2013 Movie Blitz: Part VI

June 6, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I think this will be my final 2013 movie blitz. There may be more films to see, but if I don’t stop now I’ll never get to my best of and worst of lists for 2013. So here goes. It’s a good one.

Oculus (2013)

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I heard some good things about this horror flick, starring Dr Who’s Karen Gillan, about a pair of siblings who had their lives apparently destroyed by a cursed/haunted antique mirror. Years later, with the pair grown up, they try and fulfill their childhood promise — destroy the mirror, or die trying!

It sounds like a bit of a trite plot, I know, but Oculus deserves credit for a couple of things. First of all, it’s different to most of the haunted house movies out there in that it puts a creative twist on things with the mirror. Secondly, it cleverly tracks two parallel storylines, one from the siblings’ childhood and one from the present, providing an unusual but surprisingly effective contrast that adds suspense and ties the narrative together with a single thread. Thirdly, it makes good use of modern technology — ie, security cameras, etc — to help “capture” the ghosts and its bizarre powers, but without taking a “found footage” approach that could have ruined the entire thing.

I hadn’t seen Karen Gillan in anything before but she’s excellent here as the sister who is convinced she’s doing the right thing. Brenton Thwaites plays her brother, who just got out of a mental institution, and he’s pretty good too because I had no idea he’s an Aussie and Home & Away alumnus! Rory Chochrane, who I’ve seen in a bunch of things including Argo, plays the dad, and Katee Sachhoff, who’s been in 24 and Riddick (but best known for Battlestar Galactica) plays the mother.

There are some things in the film that don’t work quite as well and may come across as silly or just the usual stupid things characters in horror movies do, and the ending was extremely predictable (I guessed it as soon as I saw something about 20 minutes in), but on the whole Oculus is one of the better supernatural horror flicks in recent years. Made on a relatively shoestring $5 million budget, the film is smart and original, and it has a genuinely creepy atmosphere with some solid scares without being completely dependent on “boo!” moments. Excellent sequel potential as well. It may not be quite as good as I had expected after hearing the rave reviews, but at the very least it will make an excellent DVD or on-demand choice for a rainy night in.

3.5 stars out of 5

Enemy (2013)

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Jake Gyllenhaal has been in some movies that can challenge the brain a little bit, like Source Code and of course his breakthrough film Donnie Darko. Well, Enemy, based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, is way more insane than all of his other films put together. In fact, I still have no idea what I just watched. There are plenty of theories out there, but I’m in the camp of people who think it’s pretty much all BS. It’s the most mind-boggling movie I’ve seen since Mulholland Drive.

The premise is not hard to follow. Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a lonely history professor, rents a movie one night and sees an actor who looks exactly like him. And so he seeks out his doppelganger and finds Anthony, a bit actor who has a much more aggressive personality. The rest of the film is about them being spooked out by it and then trying to figure out how to handle the situation, or even take advantage of it.

In some ways, Enemy can be categorized as an erotic thriller because both Adam and Anthony have partners (girlfriend and pregnant wife) and it is for some reason quite sexually charged. But there is something about the film that is just “off.” There is a surreal feel to the experience, which is slow and contemplative but also magnetically compelling. The people don’t act and react like normal people, and some of the decisions they make and things they say are downright baffling. It comes across as a twisted parable of some kind as opposed to any attempt at a “realistic” film.

And the ending, of course, is the big WTF moment. Some will say it’s brilliant, others will say it’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen — but I think most will agree that it is indeed shocking.

This is a difficult film to rate because while I admit it was tense while I watched it and admired the performance from Gyllenhaal, I am also annoyed that I had to effectively sit through something I’ll probably never understand. And the thing is, that’s likely the way it was intended.

2.5 stars out of 5

August: Osage County (2013)

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Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, August: Osage County is more or less an acting exhibition from a superstar cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts (both nominated for Oscars in their respective roles), Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis (remember her?!) and Abigail Breslin.

But is it any good? Well, yes and no. I kind of understand why the film was awarded the dubious honour of “Not-So-Obviously Worst Film” by the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, because without all the great performances it is just an average, albeit hysterical family drama sprinkled with a dash of occasional black humour.

The plot centers around Meryl Streep’s cancer-ridden, snarky matriarch of the family, Violet, who also has an addiction to narcotics. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) disappears, then turns up dead, and the rest of her family shows up for the funeral, including her eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); her sister and her sister’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their loser son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch); her middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); and her youngest daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her sleazy fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

From there, it’s just a whole lotta acting from one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled. It’s intense and it’s heavy, with a lot of shouting and swearing matches, arguments and people flipping out. Some of it is funny — it is, after all, a dark comedy of sorts — but there’s nothing about August: Osage County that made me forget I was watching great actors as opposed to great characters. I enjoyed watching Hollywood heavyweights go at it and I was impressed with how it was put together, but ultimately it was a hollow experience lacking in that resonating quality of top dramas.

3 stars out of 5

Mud (2012)

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Technically, Mud is a 2012 film, but I’m adding it here because it didn’t get a wide release until May 2013. It’s marketed as a Matthew McConaughey vehicle and is one of the first films in his amazing run from Magic Mike to his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club and the acclaimed True Detective — but this is really a coming-of-age story about a teenager living off the banks of the Arkansas River.

That teenager, Ellis, is played by Tye Sheridan, a rising star who has been in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and will soon be seen in the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. His strong portrayal of a likable protagonist fuels Mud, one of those throwback films that captures the innocence, hope and heartbreak of adolescence. Instead of loitering the streets, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) invent their own adventures by climbing trees and scavenging the woods. They are wary of strangers but more curious rather than afraid of them. And even when they do teenager things (like say vulgar things and punch people) there’s a childlike naivete to them that’s endearing. It’s not clear what time period the film is set in (it could be the present), but the rural backdrop away from the modern vices of smartphones and the internet definitely goes a long way to achieving the nuances writer and director Jeff Nichols was aiming for.

One day Ellis, whose parents are struggling both financially and in their marriage, comes across a tree with an abandoned boat stuck on it. The boat is occupied by the titular Mud (McConaughey), an enigmatic squatter with a mysterious background that involves a pretty but damaged blonde called Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Ellis and Neckbone befriend Mud and become his little helpers, though they don’t realise that their benevolence could end up putting their lives in danger.

McConaughey has gotten a lot of praise for his performance as Mud. In my opinion, after having seen a plethora of interviews around his Oscar win, he only deserves half of the credit because was he simply playing himself. Mud is an eccentric fellow who says weird stuff that sounds profound but is really quite stupid, or pretentious even. That’s McConaughey!

Anyway, despite my prejudices against Mr Alright Alright Alright, I can’t deny Mud is a superior coming-of-age flick that brings back warm memories of classics like Stand By Me and of course Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s a good-looking film with fantastic cinematography, solid performances (with a cast that also includes Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard and Sarah Paulson) and plenty of heart. It’s slightly overlong at 130 minutes given its deliberately managed pace, though having said that I was engaged throughout. A pleasant surprise.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Prisoners (2013)

November 8, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Prisoners poster

I really wanted to watch this one and I’m glad I got the chance because it’s very very good. It’s the type of film that could have been a B-movie but ended up being a punch-in-the-gut type thriller because of the confident direction of Denis Villeneuve, the terrific ensemble cast and powerful performances by the two leads, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The story starts off simple: Jackman and his wife Maria Bello take their daughter to the home of their friends played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who have a daughter of their own. The two girls go missing, and Jackman, who is a bit of a hotheaded psycho, decides to take matters into his own hands even though the case is being handled by a very capable detective played by Gyllenhaal. That’s a nice little premise summary that doesn’t give too much away, and the only thing I will add is that the film’s title is an apt one.

Prisoners is a dark, disturbing and emotional roller coaster ride that will have you questioning right and wrong and the lengths you would go to if your own child was taken and you feel like the police aren’t doing their job properly. It’s brutally violent but not in a gratuitous way because the psychological impact wouldn’t have been the same without it. There aren’t a lot, but there a few solid twists and turns which I much prefer to a lot of cheap ones, and it keeps up the tension as the characters become more desperate with the clock running out.

A big part of the reason why the film is so compelling is the performances of Jackman and Gyllenhall. These are complex characters with demons lurking behind them in the shadows, without these two Oscar-nominated actors in the roles I’m not sure all the layers could have been brought out as well as they were.

Also fantastic is Paul Dano, who I have always been a big fan of, as a mentally challenged suspect. Melissa Leo is again a chameleon in yet another unrecognisable role, while Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Mario Bello round out the superb ensemble cast by making the most of their more limited screen time.

While there is nothing jaw-dropping or groundbreaking about the plot and the final revelations don’t quite live up to the rest of the film, Prisoners is still one of the best suspense thrillers of the year, an unsettling, creepy climb into darkness thanks to effective execution and great performances from the all-star cast.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: End of Watch (2012)

October 16, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I initially wasn’t planning on watching End of Watch even though it was directed and written by David Ayer, the same guy who gave us Training Day (as well as SWAT and Street Kings) — which was fantastic but also emotionally draining and exhausting to get through because it was so heavy duty. The trailer made it look like just another gritty cop drama, which I usually prefer to catch on DVD rather than at the cinemas. But in the end, strong word of mouth won me over.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two police officers working in South Central LA, which is one nasty place filled with drug dealers, gangs and drive by shootings. Gyllenhaal’s character is doing a film project for class, which requires him to carry around a camera whilst on duty.

I didn’t like how the film started or where it appeared to be heading. I am sick of these “found footage” or faux documentary films made with shaky cameras that make me want to throw up, and End of Watch initially made me think that the whole film was going to be a frustratingly nauseating ride.

Fortunately, although somewhat strangely, the film more or less reverted back to traditional film-making methods with steady shots, interspersed with these film project cams and other police security cams (such as from their patrol vehicle). On the one hand it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t have to feel like vomiting all throughout the movie, but on the other it begged the question of why those shaky shots were necessary at all, given it wasn’t pretending to be real footage anyway.

Like Training Day, End of Watch is gritty and hardcore, with intense action, edge-of-your-seat suspense and confronting scenes that challenge the audience to not avert their gaze. The key difference between the two films is that End of Watch is driven by the close friendship and brotherhood between the two leads. I like Gyllenhaal and I love Pena (I think he is one of Hollywood’s funniest and most underrated actors), so I guess that helped skew things in the film’s favour for me.

The movie is dedicated to police officers, but it’s not a total suck job like say Act of Valor. The characters are presented as believable people with personality quirks and flaws, real hopes and fears. It’s proof that well fleshed out characters can do wonders in terms of engaging the audience.

The supporting cast is also solid, including the recently omnipresent Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, who play the partners of the two leads, as well as America Ferrera aka Ugly Betty, a no-nonsense female police officer. Special mention goes to Yahira Garcia, who was frighteningly convincing as gang member Lala (at least for someone who has no idea what gang members act like).

End of Watch is a film that creeps up on you. In the beginning I was thought I was going to hate it because of the camera issues. Then for a while I thought it was repetitive and wasn’t getting anywhere — it felt like a Cops marathon, with the two officers going on episodic missions, one after another, with no real sense of a progressive narrative.

Eventually, as the various strands began to become tied together, I discovered that it was actually a very well-crafted film. The final climax, in particular, was riveting stuff, as suspenseful as anything I’ve seen from an action or thriller this year. It was also good to see the film not bow down to cliches and finish on a strong note that tugs the heartstrings by just the right amount.

On the whole, End of Watch wasn’t quite what I had expected, but it turned out to be a satisfying experience largely thanks to the genuine chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena. I did have some issues with the arguably unnecessary shaky camera and an occasionally stagnant narrative during the first half, but all things considered it’s still a superior action thriller.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: It’s actually a good thing if you don’t know what End of Watch means (its a euphemism) because it gives away part of the plot.

10 Movies That Make Men Want to Work Out

June 18, 2011 in Best Of, Blogging, Entertainment, Exercise, Misc, Movie Reviews, Reviews

I say this with an unblemished record of heterosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Have you ever watched a movie that made you want to go work out afterwards?

I have.  Well, I’ve never actually gone out and done it, but real men would have.

What I have noticed is that these films usually feature men who were either previously unknown to mainstream audiences and/or have undergone amazing physical transformations.  For example, Arnie or Stallone films rarely have that ‘Wow’ factor because they’ve always looked that way, and in any case from my research it seems looking ‘cut’ is generally preferred to looking ‘buffed’.  Anyway, it’s no surprise that the Internets is filled with guides on how to transform your body to replicate the following movie stars.

Without further ado, these are what I think are the 10 films that have inspired more meatheads than any other.

(click on ‘more’ to read on)

Read the rest of this entry →

Movie Review: Source Code (2011)

May 9, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

There’s nothing like a clever, action-packed sci-fi film to get the mind spinning and the blood pumping, and that’s exactly what Source Code is.

Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up on a Chicago-bound train sitting across from Michelle Monaghan, not knowing how he got there and uncertain of who he is.

Without giving away too much, there’s a terrorist threat and he’s the only one that can stop it, thanks to some top secret military experiment that allows him to relive the same eight minutes over and over again.  I’ll stop there, but there’s a lot more to the story than just that.

To be fair, it’s not exactly an original idea, because we’ve seen this type of concept before, perhaps most recently in Tony Scott’s 2006 film Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington.  But Source Code, directed by David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, and based on a screenplay written by Ben Ridley, is a much better film that intrigues from start to finish with its compelling mysteries, many twists and turns, and some top notch performances from its stars (in particular Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga, though I thought Jeffrey Wright’s performance was a little over the top).

Initially I was concerned because the idea of reliving the same eight minutes over and over for even a 93-minute film seemed kind of tiring to me.  But thankfully, the film was much more than that, creating such different scenarios each time and mixing it up with interesting breaks in between, never making the film repetitive and always making you wonder what will happen next.

What set it apart from others similar films in the genre, however, was the crafty human edge they managed to splice with the techno-thriller plot.  Without being corny or overly melodramatic (always such a fine, difficult line), Source Code featured some unexpected moments of tenderness and packed more heart than films of this type could have hoped for.

Of course, as with most sci-fi movies, logic issues and plot holes are always there if you go looking for them.  But on an overall level, I was satisfied with all the explanations once we got to the end.  In any case, with all the tension and trying to figure out the mystery of the ‘Source Code’, it wasn’t hard to overlook the flaws.

4 stars out of 5

 
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