Movie Review: Child 44 (2015)

September 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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: Attack on Titan (2015)

August 26, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Attack-on-Titan-Movie-Poster

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 Last of Us’ Diary: Part III — Casting the Movie

May 12, 2015 in Game Reviews, Reviews

scenery

Note: This is the third part of a multi-part series detailing my experiences, observations and thoughts on The Last of Us on PS3. Part 1 can be found here and Part 2 can be found here.

Day 4 (May 8, 2015)

I’m really starting to get immersed in the game now and can’t wait to play it every night.

After meeting the wounded leader of the Fireflies, Marlene, we are introduced to the female lead of the game, Ellie, a young girl who is seemingly very important for some strange reason. As it turns out, Marlene wants Joel and Tess to help the Fireflies smuggle Ellie out, and if they do so, they’ll get their guns back “and then some.”

Introducing Ellie

You get a good sense of Ellie’s spunk and feistiness from the first time she appears on screen

It’s pretty obvious that Ellie is supposed to be some kind of substitute for Joel’s dead daughter, and their relationship will form the crux of the game’s emotional core. It’s a good dynamic. Joel’s disillusioned, hardened and wary from years of doing nasty things to survive, and the last thing he wants to be reminded of is the one thing (or person, rather) that will remind him of his former humanity. Ellie, on the other hand, is also hardened by the environment she has had to grow up in but seems to be looking for a parent figure, making the two of them a perfect match.

The first time I saw Ellie’s face — I think it was in a poster or trailer — I immediately thought of Ellen Page. It’s an uncanny similarity many gamers have noticed.

Ellie vs Ellen

Ellen Page vs Ellie

This caused a bit of a furore when the game came out, because Page did not lend her likeness to the game or perform any motion capture. What caused more confusion was the fact that Page was actually starring in another video game, Beyond: Two Souls, Quantic Dream’s follow-up to Heavy Rain. Here’s what Page looked like in that game.

beyond two souls

Ellen Page’s likeness in Beyond: Two Souls

Page was apparently not happy about it, and Naughty Dog actually did some editing before the game was released to make Ellie look more like the actress who did the voice and motion capture, Ashley Johnson.

Ashley-Johnson

Ashley Johnson

It’s not a big deal that she looks very little like Ellie, since the actor who played Joel, Troy Baker, looks nothing like his character either.

Joel

Troy Baker doing motion capture for The Last of Us

Whatever.

What I find interesting though is that a lot of people are calling for Ellen Page to play Ellie in the movie version of The Last of Us. While Page does look young for her age (28), getting her to play a 14-year-old is a bit of a stretch. The actress who has been tentatively attached to the movie project is actually Maisie Williams, whom most of you will know as Arya Stark from Game of Thrones.

Maisie-Williams-The-Last-of-Us

Maisie Williams as Ellie?

I like this idea a lot. Williams is 18 but seems much younger on Thrones, and she’s only 155cm tall, which would allow her to easily pass as a 14 year old when paired with a taller actor. Besides, I think it’s stupid to cast actors for a movie adaptation of a video game based on their physical resemblance to the characters.

Other names fans have brought up include Dakota Fanning (too old, unless they up Ellie’s age in the movie), Elle Fanning (she’s 17 but too tall at 5’8″, plus her acting in Maleficent was…), Ariel Winter from Modern Family (she’s 17 but probably could do it), and Chloe Grace Moretz (she’s 18 but can look young, so maybe). I don’t think any of them are as suitable as Williams at this stage.

As for Joel, there are currently no actors attached to the project, but that has not stopped fans from speculating who should get the job. Top names being thrown around at the moment include Hugh Jackman, Josh Brolin, Dylan McDermott, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Gerard Butler, Russel Crowe, Bradley Cooper, and Viggo Mortensen.  I’d actually prefer someone less famous, but out of that bunch, my money’s on Hugh Jackman. He has the stature and built, the physicality to take on zombies bare-fisted and the vulnerability — as demonstrated by his performance in Prisoners — to make a convincing Joel. Josh Brolin would be my second choice and McDermott by third, but none of the others feel like good fits.

Jack Human

Jack Human as Joel?

As for Tess? Lena Heady from Thrones would be excellent because we know she’s got the balls to pull it off. Of course, the actress who did the voice and motion capture, Annie Wersching, would be a good choice too.

Cersei Lannister as Tess?

Cersei Lannister as Tess?

Anyway, back to the game itself. As expected, it does not take long for Ellie to reveal her secret. I had suspected that she’s important because of some link to a cure for the virus, and as it turned out, I was right. Joel, Tess and Ellie are accosted by a bunch of soldiers, who use this special gadget to test whether they are infected or not.

Ellie Infected

I knew it!

After taking down the soldiers, they discover that the machine returned a positive reading for Ellie. She was bitten a few weeks back and hasn’t turned, an anomaly considering everyone is supposed to turn within two days of infection. So that’s why they need to get Ellie to some scientists so they can figure out why, and perhaps develop some kind of cure or vaccine for the masses.

From here, Joel and Tess will have to babysit Ellie until they meet up with the Fireflies, but I’m certain something else will happen so that the plot will require Joel to travel with Ellie all the way across the country. That’s just the way these stories work, but rather than complain about its predictability I’m going to praise The Last of Us for the way it has handled the drama thus far. In any case, the game looks like it’s going to be a lot more action packed from this point forward.

Stay tuned for more!

Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

March 1, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

fifty_shades_of_grey_ver5

I knew it was not going to be good. Having put myself through the novel, my motivation for seeing Fifty Shades of Grey stemmed largely from my curiosity over how much a quality Hollywood production headed by director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass’s real-life wife) could salvage an adaptation of the third worst book I’ve ever read.

The answer? A decent amount, but nowhere near enough. You can’t deep fry a turd coated in 11 secret herbs and spices and expect it to suddenly be finger-licking good.

Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the first adaptation of a best-selling novel where the dominant expectation is that it will suck because of the source material. Originating as a piece of Twilght fan fiction, the novel has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide despite universal scathing reviews. All the blessings in the world to author EL James for her remarkable success, but how this poorly written amateur effort — which was initially released by an independent Aussie virtual publisher — became a global phenomenon will surely go down in history as one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time.

By now you should know that the “erotic romantic drama” is about young, beautiful, virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson — the offspring of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who meets and falls for the rich, mysterious and “impossibly handsome” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She likes biting her lower lip and he’s a sex maniac who enjoys flogging women and contractual negotiations.

The problems with the story and the characters have been, like Anastasia’s ass, flogged to death. People who have read the book would have anticipated this, but audiences fresh to this tale will be introduced to a whole new world of painfully awkward conversations, unrealistic human reactions and WTF moments of the purest kind. It’s one unintentionally hilarious moment after another, each gradually propelling the film towards “so bad it’s good” territory, but without actually getting there. I can honestly say that my wife, who never read the books, laughed louder and harder in this movie than any comedy we’ve seen in the last few years.

The film’s other drawcard, the eroticism, was surprisingly flaccid. I knew they had to pare things back to squeeze the film into an R-rating under America’s classification system, but I didn’t believe they could make the sex scenes even duller than what they were in the book. We’re talking soft-soft core; 9 1/2 Weeks and Wild Orchid it definitely is not. And I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that): there was not enough man-junk for a movie whose target market is young to middle-aged women. In fact, while Johnson showed off everything, Dornan’s johnson doesn’t even make a fleeting, or even accidental appearance. By the way, the S&M scenes were just horrible. Maybe you need to be into that sort of stuff to appreciate it.

So when you take out the moronic characters, a paper-thin plot and tame eroticism, all that’s left is a dull experience littered with trite dialogue, cringeworthy set pieces and tacky efforts at developing “romance” between the two leads, which is evidently difficult when the guy can only think about torturing the girl and the girl can only think about…nothing at all.

Still, you can tell they tried. The biggest issue with the movie is that the filmmakers were restricted in what they could change without angering the faithful fans of the novel — and the woman who wrote it. Apparently, James clashed constantly with Taylor-Johnson during the creative process and in the editing room. The author wanted the film to remain loyal to the source material, while the director wanted the film to be less shit. I’ve also read that screenwriter Kelly Marcel initially rehauled the embarrassing dialogue, but James vetoed her and a second writer was brought in to rewrite the original shit back in. The mess has been described as a “falling out.”

I think it’s safe to say neither Taylor-Johnson nor Marcel will be back in future entries, though they must still be credited for doing all they can to repair the damage. Taylor-Johnson does a solid job of infusing the film with a blue-grey colour scheme that’s pretty to look at, while also moulding an atmosphere that suits the tone of the narrative. Marcel’s biggest contribution is ensuring that the story is not narrated by Ana, so there’s none of that “inner goddess” garbage or her annoying soliloquies. Some of the more ridiculous facts about her from the book — such as that she’s never kissed anyone or had a boyfriend — are thankfully trimmed out. They even tried to scrape back the amount of pointless emailing and texting between Ana and Christian and all the excruciating back and forth about the contract details.

As for the performances, Johnson is actually pretty good as the mentally challenged naive Ana, the beautiful girl who has no idea men are even remotely attracted to her. Though she’s close to Ana’s age in real life — Johnson’s 25, Ana’s supposed to be 21 — I found Johnson a little old-looking for the part, but kudos to her anyway as she at least channels the book version of the character well.

Jamie Dornan is by all accounts a great actor who will go one to bigger and better things after this, but you can tell from his performance that he couldn’t believe he was in this shit, playing a piece of shit. To borrow from Arrested Development’s Bluth family, Dornan’s singular expression throughout the film said it all.

Jamie Dornan

The rest of the cast sleepwalk through their way for their paychecks. Eloise Mumford, whom I’ve never seen before, plays Ana’s best friend and roommate Kate, while veterans Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden play Ana and Christian’s mothers, respectively. True Blood‘s Luke Grimes plays Christian’s brother Elliot and British singer Rita Ora plays their sister Mia, with the familiar face of Max Martini stepping in as Taylor, Christian’s answer to Bruce Wayne’s Alfred. Everyone involved seems to acknowledge that they’re just in it for the money and the CV-boosting publicity.

Having said all this, Fifty Shades of Grey is not one of the worst films I’ve seen by a long shot. It’s better than the book, which doesn’t say much but must count for something. By all means, watch it to satisfy your curiosity or so you can crack jokes at it with your friends.

The film leaves audiences hanging like the novel, and judging from its box office success — smashing several opening weekend and R-rated film records — it appears at least two sequels (they’ll probably split the last book into two films) are headed our way. That’s not good, because the only two books I’ve read worse than Fifty Shades of Grey are — you guessed it — Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Two Faces of January (2014)

November 18, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

two faces

First the mirror, now January. Seems like everyone has two faces these days.

The Two Faces of January is an intriguing and elegant thriller set in the early 1960s featuring an A-list cast. It’s based on the 1964 novel of the same name by Patricia Highsmith (who also wrote The Talented Mrs Ripley), about a young con man (Oscar Isaac from Inside Llewyn Davis) working as a tour guide in Athens who gets involved with a seemingly wealthy American tourist (Viggo Mortensen) and his young wife (Kirsten Dunst).

It’s one of those classy yet twisted tales where interesting and complex characters who are not who they seem keep falling deeper and deeper and into a mess they can’t get out of. The fun comes from not knowing who is telling the truth and who is ultimately playing whom. There are twists and turns galore, but the progression of the narrative is subtle and deliberately low-key. Rather than a series of ups and downs, the film begins on low heat and gradually simmers all the way to the end without ever boiling over.

All three leads are phenomenal, as you would expect. Viggo, in particular, always one of my fave actors, shows again why he perhaps the most versatile and underrated performer of his generation.

The confident, controlled direction of debut director Hossein Amini, who also wrote the screenplay, is enviably stylish, creating a constant sense of tension and paranoia that’s hard to shake. Amini also wrote the screenplay for Drive, one of the slickest films of 2011, and the talents he demonstrated in that adaptation are in full bloom here.

The problem with the Two Faces of January, however, is that despite its look and feel of a top-shelf, A-grade thriller, the film’s story doesn’t quite live up to everything else. When you boil it down, the plot is actually quite mediocre and over-reliant on coincidences, resulting in a limp payoff that disappoints following the spectacular set-up. It’s one of those films that comes across as much better than it really is, and the more you think about it the less impressive it becomes.

Nonetheless, I enjoyed the build up a lot and have feeling that Amini will go on to bigger and better projects. While it may fall short of potential, I’d still recommend The Two Faces of January for those with a taste for old-fashioned, character-driven thrillers.

3.5 stars out of 5