Movie Review: The Curse of Downers Grove (2015)

September 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I was quite shocked to discover that The Curse of Downers Grove is written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of one of my favourite books of all-time, American Psycho. Yes, it has that brutal violence Ellis is known for, but in terms of logic and common sense, it’s as though the script was written by Patrick Bateman.

Starring not one but two Aussie starlets, the film is marketed as a supernatural horror about a curse that kills one senior student at Downers Grove High School every year. In reality, the curse is nothing but a red herring, as the bulk of the 90-minute film is a violent teen psychological thriller in the vein of something closer to Cape Fear — where the protagonist is forced to defend herself against an insidious miniacal threat.

The protagonist in this case is Chrissie (played by Neighbours alum Bella Heathcote), who against her better judgment ends up going to a party with her skanky best friend (played by fellow Aussie Penelope Mitchell), where she fights off the sexual advances of a local football star Chuck (played by Kevin Zegers). This sets off a chain reaction in which Chrissie, her brother and her friends become the victims of stalking, threats and abuse at the hands of Chuck and his drugged-up goons, while his typical sports dad (Tom Arnold) keeps his cop buddies at bay.

So The Curse of Downers Grove is a completely different film to what it is being promoted as, which I find strange because teen supernatural horrors are a dime a dozen these days while teen psychological thrillers are rarer and arguably more intriguing.

In any case, the film just doesn’t work. While there are moments of tension, the narrative is all over the place. None of the things any of the characters do in the film make any sense whatsoever, and the two worst culprits are the most important characters to the story, Chrissie and Chuck. It’s hard to list example without giving away plot spoilers, but let me just say that it’s easier to count the instances where their actions and decisions make sense than those that don’t. Normal human beings don’t act in this way, even extremely stupid and naive ones. And yet the film had me wondering whether there was some kind of psychotic fantasy thing going on because no characters were behaving rationally. It didn’t help that there were occasional flashes of what appear to be random visions that had no reason to be in the film at all.

This weird, jarring experience is capped off by a grotesquely violent third act that’s also full of logic gaps before a pretty obvious “twist” ending brings the whole mess to a merciful end. I don’t know what Ellis and director Derick Martini were aiming for here, though it feels like a waste of a talented cast. I think Bella Heathcote has real star potential. She was a standout in the 2012 big screen adaptation of Dark Shadows and has the unique look and acting abilities to take her fame to the next level, which is bound to happen after she stars as Jane Bennett in the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I also quite like Kevin Zegers, who always plays fantastic bad-boy types and will always be remembered by me for snapping his legs sideways and then getting devoured by wolves in the underrated 2010 horror Frozen, not to be confused with the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Alas, The Curse of Downers Grove turned out to be a frustratingly crap film. There are elements that appear promising, but Ellis’s lunacy and Martini’s ability to shape it into a logical coherent experience killed whatever chance it might have had.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Gift (2015)

August 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I’ve always been a big fan of Joel Edgerton, one of the most underrated and talented actors to come out of Australia in recent years. And I’ve now become a super huge fan after seeing his directorial debut, The Gift, a seemingly cookie-cutter suburban thriller that’s anything but.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robin, a couple who move from Chicago to LA for reasons that become apparent as the movie progresses. Shortly after moving in, they bump into Gordon “Gordo” Mosley, played by Edgerton, who claims to have gone to high school with Simon decades ago. And so begins an awkward and tense relationship between the couple and the mysterious blast from the past, who as the title and trailer suggest, likes to deliver creepy gifts to their doorstep.

That’s all I can say about the plot without giving away spoilers, and on the face of that description, The Gift may dredge up memories of 90s surburban/family thrillers like Pacific Heights and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But even if that’s all it is — ie, a typical genre film — The Gift is a pretty good one. With well-developed characters, an uneasy atmosphere and genuine edge-of-your-seat suspense, it’s already a few steps ahead of more recent efforts such as 1999’s Arlington Road, 2001’s Domestic Disturbance and 2008’s Lakeview Terrace.

However, The Gift is much more than a typical genre film. It’s a subversive journey full of twists and turns, challenging audiences to put aside preconceived notions. Edgerton’s direction and script (yes, he wrote it too) plays with our knowledge and expectation of such thrillers, manipulating us into thinking one way and then shocking us with another. But it’s not all about tricking us either, as there are times when he chooses more conventional thriller paths and cliches — it’s just that we never know which approach he will take. It’s clear Edgerton, with his wealth of experience as an actor, knows how certain filmmaking techniques will make audiences think and feel, and he has taken full advantage of that.

I don’t want to overstate things here — we’re not talking about genius-level brilliance like The Usual Suspects or anything like that — though for a debut feature it’s hard to deny that Edgerton is impressive and has a wonderful future ahead of him if he decides to focus on more behind-the-camera work.

Full credit too to the cast. I love Jason Bateman, so don’t get me wrong, but he’s always more or less playing a variation of  Michael Bluth from Arrested Development (think about it — Horrible Bosses, The Switch, The Change-Up, Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, This is Where I Leave You, etc). The Gift is the first time I’ve seen him play a completely different character, and I’m frankly quite shocked by how great of a dramatic actor he is. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from him by far.

The lovely Rebecca Hall also gets to show off her acting chops more than I’ve seen from her in any film probably since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In many ways, she’s actually the centre of the film, as audiences are closer to her point of view than anyone else’s. She’s vulnerable, she’s sympathetic and she’s tough when she needs to be. It’s a complex, multi-layered performance and Hall hits it out of the park.

By comparison, I was actually least wowed by Edgerton’s own performance, which is still a very good one but more difficult to gauge because Gordo is the “outsider” of the story. Edgerton undergoes a bit of a physical transformation to play this role, dying his hair red and dialling the creepiness meter to the max to make audiences as standoffish about Gordo as the protagonists are.

Also worthy of mention is Allison Tolman from TV’s Fargo. She only has a small role as the neighbour, but she manages to make her character more noticeable and memorable than it otherwise would have been.

As clever and crafty as The Gift is, the film does descend into more familiar thriller territory in its third act, veering towards improbable and preposterous plot developments that don’t always make sense. Some might think this “ruins” the film; for me, it’s just the consequence of trying too hard to come up with an explosive climax, a trap that — let’s face it — 99% of thrillers fall into. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to take the film to the next level.

A less than optimal conclusion notwithstanding, The Gift is a superb thriller fuelled by skilfully moulded tension and conflicts, strong performances and a promising directorial debut from Joel Edgerton. I hope this film will open the door for us to see more efforts like this from him down the track.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Gunman (2015)

August 19, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It seems every old geezer in Hollywood is turning into an action hero these days. The latest star to follow the Taken path trailblazed by Liam Neeson is Sean Penn, who is no spring chicken at 54 years of age.

Being that it is Sean Penn, there is of course a political slant to it. The plot, therefore, revolves around US mining interests and peacekeeping efforts in the Congo. Penn plays Martin Terrier, a government operative who does something unspeakable for his country and is then forced to disappear. Eight years later, Terrier’s past catches up to him, and a lot of ass-kicking is required for him to make it out alive.

What separates The Gunman from all the Taken wannabes in recent years is that it’s actually directed by the guy who brought us Taken, Pierre Morel. It’s a blessing and a curse because we know what Morel’s capable of but it also sets expectations very high.

The Gunman was almost universally panned by critics, receiving only 17% on Rotten Tomatoes and 39% on Metacritic. Many of the criticisms are valid. The plot, while interesting on its face, is not exactly well developed and fails to make the most of what should have been an intriguing opportunity. There is a fairly lame and unconvincing love triangle between Penn’s character and one played by Jasmine Trinca, an Italian actress two decades younger than him, as well as Javier Bardem’s cookie-cutter jealous a-hole. It also has its fair share of action cliches and is far too long for a movie of this kind at nearly 2 hours.

But you know what? I actually didn’t mind it. Penn is convincing as a man with a very particular set of skills, and he clearly put a lot of effort into transforming his physique just so he could show it off for a couple of seconds. His on-screen presence, physicality and acting chops make him a formidable action hero, badass but also with the right amount of resourcefulness and vulnerability.

The action sequences are Taken-esque, meaning they are done really well — brutal, bone-crunching, visceral, and often heart-pounding. There may be too many boring drama moments, but when the action is on it’s really on.

I’m not proclaiming The Gunman to be a superior action thriller; it’s just that I think it is much more serviceable than it has been made out to be. Sure, it’s not Taken, but it’s arguably better than many of the wannabes.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Clouds of Sils Maria (2014)

May 7, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Being a movie nut, I was recently confronted with a frightening situation where I had almost zero new films to watch on two short flights to and back from a holiday to Japan. There’s only so many times a man can watch Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (and trust me, it was tempting to experience its awesomeness again), but in the end I went with probably the only film on the roster I would have watched under normal circumstances, Clouds of Sils Maria.

This is a weird one because the trailers made it look like some sexy thriller, but in actuality it’s an arty farty piece that throws a lot of subtle considerations your way without really coming out and saying anything.

Oscar-winner Juliette Binoche plays Maria Enders, a successful but ageing actress who scored her break years ago by playing the young lead in the film and stage versions of Maloja Snake, written by some old dude named Wilhelm. It’s about a tempestuous lesbian relationship between a young woman and an old woman that ends in tragedy. In present day, Wilhelm carks it, but Maria is presented with the opportunity to star in the remake of  Maloja Snake, this time as the older woman. Adding to the intrigue is that she has a trustworthy assistant played brilliantly by Kristen Stewart, whose relationship with her at times appears to mirror that of the play. At the same time, the new choice for the young lead, played by Chloe Grace Moretz, has a completely different take on the character Maria thought she knew better than anyone.

So as you can see, this is a film with plenty of intricacies and parallels and layers, many of which are pointed out by the characters themselves in those pretentious discussions I used to partake in with my writing and film classmates (in class only, of course, because we had to). It’s an interesting film to watch because it makes you think, and it’s helped by the wonderful performances from the trio of central female characters, in particular Kristen Stewart, who proves once again that Twilight can turn even the most talented of thespians into a flaming turd. Don’t just take it from me. Stewart actually won a Best Supporting Actress at the Cesars (or the French Oscars, if you will).

I wasn’t drugged up on this flight, so it’s no excuse that the film — at an understandable 123 minutes — began to lose me towards the end. One of the film’s best attributes is that you never really know where it is heading, but eventually I didn’t really care. Perhaps it was all those annoying announcements they have to deliver every few minutes in three different languages that forced the film to be paused multiple times throughout, or maybe it’s because I started to see through its pretentiousness.

Still, for a mid-flight movie, Clouds of Maria Sils more than performs its duty. It has a clever premise and strong performances that challenge you to contemplate its subtleties and layered depth, though the experience was ultimately a pretty hollow one.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Boy Next Door (2015)

April 15, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I wonder what was going through JLo’s head when she signed up to co-produce and star in The Boy Next Door, a film that has straight-to-DVD written all over it. Then again, while she is no doubt a star, she’s not exactly a film star, with her last film credit being the forgotten 2013 flick Parker with Jason Statham, and the one before that being the abominable What to Expect When You’re Expecting.

In fact, it’s arguable that JLo has only been in two legitimately good movies, being U-Turn and Out of Sight, released back-to-back in 1997 and 1998, when she was at the height of her popularity. Those good deeds were outdone by her subsequent turkeys, including The Wedding Planner, Maid in Manhattan, Monster-in-Law, and of course, the infamous Gigli.

The Boy Next Door falls firmly in the turkey category, though I would argue it’s not quite as bad as the others simply because expectations are so low. You know how it goes. JLo plays a teacher with a teenage son and a cheating husband (John Corbett). At a time when she feels vulnerable, she gives in to temptation with the hunky next-door neighbour (Ryan Guzman), who happens to be friends with her son. Naturally, she realises she’s made a huge mistake, but of course the hunk is an obsessive psycho who won’t let her go.

It’s a cliche-fest driven by adult themes but (intentionally) adolescent execution. JLo gets to show off that she’s still in good shape, while Guzman pads his stats as a heartthrob with multiple views of his muscular arms and abs. Cheesy dialogue, cringeworthy moments are aplenty, and genuine thrills are difficult to come by. What makes it worse is that there are no decent characters to root for. Apart from being a moron, JLo’s character is a fake tough guy who you simply can’t sympathise with. Her son (Ian Nelson), is such an obnoxious brat that you just keep hoping he gets his face smashed in. The husband is an obvious slimeball, so you can forget about him, whereas the school principal and JLo’s only friend (squeaky-voiced Kristin Chenoweth) is a sacrificial lamb waiting to happen. So that just leaves the psycho, who could have been an antihero of sorts if only he had any semblance of a real personality or more than one facial expression.

The end product is an unoriginal, predictable B-grade thriller people will probably see on late-night TV years from now and assume JLo made it when she was a struggling nobody. The Boy Next Door is not the worst thing JLo has ever made, though a lot of that has to do with the fact that no one could have possibly gone into the movie expecting it to be any good.

1.75 stars out of 5