Movie Review: Dark Places (2015)

August 12, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

dark places

Dark Places, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s second novel of the same name, is a film that likely would not have been made without the success of Gone Girl, her third book. While Dark Places is a fine book, it’s not the game-changer like Gone Girl was, and correspondingly, the film is not quite in the same league as David Fincher’s extraordinary film adaptation from last year.

With that said, Dark Places, directed by Gilles Paquet-Brenner, is still a solid mystery-thriller that turned out much better than the TV movie-style mediocrity I had been expecting. Part of it is because of the talented cast featuring the star power of Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Moretz and Tye Sheridan, though I suspect it is more because the producers knew they couldn’t turn in a half-hearted effort because they knew Gone Girl was going to raise the bar extremely high (even though the two films were shot at around the same time).

Twenty-eight years ago, Libby Day’s mother (Christina Hendricks) and two sisters are brutally slaughtered, and only other surviving sibling, her brother Ben, is convicted for their murder. In present day, having exhausted all the sympathy and goodwill handouts in the world, Libby (Charlize Theron) finds herself in desperate need of money, forcing her to agree to help out — in exchange for payment — a nerdy “Murder Club” (these things actually exist) seeking to “solve” her cold case. Together with the club’s treasurer, Lyle Wirth (Nicholas Hoult), Libby reluctantly begins investigating what really happened all those years ago.

The film goes back and forth in time, focusing on Libby in the present and Ben (old Corey Stoll and young Tye Sheridan) in the past. Gradually the layers of the mystery are pealed back, and Libby discovers that her brother may not have been who she thought he was.

Sounds fascinating, right? And I haven’t even discussed one of the prominent themes of the film, devil worship and satanic rituals, a topic that was sending shock-waves of fear through the community back in the 80s.

I was sceptical of the casting of Theron in the beginning because the Libby Day of the book was short and frumpy. It’s true that Charlize is too tall and glamorous to fit that description no matter how hard she tries, though her performance is convincing enough for the physical discrepancy to be a moot point.

It was also good to see Theron re-teaming with Hoult after working together for Mad Max: Fury Road, albeit in completely different roles and circumstances. Hoult is solid despite not really getting to do much to show off what he can do. The same goes for Stoll, who is everywhere these days, while Sheridan gets to do more but can’t exactly capitalise on the opportunity.

The two who steal the show are Chloe Moretz and Christina Hendricks. Moretz, as the Ben’s wild girlfriend Diondra, stands out because she’s such a strong and dominatin personality. Hendricks stands out for another reason — she looks virtually unrecognisable as a struggling single mother, looking as plain as can be with virtually no make-up.

It’s a good cast with good performances, but if we’re being honest we’d admit that they were chosen for star power as opposed to fit for their characters.

Dark Places never bores and remains interesting as long as the mystery is in play. My issues with the film are largely as same as the book — it never lets up to the potential of its premise. The progression is too straightforward, the turns and revelations not explosive enough. There’s not a whole lot to separate it from your run-of-the-mill mystery-thriller. With a no-name cast and smaller budget, this would have been a straight-to-DVD or TV movie.

However, it would have been a pretty good straight-to-DVD or TV movie, and the fact that the production is as high-profile as it is means Dark Places is still better than the majority of films in the same genre, even the theatrical releases.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

May 31, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Mad Max

It’s kinda shocking that I’ve never seen any of the original Mad Max films with Mel Gibson. Too campy? Too 80s? Too Aussie? (All baseless assumptions, by the way). Whatever it is, I’ve never really felt the urge to watch them. And so I wasn’t all that hyped up when I heard the the franchise was receiving a reboot 30 years later, surprisingly with original director George Miller returning and the super likable Tom Hardy replacing the now-super unlikable Gibson.

But rave reviews and strong word of mouth got me thinking that, against all odds, Mad Max: Fury Road might actually be a good film.

Well, I was wrong. Because Mad Max: Fury Road is a bloody modern masterpiece. In my memory it will surely go down as one of the best movies of 2015, one of the best action movies of the decade, one of the best Aussie movies of all-time and one of the most visionary post-apocalyptic movies ever.

You don’t need to know anything about the previous films; you don’t even have to know the premise or who Mad Max is. That’s the first fantastic thing about the movie — almost everything about the world in which the story is set is revealed by showing as opposed to telling. There’s no narrator, no scrolling introductory text — and yet from the very first scene it manages to immerse you into this strange and terrifying new future. The opening sequence introducing us to Mad Max is insanely tense and horrific, but it’s also a slick lesson in world-building and storytelling.

And so I won’t say much about the plot except to note that the narrative focuses on three main characters. There’s Max Rockstansky (Tom Hardy), a loner constantly battling inner demons and fighting for survival. There’s Furiosa (Charlize Theron), a warrior on a deadly mission of redemption. And there’s Nux (Nicholas Hoult), a pale-skinned “War Boy” brainwashed into worshipping a ruthless dictator (Hugh Keays-Byrne, who apparently played a different character in the original trilogy).

In an era when most action movies are predictably conventional and follow familiar arcs — whether it’s superheroes, long-running franchises or Taken/Bourne imitations — Mad Max: Fury Road stands out for being something completely different. The film is essentially a long, exhilarating car chase with one jaw-dropping action sequence after another. That said, don’t be mistaken in thinking it is anything like the Fast and Furious franchise, which relies on a mix of old and new star power and having to constantly one-up itself in the crazy stunt stakes. Fury Road is more raw, more strangely grounded despite its over-the-topness, more brutal, more unabashedly bizarre, and far more creative. Frankly, I’d never seen anything like it, and the film’s combination of thrills, suspense and horror blew me away.

That said, Fury Road also turned out to be a lot more emotionally involving than I had expected. Granted, it’s still predominantly style over substance, but there’s something about it — whether it is the strong characters, the brilliant performers or the construction of the narrative — that elevates its dramatic elements above your average action flick.

Speaking of performers, George Miller hit the jackpot with the trio of Hardy, Theron and Hoult. Max is a man of few words and spends a good portion of the movie in a face-blocking mask, making Hardy’s performance even more impressive. To be fair, he has had some mask experience after playing Bane, but it’s the quiet magnetism and emotions he exudes that turns Max into a hero you can easily root for.

As good as Hardy is, Max is actually more of a sidekick to Theron’s Furiosa, who absolutely owns the movie. Apart from sporting the best shaved head since Sinead O’Connor, the Oscar winner turns Furiosa into the heart and soul of the movie, a badass whose quest for redemption drives everything that happens.

And if you thought Theron had uglied herself up for Monster, then you ought to see Hoult as Nux — powdery skin, bald head, skeletal features and perpetually chapped lips. Amazingly, he still looks better than most people, though the sacrifice for his art is impressive. Without giving too much away, Hoult’s charm and willingness to do whatever it takes makes Nux an unusual and intriguing supporting character that might not have been nearly as interesting without his jittery, frantic performance.

As for the rest of the cast, the physically imposing Keays-Byrne leads a cast of grotesque villains, and balancing them out is a group of hot models led by Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz. It’s good to see other Aussies such as Nathan Jones, Abbey Lee, Courtney Eaton and Megan Gale getting some burn. I like that Miller just let everyone speak in their native accents (maybe no one can do the Aussie accent properly), and yet the diverse mix of pronunciations is never jarring or feels out of place.

In all, Mad Max: Fury Road is a revelation. It’s one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen in a long time, from the sandy Australian landscape to the visceral violence and the uncomfortable characters to the gritty machinery. While I’m sure there are plenty of special effects involved, the CGI never overwhelms like it does for many action films these days. The performances are top notch, and the story is simple but effective. At exactly two hours, the length is close to perfect for a film of this kind, though there were times when I felt a little burned out from the endless sand and moving parts. Minor quibbles aside, this is an unexpected masterpiece. It’s hard to see how the planned sequels could top this experience or provide something fresh to prevent familiarity fatigue, but after what I’ve just witnessed it’ll be hard to bet against George Miller again.

5 stars out of 5

Recent Movie Reviews: Part I

July 15, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

My furious rally continues. Here are a bunch of 2013 movies I have yet to review, four at a time. Here is the first wave.

The Call (2013)

call

Ever since Catwoman I have been wary of anything Halle Berry does. The Call, about a woman at an emergency call center, did not sound very appealing to me, but positive word of mouth got me to change my mind.

I’m glad I watched it in the end because The Call is a thrill ride that manages to keep up the suspense for the majority of its 94-minute running time. Berry, the call center worker, is haunted by a previous call which resulted in the death of a young girl. Months later, she takes another call, this time from another teenager played by Abrigail Breslin (she’s growing up real fast), who has been abducted by possibly the same guy.

Much of the film follows Berry on the phone as she tries to figure out how to keep the girl alive and how to track down her kidnapper. I was impressed with how director Brad Anderson (The Machinist) kept coming up with different ways to keep the ball rolling without making it seem repetitive or too ridiculous.

That said, I was really irritated by the stupidity of Breslin’s character and her incessant screaming and whining (all to her detriment) — and a part of me really wanted her to get killed — though to be fair if she wasn’t so stupid she probably would have been rescued in about 20 minutes and there would be nothing left to film.

On the whole I really enjoyed The Call, which was on its way to being a huge surprise hit for me until the moronic ending that made absolutely no sense whatsoever and downgraded my rating by at least half a star.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone (2013)

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I was one of those kids who loved magic growing up and bought magic kits and had dreams of becoming a magician some day (like David Copperfield). So while The Incredible Wonderstone looked pretty awful from the posters and trailer I was willing to give it a go. Besides, it has Steve Buscemi, the greatest actor of all time.

Well, it wasn’t very good, but it wasn’t disastrous either. Steve Carrell and Buscemi are best buds and old school magicians performing in Vegas, but their act is getting old and their thunder is being stolen by new “street” magicians such as Steve Gray (Jim Carrey) — an obvious caricature of douches like Criss Angel and David Blaine.

There are a few decent jokes in Burt Wonderstone, but most of them come courtesy of the crazy antics of Carrey, who is the best he has been in a very long time (considering his last few live action films were Mr Poppers Penguins, I Love You Philip Morris, Yes Man and The Number 23 — yikes). The late great James Gandolfini and Alan Arkin are also excellent in supporting roles, but Carrell is just not very likable and Buscemi’s talents are completely wasted. And Olivia Wilde is painfully miscast as the love interest who is just too young for Carrell.

In the endBurt Wonderstone just isn’t consistently funny enough to make it a good film and completely fizzles as it enters the final act, which is a shame because it started off quite strongly.

2.75 stars out of 5

Now You See Me (2013)

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Another magic movie, but Now You See Me, unlike Burt Wonderstone, actually received good word of mouth despite lukewarm reviews from critics.

As for me, I have mixed feelings about it too. I think it is a fantastic concept — four magicians of diverse skills (Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Isla Fisher and Dave Franco) are brought together by a mysterious leader who gets them to perform otherworldly but legally questionable acts, while a detective (Mark Ruffalo) is hot on their feels trying to figure out how the stunts were carried out so he can arrest them. It’s an alluring premise for a caper movie and the magic tricks, some of which are explained, are fun to watch and debunk.

On the other hand, the film is kinda rough around the edges and suffers from a lack of precision. There is almost no character development and the dialogue is atrocious, giving the film a B-grade feel and a sense that the talents of the all-star cast are being wasted. All the effort was put into the the style but not enough attention was paid to the substance.

The film relies on its twists and turns to keep audiences intrigued, but for me the big reveal was rather predictable (maybe I’ve seen too many movies). Still, I had a good time with it, though it was so unmemorable that I had totally forgotten to review it until now.

3.25 stars out of 5

Warm Bodies (2013)

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A zombie movie from the perspective of a zombie sounded like it had potential for some great laughs. And the first few moments of Warm Bodies were indeed promising as we watched zombies wander around aimlessly and trying to communicate through a series of hilarious grunts.

But Warm Bodies is really a romantic comedy masquerading as a zombie movie, which is a good thing because the zombie gimmick gets old pretty quickly. It has obvious allusions to Romeo & Juliet, as our protagonist zombie (arguably the best looking zombie in movie history), Nicholas Hoult, is named “R”, while his love interest, Aussie Teresa Palmer, is “Julie”.

To make the film work as a romantic comedy, many fundamental rules we know about zombies are bent, if not broken. I didn’t have a problem with that per se because it was important to look at the zombies as the “good guys”, but I didn’t think it was necessary to create another breed of zombies, known as “Bonies”, so we are clear who the real “bad guys” are.

So Warm Bodies was just OK for me. It had a great premise and a few early laughs, but as a romantic comedy it wasn’t particularly romantic or funny once the zombie gimmick ran its course. It’s not a bad date movie because it is sweet and has charm, but I think it falls way short of the cult classic status it was perhaps aiming for.

3 stars out of 5

PS: That’s four very average movies.

Movie Review: Jack the Giant Slayer (2013) (2D)

March 30, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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My first impression of Jack the Giant Slayer, just from the title alone, was that it was going to suck. I had imagined it to be another lame Hollywood attempt to cash in on a popular fairy tale, in the vein of recent bombs such as Red Riding Hood, Mirror Mirror, Snow White and the Huntsman, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, and so forth.

But then I discovered that it stars Nicholas Hoult, probably still best known for playing the kid in About a Boy, but has since shot to fame with X-Men: First Class, Warm Bodies, and being Jennifer Lawrence’s ex-boyfriend. The rest of the cast is great too, with Ewan McGregor, Stanley Tucci and Ian McShane all playing key roles. Importantly, it’s directed by Bryan Singer (X-Men, Superman Returns, Valkyrie, X-Men: First Class), whose cinematic style, visual flair and knack for action I have always appreciated.

I’m glad to say I checked it out in the end, because Jack the Giant Slayer, for all its faults, is by far the best of the recent fairy tale movies mentioned above. The film knows its limits and sticks to what can it can do best, which is loads of giant action, battle scenes, likable characters and a simple but familiar story line about a boy growing into an unlikely hero.

The story needs little explanation. In a magical land which according to legend was once ruled by giants, Jack (Hoult), a farm boy comes across some special beans. A princess (Eleanor Tomlinson) disappears and Jack joins a search team headed by King’s guard Elmont (McGregor) and adviser Lord Roderick (Tucci), the princess’s future husband. You can fill in the gaps.

The light romance and the straightforward humour in this film work because they don’t overwhelm the engaging and often clever action, the special ingredient that elevates Jack the Giant Killer above your average CGI flick. The final battle sequence, in particular, is as exciting as anything I’ve seen so far this year.

On the downside, I suppose the CGI could have been stronger, given that Singer chose to animate the giants entirely with computer graphics as opposed to “enlarging” real actors with special effects. My guess is because he wanted to make the giants less human, with long, dangly limbs, weird faces and various deformities. They looked more like beautifully rendered video game characters than “real” giants, but perhaps I’m asking for too much.

Hoult, with his lanky, boyish charisma, looks like he is ready to be a major star. While he doesn’t carry the film he is the one who keeps the film rolling. Tomlinson is a great match for him as Princess Isabelle, while McGregor and Tucci are always two guys you would welcome in any movie. Ian McShane, whom some might recognise as Blackbeard from the Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, provides both laughs and stoicism in his role as King Brahmwell. As for the giants, the most memorable one is played via motion capture by two veteran stars — Bill Nighy and John Kassir (the Crypt Keeper from Tales From the Crypt!!!).

To sum things up, Jack the Giant Slayer is an enjoyable popcorn movie that should appeal to kids and adults who just want a bit of escapist fun for a couple of hours. It’s not special and certainly not memorable, but considering how badly it could have gone I’d call it both a formulaic success and a pleasant surprise.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: I have to admit that I only knew there was the fairy tale Jack and the Beanstalk and had no idea that there was also a closely related one called Jack the Giant Killer. Jack the Giant Slayer is loosely based on a combination of both.