Movie Review: The Captive (2014)

November 16, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Atom Egoyan has made some terrific films about loss and grief throughout his career. His latest effort, The Captive, starring Ryan Reynolds, Mireille Enos, Rosario Dawson, Scott Speedman and Kevin Durand, has been panned by critics, earning just a 24% approval rate on Rotten Tomatoes. Sure, it’s not nearly as good as his earlier movies or recent abduction films like Prisoner, but I think everyone’s being way too harsh.

Ryan Reynolds plays a father whose daughter is kidnapped under his watch. With no witnesses, he is considered the prime suspect by police detectives (Dawson and Speedman), while his wife (Enos) quietly blames him for allowing the abduction to happen.

The story jumps back and forth between the time of the abduction and eight years later, when the daughter is still yet to be found and the lives of the parents are left in tatters. But new clues arise, and it appears their daughter might still be alive and living under the control of a child sex ring.

It’s nightmarish stuff, and the film is often difficult to watch as a result. As a parent myself, I can only imagine the pain and anguish from losing a child under such circumstances. I had never thought much of Ryan Reynolds as an actor, but he is very good here, especially as he has to deal with the suspicions of the police on top of his guilt.

It seems most people who did not enjoy the film had a problem with its preposterous plot. I admit that some of the things that occur in the film are a little fanciful, though thanks to the unsensationalized approach of Egoyan I did not have to suspend my disbelief. In fact, I don’t think anyone would have any qualms about the film’s realism if Egoyan slapped a true story tagline on it (and no, it is not a true story).

My major problem with the film was its unnecessary shift back and forth in time, which were occasionally confusing. Notwithstanding that, however, I think the captive is a flawed but solid thriller worth checking out.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Deliver Us From Evil (2014)

November 15, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I had been really looking forward to Deliver Us From Evil, supposedly “inspired” by true events endured by a real NYPD sergeant by the name of Ralph Sarchie. With one of my favourite actors, Australia’s own Eric Bana in the leading role, I thought the film carried a lot of promise.

Sadly, despite Bana’s best efforts, Deliver Us From Evil disappoints on almost all levels. It starts off as an intriguing story about a cop struggling with his inner demons but soon becomes a far-fetched tale about “real” — and super powerful — demons possessing US war veterans.

The film does have its moments, with director Scott Derrickson (Sinister, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) pulling out his big bag of tricks to fuse a creepy atmosphere with traditional exorcism-related scares. It’s dark, moody and bloody, with an extended exorcism climax that works better than most similar efforts in recent years. Ultimately, however,  Deliver Us From Evil fails to “deliver” due to several fundamental problems.

I did a bit of post-viewing research to confirm what I already suspected — that the term “inspired” is applied so loosely that the film’s pants are in danger of dropping down to its ankles. None of the stuff that happens in the film are based on real events chronicled by Sarchie in his book. I have no idea why they went down this route — perhaps the book is not very exciting– but the plot is so ludicrous that it feels a lot more than a comic book adaptation than anything resembling reality. This is a real shame because I would have much rather preferred strong execution of a dull story than dull execution of a silly story.

Apart from the plot, Deliver Us From Evil is actually also a very unpleasant film to watch, and I mean that in a bad way for a horror movie. Having dark tones and “visual grit” is one thing, but this film goes a little overboard with it. Throw in the flashing lights that almost gave me an epileptic fit and all the rapid-fire cuts, I felt like I really needed to give my eyes a good rest after watching the film.

Eric Bana does the best he can as Sarchie, though the limits of the material make him just yet another troubled cop with a dark past. We’ve seen too many of these “losing my faith” redemption stories for Sarchie to come across as anything special. Edgar Ramirez, who plays an unorthodox chain-smoking Spanish priest, is not your typical exorcist. He’s interesting for a while, though not interesting enough to be a truly memorable character. Olivia Munn plays the wife, and it’s sad to see such a beautiful, talented woman like her being relegated to such a thankless role.

I genuinely wish I liked Deliver Us From Evil more. With the exception of a couple of bright spots, however, this is a film that belongs well hidden in the shadows.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Annabelle (2014)

October 23, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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In an era of crappy, derivative horror films, last year’s The Conjuring was a rare gem in the rough. Most people knew what they were in for — they just didn’t realize how effective it would be thanks to director James Wan’s big bag of tricks.

And so I was excited when I heard that they were going to make a prequel called Annabelle, named after the creepy doll seen briefly in The Conjuring. Haunted toys have been subjected to multiple film interpretations, and I was cautiously optimistic that the same crew from the conjuring would be able to deliver again.I was wrong.

Annabelle was nowhere  near as scary as the conjuring, nor was it anywhere close to being as well made. Instead of the definitive scary doll movie I had been hoping for, Annabelle ended up being yet another disappointment.

The film begins with a brief scene from the conjuring for taking us back to the 1970s, where we meet our lovely protagonists, pregnant young couple Mia (Annabelle Wallis) and John Form (Ward Horton). For some inexplicable reason, John decides to get Mia the Annabelle doll to go along with her creepy doll collection (I mean seriously, have you seen the bloody thing?), and soon after that, a deranged woman from a Satanic cult decides to pass her soul into the doll shortly before her death. If you think that sounds familiar, it’s because the exact same scenario happens in Child’s Play, the original Chucky classic.

From there, the progression is fairly predictable — we start off with little things which then escalate, prompting the couple to seek outside counsel, eventually leading to a climatic finish. If you’ve seen it once you’ve seen them all.

None of the predictability would have mattered if Annabelle was genuinely frightening. I admit, expectations were probably unreasonably high after I saw the trailer, which scared the crap out of me. Sadly, the trailer pretty much spoiled all the truly scary parts of the film, and what was left over turned out to be a bore. Despite a running time of just 98 minutes, Annabelle felt surprisingly slow. Unlike The Conjuring, which gave us a fine blend of atmosphere and “boo!” moments, Annabelle was dominated by cheap scares and obvious tactics.

It would be a lie to say the film wasn’t scary at all, but I guess that’s what happens when you follow up one of James Wan’s best efforts with a career cinematographer like John R Leonetti. To be fair, Annabelle does have some stylish scenes and is by far Leonetti’s best film, though this is not difficult feat considering his other directorial credits are Mortal Kombat: Annihilation and The Buttlerfly Effect 2.

One of the other major problems with Annabelle is the acting. It would be nasty to suggest that the doll was the least wooden performer in the cast, but going from established Conjuring veterans like Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor and Ron Livingston to the likes to Wallis and Horton is a jarring experience.

Having said all that, Annabelle probably isn’t as bad as I’ve made it out to be. It’s disappointing because of heightened expectations, though compared to the vast majority of other trash out there, the film is actually better than most. It’s a shame there couldn’t have been more creativity with the script and better acting, but if you haven’t seen the trailer there might be just enough scares to justify giving the film a try.

PS: For those wondering, Annabelle is even less of a true story than The Conjuring. Check out the real doll. If you’ve done any reading about Ed and Lorraine Warren, the ghostbuster couple from The Conjuring, you’ll know it’s likely a whole bunch of BS. Check out this article for more details.

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Movie Review: Dallas Buyers Club (2013)

February 24, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Matthew McConaughey is still unbearably smug, but with the daring roles he’s been taking on lately even I have to admit that he’s growing on me.

Dallas Buyers Club was among the last of the Best Picture nominees I had yet to watch in preparation for the Oscars next week, and it’s also one of the ones I knew the least about. All I knew was that it starred McConaughey and Jared Leto, who lost a lot of weight and tried to look like a woman.

As it turned out, it’s another true story (making it 6 of the 9 nominees — the only non-true story ones are Gravity, Her and Nebraska), about a womanizing, drug-taking bigot rodeo by the name of Ron Woodroof (McConaughey) who discovers that he has AIDS and is told that he only a very short amount of time to live. At the time, the mid-1980s, AIDS was a relatively unknown disease largely associated with homosexual behaviour, which of course does not go down well with the homophobic Woodroof and his macho friends.

The core of the movie begins from the diagnosis, as Woodroof goes from trying to find useful drugs to prolong his life to selling unapproved AIDS drugs through the titular Dallas Buyers Club he ran with Rayon, a transgender HIV-positive woman played by an eerily recognisable Jared Leto. It is more or less a condemnation of the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the ridiculous snail pace it approves drugs to combat life threatening illnesses. What is the point of being told that new drugs could save your life in a few years when you only have months to live?

McConaughey and Leto have been nominated for their respective roles and rightfully so, as it is their performances that drive the film’s engine. Both actors look like they lost a ton of weight for their roles and genuinely look like AIDS patients, which is impressive in itself, though it’s their back-and-forth chemistry that elevate Dallas Buyers Club into Oscar contention territory. I wouldn’t go as far as to say it is a buddy movie — it’s more about how imminent death sparks a bigoted, hedonistic man’s journey towards salvation — but the the dynamics of their contrasting personalities do provide the base for some entertaining interactions and conversations.

The supporting cast is solid too. Jennifer Garner, who rarely gets out these days from the prison of Ben Affleck, plays a doctor who sympathizes with their plight,  while Dennis O’Hare plays her antagonistic boss who believes he knows what is best for patients. Steve Zahn also has a minor role as a local cop torn between his duty to his job and to his friend Woodroof.

I found Dallas Buyers Club to be an unusual film. On the one hand I was impressed with the performances and how informative and insightful it was about the early days of the AIDS epidemic, but on the other I didn’t really enjoy it as much as the other Best Picture nominees this year despite its powerful subject matter. Part of the reason is because I had trouble connecting with both McConaughey and Leto’s characters. Leto has this one great emotional scene where he confronts his father, but McConaughey’s character is mostly self-serving and doesn’t show a lot of redeemable qualities until nearly the very the end. And unlike say a comedic farce like The Wolf of Wall Street, this was the kind of film where you really need to feel something for the protagonist early on for the film to work.

That said, I liked the lack of sentimentality in the direction of Jean Marc-Vallee (The Young Victoria) and can understand why the film has rated so well with critics. It’s a solid film from all angles and carries an inspiring message, but ultimately I wasn’t as moved by it as I thought I would be.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Philomena (2013)

February 20, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I watched best picture nominee Philomena to prepare myself for the Oscars in a week or so, not knowing what the film was about other than it starred Judi Dench and thinking that it was probably going to be a long, boring drama I’d have to force myself to sit through. Instead, I laughed and I cried and was deeply moved by this true story about a mother’s lifelong search for the son she was forced to give up half a century ago. And it’s only 95 minutes long!

Directed by Stephen Frears (The Queen, Tamara Drewe), Philomena tells the true story of an elderly woman, Philomena Lee (Dench) who seeks out a jaded former journalist who just lost his job as a government adviser, Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), to help her track down her long lost son. Philomena had the child out of wedlock as a teenager and was sent to a convent by her father in disgrace before being forced to give up the child, who was believed to have been sent to the United States for adoption.

Far from boring, Philomena is essentially an investigative road trip movie as we follow Philomena and Sixsmith track down clues and follow leads in their efforts to track down the missing son. Apart from the intrigue of the amazing true story, the strength of the film lies in the two wonderfully developed main characters and the chemistry between them. Philomena is a determined, talkative woman who isn’t afraid to express her beliefs, while Sixsmith is characterised by his wry sense of humour and opinionated views. Together they make an odd couple who provide the audience with plenty of witty and amusing conversations.

And if you don’t know what happens at the end of their search then I would recommend avoiding all spoilers until you see the movie. I was impressed with the unexpected twists and turns in the storytelling, which, given that they really happened in real life, are both stunning and remarkable. I was particularly fascinated by the change in Sixsmith’s attitude as the adventure progressed, going from a position where he had little concern for the outcome other than how it would affect his article to becoming completely engrossed in the search, physically, mentally and emotionally.

Judi Dench received a best actress nomination for next month’s Oscars for her performance as Philomena, and rightly so. I was surprised that Coogan didn’t get a nod for his performance as Sixsmith, which was tonally perfect and balanced out Dench nicely, though he did get a nomination for co-adapting the screenplay. In fact, I was probably even more impressed with Coogan because my memory of him had been largely based on that crappy Jackie Chan movie Around the World in 80 Days.

Philomena is also an important film because it uncovers more atrocious — absolutely appalling — conduct on the part of the Catholic Church. I can’t say more without divulging spoilers so I’d recommend you check out the film, or if you don’t intend on doing so, to read the article that inspired it. I find it curious that some critics have slammed the movie for being yet another “anti-Catholic” film, but it’s not like the writers made all this shit up — it actually happened!

My only real complaint about Philomena is that the musical score occasionally stands out so much that it becomes obvious it’s trying to manipulate audiences into a stronger emotional response. It’s unnecessary because the story itself already packs a poignant punch, especially if you are a parent, like I am. I can’t even begin to imagine what the experience would be like for the real victims of the story. In the end, I don’t think Philomena would have been a best picture nominee back when they only had five slots, but in the age of nine nominees I think it’s reasonable that it has squeezed in. It’s a film that could have easily spiralled into a sappy melodrama, but thanks to the strong script and solid direction it has turned out to be quite an effective, satisfying drama.

4.25 stars out of 5

 
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