Movie Review: The Pyramid (2014)

April 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

pyramid

Call me a sucker for punishment.

I am one of those losers who watches movies knowing there is a 99.9% chance that it will be crap because I still hold out hope that it might be good. And so I decided to watch The Pyramid, the latest found footage debacle about a group of archaeologists and filmmakers who stumble onto a fictional new pyramid discovered in Egypt. Sounds like a brilliant, original idea bursting with potential, doesn’t it?

But perhaps it was my fascination with pyramids and pyramid curses that drew me to the film, or maybe it was my hope that a movie with a cast that includes recognisable names (at least for me) such as Dennis O’Hare and Ashley Hinshaw couldn’t possibly be that awful. Whatever the reasons, I ignored the warning signs, jus like the idiots in the movie, and took the plunge.

And it didn’t pay off.

To be fair, The Pyramid is not worse than most similar films made in recent years. The closest thing it resembles is last year’s As Above, So Below, which follows an attractive female expert into the Paris Catacombs with a film crew. Naturally, scary stuff happens and people die in gruesome ways. Here, Ashley Hinshaw is the attractive expert, and together with her father (O’Hare) and a film crew, they venture deep into a new and unusual four-sided pyramid (they usually have five, if you count the base). The difference, however, is that the film is not nearly as scary, nor is it as clever.

For starters, the believability factor is down because we know the pyramid they enter doesn’t exist in real life. Secondly, it’s totally unsubtle in its execution, going with cliched scare tactics that get old real quick. The progression of the plot is also formulaic to the extreme, to the extent where you can tell who is going to get picked off next. But the biggest difference between this and As Above, So Below is that the latter at least takes advantage of its claustrophobic setting and goes for some psychological horror, whereas The Pyramid wastes its opportunities by going with the typical curse and monsters routine.

The only thing that worked for me was the crazy monster cats (that didn’t even look realistic because of the poor CGI), and that’s only because feral cats freak me out. Most other people would have found it hilariously stupid.

On top of all that, the characters are typically uninteresting and annoying, and the dialogue is trite, though at least they do like to tell each other how moronic they are when they make dumb and nonsensical remarks.

Remarkably, The Pyramid is not the worst film of its kind. One advantage I can think of is that despite it technically being a “found footage” movie, the whole concept goes out the window quickly and audiences will soon find themselves seeing shots that could not have possibly been captured by any of the cameras on the characters. For some that is a negative, though for me it was great to be able to actually see what’s going on and not feel nauseated from all the shaky footage.

The other positive I can think of is that the film, as hackneyed as it is, never pretends to be anything else. It plays to curiosities about the pyramids and Egyptian legends, and offers a few cheap scares some audiences will feel comfortable with because it’s what they’re used to. For everyone else, it’s better to believe the movie is cursed.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

December 25, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

babadook

So everyone was urging me to see this cool new Aussie horror flick called The Babadook. I didn’t think it would be particularly good, to be honest, but the 98% rating on Rotten Tomatoes managed to persuade me in the end.

And wow, what a great horror movie. What a great Aussie movie.

The story, at least from the trailer, seemed kinda cliched. A mother (Essie Davis) starts to become terrified that the titular monster depicted in a pop-up children’s book she reads to her son (Noah Wiseman) might actually be real.

But fortunately, The Babadook is nothing like the typical boogeyman, monster-under-the-bed horror I had expected. While there is a handful of “boo” moments, the majority of the scares in this movie are psychological. It’s that eerie, uncomfortable feeling that creeps up on you and makes the hairs stand up on the back of your neck. There’s not much blood, and there’s very little use of computer-based special effects, and yet The Babadook is definitely up there as one of the scariest films I’ve seen for a very long time.

Another thing that sets The Babadook apart from most horror films in recent years is that the characters are actually well developed, meaning that you actually worry about them when something bad is happening to them. Essie Davis delivers a marvellous performance as Amelia, whose sanity appears to be hanging by a thread as her energy and patience is ground down to nothingness by her troubled son. Anyone who has had to deal with troubled children, or even normal children, will be able to appreciate what she’s going through and sympathise with her impossible predicament.

The way things begin to unravel for Amelia is executed with impressive skill, as one incident after another piles onto her despair, exhaustion and feeling of helplessness. She’s terrified not just of the Babadook, but of her own son, and even herself — or at least what she might do to him. That’s the brilliance of the film — for the most part, you don’t know whether the creature is a supernatural being, a real manifestation or her fears and anxieties, or just a figment of her imagination.

With this stunning debut, writer and director Jennifer Kent has set up what should be a career to look out for. It’s clear she knew exactly what she was going for from the very first scene, and the sombre color scheme she adopts really brings out the melancholy of the film’s tone.

What also stood out for me was the way Kent manages to un-Australianise the film. Not that there’s anything wrong with Aussie films per se, but the lack of strong accents and ambiguous settings do help open the story up to a wider audience and offer something that is more relatable to international viewers.

I don’t want to overstate the scariness of the film, because as we all know, bloated expectations can ruin even the best movies. My wife, for example, thought it was scary, but not that scary. Others have said they actually get more freaked out by cheap scares. That’s why I recommend checking it out so you can decide for yourself.

4.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: As Above, So Below (2014)

November 27, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

AASB

I once had an opportunity to visit the Catacombs of Paris, which stores the remains of about 6 million people, back in 2008. I arrived a few minutes after closing time, however, and the opportunity was lost. I was curious about the place, but I was also secretly glad that I didn’t end up going in. I could feel the creepiness of the place even from the outside on ground level, and given that I don’t love confined spaces, I have concluded that it was probably for the best.

I remember wondering at the time why there haven’t been more horror movies made about the place. Someone must have read my mind, because that’s exactly what As Above, So Below is all about.

If I were constructing the typical premise for a Catacombs movie, it would be about tourists getting lost in there and running into scary things like ghosts or monsters. That’s more or less what I thought As Above, So Below was going to give us. Instead, the film turned out to be more like a treasure hunt movie with elements of a psychological horror and supernatural horror that tries admirably to avoid the most obvious clichés. It ends up being one of those films that’s not exactly good — it does have moments of creepy effectiveness — but it’s at least a little different to what you might have expected.

You get a good feel for how preposterous the film is going to be in its early scenes, when a young scholar (Perdita Weeks) discovers the mythical Rose Key in Iran as part of her goal to track down the Philosopher’s Stone, which can, you know, turn stuff into gold and grant eternal life and so forth. She also happens to be extremely young, attractive, has two PhD’s, and is an expert in martial arts. Totally believable.

Anyway, she travels to Paris, and with the aid of a former lover, translates Da Vinci code-style clues that lead her to the Catacombs. They assemble a local team to guide them in, commencing an adventure that grows more and more bizarre — and terrifying — as they venture deeper into the ground.

While the film explores some of the real-life weirdos that occupy the Catacombs, most of the energy is spent on this fictitious treasure hunt not all that different from those depicted in the National Treasure movies and the Dan Brown adaptations. Actually, it goes even beyond those films, veering into Indiana Jones territory. These parts of the film are not particularly scary, and the way the characters solve the riddles are typically trite. They rattle off various verses no one understands, before realizing they made a mistake, rattling off more versus no one understands to rectify the situation. Stuff like that.

The atmosphere is largely there thanks to the setting, though the film doesn’t really turn into a full-fledged horror until much later. From the point it does, the progression becomes fairly stereotypical, though there are a few effective scare tactics to keep the film afloat for the most part. Credit for not sinking exclusively to “boo” scares and cheap tactics and for coming up with an ending that’s not the same as every other low-quality horror in recent memory, but unfortunately, As Above, So Below is just not consistently frightening enough considering the natural benefits of its premise.

The film is presented as found footage, which I usually hate, but in this instance I can see some merit in taking this route. First person video footage helps in bringing out the macabre atmosphere and claustrophobic nature of the catacombs, giving viewers an idea of just how suffocating and eerie the place really is. Most importantly, The film uses multiple cameras — each of which are attached the heads of the characters — to give us the best view of what is happening. The level of shakiness and incoherence is also kept to a minimum. It may not be realistic, but it’s as good of an approach to found footage I have seen, because it gives us the advantages of the first-person perspective without emphasizing all of the disadvantages.

The end result is an unusual horror film that’s not all horror and not all scary. And yet it is undeniably creepy in moments and semi-interesting because of the premise. I’d therefore say As Above, So Below is above average, below good.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Extraterrestrial (2014)

November 17, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

extraterrestrial new poster

No matter what happens, Gil Bellows can always claim that he was in one of the greatest movies of all time, The Shawshank Redemption. From now on, he can also claim to have been in one of the worst films of all time.

Okay, so maybe Extraterrestrial is not one of the worst movies of all time. But it is genuinely awful. Really, really bad. Think of the most typical teen slasher movie you can, but instead of maniacal killers or monsters, you get aliens. Not even creative or interesting aliens, but the archetypal thin grey aliens with the big black eyes.

The story is just as expected. A girl (Brittany Allen) who is having problems with her high school sweetheart (Freddie Stroma) go on a trip to a cabin in the woods with some friends. They witness a UFO crash and encounter an alien. Screaming, killing, blood and gore, and of course, stupid, irrational decisions, ensue. As expected, there is an old crackpot (Michael Ironside) living in the area who claims to know everything behind the alien conspiracies, and cops who are skeptical of our protagonist’s claims.

Bellows plays one of the cops, and he feels completely out of place because it seems like he is actually trying to deliver a decent performance. His character also happens to be the only one in the entire film who is not an obnoxious prick. Unfortunately, he is only a supporting character, and the rest of the cast is woefully inept.

I could actually live with these problems had the film actually been scary. Maybe I was not in the right mood, or maybe it’s because I watched The X-Files growing up, but I was not shocked, frightened or spooked at all. Not even once. And I can’t think of another horror film — even the worst ones — that has not made me flinch at least once.

To its credit, Extraterrestrial has a campy vibe and clearly does not take itself seriously, though there is still a giant chasm between that and calling the film satire or parody, or even fun or funny. The jokes are largely driven by obvious frat boy humour and there’s no sharp wit in sight.

The only thing the film has going for it is its final 10-15 minutes, which contained a couple of nice surprises and some solid special effects. As a result, it was difficult to tell whether the film was unintentionally bad or intentionally trying to be so bad it’s good. Either way, Extraterrestrial is just not worth your time.

1 star out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part IV

November 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

7500 (2014)

7500

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

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

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

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

1.75 stars out of 5

The Immigrant (2014)

the-immigrant-poster

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

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

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

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

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

4 stars out of 5

The Signal (2014)

the signal

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

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

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

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

3 stars out of 5

The Quiet Ones (2014)

quiet ones

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 stars out of 5

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

 

 
%d bloggers like this: