Movie Review: Backcountry (2015)

July 24, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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

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

Movie Review: Spy (2015)

July 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

spy-poster

I won’t lie. I initially had zero interest in Spy, the new comedy directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring his favourite collaborator Melissa McCarthy. The poster just made it look generic and lame, and I always thought Feig’s earlier films were overrated.

Just shows we shouldn’t judge a movie by its poster or preconceived notions based on the past. Because Spy is really funny. Hilarious stuff. Laugh-out-loud gags with a progressive slant. In my opinion it’s easily the best film either Feig or McCarthy have been involved in.

It doesn’t have a mindblowing plot — McCarthy plays a former teacher-turned-CIA-agent who acts as the eyes and ears of the agency’s top spy, played by Jude Law. She’s meek and awkward and disappointed with how her career change has turned out.

Naturally, an opportunity arises in which she is thrust into dangerous undercover field work, and this brings out the hidden beast in her as she tries to track down a lethal nuclear weapon.

All the kudos in the world for having McCarthy as the undisputed female lead and a kickass spy, an absolute rarity in sexist, beauty- and weight-obsessed Hollywood, but none of that would have mattered if Spy turned out to be a stinker.

Fortunately, Spy smashes the six-laugh quota for a decent comedy with ease thanks to a variety of factors. First and foremost, McCarthy, who gets the opportunity to show her range by playing essentially two personalities — the meek, and the snarky one we’re used to seeing from Bridesmaids and The Heat. 

In the former, she’s funny in the hesitant, awkward manner she’s very capable of pulling off. However, she’s at her ripping best in the latter, firing off quick-witted, sharp, acidic one-liners and well-placed profanity to elicit the chuckles. I always found this crude version of McCarthy funny, but too much of it felt grating and exhausting. Feig’s decision to give us half a film of it ended up being perfect; just the right amount of familiar McCarthy.

Rose Byrne, who seems to be in absolutely everything these days, once again displays her  ample comedic chops as the stuck-up villain with the posh accent. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself and go head-to-head wih McCarthy in the profanity stakes; I believe this could be as funny as she has ever been.

Jude Law, who has been out of the limelight in recent years, returns as a James Bond spoof of sorts, probably a nod to the fact that he was almost picked to be the iconic spy years ago. He’s clearly aged and appears to have gotten some plugs, though the charisma is still there. He gets to joke around the least as the tongue-in-cheek straight-man of the comedy but takes the role in stride.

Up to this point, Spy is already a fairly decent comedy. What takes it to the next level, however, is the presence of Jason Statham. As the most bankable martial arts action star of today, Statham has only been on the fringes of comedy, and by that I mean wisecracks and one-liners in between beating people up on screen. He finally gets to show off his incredible self-awareness and untapped comedic timing in Spy as a disgruntled rogue agent who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Statham’s character is British, but he’s also crass, profane, arrogant, mysognistic and hyperbolic. He reminds of a hardened version of Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China. His hilarity is undeniable, and it adds an edge to the film I doubt anyone else could have offered.

I thought after Kingsman: The Secret Service the year’s best action-comedy had been set in stone, but now I’m not so sure. Spy isn’t nearly as stylish or visually impressive, but it’s much more of a pure comedy in that it generates bigger and more frequent belly laughs. I had an unexpectedly good time.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Poltergeist (2015)

July 6, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

poltergeist

I don’t remember much of the original 1982 Poltergeist save for a few iconic scenes and phrases. You know the ones I’m talking about. I haven’t seen it for probably 15-20 years, but I do remember it was scary, though I’ve been hearing lately that it wasn’t really that good and was vastly overrated.

Still, it must be a lot better than this hilariously bad remake, which had zero scares but a lot of WTF moments and unintentional humour.

The story is a familiar one. A family moves into a new home that turns out to be haunted by malevolent spirits. Ghost hunters are called in and a kid must be saved.

The biggest problem with the film is its complete lack of subtlety and knowledge of how to scare an audience. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) seems to know, nominally at least, what is supposed to be scary, such as TV static, closets and clowns, but he doesn’t understand how to elicit genuine scares out of them.

It’s basically a handful of predictable “boo” moments most horror lovers would be numb to by now, and the rest is just completely over-the-top nonsense that is closer to Ghostbusters than anything else I can think of. I’m not even exaggerating here.

There’s no build up of tension or atmosphere, as Kenan obviously does not subscribe to the less is more doctrine in horror, going all out and throwing the entire bag of tricks at the audience from the get go.

What makes it worse is that the tone is all over the place, splicing humour and horror in an awkward manner that damages the effectiveness of both. Serious scares and wisecracks rarely work well together, especially when they come at the same time. As a result I was often left wondering whether it was trying to be scary or funny, but what I do know was that it managed to be neither. I’m stunned that some people thought it was scary.

It’s so bad that the ordinarily awesome Sam Rockwell, who plays the father, appears depressed by just how awful a film he managed to get himself into. Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays his wife, seems to be putting in a little more effort, but even she is clearly disinterested at times. They have three kids in the film, and the two younger ones, who experience the most of the haunting in the beginning, are not very good actors, further reducing the scariness of the whole affair.

The ghost hunters are played by Jared Harris and Jane Adams, who I find difficult to imagine as anyone else but the pathetic girl from Happiness. They’re not nearly as creepy as the short old lady with the weird voice from original (Zelda Rubenstein).

I don’t know what I’d think of the 1982 original now if I saw it again, but I’d be shocked if it’s worse than this laughable remake.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Focus (2015)

April 13, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

focus_ver4

If it feels like it’s been ages since Will Smith has been in a movie, it’s probably because it has been. The Fresh Prince’s last genuine feature film (if you discount basically cameos in Winter’s Tale and Anchorman 2) is the abysmal After Earth, which practically destroyed his son Jaden’s acting future and put a severe dent in his own.

And so I found it interesting that Smith went for a project like Focus, which is a departure from his typical sci-fi blockbusters (Independence Day, MIB, Hancock, I Robot, I am Legend) and melodramatic “acting” efforts (Six Degrees of Separation, The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds). The closest things on his resume is probably Hitch, made 10 years ago, which has a consistent vibe and has him playing a similar sort of character.

In Focus, Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a con man who takes a beautiful young woman (Margot Robbie) under his wing to learn the tricks of the trade. They scam people, they make money, they have fun. Naturally, there is an attraction between the two, which is a no-no for their line of work. It’s one of those films where you’re supposed to be constantly unsure of the characters’ motivations and just who is playing whom.

Focus relies on the chemistry between the two leads, which is apparently so good that the gossip mags had a field day with all the affair rumors when the film was being made. Smith and Robbie are nice to look at and do make a good team, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like Smith’s character, who came across as too familiar to distinguish from his other roles. It’s always the same  — the “I’m so cool and suave and deadpan” and “I’m always in perfect control and never get rattled by anything” demeanour Smith has been crafting since his Fresh Prince days and perfected through Bay Boys, Independence Day, MIB, Wild Wild West and so forth. The act can be funny and all, but I found myself getting tired of it in this film.

There’s not a lot of depth in Focus, though I admit it had some fun and exciting moments as the stakes kept being raised higher and higher.  Fans of plot twists will also probably get a kick out of the movie because there are plenty of twists and turns all the way through. The problem I had with it was that rather than being shocked again and again, I became prepared for every twist that came my way and grew suspicious each time the plot took another turn. Most of all, underneath all of that, I carried the feeling that everything was going to be just fine in the end, so it kind of rendered all the twists superfluous anyway.

In the end, I found Focus to be forgettable experience. It may be slick and stylish but it wasn’t particularly funny and was only sporadically entertaining. The ending was also predictable and not as clever as it should have been. Chalk this one up as a DVD rental.

2.25 stars out of 5