Movie Review: Horns (2014)

November 15, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’m just going to come out and say it. I think Horns is awesome. It’s weird and surreal, and it’s a little all over the place, but it’s also original, devilishly twisted and wickedly funny.

Daniel Radcliffe stars as Ignatius “Ig” Perrish, a young man who has been shunned by his small town after being fingered as the prime suspect for the rape and murder of his lovely girlfriend Merrin (Juno Temple). One morning, Ig awakes with two horns protruding from his head. He has no idea where they came from and he can’t get rid of them, but there’s clearly something supernatural about it all because the horns seem to come with certain powers — powers he will exploit in an effort to clear his name.

The story is based on the novel of the same name by Joe Hill. Some of you might not know this, but Hill is Stephen King’s son, and he displays a lot of the same wicked sensitivities as his old man. The central idea of the film may start off as a gimmicky concept, but Hill manages to infuse the tale with a sharp satirical edge and plenty of dark humour to firmly distinguish himself from his old man.

The film has received mixed reviews from critics largely for its tonal inconsistencies, and I agree to some degree. It has been marketed as a horror, though it also has elements of comedy, fantasy, family drama, mystery and romance. You could even call it a part-religious satire or allegory for the way it takes on religion and religious symbolism. Either way, the shifts in tone are far from seamless, and as a result viewers could find themselves questioning what the film really wants to be and what it is trying to say.

For me, Horns is first and foremost a black comedy because its hilarity is what stands out the most. I laughed more times in this movie than pure comedies I’ve seen in years, though that might say more about my twisted sense of humour than anything else. The film does become less funny and more dark as it nears its conclusion, but for me it will always be a black comedy at heart. And besides, there are very few attempts to scare the audience for the first three-quarters of the film, and even when it started veering into horror I found it more unsettling than frightening.

I can’t think of another film quite like it. The one that pops up in my mind, strangely, is Jennifer’s Body (the Megan Fox and Amanda Seyfried flick from 2009). That one was sexier and much scarier, but it has the same type of twisted, surreal tone and satirical wit.

Director Alexandre Aja has a bit of a mixed-bag career — he rose to stardom with Haute Tension in 2003 and did a fine job with the 2006 remake of The Hills Have Eyes, though he followed those efforts up with the clunky Mirrors and the campy Piranha 3D. In my opinion, Horns may actually be his best film to date.

Daniel Radcliffe has been busy trying to reinvent himself since Harry Potter ended, starring in a range of flicks from The Woman in Black (straight horror) and Kill Your Darlings (biographical drama) to The F Word (rom-com). Horns is arguably his most daring post-Potter venture to date, and I also believe it’s likely the best performance of his career — and that’s even with him putting on an American accent. Radcliffe is proving himself to be one of those rare actors who couldn’t act for shit as a child but has gradually developed into a quality thespian with a bright future ahead of him.

The rest of the cast is not too shabby either. Even though she’s supposed to be dead, Juno Temple appears more than you’d think through flashbacks, and she does a fine job of convincing audiences that she’s someone all the boys in town would pine for. Max Minghella is solid as the best friend-slash-lawyer, while Joe Anderson plays the quiet brother. Veterans such as Heather Graham, Kathleen Quinlan and David Morse round out the impressive ensemble.

My main problem with Horns is not the tonal inconsistencies, but rather, the predictable nature of its central mystery. Maybe it’s just me, but I figured out the real killer about 10 minutes into the film. Fortunately, there were plenty of other little curve balls and surprises to keep the film intriguing for the remainder of its 2-hour running time.

The best black comedies always say something about the darkest aspects of human nature. Horns is about our constant judgments of others. It’s about living up to the image we think society has carved out for us. It’s about the hypocrisy of thinking one way and saying or doing another. It’s about selfishness and self-preservation. That’s why I think it is a stroke of genius for Hill to bring out all of these nasty sides of human nature in a story about a guy demonized by his community appearing to be literally turning into the devil, and to do it in such an original, twisted, and intentionally unsubtle way.

And so, despite recognizing its flaws, I had an absolute blast with horns. I think it is a unique genre-bender and one of my Darkhorse favorites of the year.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Before I Go to Sleep (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I had wanted desperately to read SJ Watson’s Before I Go to Sleep, the bestselling novel about a 40-year-old woman who has that same condition as Drew Barrymore from 50 First Dates — ie, she has no short term memory and wakes up every morning with no recollection of the previous day or what happened to her since her early 20s. But alas, I was stuck on other books, so I decided to take the easy way out and watch the adaptation starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth and Mark Strong.

While the film blatantly steals from Adam Sandler’s idea (if you can’t tell that’s a joke then I can’t help you), Before I Go to Sleep is no comedy — it’s a mystery thriller with plenty of suspense that will have every viewer trying to guess the outcome. Personally, I thought it was a perfectly solid mystery film that doesn’t manage to fully differentiate itself from similar Hollywood efforts in recent years. I enjoyed the ride while it lasted, and while I wouldn’t call it forgettable (pun unintended), the film clearly will not be as revered as its source material.

Nicole Kidman plays our protagonist, Christine Lucas, who suffers from the — let’s just call it the Drew Barrymore condition — because of an “accident” she was in about 10 years ago, or so her husband Ben (Colin Firth) tells her. Every morning, after waking up and being reminded of who she is by Ben, she receives a call from a neurologist, Dr Nasch (Mark Strong), who tells her that they’ve been secretly working together to help her remember her past.

Naturally, nothing is what it seems, and Christine slowly begins to peel away the mystery, one layer at a time like an onion. Who can she trust? Who is telling her the truth? And why did she really become this way? These are all questions that will get answered eventually, though not before writer and director Rowan Joffe (who was a writer on 28 Weeks Later and The American) throws a bunch of curve balls at us. But anyone who watched this film probably knew that there’d be twists and turns galore, and an obligatory surprise at the very end.

Knowing what’s coming, however, didn’t dampen my enjoyment of the film. Before I Go to Sleep is done and dusted in an extremely manageable (and unlikely for this day and age) 92 minutes. The short running time keeps the film tight and fast paced, and Joffe cleverly finds ways to avoid repetition despite Christine waking up in the same manner every day. Always be kept on the back foot from all the plot twists and red herrings also prevents you from thinking too much about all the potential plot holes and inconsistencies.

I know it is unpatriotic of me to say this, but I have never been the biggest fan of Nicole Kidman. I just don’t think, Oscar notwithstanding, she’s that good of an actress. Having said that, I admit she there is not much for me to complain about here. She gets the job done, I’ll leave it at that. Colin Firth and Mark Strong are also excellent and make full use of their charisma in different ways, such that both come off as trustworthy suspects.

My biggest problem with the film, and films like this in general, is that knowing a “shocking” twist is coming means you likely won’t be shocked when it finally comes. I couldn’t shake that feeling of anticipation throughout most of the film, and I doubt I’m alone when I say I more or less guessed the ending.

While it doesn’t come close to blowing me away like I was by a classic like The Usual Suspects, I think Before I Go to Sleep generally accomplishes what it set out to do. It might not be the most creative or satisfying mystery thriller you’ll come across this year, but in my opinion it’s certainly one of the better ones.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Fault in Our Stars (2014)

September 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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First the book, and now the movie. I’m not big on romance, but I consider myself a fan of John Green’s young adult cancer romance novel The Fault in Our Stars. Last week I finally got a chance to see the movie adaptation, directed by Josh Boone (set to direct a new adaptation of Stephen King’s The Stand) and starring rising stars Shailene Woodley and Ansel Elgort as a pair of cancer-ridden teen lovers.

I went in expecting a tear-jerker and still came close to discharging some saltwater from my eyes, which is no mean feat considering I almost never cry at movies and I knew exactly what was going to happen. I don’t have a problem with films that intend to manipulate viewers into crying as long as it is done in a non-exploitative way, and I think The Fault in Our Stars achieves, and if not comes very close to achieving, that objective. The emotions come not just from the realization that young lovers will inevitably be torn apart, but arise organically from the fact that we care about them and the special relationship that they have.

Woodley plays Hazel Grace Lancaster, a smart, uncannily self-aware teen living with terminal thyroid cancer. She’s already supposed to be dead, but a fictional experimental drug has miraculously extended her life for an indeterminate period of time. At one of the dreaded support groups her parents send her to, she meets Augustus Waters (Elgort) a former basketball star who lost a leg to osteosarcoma. The attraction is instant, and the two begin a sweet but doomed courtship that will take them from Indiana to halfway across the world.

I thought the book was awesome, and the film does a fantastic job of staying true to its source material. Much of the dialogue is there, the key scenes are all there, and some of Hazel’s inner thoughts are projected to audiences via well-timed but not overused voice-overs. There were some small changes, such as the cutting out of some minor characters and a clever (and arguably more effective) tweak to the ending, but for the most part the adaptation is as smooth as fans of the book could have hoped for, and kudos must go to Josh Boone in creating a tone that captures the essence of John Green’s voice and style.

Admittedly, it is difficult to transfer the love story from the page to the screen without losing something, and if one must nitpick it would have to be the loss of some of the sardonic wit of the novel. Much of it is there through the dialogue and interactions between the characters, but I guess it was too difficult to squeeze in all of Hazel’s astute observations and thoughts about the world and the people around her. But hey, I get that the focus is on the love story, and you can’t blame the filmmakers for sacrificing a bit of humour to make more time for tears.

The casting is also a bit of a mixed bag. Shailene Woodley is magnificent. I don’t know if it’s an Oscar-worthy performance, but in my humble opinion it’s as good as performance Jennifer Lawrence has given. Woodley drives the film from start to finish. She’s sympathetic but not pitiful, charming but not obnoxious, and she brings out the best of the qualities of Hazel as the protagonist.

Ansel Elgort, who incidentally played Woodley’s brother in Divergent, is solid but occasionally struggles as the love of Hazel’s life, Augustus Waters. It’s not an easy role to pull off because he needs to be attractive, witty, considerate and caring, and Elgort achieves that for the most part, though at times he fails express his emotions in pivotal scenes, opting instead for an awkward, supposed-to-be-but-not-really charming smile. But still, he’s better than Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner.

The supporting cast had some big names but not quite what I expected. Hazel’s mother is played by a rail-thin Laura Dern, who despite her excellent performance was not the actress I had envisioned in the role. Neither was Hazel’s father, played by True Blood’s Sam Trammell, who is given less to do and doesn’t deliver any more than he is given. The strangest casting choice was that of Willem Dafoe as the writer Hazel worships, Peter van Houten. Having read the book, I know the character is supposed to be fat and dishevelled, but Dafoe (despite trying to dress down) is neither, and it was hard reconciling the two in my mind. Even had I not read the book beforehand I probably would have expected more from the performance.

As it turned out, it was the lesser-known Nat Wolff (who appeared in Boone’s first film, Stuck in Love) who steals the show from the other supporting characters in his role as Augustus’s best male friend Isaac, who has already lost one eye to cancer and is about to lose the other. He was exactly how I pictured the character to be and comes across as both affable and genuine.

I can only imagine how my thoughts about the film would differ had I not read the book first, though I imagine it would still be highly positive. This is an easy film to like, with likable characters, a witty and thoughtful take on the bleak subject matter of cancer, and of course plenty of heartbreak mixed in with splashes of beauty and joy. It might still be a teen romance, but it’s a heartfelt and powerful one that does its best to avoid the cliches of the genre with rare wisdom and warmth.

4 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘Sycamore Row’ by John Grisham

May 1, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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Alright, alright, alright.

So I picked Sycamore Row almost at random for one of my reads this year, knowing it’s yet another John Grisham bestseller but with no idea that it’s his long-awaited direct sequel to his debut novel, A Time to Kill. I’m not as high on Grisham’s first book as most of his other fans, but I thought it was a provocative and fascinating look into law and race in the United States, particularly in the notoriously racist state of Mississippi. In that book (review here), young hotshot lawyer Jack Brigance was tasked with defending African-American Carl Lee Hailey for murdering two white men who raped, tortured and nearly killing his daughter. It was a bit of a grind, a typical first novel that’s a overlong and filled with a lot of (occasionally misguided) passion, but I also can’t deny that there’s a certain charm and resonance to it.

The 1996 film adaptation starred Matthew McConaughey as Brigance, Samuel L Jackson and Hailey, and had a supporting cast with big names such as Sandra Bullock, Kevin Spacey, Donald Sutherland, Ashley Judd and Oliver Platt. As I said in my review, the film is “a little self-righteous, melodramatic and contrived at times, but for the most part it was still an entertaining, thrilling, thought-provoking courtroom drama.”

And now the sequel, Sycamore Row, brings back Brigance as the central character in a whole new trial, one that is completely different to its predecessor but also tackles race issues in America’s deep south. The story is set in 1989, several years after Brigance got Hailey off murder (oops, is that a spoiler?) but remains affected by its outcome. He got the notoriety he sought but not the financial or career advancements he had hoped, and he and his wife Carly remain locked in a battle with the insurers over their burnt-down house. Out of nowhere, Brigance receives a letter containing the will of a wealthy white man who leaves the vast majority of his sizable estate to his black maid at the expense of his children, and thus begins a mammoth civil suit for the loot.

I was impressed by Grisham’s decision to switch the arena from criminal to civil this time. Most legal dramas are about murder, violence and sinister plots — after all, these sound the most enticing — but here Grisham does an excellent job of turning a will contest into an engrossing case. There are many characters and subplots weaving in and out of the narrative — there’s Brigance, bound to his duty to act for the estate but salivating at the financial windfall from a long trial, and at the same time worried that his drunken mentor, Lucien Wilbanks, is planning a return to legal practice; there’s Lettie Lang, the black maid and sudden but only potential millionaire, who has to deal with all the allegations against manipulation and misconduct of a frail old man while putting up with her deadbeat husband and family members leaching off her; there’s all the family members of the deceased, who hated him but would love some of his money to change their lives, AND all their lawyers, each angling for a slice of the lucrative pie; and of course, there’s the big mystery itself — why would the old man do what he did, if he did in fact know what he was doing?

Many of the old characters from A Time to Kill make a return, including Ozzie the town sheriff, former district attorney Rufus Buckley (played by Kevin Spacey in the movie), as well as hated divorce lawyer and Brigance ally Harry Rex (Oliver Platt in the film). It’s a testimony to the lasting power of A Time to Kill that I didn’t need much of a reminder to recall these characters I read about nearly three years ago. All of them, even the minor characters, are memorable and well-developed. I particularly liked the experienced lawyer Brigance found himself up against in the trial, Wade Lanier, who is a completely different breed to the despicable Buckley. Rather than creating yet another villain, Lanier is simply a formidable and respectable foe, someone who doesn’t mind resorting to dirty tricks but is never malicious or takes things personal.

Race is again the central theme of the book, as are the concepts of family and redemption, though this time Grisham takes a different angle. A Time to Kill was very black and white — those monsters deserved to die — but in Sycamore Row there are more shades of grey (there was even a section where Grisham questions the readers whether it was right for Hailey to have gotten off in A Time to Kill, irrespective of the injustice that was done to him). In the case of a will contest, Grisham asks why children should be obliged to look after a father who neglected them. But at the same time, why should a father leave his hard-earned money to children who wanted nothing to do with him? What is fair and what is just?

Those who have a keen interest in how the legal system works will also enjoy the painstaking nature in which Grisham goes through all the procedures leading up to the trial — even the tedious nitty gritty of it, from preliminary investigations to discovery, from pre-trial conferences to jury selection. It shows that Grisham is still passionate about the law, but on the downside more than two-thirds of the book elapses before the juicy stuff, the real trial, even begins.

It’s a long book at 464 pages for the hardcover edition, which probably means 700 pages or more for a regular paperback or large print edition. The strange thing for me when reading this book is that, despite all that happens throughout, it feels frustratingly flat, even at the supposed climax. It was as though Grisham was intentionally trying to avoid sensationalizing the story with a “slow-burn” narrative, one that plays on your emotions without being obvious about it. Part of the frustration probably comes from the feeling that you have a fairly good idea of how it is going to end, and roughly why it will end that way due to the obvious hints implanted in the story early on and along the way. Much like it was in A Time to Kill, you just know that the going will get tough and everything will appear lost before a rabbit is pulled out of the hat. I must also say that I didn’t really buy the ending, though I can’t explain why without divulging spoilers. Having said that, the final chapter steers the plot back towards more of a realistic and common sense conclusion, which at least mitigates some of the problems I had with it.

The result is a page-turner that falls short of being a compulsive page-turner. The novel keeps your interest because of the storyline and characters, but there’s also plenty of unnecessary padding. Some of it is interesting, some of it isn’t. There were a couple of times when I thought Grisham was trying to set something up for later, but the strand would never be resolved, leaving me wondering why he bothered sowing the seeds in the first place. I get the feeling that he or his editors could have easily pared back more pages to make it a smoother read.

Despite all the negative things I’ve said about Sycamore Row, I think it’s a superior novel to A Time to Kill. It’s not as compulsive, explosive or fast-paced as I hoped it would be, but I was still hooked into the story from the very first page and enjoyed reading it through to the end. It’s what Grisham fans have been hoping for ever since he penned A Time to Kill back in 1989 — a solid, emotionally satisfying sequel.

4/5

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Matthew McConaughey as Jack Brigance in A Time to Kill (1996)

PS: I read in an interview somewhere that there are talks for a film adaptation of Sycamore Row and Grisham is keen to have McConaughey and his smug face back as Brigance, notwithstanding the fact that the Oscar-winner is now 44 and nearly a decade older than the character.

Book Review: ‘3096 Days’ by Natascha Kampusch

April 3, 2014 in Best Of, Book Reviews, Reviews

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I find long-term abduction stories fascinating. What kind of a person could do something so cruel to another human being? What kind of human being could live through such cruelty?

A few years back I read Alan Hall’s Monster (review here), a horrific investigative study into the case of Josef Fritzl, who kept his biological daughter Elizabeth in a dungeon for 24 years as a sex slave. Earlier this year I tackled Elizabeth Smart’s My Story (review here), the account of her harrowing 9-month abduction at the hands of a deranged couple in 2002.

After reading My Story I decided first-person accounts of such stories were probably best avoided as Smart’s book underwhelmed due to her weak writing, but I decided to ignore my own advice after coming across 3,096 Days, penned by another Austrian abductee, Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive from the ages of 10 and 18. After breezing through it in a few days, I now have to backtrack from what I said about first-person accounts, because 3,096 days is not just the best abduction book out there — it’s one of the best first-person true stories and finely written autobiographies I’ve ever read.

Natascha Kampusch was an unhappy, overweight and introverted 10-year-old who was on her way to school after a fight with her mother when she was tossed in a van by Wolfgang Priklopil, a mentally ill recluse who appeared polite and “normal” to locals. She would spend the majority of the next 3,096 days in a steel-enforced dungeon in Priklopil’s house that brought back memories of Josef Fritzl’s house of horrors. She would be starved, subjected to mental and physical abuse and torture, and living in constant fear of her bi-polar captor. By the time she was escaped, at age 18, Kampusch was a shell of a person, barely 40kg (despite being 175cm) and terrified of the free world she faced for the rest of her life.

This is a remarkable book. Kampusch’s writing is nothing short of amazing, considering she lost more than 8 of the most important years of her education. On the other hand, she spent a large proportion of her time in captivity reading, writing and educating herself, so in that sense it’s not surprising that she comes across as such a seasoned writer.

Some credit must go to her co-writer Heike Gronemeier and her English translator Jill Kreuer, but there’s no doubt that the bulk of the book is entirely her own words, because only she could describe — in tender, beautiful and heartfelt prose — the complex emotions she has towards her ordeal and her abductor whom she mostly calls “the kidnapper” in the book.

In many ways I found Kampusch’s writing almost Anne Frank-esque, not just in her observations and views on life but in the way her words manage to evoke a pure emotional response. Her descriptions are dramatic yet unpretentious, piercing yet comforting. I don’t know how she does it but there were so many passages where I found myself in awe of with her ability to hit the mark.

When I read Elizabeth Smart’s My Story, I complained about my inability to connect with her psyche and how the things she said often felt like “justifications” for her seemingly bizarre behaviour (such as squandering many obvious opportunities for escape) rather than “explanations” of why someone in her position might act that way. With Kampusch, it was the opposite. Even though she was criticized just as much as, if not more than, Smart for her behaviour, I understood where she was coming from perfectly. Had I not read her book, I too might have been baffled as to how she could go out with her kidnapper in public, and even on a ski trip, without reaching out for help. But after reading about the the depths of her fear and the grip Priklopil had over her, everything made sense.

Another impressive thing about 3,096 days is Kampusch’s insights into Priklopil, from his personality and mental illness to his upbringing and unnatural relationship with his mother. You can tell that despite everything he put her through, she had a special connection with him, and how could she not when he was the only person in her life, the only person she spoke to and interacted with, for 8.5 years? I was impressed with the way she saw him as not just an evil man (the way Smart saw her abductor), but as a complex person who could show kindness and vulnerability but also had a terrifying darkness that constantly threatened to overwhelm him. As she said, children who are ill-treated and abused by their parents and guardians still love them, and I suppose that goes some way towards explaining her feelings towards Priklopil and why she wept when she found out he had thrown himself under a train after she escaped.

I was also impressed with her refusal to accept that she was suffering from Stockholm Syndrome, saying the label oversimplifies the complex relationship she had with her kidnapper. You can tell she has put a lot of intelligent thought, research and effort into analysing her ordeal and her emotions in the years since she was freed. Instead of trying to forget and put those eight years of her life behind her, which would have been impossible anyway, she is doing her best to make sense of this atrocious, meaningless crime committed against her.

(By the way, I am in no way trying to demean Smart or her experience. She had a completely different type of abductor and the period of her captivity was not so long that she could develop any positive feelings towards the perpetrators. But the contrast between the approach of the two books and the way their respective stories were told is stark, probably something akin comparing this the quality of the writing in this blog to that of the New Yorker.)

The only genuine fault I can find with the book is Kampusch’s refusal to talk about her sexual abuse at the hands of Priklopil. While she admitted in interviews that she was raped several times during her ordeal, in the book she sidestepped the issue by saying that there are some parts of her capture she wished to keep private (she did say that Priklopil chained her to his bed but mostly just wanted to cuddle). You can’t blame her for not wanting to talk about something like this, but the omission does spark concerns that perhaps Kampusch could be leaving other details out as well. It’s unfortunate because she already has so many doubters, many of whom believe she is hiding something. I can only repeat what I said in the case of Elizabeth Smart, which is unless you personally experience what they’ve gone through you have no idea how you’d react in the same situation.

Ultimately, I am certain that 3,096 Days will resonate with me for quite some time. It’s a fascinating read that’s harrowing and hard to stomach at times, but I found it contemplative, empathetic and truthful — in the sense that not everything in life is black or white, good or evil. It’s a testament to Natascha Kampusch’s courage, her strength, her intelligence, and I’m glad I was fortunate enough to have come across this inspiring book.

5/5

PS: 3,096 Days has been adapted into a feature film of the same name. I’m not sure if I will watch it, but here’s the trailer anyway. There is also full documentary on Kampusch’s story on YouTube called 3,096 Days in Captivity.

 
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