Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

August 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Dark Places, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s second novel of the same name, is a film that likely would not have been made without the success of Gone Girl, her third book. While Dark Places is a fine book, it’s not the game-changer like Gone Girl was, and correspondingly, the film is not quite in the same league as David Fincher’s extraordinary film adaptation from last year.

With that said, Dark Places, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, is still a solid mystery-thriller that turned out much better than the TV movie-style mediocrity I had been expecting. Part of it is because of the talented cast featuring the star power of Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Moretz and Tye Sheridan, though I suspect it is more because the producers knew they couldn’t turn in a half-hearted effort because they knew Gone Girl was going to raise the bar extremely high (even though the two films were shot at around the same time).

Twenty-eight years ago, Libby Day’s mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters are brutally slaughtered, and only other surviving sibling, her brother Ben, is convicted for their murder. In present day, having exhausted all the sympathy and goodwill handouts in the world, Libby (Charlize Theron) finds herself in desperate need of money, forcing her to agree to help out — in exchange for payment — a nerdy “Murder Club” (these things actually exist) seeking to “solve” her cold case. Together with the club’s treasurer, Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), Libby reluctantly begins investigating what really happened all those years ago.

The film goes back and forth in time, focusing on Libby in the present and Ben (old Corey Stoll and young Tye Sheridan) in the past. Gradually the layers of the mystery are pealed back, and Libby discovers that her brother may not have been who she thought he was.

Sounds fascinating, right? And I haven’t even discussed one of the prominent themes of the film, devil worship and satanic rituals, a topic that was sending shock-waves of fear through the community back in the 80s.

I was sceptical of the casting of Theron in the beginning because the Libby Day of the book was short and frumpy. It’s true that Charlize is too tall and glamorous to fit that description no matter how hard she tries, though her performance is convincing enough for the physical discrepancy to be a moot point.

It was also good to see Theron re-teaming with Hoult after working together for Mad Max: Fury Road, albeit in completely different roles and circumstances. Hoult is solid despite not really getting to do much to show off what he can do. The same goes for Stoll, who is everywhere these days, while Sheridan gets to do more but can’t exactly capitalise on the opportunity.

The two who steal the show are Chloe Moretz and Christina Hendricks. Moretz, as the Ben’s wild girlfriend Diondra, stands out because she’s such a strong and dominatin personality. Hendricks stands out for another reason — she looks virtually unrecognisable as a struggling single mother, looking as plain as can be with virtually no make-up.

It’s a good cast with good performances, but if we’re being honest we’d admit that they were chosen for star power as opposed to fit for their characters.

Dark Places never bores and remains interesting as long as the mystery is in play. My issues with the film are largely as same as the book — it never lets up to the potential of its premise. The progression is too straightforward, the turns and revelations not explosive enough. There’s not a whole lot to separate it from your run-of-the-mill mystery-thriller. With a no-name cast and smaller budget, this would have been a straight-to-DVD or TV movie.

However, it would have been a pretty good straight-to-DVD or TV movie, and the fact that the production is as high-profile as it is means Dark Places is still better than the majority of films in the same genre, even the theatrical releases.

3.25 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part VI

April 13, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Kill the Messenger (2014)

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Surprised this one didn’t get more burn.

This is the true story of Gary Webb, played by the brilliant Jeremy Renner, a journalist who uncovers the CIA’s role in importing crack cocaine into the US to secretly fund the Nicaraguan contra rebels. OK, so maybe the CIA didn’t import the drugs themselves, but they acquiesced in stopping it and they knew that it was going mostly to impoverished black communities. That’s pretty huge news, right? But for whatever reason the story, much like this film, slipped under the radar.

The film had a big cast too that included the likes of Ray Liotta, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen and Robert Patrick. It’s hard hitting, gripping and gritty, and though it might not be the most exciting film, it certainly kept me entertained and emotionally invested in Webb’s plight.

Renner is sensational in this, proving once again that he can be believable no matter what kind of character he plays. Webb is a complex character and Renner brings out his fear, frustration and anger in perfect abundance. The moral of the story, as always, is to not mess with the US government because they will mess you up tenfold in return.

3.75 stars out of 5

The Best of Me (2014)

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Ever since The Notebook, his debut novel, Nicholas Sparks has been trying to recreate the magic with clones of his most beloved work. The Best of Me is his latest attempt, and frankly, it stinks.

Perhaps that’s too strong of a word, but I feel like if you’ve seen one Nicholas Sparks movie you’ve seen it all. This one, in particular, embraces the formula to the letter. An innocent romance between young star-crossed lovers, who end up being separated for some painful reason. Years later, they reunited by chance and rekindle the passion, lamenting how things could have been, before finishing with a bittersweet ending that aims to be both tragic and moving. If you haven’t noticed, that description matches both The Notebook and The Best of Me.

James Marsden, who played the third wheel the girl dumps in The Notebook gets an opportunity to redeem himself as the male lead this time, while Michelle Monaghan earns her paycheck as the rich girl who falls for the poor boy. The film also utilises flashbacks, in which the younger characters are played by Aussie Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, respectively. One problem with this arrangement is that James Marsden (41) looks a little too young and Luke Bracey a little too old (25) for them to be versions of the same character 21 years apart, though the bigger issue is that the two actors look absolutely nothing alike! Seriously, they might as well have gotten Samuel L Jackson to play the older version because the resemblance is zero.

Fans looking for the same thing will probably love it — explains why they keep rolling these movies out — but for me this film was just so much saccharine fluff. You can clearly see the plot points it’s trying to hit along the way, including the contrived ending you could see coming a mile away, and if you don’t buy into the characters there’s not much of a chance you’ll feel anything for them. There was one good scene between Monaghan and the actor who plays her douchey husband, Sebastian Arcelus, when they’re at the dinner table and you can see why their marriage isn’t working out, but apart from that The Best of Me won’t bring out the best of anyone who watches it.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2014)

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I can’t remember much about The Woman in Black except that Daniel Radcliffe is in it and that the film was surprisingly good and scary. The sequel, Angel of Death, on the other hand, is bland and boring.

There is a connection between the two films — being the haunted house — but they have a different cast and different directors and screenwriters. Susan Hill, who wrote the book the first film was adapted from, helped with coming up with the story, but if I didn’t know that I would have thought she simply sold the rights in return for an easy paycheck.

Angel of Death follows a boarding school teacher (Phoebe Fox) and a bunch of students forced to evacuate their boarding school during World War II. Of course, then end up at the Eel Marsh House where the Woman in Black resides. Spooky stuff starts to happen, and there’s a mystery behind the haunting that needs to be figured out. All fairly standard horror tropes.

The best thing the film has going for it is the creepy atmosphere of the house and the fact that children are involved (also scary), though the narrative progresses slowly and there are too many lulls in between the attempts at scares, which aren’t really scary with the exception of a couple of well-timed moments. On the whole, this is a straight-to-DVD-quality horror sequel fans of the original will likely be disappointed with.

2 stars out of 5

If I Stay (2014)

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Chloe Moretz is growing up quickly, and this is a bold choice for her to venture into supernatural teen romantic drama territory (which I argue is even bolder than her young prostitute stint in Denzel’s The Equalizer). If I Stay, based on the novel of the same name by Gayle Forman, tells the story of a teenage cellist named Mia who falls into a coma following a devastating car accident with her family. The twist is that Mia’s soul is still hanging around outside her body, kind of in a limbo state, and she must decide whether she wants to move on to the afterlife or stay to be with her rock band musician boyfriend (Jamie Blackley).

It’s not a terrible film, but If I Stay didn’t do much for me. The narrative jumps around, with a few scenes in the present and plenty of flashbacks that trace the progress of the romance, which came across as fairly stereotypical and without anything fresh to offer. There was a heavy focus on music, given that they are both musicians and all, but I didn’t care much for either of their musical tastes. I thought its central conceit — the whole should I stay or should I go thing — was interesting, though the execution felt like it was trying to milk tears from audiences as opposed to letting the moving drama speak  for itself. Some parts worked, while others came across as clear attempts at manipulation.

Chloe Moretz, who is very good as usual, tries really hard to make it work. Unfortunately, while I can see how some viewers would fall in love with this movie, for me, If I Stay is a film that fails to fulfill the potential of its premise.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Equalizer (2014)

January 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews

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The Equalizer, or as I like to call it, “Black Taken”, is predictable, formulaic Denzel Washington excitement. For those who take comfort in familiarity, the film will probably be an enjoyable experience. For those who are sick of watching Denzel play the same bad ass over and over, it will probably not do very much for you.

Denzel plays a seemingly normal loner named Robert, qho works in a seemingly normal job at a Home Mart. But of course, he is really a man with a very specific set of skills, and if you cross him, he will find you, and he will kill you.

And so when a surely-she-can’t-be-that-young prostitute played by Chloe Moretz is roughed up by her Russian gangster pimps, Denzel decides to go on a personal rampage of revenge and justice. But you already knew that.

Typical “character development” scenes aside, The Equalizer is more or less just Denzel being Denzel, taking names and taking down baddies with brutal efficiency. Unlike Bryan Mills, however, Robert McCall is not just about doing what he needs to do without giving a damn about anything or anyone else. And that’s because, of course, Denzel characters also need to have a heart of gold. So Bob is not only a badass — he’s also a disgustingly great guy with a moral compass that always points in the same direction as Jesus’s.

In terms of action and execution, there’s not a whole lot to complain about The Equalizer. It’s powered by the stylish direction of Antoine Fuqua and it features Denzel’s always-impressive acting chops, and for all the violence it’s actually a very comfortable film to watch because you know exactly what you’re in for. I did wish, however, that Robert could have run into a little more resistance or had some more formidable foes.

I don’t think it’s quite as good as Man on Fire, but those who are happy just to watch Denzel tear up the screen should be perfectly satisfied watching him do his thing in The Equalizer.

3.25 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Dark Places’ by Gillian Flynn

September 16, 2013 in Book Reviews, Reviews

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After tearing through Gillian Flynn’s breakthrough bestseller, Gone Girl, I wasted little time ploughing into her two earlier works. First up, her second novel, Dark Places, which intrigued me more because of its Santanic cult angle.

(Not that I am into Satanic shit myself, but I do have a fascination with how and why people get into this type of stuff. Back in the day when I was studying for my university entrance exams at the local library I would often sneak to the occult section to read up on some gruesome stories, and they always just seemed so surreal to me.)

Anyway, as I would find out, Dark Places is more of a family crime mystery than a “true” Santanic cult story. There is an occult slant, but it wasn’t as prominent of a theme as I hoped it would be. The premise is certainly an attention-grabber — Libby Day survived the murder of her whole family at the hands of her Santan-worshipping older brother when she was just seven years old. Twenty-five years later, having used up all her money, she uses what’s left of her notoriety to help a bunch of crime buffs look into her past in exchange for some cash, leading her to question whether her brother is really guilty of the crime she helped put him away for.

Like Gone Girl, Dark Places is a complex web that keeps unfolding as the pieces of the puzzle gradually fall into place. Flynn is master of holding back information and knowing when to feed it to you to keep you wanting more, and then switching the scene and point of view so you’d have to wait to find out. In this book, she does it through several interspersing narratives — Libby in the present day, as well as flashbacks to the fateful day 25 years ago from the point of view of her mother Patty and her brother Ben. Interestingly, only Libby’s story is told in first person narrative, while the others are all in third person.

It’s an intense book that builds up the suspense through a clever barrage of hooks, red herrings, and misdirection. It’s also a thoughtful story in the sense that Flynn uses the setting — poverty and marital abuse against the backdrop of the farming and housing crisis in the 80s — to bring out the grim feeling of hopelessness, despair and apathy in the tone and atmosphere.

That said, when Dark Places finally got to the big reveal, I was a little disappointed that the “truth” was not more explosive. Flynn had built up so much anticipation that my expectations had gotten too high, and I wanted there to be more than what she was giving me. I particularly hoped the Santanic cult aspect of the story would have received more attention after the explosive way she introduced it and kept it hanging, including with references to the real-life McMartin trial (which mesmerized me as a kid).

Still, I really enjoyed Dark Places and felt comfortable in Flynn’s skillful hands as she took me on this dark detour into the heartland of America. On a side-by-side comparison, I still think Gone Girl is the better and more polished book, and it’s easy to see why it was that book that has taken the world by storm, though Dark Places is still one heck of a riveting read and page-turner I would recommend to any crime fiction lover.

3.75/5

PS: The success of Gone Girl means Dark Places is also getting a film adaptation set for 2014. It’s going to star, of all people, Charlize Theron as Libby Day, which is completely at odds with whom I had in mind for the role (considering Libby is supposed to be very short — though if Tom Cruise can play Jack Reacher then why not?). I much preferred the original choice, Amy Adams.

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The cast of Dark Places: Charlize Theron, Chloe Grace Moretz, Christina Hendricks and Nicholas Hoult

Nicholas Hoult is set to play Lyle, whom I had envisioned as more of a greaseball-type character. Christina Hendricks will play the mother, Patty Day, which I don’t see either (they better really de-glamorize her and make her frumpy-looking), and Chloe Grace Moretz will play Diondra, which feels like a complete mismatch as well. Corey Stoll from House of Cards will play the older Ben, which I can see, while Tye Sheridan (one of the kids from Tree of Life, whom I can’t remember) will play the younger Ben. Seriously, did the casting director read the same book as me? That is one heck of a glamorous cast for a bunch of characters who are supposed to be white trash. I much prefer the casting of Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike for Gone Girl.

Movie Review: Kick-Ass 2 (2013)

September 6, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The original Kick-Ass, released in 2010, was a breath of fresh air amid the cascade of superhero movies that continue to rain down upon us to this day. It was edgy, ultra-violent, and contained a lot of swearing, and it didn’t apologize for all the insanity one bit.

Three years later, the long-awaited sequel, Kick-Ass 2, attempts to relive that magic by continuing the story with roughly the same formula. It’s not a bad film if you enjoyed the first one, as the story is a natural progression from how it ended, and there are still lots of over-the-top violence and uncomfortable moments to satisfy your sick urges. That said, the freshness and edginess of the original are gone, and what we’re left with is just a pretty stock standard comic book movie that will satisfy some but leave others disappointed.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Taylor-Johnson), Kick-Ass, has decided to hang up his green suit and secret life of being a crime-fighting vigilante after the events of the first film, which culminated in the death of his mentor, Big Daddy (Nicholas Cage). Big Daddy’s daughter, the lovable Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz), is still doing her thing, but she has been forced to pretend to be “normal” by attending Dave’s school under the guidance of her new guardian.

Kick-Ass then meets Colonel Stars and Stripes (Jim Carrey), who has set up a kind of Avengers initiative/support group for fellow vigilante crime-fighters, which finally makes Dave feel like he belongs. Meanwhile, Kick-Ass’s former partner in crime, Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), continues his progression towards supervillain by renaming himself The Motherf*&#er and collecting a team of baddies to take down anyone that dares to stand in his way.

If you were writing a sequel to Kick-Ass, what I just summarized above would probably be the most obvious plot you could come up with. This is one of the reasons why Kick-Ass lacks the punch of the original.

Another reason is because Kick-Ass was full of dark humour, one brutal hit after another, whereas Kick-Ass 2 shifts away from that somewhat and towards a more conventional coming-of-age story, especially the arc about Hit-Girl trying to fit in with the school’s mean girls. There’s nothing wrong with any of that, but it’s just not as titillating. I didn’t like all the jokes in Kick-Ass, but I found it funny enough for the most part. Kick-Ass 2, on the other hand, had more lame jokes and was probably more “amusing” than genuinely funny.

When it comes to the fighting sequences, however, Kick-Ass 2 still delivers, complete with crazy blood splatters and thudding sound effects. It’s probably a little less stylized than the shocking violence from the original but there are a few cool comic-book sequences that will have fanboys spraying their shorts. A guaranteed crowd favourite would have to be the female Drago from the baddies gang, Mother Russia.

For all its flaws, I still had a good popcorn time with Kick-Ass 2, partly because I had low expectations given its lukewarm reception from critics. Hit-Girl is still very cool, even if Moretz looks a lot more grown up than she did three years ago, and Mintz-Plasse was surprisingly solid holding up the baddie end of the movie. Taylor-Johnson impressed me by managing to look like a high school dork again after his unrecognisable turn in last year’s Savages, though I felt like he lacked the charisma he had from the first film. If they do decide to make a third film (depending on the box office performance of this one), it will need to be drastically different for it to be worth it.

3.25 stars out of 5

ATJ in Kick-Ass 2 (left) and Savages (right)

ATJ in Kick-Ass 2 (left) and Savages (right)