Category Archives: Rating: 1-1.75 stars

Movie Review: When the Game Stands Tall (2014)

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American football movies are a dime a dozen, but few have stood out to me like When the Game Stands Tall, the remarkable true story of legendary high school coach Bob Ladouceur, who led California’s De La Salle Spartans to a record 151 consecutive victories. Unfortunately, I’m going to remember this one for all the wrong reasons.

I give every movie, no matter how bad they might seem, a fighting chance. But it took just a couple of minutes before I told the guy next to me, “This is really bad.”

From the first scenes I could tell this was going to be one corny, sentimental journey riddled with cliches and painfully obvious plot points that hit all the boiler plate markers at exactly the moments you’d expect them to. I was of course right, as the film stayed true to itself all the way to the predictable end.

Instead of the uplifting emotions the film was aiming for, all I got was manipulation as obvious as dogs’ balls. Insane amounts of awkward, expository dialogue; catchphrases and monologues you expect to only hear on televised evangelist sermons or sports parodies; cringeworthy moments and characters galore. It’s laughably bad (I’m not exaggerating; I literally laughed out loud several times at the unintentional humour).

The film actually starts toward the end of the winning streak, beginning on such a high that you know exactly where it is going to go: fall from grace, start over, work hard, minor conflicts along the way, big “f*%$ yeah!” climax at the end.

The themes are ones you’ve seen a million times. Doubts about God, passion railroaded by health, neglecting family for job, battling poverty, overbearing parents, and the jock “brotherhood.” Players clash, family members clash, but everything they say is cliched and none of it feels genuine. Everything is shoved in your face like someone handing out flyers on a street corner. The worst was the vomit-inducing heart-to-hearts between the players before the big game, barely outdoing the “inspiring” visit to see rehabilitating war veterans to give them a new perspective. Of course, this visit never happened in real life.

On top of all that, the film’s characters are harder to fathom existing than the team’s impressive winning streak. Fair enough, they attended a Catholic school and Ladouceur is, by all accounts, extremely devout, but seriously, come on. I know he’s played by Jim Caviezel, but in this film, Ladouceur is more Jesus than Jesus. He’s the complete opposite of every caricature “win at all costs” evil high school sports coach in film history. He cares for everyone (I mean really really cares), puts players before wins, always knows what’s right, spews Bible verses verbatim. And his biggest flaw is — wait for it — is that he’s a closet smoker. God forbid! He even as an obnoxious assistant coach to make him look even holier.

Among the players, the two that stand out are Ladouceur’s son Danny, played by Matthew Daddario, brother to the smoking Alexandra Daddario, and the fictional running back Chris Ryan, played by The Hunger Games‘ Alexander Ludwig. Much of the focus is placed on Ryan’s relationship with his father, played by Shawshank guard Clancy Brown, who is a caricature that combines every repugnant high school sports dad ever depicted on screen.

The only thing I can honestly say the film has going for it is some well-executed football game action. The plays look real enough to me, and even when you know what’s going to happen they offer a bit of a rush. But a lot of football films have good game sequences, and it’s not enough to offset the plethora of negatives.

When the Game Stands Tall might not be the worst film of 2014, but it will likely go down as the most unbearable. As well-intentioned as it may have been, even Jesus couldn’t bring salvation to this hackneyed melodrama.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Poltergeist (2015)

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I don’t remember much of the original 1982 Poltergeist save for a few iconic scenes and phrases. You know the ones I’m talking about. I haven’t seen it for probably 15-20 years, but I do remember it was scary, though I’ve been hearing lately that it wasn’t really that good and was vastly overrated.

Still, it must be a lot better than this hilariously bad remake, which had zero scares but a lot of WTF moments and unintentional humour.

The story is a familiar one. A family moves into a new home that turns out to be haunted by malevolent spirits. Ghost hunters are called in and a kid must be saved.

The biggest problem with the film is its complete lack of subtlety and knowledge of how to scare an audience. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) seems to know, nominally at least, what is supposed to be scary, such as TV static, closets and clowns, but he doesn’t understand how to elicit genuine scares out of them.

It’s basically a handful of predictable “boo” moments most horror lovers would be numb to by now, and the rest is just completely over-the-top nonsense that is closer to Ghostbusters than anything else I can think of. I’m not even exaggerating here.

There’s no build up of tension or atmosphere, as Kenan obviously does not subscribe to the less is more doctrine in horror, going all out and throwing the entire bag of tricks at the audience from the get go.

What makes it worse is that the tone is all over the place, splicing humour and horror in an awkward manner that damages the effectiveness of both. Serious scares and wisecracks rarely work well together, especially when they come at the same time. As a result I was often left wondering whether it was trying to be scary or funny, but what I do know was that it managed to be neither. I’m stunned that some people thought it was scary.

It’s so bad that the ordinarily awesome Sam Rockwell, who plays the father, appears depressed by just how awful a film he managed to get himself into. Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays his wife, seems to be putting in a little more effort, but even she is clearly disinterested at times. They have three kids in the film, and the two younger ones, who experience the most of the haunting in the beginning, are not very good actors, further reducing the scariness of the whole affair.

The ghost hunters are played by Jared Harris and Jane Adams, who I find difficult to imagine as anyone else but the pathetic girl from Happiness. They’re not nearly as creepy as the short old lady with the weird voice from original (Zelda Rubenstein).

I don’t know what I’d think of the 1982 original now if I saw it again, but I’d be shocked if it’s worse than this laughable remake.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Area 51 (2015)

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There was a time I was semi-obsessed with Area 51, the alleged secret US military base in the Nevada desert where alien secrets dating back to Roswell are said to be stashed. And so I thought I’d give the film Area 51 with an attitude akin to how I approach UFO sightings these days — sceptical but hopeful.

Never in my wildest dreams did I expect it to be even worse than what I thought it would be. In short, Area 51 epitomises everything wrong with the found footage sub-genre. It uses every trite tactic in the book, looks cheap, feels cheaper, uses little-known actors to play stock characters spewing pathetic dialogue, and most of all, offers zero scares, thrills or creativity.

The premise is as formulaic as you imagined. A bunch of young people decide to break into Area 51 to uncover the alien conspiracy and government lies. Despite been terrified of getting caught and going to jail, they do a lot of stupid illegal stuff and record it all on cameras while complaining about it the whole time.

As it turns out, security at Area 51 is worse than your local supermarket, allowing the teens to get in with ease. They see a lot of lame stuff they try to trick you into thinking is impressive with their fake excitement and shock, before — you guessed it — aliens break out and start killing people.

The film’s whole idea of horror is people running around with shaky cameras while breathing loudly. That and brief glimpses of a “monster” before people are suddenly snatched away are pretty much the only two tactics of the entire movie. I guess I should not have been surprised given that it is directed by Oren Peli, whose previous directorial effort was the first Paranormal Activity.

The characters do stupid stuff and say stupid things non-stop, such as “What’s that noise?”, “Where’s that sound coming from?”, and my personal favourite, “Do you think we should be here?”

Shamefully, the film doesn’t even offer much legitimate information about the real Area 51, or at least what sources believe the place is like. Come on, at least educate us a little.

So yeah, Area 51 is a flaming turd, a combination of everything that annoys me about movies. I disliked it immensely.

1 star out of 5

Movie Review: The Lazarus Effect (2015)


Jesus may have raised Lazarus from the dead, but in the case of the Lazarus Effect, death would actually be a welcome relief from this disaster of a horror flick.

I didn’t have high hopes for this film, but I figured anything with a star like Olivia Wilde in the lead role can’t be that bad. Wilde plays a medical researcher (really believable already) who along with her fiancé (Mark Duplass) and a couple of other guys who could not look less like medical researchers (Evan Peters and Donald Glover) develop the “Lazarus” serum, a magical concoction they believe can bring the dead back to life.

You already see where this is heading, right?

The catalyst for moving the plot along is the arrival of a young and attractive videographer (Sarah Bolger), who has asked to tape their experiments — though thankfully, this is not a found-footage film.

I don’t consider the following a spoiler because it’s obvious from the poster. Naturally, after attaining some level of success, something happens that ends up requiring Duplass to inject Wilde with the serum. And of course, she “comes back”, but is not quite the same, and shit soon starts to happen.

The biggest problem I had with The Lazarus Effect is its complete sense of predictability. The premise is actually quite good, but the script pulled out every horror cliche in the catalogue and the story went along exactly as you would have guessed for a movie of this kind. I don’t claim to know what they could have done differently, I just know whatever they did failed to work.

There were a handful of times throughout the movie when I said to my wife, “X is going to happen” or “Y is going to say Z”, and each time I was proven right, and right on cue. Maybe I’ve seen too many horror films, but it was just disappointing to not experience anything unexpected, including the scare tactics, most of which were “boo” moments we’ve seen many times.

The cast is nice to look at and their performances are fine, though they don’t get to do much because of the insipid characters they’ve been given.

It’s a shame, because The Lazarus Effect has some interesting themes and questions about life, death and the afterlife, but none of these are even close to being fleshed out. Instead, the experience was bogged down by familiar horror tropes, wasting a promising premise and cast.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Boy Next Door (2015)

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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

2014 Movie Blitz: Part VI

Kill the Messenger (2014)

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Surprised this one didn’t get more burn.

This is the true story of Gary Webb, played by the brilliant Jeremy Renner, a journalist who uncovers the CIA’s role in importing crack cocaine into the US to secretly fund the Nicaraguan contra rebels. OK, so maybe the CIA didn’t import the drugs themselves, but they acquiesced in stopping it and they knew that it was going mostly to impoverished black communities. That’s pretty huge news, right? But for whatever reason the story, much like this film, slipped under the radar.

The film had a big cast too that included the likes of Ray Liotta, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Andy Garcia, Michael Sheen and Robert Patrick. It’s hard hitting, gripping and gritty, and though it might not be the most exciting film, it certainly kept me entertained and emotionally invested in Webb’s plight.

Renner is sensational in this, proving once again that he can be believable no matter what kind of character he plays. Webb is a complex character and Renner brings out his fear, frustration and anger in perfect abundance. The moral of the story, as always, is to not mess with the US government because they will mess you up tenfold in return.

3.75 stars out of 5

The Best of Me (2014)

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Ever since The Notebook, his debut novel, Nicholas Sparks has been trying to recreate the magic with clones of his most beloved work. The Best of Me is his latest attempt, and frankly, it stinks.

Perhaps that’s too strong of a word, but I feel like if you’ve seen one Nicholas Sparks movie you’ve seen it all. This one, in particular, embraces the formula to the letter. An innocent romance between young star-crossed lovers, who end up being separated for some painful reason. Years later, they reunited by chance and rekindle the passion, lamenting how things could have been, before finishing with a bittersweet ending that aims to be both tragic and moving. If you haven’t noticed, that description matches both The Notebook and The Best of Me.

James Marsden, who played the third wheel the girl dumps in The Notebook gets an opportunity to redeem himself as the male lead this time, while Michelle Monaghan earns her paycheck as the rich girl who falls for the poor boy. The film also utilises flashbacks, in which the younger characters are played by Aussie Luke Bracey and Liana Liberato, respectively. One problem with this arrangement is that James Marsden (41) looks a little too young and Luke Bracey a little too old (25) for them to be versions of the same character 21 years apart, though the bigger issue is that the two actors look absolutely nothing alike! Seriously, they might as well have gotten Samuel L Jackson to play the older version because the resemblance is zero.

Fans looking for the same thing will probably love it — explains why they keep rolling these movies out — but for me this film was just so much saccharine fluff. You can clearly see the plot points it’s trying to hit along the way, including the contrived ending you could see coming a mile away, and if you don’t buy into the characters there’s not much of a chance you’ll feel anything for them. There was one good scene between Monaghan and the actor who plays her douchey husband, Sebastian Arcelus, when they’re at the dinner table and you can see why their marriage isn’t working out, but apart from that The Best of Me won’t bring out the best of anyone who watches it.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Woman in Black 2: Angel of Death (2014)

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I can’t remember much about The Woman in Black except that Daniel Radcliffe is in it and that the film was surprisingly good and scary. The sequel, Angel of Death, on the other hand, is bland and boring.

There is a connection between the two films — being the haunted house — but they have a different cast and different directors and screenwriters. Susan Hill, who wrote the book the first film was adapted from, helped with coming up with the story, but if I didn’t know that I would have thought she simply sold the rights in return for an easy paycheck.

Angel of Death follows a boarding school teacher (Phoebe Fox) and a bunch of students forced to evacuate their boarding school during World War II. Of course, then end up at the Eel Marsh House where the Woman in Black resides. Spooky stuff starts to happen, and there’s a mystery behind the haunting that needs to be figured out. All fairly standard horror tropes.

The best thing the film has going for it is the creepy atmosphere of the house and the fact that children are involved (also scary), though the narrative progresses slowly and there are too many lulls in between the attempts at scares, which aren’t really scary with the exception of a couple of well-timed moments. On the whole, this is a straight-to-DVD-quality horror sequel fans of the original will likely be disappointed with.

2 stars out of 5

If I Stay (2014)

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Chloe Moretz is growing up quickly, and this is a bold choice for her to venture into supernatural teen romantic drama territory (which I argue is even bolder than her young prostitute stint in Denzel’s The Equalizer). If I Stay, based on the novel of the same name by Gayle Forman, tells the story of a teenage cellist named Mia who falls into a coma following a devastating car accident with her family. The twist is that Mia’s soul is still hanging around outside her body, kind of in a limbo state, and she must decide whether she wants to move on to the afterlife or stay to be with her rock band musician boyfriend (Jamie Blackley).

It’s not a terrible film, but If I Stay didn’t do much for me. The narrative jumps around, with a few scenes in the present and plenty of flashbacks that trace the progress of the romance, which came across as fairly stereotypical and without anything fresh to offer. There was a heavy focus on music, given that they are both musicians and all, but I didn’t care much for either of their musical tastes. I thought its central conceit — the whole should I stay or should I go thing — was interesting, though the execution felt like it was trying to milk tears from audiences as opposed to letting the moving drama speak  for itself. Some parts worked, while others came across as clear attempts at manipulation.

Chloe Moretz, who is very good as usual, tries really hard to make it work. Unfortunately, while I can see how some viewers would fall in love with this movie, for me, If I Stay is a film that fails to fulfill the potential of its premise.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fifty Shades of Grey (2015)

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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.

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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: Extraterrestrial (2014)

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No matter what happens, Gil Bellows can always claim that he was in one of the greatest movies of all time, The Shawshank Redemption. From now on, he can also claim to have been in one of the worst films of all time.

Okay, so maybe Extraterrestrial is not one of the worst movies of all time. But it is genuinely awful. Really, really bad. Think of the most typical teen slasher movie you can, but instead of maniacal killers or monsters, you get aliens. Not even creative or interesting aliens, but the archetypal thin grey aliens with the big black eyes.

The story is just as expected. A girl (Brittany Allen) who is having problems with her high school sweetheart (Freddie Stroma) go on a trip to a cabin in the woods with some friends. They witness a UFO crash and encounter an alien. Screaming, killing, blood and gore, and of course, stupid, irrational decisions, ensue. As expected, there is an old crackpot (Michael Ironside) living in the area who claims to know everything behind the alien conspiracies, and cops who are skeptical of our protagonist’s claims.

Bellows plays one of the cops, and he feels completely out of place because it seems like he is actually trying to deliver a decent performance. His character also happens to be the only one in the entire film who is not an obnoxious prick. Unfortunately, he is only a supporting character, and the rest of the cast is woefully inept.

I could actually live with these problems had the film actually been scary. Maybe I was not in the right mood, or maybe it’s because I watched The X-Files growing up, but I was not shocked, frightened or spooked at all. Not even once. And I can’t think of another horror film — even the worst ones — that has not made me flinch at least once.

To its credit, Extraterrestrial has a campy vibe and clearly does not take itself seriously, though there is still a giant chasm between that and calling the film satire or parody, or even fun or funny. The jokes are largely driven by obvious frat boy humour and there’s no sharp wit in sight.

The only thing the film has going for it is its final 10-15 minutes, which contained a couple of nice surprises and some solid special effects. As a result, it was difficult to tell whether the film was unintentionally bad or intentionally trying to be so bad it’s good. Either way, Extraterrestrial is just not worth your time.

1 star out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part IV

7500 (2014)

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It’s never a good sign when a movie’s release is pushed back by more than 2 years, but that’s what exactly happened with 7500, the flight horror directed by Japanese master Takashi Shimizu best known for Ju-On and its American cousin The Grudge. 7500 was supposed to be released in August 2012, but was bumped back to April 2013, then October 2013, and finally October this year.

The film has a pretty decent B-grade cast comprising the likes of Australia’s own Ryan Kwanten and Nicky Whelan, together with Amy Smart, Leslie Bibb, Scout Taylor-Compton and Jamie Chung. The premise is incredibly eerie, though I can’t say why without divulging spoilers. Let’s just say the reason is completely coincidental and much scarier than the movie itself.

Anyone, the film actually started off very well. A bunch of strangers get on trans-Atlantic flight 7500 from LA to Tokyo. Someone dies under suspicious circumstances, putting everyone on edge, and before long, more and more people start dying in typical Japanese-horror fashion. Nothing is really explained until the very end, and even then none of what happened before makes much sense.

It’s the type of film that would have made much more sense about 10 years ago when films like The Grudge and The Ring were first being introduced to Western audiences. Now, having been subjected to the same tactics for a decade, the whole thing just feels underwhelming and not particularly scary.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Immigrant (2014)

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Notwithstanding its unimaginative title, The Immigrant is a beautiful and moving drama about a religious young woman named Ewa (Oscar-winner Marion Cotillard) who flees to New York in the early 1920s to escape war-torn Poland following WWI. With her sister quarantined due to illness and her ex-pat relatives nowhere to be found, Ewa is “rescued” by Bruno (Joaquin Phoenix), who makes her dance at a theater and pimps her out as a prostitute.

The Immigrant was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes last year and it’s not hard to see why. This is a heartbreaking film that probably could have stuck a “true story” label on the poster without anyone questioning its veracity. Combining stunning visuals, believable sets and powerhouse performances from the three leads — Cotillard, Phoenix and Jeremy Renner, who plays Bruno’s cousin Emil — The Immigrant is one of those rare period dramas that grabbed my attention right from the start.

A lot of it has to do with Cotillard’s performance. Apart from looking plain but beautiful enough to have men fall for her, she resonates a graceful resiliency that makes Ewa an instantly likable and empathetic protagonist. Joaquin Phoenix is also excellent in a pivotal role that would have caused the film to collapse had he not infused it with a certain charm and tenderness amid Bruno’s violent madness. There are scenes of real emotion in this film that got to me when I did not expect it, and I doubt the effect would have been the same had it not been for the performances and the confident yet subtle direction of James Gray (Two Lovers, We Own the Night), who also co-wrote the script.

Not just a simple character journey and story about overcoming against the odds, The Immigrant also raises many moral questions about the characters’ actions. As Ewa asked her aunt in one of the film’s key scenes, “Is it a sin to want to survive? Is it a sin to want to survive after so many bad deeds?”

I thought the dramatic score was a little overdone at times and the film could be accused of being tonally flat, but apart from that I found The Immigrant to be an engrossing and rewarding experience.

4 stars out of 5

The Signal (2014)

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Low-budget, independent sci-fi films are on the rise, and The Signal has to be one of the better ones. Starring rising Aussie star Brenton Thwaites, an MIT nerd struggling with muscular dystrophy who manages to track down the signal of a hacker who almost got him and his friend expelled from university. Together with his friend (Beau Knapp) and girlfriend (Oliva Cooke, the rising star from Ouija and The Quiet Ones), the three track the hacker to the Nevada desert, where something bizarre happens, after which they awaken in a lab run by Lawrence Fishburne.

I guess you can classify The Signal as a sci-fi thriller or sci-fi horror because there are elements of both. There is a lot of uncertainty and paranoia, with the unshakable feeling that the lab coats are hiding something from our protagonists. The tale gradually veers more and more into pure sci-fi territory, though there is an eeriness about it that comes across as almost surreal. Perhaps the best way I could describe it is that it occasionally resembles a very good episode of The Twilight Zone or The Outer Limits, where the weirdness and mystery is what ultimately drives the film.

As such, The Signal is not a well-rounded film. There are moments of brilliance and intrigue which will suck you into the story, but other times when the plot and human reactions are so poorly constructed that it becomes frustrating to watch. There are occasions when you can tell that the film is trying to be weird for the sake of being weird — like the creepy old lady — rather than for any meaningful narrative purpose.

Still, I like it when movies do things I’m not used to seeing and keep me wondering what the heck will happen next. In that regard The Signal achieves its purpose. It’s visually impressive considering the US$4 million budget and the performances are solid. Not everyone’s cup of tea and not an exceptional sci-fi by any standard, but for the most part I found it quite interesting and watchable.

3 stars out of 5

The Quiet Ones (2014)

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I was really looking forward to The Quiet Ones after seeing the freaky trailer and hearing that it’s “based” on the parapsychology Philip Experiment conducted in Toronto in 1972. The film is about a Oxford University professor (Jared Harris) who enlists the help of his students (Sam Claflin from The Hunger Games, Erin Richards from TV’s Gotham, and Rory Fleck-Byrne) to conduct an experiment aiming to prove that demonic possession is a psychological rather than supernatural phenomenon.

Their subject that summer is Jane Harper (Olivia Cooke), an attractive young woman who has been abandoned after the strange things that keep happened around her has scared everyone off. The professor keeps her locked in a room most of the time, with loud music playing to prevent her from sleeping in the hope that her agitation will boost paranormal activity. All the stuff is recorded and taped, though thankfully the film is only a semi-found-footage angle.

As expected, the paranormal activity does ramp up as the professor refuses to tone down his abuse, and the students, one of whom develops feelings for Jane, begin to believe that the demonic possession could actually be real and that she could harm them as well as herself. By this point, I realised the film was probably very very loosely based on actual events. I turned out to be right, as it would continue to devolve into a fairly typical possession flick with a fairly typical climax.

That’s a real shame, because The Quiet Ones does have some good elements and moments. The big creaky house, the 1970s tones and colour scheme, not to mention the strong cast and their English accents, could have turned it into a superior horror experience. I was hoping for an ambiguous take on supernatural activity in which a lot of questions would be asked but where the answers would be left to the audience, though instead they went down the obvious and commercial route where the demonic stuff is thrown in our faces with the force of a sledgehammer.

The result is a film that has an interesting premise but is watered down by a familiar approach and recycled tactics. It’s certainly watchable and no worse than the majority of horror films released these days, though I feel like The Quiet Ones blew a really good opportunity to be something special.

2.5 stars out of 5

PS: Check out this interesting link (contains spoilers) if you wanna know how much of the film resembles reality.

 

2014 Movie Blitz: Part III

Leprechaun: Origins (2014)

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Amazingly, Leprechaun: Origins, the seventh film in the series, is the my first encounter with the nasty little guy. I knew Jennifer Aniston was in one of them, and that Garth (from Wayne’s World), is terrified of “the Leprechaun man.” But I guess I just found it hard to fathom that a Leprechaun could be the subject of a horror flick, let alone seven.

And look, anyone saying that they expected Leprechaun: Origin to be any good is obviously lying. I knew I was going to see horror cliches galore, experience some cheap thrills (and maybe laughs), and witness a lot of stupid people getting killed. And that’s more or less what I got.

In typical fashion, the film starts off with some people in an Irish field being hunted down by an unseen force. Then flash to the present day and a bunch of American tourists somehow find themselves in an old wood cabin. No prizes for guessing what happens next. You’re on the right track if you said a lot of screaming, panicked running and unfathomably stupid and illogical decision-making.

The weird thing about the film is that the leprechaun looks nothing like what you would expect and pretty much has zero to do with the original Irish legend. You could have easily taken out the small handful of leprechaun references and called the movie something else entirely — and no one would have noticed. Or cared.

I want to say Leprechaun: Origins is a serviceable horror flick, but unfortunately, it fails badly on the scare test. There are no thrills to be found in the 90-minute running time, and nothing new or original to keep things interesting. All the laughs are unintentional and the “creature” felt somewhat derivative. I didn’t expect much from the characters and they fulfilled those expectations.

And yet I can’t really call Leprechaun: Origins a failure because it more or less succeeded at what it set out to be — a low budget, straight-to-DVD/VOD horror that will keep you occupied for an hour and a half.

2 stars out of 5

Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort (2014)

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Just how many wrong turns can one make? Back in 2003, I was thoroughly freaked out by the original wrong turn, starring The likes of rising stars Eliza Dushku, Desmond Harrington and Emmanuel Chriqui. This was before the high-profile remake of the Hills have eyes, so the idea of inbreeding, mutated, cannibalistic hillbillies was a relatively fresh one.

Eleven years later, we have been blessed with Wrong Turn 6: Last Resort. I had no idea there were so many sequels, but it was available, so I thought why the heck not?

This time, a bunch of young people head to a mansion resort owned by the family of inbreeding freaks. For some reason, two of them, a man and a woman, look normal — and they are the ones who deal with customers — but the rest of them have horrible disfigurations and hide out in the woods with axes and homemade weapons waiting to pounce on unsuspecting visitors.

By the time The horror franchise reaches its sixth entry, you know it has likely entered parody territory. Wrong Turn 6 is no different. It’s over-the-top, gory, cheesy, and full of unintentional humor. The special effects and make up are low budget, and the acting is, let’s just say, subpar.

On the other hand, this is a film that knows exactly what its audience wants: gruesome deaths, stupid characters you actually can’t wait to see get slaughtered, copious amounts of screaming, and of course, plenty of gratuitous nudity and sex. If you go in wanting and expecting all these things then you’ll get what you want.

2 stars out of 5

The Scribbler (2014)

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The Scribbler makes a whole lot more sense when you find out that it’s based on a graphic novel. It’s no doubt stylish, but it’s also very messy, weird, and ludicrous, so much so I don’t quite know what to think of it.

Based on the graphic novel of the same name by Daniel Schaffer (who also penned the adaption script), The Scribbler tells the story of a young woman named Suki (Kate Cassidy), who is committed to a mental institution because of her multiple personality disorder. While there, she undergoes treatment by a machine called the Siamese Burn, which is supposed to kill off all her made up personalities. Following the treatment, she is sent to a destitute halfway house full of oddball characters who suddenly start dying one by one upon her arrival. Has the treatment made her go batshit insane, or is there another killer on the loose?

It sounds like a pretty cool premise, right? That’s what I thought so too. The film experience, however, was not quite like what I expected. The Scribbler is one a trippy ride that feels like it’s being told through the eyes of an insane person. The story is wacky and the characters are wackier, resulting in a film that’s all over the place and perhaps intentionally so. It doesn’t take itself too seriously and has moments of fairly well-executed humour, though the laughs tend to be of the kind you’d get from watching a room of mental patients saying and doing crazy things.

Later on, as the mystery deepens, The Scribbler gets even loonier as it launches into video game territory. In some ways the final climatic sequences reminded me a little of Sucker Punch, that other grungy graphic novel adaptation about loony girls that was panned for being all style and no substance.

Kate Cassidy (whom I only remember from Gossip Girl) is actually very good in a difficult role that mixes neuroticism with sexiness and action. I was also surprised by how many other relatively big names there are in the cast, including the likes of Michelle Trachtenberg, Eliza Dushku, Billy Campbell, Gina Gershon and porn star Sasha Grey.

As different and stylish as it is, I can’t say I enjoyed the movie though. I like a bit of craziness every now and then, but The Scribbler was just too much madness for me.

2 stars out of 5

Sniper: Legacy (2014)

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You might remember a film called Shooter starring Marky Mark Wahlberg released in 2007. That film was about a sniper.

For some reason, I thought Sniper: Legacy was a sequel to that film. As usual, I was wrong. It’s actually the sequel to the 1993 film Sniper, which I only vaguely recall and may or may not have seen. That film starred Tom Berenger, back in the day when he was still kind of a semi-borderline A-lister. Apparently there were a couple of sequels to that, though the franchise has been lying dormant for about a decade, with the exception of 2011’s Sniper: Reloaded, the first film in the series without Berenger.

This latest entry brings Berenger back as the headliner, though he’s more of a publicity booster than anything else. The protagonist of the movie is his son, Brandon Beckett (Chad Michael Collins, who was apparently introduced in Reloaded), also a pretty good sniper in his own right. Word is that a rogue assassin is taking out military leaders and that Brandon’s famous dad, Thomas, might be the only one with the skills to carry out these kills.

I have reason to think that the original Sniper might have been a good film, or at least a cult classic. Two decades later, however, Sniper has become a “keep gettin’ ’em checks” franchise living off its former goodwill. I don’t know if fans of the first three or four films will enjoy Sniper: Legacy, though I am pretty sure that ordinary audiences will find it less then inspiring.

The entire production feels like a straight-to-video, B-grade action thriller, though to be fair, that is exactly what it is! The acting is wooden, the dialogue is cliched and the most important attribute, the action, is average at best. In fact, some of the scenes look as though they were filmed in someone’s backyard.

If you like the Sniper franchise or sniper films in general then you might not mind Sniper: Legacy. Otherwise, stay clear of this time-waster.

1.5 stars out of 5