Movie Review: Tracers (2015)

April 18, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


A strange thing has happened to the perception that starring in popular film series ruin the careers of young actors. Ever since the world bestowed upon us the Twilight Saga, Kristen Stewart has been in a bunch of movies. Robert Pattinson has been in a bunch of movies. Most of them have been fairly high-profile, well-received movies too. That leaves Taylor Lautner, the third angle in the love triangle, who hasn’t been tearing up the screens since he stopped tearing up his shirt in Twilight for no apparent reason.

Apart from the poorly conceived star vehicle Abduction from 2011, Lautner hasn’t been a top biller for a film since the third Twilight film, and it now appears that his career is heading in the wrong direction with Tracers, a niche-market film about a bunch of young Parkour enthusiasts caught up in a crime ring.

Parkour is exciting to watch, which is why there have been a few movies made about the phenomenon in recent years. I never watched Brick Mansions or the French film it was based on, District 13, though I did catch a little-known film called Run (review here) last year. Tracers is basically a better and more expensive version of Run, mixed with that Joseph Gordon Levitt bike messenger movie Premium Rush.

In fact, Lautner (Cam) actually plays a struggling bike messenger who starts using his athleticism and well-proportioned body for parkour so he can get to know a pretty girl played by the up-and-coming Marie Avgeropoulos. But the girl and her brother are in a gang headed by a criminal who uses parkour to evade police capture, and Cam must find a way out by taking advantage of both his skills and smarts. And yes, Lautner does take off his shirt in this film, but the dim lighting could disappoint those looking for clear shots of his abs.

Tracers is a small film made for just US$11 million, and it shows. It’s a fairly pedestrian script with the familiar dialogue and attempts and character development, and you can pretty much guess what is going to happen next as the story predictably hits the designated checkpoints. The greyish tints and dilapidated settings also mean that the film is not pretty to look at, though to the credit of Daniel Benmayor the parkour scenes are at least done stylishly and with flair. I don’t know how realistic they are, but the running and climbing and jumping all over the place is undeniably thrilling. But that’s about all there is, unless you count the obligatory romance between Lautner and Avgeropoulos which I’m sure his fans are itching to see.

At the end of the day, Tracers is what it is — a low-budget, formulaic action film riding on the popularity of parkour that would have been straight-to-DVD without Lautner’s name attached to it. While it has its moments, you could probably get the same excitement from watching parkour highlights on YouTube.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

March 1, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews


I knew it was not going to be good. Having put myself through the novel, my motivation for seeing Fifty Shades of Grey stemmed largely from my curiosity over how much a quality Hollywood production headed by director Sam Taylor-Johnson (Kick-Ass’s real-life wife) could salvage an adaptation of the third worst book I’ve ever read.

The answer? A decent amount, but nowhere near enough. You can’t deep fry a turd coated in 11 secret herbs and spices and expect it to suddenly be finger-licking good.

Fifty Shades of Grey is probably the first adaptation of a best-selling novel where the dominant expectation is that it will suck because of the source material. Originating as a piece of Twilght fan fiction, the novel has sold more than 100 million copies worldwide despite universal scathing reviews. All the blessings in the world to author EL James for her remarkable success, but how this poorly written amateur effort — which was initially released by an independent Aussie virtual publisher — became a global phenomenon will surely go down in history as one of the greatest literary mysteries of all time.

By now you should know that the “erotic romantic drama” is about young, beautiful, virginal Anastasia Steele (Dakota Johnson — the offspring of Melanie Griffith and Don Johnson), who meets and falls for the rich, mysterious and “impossibly handsome” Christian Grey (Jamie Dornan). She likes biting her lower lip and he’s a sex maniac who enjoys flogging women and contractual negotiations.

The problems with the story and the characters have been, like Anastasia’s ass, flogged to death. People who have read the book would have anticipated this, but audiences fresh to this tale will be introduced to a whole new world of painfully awkward conversations, unrealistic human reactions and WTF moments of the purest kind. It’s one unintentionally hilarious moment after another, each gradually propelling the film towards “so bad it’s good” territory, but without actually getting there. I can honestly say that my wife, who never read the books, laughed louder and harder in this movie than any comedy we’ve seen in the last few years.

The film’s other drawcard, the eroticism, was surprisingly flaccid. I knew they had to pare things back to squeeze the film into an R-rating under America’s classification system, but I didn’t believe they could make the sex scenes even duller than what they were in the book. We’re talking soft-soft core; 9 1/2 Weeks and Wild Orchid it definitely is not. And I say this with an unblemished record of staunch heterosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that): there was not enough man-junk for a movie whose target market is young to middle-aged women. In fact, while Johnson showed off everything, Dornan’s johnson doesn’t even make a fleeting, or even accidental appearance. By the way, the S&M scenes were just horrible. Maybe you need to be into that sort of stuff to appreciate it.

So when you take out the moronic characters, a paper-thin plot and tame eroticism, all that’s left is a dull experience littered with trite dialogue, cringeworthy set pieces and tacky efforts at developing “romance” between the two leads, which is evidently difficult when the guy can only think about torturing the girl and the girl can only think about…nothing at all.

Still, you can tell they tried. The biggest issue with the movie is that the filmmakers were restricted in what they could change without angering the faithful fans of the novel — and the woman who wrote it. Apparently, James clashed constantly with Taylor-Johnson during the creative process and in the editing room. The author wanted the film to remain loyal to the source material, while the director wanted the film to be less shit. I’ve also read that screenwriter Kelly Marcel initially rehauled the embarrassing dialogue, but James vetoed her and a second writer was brought in to rewrite the original shit back in. The mess has been described as a “falling out.”

I think it’s safe to say neither Taylor-Johnson nor Marcel will be back in future entries, though they must still be credited for doing all they can to repair the damage. Taylor-Johnson does a solid job of infusing the film with a blue-grey colour scheme that’s pretty to look at, while also moulding an atmosphere that suits the tone of the narrative. Marcel’s biggest contribution is ensuring that the story is not narrated by Ana, so there’s none of that “inner goddess” garbage or her annoying soliloquies. Some of the more ridiculous facts about her from the book — such as that she’s never kissed anyone or had a boyfriend — are thankfully trimmed out. They even tried to scrape back the amount of pointless emailing and texting between Ana and Christian and all the excruciating back and forth about the contract details.

As for the performances, Johnson is actually pretty good as the mentally challenged naive Ana, the beautiful girl who has no idea men are even remotely attracted to her. Though she’s close to Ana’s age in real life — Johnson’s 25, Ana’s supposed to be 21 — I found Johnson a little old-looking for the part, but kudos to her anyway as she at least channels the book version of the character well.

Jamie Dornan is by all accounts a great actor who will go one to bigger and better things after this, but you can tell from his performance that he couldn’t believe he was in this shit, playing a piece of shit. To borrow from Arrested Development’s Bluth family, Dornan’s singular expression throughout the film said it all.

Jamie Dornan

The rest of the cast sleepwalk through their way for their paychecks. Eloise Mumford, whom I’ve never seen before, plays Ana’s best friend and roommate Kate, while veterans Jennifer Ehle and Marcia Gay Harden play Ana and Christian’s mothers, respectively. True Blood‘s Luke Grimes plays Christian’s brother Elliot and British singer Rita Ora plays their sister Mia, with the familiar face of Max Martini stepping in as Taylor, Christian’s answer to Bruce Wayne’s Alfred. Everyone involved seems to acknowledge that they’re just in it for the money and the CV-boosting publicity.

Having said all this, Fifty Shades of Grey is not one of the worst films I’ve seen by a long shot. It’s better than the book, which doesn’t say much but must count for something. By all means, watch it to satisfy your curiosity or so you can crack jokes at it with your friends.

The film leaves audiences hanging like the novel, and judging from its box office success — smashing several opening weekend and R-rated film records — it appears at least two sequels (they’ll probably split the last book into two films) are headed our way. That’s not good, because the only two books I’ve read worse than Fifty Shades of Grey are — you guessed it — Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Wolves (2014)

November 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


There have been a plethora of werewolf and vampire movies and TV series hanging around ever since Twilight took off, and I don’t think the unimaginatively titled Wolves, a Canadian production looking to ride the wave, has gotten the message that too much is just…too much.

Wolves is technically not a bad effort. It just fails to provide anything new or even attempt a creative spin on the familiar teen genre. Lucas Till, whom some of you might remember from the two most recent X-Men movies as Havoc, plays Cayden Richards, a happy teenager and jock who suddenly discovers that he is a werewolf. He ends up on the run and lands in the town of Lupine Ridge, a town full of his breed, to find out the mysteries of his heritage. Naturally, he meets a hot young girl (Merritt Patterson), and the two fall for each other because there’s no one else around. No love triangle is refreshing, but it’s also kinda boring.

However, the focus of Wolves is, thankfully, not on the romance. It’s more about tensions between Cayden and a dangerous pack of wolves led by Connor, played by Game of Thones’ Jason Momoa. The big fella is the headliner for the movie but he comes across as fairly bland. In fact, most of the film comes across as fairly bland. There’s werewolf sex and werewolf fights, but the story itself is not interesting or distinguishing enough for Wolves to avoid the label of a wannabe attempt.

On the bright side, it’s solidly directed by writer/director David Hayter (who penned the scripts for X-Men, X-Men 2 and Watchmen) in his directorial debut, and the wolves look more like traditional werewolves than the big dogs they’ve become thanks to Twilight.

Still, it’s hard to determine what Wolves was aiming for other than another run-of-the-mill teen wolf flick. It was made for a minuscule budget of US$18 million. It is, as far as I know, not based on any best-selling books. It doesn’t appear to have any major rising stars or teen heartthrobs, unless you put Till (who looks more “unusual” than handsome in my humble opinion) or Momoa (who is too old) in those categories. And it appears to be a standalone with no prospects of a sequel.

Perhaps it will give those suffering from Twilight withdrawal symptoms a shot in the arm, but for everyone else, Wolves should either be watched as a DVD rental when the options are limited or a late-night cable entry when there’s nothing else to do.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Vampire Academy (2014)

May 15, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

vampire academy

I didn’t see the trailer and I barely saw the poster, but I knew just from the title that Vampire Academy, based on the bestselling book series, was likely going to be crap. Considering that it barely recovered 50% of its US$30 million budget and that it received scathing reviews from the critics, it’s likely that this will be the only one we get in the franchise. It is derivative and essentially a mishmash of Harry Potter and Twilight with a dash of Mean Girls (it’s directed by the same guy, Mark Waters) and/or Gossip Girl, but having said that, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as bad as it has been made out to be.

First of all, I just need to point out that Zoey Deutch, who plays the protagonist Rose Hathaway, is the real-life daughter of the legendary Le Thompson. Yes, Lea Thompson! Man I am getting old. Anyway, Rose Hathaway is a “Dhampir” one of three types of vampires in this story’s universe, and all they do is try and protect the “Moroi,” of which her best friend Lissa (Lucy Fry) is one. Who are they being protected from? The Strigoi, the evil vampires. Rose and Lissa run away on their own but are brought back to St. Vladimir’s Academy, the so-called Vampire Academy. It’s basically Hogwarts for vampires.

And yes, unfortunately there is an obligatory romance, between Zoey and her Dhampir instructor Dimitri, some Russian dude who is way too old for her. The romance doesn’t dominate, which is good, but the focus of the film is somewhat fuzzy. There are Hogwarts-like moments of the Moroi trying to learn magic, and there’s plenty of Gossip Girl bitchiness. It’s all a little tongue-in-cheek with direct Twilight references (like how vampires don’t shimmer, etc) and good for an occasional laugh or two.

But the lack of focus and originality does hurt Vampire Academy, which straddles uncomfortably between spoof and a legitimate teen story in its own right. I find it difficult for anyone who considers themselves a fan of any of the film’s inspirations (Twilight, Harry Potter, Mean Girls, etc) taking it seriously and may even be irked by the similarities. On the other hand, if you like to take the piss out of those films then you might enjoy some of the jokes, but apart from that there’s not much else to hold on to. The action is pretty standard and the plot twists and revelations range from predictable to “meh.” And none of the characters are genuinely likable. It’s about as close to an uninspired mishmash cash grab as you can imagine.

I was personally annoyed with the division of vampires into three categories so that the “good” and “bad” vampires are determined by their breed. I had the same problem with the zombie romance Warm Bodies, which had two types of zombies — it’s a trite and arbitrary design to help us connect and sympathize with monsters we identify as “bad”. Say what you want about Twilight, but at least vampires were vampires, and it was up to the individual whether they wanted to be good or evil.

Anyhoo, Vampire Academy is unoriginal, derivative and bland, but it’s not that bad. If you go in with low expectations and like jokes taking stabs at Twilight then you might accept it as passable entertainment.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Legend of Hercules (2014)

April 2, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews


First of all, The Legend of Hercules is the Hercules movie starring Twilight beefcake Kellan Lutz, not the yet-to-be-released one with The Rock. Secondly, despite everything you’ve heard about it, The Legend of Hercules is not THAT bad. Its 3% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is misleading because it means only 3 out of 100 critics thought it was a good movie, not that the average rating of the movie is 3 out of 100 (or 0.15 stars out of 5). In truth, The Legend of Hercules is just terribly average and lacking in originality, and likely inferior to that other Hercules movie. But it’s not THAT bad. Really.

Where do I start? In ancient Greece, of course. King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins from The Expendables 2) is the king of the world, but he’s also a selfish, warmongering dude who’s extremely villainous. His estranged wife prays for guidance and “boom”, she’s doing the naughty with Zeus, who is apparently a wham-bam-thank-you-mam kinda fellow. The result is a baby who would grow up to become Hercules (Kellan Lutz).

I’ll stop there, but essentially Hercules is the story of a prophecised half-man, half-god pretty boy who has to find the strength within himself to take on the evil regime of his adopted father and wimpy half-brother while finding time to woo a pretty blonde lady played by Gaia Weiss. Without giving too much away, the film is part Gladiator, part The Passion of the Christ, part Braveheart and part Thor — in that order.

That’s one of the biggest problems with The Legend of Hercules — it feels derivative and lacking in passion. It borrows liberally and shamelessly without putting its own twist or stamp on things. The pedestrian script doesn’t do the film any favours either, but despite the Herculean efforts of director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) the film can’t quite shake its “cash-grabbing” vibe.

The film was made for US$70 million, which is a relatively small budget for a “blockbuster” like this. And it shows. From the weak special effects (like the bizarrely fake-looking lion) to the overall look of the sets and its visual texture, The Legend of Hercules is lacklustre all over.

To be fair, however, I did enjoy some of the action sequences in the film, both in and out of the gladiator arena. They were well choreographed and occasionally exciting, and it helps that Scott Adkins is a professional martial artist who knows what he’s doing. The scenes of Kellan Lutz doing his best impersonation of Kratos from God of War were fun too.

Speaking of Kellan Lutz, aka “charisma vortex”, it seems more than plausible that he’s the biggest reason the film has been a worldwide flop. He seems like a nice guy and a fine physical specimen who looks like he just jumped straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch print ad, but it might come as a shock to many of you that he CAN’T ACT.  He has two facial expressions — blank, for when he doesn’t need to do anything, and an ape-like grimace for every other emotional expression. He’s basically the opposite of Daniel Day-Lewis.

I don’t profess to be an expert at judging male aesthetics, but Lutz is also one weird looking dude. There are some angles where he appears conventionally handsome and others where his face looks like an orangutan stuffed into a glass cube. The orange fake tan doesn’t help either.

Still, he’s an upgrade over Liam Garrigan, who plays Hercules’ half-brother Iphicles. Garrigan, I’m sure, is a good-looking man in real life, but here he sports a haircut that makes Tom Hanks’ rug in The Da Vinci Code look like a masterpiece. With a hairstyle like that you might as well have stuck a sign on his head that says “wimpy, gutless, jealous older brother with inferior complex who will die and no one will care.”

Anyway, as much as I have shit all over it, The Legend of Hercules is not THAT bad. For all its flaws, the fight scenes are solid and it’s only a merciful 99 minutes long. If you treat the bad script, bad dialogue, bad haircuts and Kellan Lutz’s performance as comedy, it’s actually not an unentertaining movie.

2.25 stars out of 5