Movie Review: Dracula Untold (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

dracula untold

If I had gone into Dracula Untold knowing only of the horrendous reviews I had glanced, I probably would have really enjoyed it and thought that critics were completely overreacting. However, I had also received several positive endorsements from friends, who said the film is nowhere near that bad and was actually a perfectly acceptable dark fantasy reimagining/mashing of a classic story and a historical legend. In the end, my impression of Dracula Untold lies somewhere in the middle — it definitely is not as bad as the reviews say, though on the other hand I had so many issues with it I found it difficult to conclude that it is any more than just a passable effort.

In essence, Dracula Untold is a superhero movie. We have a protagonist who obtains super powers beyond his imagination, but of course the powers comes at a very steep price. Here, Prince Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) is a hero who turns himself into Superman…oops,  I mean vampire (with the help of Games of Thrones‘s Charles Dance) — with super strength, speed, healing capabilities and the ability to fly — in order to save his family and his people from the nasty draconian Turks led by his evil “brother” Mehmet (Dominic Cooper, whom I coincidentally often mistake for Evans for some inexplicable reason). The problem, of course, is that he wants to drink human blood and has a weakness for direct sunlight and silver.One of the key strengths of Dracula Untold lies in Vlad’s internal struggle. Instead of the historical villain who loved to impale his victims, Vlad is depicted as an astonishingly capable warrior who is righteous in everything he does — even when he is impaling people. He is an all-round family man who dearly loves his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his young son (Art Parkinson), which is why he chose to become a monster to protect them, even though he’ll constantly want to drink their blood. First time feature director Gary Shore does a solid job of milking this inner conflict so that we might care about our protagonist. Kudos also to Evans for putting in as good of a performance as one could have hoped in a role like this.

Further, while the film is not scary at all, there is a gloomy mood that works well with the film’s themes. The action sequences are surprisingly exhilarating, in the way that superhero flicks can be when executed right. Admittedly, watching Dracula turn into bats and take on thousands of soldiers by his lonesome is pretty cool, even if you sometimes feel like you’re watching a video game.

Up to this point, Dracula Untold just about ticks all the right boxes for an enjoyable Hollywood guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, the film is also plagued with so many gaps in logic and physics and missing or puzzling details that I found myself asking, “Did that really just happen?” more than a couple of times (see below this review for some slightly spoilery examples). Granted, most Hollywood flicks suffer from similar problems, but the ones here are so glaring and sloppy that they snapped me out of the film’s flow. Some of the flaws are less abhorrent once you realize that they are apparently planning a sequel — which also partly explains the stupid ending — though I doubt we’ll ever get to the bottom of most of these mysteries.

Apart from Vlad, there are also no other characters to give a crap about. Gadon’s loving wife is sadly a thankless character who doesn’t do much except whinge and cry and wait to be rescued, and the son is more or less a prop. Vlad also has a couple of loyal right-hand men whom we don’t even get to know before they die, but then are expected to care. And there’s this weird “servant” dude who pops out of nowhere to act creepy but we have no idea who he is, where he came from or what his motivations are.

In all, Dracula Untold flashed glimpses of promise. The premise itself is not bad, the lead star is solid and the action sequences are relatively exciting. It’s also, thankfully, a very tightly-packed 92-minutes that never feels boring. At the end of the day, I’d rank it above abominations like I, Frankenstein and below more fun, less serious efforts like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

2.75 stars out of 5

(SPOILER ALERT) Here are some of the questions I asked myself while watching Dracula Untold:

– Is Charles Dance’s vampire restricted to living in that cave or just at night? If he’s always stuck in there then where do all the bones come from? Why would so many people go to extreme lengths to get into that cave so they could be eaten? Why is he stuck there and Vlad can roam around freely? And if Vlad “sets him free” by replacing him in the end, then why can Vlad still go wherever he wants?
– Doesn’t Charles Dance’s vampire want to seek revenge against the one who made him that way? What’s he doing still following Vlad around — 600 years later? What the heck are these “games” he’s talking about?
– Why could Vlad not save Mirena when she fell off the cliff when he can fly she she was just free-falling? He can fly so fast he basically teleports, and he’s likely falling quicker because of his greater mass!
– So did he get to her in time or what? If so, why is she dead? If not, why did she not splatter and why could she still talk so much?
– How did Vlad’s kid get from the top of the cliff onto a horse at the bottom of the cliff basically during the time it took for his mother to fall to her death?
– So Mirena reincarnated into Mina 600 years later? Is that what they’re saying? Seriously?
– Is Vlad more powerful than the other vampires he created? Why? Why does he look so much better than them? Why didn’t he look like Charles Dance even though he “replaced” him? Why can he cover the sky with clouds? And how can he (and Charles Dance) be walking around in daylight at the end of the film?
– Why am I thinking so much about things that don’t make sense in this movie?

Movie Review: Need for Speed (2014)

April 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

need_for_speed

I love Aaron Paul, but I’m fairly certain I prefer him as a meth cook than a racing car driver.

Need for Speed (not the drug, of course, as Aaron Paul prefers blue meth), based on one of the most successful video game franchises of all-time, tells the story of Toby Marshall (Paul), a former professional racer who turns to tuning performance cars to make a living. Tragedy strikes, as it usually does, and Toby is made to suffer for it, but soon after he’s plotting his revenge. And that revenge somehow entails driving in a racing car across the country with an attractive British lass (Imogen Poots) while lots of people try to kill him.

Video game adaptations that aren’t utter crap are hard to come by these days, and I guess you could make an argument that Need for Speed is not utter crap. It’s certainly not great, and not even particularly good, but it’s passable entertainment. And its box office success (US$186 million on a US$66 million budget) means there could be more entries. That said, the status of Fast & Furious as the definitive Hollywood car racing franchise remains safe.

The most positive thing I can say about the film is that its driving sequences are done pretty well. I personally don’t care much about cars but even I have to admit that the vehicles look very pretty, and they look even prettier driving at 200+ miles per hour while weaving through traffic, escaping gunfire and evading the police. I didn’t see the film in IMAX or 3D, but I can imagine it being quite a visual feast (the IMAX at least, not so sure about the 3D).

Everything else is where I struggle to come up with positive things to say. The plot, of course, is preposterous. You know that just from the short description I gave above. None of it really makes any sense, and if you think about it too hard your brain might explode. Revenge through racing in an underground competition? — I still can’t get my head around it. The motivations of the characters and their reactions are all over the place, and it’s best if you try and treat it like a video game for the sake of your sanity.

Unlike the Fast & Furious franchise, the characters are bland. Even with an actor the calibre of Aaron Paul, the lead character of Toby Marshall is weak. There’s just nothing about him. The same can be said for everyone else, from Imogen Poots’s obvious love interest to the boring and one-dimensional villain played by Dominic Cooper. As for the radio DJ played by Michael Keaton, who spends the entire film commentating, I don’t even know what to say. It weirded me out, to be honest.

And that’s where the film falls apart — it’s inability to connect with audiences with anything other than action scenes. It sure tries, with plenty of attempts at “emotion” and a hefty running time of 130 minutes, which is just ridiculous, though ultimately there is nothing memorable about it. The really pathetic attempts at humour, even of the cheesy kind, also bothered me, though I was pleasantly surprised that they did not try to sexualise the movie with a lot of scantily-clad ladies or obligatory sex scenes, which I thought were a given in flicks about cool cars. On the other hand, there was no shortage of cringeworthy “whoa”, “yeah”, “cool”, “awesome” moments which I’m sure the younger (and dumber) generations will love.

Overall, more or less what I expected. Nice car racing scenes and a dash of Aaron Paul intensity, but that’s about all that’s got going for it.

2.5 stars out of 5

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 8)

December 18, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

The Art of Getting By (2011)

The Art of Getting By

This is a really weird movie which I don’t really get. It’s the first feature from writer-director Gavin Wiesen and I believe it’s supposed to be a coming-of-age comedy drama, although the whole thing just felt kind of “meh” to me.

George (Freddie Highmore) is a high school student and gifted artist who is a rut because he finds life meaningless. He is put on academic probation and told to get his act together, and at around the same time he meets a pretty girl, Sally (Emma Roberts). They form a bond, become friends and maybe something more.

See, even writing that brief synopsis was boring to me. I’ve always been a fan of Highmore and I think Roberts is a cute actress, and both put in solid performances, but the film itself failed to sustain my interest (and it’s only 84 minutes!).

Perhaps I am getting too old, but for some reason the actions and dialogue of these kids seemed totally unrealistic to me. It’s not just they are so self-absorbed but watching them act and talk like adults made them lose whatever charm they had. I didn’t find them innocent or sweet at all.

There might have been a bigger message in the film somewhere but it jumped right over my head.

1.5 stars out of 5

Drive Angry (2011) (2D)

DriveAngryPoster

Another Nicolas Cage movie where he’s paid to be Nicholas Cage? Yes, that’s precisely what Drive Angry (which is supposed to be in 3D at the cinemas, though I caught it on the small screen) is all about.

Cage plays Milton, a felon who breaks out from Hell (yes, the opposite of Heaven) to prevent a satanic cult led by Billy Burke (the dad from Twilight) from sacrificing his granddaughter. Somewhere along the way he picks up a waitress played by Amber Heard. Lots of gun fights, car chases and explosions ensue.

Surprisingly, however, Drive Angry is not as bad as it sounds. Sure, it’s forgettable and blends into all of the other B-grade films Cage has made in recent years, but at least it is occasionally fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Classier moviegoers might be turned off by all the relentless, over-the-top violence, the loud sound effects and the ludicrous but unapologetic plot, but those looking for a silly albeit entertaining grindhouse flick might find it a guilty pleasure.

By the way, the score probably would have been lower had I watched it in cash-sucking 3D.

3 stars out of 5

The Rum Diary (2011)

rum diary

I am a fan of Hunter S Thompson’s writing and his Gonzo journalism, so I was kind of excited about a film based on his novel starring Johnny Depp. But The Rum Diary turned out to be slightly disappointing. It was occasionally entertaining and amusing but felt like there was no focus and the film drifted all over the place without a compelling storyline to follow.

Depp plans Paul Kemp, a down-on-his-luck writer who gets a job for a paper in Puerto Rico. There are shady deals, lots of drinking and crazy shenanigans, but nothing that really gripped me to the characters or the plot.

Depp is pretty good, as is the steady Aaron Eckhart. Amber Heard is very good as the seductress, so good, apparently, that she ended up breaking up Depp’s marriage. Oh well.

On the whole, The Rum Diary is not bad for some light amusement (although it felt too long with a 2-hour running time), but it’s ultimately quite forgettable.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Devil’s Double (2011)

The-Devils-Double-Movie-poster-freemovietag

The Devil’s Double is apparently a true story based on the life of Latif Yahia, who looked so much like Saddam Hussein’s son Uday that he was forced to be his body double.

The story has not stood up well after several debunking attempts, but I still found the concept utterly fascinating. Imagine being forced to be the doppelganger of the son of a ruthless tyrant and being sent to do all the crap he doesn’t want to do and the places he doesn’t want to go. It also means constantly being placed in danger and having no way out – well, apart from torturous deaths for you and your family.

Dominic Cooper players the duel role of Latif and Uday and he is dynamite. There was never any doubt in my mind that he was two completely separate people, and it’s not just because of the clever make-up and prosthetics that made their appearances slightly different, at least at the beginning before the forced plastic surgery. Can’t believe was only nominated for a single Saturn Award for this performance.

It’s a flawed film with an overdose of brutality and occasional lulls in the narrative, but Cooper’s performance and the premise alone were enough to keep me interested for the majority of the 108-minute running time.

3.75 stars out of 5

 
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