Careful What You Wish For (2015)

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I was a little concerned I didn’t have enough material for my list of worst movies of the year, and so I decided to watch Careful What You Wish For, an “erotic thriller” about a teenager (Nick Jonas — apparently he was in some boy band with his brothers) who gets more than he bargained for during his summer vacation when he enters into an affair with the trophy wife (Australia’s very own Isabel Lucas) of a grumpy middle-aged douchebag (Dermot Mulroney). Sounds like Oscar material, right?

Sadly, despite seemingly possessed with all the elements of a terrible movie, Careful What You Wish For won’t be featured on my 10 worst movies list for 2015. I know, I’m as stunned as you are.

The movie starts off pretty much as you would expect. The teenager and his family head to their vacation home and he sees a beautiful woman moving in next door. Some casual flirting ensues and for contrived situations are created to give them opportunities to spend more time together and, most importantly, for the teen to take off his shirt, revealing a buffed bod at odds with his book-loving, virginal persona.

Up to this point, the film is as bad as any B-grade movie you might catch on late night television. It’s an erotic thriller that’s neither erotic nor thrilling. The performances are mediocre even though you can tell Jonas is really trying — Mulroney is clearly in it for the cheque, while it’s kind of sad watching Isabel Lucas relegated to these kind of roles (I think the last two films I saw her in were The Loft and Red Dawn). Perhaps its the Transformers curse. I mean, how many good roles have Megan Fox, Rachael Taylor and Rosie Huntington Whiteley had since?

Somehow, however, Careful What You Wish For redeems itself a little after a major turn in the story that’s not unpredictable but at least better than what I had been expecting. From there, the plot has a bit more intrigue and stops merely going through the motions. In the end, the film turned out to be a cautionary tale for me — don’t watch a movie expecting it to be one of the worst of the year. Instead, it wasn’t bad enough to be on the list, nor was it bad enough to be in the “so bad it’s good” category. Unfortunately, it was just another typical bad film.

2 stars out of 5

Dope (2015)

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I’m certain I’m the first person in the world to come up with this original line: Dope is a dope movie.

Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Talk to Me, Brown Sugar) and starring up-and-comers Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons and Zoe Kravitz, Dope is a fresh, smart and energetic coming-of-age comedy about a clever high school senior named Malcolm (Moore) who lives in a run-down part of Los Angeles. While attending a party, Malcolm and his friends somehow get mixed up shootout involving drugs, kicking off a wild adventure full of laughs, wackiness and insights into modern black culture and racial and social politics.

I had a blast with Dope despite going into it thinking that it wasn’t going to be my kind of movie. Famuyiwa does a fantastic job of creating characters we can root for and infusing the narrative with a sense of originality mixed with a retro feel.  The beginning scenes of the film made me think that it was set in the 80s — Malcolm has a retro haircut and listens to retro music and wears retro clothing — but soon you realise that he’s just a geek who appreciates the good stuff.

There’s a sense of craziness  and mayhem to everything that happens in the film, though Famuyiwa never loses control of the material as the story shifts seamlessly between comedy to drama to crime to action to romance. There’s just never a dull moment in this entertaining movie. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and twists and turns in the plot so you never know what is coming next, though things can get a little complicated towards the end if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on.

The soundtrack and the performances are kick-ass. Moore delivers a star-turning performance as the likable protagonist, while Kiersey Clemons is also a standout as his tomboyish friend. She’s set to be in the Flatliners remake next year and DC’s The Flash the year after.

All in all, Dope is intelligent, fun and refreshing. While it’s not without problems, I applaud its ambition, confidence and cheerful, optimistic vibe. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it one of my favourite movies of the year, but it absolutely is one of my biggest pleasant surprises.

4 stars out of 5

PS: I didn’t know this before, but the film is produced by Forest Whitaker and executive produced by Pharrell and Diddy.

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2015)

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I’ve got way too many movies to review, so I thought I’d start with the remaining 2015 films first so I can at least fulfill my promise of punching out my Best Of and Worst Of lists.

Kicking off the home stretch is The Taking of Deborah Logan, a recommendation from my sister. It’s a found-footage horror movie that has received surprisingly positive reviews from critics (83% on Rotten Tomatoes, though only from a sample size of 6) but also one few people have even heard of.

The premise is interesting at least — a PhD student (played by the familiar face of Michelle Ang — I had to look her up to realise that she was Cho Chang in the Harry Potter movies!) decides to record the everyday life of an Alzheimer’s patient (Jill Larson). Things start off innocently enough until strange shit starts to go down, and it seems Alzheimer’s might not be the correct diagnosis after all.

The Taking of Deborah Logan is not bad as far as found-footage horror flicks go. There are moments of genuine horror, and the special effects are done well enough (despite the low budget that they don’t stick out like a sore thumb). There’s one image near the end that The performances, especially from Larson, are also unexpectedly decent.

That said, it’s still a found-footage horror movie, and at the end of the day, it’s just a variation of the same old crap. There’s the slow build up, the filler moments, the little scares here and there in the beginning that rely on well-trodden horror tropes, etc etc. And of course, there’s some unnecessary and convoluted explanation for everything and you have an “all hell breaks loose” climax at the end.

While the film is definitely not as infuriating as other found-footage horrors in recent years, The Taking of Deborah Logan still doesn’t do enough to fully separate itself from the pack. A nice premise, a couple of decent shocks and scary images don’t make up for the shittiness of the gimmick.

2.5 stars out of 5

Ben-Hur (2016)

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I must begin this review with a caveat: I have not seen the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, which won a record 11 Academy Awards (tied with Titanic and Return of the King for the all-time record), and so I have the luxury of not having to compare this ill-fated remake/reimagining to that film. And what an ill-fated effort this is, earning measly US$23.7 million at the international box office (to date) against a US$100 million budget. It has become the unfortunate poster child of a disappointing summer of blockbuster flops.

In my humble opinion, however, this new version of Ben-Hur is, for the most part, not bad. I was rooting for it to be good while expecting it to be horrible, but for the majority of the 123-minute running time, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Problems aside, this was a very watchable movie fuelled by excellent performances and a couple of spectacular sequences. Sadly — and I’ll get to this later — the ending was one of the worst of any movie I’ve seen in a very long time, and still leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian auteur who gave us Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (one of those films everyone hated but I loved), Ben-Hur retells the classic Biblical story of adoptive brothers Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), who go from best friends to mortal enemies against the backdrop of the Roman control of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). It’s an epic tale of brotherhood, betrayal and revenge, and of course — as it also stars Morgan Freeman — redemption.

As sceptical as I was, Ben-Hur managed to suck me in right from the get-go. Part of it is simply that it’s a great story, though much of the credit has to go to the two super-talented leads, Jack Huston and Tony Kebbell (who will always be Koba to me), who act the shit out of their roles to elevate the film above the quality of the writing. Their chemistry made their brotherhood and friendship believable, and I could see the torment in their eyes when fate tore them apart.

Then there’s the action, which was generally very exciting and well-executed. The highlights are a gut-wrenching sequence on the high seas, and of course the chariot race. Some may accuse those scenes of being too reliant on CGI, but I honestly thought they looked realistic enough to get a pass. Special mention goes to the long shots of landscapes and especially the chariot racing stadium, which have a tendency to look fake in other films but were close to perfect here. If there is a complaint, it’s that the editing was too choppy due to the need to maintain the PG-13 rating. It got so bad that a key moment in the race was lost amid the confusion (I know I wasn’t the only one because I heard two separate groups of people talking about the same thing immediately after the film). I hate it when films undercut themselves in this way.

Nonetheless, the core of Ben-Hur is solid, and if it weren’t for a bunch of nagging problems, the film could have been a contender for most underrated movie of the year. First off, the look of most of the characters don’t feel quite right. There’s just too much of a modern vibe, from their hairstyles to the costumes. And don’t even get me started on Morgan Freeman’s dreadlocks. It was the most visually jarring hairdo in cinema since Tom Hank’s abomination in The Da Vinci Code.

On top of that, the film has a few pacing issues. While it does not feel like a long movie, there are moments where the film sags because it wastes too much time on things that are unimportant. I can’t go into specifics without spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Finally, there’s that ending. Had the film ended 5 minutes earlier, I would have liked it a lot more. But they had to go and ruin it with a cop-out ending that totally undermined the emotional payoff the film had been building up to for 2 hours. I understand, with the heavy religious undertones (which I didn’t mind), that it was an attempt to deliver a final message. As well-intentioned as it may be, the ending came across as forced and unnecessary. Honestly, it would have been preferable had they just pretended the entire movie was just a dream. It wasn’t just the decision to end the movie in this way either. Even the final scene and song they chose to accompany it irked me — as Donald Trump would say — “bigly.”

On the whole, however, I would still say Ben-Hur is a better movie than I had anticipated. It’s hard to get the bad ending out of my head, but there are enough positives to this remake to render it not a complete waste of time. I’m glad I saw it despite the negative reviews.

3 stars out of 5

Jason Bourne (2016)

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He’s back!

No, not poor Jeremy Renner, but the original and still the best: Matt Damon. And of course, nearly just as important, director Paul Greengrass (who helmed the second and third films in the franchise, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum). The dynamic duo said they probably weren’t going to make it and they didn’t need to make it, but they made it anyway ($$$). And so we have Jason Bourne.

This time, the eponymous protagonist (Damon) stumbles onto a secret about his forgotten past thanks to former CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), and is forced back into the game he tried to leave behind. Pursuing him this time is new agency hotshot Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and head honcho Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), with a super assassin (Vincent Cassel) thrown in for the fun of it. It’s more or less the same type of film as its predecessors, with tense spy sequences, loads of destructive action, chase scenes, and gritty, brutal close-rang combat. Everyone’s get a secret agenda and it’s up to Bourne to find out what the heck is going on, or at least beat the crap out of everyone trying to do it.

To be honest, I’ve never been a super big fan of the Bourne series. I’ve watched all of them and enjoyed them to varying degrees, but this is not a franchise that gets me particularly excited, and I tend to forget about them pretty quickly after I walk out of the cinema. I only had a vague recollection of the history of the character and this latest entry didn’t do a whole lot to jog my memory. That said, Jason Bourne is solid entertainment. Damon and Greengrass are just too good for this cash grab film to suck.

For starters, there’s the action. There are some really fantastic set pieces throughout the film, including a chaotic, super-intense riot sequence at the beginning that hooks you right into Jason Bourne’s world. There’s also a wild car sequence at the end and some bone-crunching hand-to-hand fight scenes that kept me at the edge of my seat . Greengrass shows that great action isn’t simply about loud noises and blowing things up, but through use of smart camera angles, timely cuts and measured pacing.

Then there’s Matt Damon, who is, as usual, wonderful. It has been said that he has something like 20-30 lines throughout the entire movie, though I wouldn’t have noticed had you not told me. He simply embodies the character of Jason Bourne through his demeanour and mannerisms. His resting badass face, his strut — everything he does in this film tells you he knows exactly who the character is.

The rest of the cast is solid too. Vikander, despite a shaky attempt at an American accent, delivers a multi-faceted character who can seem vulnerable one second and frightening the next. Tommy Lee Jones, whose face resembles a rubbery Halloween mask of Tommy Lee Jones’ old face at this stage, lends his gravitas to the role of nasty government official, while Vincent Cassel offers a nice contrast to Bourne by being a different kind of assassin — slick, sinewy and calculated — but just as deadly. Special shout out to Riz Ahmed as a tech billionaire with a pivotal role in the film. There’s not a whole lot of screen time, but Ahmed nails every scene he’s in. Seeing how different he is in this film compared to his role in the HBO series The Night Of (a must-watch, by the way) tells me he’s bound for bigger and greater things in his future (he already has Rogue One coming up at the end of the year).

Having said all those good things, I don’t think Jason Bourne is by any means a modern action masterpiece or anything like that. When you break it down, there’s not much of a plot, and no one will be surprised when the central mystery of the film is finally revealed. Ultimately, it’s nothing we haven’t really seen before, and Greengrass seems to be content sticking with what has worked in the past. As a result, Jason Bourne does come across as just another typical entry in the series as opposed to a standout, and as I said earlier in this review, I’ve never been a massive fan of the franchise. However, even an average Bourne film is better than the majority of other action flicks out there, and I appreciate how well it is acted and executed. It didn’t blow me away, but I enjoyed it for what it was.

3.5 stars out of 5

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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Star Trek Beyond, grammatically confusing title notwithstanding, is the solid albeit less ambitious third entry in the rebooted Star Trek franchise that began with Star Trek in 2009 and Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013, both films I really enjoyed.

This time around, Fast & Furious 3-6 director Justin Lin has replaced Abrams, with Simon Pegg (Scotty) penning the script. Most of the cast is back, with Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, and the late Anton Yelchin, in his final role, as Chekov (a name that, when yelled in an American accent during times of distress, which happens numerous times in this film, sounds a lot like an insult — you figure that one out for yourself). Unfortunately, as Alive Eve had a scheduling conflict, her character Carol Marcus from Into Darkness simply disappeared from the crew USS Enterprise. Joining the cast this time are Sofia Boutella as Jayla, an alien scavenger, and Idris Elba as the unrecognisable alien Krall.

The plot of Star Trek Beyond is very simple: The Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission after receiving a distress call. Stuff happens and basically the entire movie is spent on a barren planet against a powerful alien enemy. Each member of the main cast is dealing with something personal, and there are a few twists and turns along the way, but on the whole, there’s nothing mindblowing about the story.

The same can be said for the action. Justin Lin is essentially the director responsible for turning the Fast & Furious franchise into the juggernaut it is today, so you know he’s got a great feel for action. But the action sequences in Star Trek Beyond, while visually impressive, aren’t at the same level as the Fast & Furious films in terms of innovation and adrenaline-pumping thrills. The special effects are also in the same category — they are good enough to get the job done, though there are no jaw-dropping or memorable images.

These elements combine to make Beyond feel more like a glorified season finale of a TV series than a major cinematic blockbuster. Perhaps that’s downplaying the overall quality of the production, but both of its predecessors felt a lot more like event films, whereas this one came across as more run-of-the-mill and par for the course. And it shouldn’t have been this way considering that its US$185 million budget was equal to that of Into Darkness and US$35 million higher than Star Trek.

That said, despite the seemingly lowered ambitions, I still found Beyond to be a pretty enjoyable popcorn flick. The biggest reason is not the action or the special effects, but the chemistry and interactions between the characters. I’m not a Trekkie and have never been one, but I had a lot of fun watching the back and forth banter and camaraderie between the cast members, especially Spock and Bones, and Scotty and Kirk. By the end of it all, I found myself engrossed in the story and invested in their fate. Pegg deserves a lot of credit for the dialogue and bringing out the essence of so many of these beloved characters.

My biggest disappointment with the film was the character of Jayla, who seemed to have a substantial and pivotal role in the film judging from the trailers and the posters. And while she is important, she doesn’t quite live up to the expectations or the hype of her well-designed physical appearance. On the other hand, the villain Krall turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and that speaks to the imposing screen presence Idris Elba always brings to every one of his roles.

Ultimately, Star Trek Beyond is a well-made and very watchable third entry in a franchise that appears to be heading toward an inevitable decline. It’s not spectacular but it’s also far from weak. If future entries can maintain this standard — and they’ve already said there will be more — I certainly wouldn’t mind going on more of these adventures aboard the Enterprise.

3.5 stars out of 5

Suicide Squad (2016)

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I’ll be honest: Suicide Squad was probably my least anticipated blockbuster of the year. The trailers didn’t inspire me and expectations dropped even further after the disappointing mixed bag that was Batman v Superman. And so I’ll also give credit where it is due: I actually quite liked Suicide Squad.

Written and directed by David Ayer (Training Day, End of Watch, Fury), Suicide Squad is officially the third film in the DC cinematic universe after Man of Steel and BvS. It is an ambitious project that tries to subvert the superhero ensemble genre by making the protagonists a bunch of “bad guys” who have to save the world. It is essentially a bizarro Avengers of sorts, with Viola Davis  playing Amanda Waller, a government official who decides to bring together a group of the world’s most dangerous criminals, some of whom are “metahumans”, to take down a new threat that has become seemingly unstoppable in the aftermath of BvS (no spoilers for those who haven’t seen it). It essentially the Nick Fury role played by Samuel Jackson in the Marvel cinematic universe.

There’s the hired assassin Deadshot (Will Smith), crazy babe Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), powerful ancient witch Enchantress (Carla Delevigne), Aussie bandit Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), mutant Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje), firestarter El Diablo (Jay Hernandez), and wall climber Slipknot (Adam Beach). Tasked with babysitting the so-called “Suicide Squad” is hero soldier Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman), along with his sword-wielding Japanese friend Katana (Karen Fukuhara).

That’s already a lot of characters and a lot of stars, but there’s still more. There’s Jared Leto as supervillain The Joker, Common as a gangster, Scott Eastwood as a lieutenant, and Ike Barinholtz as a sleazy prison guard. That doesn’t even take into account cameos from a couple of from Justice League members.

Despite the plethora of characters, Ayers does a fairly good job in introducing us to all of them and in trying to give each their chance to shine, including the use of an assortment of flashback sequences to reveal back stories for key characters. Of course, no one really gets enough time to become a fully rounded character, but I think it was about as good as you could get considering the running time is only 123 minutes. Even had they extended the film to 3 hours it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.

Perhaps burned by the reception to BvSSuicide Squad had a lot more lighter moments and humorous dialogue where audiences could laugh and relax — predominantly thanks to Harley Quinn. There are still plenty of serious/emotional scenes, and even some scary sequences that would be unsuitable for children, but the film is decidedly not as dark or gritty as Ayers’ previous films.

And the performances are very good all around. I had been one of those people who felt Will Smith’s days as a box office A-lister were long behind him, but this movie shows he’s still got the charisma and presence to carry a film. He doesn’t need to do it here, but he’s arguably the best thing about the movie. I had also thought his character, Deadshot, seemed kinda lame, though I was wrong about that too. The film definitely frames his special abilities in the best possible light so that he can be one of the most impactful members of the squad.

The other standouts for me were of course Margot Robbie, who dominates just about every scene she is in as the sexy but nutty Harley Quinn, Viola Davis, who gets a lot of meat to chew in this film, and Joel Kinnaman, who adds a groundedness to all the mayhem and super abilities. He’s proven with this performance and in House of Cards that he is a fantastic actor who deserves bigger, more challenging roles in the future.

And now, the negatives. Truth is, the film doesn’t make much sense at all from a story standpoint. I can’t go into it too much, but even the very reason why the Suicide Squad was set up in the first place, and who was chosen to be a part of it, doesn’t quite add up. Many of the members of the squad — especially the non-metahumans with the exception of Deadshot — don’t really belong there. Captain Boomerang, in particular, basically offers nothing. It’s one of those movies where you have to put logic aside and go with the flow, because some of these metahumans are so powerful that contrivances have to be forced into the plot to balance out the field for the ordinary humans. Logic aside, and while the editing is far near perfect, Suicide Squad is still a more coherent film than BvS.

Another complaint I have — and it’s the same problem many had with BvSˆ– is that the characters bonded too quickly and too easily. I understand that Ayers had to create camaraderie in the squad, but it was jarring to hear them speak of each other in corny terms after a handful of interactions in literally just a few hours of time together.

The final issue I had with the film was Jared Leto’s tattooed, mobster version of the Joker. Some people may love it, but I hated it. My problem is less with Leto’s portrayal and more with the way the character was written and presented. I didn’t find him creepy or scary, and I could tell that’s exactly what they were going for. If Jack Nicholson’s Joker was iconic and Heath Ledger’s was legendary, then Jared Leto’s Joke is “meh”. It’s almost as though he tried too hard and it backfired.

Ultimately, Suicide Squad is not in the same league as any of the Avengers movies or Civil War, and it’s several notches below X-Men: Apocalypse. However, those movies did have the advantage of not having to introduce their core characters for the first time, whereas for Suicide Squad had a whole bunch of characters most regular moviegoers would not have even heard of. It is not great by any means, but at least it delivers good popcorn fun and some solid action sequences.  I personally thought it was better-made and more entertaining on the whole than BvS.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)

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As a big UFO and alien buff growing up, the original Independence Day should have been just my kind of movie. I remember Will Smith punching out an alien, Bill Pullman doing his cringeworthy Braveheart speech, and Jeff Goldblum doing Jeff Goldblum things, but I don’t remember loving the movie. A reasonably enjoyable popcorn flick is about as far as I would go.

Accordingly, apart from a little dash of nostalgia I didn’t really want anyway, there really was no reason for me to see Independence Day: Resurgence, especially not 20 years later. Sure, they brought back all the main cast sans Will Smith (maybe they refused to let Jayden Smith play his son in this one), but they also brought in charisma wormhole Liam Hemsworth as the new “younger generation” lead and replaced the wonderful Mae Whitman, who played Bill Pullman’s young daughter in the first time, with skinny blonde Maika Monre (even though I really liked her from The Guest and It Follows).

As expected, Resurgence was not very good. I don’t think it’s as vomit-inducing as what I’ve been calling it, ie Regurgitation, but it’s just a silly, special-effects heavy, overstuffed money-grab that fails to recapture any of the “event film” magic of the original.

I’ll start with what I liked about the movie. The end. Just kidding, there was a little bit more than that. I liked how the story built on the events from the first movie 20 years ago, creating an alternate timeline where humans have blended their own technology with alien technology to build a nice-looking future world where people can travel to the moon and back in seemingly minutes or hours (depending on what is most convenient for the plot), and there’s also world peace with no ethnic or religious conflict. That sounds like a much better world than the one we live in now.

The special effects are so very well done even by modern standards, and I’m glad that the film doesn’t take itself very seriously at all. It’s a movie that knows how silly it is and plays along with its tongue firmly in cheek at times without spiralling into a complete farce.

Having said that, Resurgence just doesn’t feel nearly as fun as it’s supposed to be. It gets off to a poor start with Hemsworth establishing himself as a douchey space pilot protagonist dating the ex-president Whitmore’s (Bill Pullman’s) daughter (Maika Monroe), who is now all grown up and a confidant for the current president (Sela Ward doing her best Hillary Clinton impersonation). Oh, and Will Smith’s dead (his photo is on the White House wall as a reminder), but his son (Jessie Usher) just happens to have grown up to be the best pilot in the country (and since this is the United States, the planet, but most probably the entire universe). In other words, the near-apocalypse 20 years ago had no impact whatsoever on nepotism.

The rest of the cast is also impressive, but none of Vivica A Fox, Charlotte Gainsbourg or William Fichtner have meaty enough roles to really offer anything worthwhile. The only guy who really seems to be a genuinely positive influence on the film is good old Jeff Goldblum. Though he churns through the same schtick as most of the roles he plays these days, he at least adds some levity and sense of fun with his quirkiness and one-liners.

Another really annoying part of the movie is the obvious product placement, in particular from China, from Chinese milk beverages to QQ (messaging service) to the somewhat arbitrary inclusion of Chinese actress Angelababy. She’s not bad in this, but her presence is awkward and an unnecessary distraction because her character is poorly written – though that’s pretty much like everyone else.

The biggest issue I had with Regurgitation is its inability to generate a care factor. Director, co-writer and co-producer Roland Emmerich has always had a thing for world-ending visuals (The Day After Tomorrow, 2012, etc), and in this regard he doesn’t disappoint, but his history developing characters worth rooting for has been a lot patchier. Regurgitation is not one of his stronger efforts. Hemsworth is smug, Pullman looks too exhausted for anything except limping his way to an easy paycheck, and Jessie Usher doesn’t come close to exuding even half the charisma Will Smith did.

Consequently, most of the first half of the movie is rather unengaging as we wait for the inevitable alien invasion, serious carnage and of course, famous landmark damage. And when it arrives, most of it is nothing we haven’t seen before. It gets more exciting once the CGI-heavy spaceship battles begin (largely because human technology is much more advanced than what we’re accustomed to seeing), though things eventually plunge into a wild and laughable climatic sequence that tests the limits of how much ridiculousness audiences can bear. I guess it’s no less insane than humans using a computer virus to defeat an advanced alien species like they did last time, but saving grace for the human race this time is telegraphed far too early. Oh, and I love how mere seconds can expand into a seemingly infinite amount of time when the story calls for it. The problem with all of this is that at no stage does it actually make you feel like humanity is in any real danger.

I’m actually less critical of Regurgitation than how I make it sound in this review. The second half of the film is dumb, popcorn entertainment I didn’t really mind. But then again, it might just be because the first half lowered expectations too much.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Conjuring 2 (2016)

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As far as conventional horrors go, The Conjuring (2013) was one of the best we’ve had in recent years. Despite the clichéd haunting plot we’ve seen countless times, legendary Aussie director James Wan was able to make the most of it with his reliable bag of tricks, combining a creepy atmosphere with well-timed “Boo!” moments to keep audiences on the edge of their seats.

Wan did not direct the failed prequel, Annabelle (2014), but he’s back again to helm the sequel to The Conjuring, imaginatively titled The Conjuring 2. This time, the world’s most renowned ghost-hunting duo, the Ed and Lorraine Warren (played by Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson), have returned to tackle the infamous Enfield Haunting in the UK. There was actually a recent TV mini-series called The Enfield Haunting starring Timothy “Mr Turner” Spall and Matthew “Mr Darcy” Macfayden, which was actually pretty decent and most likely closer to what really happened than the hyper-sensationalized version told in The Conjuring 2.

Anyway, like The Conjuring, the sequel focuses on both the Warrens and the family being haunted, the Hodgsons — a single mother (Australia’s very own Frances O’Connor) and four children living in suburban England — in particular the second-eldest daughter Janet, played superbly by Madison Wolfe. Some of you might already know the story because the haunting is perhaps the most well-known in British history, but if you don’t, brace yourself for some scary shit.

The film shifts back and forth between the Warrens and the Hodgsons, telling essentially two stories simultaneously. To Wan’s credit, splitting the screen time actually adds to the film rather than take away from it. The Warrens get a bit more of a personal story this time, and it’s good to see actors the calibre of Farmiga and Wilson strut their acting chops. They’re both really good, and their fantastic chemistry helps make their relationship the core the movie.

As with most haunting films, this one plays out as you would expect, starting with a few little weird things here and there to whet the appetite before all hell breaks loose and the ghostbusters come in to save the day. Notwithstanding the boiler-plate structure, Wan works his magic again, turning the first half of The Conjuring 2 into one of the most terrifying movie experiences I’ve sat through in years. I’m sure watching in the cinema definitely helped the atmosphere, but it really is due Wan’s masterful control over everything that is happening – from the atmosphere and the characters (it makes a huge difference when you care about them) to the use of darkness and lightning, and especially the blaring score and sound effects. I’m not going to lie: there were a few sequences where I had an anxious inner debate with myself on whether to shut my eyes for a couple of seconds.

After the nerve-wracking first half, however, the film does settle down, and the rest of the movie isn’t nearly as frightening. Though the rhythm picks up and tensions are supposed to rise, by the time the Warrens arrive to do their thing I had started to get that “here we go again” feeling. While Wan was fantastic in making me forget about how conventional the film was in the first half, in the second half he was less successful. There were still some decent moments as the film ramped up to its finale, but for the most part I found myself significantly more relaxed that I was in the first hour or so.

I also didn’t like the way the script wrapped up the story in a way that connected the dots and made the different strands converge. Frankly, in trying to find a way for help the story make sense it actually made things more confusing and make less sense. And of course, the movie definitely is too long at 2 hours and 14 minutes. It’s never boring or slow, but shaving 15-20 minutes off would have been welcome.

On the whole, The Conjuring 2 is a solid follow up to its predecessor. The first half was decidedly scarier than the latter, though even with a fair share of flaws, the film is still a top-tier horror flick, the type that only comes around a handful of times a year.

4 stars out of 5

PS: A new spin-off called The Nun is apparently in the works.

Warcraft (2016)

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I must admit, Warcraft was my least anticipated major blockbuster of 2016, with the possible exception of Suicide Squad (I’ll watch that too, but expectations cannot be lower). Having never played the popular video game on which the film is based, or with any intention of ever doing so, it seemed somewhat destined to be yet another disappointing video game adaptation, following in the footsteps of the likes of Doom, Street Fighter, and Prince of Persia.

Having said that, director Duncan Jones is quite a visionary filmmaker, and many were apparently quite optimistic that Warcraft would buck the trend. However, the trailers did not instill much confidence in me — giant, muscular creatures in large-scale battle scenes with humans and magicians, and loads and loads of CGI-heavy special affects. It was pretty much just Hollywood telling the same old story.

It was with such a mindset that I went to see Warcraft, and I have to say that I came out of it very pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of flaws with it, some impossible to overcome given the circumstances, but on the whole it was about as much as I could have expected from a fantasy film of this nature.

I don’t want to get into the plot because it’s not really that important in the scheme of things, but I guess it should come as no surprise that there are humans, orcs, elves, dwarves and so forth -– but mainly humans and orcs –- who all all live in a magical realm with mythical creatures, magic powers, evil warlocks, master wizards and apprentice mages. It’s about fighting for your people and your tribe, honour and loyalty, family and friends and all that shit. It’s more less your typical RPG game.

Now, if you can get past the first stage, which is to take this kind of video-gamey premise seriously, then the rest of the film has a decent chance. Mind you, this does not have the gritty realism of something like say Game of Thrones — this is legitimate high fantasy, where you can actually see the light shooting out of magicians hands and souls being literally sucked out of bodies. 

When you take into account just what a difficult task this was for director Duncan Jones to get right, you start to appreciate the great job he did with this movie. While the storyline is indeed cliched, the storytelling is, for the most part, well done. Instead of making the orcs just brainless monsters hell bent on killing humans for no reason, Jones makes proper characters with proper character development. It’s not quite a two-sides-to-the-story kind of scenario, where the humans characters and orc characters are genuinely on an equal footing (hint: the humans still get more love), it’s at least good to see them apply a less conventional approach.

The cast is also really solid. On the human size, you’ve got Aussie Travis Fimmel, Dominic Cooper and Ben Foster, while on the orc side there’s Toby Kebbel (he will always be Koba to me) and Daniel Wu (I was shocked when I discovered he’s in it), and in between there’s Paula Patton, looking a little on the green side. None of these names are A-listers, but they’re all quality performers who bring gravitas to their respective roles. 

As for the action, it’s of course predominantly CGI, and to be honest it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before in terms of scale, creativity or choreography. What it does do well is the depiction of magic, which is rarely done well on film, and building up some character relationships so that we will care about the outcome of the battles and duels.

So absolutely, Jones should be commended for doing everything he could to make Warcraft the “great” film he tried to make. If you manage to immerse yourself in the story (like my wife, who said she really enjoyed it), you’ll likely think the film is a success. For me, on the other hand, there were elements I liked and places where I thought the film did a great job with, but I couldn’t get into the story or care for the characters as much as like I hoped I would. It really comes down to it being virtually impossible to introduce a whole new realm with all these different races and conflicts, not to mention focusing on both sides of the war, in a movie barely over 2 hours long. If this were a TV series where you have 10 hours to play with, then maybe you could achieve all these things. But given the time constraints and the need to devote a good chunk of that time to battle scenes, you’re going to have scenes and dialogue of obvious and annoying exposition cramming. 

Could they have reduced the number of characters and shifted the balance from CGI battles to more character and relationship development? Of course they could have. But as a one-shot opportunity to make a successful blockbuster for which sequels are no certainty, it would have been too risky an approach for any studio to take. It’s easy for critics to dismiss the cliched aspects of the movie, but sometimes commercial realities dictate these things.

The same goes for the CGI, which was limited by the technology and budget. As a result, it was a little patchy — photorealistic at times and like an Xbox cutscene at others. Perhaps part of it is also the way the orcs have been designed — they just don’t look like creatures I could genuinely believe, a feeling that is heightened whenever I see Paula Patton’s half-orc, half-human character, who looks basically like a human in green paint with two little tusks coming out the bottom of her mouth. It’s ridiculous.

Despite all these flaws, I still appreciate and admire the film Warcraft had set out to be. It’s not quite the “great” film Jones had dreamed of or the saviour of all video-game adaptation movies (that baton has now been passed on to Assbender in Assassin’s Creed), but as a high fantasy film with all the hard-to-swallow things that come with it, Warcraft is not bad at all. If you see it with an open mind, you might agree too.

3.5 stars out of 5