Movie Review: The Frozen Ground (2013)

September 22, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Frozen Ground is a disturbing true story about Robert Hansen, an Alaskan serial killer who stalked, kidnapped and killed at least 17 women in the 1980s. But despite an all-star cast, solid performances and a well-crafted bleak, dreary atmosphere, it felt like a run-of-the-mill, straight-to-DVD thriller that may have been held back by trying too hard to adhere to real-life events.

The narrative follows Nicholas Cage, who plays Sgt Jack Halcombe, a righteous detective who sets out to find the killer and end his 13-year killing spree but has difficulty collecting the evidence necessary to put him away. Enter 17-year-old Cindy Poulson, played by Vanessa Hudgens, a local stripper/prostitute who managed to escape the killer once following a brutal encounter but is too neglected and afraid to step forward.

The interesting thing is, the police have had a suspect the whole time, Robert Hansen, who is chillingly portrayed by John Cusack. They just don’t have what it takes to arrest and convict him. So the challenge for Halcombe is essentially to gather that evidence, which includes coaxing Cindy to assist, while also protecting her from Hansen.

There really isn’t anything “wrong” with The Frozen Ground, written and directed by Scott Walker. The atmosphere is great, with the icy chill of Alaska mixing well with the dark tones and grim feel. There are moments of tension and drama (mostly involving Hudgens), and the acts of a deranged psychopath like Hansen always make for compelling viewing. The performances are excellent, and watching this film almost makes you remember that Nicholas Cage is an Oscar-winning actor who once turned down roles instead of appearing in every turd that comes his way. Vanessa Hudgens also looks and feels like a great stripper/prostitute with real psychological and emotional scars, and I mean that as a compliment. I suppose this film and Spring Breakers is her Jennifer Aniston-esque attempt to destroy her “good girl” image (though I thought those leaked nude pics had done that already…). Last but not least, John Cusack, who I’m almost always used to playing the charismatic good guy. Here he is creepy, calculating and silently vicious — completely making me forget that he and Cage once made an awesome duo in Con Air.

The problem with The Frozen Ground is that it’s too generic and straightforward, so much so that it feels like a glamorized feature length version or an extended finale of an episode of Law & Order (probably SVU). We know fairly early on that Hansen is the killer, and the revelations that follow — mostly interrogations and property searches — all come with an air of predictability. There are no exciting discoveries or twists and only a handful of sequences that could be considered “action”, the result of what I am assuming is an effort to align the story with what really happened as much as possible. We often complain about filmmakers abusing their “artistic license” when it comes to true stories, and this film is the opposite. Without being disrespectful to the real-life victims, this is a story that lacked genuine intrigue and excitement.

Overall, this is a well-acted, well-executed true crime thriller without a lot of thrills, and despite the chilly atmosphere comes across as too bland to be memorable. Probably would have been a straight-to-DVD flick (a pretty decent one, mind you) but for the A-list cast.

3 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 10

August 24, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

The Tall Man (2012)

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An interesting thriller about a mysterious figure (the titular “Tall Man”) who has been kidnapping kids from a small mining town. Jessica Biel (whatever happened to her movie career?) plays a widowed nurse whose child is abducted and must do all that she can to track down the perpetrator.

I say interesting because The Tall Man is not as straightforward as it seems, with quite a few twists and turns including a major one that occurs, surprisingly, NOT at the very end. Writer and director Pascal Laugier does a good job of keeping the audience off balance with an eerie atmosphere and an unsettling sense of dread and even a bit of surrealism.

Unfortunately, the tone of film lacks consistency and the plot twists aren’t very coherent if you think about them in any detail. The film also slows down a lot from about the halfway mark once the mysteries start unravelling. That said, it’s still a solid (relatively) small-budget film (US$18.2 million) powered by a solid performance from Biel. Those with children might find it more chilling. Not a bad film for DVD night.

3.5 stars out of 5

Fire with Fire (2012)

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There is a reason why this Josh Duhamel revenge action-thriller went straight to DVD. It’s silly, unoriginal, mundane, and simply not very good. It’s better than the 8% it got on Rotten Tomatoes, but with a star-studded cast that also includes Rosario Dawson, Vincent D’Onofrio, 50 Cent, Vinnie Jones, and of course, the ubiquitous Bruce Willis, you could be forgiven for expecting a lot more.

Duhamel plays a fireman who is at the wrong place at the wrong time and ends up having to go into witness protection. For a bunch of reasons he no longer wants to be protected and actually wants to come out and take on the guys who want him dead. I don’t get it either.

Fire with Fire offers nothing we haven’t seen before, except with more brutal and unnecessarily violence. It just plods along from one implausible encounter to the next without any real sense of danger of excitement. Generic is probably the best way to describe it.

1.75 stars out of 5

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012)

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The first Ghost Rider, otherwise known as “Nicholas Cage with hair plugs”, was an uncomfortable mix of horror action and campy comedy. It wasn’t bad, but just not very good. The inevitable sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance, carried much less fanfare and hair from Nicholas Cage, who reverted back to his barely-hanging-on but more natural haircut.

It’s been 8 years since the events from the first film and Cage is still the fiery spirit who feeds on the sins of his victims. He is approached by Idris Elba (The Wire) to save a young boy in exchange for the removal of his demonic curse, setting off a new adventure with a new villain, Blackout (Johnny Whitworth).

The film itself is also more conventional and tonally consistent, but it’s also easy to see that it had a much smaller budget (US$57 million compared to US$110 million) and excepted a lot less from itself. The result? A leaner, more straightforward film that probably would have gone straight to DVD had Cage’s name not been attached to it.

I don’t think it’s as appalling as it has been made out to be (ie, made the first one look like The Dark Knight), but I was kind of bored with it as it felt like the entire film was simply going through the motions so everyone could just collect their paychecks. In a dramatic turn of events, Cage has declared that he won’t star in another Ghost Rider film (yes, there are films that he turns down), meaning the likely end of the franchise. That’s a good thing.

2 stars out of 5

House at the End of the Street (2012)

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Jennifer Lawrence has come a long way since 2010′s Winter’s Bone, having gone on to bigger and better things such as The Hunger Games and winning an Oscar in Silver Linings Playbook. Years from now, House at the End of the Street could very well be the big black mark on her resume.

It’s a commercial slasher thriller with a teenage slant, which immediately places the film at a disadvantage. Plus, it was made in 2010 but not released until September 2012 to take advantage of Lawrence’s surging popularity. Indeed, the film debuted at no. 1 in the US.

Lawrence is good in this as a girl who moves into a new neighbourhood with her mother, played by Elizabeth Shue, and she befriends and enters into a relationship with the local hunk (Max Thieriot, Chloe), the sole survivor of a murdered family. He’s not very popular with the locals because he’s bringing their house prices down (how nice).

There are some interesting ideas in this film but the execution is so bad that there are almost zero frights in what is supposed to be a horror film. How you can have a thriller with no thrills or suspense is beyond me. On top of that, everything else about it just felt like your run-of-the-mill teen slasher flick. Sadly, apart from seeing Jennifer Lawrence in a tight singlet (as emphasized on the posters) there really isn’t much else going for it.

2 stars out of 5

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 8)

December 18, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

The Art of Getting By (2011)

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This is a really weird movie which I don’t really get. It’s the first feature from writer-director Gavin Wiesen and I believe it’s supposed to be a coming-of-age comedy drama, although the whole thing just felt kind of “meh” to me.

George (Freddie Highmore) is a high school student and gifted artist who is a rut because he finds life meaningless. He is put on academic probation and told to get his act together, and at around the same time he meets a pretty girl, Sally (Emma Roberts). They form a bond, become friends and maybe something more.

See, even writing that brief synopsis was boring to me. I’ve always been a fan of Highmore and I think Roberts is a cute actress, and both put in solid performances, but the film itself failed to sustain my interest (and it’s only 84 minutes!).

Perhaps I am getting too old, but for some reason the actions and dialogue of these kids seemed totally unrealistic to me. It’s not just they are so self-absorbed but watching them act and talk like adults made them lose whatever charm they had. I didn’t find them innocent or sweet at all.

There might have been a bigger message in the film somewhere but it jumped right over my head.

1.5 stars out of 5

Drive Angry (2011) (2D)

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Another Nicolas Cage movie where he’s paid to be Nicholas Cage? Yes, that’s precisely what Drive Angry (which is supposed to be in 3D at the cinemas, though I caught it on the small screen) is all about.

Cage plays Milton, a felon who breaks out from Hell (yes, the opposite of Heaven) to prevent a satanic cult led by Billy Burke (the dad from Twilight) from sacrificing his granddaughter. Somewhere along the way he picks up a waitress played by Amber Heard. Lots of gun fights, car chases and explosions ensue.

Surprisingly, however, Drive Angry is not as bad as it sounds. Sure, it’s forgettable and blends into all of the other B-grade films Cage has made in recent years, but at least it is occasionally fun and doesn’t take itself too seriously. Classier moviegoers might be turned off by all the relentless, over-the-top violence, the loud sound effects and the ludicrous but unapologetic plot, but those looking for a silly albeit entertaining grindhouse flick might find it a guilty pleasure.

By the way, the score probably would have been lower had I watched it in cash-sucking 3D.

3 stars out of 5

The Rum Diary (2011)

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I am a fan of Hunter S Thompson’s writing and his Gonzo journalism, so I was kind of excited about a film based on his novel starring Johnny Depp. But The Rum Diary turned out to be slightly disappointing. It was occasionally entertaining and amusing but felt like there was no focus and the film drifted all over the place without a compelling storyline to follow.

Depp plans Paul Kemp, a down-on-his-luck writer who gets a job for a paper in Puerto Rico. There are shady deals, lots of drinking and crazy shenanigans, but nothing that really gripped me to the characters or the plot.

Depp is pretty good, as is the steady Aaron Eckhart. Amber Heard is very good as the seductress, so good, apparently, that she ended up breaking up Depp’s marriage. Oh well.

On the whole, The Rum Diary is not bad for some light amusement (although it felt too long with a 2-hour running time), but it’s ultimately quite forgettable.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Devil’s Double (2011)

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The Devil’s Double is apparently a true story based on the life of Latif Yahia, who looked so much like Saddam Hussein’s son Uday that he was forced to be his body double.

The story has not stood up well after several debunking attempts, but I still found the concept utterly fascinating. Imagine being forced to be the doppelganger of the son of a ruthless tyrant and being sent to do all the crap he doesn’t want to do and the places he doesn’t want to go. It also means constantly being placed in danger and having no way out – well, apart from torturous deaths for you and your family.

Dominic Cooper players the duel role of Latif and Uday and he is dynamite. There was never any doubt in my mind that he was two completely separate people, and it’s not just because of the clever make-up and prosthetics that made their appearances slightly different, at least at the beginning before the forced plastic surgery. Can’t believe was only nominated for a single Saturn Award for this performance.

It’s a flawed film with an overdose of brutality and occasional lulls in the narrative, but Cooper’s performance and the premise alone were enough to keep me interested for the majority of the 108-minute running time.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Seeking Justice (2011)

December 9, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Nicholas Cage is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get.  Whenever he makes a movie, it (and he) could be fantastic, or it (and he) could be complete garbage.

Considering his recent history and his well-publicised financial troubles, I would have bet that his latest film, Seeking Justice, falls in the latter category.  The film had little promotion and had generated less buzz, but on the other hand it did have an A-list cast featuring Cage, January Jones and Australia’s most underappreciated Hollywood star (now that Joel Edgerton seems to have finally broken through), Guy Pearce.  It also has a couple of TV stars, Harold Perrineau (from Lost) and Jennifer Carpenter (from Dexter), is co-produced by Tobey Maguire, and is directed Roger Donaldson (not exactly a slouch with films such as The Bank Job, Thirteen Days, Dante’s Peak, Species, The Getaway, Cadillac Mac, Cocktail, No Way Out and Bounty under his belt).  I was intrigued.

As it turned out, Seeking Justice is somewhere in the middle — neither great nor trash.  It tells the story of Will Gerard (Cage), who, after a violent crime, becomes unwittingly involved with a sinister underground organisation that is into dishing out vigilante justice — with a hefty personal price.  Jones plays his wife and Pearce is one of the leaders of the association.

It’s the type of film that probably would have gone straight to DVD had the big names not been attached to it (perhaps some might still think it probably should have gone straight to DVD).  It is aptly handled, with decent performances (with the exception of Jones, whom for some reason keeps getting these ‘young wife to middle aged dudes’ roles — she can’t act) and some genuine tension stemming from a cleverly crafted illusion that there is more of a mystery than there actually is.  It also avoids (and I think this was the right decision) any real intellectual debate on the merits of vigilante justice, which helps prevent viewers from being misled into thinking that Seeking Justice is anything more than light entertainment.

And ultimately, that’s exactly what Seeking Justice is — a passable action-thriller that is occasionally entertaining but nothing special and, when it’s all said and done, extremely forgettable.  Sad that’s considered pretty good for Nicholas Cage these days.

3 out of 5

China DVD Movie Blitz: Part II

June 12, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Yes, there is a Part II.  For Part I, click here.

Here are the rest of the DVD movies I acquired in a recent trip to China.

Stone (2010)

Even though I didn’t know what it was about, I really wanted to watch this one when it came out at the cinemas, but I’m glad now that I caught it on DVD instead.

I thought it was going to be a smart, slick thriller, but Stone is essentially a character-driven drama about sexual politics featuring three sensational actors: Edward Norton, Robert De Niro and Milla Jovovich.

It’s a stylish film, an interesting film in many respects, but not exactly what I was expecting or hoping for.

3.25 stars out of 5

I Love You, Phillip Morris (2009)

It seems like the world still isn’t ready for a rom-com about a homosexual couple, because I had never heard of I Love You, Phillip Morris despite the fact that it features two big stars in Jim Carrey and Ewan McGregor.

To be fair, apart from the intentionally full on gay jokes, Phillip Morris is not all that different from some of the other slightly farcical, somewhat strange/awkward (The Cable Guy comes to mind) comedies out there.

I did find certain parts quite funny, but there wasn’t anything apart from the unusual premise that made this film stand out.  And it did get a little tedious towards the end.

3 stars out of 5

 

Gulliver’s Travels (2010)

I’ve loved the story since I was a kid, and so I was kind of excited about the Jack Black version, even though to me Black is a bit of a hit and miss comedian.

Unfortunately, Gulliver’s Travels was pretty much all miss.  It had a great cast, including Jason Segel, Emily Blunt, Amanda Peet and Billy Connolly, but the jokes were mostly infantile and unfunny.  A fair attempt at a modern retelling with updated pop culture references but even as a children’s film it missed the mark.

2 stars out of 5

 

Season of the Witch (2011)

 

If this film made it to the cinemas then it must have been pulled off pretty quickly, because even though I saw ‘coming soon’ posters months ago, I don’t ever recall seeing the film screening at cinemas.

After watching it, I can kind of understand why this film was a flop (or went straight to DVD).  On the other hand, there are far worse films making it to the cinemas.

This was a Middle-Ages fantasy film (which I usually like) with Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman as two warriors tasked with escorting a suspected witch to a monastery.  It started off okay but the middle section was a bit of a bore and the final part, as usual, fell apart.  A shame, because as uninspiring as it was, I thought there was some potential.

2 stars out of 5

 

And yes, there will be a Part III, though I haven’t watched them yet.

 
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