Movie Review: Dracula Untold (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

dracula untold

If I had gone into Dracula Untold knowing only of the horrendous reviews I had glanced, I probably would have really enjoyed it and thought that critics were completely overreacting. However, I had also received several positive endorsements from friends, who said the film is nowhere near that bad and was actually a perfectly acceptable dark fantasy reimagining/mashing of a classic story and a historical legend. In the end, my impression of Dracula Untold lies somewhere in the middle — it definitely is not as bad as the reviews say, though on the other hand I had so many issues with it I found it difficult to conclude that it is any more than just a passable effort.

In essence, Dracula Untold is a superhero movie. We have a protagonist who obtains super powers beyond his imagination, but of course the powers comes at a very steep price. Here, Prince Vlad Tepes (Luke Evans) is a hero who turns himself into Superman…oops,  I mean vampire (with the help of Games of Thrones‘s Charles Dance) – with super strength, speed, healing capabilities and the ability to fly – in order to save his family and his people from the nasty draconian Turks led by his evil “brother” Mehmet (Dominic Cooper, whom I coincidentally often mistake for Evans for some inexplicable reason). The problem, of course, is that he wants to drink human blood and has a weakness for direct sunlight and silver.One of the key strengths of Dracula Untold lies in Vlad’s internal struggle. Instead of the historical villain who loved to impale his victims, Vlad is depicted as an astonishingly capable warrior who is righteous in everything he does — even when he is impaling people. He is an all-round family man who dearly loves his wife Mirena (Sarah Gadon) and his young son (Art Parkinson), which is why he chose to become a monster to protect them, even though he’ll constantly want to drink their blood. First time feature director Gary Shore does a solid job of milking this inner conflict so that we might care about our protagonist. Kudos also to Evans for putting in as good of a performance as one could have hoped in a role like this.

Further, while the film is not scary at all, there is a gloomy mood that works well with the film’s themes. The action sequences are surprisingly exhilarating, in the way that superhero flicks can be when executed right. Admittedly, watching Dracula turn into bats and take on thousands of soldiers by his lonesome is pretty cool, even if you sometimes feel like you’re watching a video game.

Up to this point, Dracula Untold just about ticks all the right boxes for an enjoyable Hollywood guilty pleasure. Unfortunately, the film is also plagued with so many gaps in logic and physics and missing or puzzling details that I found myself asking, “Did that really just happen?” more than a couple of times (see below this review for some slightly spoilery examples). Granted, most Hollywood flicks suffer from similar problems, but the ones here are so glaring and sloppy that they snapped me out of the film’s flow. Some of the flaws are less abhorrent once you realize that they are apparently planning a sequel — which also partly explains the stupid ending — though I doubt we’ll ever get to the bottom of most of these mysteries.

Apart from Vlad, there are also no other characters to give a crap about. Gadon’s loving wife is sadly a thankless character who doesn’t do much except whinge and cry and wait to be rescued, and the son is more or less a prop. Vlad also has a couple of loyal right-hand men whom we don’t even get to know before they die, but then are expected to care. And there’s this weird “servant” dude who pops out of nowhere to act creepy but we have no idea who he is, where he came from or what his motivations are.

In all, Dracula Untold flashed glimpses of promise. The premise itself is not bad, the lead star is solid and the action sequences are relatively exciting. It’s also, thankfully, a very tightly-packed 92-minutes that never feels boring. At the end of the day, I’d rank it above abominations like I, Frankenstein and below more fun, less serious efforts like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.

2.75 stars out of 5

(SPOILER ALERT) Here are some of the questions I asked myself while watching Dracula Untold:

- Is Charles Dance’s vampire restricted to living in that cave or just at night? If he’s always stuck in there then where do all the bones come from? Why would so many people go to extreme lengths to get into that cave so they could be eaten? Why is he stuck there and Vlad can roam around freely? And if Vlad “sets him free” by replacing him in the end, then why can Vlad still go wherever he wants?
- Doesn’t Charles Dance’s vampire want to seek revenge against the one who made him that way? What’s he doing still following Vlad around — 600 years later? What the heck are these “games” he’s talking about?
- Why could Vlad not save Mirena when she fell off the cliff when he can fly she she was just free-falling? He can fly so fast he basically teleports, and he’s likely falling quicker because of his greater mass!
- So did he get to her in time or what? If so, why is she dead? If not, why did she not splatter and why could she still talk so much?
- How did Vlad’s kid get from the top of the cliff onto a horse at the bottom of the cliff basically during the time it took for his mother to fall to her death?
- So Mirena reincarnated into Mina 600 years later? Is that what they’re saying? Seriously?
- Is Vlad more powerful than the other vampires he created? Why? Why does he look so much better than them? Why didn’t he look like Charles Dance even though he “replaced” him? Why can he cover the sky with clouds? And how can he (and Charles Dance) be walking around in daylight at the end of the film?
- Why am I thinking so much about things that don’t make sense in this movie?

Movie Review: The Maze Runner (2014)

October 8, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

maze

Like most people who had never heard of the book series, I was hugely sceptical about The Maze Runner, which looked suspiciously like yet another young adult sci-fi action flick trying to cash in on the success of The Hunger Games. Even the film’s very first scene, which I won’t spoil, was rather Hunger Game-sy. But I’m going to defend The Maze Runner against a lot of the unwarranted criticism it has received because it’s actually — despite its rather minuscule budget of $34 million — a very intriguing and original story with a good dose of suspense and action. Sure, it’s far from perfect, but in terms of quality and the overall experience it delivers, The Maze Runner deserves to be in the upper tier of films in the same genre along with The Hunger Games and Harry Potter.

The story follows the adventures of an initially unnamed 16-year-old boy (Dylan O’Brien), who is delivered into a large open space enclosed by a giant mechanical maze. With no memory of who he is or where he is from, the boy is forced to co-exist with a bunch of other boys of all ages, races and sizes, who all appear to have been put through the same experience. It’s a community where everyone has their own duties and roles, and one of the roles is a Maze Runner, someone who spends most of their day in the maze trying to map it and find a way out before the giant metal doors close for the night, ensuring certain death for anyone who fails to return in time.

Much of the film’s appeal comes from the group trying to solve the mysteries of who they are, why the have been put in this bizarre maze and how they can possibly escape it, and of course, what lies on the other side if they do. Like any community, there are conflicting personalities and desires, and a significant portion of the film’s near-perfect 113-minute running time is spent on the protagonist trying to find his place among his peers and the group’s leaders.

The Maze Runner is part Hunger Games, part Lord of the Flies and part Labyrinth, with a big dash of that underrated 1997 Canadian sci-fi horror flick Cube, but I never got the feeling watching the film that it was simply a mishmash of the above. Director Wes Ball, probably best known as a visual effects and graphics artist, does an enviable job of keeping the focus on the character development and playing up the intrigue of the maze by not spending too much unnecessary time in there. The effect is that when the characters are finally in there and running for their lives, the action is that much more riveting and exciting.

The film is not free from usual problems such as plot holes, occasional contrivances and unexplored opportunities, and the ending is largely unsatisfactory because answers are scarce (it is, after all, the first film of a series), though on the whole I had a great time with The Maze Runner. I found the maze to be an interesting and thought-provoking concept, and the action sequences were executed with ample exhilaration. The performances from the young and largely unknown cast was also unexpectedly strong. Dylan O’Brien I knew vaguely from TV’s Teen Wolf , Will Poulter I recognised from the Narnia movies and We’re The Millers, and of course Thomas Sangster is from Game of Thrones, but I was not familiar with most of the other kids (like Aml Ameen, Kee Hong Li, Blake Cooper and Kaya Scodelario), all of whom were solid.

Which is why I take issue with some of the scathing reviews from critics, most notably from Andrew Parker, who called The Maze Runner “one of the worst films I have ever had the immense displeasure of ever sitting through.” Now, Parker is entirely entitled to his own opinion, but the vitriol he spewed out against an adaptation that was technically sound and with holes no worse than most films of its kind was clearly hyperbolic and likely predetermined. No wonder Will Poulter found it difficult to hold back in starting a public feud with Parker on Twitter over the review.

Let’s face it, The Maze Runner probably wouldn’t have been made without the success of films like The Hunger Games, but it’s not fair to single it out for being derivative and opportunistic because just about every film made these days is guilty of that in some respect. The book by James Dashner on which the film was based was actually written before Suzanne Collins wrote The Hunger Games (though published a little later). In the hierarchy of teen flicks released in recent years, I’d place The Maze Runner alongside the likes of The Hunger Games and Harry Potter. It might not come with the same fanfare as Twilight, but it’s definitely above the second-tier adaptation franchises such as Percy Jackson, Vampire Academy, His Dark Materials (Golden Compass), the Tomorrow series (Tomorrow, When the War Began), and Red Dawn (which should really be third-tier).  I was pleasantly surprised by The Maze Runner and I’ll be looking forward to the sequel, set to be released in September next year.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: How to Train Your Dragon 2 (2014)

September 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

dragon2

Little boys just love training their dragons. Following the relatively successful How To Train Your Dragon from 2010, Dreamworks is back to milk that cash cow, or more accurately, that cash dragon, with the sequel, How To Train Your Dragon 2.

I actually really enjoyed the original (review here), which was an entertaining, sweet little story about the friendship between a kid viking called Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his cute but powerful dragon Toothless. It’s not one of the more memorable animated features in recent years, but it’s in the upper echelons in terms of quality, excitement and fun.

In the sequel, Hiccup and Toothless are back, five years older and closer than ever. Pretty much all the old cast is back too, with Gerard Butler playing Hiccup’s father, Craig Ferguson as Butler’s right hand man, America Ferrera as Hiccup’s girlfriend and Jonah Hill, Kristen Wiig and Christopher Mintz-Plasse as fellow viking friends. Cate Blanchett also joins the cast as a female viking whom I won’t spoil.

Since learning about prejudice and making peace with the dragons in the first film, everyone in Hiccup’s village of Berk has changed for the better. But of course there is a brand new villain (Djimon Hounsou) hell bent on conquering all dragons for his own benefit, and it is up to Hiccup and Toothless to try and stop him with the help of their family and friends.

I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by How To Train Your Dragon 2, which is as good as its predecessor when it comes to visual thrills and tugging the heart strings. The story itself is relatively stock standard, predictable even, so film’s biggest strength lies in the stunning visuals from all the dragon-riding action sequences that make fine use of some creative and skilled camera work. The dragon designs, and especially all the beautiful mix of colours, really added to the visual feast the film provides.

It’s more or less a continuation of both Hiccup and Toothless’s coming of age, and I’m glad to say that the title is not misleading because there actually is more legitimate dragon training in the film. Like its predecessor, it’s not the funniest animated film out there, but How To Train Your Dragon 2 more than makes up for the dearth of laughs with the exciting action sequences and emotional resonance.

Last word: A good film for the family that builds upon the solid foundations of the original by taking things to a new level.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Purge: Anarchy (2014)

August 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

the-purge_anarchy_ver2

Sequels to thrillers — even ones that aren’t very good — are never as good as the original. Or at least that was what I thought before I watched The Purge: Anarchy.

The Purge (review here) was a promising film released last year that failed to live up to expectations. It revolved around the concept of a yearly Purge, where all citizens are free to do whatever they want — steal, rape, kill — without any legal repercussions whatsoever. It’s supposed to cleanse the soul, or something like that, so that they won’t feel the urge to do it on the 364 other days of the year. Apparently, it works, as violent crime has become almost nonexistent.

Notwithstanding an all star cast including Ethan Hawke and Game of Thrones queen Lena Headey, The Purge missed a great opportunity to create something thought-provoking and original, instead opting for a typical home invasion thriller involving creepy, deranged, mask-wearing intruders. It had its moments, though the experience ultimately felt hollow.

On its face, The Purge: Anarchy seems like one of those B-grade, straight to DVD type sequels. No returning actors or characters (I believe with the exception of one), no big names, and noticeably less marketing. And yet, somehow, it ended up being a more rewarding experience than the original by taking a approach that better utilizes its unique premise.

Instead of focusing on a single family in their home on the yearly Purge night, Anarchy splits the attention between three groups of people with different motivations and socioeconomic backgrounds — a Hispanic mother and daughter pair (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) caught up in the carnage when their apartment is attacked; a white couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) trying to get to safety after their car broke down; and a police sergeant (Frank Grillo) hell-bent on seeking revenge against people who he believes ruined his life.

In contrast to The Purge’s creepy, claustrophobic atmosphere, Anarchy is more of a direct action thriller with a typical narrative thread in which a group of people must come together for a common cause: survival.

By taking this approach, Anarchy is able to explore the concept of the Purge with more depth and from more perspectives than its predecessor. It tackles the question of why the Purge was implemented in the first place and ponders the social, political and economic fallout from such a decision. Who does the Purge benefit most? Which people are most vulnerable? Are the underlying justifications more sinister than we realize?

This is not to say Anarchy is a great film. The film had a budget of just 9 million, and sometimes it showed, from the distinct lack of star power To the largely unimpressive action scenes. There is nothing special about the acting, and the stock standard characters were often annoying in their stereotypical reactions to situations. I also expected more originality and creativity in some of the deranged discoveries you would come across in a world like this, but they ended up being rather uninspiring and predictable.

Having said that, Anarchy does do better than its predecessor in making the most of the premise, resulting in a more complete and satisfying film. Given that the Purge happens every year, this is one of those franchises that can roll out a new film every summer. And apparently the wheels are already in motion for a third film, a prequel that well look at the events surrounding the very first Purge. Maybe it can continue to iron out the kinks and become one of those film series that can keep improving as it expands on the world it has built.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

August 17, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Guardians_of_the_Galaxy

I hadn’t initially planned on watching the latest Marvel entry, Guardians of the Galaxy, which seemed like a strange turn for the multi-billion-dollar film franchise into less grounded, more childish territory with a talking raccoon and a giant walking tree. Word of mouth that reached me all said it was “OK” or “Pretty good,” though I was astounded by the number of positive reviews I saw online, including an incredible 92% on Rotten Tomatoes. Considering Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, probably the best movie of the year (let’s face facts here), only got 91% (about 9% too low), I knew it was only right for me to lay down some dough to watch Guardians on the big screen.

My verdict trickles closer to the word-of-mouth reviews I personally encountered, which is that it’s pretty good, definitely better than original expectations (from the time I saw the trailers), but not quite as good as the glowing reviews it’s been receiving. It’s solid popcorn entertainment, plenty of fun, frequently funny and always engaging, though ultimately still a second-tier franchise when ranked among its peers in the Marvel universe.

The core of the story is virtually identical to The Avengers – a bad guy teams up with another bad guy (with resources) to get their hands on a powerful object, and the only people who can stop them is a team of heroes with different strengths and conflicting personalities. The first half introduces the characters as they “get to know each other,” so to speak, and in the second half they learn to work together and become greater than the sum of their parts. Sound familiar?

Instead of Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and The Hulk (plus Black Widow and Hawk Eye), we have Star-Lord (Chris Pratt) — a wise-cracking, smart-aleck human thief abducted by aliens as a child; Gamora (Zoe Saldana) — a green humanoid alien surgically enhanced by her father and the film’s antagonist to be a killing machine; Drax the Destroyer (David Bautista) — a powerful pink humanoid alien with lots of scars/tattoos and bent on revenge; Rocket (Bradley Cooper) — a CGI talking genius raccoon made from lab experiments; and Groot (Vin Diesel) — a CGI tree-like humanoid with lots of special abilities but a limited vocabulary.

It’s not the Avengers, but this bunch is still pretty solid team where each member plays off the others really well. Chris Pratt, all buffed up for the role, is a larrikin whose sole remaining connection to Earth is his cassette walkman and classic mixtapes, a gag the film executes wonderfully without milking it. He’s no slouch, but his main purpose is to play the human character we can connect with and to provide the laughs. Zoe Saldana, having played a blue alien in Avatar, goes green this time, and she’s the straight face of the group, while David Bautista is the hothead/meat-head with a broken heart. What surprised me were Rocket and Groot, both of whom I thought were going to be lame, but instead they probably turned out to be the film’s most likable characters. Considering the overall tone of the film, a talking raccoon and a walking tree didn’t feel out of place at all.

The supporting cast is also formidable – Glenn Close, John C Reilly, Benicio Del Toro, Karen Gillan and Djimon Hounsou, with Michael Rooker (Daryl’s hillbilly brother from The Walking Dead) as Star-Lord’s mentor, and The Hobbit elf Lee Pace as the destructive villain, Ronan the Accuser, who is no doubt powerful but somewhat lame because of his typical (boring) motivations.

The best way to describe the film’s general feel is cheeky and exciting. Apart from the introductory sequence, none of the film is based on Earth, meaning it’s all crazy alien business we don’t have to take too seriously. Overall, the film’s laugh quotient isn’t as high as I expected, especially because the humour is sometimes obvious and geared towards younger/dumber audiences. I personally thought there could have been more wit and sharper jokes, though it’s still frequently amusing enough to make the film a fun ride.

The action is varied and visually spectacular — largely thanks to superb special effects we tend to take for granted these days. It’s not quite edge-of-your-seat stuff, though it’s clever, creative and amusing enough to be plenty of fun.  And importantly, it feels as though the action never stops. Even when there’s no fighting there are always people walking, in the forefront or in the background, and if they’re standing still it’s because they’re on a speedy spacecraft. It gives the film a frenetic pace that never seems to slow.

The disadvantage of this film compared to The Avengers is that the characters themselves, as great as they are, don’t generate any excitement. With The Avengers, much of the attraction comes from the concept of putting all these fantastic superheroes together. With Guardians of the Galaxy, however, most viewers outside of hardcore fans won’t know who our heroes are, meaning more time has to be spent building them up from scratch. The Avengers superheroes already have cache entering the film, whereas here they have to earn our trust and affection. On the other hand, the advantage of this set-up is that there are no expectations or baggage. We expected The Avengers to deliver; no one really expected much out of Guardians of the Galaxy, allowing it to pleasantly surprise. Full credit has to go to director James Dunn (who also co-wrote the screenplay) in taking what was probably an experimental franchise — a year before the release of The Avengers 2 – and turning it into such a good-natured, family-oriented hit.

I’ve seen some people write that Guardians of the Galaxy is better than The Avengers, but that’s just borderline insaniquarium. Calling it “Baby Avengers,” however, would be doing the film a disservice. It is what it is: two hours of top-notch popcorn fun that’s quickly forgotten as soon as the credits roll (or in this case, the conclusion of the crazy post-credits scene).

3.75 stars out of 5

 
%d bloggers like this: