Movie Review: The Interview (2014)

January 6, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Let’s face it, the Sony hacking incident was the biggest blessing for The Interview, the most talked-about movie of 2014. Without all the furore, it would have been just another shitty Seth Rogan comedy, albeit one about two entertainment industry morons hired by the CIA to assassinate North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-in.

I too watched it out of curiosity more than anything else, with the hope that the low expectations created from the bad reviews would improve my overall impression of the film.

And for the first half or so, The Interview was exceeding my expectations. As anticipated, Seth Rogan and James “freak” Franco basically played versions of themselves, which is irritating but not the worst thing in the world. The introduction to Franco’s gossip entertainment show, Skylark Tonight, was a brilliant segment featuring Eminem where we learned that Rogen, the show’s producer, is the straight face of the comedy duo. They followed this up with a few more interesting set pieces such as the Rob Lowe sketch, the setting up of the interview itself and the subsequent CIA training with Lizzy Caplan.

Even the first few scenes after their arrival in Pyongyang contained some solid laughs, and by this stage I was wondering why people appeared to hate this movie more than any of Seth Rogen’s other efforts. I grew optimistic that The Interview could best arguably Rogen’s two best films, This is the End (which I didn’t even like that much) and Pineapple Express.

Ironically, it was when the subject of the interview, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) appeared on screen that the film began  accelerating downhill. After about half a dozen of laugh-out-loud moments in the film’s first hour — the rule of thumb for a good comedy — I didn’t laugh again. Not once.

Part of the blame has to go to the directors, Seth Rogan and his buddy Evan Goldberg, and another part has to go to the screenwriter, Dan Sterling. It was as though they did not know how to handle Kim’s character. They had the right idea with the daddy issues, the deceit, and the secret love of American culture, but the execution was flat and the punchlines lacked, well, punch.

The main culprit, however, was probably Randall Park, or at least whoever cast him in the role. Park’s version of Kim was simply not comical enough. I know he put on weight for the role, but the added girth simply gave him the heavy look, not the tubby, pudgy cuteness Kim has going for him. Kim looks and feels like a petulant chubby kid, whereas Park comes across as a full-grown man with a mean streak in him. Whether it was the look, the voice, the accent or the expressions, Park’s performance felt off the mark. It’s strange, but the Kim Jong-in I have in my mind just from seeing his photos and reading about him in papers is much more hilarious than the version portrayed in this movie.

Having said all that, half a decent comedy is better than a completely shit comedy all the way through. Accordingly, I have to admit that The Interview is better than I expected. There are moments of satirical brilliance scattered throughout in the first half, but the second half, perhaps constrained by the need to live up to the premise, was a dud filled with obvious gags and witless humour. So I guess you could ultimately look at The Interview in two mutually inclusive ways — a fundamentally shit film with a handful of funny-to-very-funny moments, or just another mediocre Seth Rogen movie that will make no absolutely difference to your life whether you watch it or not.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Good People (2014)

January 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Good People New Poster

Interesting premise, but that’s unfortunately the only genuinely good thing I can say about Good People, a violent thriller starring James Franco and Kate Hudson as an American couple in London who of discover a bag of dirty money.

The film, the feature debut of Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz, starts off relatively well, with a robbery-gone-wrong scenario that leaves a bunch of ruthless criminals desperate to get their hands on money they think they deserve. Enter Tom (Franco) and Anna (Hudson) Wright, a couple who relocated to the UK for a new start after the financial crisis. Things aren’t much better for them in London, but that hasn’t stopped Anna pining for a baby.

Things supposedly make a turn for the better when the couple discover the robbery money, which can make a lot of their financial problems go away. But of course, it also brings along with it a whole bunch of new problems. It’s one of those “What would you do in the same situation?” ideas, and for the first half of the movie or so I understood where they were going with it.

But as the film progressed it started falling into the trap of a typical crappy Hollywood thriller, where things start getting more and more ridiculous and idiotic. There’s a lot of stuff here that fails the smell test of basic logic and common sense, and before long the whole thing crumbles into an expected bloodbath with a predictable and utterly unrealistic ending. Making the couple American while setting the story in the London also didn’t add anything.

Genz’s style is dark and somber, which matches the tone of the film well. He’s also pretty adept at creating tension through visceral violence, which worked to the film’s advantage in the first half until it became a little too much to swallow. There’s just nothing particularly exciting or fresh with his approach though.

As for the performances…I’m not much of a fan of either lead, and they haven’t exactly won me over after watching this movie. Franco was a little better — you can tell he’s trying to put on a serious face — but Hudson was just plain weird. Some of the blame has to go to the script, which made her inconsistent and unlikable. And that’s one of the main problems of the film — you’re not actually rooting for the protagonists to make it out alive because they don’t really deserve to. Tom Wilkinson plays a detective who gets caught up in the mess and he’s just a completely unbelievable character.

In the end, Good People turned out to be a forgettable disappointment. I didn’t have high expectations to begin with, but this was at best a pedestrian DVD rental or late-night cable movie you stumble upon, not a film worthy of a cinematic release.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

July 17, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Those who have read an article or two on this blog might have noticed that I have what you might call a bit of a Planet of the Apes infatuation. I declared the franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the best film of 2011. I declared its long awaited sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie of 2014. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s just something about the story, the franchise, that has me going all ape.

This time around, the story takes place about a decade after the end of the previous film, when the so-called Simian flu — the same virus that gave the apes their intelligence — has wiped out the vast majority of the human population. All that remains, as far as we know, is a group of naturally immune survivors living in San Francisco led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Desperate for a source of power, a band of humans led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) venture into the woods, where they run into the protagonist of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his growing tribe of smart apes.

Just like its predecessor, the humans in Dawn take a back seat to the apes, who are far more interesting and dominate the narrative. It was a necessary decision to abandon the human cast from the first film, in particular James Franco’s Dr Will Rodman, the man responsible for creating the Simian flu in the first place (Franco is too busy posting nude photos of himself on the internet anyway). This is because, as an ape film, it’s important to see Caesar’s continued growth into the great revolutionary leader he’s destined to be. In Dawn, he has established societal order in his ape tribe, built a home, and started a family. He is compassionate, loyal and intelligent — but he can still be a total badass when he needs to be.

Key returning ape characters include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the big, clever orangutan who acts as third in command and the apes’ voice of reason, as well as Koba (Toby Kebbell), the tortured, mutilated ape Caesar liberated in the first film who understandably has trouble containing his distrust for humans and his violent temper. The most important new additions are Cornelia (Judy Greer), Caesar’s partner, and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), their rebellious son.

On the human side, the central character is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but apart from him everyone else is underdeveloped. There’s his second wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell), and his teenage son, Alexander (fellow Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee), plus a stereotypical human a-hole named Carver (Kirk Acevedo from Fringe), but none of the supporting human characters get to do much, not even the legendary Gary Oldman.

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To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film is driven by the characters and their relationships. Apart from the bond between Caesar and Malcolm, which forms the heart of the film, there’s also well-executed conflicts between Caesar and his son Blue Eyes and with his second-in-command Koba. This could have very easily been a big, dumb action flick with lots of loud explosions, pointless violence and flashy effects (in the vein of Michael Bay), but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who took over the reins from Rupert Wyatt, managed to keep his focus on the things that truly matter.

Dawn is not just a humans vs apes story — it’s a tale of survival that traverses universal themes such as ingrained discrimination, tribal loyalties, political complexities and familial bonds. It’s Reeves’ ability to craft these themes amid the chaos and action that enable the emotions to resonate, and it’s also what makes Dawn more memorable than your average sci-fi.

There were perhaps some missed opportunities to explore relationships on the human side (in particular Malcolm and his son), and some audiences might be disappointed with the lack of prominent female roles (Cornelia, in particular, felt like a wasted character), though on the whole I felt like the script by returning writers Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and new addition Mark Bomback (who has s chequered history with Die Hard 4 and the crap Total Recall remake but also the underrated Unstoppable and last year’s The Wolverine on his resume), was more than adequate.

Part of the reason the ape characters are so compelling to watch is because they come across as real people (even more so than the humans), but at the same time we are constantly reminded of how different they are and how dangerous they can be. All wonderful ape performances are again done by motion capture, and the technology is even more impressive than it was last time as the apes have a more expansive vocabulary and hence more facial movements and expressions. I’m sure real apes don’t look quite like the apes in the film, but what matters is that they look incredibly realistic, not only in their physical appearance but also in the way their bodies move and interact with their surroundings. There was not a second during the film when I thought anything looked unnatural or out of place, and full credit must go to the special effects team and the understated performance capture of the actors.

And it is thanks in large part to the special effects that Dawn contains some of the most epic battle sequences and fight scenes you’ll see this year. As the number of apes have increased dramatically, the scale of the action dwarfs that in Rise, with several sublimely choreographed scenes that had me staring in awe from the edge of my seat. Further, the violence was never without reason or purpose, so unlike some action flicks (cough, Michael Bay) I never felt like I was getting numb from it all. Apes against humans, humans against humans, apes against apes. It’s pure, satisfying, mindblowing entertainment.

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Having set myself up for disappointment by living in ape hype for the last three years, Dawn actually lived up to my unrealistic expectations. Yes, I admit I am partial to the franchise, but how rare does a blockbuster of this magnitude turn out to be as good as you predicted? While the film was different to what I thought it would be, it was still bloody freaking sensational. As tense, emotional and exciting as I had envisioned. As visually stunning as I had imagined. As epic as I had hoped. Sure, if you want to you can nitpick all day, about the weakness in the script, the lack of development of the human characters (especially the females), the Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, the too-obvious exposition in the dialogue, the untied loose ends, and so forth.

Ultimately, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as close as you can get to the perfect summer blockbuster. This goes beyond just living up to its excellent predecessor — Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars, what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. It might not be as intelligent as it wanted to be, but it’s still undeniably thought-provoking. It might not be as emotionally involving as it could have been, but it still tugs at the heart strings. There could have potentially been more action sequences earlier on or a more climatic ending, but you can hardly complain about what’s already there. When you factor in everything the film got right and the complete-package experience that it provides, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply the most flat-out awesome movie of the year.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Now it’s another 2-year wait until the next instalment in the series, currently scheduled for July 26, 2016 release date.

2013 Movie Blitz: Part IX

July 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

This is the last one. Seriously. The best and worst of 2013 coming right up after this!

The Family (2013)

the family

Robert De Niro may be a legend, but his career choices are inching closer and closer to Nicholas Cage territory with every mediocre film he decides to star in. The Family, on its face, should not have fallen into that category, as it’s directed by legendary Frenchman Luc Besson and features an all-star cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron. But somehow, this uneven, largely unfunny black comedy manages to turn itself into a mess that De Niro will likely want to pretend never existed.

De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, Mafia boss who turns to snitching after an attempt on his life. So together with his wife (Pfeiffer) and two kids (Agron and John D’Leo), they relocate to France under a witness protection program under the supervision of FBI agent Stansfield (Jones).

It’s an interesting premise brimming with potential. The central joke is that, as a Mafia family, they can’t be normal even if they tried. They’re scheming sociopaths and borderline psychopaths who just can’t play along and pretend to be a normal family. De Niro can’t stop killing people who offend him; Pfeiffer loves burning stuff down; Agron has a violent streak in her; and D’Leo is a scheming weasel who is the ultimate reconnaissance expert.

There are several key problems with The Family. The first is that Besson never gets the tone quite right. It’s a very dark comedy accompanied by over-the-top violence, but the violence itself is not funny like it is for a film like say Pulp Fiction or Fargo. It felt like the violence never found its role properly.

Secondly, all the central characters are just a little off, and as a result they don’t come across as likable. And it’s hard to root for them when you don’t like them very much. But you can tell Besson is trying to make them likable, which is why it was so strange watching them on screen.

And thirdly, and very strangely, Besson makes French people look like complete a-holes. I understand it was necessary to some extent so that the family can rain their vengeance upon them, but in my opinion it felt obligatory and unnecessary. I know the French are supposed to dislike Americans and vice versa, but this was too much. And they all spoke surprisingly good English too.

In the end I just couldn’t bring myself to like this one. Despite the strong cast, legendary director and best of intentions, The Family is a top-grade disappointment.

2 stars out of 5

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

welcome to the punch

First of all, Welcome to the Punch is a really horrible title for this movie. It makes it sound like an action comedy, when in fact it is a gritty action thriller. But apart from that, it’s actually not a bad British cops and robbers flick with some solid performances, stylish action sequences and a few interesting twists and turns.

James McAvoy is Max Lewinsky, a headstrong London cop determined to catch Icelandic criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), who has surfaced after his son was involved in a heist gone wrong. It’s a complicated case that has been a major headache for the police, and so Lewinsky and his partner Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough) are frequently met with internal opposition — opposition that might be intended to impede their progress, and the only person they appear to have in their corner is their superior, Thomas Geiger (The Walking Dead‘s David Morrisey).

What follows is an intriguing game of cat and mouse that features a lot of well executed gunfights. The plot is a little convoluted for my liking, and I admit McAvoy’s protagonist is somewhat douchey, but on the whole I enjoyed the friend-or-foe dynamic between him and the intense and charismatic Strong, whom I believe has a dominating’s screen presence that is second to none.

Welcome to the Punch is not a superior thriller, but it’s a damn serviceable one that can be quite enjoyable if you go in with moderate expectations. Recommended DVD rental.

3.5 stars 

Devil’s Knot (2013)

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I’m always intrigued by Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s take on grief and loss, and so I was somewhat disappointed to hear lukewarm reviews for Devil’s Knot, a dramatization of the true story of the notorious West Memphis Three. Well guess what, I ended up being riveted by the movie from start to finish, so much so that I went on to devour all four documentaries made on the subject — Paradise Lost and its two sequels, and last year’s West of Memphis, made by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and wife Fran Walsh.

The true story, for those unfamiliar, takes place in 1993 and begins when three young boys in West Memphis disappear one afternoon and are later found dead, naked, tied up and mutilated. Given that hysteria surrounding Satanic worship was at a peak, it came as no surprise that police targeted local “white trash” teenage outcast Damien Echols and his two friends, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley — the trio that would later be known as the West Memphis Three.

The evidence against them is supposedly strong (Misskelley, who is borderline retarded, confesses), and the penalty is potentially death. This leads anti-capital punishment advocate and private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) to lend his services to the overwhelmed defense team. Lax starts out only wanting to prevent the boys from being executed, but the more he digs, the more he becomes convinced that the teens are innocent. On the other hand, Pamela Hobbs (a frumpy Reese Witherspoon, who was pregnant at time of filming), the mother of one of the victims, struggles to deal with her son’s death and the subsequent media circus.

Putting aside the merits of the film, Devil’s Knot is one of those films that’s inherently compulsive to watch simply because of the subject matter. It’s a true story that’s stranger than fiction, complete with a long list of potential suspects, intriguing characters, bizarre pieces of evidence and mass hysteria. The police witch hunt and incompetence is undeniable. And yet, at the end of the day, there are no definitive answers, only suspicions.

I suppose that is why critics were harsh on the film, with many calling it a “frustrating” experience because of the lack of a genuine resolution. I do agree with that to some point, but at the same time it does point us in a certain direction and asks us to draw our own conclusions as to the guilt of the West Memphis Three and the “alternate” suspects. Maybe that was the point Egoyan was trying to get across — that is, this is perhaps a mystery we’ll never truly get to the bottom of, and many true crime stories of immense loss fall in the same category.

For me, this was fantastic filmmaking, backed up by excellent performances. The initial pain and devastating felt real. The subsequent anger and thirst for revenge felt real. And that feeling when everything you thought to be true is turned upside down was expertly delivered. My main complaint about it is how abruptly it ends and how it required a long slab of writing onscreen to explain an aftermath that would extend for another 18 years.

Now having seen all the documentaries, I sort of understand why critics say Devil’s Knot did not provide any new insight and really had nothing to add. I don’t agree. While the film only captures a fraction of all there is to tell, and dramatizes scenes that are already captured in the documentaries, I still think there is something to be gained from the viewing experience. It’s a different medium with a different style, and as a result the emotional impact is also completely different. Perhaps my opinion would be different had I watched the documentaries first, but since I did not, and did not know how things turned out in the end, I found Devil’s Knot to be one of the most haunting and engrossing films of the year. I’d definitely recommend it for people who haven’t seen the documentaries and know little of the true story.

4 stars out of 5

Homefront (2013)

homefront

Feels like we’ve seen it all before, but what the heck. A bit more ass-kicking from  Jason Statham is rarely ever a bad thing.

In Homefront, Statham plays an undercover DEA agent who relocates to a country town with his young daughter after his cover is blown. And guess what? the place is running amok with the rednecks and hillbillies, who present themselves as perfect fodder for Statham to beat the crap out of them.

But wait, there’s more. After a run in with a hillbilly woman played by Kate Bosworth and her fat bully son, Statham becomes embroiled in an increasingly dangerous dispute with her brother and local meth kingpin, James Franco. Yes, James Franco!

From there it’s all very predictable. A lot of danger and a lot of ass kicking. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill action thriller that reminds me of those low-budget 80s classics, though I must say I enjoyed it somewhat on a pure entertainment level. If you want to see Franco get the shit kicked out of him then this is the movie for you. The story is actually based on a book that has been adapted into a screenplay by none other than Sylvester Stallone, so you know it’s overcharged with masculinity and macho dialogue. And of course, realism is not a priority.

I was also surprised by the cast. Apart from Statham, Bosworth and Franco, there was also Winona Ryder in a strange role as Franco’s ex-girlfriend, and everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank, Clancy Brown, playing the local sheriff.

The trailers made Homefront look much more A-grade and intriguing than it really is. I’m not saying it’s bad — as I said I rather enjoyed it — though ultimately it is one of those forgettable films that don’t really matter, and without its all-star cast, it’s hard to see how this film could have gotten a cinematic release.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Spring Breakers (2013)

February 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I thought Project X, that sorry excuse for a film about three losers who decide to throw a massive house party, was the worst movie of 2012. Spring Breakers is more attractive visually and has much bigger names attached to it, but it’s pretty much the Project X of 2013, except more pretentious.

Written and directed by Harmony Korine (Gummo), Spring Breakers is about four college girls – Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife) – who head to a spring break party full of drunken rowdiness and intoxicated/drugged up debauchery in skimpy outfits. After a brief brush with the law, they meet Alien, a local gangster played by a corn-rolled James Franco, causing their world to spiral out of control.

That doesn’t make it sound too bad, except that it is. Spring Breakers was made with the intention to shock and disgust audiences with the despicable behaviour of college students on spring break. This means there’s lots of raunchy dancing, drug use, alcohol abuse and nudity and swearing, which is not necessarily bad if done in the right way.

But Korine’s approach feels gratuitous and contrived, with a really lame narrative structure that jumps around and repeats pointlessly behind an even more irritating Terrence Malick-style voiceover that only accentuates how unattractive and unlikable the protagonists are. Most of all, despite decent performances from all four of them, they don’t feel real. Stupid and obnoxious, yes, but not genuine people.

James Franco’s acting is actually fairly strong in this, but his character is a laughable parody. He’s hilarious (unintentionally), actually, but only because he is so pathetic. In fact, there are several moments in this movie that fall between unintentionally funny and cringeworthy, and none of them are intended. The film’s Wikipedia page calls it a “comedy drama” but it’s really an “unintentionally comedic drama.”

Spring Breakers would have still been salvageable had the story been interesting or compelling, but there wasn’t really much of a story to speak of either. And the ending was just flat out horrible. A ridiculous and fitting end to a loathsome movie.

0.5 stars out of 5