2014 Movie Blitz: Part IX

August 16, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

This could be the last blitz before my best of and worst of list for 2014.

St Vincent (2014)


I was pleasantly surprised by this one. It’s a simple premise we’ve seen countless times — a grumpy old man befriends a youngster, and they each end up learning something profound from the unconventional relationship. But in this case, the superb cast led by Bill Murray, doing what he does best, makes St Vincent a funny, poignant movie that won’t blow you away but will have you feeling all warm and fuzzy inside by the time the credits start rolling.

Murray plays the titular Vincent, a mysterious, reclusive old man with a sharp tongue and sharper attitude. Struggling single mother Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) and her 12-year-old son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) move in next door, and Vincent, almost by accident, starts teaching Oliver the ways of life. Naomi Watts plays Vincent’s Russian “lady friend.”

Murray has turned his grumpy, deadpan face down to perfection, and it’s on full display in this film. It’s a shame we don’t see him much in movies these days because the man is a true comedy genius. It was also good to see Melissa McCarthy play a straight character for once and doing it so well. She’s much more than just a stock character — you really feel for her — and she has great chemistry and timing with Murray when they’re engaged in one of their hilarious spats.

I thought Naomi Watts was a bit of A strange casting choice for her character, but apart from that St Vincent ticks all the right boxes for a touching and funny drama parents can enjoy with their kids (I’d say 12 and above).

3.5 stars out of 5

The Drop (2014)


This is one of those gritty and brooding crime dramas that’s neither forgettable nor particularly memorable. I thought it was pretty decent because of a smart script, confident direction, and strong performances from the brilliant Tom Hardy and the legendary James Gandolfini in one of his final roles.

Basically, the plot revolves around Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), a bartender who works a bar run by Gandolfini’s character, Cousin Marv. Marv used to own the establishment but sold it to Chechen gangsters, and now the bar is a “drop” point for illegal funds. Later, a robbery sets the story in motion, and Bob finds himself being targeted by both the cops and the robbers.

Much of the story centres Bob’s relationship with a neighbourhood girl played by Noomi Rapace and a dog. It’s one of those films where you feel as though something is brooding and tension is always building, but you’re not sure of where it is all heading.

The cast is superb, especially Hardy, who is a man of few words but conveys many emotions just from looks and expressions, yet it is often difficult to figure out exactly what is going through his head.

It’s a violent film that doesn’t necessarily shy away from crime drama cliches but is still clever and different enough to distinguish itself from the pack.

3.5 stars out of 5

By the Gun (2014)


By comparison to the film above, By the Gun is a much weaker and forgettable crime drama. Ben Barnes plays Nick Tortano, a low-level mobster who wants to “be someone.”

So he works under a Boston crime boss played by Harvey Keitel, starts dating his estranged daughter (Leighton Meester) and recklessly gets himself into a lot of shit as he tries to make a name for himself. Something’s gotta give!

I like Ben Barnes. He’s one of the prettiest actors around and he’s a stage actor who can clearly act. But as hard as he tried, he didn’t convince me here as a Boston gangster. Maybe that’s why he’s stuck with roles like Prince Caspian and high-profile flops like Dorian Gray and Seventh Son.

By the Gun has enough grit but not enough originality to sustain its 109-minute running time. I didn’t care much for the characters nor their predicaments, and when that happens a crime drama is destined for failure. It’s not poorly made, it’s just so average that you start to forget about it as soon as the credits roll.

2.5 stars out of 5

Son of a Gun (2014)


So many guns in this movie review blitz! Son of a Gun is a fairly compelling Australian crime drama with similar themes to the masterful Animal Kingdom. It’s not as good, of course, but by Aussie movie standards it’s not bad.

Rising star Brenton Thwaites, who is just everywhere these days, plays JR, a young convict who becomes acquainted with a notorious robber played by Ewan McGregor. Upon his release, JR is introduced to a mob boss, this beginning a life of crime where the stakes continue to be escalated and things spiral out of control before JR realises he is in way over his head.

Like Animal Kingdom, this is a crime drama seen from the point of view of a naive man-child, learning the brutalities of the world with one frightening lesson after another. It’s a twisted coming-of-age story of sorts, filled with thumping violence and rounded characters.

It’s unfair beyond that to compare the two films. Son of a Gun isn’t on the same level in terms of tension, intensity and plot or character development, and it’s much less effective at veering away from genre cliches, especially as the film nears its finale.

What does give it extra brownie points are the performances of McGregor, still one of the most reliable actors around, and rising superstar Alicia Vikander (who has like five movies out this year), who brings more depth than one would expect for a supposed token female love interest. I’m still waiting to see though why Thwaites, as solid as he is, is snapping up so many roles in Hollywood.

On the whole, Son of a Gun struggles to separate itself from similar films in the genre the way Animal Kingdom did, but thanks to the awesomeness of Ewan McGregor and Alicia Vikander, it manages enough appeal to drag it over the line in my books.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Giver (2014)

January 25, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

the giver

The Giver is the latest big screen adaptation of a popular teen sci-fi novel (this one’s based on Lois Lowry’s 1993 book of the same name). But anyone expecting another Hunger Games or Divergent is likely to be disappointed. While The Giver is not a complete waste of time as it explores, maybe intelligently for some, familiar themes about free will and dystopian and utopian societies, in the end there’s just not enough there — whether it’s action, romance, heart or genuine substance — to call it a worthwhile experience.

The story is set several decades into the future, in which a post-war community comes up with the brilliant idea of erasing everyone’s memory in a bid to create a world of peaceful co-existence. Additionally, everyone is assigned to preselected families and jobs, and have to live by a strict set of rules, one of which gives Katie Holmes the opportunity to say, “Precision of language!” a lot. Doesn’t sound like utopia, but I suppose the idea is that ignorance is bliss.

Our 16-year-old protagonist, Jonas (Aussie Brenton Thwaites in yet another Hollywood role), is assigned by the community’s chief elder (Meryl Streep) to the most important role in the community, the next Receiver of Memories, meaning he must become an apprentice to the current receiver, The Giver (Jeff Bridges). Naturally, as the plot necessitates, the more memories of the past Jonas receives, the more he begins to question the validity of the whole regime. Boom shakalaka!

The Giver comes across as a bizarre crossbreed between Pleasantville and Divergent, where people pigeonholed into rigid categories by an authoritarian system shake things up by inevitably giving in to the urges of human nature. And like Divergent, it’s one of those films where you get the sneaking suspicion that the story works much better on the page than the screen because of its high concept premise. There’s no denying that the central conceit of the film is difficult to swallow, and if you think too much you’ll just get tangled up in the web of common sense and logic fails.

Still, I quite liked the pleasing visual style of Aussie director Philip Noyce, and it’s never a bad thing when screen legends Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges are involved. The surprising stand out for me, however, has to be Katie Holmes as Jonas’s mother, though I suppose she has an unfair advantage when it comes to acting zombie-esque in a cult like environment after being married to Tom Cruise for all those years. By the way, Taylor Swift is also in this, and as expected she is a singing robot.

In the end, The Giver feels like a valiant effort at bringing to life a beloved novel, but the various elements just don’t quite come together. This is a film I think lovers of the book might be able to enjoy a lot, though for me it felt like there were more than just a few pieces of the puzzle missing.

2.5 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part IV

November 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

7500 (2014)


It’s never a good sign when a movie’s release is pushed back by more than 2 years, but that’s what exactly happened with 7500, the flight horror directed by Japanese master Takashi Shimizu best known for Ju-On and its American cousin The Grudge. 7500 was supposed to be released in August 2012, but was bumped back to April 2013, then October 2013, and finally October this year.

The film has a pretty decent B-grade cast comprising the likes of Australia’s own Ryan Kwanten and Nicky Whelan, together with Amy Smart, Leslie Bibb, Scout Taylor-Compton and Jamie Chung. The premise is incredibly eerie, though I can’t say why without divulging spoilers. Let’s just say the reason is completely coincidental and much scarier than the movie itself.

Anyone, the film actually started off very well. A bunch of strangers get on trans-Atlantic flight 7500 from LA to Tokyo. Someone dies under suspicious circumstances, putting everyone on edge, and before long, more and more people start dying in typical Japanese-horror fashion. Nothing is really explained until the very end, and even then none of what happened before makes much sense.

It’s the type of film that would have made much more sense about 10 years ago when films like The Grudge and The Ring were first being introduced to Western audiences. Now, having been subjected to the same tactics for a decade, the whole thing just feels underwhelming and not particularly scary.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Immigrant (2014)


Notwithstanding its unimaginative title, The Immigrant is a beautiful and moving drama about a religious young woman named Ewa (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) who flees to New York in the early 1920s to escape war-torn Poland following WWI. With her sister quarantined due to illness and her ex-pat relatives nowhere to be found, Ewa is “rescued” by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who makes her dance at a theater and pimps her out as a prostitute.

The Immigrant was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and it’s not hard to see why. This is a heartbreaking film that probably could have stuck a “true story” label on the poster without anyone questioning its veracity. Combining stunning visuals, believable sets and powerhouse performances from the three leads — Cotillard, Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, who plays Bruno’s cousin Emil — The Immigrant is one of those rare period dramas that grabbed my attention right from the start.

A lot of it has to do with Cotillard’s performance. Apart from looking plain but beautiful enough to have men fall for her, she resonates a graceful resiliency that makes Ewa an instantly likable and empathetic protagonist. Joaquin Phoenix is also excellent in a pivotal role that would have caused the film to collapse had he not infused it with a certain charm and tenderness amid Bruno’s violent madness. There are scenes of real emotion in this film that got to me when I did not expect it, and I doubt the effect would have been the same had it not been for the performances and the confident yet subtle direction of James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), who also co-wrote the script.

Not just a simple character journey and story about overcoming against the odds, The Immigrant also raises many moral questions about the characters’ actions. As Ewa asked her aunt in one of the film’s key scenes, “Is it a sin to want to survive? Is it a sin to want to survive after so many bad deeds?”

I thought the dramatic score was a little overdone at times and the film could be accused of being tonally flat, but apart from that I found The Immigrant to be an engrossing and rewarding experience.

4 stars out of 5

The Signal (2014)

the signal

Low-budget, independent sci-fi films are on the rise, and The Signal has to be one of the better ones. Starring rising Aussie star Brenton Thwaites, an MIT nerd struggling with muscular dystrophy who manages to track down the signal of a hacker who almost got him and his friend expelled from university. Together with his friend (Beau Knapp) and girlfriend (Oliva Cooke, the rising star from Ouija and The Quiet Ones), the three track the hacker to the Nevada desert, where something bizarre happens, after which they awaken in a lab run by Lawrence Fishburne.

I guess you can classify The Signal as a sci-fi thriller or sci-fi horror because there are elements of both. There is a lot of uncertainty and paranoia, with the unshakable feeling that the lab coats are hiding something from our protagonists. The tale gradually veers more and more into pure sci-fi territory, though there is an eeriness about it that comes across as almost surreal. Perhaps the best way I could describe it is that it occasionally resembles a very good episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, where the weirdness and mystery is what ultimately drives the film.

As such, The Signal is not a well-rounded film. There are moments of brilliance and intrigue which will suck you into the story, but other times when the plot and human reactions are so poorly constructed that it becomes frustrating to watch. There are occasions when you can tell that the film is trying to be weird for the sake of being weird — like the creepy old lady — rather than for any meaningful narrative purpose.

Still, I like it when movies do things I’m not used to seeing and keep me wondering what the heck will happen next. In that regard The Signal achieves its purpose. It’s visually impressive considering the US$4 million budget and the performances are solid. Not everyone’s cup of tea and not an exceptional sci-fi by any standard, but for the most part I found it quite interesting and watchable.

3 stars out of 5

The Quiet Ones (2014)

quiet ones

I was really looking forward to The Quiet Ones after seeing the freaky trailer and hearing that it’s “based” on the parapsychology Philip Experiment conducted in Toronto in 1972. The film is about a Oxford University professor (Jared Harris) who enlists the help of his students (Sam Claflin from The Hunger Games, Erin Richards from TV’s Gotham, and Rory Fleck-Byrne) to conduct an experiment aiming to prove that demonic possession is a psychological rather than supernatural phenomenon.

Their subject that summer is Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), an attractive young woman who has been abandoned after the strange things that keep happened around her has scared everyone off. The professor keeps her locked in a room most of the time, with loud music playing to prevent her from sleeping in the hope that her agitation will boost paranormal activity. All the stuff is recorded and taped, though thankfully the film is only a semi-found-footage angle.

As expected, the paranormal activity does ramp up as the professor refuses to tone down his abuse, and the students, one of whom develops feelings for Jane, begin to believe that the demonic possession could actually be real and that she could harm them as well as herself. By this point, I realised the film was probably very very loosely based on actual events. I turned out to be right, as it would continue to devolve into a fairly typical possession flick with a fairly typical climax.

That’s a real shame, because The Quiet Ones does have some good elements and moments. The big creaky house, the 1970s tones and colour scheme, not to mention the strong cast and their English accents, could have turned it into a superior horror experience. I was hoping for an ambiguous take on supernatural activity in which a lot of questions would be asked but where the answers would be left to the audience, though instead they went down the obvious and commercial route where the demonic stuff is thrown in our faces with the force of a sledgehammer.

The result is a film that has an interesting premise but is watered down by a familiar approach and recycled tactics. It’s certainly watchable and no worse than the majority of horror films released these days, though I feel like The Quiet Ones blew a really good opportunity to be something special.

2.5 stars out of 5

PS: Check out this interesting link (contains spoilers) if you wanna know how much of the film resembles reality.


Movie Review: Maleficent (2014)

August 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Maleficent, the new re-imagining of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairytale, is that I didn’t mind it. That’s already saying a lot, given that I have not withheld my disdain for similar efforts in recent years, from Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror to Snow White and the Huntsman and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Maleficent is the most visually stunning film of the lot, with colorful creatures, fairies and a magical world full of wonder. It is also far more emotionally engaging than those other films thanks to Angelina Jolie, who is magnificent as Maleficent (see what I did there?) and deservedly singled out for her performance.

It was a relief to discover that Maleficent was not a supporting character — ie, the film was not simply trying to use Jolie’s fame to promote a film that is otherwise dominated by other lesser known actors. True to its title, Maleficent is all about Jolie’s character, who has been tweaked to become both the (wronged) villain and hero of this revisionist fairytale. 

Without giving too much away, Maleficient starts off as a cheerful young fairy who befriends a young human boy after saving him from the wrath of the creatures he stole from. Years later, as required by the story, an ultimate act of betrayal turns her into a vengeful bitch determined to exact her vengeance on the human world. Her fury ends up being manifested in a curse on a baby Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister from 2011’s Super 8), who grows up to become — you guessed it — Sleeping Beauty.

The rest of the film goes off on a very different tangent to the Disney cartoon, and, as with most of these re-imaginings, contain plenty of action and obligatory fighting sequences, though to the film’s credit it does feel slightly less coerced. A big reason is because Jolie is so good as the titular character that you actually feel something for her, to the point where all the special-effects-fuelled violence — unlike other films of this kind — begins to means something.

The problem Jolie’s superb performance, and her dominance, is that it renders everyone else in the movie insignificant (even the special effects, prosthetics and makeup used on her seemed more advanced than the others). Apart from Sharlto Copley, who barely holds his own as the King, just about all other characters fail to hold our attention, from Maleficent’s useful shape-shifting sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) and the boring prince (Aussie Brenton Thwaites) to the three “good” pixie fairies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville.

Elle Fanning, in particular, came across as a poor choice for Sleeping Beauty. Her beauty is a subject for debate, but the strange thing is that she feels too young for the role, despite being the same age in real life as her character (16). I guess it says a lot about Hollywood’s tendency to cast much older actors for younger roles. More pertinent is Fanning’s “acting,” or lack thereof, as all I can pretty much remember of her is the fakish stupid grin she had plastered on her face throughout most of the film.

The other issue I had with Maleficent was how much they had to twist the story so that it fit within the scope of the Sleeping Beauty narrative. There’s a fine line between changing too little and changing too much, and in this case I think they couldn’t find the right balance because it opened up too many plot holes and occurrences that were illogical, even for a fairytale. Part of it is because they tried very hard to make Maleficent a villain you could root for, so that every bad thing she did was justified, and even when she was being “evil” she wasn’t really. What they ended up with was a completely new standalone story, rather than a side story that complemented the original fairytale and filled in the gaps to give audiences Maleficent’s perspective. There is nothing wrong with that, except they still tried to squeeze in too many elements from the original Sleeping Beauty story, resulting in a weird hybrid that didn’t fully work.

But as I said at the start of this review, I didn’t mind Maleficent. It’s a flawed film with a saggy middle act, but thanks to Jolie’s film-saving performance, it’s much better than it otherwise would have been. Coupled with my low expectations, I admit I don’t regret seeing it.

3 stars out of 5