Movie Review: Maggie (2015)

June 8, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Maggie-2015-poster

The Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is back in the post-apocalyptic depressor, Maggie, about a young girl’s final days before turning into a zombie.

I heard a lot of mixed things about the movie before I finally had a chance to watch it, and I think much of it is misleading. For starters, I don’t think much of Arnie’s performance, which has been hailed as the best of his career — like that’s saying much. It doesn’t even feel like he’s in it all that much, as the story focuses more on the eponymous protagonist (played by Abigail Breslin). Yeah he’s fine in the role and probably showed a wider range of emotions than usual, but I actually think a large handful of other actors could have done it better. Am I crazy for thinking that the film is better at demonstrating Arnie’s limitations rather than shattering them?

Secondly, I don’t think the film feels like it has ripped off the bestselling PS3 game The Last of Us, as several people have pointed out. I should know, because I just played it twice and think it’s the best video game of all time. Sure, there’s the zombie angle and the father-daughter-ish relationship, but apart from that there’s not a lot of similarities.

So what is Maggie really like? Slow and really depressing. It starts with Arnie finding Maggie, who has been bitten and has been given several weeks before she finally loses herself and becomes a flesh-eating zombie. The problem is treated as a “virus”, and as such the infected are allowed to return home until they reach a certain point, when they will have to be forcibly moved to quarantine.

The rest of the film requires you to sit through Maggie’s agonising transformation and constant reminders of what she’ll eventually become and the terrible decision Arnie will have to make. It’s an interesting idea, because typically in zombie movies people don’t get a lot of time before they turn.

In many ways, Maggie is not all that different to a story about a young patient having to deal with a life-ending disease like cancer, though I suppose the zombie idea puts a slightly different spin on things. But does it really conjure up enough different emotions to justify it as a plot device? I’ll say yes, but only barely.

My main gripe about the film is that it’s just not a very enjoyable experience, and it doesn’t make up for it in other ways. As if the premise is not bleak enough already, the visuals are very grey and very dark all the way through. The pace is also deliberately slow, without a lot of ups and downs, making the 95-minute running time feel uncomfortably long. Moreover, there is a sense of inevitability considering there’s really only one way things can end. It’s not a film that gives itself a lot of room to maneuvre.

For a zombie movie there’s not much zombie action, with most of the scenes of the undead aimed at generating sympathy as opposed to fear. It’s a horror film where the horror comes from the depressing knowledge of what Maggie will become. Some of it is scary, but it’s more sad than anything.

The drama, the clear focus of the movie, is solid thanks to the strong performance of Breslin and Arnie doing the best he can. While it is effective at making you feel upset, there was never a time when I felt overwhelmed by emotion, perhaps because there weren’t any emotions I wasn’t expecting. Maybe if there was a bit of hope — even false hope — I would have found it more meaningful, and accordingly, more powerful.

Having made Maggie sound a lot worse than it actually is, I will admit that I found it to be an interesting premise with a few nice moments of reflection on the pointlessness of fighting a disease that will rob you of your dignity and who you are before the bitter end. There was one excellent scene in which Maggie attends a bonfire party where her friends — including an infected boy — and they discuss the difficult options faced by the infected and those caring for them. Unfortunately, there’s just not enough of these moments to take advantage of the premise and make Maggie the type of well-rounded, rewarding experience it could have been.

3 stars out of 5

‘The Last of Us’ Diary: Part IX — The End, The Verdict

June 2, 2015 in Best Of, Game Reviews, Reviews

last of us poster

Note: This is the ninth 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, Part 2 can be found here, Part 3 here, Part 4 here, Part 5 here, Part 6 here, Part 7 here and Part 8 here.

Day 15 (May 19, 2o15)

Here we go. The home stretch.

Joel and Ellie’s journey take them to Salt Lake City, the final stop of their epic adventure. As with previous locations, the city is in ruins, but you get the feeling that the purpose of all the walking around in this last chapter is to provide that final burst of character and relationship development before the inevitable climax.

Salt Lake

And so the first part of Salt Lake is mostly wandering around and watching conversations unfold. Joel has clearly opened up and is finally comfortable with that Ellie means to him, while Ellie is starting to fear what may happen once they finally meet up with the Fireflies.

The highlight of this “slower” portion of the game is an encounter with a pack of giraffes spoiled by most trailers and promotional photos. Still, it’s a beautiful and awe-inspiring moment, not just because of the impressive visuals, but because it reminds you that despite everything, Ellie is still a child who grew up in this broken world and has never seen things we take for granted.

Eventually, action arrives in the form of a watery underpass section filled with runners, clickers and bloaters. While you can stealthily sneak by the majority of them, you might also want to let it rip because it’s the last time in the game you’ll see a zombie. That said, there are a lot of them, so just going in guns blazing could lead to you getting surrounded. Strategy is needed since there are no second chances when it comes to bloaters.

Once you get past that, it’s more wandering until an accident automatically leads into an unavoidable meeting with the Fireflies and a reunion with Marlene.

Marlene's back!

Marlene’s back!

I’ve been reminded that you can spoil a game that’s been out for two years, but just in case, I’ll warn those who want to experience the game for themselves that major spoilers are coming.

So, as it turns out, the only way to even attempt to use Ellie’s immunity to develop a vaccine is to do what Anthony Hopkins did to Ray Liotta — except for the feeding part — by slicing open her head and messing with the brain. Joel ain’t taking any of that shit, thereby setting up a final rampage through the hospital to rescue Ellie.

Yum!

Yum!

I admit to being a wee little disappointed with the relative sameness of what is supposed to be the climax of the action. It’s by no means a cakewalk, though if you’ve been saving up your ammunition and items it won’t be very hard to smash anyone who dares to get in your way. There’s really not that many of them either, maybe about a dozen to 20 tops.

At the same time, I can understand why the game makers decided to do it this way. While the survival horror action is fun and all, The Last of Us, since the very beginning, has always been about the characters and their relationships. It’s clear from the way they’ve handled the final chapter that they wanted to go back to the essence of the game and not overwhelm the narrative with all-out, over-the-top carnage. Perhaps they considered the battle with David in the previous chapter as the “final boss”, though I would have personally preferred a more challenging conclusion.

I like the idea of an old-fashioned hospital shootout, but I think it would have been even better with some added spice, like an enemy or enemies with full body armour, making them extra difficult to kill, or some kind of enemy with martial arts skills you need to take down without guns. Alternatively, it would have been even more awesome had zombies somehow managed to get into the hospital — perhaps intentionally let in by Joel to help him out with all the Firefly soldiers — to create a chaotic battle where you have to take on both types of enemies and use your wits to pit them against each other. Throw in a newly mutated boss if necessary. The makers of the film adaptation should totally be reading this!

Feel the wrath of my assault rifle, mother...

Feel the wrath of my assault rifle, mother…

Alas, the real climax was more subdued and more subtle. Enemies had assault rifles (which you can start using if you kill one of them), but apart from that it was largely more of the same. Instead, there was a surprising level of storytelling, as Joel would constantly stumble across notes and voice recorders that would reveal more backstory and explanations.

All of this culminates in a surprisingly anti-climatic showdown against three helpless surgeons in the operating theatre. You can kill them if you want, as I did, with an assortment of weapons, but the game effectively ends when you pick an unconscious Ellie up off the operating table and carry her to a hospital elevator. (This actually led me to think — what if I just waited outside for hours? Would they never start the operation? I wasn’t bored enough to try it out)

This ain't no episode of Grey's Anatomy

This ain’t no episode of Grey’s Anatomy

The game’s big storyline “twist”, if you can call it that, takes place entirely in cut scenes. Just as Joel prepares to leave, he runs into Marlene (of course he does), who begs for him to do the right thing for humanity and allow them to pop open Ellie’s head. I guess he could have mentioned at this point that he had killed all the doctors anyway!

Joel appears to hesitate before the screen fades to black, and the next thing we see is Joel driving. This is a brilliant storytelling device from Naughty Dog because it leaves you hanging, wondering what decision Joel makes in the end. Save humanity by sacrificing the one person he has left in this world, or selfishly do what’s best for himself and Ellie?

Drive

So…?

What do you think happens and what do you think should have happened?

I never expected Joel to betray Ellie by leaving her behind, and I was proven to be right, as we soon hear Ellie stirring in the back seat as she awakens from anaesthesia. What happens next, however, is a betrayal of a different kind, because Joel goes on to lie to Ellie about why they left the Fireflies, saying that there were dozens of other people like Ellie and that they had given up on finding a cure. His explanation is interspersed with flashbacks of what happened in the parking lot with Marlene, whom Joel shoots with a gun and begs for her life before he caps another one in her skull, saying that she’d just keep coming after Ellie.

I found this twist to be kinda poetic and true to who the characters have been from the very beginning. Joel has always been a survivor; he’s not a saviour and he’s not a hero. Call him the villain of this game, if you will, but his actions actually make a lot of sense if you’ve been paying attention to the kind of person he is. I found it interesting that some people didn’t get it and weren’t sure whether Joel was actually telling the truth.

I thought the game was over, but there’s actually a tiny epilogue after this segment. It’s another one of those creative choices made by Naughty Dog that surprises. You play as Ellie and there’s no fighting involved, just strolling through the woods as they make their way back to Tommy’s. You can tell from their conversation that Joel is fine with his decision, but Ellie remains torn by survivor guilt. The game’s final scene is a mini-masterpiece in which Ellie demands that Joel swear that what he said about the Fireflies is all true. Joel swears, and the final shot lingers on Ellie’s face as she says, “OK”, before the game fades to black.

Ellie Final

Ellie’s haunting final expression

Everyone’s going to have their own interpretation of what the ending means. Did Ellie believe Joel or did she know she was lying? And if she thought he was lying, what does that mean for the future of their relationship? The brilliant thing about it is that Ellie’s facial expression could be taken in several ways. It could be fear, it could be horror, it could be sadness, or it could be relief. Or perhaps it was a mix of all those things. Whatever it is, it’s powerful stuff.

My personal take is that Ellie knows Joel is lying and has known all along, but wants him to say it again to her face one more time. But confirming her suspicions doesn’t mean she no longer trusts him or would make her want to get away from him. To the contrary, I think knows she’s stuck with him, for better or for worse, and she’s conflicted about how that makes her feel. On the one hand she knows he will keep her safe no matter what, but on the other she’ll always feel guilty about living at the potential expense of finding a cure. She’ll survive, but she’ll feel horrible about it. It’s a morally complicated question with no right answer.

Kudos to Naughty Dog for doing something so unconventional and daring. There’s no cure. There’s no happy ending. It’s just ambiguity and a lot of mixed emotions. It’s a revolutionary ending for a revolutionary game, and I like that the game doesn’t offer alternative endings because it would cheapen the impact of the one they went with.

The Verdict

If you haven’t figured it out by now, even after I’ve written a nine-part series about my experience playing it, I’ll spell it out for you: The Last of Us is the best video game I’ve ever played. There are games that may have been more addictive, games that might have been more fun from a pure action perspective, games that have had better graphics or sound or whatever. But nothing beats The Last of Us when it comes to the overall gaming experience.

It’s simply unparalleled when it comes to storytelling, characters and immersiveness.  To be able to achieve this kind of emotional resonance in a video game is something I’ve never seen before. It’s the only game I’ve ever played where I haven’t been able to get it out of my head even days after I’ve finished it. It’s the only game I’ve played worthy of in-depth analysis like a book or a movie. I’ve looked up videos about the game and watched the documentaries about it YouTube. I’m obsessed.

And I’ll let you in on a little secret. Between the time I finished the game on May 19 and the writing of this post, I’ve played the DLC add-on Left Behind — which I will discuss in my next post — AND played the entire main game all over again in the “plus” version that allows you to keep the upgrades you made to your weapons and skills the first time around. It actually makes the game easier, but the reason I played it again, apart from experiencing its awesomeness one more time, is so I can savour the dramatic moments more. I was far too nervous the first time I played it, so in the second playthrough I made sure I focused on nuances and all the little things that make the game so great. I also killed everything in sight instead of using stealth. That’s probably about 35-40 hours of total playing time (the first playthrough was a little over 17 hours and the DLC was under 3 hours), and I still can’t get enough! Now I understand why some people also get the remastered version to play on PS4 (and if I had a PS4 I would too, dammit!)

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Ashley Johnson in The Avengers. She had a bigger role but most of it ended up on the cutting room floor.

Full marks to the amazing work of creative director Neil Druckmann, who absolutely should be a consultant on the film adaptation, and the acting of the cast, led by Ashley Johnson and Troy Baker. Johnson, whom some of you might know from her cameo as a waitress in The Avengers, actually won the BAFTA Games Awards for Best Performer (male and female compete in the same category) for her role as Ellie in back-to-back years, first in The Last of Us and then in Left Behind.

Here’s her acceptance speech in 2014.

And again in 2015.

Of course, The Last of Us also took home Best Game, Best Action and Adventure, Best Audio, and Best Story. In a year that also gave us GTA V, that says a lot. There’s another 2oo+ awards the game has won, but I’m not about to list them all here. Suffice it to say that they are all well deserved.

I have a feeling I’ve already said too much, but the fact is that I can’t say enough good things about it. Granted, it’s not perfect — no game is — but The Last Us is about as close as it gets.

10/10

Movie Review: Manny (2014)

February 2, 2015 in Boxing, Movie Reviews, Reviews, Sport

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Considering what great material the filmmakers had to work with, Manny, the new documentary on eight-weight-class Filipino world boxing champion Manny Pacquiao, should have been a sure-fire KO. Instead of delivering the haymakers fans would have loved to see, however, the film ended up pulling its punches all the way through, resulting in a thoroughly unsatisfying experience that barely scratches the surface of both the man and the sport.

On its face, Manny ticks all the right boxes for a sports documentary. A poor Filipino kid from the gutter is forced to box from a young age to put food on the family table, and in the process develops a talent and ferocity that would take him to the very top of the sport. Amid the career highs (such as his superstar-making pummeling of Oscar de la Hoya in 2008) and lows (his KO loss to Juan Manuel Marquez in 2012, for instance) there are celebrity interviews and “rare” public and behind-the-scenes footage, all with the familiar voice of Liam Neeson narrating the script.

But despite an explosive start highlighting Pacquiao’s knockout loss to Marquez, Manny soon settles into conventional documentary mode and begins to skim over the stuff that would have made the film fascinating. It touches on all the things we already know about Pacquiao’s life outside of his major fights — the humble beginnings, the rise through the weight ranks, the movies and singing that came with the stardom, the foray into politics, and the apparent “religious awakening” he would experience a few years ago — but without ever getting to the “good stuff” simmering beneath the surface.

Yes, it was cool to see highlights of his training and big fights — Barrera, Morales, De la Hoya, Hatton, Cotto, Margarito, Marquez — in high definition, and it was fun to see celebrities like Mark Wahlberg, Jeremy Piven and Jimmy Kimmel talk about him, but all of these things felt superficial.

I wanted to see more footage of Manny’s daily life; I wanted to hear more about the dirty business of boxing and the disputes between his promoter Top Rank and Golden Boy; I wanted to hear about all the venomous groupies that feed of his money and all the cash he literally gives away; I wanted more depth on Manny’s dark side — the gambling and the drinking and the womanizing. It would be unfair to say the film completely ignores these issues, though it barely takes more than a jab at them. The approach by directors Leon Gast (who won the Oscar for the Ali documentary When We Were Kings) and Ryan Moore was to just touch upon all the touchy things and gloss over them quickly before moving onto the more positive aspects of Manny’s existence.

The best parts of the movie are when we see people close to Manny talk about him, from adviser Michael Koncz and ex-conditioning coach Alex Ariza to his long-time coach Freddie Roach and promoter Bob Arum. The bits with the most emotion actually all involve Pacquiao’s wife Jinkee, the only person who appears to be giving it to the viewers straight. But unfortunately, these flashes of genuine insight into Pacquiao are few and far between.

Perhaps it’s because I already know too much about Pacquiao for Manny to teach me anything new. To be honest, even the 24/7 documentaries produced by HBO before each Pacquiao fight offer more about he subject than this documentary. I just think the film would have been so much more interesting had it dared to venture deeper into things such as Alex Ariza’s unceremonious dumping from Pacquiao’s team and the subsequent feud he developed with Roach and Koncz (not discussed at all), questioning how and what really caused the negotiations with Floyd Mayweather Jr to break down multiple times (nothing apart from a couple of clips anyone could have dug up on YouTube), and some sort of definitive statement about all the allegations of performance enhancing drugs (the elephant in the room).

Even the chronological depiction of Pacquiao’s career missed important chunks. Although the footage is out there, the film ignores Pacquiao’s earlier losses before Morales and his world title fights at the lighter weight class, and completely skips his less inspiring bouts against Joshua Clottey and Shane Mosley. I know it’s hard to follow every bout of Pacquiao’s long career, but pretending that some important events of his life don’t even exist makes me question the filmmakers’ objectivity and decision-making.

At the end of the day, Manny is a film that’s more hagiography than documentary. It feels like it has been made by the same people who follow Pacquiao around all day telling him how great he is (they’re what netizens described as “Pactards”). Pacquiao is an interesting, charismatic sportsman who deserves a better biography than what he got here, and this was never more apparent when listening him spew out the awkward lines they wrote for him at the end of the movie.

Having said all that, Manny remains in a position to succeed because of Pacquiao’s immense popularity and fortunate timing — as the long-awaited showdown between him and Mayweather appears to be  getting somewhere at last. Maybe after they finally do fight each other someone else can make a more compelling documentary that can do Manny Pacquaio justice.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Into the Woods (2014)

January 22, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Sometimes you just have to go against the grain. Despite the awesome ensemble cast, the reputation of stylish director Rob Marshall (Chicago, Memoirs of a Geisha, Pirates of the Caribbean 4), the box office and critical success, there is only one thing I am certain of: Into the Woods is a shit film.

Based on the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical of the same name, Into the Woods cleverly builds a world combining several Grimm Brothers’ fairy tales such as Rapunzel, Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, and Jack and the Beanstalk. At the centre of the story is a couple played by Emily Blunt and James Corden, who come in touch with all these classic fairy tale characters as they try and break a curse that has prevented them from having a child.

It sounds like a fun idea, and for the first few minutes of the film (at least) it was not difficult to see the potential of the premise. You get a bunch of big name stars — from Meryl Streep (whom I cannot believe was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for this role at the upcoming Oscars) and Anna Kendrick to Chris Pine and Johnny Depp — playing wacky characters. The tone is light and tongue-in-cheek, and the script makes good use of our knowledge (and the characters’ lack of knowledge) of the fairy tales they’re in.

And so it came as a slow and painful shock to me that Into the Woods simply didn’t work as a feature film. It may have as a Broadway musical — I don’t know because I haven’t seen it — but I found myself not caring much for the story or the characters. There are some admittedly funny moments, many of which are sarcastic or involve Billy Magnussen, who plays Rapunzel’s unfortunate prince, though the whole “turning fairy tales on their head” gimmick grew tiring in a hurry.

At 124 minutes, the film is far too long and the dark final act dragged on for what felt like an eternity. I actually thought the movie was already long when it hit its faux ending much earlier and had to be forced to endure about another 20 minutes of soulless mayhem.

Strictly speaking there’s nothing wrong with the production per se, though as a whole Into the Woods failed to engage me. I couldn’t get into the story because it was so all over the place, I didn’t get into the songs because there was nothing resembling a catchy melody or song, and I didn’t care about anything or anyone because there was no heart or genuine emotion.

Maybe it’s my bias against fairy tale “reimaginings” or my inability to get most musicals, most notably the big screen adaptation of Les Miserables from 2012. But  even had I approached it a clean slate I just don’t see how I could have come to a different conclusion — and that’s the film is strangely detached, unexciting, and far too long.  It’s a pretty movie to look at and I have the utmost respect for the talented cast on the screen, though these positives alone are insufficient to drag Into the Woods out of the shitter.

2 stars out of 5

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

 
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