to give too much more away, though suffice it to say that It Follows soon becomes a film about survival, as Jay, her sister, neighbour and friends try to figure out what is happening to her and whether her fears are even real.

It’s a simple premise but an intelligent and damn effective one. A lot has been made about its symbolism and how it could be construed as a parable about promiscuity, sexually-transmitted diseases and post-coital guilt and anxiety. With elements borrowed from The Ring, it’s also about death and the avoidance of death, and the moral quandaries involved in the prolonging of life. On another layer, it’s just about horny teenagers wanting to get some action with reckless consideration  of the consequences.

All the analytical stuff is just depth gravy — because let’s face it, what ultimately makes or breaks a horror movie is whether it’s scary or not. And in this regard It Follows excels as a masterclass in atmosphere, old-fashioned fright tactics and slick style.

At its core, It Follows taps into our primal fear and paranoia from being followed. That dread from seeing something terrifying coming towards you. The anxiety from never knowing when someone with evil intentions is creeping up from behind.

I could tell from the opening sequence that the film was going to be different to the teen horrors we’ve become accustomed to in recent years. Mitchell is a filmmaker who knows exactly what he’s doing and knows how to project his vision to the screen.

I like that there’s no mention of when the story is set, but it looks and feels like it’s in a different era. I like the minimalist approach that limits the use of special effects. I like that it relies more on its creepy atmosphere and growing dread than modern “boo” scares, and that even when it resorts to such tactics athey are implemented timely. I liked the great use of silence and complementing it with an eerie, occasionally blazing score that really gets the heart pumping.

The climax — which is more conventional than it should have been — could have been smarter and executed a little better, but on the whole it’s hard to find much else to complain about.

It Follows is a unique and unsettling horror experience you just don’t see very often, which is why this low budget gem wowed audiences at Cannes last year, went from a limited release to a wide release earlier this year, and is quickly gathering steam as a commercial success.

5 stars out of 5

‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Epilogue — Left Behind

June 5, 2015 in Game Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

left_behind

Those who have followed my series of posts on The Last of Us know I think it’s the greatest video game of all time. And so it is fitting that I made Left Behind, the independent add-on to the main game, my first official DLC purchase.

It cost only about US$10 and offers around 2-3 hours of gameplay, which sounds about right, but more importantly, Left Behind provides added depth and welcome insight for fans of The Last of Us. Relatively speaking, it doesn’t offer nearly as much action as the main game — despite an epic final battle — though the DLC makes up for it in different ways, such as giving players more background into Ellie’s character and answers the question of what happened immediately after Joel collapsed from the injury sustained at the university (this part is skipped in the main game).

Before I say anything about the game, can I just point out that it sucks having to wait all that time to actually download the DLC and to install it. I know it’s arguably more convenient than going out and buying a hard copy version in a store, but it’s a real ball-busting feeling when you’re all hyped up to play the game ASAP and suddenly realise that you have to spend four hours to download it. It sucks even more when after that when you see that you have to wait another couple of hours for it to install before you can get down with it. But I digress.

Anyway, the first thing to say about Left Behind (not to be confused with that shithouse Nicholas Cage movie that made me wish the world would end) is that it is a standalone DLC that does not require you to have The Last of Us. Having said that, it’s not a download I would recommend for anyone wanting to use it as a “test drive” to see if they would want to purchase the full game. This is one for the fans, people who can’t get enough of The Last of Us and its characters.

It's such a shame that Left Behind shares the same name as this trash. Look at that face for God's sake.

It’s such a shame Left Behind shares the same name as this garbage. Look at that face for God’s sake.

It’s good to see the makers of Left Behind go for something different as opposed to just an extension of the main game. The control mechanisms are exactly the same and the enemies are the same, but the experience is a different one. It’s deeper, more contemplative; it’s driven more by character development than zombie action.

Left Behind is split between two subplots from The Last of Us. Half of it takes place between Joel’s injury at the school and the part of The Last of Us where you get to control Ellie for the first time. It’s basically about finding much-needed emergency medical supplies to save a mortally wounded Joel. It’s the half of the DLC that offers the action, as Ellie needs to fend off both the Infected and Hunters around an old shopping mall in a race against time.

Heli

Get to the choppa!

The other half of the DLC takes place before Ellie and Joel meets, and introduces the friend she mentions in The Last of Us, Riley (motion captured and voiced by Yaani King). The Ellie here has spent her entire life in a military boarding school, so she’s more innocent and naive about the outside world. This half of the game is almost all exploration, also in another dilapidated mall, and is mainly about having fun and being a kid, like photo booths, riding carousels, playing arcade games and engaging in water gun fights. It also introduces options for the first time as Ellie is allowed to choose certain courses of action from a list of alternatives.

Carousel

Why don’t we just ride real horses?

Some players might find this boring, but fans who fell in love with The Last of Us for its characters and engrossing storytelling should enjoy the experience. The relationship between Ellie and Riley is really sweet, and there’s a surprise at the end that has gotten a lot of tongues wagging. No big deal in my personal opinion and I don’t think it’s necessary to read too much into what was clearly just a nice moment.

selfie booth

Head on a platter

Left Behind offers fans another taste of The Last of Us, though 2-3 hours of gameplay just doesn’t feel sufficient to satisfy the appetite. That said, we should simply be appreciative that Naughty Dog gave us a DLC at all, and one that not only lives up to the standard of the main game but also adds welcome depth to the overall narrative. It also has a pretty epic final battle involving both zombie and human enemies that’s arguably better than the one in the main game. Highly recommended.

10/10

Movie Review: The Duff (2015)

June 3, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

duff_ver7_xlg

Say hello to the surprise comedy hit of the year. At first glance of the title, everything about The Duff— which stands for, classily enough, Designated Ugly Fat Friend — suggested lame, unfunny and even disastrous. I certainly didn’t expect very much at all.

The only thing I was banking on was its lead actress, Mae Whitman, best known to me as “Her?” (Ann Veal, aka Egg) from Arrested Development. Whitman showed real comedic chops from that performance and shined in supporting roles in Scott Pilgrim vs The World and The Perks of Being a Wallflower (her first cinematic role was actually as Bill Pullman’s daughter in Independence Day).

In The Duff, Whitman established herself as a bona fide star capable of carrying a film from start to finish. She plays Bianca, a smart but frumpy high schooler with two attractive best friends, “hot” blonde bombshell Jess (Skyler Samuels) and “spicy” Latino Casey (Bianca Santos). Her next-door neighbour, the spunky jock Wesley (Robbie Amell, cousin of Arrow‘s Stephen) tells Bianca that she’s a Duff, a term she had never heard of before but suddenly makes a whole lot of sense and turns her life upside down.

The plot takes a turn when Bianca and Wes make a deal — she would help him pass chemistry, while he would help her win the affections of her crush, the hair-swinging school musician Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman). The amount of time Bianca and Wes spend together, however, does not go down well with his on-off girlfriend, mean queen Madison (Bella Thorne).

I know what you’re thinking: it doesn’t sound that great. And yet, The Duff somehow turns out to be a fantastic teen comedy with some real laughs and a valuable message or two for its target audience. Most of the credit goes to Whitman’s energetic performance, which makes her believable regardless of whether she’s being silly or sad.

Whitman completely elevates this film above that of an ordinary teen flick. She’s not a classic beauty by any stretch but she’s got a magnetic charm and a fearless confidence about her that makes Bianca easy to like and root for. She is at her absolute hilarious best when she just goes for it in a scene without the slightest evidence of self-consciousness.

While the sassy Whitman carries the film, she is supported by a very strong cast. Amell has a goofy charm even when he’s being a douche, and while Thorne’s mean girls impersonation is spot there is still humour to be found in her nastiness. Even Eversman delivers as the man of Bianca’s affections with a nice-guy routine that works perfectly with her overt insecurities.

Also fantastic are the “adults” of the film, led by the legendary Ken Jeong (you know, from The Hangover) as a teacher. I also really liked the performances of Romany Malco (from TV’s Weeds) as the principal and the brilliant Allison Janney as Bianca’s single mother. None of them have big roles, but each are given the freedom to wield the personality quirks that make them so funny.

It’s unfortunate that The Duff likely won’t be remembered in the same breath as revered generational classics of the genre like Clueless, Mean Girls and Easy A, because it totally deserves to be in their company. Sadly, it probably even won’t be remembered alongside the second-tier films like Never Been Kissed. Sure, the film is far from perfect and falls prey to typically cringeworthy moments, teen flick tropes and rom-com cliches, but at the end of the day I hope it will go down as a cult classic. It’s genuinely funny, it’s timely (given that its plot is intertwined with the social media age), it has a positive message for teens (about self image and cyberbullying), and it’s driven by a star-making performance. I think it’s a film that will age really well.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect 2 (2015)

June 3, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

PP2

I wasn’t as fanatical as most others, but I admit I quite liked the first Pitch Perfect. It was easy to like, with a soundtrack full of catchy, classic tunes, witty, irreverent humour and a brilliant cast led by the lovely Anna Kendrick and fan-favourite Aussie Rebel Wilson.

The film’s smashing success meant an inevitable sequel was forthcoming, and I remember thinking upon hearing it had been green-lit that the chances of Pitch Perfect 2 being as good as the original were zero.

And of course I was right. Notwithstanding that I really wanted to like it and despite it being perfectly acceptable fun, Pitch Perfect 2 was just a notch or two below its predecessor in every department. The “wow factor” of the A capella is mostly gone, the jokes are less funny, and the cast doesn’t have the same life to it, even with the addition of the talented Hailee Steinfeld.

Was it bad? No. Was it good? I suppose so. Ultimately, the reaction that best sums up my feelings about the movie is a shrug and  an “OK.” It was a sequel that didn’t have to be made but got made because of money, and everything about it reflected that. It has its moments, but by and large it’s exactly how you would expect a sequel like this to play out: bigger stage, higher stakes, new conflicts, and a dash of fresh blood.

Since winning the national title three years ago, the Bellas are now three-peat champs. The predictable fall from grace happens very early on, and from there the Bellas need to start over and aim higher at the same time by entering into an international competition where they are pitted against the best of the best, including a campy and nasty German juggernaut. The Bellas argue, they bond, they have relationship troubles and setbacks along the way, before eventually coming together for the finale.

This time the film is directed by Elizabeth Banks, who also reprises her role as commentator Gail alongside the legendary John Michael Higgins’ John Smith. Banks has a good eye and ear for comedy, and she infuses the film with a light mood and a sweet tone (pun intended), though there’s nothing particularly flashy about her execution.

Anna Kendrick and Rebel Wilson are still really good, but both are less funny than last time. In fact, everyone is just a little less funny than last time. There were lots of politically incorrect jokes — be it about race or nationality or fat people — which I ordinarily love, by the way, though for some reason it’s not as punchy and laugh-generating as it should have been. Maybe you just need to be in the right mood for the comedy to hit the same high notes.

Don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Pitch Perfect 2 as a whole relative to most other musicals or comedies. I guess it’s slightly better than I had expected but not as good as I desperately wanted it to be, even though I knew that would be the case.  Still, that means this formulaic, by-the-book sequel is probably good enough for its target market: fans of the original and audiences satisfied with some stylish singing and dancing, a bit of light humour, and familiar characters doing familiar things.

3 stars out of 5

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