Movie Review: Left Behind (2014)

November 17, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Maybe the end of the world really is upon us. Because there is no other explanation for how a film like Left Behind not just got made, but actually received a cinematic release. The only thing that made sense about the film is that it stars Nicholas “I’ll do anything” Cage.

Left Behind is like that Damon Lindelof TV show The Leftover, except it is directed by a career stuntman who doubled for Harrison Ford in the Indiana Jones movies. 

The story goes like this: one day, all of a sudden, millions of people around the world disappear into thin air. Literally. All that’s left are their clothes and whatever’s on them. There’s an explanation for this, or at least a theory of the explanation, and it’s Biblical. Little did I know, Left Behind is a Christian movie about the end of the world, supposedly based on some obscure and utterly insane reading of the Bible. Even most Christians would agree that it is complete BS.

But that’s not the problem. There is nothing wrong with the type of movie it is or the premise per se — it’s the horrendous execution that makes Left Behind god-awful in any religion.

Although it’s about the end of the world, the movie centers on what happens on a flight from New York to London when the “disappearances” take place. Nicholas Cage plays a philandering pilot who dodges the birthday of his visiting daughter (Cassi Thomson) and spending time with his uber-religious wife (Lea Thompson) and young son so he could get naughty with a stewardess (Australia’s own Nicky Whelan). Also on the flight is a famous investigative reporter (Chad Michael Murray), who for some reason tried to hit on Cage’s daughter just before take-off. Also on the plane are — and I am not kidding here — a kind Muslim, a mean midget, and American Idol winner Jordin Sparks. None of them disappear, of course, because they’re not true believers (or at least in the right god).

Even putting all the sanctimonious religious stuff aside, Left Behind is still an abomination. The script feels like it’s written by aliens because none of the dialogue or reactions even resemble what a normal human would say or do. Just say your little brother disappears into thin air right in front of your eyes. All that’s left of him is his clothes. And you can see that the same thing has happened to a lot of people around you. So what’s the logical thing to do? Yes, that’s right: go to the hospital to look for him! I mean, just in case he miraculously slipped out of his clothes without you noticing and decided to go there for some reason. And that’s actually one of the more reasonable things that happens in the movie.

The characters are horrible. They’re either disgustingly unlikable or they’re so noble it’s cringeworthy. And they’re played by actors — famous or otherwise — giving the most atrocious performances of their lives. I understand the budget was only US$16 million, but the inside of the plane looked like it was made in someone’s living room. The special effects looked like they were taken from the cut scenes of a Playstation 1 game. And the ending — my god, the ending. Apparently there are more books in the series, but it’s obvious there aren’t going to be more movies, so I have no idea why it ended the way it did. Everything about it was just an unfathomable mess.

This is the kind of movie that gives religion a bad name. It’s the kind of movie that gives bad movies a bad name. Have you ever had a dream where everyone is acting all weird and nothing makes sense? Left Behind is that dream, but worse. It’s a goddamn nightmare.

0.5 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part II

September 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

The movies just keep coming, I can’t stop them. Here’s another batch of films I saw recently.

The Calling (2014)

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This was supposed to be good. Susan Sarandon plays a police detective living in a small Canadian town trying to track down a serial killer with illusions of religious grandeur. The supporting cast isn’t too shabby either, with the likes of Gil Bellows, Ellen Burstyn, Topher Grace and Donald Sutherland. Unfortunately, while it’s not as horrible as some critics have made it out to be, The Calling lacked real suspense, emotion and surprise, and will likely become one of those movies no one remembers in a couple of years.

I initially thought The Calling was going to be a horror in the vein of Seven, but that was expecting way too much. The film started off well, building up Sarandon’s alcoholic character as a troubled but capable detective. Gil Bellows made a good right-hand man, and Topher Grace gave the police station a much-needed spark with his presence, though both of those guys were somewhat under-utilised.

The murders were interesting for a while, but after a while you begin to realise that the story’s not nearly as clever as it wants or needs to be. After a lot of build up in the first half there was a distinct lack of tension or intrigue in the second, as the perpetrator is revealed with very little mystery or conflict. I didn’t have a problem with the story veering towards the supernatural (which most critics tend to hate), but in the end the outcome was predictable and disappointing.

Though it’s one of those films that could have been a lot better, I’m also glad that it wasn’t a lot worse, which it very well could have been.

2.75 stars out of 5

Rage (2014)

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Seriously, trust those American movie producers to change what was an original and intriguing title like Tokarev to a lame and generic one like Rage. But it is what it is, and it’s still a semi-passable Taken-style movie about a former mobster who will do all that he can to find his abducted daughter — a considerable feat considering it stars none other than Nicholas “I’ll do anything” Cage.

Rage was savaged by the critics as an overly-violent, dull action thriller that belongs in Cage’s movie basement, but I personally thought it was OK. Cage has already been in one Taken rip-off, the blatantly titled Stolen, but this one’s a little different for several reasons I can’t reveal. And Cage, despite the tragic hair, is actually pretty good in it too.

The premise is intriguing — Cage, a former criminal gone straight, goes out for the evening with his lady friend (Rachel Nichols) while his teenage daughter (Aubrey Peeples) hangs out at home with her (boy)friends. A bunch of masked men come in and abduct her, setting Cage off on a rampage to track her down through his old contacts, one of whom he believes has betrayed him to his enemies. The journey takes Cage onto a path he can’t return from as we learn more about his dark past.

Rage is indeed ultra-violent, but it doesn’t have the oomph of Taken because it’s mostly just a lot of loud shooting and meanness. Rather than being a skilled badass like Liam Neeson, Cage is an angry badass, which isn’t nearly as exciting. At just 98 minutes, however, the short length does mitigate some of the dullness. The film loses steam towards the end, but I quite liked the ending because there is a tinge of morality among all the carnage.

3 stars out of 5

Sabotage (2014)

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This was supposed to be one of the big movies of the year. A post-politics Arnie back in full swing with Aussie star Sam Worthington by his side, along with a whole host of big names such as Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard, True Blood‘s Joe Manganiello, Lost‘s Harold Perrineau and Josh Holloway, Martin Donovan and Mireille Enos. It’s co-written and directed by David Ayer, best known for penning Training Day and writing and directing End of Watch.

The premise is a good one too — a bunch of corrupt DEA agents, led by Arnie, decide to skim a little off the top of their latest drug bust. But when the money they are supposed to share goes missing and team members start getting killed off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways, it turns the survivors of the once close-knit team on each other.

I knew it was going to be gritty, violent and explosive. And it was. But it also wasn’t anywhere as good as either Training Day or End of Watch. There are plenty of problems to point to, starting from the unnecessary gruesomeness of the whole thing. Sometimes the violence works, sometimes it’s it doesn’t — here it’s just kind of pointless. The other issue I had was with all the characters, none of whom are even remotely likable. It’s hard to watch a movie like this when you think all of them are basically brutish animals and a-holes you won’t mind seeing get whacked.

I wanted to like Sabotage, but there was way too much testosterone to be shared between all the stars, leading to a lot over-the-top swearing, sexism and fake macho stuff that just turned me off the story, which didn’t turn out to be nearly as clever as you initially thought it would be. And it even has this lengthy epilogue that was completely unneeded. Good performances, especially by Arnie, I suppose, but on the whole this is a misstep for Ayer and everyone else involved.

2 stars out of 5

Winter’s Tale (2014)

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What the hell is this? I don’t mind the occasional fable, but Winter’s Tale was way too unconvincing and sappy for my liking. It’s based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Mark Helprin, and tells the story of guy (Colin Farrell) who is raised by a demon (Russell Crowe) and later falls in love with a sick girl (Jessica Brown Findlay) while riding around on a flying white horse/guardian angel. So…yeah.

I kind of get that Winter’s Tale wants to be this epic, sweeping love story that transcends time and space and all that, but I found the package difficult to swallow, starting from Russell Crowe’s bizarre, indecipherable accent to the contrived love story between Farrell and Findlay, and the fact that Will Smith plays the Devil. Fantasy or not, it’s just not sensible stuff.

A film like this needed to give audiences strong, likable characters we can root for, but despite the significant 118-minute running time it felt as though not enough time was dedicated to developing them. The story has a lot of on-screen magic in it but you don’t feel any magic while watching it. The action is also stale, and the romance — though I’ve seen much worse — comes across as forced. And my god, what the heck is Russell Crowe saying?

In the end, I have no idea what this fable is trying to say. Like most flicks of this type, there’s beauty, love, the magic and there’s miracles, but none of it helped to make Winter’s Tale a fantasy I could enjoy, let alone immerse myself in. It might have worked for the book, but it didn’t come close to working for the film.

1.5 stars out of 5

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

 
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