Movie Review: Into the Storm (2014)

November 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Into-The-Storm-poster-2

Blockbuster natural disaster movies these days tend to be either based on true events or completely made up and over the top. A couple of years ago there was The Impossible, about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and in recent years the world has also been rocked by made-for-TV parodies such as Sharknado.

Into the Storm is a return to the more “realistic” fictional natural disaster films such as 1996’s Twister. However, apart from superior special-effects owing to 18 years of improving technology, Into the Storm is an inferior film in every way.

In keeping up with the times, Into the Storm is a semi found-footage film in that it splices traditional filmmaking with handheld camera footage taken predominantly by two teenage brothers working on a time capsule project for school. I guess it makes the film easier to watch and less ridiculous than a film that is stitched together purely from found footage, but at the same time it feels like such a cop-out by trying to take advantage of both approaches.

The film stars Thorin Oakenshield, aka Richard Armitage, as a high school vice principal stuck in the worst storm of all time. But hey, he is freaking Thorin Oakenshield, so there is no task too difficult or dangerous for him, and it is no surprise that he is essentially a superhero in this film. If he’s not whisking high school kids to safety, he is searching for his eldest son (one of the camera wielders), who is trapped with the girl of his dreams (Aussie starlet Alycia Debnam-Carey) in an abandoned paper mill. Other times he just hangs out with a bunch of storm chasers, led by Prison Break and Walking Dead alumnus Sarah Wayne Callies. Naturally, there is also a dickhead filmmaker who doesn’t care about anyone’s safety and only just wants to get the whole thing down on camera.

Into the Storm admittedly boasts some impressive special effects, but as a whole the film is clumsy and forgettable. The characters are stock-standard and thus boring, and the danger never feels as close as it should be. You can more or less guess who’s going to die and who’s going to make it, and no amount of CGI can make up for the lack of imagination in the script or the lack of emotion in the drama.

I would have actually preferred it if the filmmakers pared back the special effects to spend more time on developing at least one character worth caring about, or if they went in the complete opposite direction to give audiences a cheesy, ridiculous spectacle where nothing is sacred. Instead, the film is stuck woefully in between, with no decent characters nor enough cheese to make it a popcorn-fun experience.

As disaster porn, Into the Storm gets the job done with its spectacular visuals and explosive carnage. If you missed it on the big screen, however, there’s probably not a whole lot the film can offer.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Maleficent (2014)

August 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

maleficent

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Maleficent, the new re-imagining of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairytale, is that I didn’t mind it. That’s already saying a lot, given that I have not withheld my disdain for similar efforts in recent years, from Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror to Snow White and the Huntsman and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Maleficent is the most visually stunning film of the lot, with colorful creatures, fairies and a magical world full of wonder. It is also far more emotionally engaging than those other films thanks to Angelina Jolie, who is magnificent as Maleficent (see what I did there?) and deservedly singled out for her performance.

It was a relief to discover that Maleficent was not a supporting character — ie, the film was not simply trying to use Jolie’s fame to promote a film that is otherwise dominated by other lesser known actors. True to its title, Maleficent is all about Jolie’s character, who has been tweaked to become both the (wronged) villain and hero of this revisionist fairytale. 

Without giving too much away, Maleficient starts off as a cheerful young fairy who befriends a young human boy after saving him from the wrath of the creatures he stole from. Years later, as required by the story, an ultimate act of betrayal turns her into a vengeful bitch determined to exact her vengeance on the human world. Her fury ends up being manifested in a curse on a baby Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister from 2011’s Super 8), who grows up to become — you guessed it — Sleeping Beauty.

The rest of the film goes off on a very different tangent to the Disney cartoon, and, as with most of these re-imaginings, contain plenty of action and obligatory fighting sequences, though to the film’s credit it does feel slightly less coerced. A big reason is because Jolie is so good as the titular character that you actually feel something for her, to the point where all the special-effects-fuelled violence — unlike other films of this kind — begins to means something.

The problem Jolie’s superb performance, and her dominance, is that it renders everyone else in the movie insignificant (even the special effects, prosthetics and makeup used on her seemed more advanced than the others). Apart from Sharlto Copley, who barely holds his own as the King, just about all other characters fail to hold our attention, from Maleficent’s useful shape-shifting sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) and the boring prince (Aussie Brenton Thwaites) to the three “good” pixie fairies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville.

Elle Fanning, in particular, came across as a poor choice for Sleeping Beauty. Her beauty is a subject for debate, but the strange thing is that she feels too young for the role, despite being the same age in real life as her character (16). I guess it says a lot about Hollywood’s tendency to cast much older actors for younger roles. More pertinent is Fanning’s “acting,” or lack thereof, as all I can pretty much remember of her is the fakish stupid grin she had plastered on her face throughout most of the film.

The other issue I had with Maleficent was how much they had to twist the story so that it fit within the scope of the Sleeping Beauty narrative. There’s a fine line between changing too little and changing too much, and in this case I think they couldn’t find the right balance because it opened up too many plot holes and occurrences that were illogical, even for a fairytale. Part of it is because they tried very hard to make Maleficent a villain you could root for, so that every bad thing she did was justified, and even when she was being “evil” she wasn’t really. What they ended up with was a completely new standalone story, rather than a side story that complemented the original fairytale and filled in the gaps to give audiences Maleficent’s perspective. There is nothing wrong with that, except they still tried to squeeze in too many elements from the original Sleeping Beauty story, resulting in a weird hybrid that didn’t fully work.

But as I said at the start of this review, I didn’t mind Maleficent. It’s a flawed film with a saggy middle act, but thanks to Jolie’s film-saving performance, it’s much better than it otherwise would have been. Coupled with my low expectations, I admit I don’t regret seeing it.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014) (IMAX 3D)

May 18, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

godzilla2014_poster2

We generally tend to think blockbuster monster flicks aren’t going to be very good, and yet we always seem to expect a lot out of them. Well, the latest Hollywood rendition of the legendary Japanese lizard, Godzilla, was one of the my most anticipated movies of 2014, and I’m glad to report that it’s freaking awesome. It shits all over the 1998 Roland Emerich version (which was not as bad as historically remembered anyway) and is superior to last year’s Pacific Rim.  While it’s far from perfect, it more than lives up to the hype and demonstrates that monster movies can be good after all.

I haven’t seen any of the Japanese versions of Godzilla, but from what I understand, this version pays homage to the origins of the creature, born from the Japan’s collective consciousness in the aftermath of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Cleverly, story writer David Callaham and screenwriter Max Borenstein take that and fuses it with the more recent nuclear meltdown in Fukushima to create a narrative that touches on both the past and the present.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving away spoilers (and trust me, there is a plot, and there are surprises for those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese franchise), but essentially the story focuses on the family of Kick-Ass (an unrecognisable, insanely buffed Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US soldier in the mould of Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker (in that he diffuses bombs) and his wife (played by the non-anorexic Olsen sister, Elizabeth) and their young son. Kick-Ass grew up in Japan, where his parents Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche worked as supervisors of a nuclear power plant until an “accident” turned their lives upside down, and Cranston is still trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it 15 years on. Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins (who was so brilliant in Blue Jasmine) play a couple of scientists who have been researching Godzilla for decades.

British director Gareth Evans was a natural choice for Godzilla. He was a the helm of the successful 2010 indie sci-fi flick Monsters, which I personally thought was a little overrated but did an excellent job of bringing forth the human elements of the story along with excellent special effects (not surprising as he started out his career in visual effects). Monsters was made on a shoestring US$500,000, whereas for Godzilla Edwards had US$160 million to play around with. Usually indie directors struggle when transitioning to big-budget blockbusters, but to Edwards’ credit he ensured that Godzilla had a compelling, emotional human story to tell, without forgetting that it is still ultimately a monster flick where everyone wants to see a lot of carnage and devastation.

Speaking of Godzilla’s “human” story, kudos must go to Heisenberg, or Tim Whatley, or whatever you want to call him. He stole every scene he’s in and was the epicenter of the film’s emotional core. The characters weren’t exactly well-written, but I cared about them and the story when he was on screen, and it was his absence later on that caused the me to stop caring about the humans (in particular Taylor-Johnson and Olsen’s relationship). It’s not that they were bad — to the contrary, actually — but they paled in comparison to Cranston’s now-mythical acting prowess and presence.

Fortunately, me losing interest in the human story coincided with Godzilla’s “in all his glory” appearance on the IMAX screen, which rendered everything else secondary. If you want to see Godzilla do what he does best, and that’s smashing shit up, then I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. The sheer scale of the action was jaw dropping enough, but Edwards also infused the scenes with intelligence and creativity. Watch it on the biggest screen you can find and just enjoy the ride. (I’d pass on the 3D though — once again a complete waste of time and money)

How do the monster scenes compare to Pacific Rim? Favourably, in my opinion. Pacific Rim was more about live-action anime-style eye candy designed to provide a lot of euphoric “cool” and “yeah” moments, whereas Godzilla was more “grounded in reality”, so to speak. In contrast to the energetic vibrancy of Pacific Rim’s bright colour schemes, Godzilla is almost entirely grey and misty, but it matches the sombre and mysterious tone well.

What sets Godzilla apart from Pacific Rim and most other big Hollywood monster movies, however, is that Godzilla himself is a character rather than just an ugly prop wreaking havoc for no discernible cause. There is a purpose for Godzilla’s existence and a reason behind his actions, and I anticipate that a lot of people will be surprised by how the big fella is portrayed.

I don’t agree with some of the criticisms levelled at the film, which include that Godzilla is too fat. He’s not fat. He’s just big-boned. I also believe, contrary to some claims, that Godzilla received sufficient screen time. I actually think Edwards arranged it perfectly, giving us enough glimpses early on to whet our appetites, building up the suspense throughout the second act, and finally giving Godzilla to us unencumbered — free from blurriness, rapid cuts and obstructions — in the climax. It’s not how much time he has on screen anyway; it’s what you do with him when he’s there, and Godzilla had ample opportunity to demonstrate why the film was named after him.

Having said that, I do have some other criticisms of my own. First, while the overall pace of the film is good, there were times when the momentum sagged because Edwards was trying too hard to establish the characters. It was more or less the same problem I had with Monsters, but to a lesser extent. Secondly, apart from Kick-Ass and Heisenberg, no other human character actually does anything in the entire film. Olsen, for instance, was just the anxious wife who spends all her time doing little other than being really worried about her husband. Watanabe and Hawkins just sat around and observed, pretty much, and by the end I had forgotten that they were even in the film at all. The problem is not as egregious as it sounds because if I had a choice between resolving these characters’ stories and watching Godzilla doing Godzilla things, I’d always choose the latter. And my guess is that Edwards, upon realising that the film should not be much longer than 2 hours (it’s 123 minutes), went in the same direction.

Despite its flaws, Godzilla is frighteningly close to everything I could have hoped for. An intelligent premise that pays homage to the original and contemporary events, an all-star cast powered by the almighty Bryan Cranston, passable characters and dialogue, and most of all, riveting, eye-popping monster action with impeccable special effects. It’s everything a summer blockbuster should be.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Nymphomaniac (2013)

April 25, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Lars-von-Trier_-_Nymphomaniac

The Nymphomaniac posters are hilarious

I don’t consider myself a fan of Lars von Trier, but I do admire his ambition, tendency to take risks and willingness to attempt something a little different to what we’re used to seeing. His latest writer/director effort, Nymphomaniac, is a 4-hour epic split into two parts, contains a whole load of big Hollywood names, and features highly explicit sex scenes. I didn’t think I’d like it, but to my own amazement, I did.

The film starts off when an injured middle-aged woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is found in an alley by a middle-aged man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). At Joe’s request, Seligman takes her home to attend to her wounds, and soon after she begins telling him her adventurous life story as a nymphomaniac, someone addicted to sex. In Volume I, the young Joe is played mostly by rail-thin Franco-English actress Stacy Martin, while the majority of Volume II reverts back to the older Gainsbrough.

The total length of the two parts is a whopping 241 minutes (with an additional 28 minutes in the uncut version I didn’t see). Even with an intermission, the film is a challenge for any moviegoer.

But it wasn’t as much of a challenge as I anticipated, because for the most part, Nymphomaniac is entertaining (or at least extremely fascinating) cinema; and no, it’s not because of the explicit sex scenes. First of all, you would be mistaken to catch this film if you’re only interested in the sex. if you are, then I’d recommend watching porn instead, because to be honest, the cut version I watched is not that bad. There are scenes that show what appear to be real sex acts featuring real genitalia, but as we’ve been told, they don’t belong to the actors you see on screen. It’s either done by prosthetics or porn actors and then digitally inserted (get that joke?) through movie magic. Some scenes are titillating, many others are not, and several even verge on gross. In any case, there are certainly plenty of other contemporary movies that are equal or worse in terms of explicitness, with the brilliant Blue is the Warmest Color being a recent candidate that springs to mind.

Instead, watch Nymphomaniac because it’s a very interesting movie with great characters played by a wonderful cast. Joe is a brilliant creation, someone born with a natural appetite for all things sexual. While she continuously questions the morality of her behaviour, she is not ashamed of it. For those who have seen Shame, Joe provides a thought-provoking contrast to Michael Fassbender’s character. Seligman, on the other hand, provides perfect balance to Joe through his asexuality, his wide knowledge of the world, and his ability to link them to Joe’s experiences. There’s an air of surrealism that feels just right when the two of them talk, and I couldn’t help but be captivated by their every word.

Stacy Martin, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard take up the majority of the screen time, but there are also plenty of other big names such as Shia LeBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe. Shia LeBeouf has fallen off the wagon as of late, but he thankfully kept his douchebagginess to a minimum in this film. It’s just a shame he can’t do a proper British accent and can’t help but look annoying. On the other hand, the standout for me is clearly Uma Thurman, who steals the show with a farcical sequence as a scorned wife.

And that leads me into the thing that surprised me most about Nymphomaniac — it’s actually really really funny. My kind of black comedy all the way. The Uma Thurman sequence is genuinely laugh-out-loud stuff, and there are plenty of others littered throughout the film, including how Joe got her first job and how she subsequently performed her duties. The train competition scenes were also brilliantly executed — awkward and painful, but amusing and insightful at the same time.

Not everything in the film worked though, and there were portions, especially in Volume II, where I found it difficult to sustain my attention. It might be because I had already sat through three hours, but it might also be because the film was starting to lose its edge. The transition from the young Joe to the old Joe was also jarring because of the sudden switch between actresses. Part of the problem is because Charlotte Gainsbourg looks really young for her age and looks nothing like Stacy Martin other than their thin figures, and another part of the problem is that Shia LaBeouf’s character doesn’t age until the end. I’m sure there could have been a better way.

Anyway, if you treat Nymphomaniac as two separate films, as some have done, it’s likely you’ll prefer one Volume over the other. Personally, I thought Volume I was much more enjoyable. It’s lighter, funnier and more playful, whereas Volume II becomes much serious and tragic as Joe’s adventures get darker and darker in her desire to feel something. I also don’t get S&M at all, so maybe that played a factor too.

On the whole, I came away surprised by how much I enjoyed Nymphomaniac because I only watched it to see what all the fuss was about. Instead, I not only liked it, I liked it for reasons I had not expected. It might very well be my favourite Lars von Trier film.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

March 31, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

300-Rise-of-an-Empire

Hard to believe, but Zack Snyder’s 300 was released in 2006. It came out to mixed reviews, but personally I found it to be a revelation, a campy, delightful bloodbath of stylized action and popcorn fun of the purest kind, the closest thing we have to a direct translation of a graphic novel to the big screen. There is also no other film that makes people want to work out more than this one.

There was talk of a sequel almost immediately after it became a big hit, but it has taken nearly 8 years for 300: Rise of an Empire to be made. Any time it takes that long for a sequel to be made (I even remember seeing posters and trailers as long as two years ago), you have to be concerned — is there a reason? Was it a troubled production? Were there financial difficulties?

I have no idea, frankly, but what I do know is that much of the goodwill leftover from the original had just about dissipated by the time this film came out. They left it too long, and fans of the first film had either forgotten how much they enjoyed it or hyped it up so much that the sequel was doomed to unrealistic expectations.

Directed by Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire is not a direct sequel but rather a companion piece that examines events before, during and after the events in 300. There’s no Gerard Butler screaming “This. Is. Sparta!!!” this time, but his wife, played by Lena Headey, is still around looking like she just stepped off the set of Game of Thrones. The two central characters are General Themistocles, played by Aussie Sullivan Stapleton (who was brilliant in Animal Kingdom), and the ruthless naval commander Artemesia, played by the sultry Eva Green. Rodrigo Santoro returns as the God-King Xerxes (the man who killed Butler in the first film) and David Wenham also makes a cameo as Dilios, a survivor from the 300 (the one with bandages around one eye).

EW-300-rise-of-an-empire-banner

The story is more convoluted that necessary, but essentially it’s all about Themistocles leading the Greeks against Artemesia’s Persian forces. The action is, like its predecessor, bloody and stylistic, with plenty of flying fluids and severed limbs interspersed with rapid and slow-mo mass battle sequences. The distinctive colour tone is again grey with splashes of red and this time blue, and the special effects, though not noticeably improved since 2008, are as good as any blockbuster made in 2014.

The biggest positive about the film, apart from it being ab absolute visual feast, is that it feels like part of the 300 universe without being exactly the same. The films look similar but there are also plenty of differences, with the most obvious being that most of the battle scenes are on the sea, whereas in 300 they are all on the mountains and in the plains. It doesn’t come close to regenerating that freshness of its predecessor but still stands firm on its own.

The cheesy lines are harder to find this time, which is a shame, because it takes a lot of fun out of the film. As for the performances, Eva Green dominates and shines through the gloomy greys. She takes what is otherwise a fairly pedestrian script with a typical baddie and turns Artemesia into a memorable villain; a wild, vengeful nutjob who makes Stapleton’s Themistocles seem boring by comparison. Not to crap on Stapleton, who has already proven to me he can carry a role, but here his character feels sorely lacking in charisma.

At the end of the day, 300: Rise of an Empire is still a fairly enjoyable romp. It lacks the awe factor from the first film but the action sequences are still impressive and Eva Green is fantastic as the psycho villain. It’s a solid companion piece to the original but will likely be remembered as yet another sequel that didn’t really have to be made. Perhaps when another sequel is made (it’s being planned) to extend the series into a trilogy it will be viewed upon more favorably in hindsight.

3.25 stars out of 5