Category Archives: 2016

Victor Frankenstein (2015)

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I’m not ordinarily a fan of re-imaginings of fairytale, historic events/figures or classic tales, but I was willing to give Victor Frankenstein a shot because it comes across as more like a fresh take using a different perspective as opposed to a complete butchering.

That perspective is Igor (Daniel Radcliffe), a former circus freak with a talent for science who ends up becoming the assistant of the titular mad scientist (Jamed McAvoy). The story is told through Igor’s eyes, and the focus of the film revolves around his relationship with his saviour and tormentor. The subplots include a love interest (Jessica Brown Findlay) and a police inspector (Andrew Scott) on their tail.

I’ve heard people say that the film, directed by Paul McGuigan (best known for TV work), tries to do to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein what Guy Ritchie did for Sherlock Holmes — a cooler, hipper, livelier version with a more postmodern feel. It’s an assessment I agree with, as Victor Frankenstein does have a similar look and vibe. The people and their surroundings all have that same grit and energy, and while Ritchie’s Holmes comes across as more action-adventure than mystery suspense thriller, the overall atmosphere of Victor Frankenstein is one that suggests more gothic fable than pure horror.

The result for me is a mixed bag. I’ll probably always love the Frankenstein story no matter how it is told, and I really bought into the relationship between the two central characters thanks to the stellar performances of Radcliffe and McAvoy. One is sympathetic and torn between loyalty and what he knows is wrong, while the other’s bipolar personality makes him a great anti-hero and villain. Though not quite Sherlock and Watson, I enjoyed their chemistry and shared their sense of wonder as they went about their morbid experiments.

On the other hand, despite the best of efforts, Victor Frankenstein never fully “comes to life”, so to speak. There were several nice surprises early on and some well-executed sequences along the way, though I ever felt any genuine fear from the horror nor thrills from the action. I wouldn’t go as far as to call it dull, but the experience definitely left me wanting more. It felt as though the start had set up a lot of enticing new possibilities, though as the story progressed towards the inevitable, everything starts veering in the direction of the predictable and mundane. The climax — and you probably have a good idea of what it is — as well as the ending can only be described as disappointing.

On the whole, Victor Frankenstein is a commendable effort but ultimately a forgettable affair amid the many Frankenstein adaptations to date. While there are elements that worked well, such as using Igor’s point of view and the chemistry between Radcliffe and McAvoy, there simply wasn’t enough imagination — especially in the second half — to breathe new life into the oft-told tale. Having said that, I’m still a sucker for Frankenstein and I enjoyed the movie for what it’s worth — solid entertainment with sufficient dashes of intrigue, drama, suspense, and the macabre. While it is by no means a great movie, it is far better than what its box office returns (US$34 million against a budget of US$40 million) and Rotten Tomatoes score (26%) suggests.

3 stars out of 5

Gods of Egypt (2016)

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The things parents do for their children.

When I first saw the trailer for Gods of Egypt, I thought to myself that the film looked like a total disaster. My eldest son, however, also saw the trailer, and he started obsessing over it because of all the crazy monsters the film seemed to feature.

And so after he finally proved himself last night by accumulating 20 good-boy stickers, I made good on my promise to take him to see the movie today.

You know what? I didn’t think it was that bad. At least my four-year-old still thinks it’s the best thing ever.

The story is taken from Egyptian mythology and imagines a flat world in which the gods live among the humans (they’re just bigger — like Yao Ming height — and can have superpowers such as morphing into powerful creatures with metal armour for some reason). I know how it sounds, but stay with me here.

Angry god Set (Gerard Butler doing his best bad King Leonidas impersonation), is pissed off that his brother Osiris (Bryan Brown) is turning the throne over to son Horus (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau), and decides to take the crown by force, stealing something valuable from poor Horus in the process (yes, I also thought it was weird that Butler plays Coster-Waldau’s uncle). And the only person who can return the stolen item to Horus is a young thief named Bek (Brenton Thwaites), who happens to have a hot young girlfriend name Zaya (Courtney Eaton). Cue the adventure music.

Gods of Egypt has been more or less universally panned by critics, with a score of 13% on Rotten Tomatoes and 23% on Metacritic. Yes, it features copious amounts of CGI and some very fantastical character/monster designs. And yes, it is silly and campy and conventional in terms of plot. Having said that, I agree with Aussie director Alex Proyas (Dark City, I Robot, Knowing) in his scathing Facebook retort that audiences should see it for themselves and not write it off just because of what some critics are saying (I think that goes for all films). I think it’s unfortunate that there’s now a sort of peer pressure to agree with critics and it’s become “cool” to trash a film even when you haven’t seen it.

That applies especially in this case because, if you’ve seen the posters and/or the trailer, you should know what you’re in for: a whimsical adventure that doesn’t take itself seriously; a popcorn action flick that knows what it is trying to be; a CGI fest with lots of preposterous action, one-liners and corniness. And as great men once said: not that there’s anything wrong with that. If you like this kind of really far-fetched fantasy world stuff with magical monsters and talismans and all that crap, Gods of Egypt could be right up your alley.

That said, Gods of Egypt wasn’t really up my alley. I said it wasn’t that bad, but that doesn’t mean it’s good. I’m probably more predisposed to enjoy this movie than others because I do like stories based on ancient mythology. I’m one of the only people I know who liked Clash of the Titans and Wrath of the Titans. However, Gods of Egypt isn’t just a Titans clone wrapped around in Egyptian mythology instead of Greek — it’s a completely different type of film. It’s much less grounded plot-wise and a lot more vibrant and colourful visually. It’s even more reliant on CGI and impossible feats to tell its story. The comparison is akin to the contrast between The Da Vinci Code and National Treasure.

So theoretically, Gods of Egypt is a film that can be enjoyed, whitewashed casting notwithstanding. Admittedly, I had fun with the premise and thought some of the adventure sequences and fight scenes were executed quite well, making good use of terrain and cool creature designs to generate excitement and cheap thrills. It wasn’t as funny as I hoped it would be, though there are a few good one-liners in there. I wasn’t captivated, but I wasn’t bored either.

As it turned out, my problems with the movie are far more fundamental. The script is clunky as, with a storyline that jumps all over the place without ever getting a good grasp on the narrative thread. As simple as the story is supposed to be, it feels convoluted and filled with exposition (especially in the dialogue), though the biggest flaw is all the contrivances that are squeezed in to make the plot work. I remember multiple instances where I told myself, “Well that’s convenient!”

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The other Achilles heel of the film is the special effects. Due to the kind of bright, clear look that Proyas was aiming for (as opposed to dark and gritty, which would have made it easier to hide the CGI), everything in the movie looks rather fake. The shots of the city from afar look obviously animated, and the size difference between the humans and the gods feels much more awkward than it did (for elves, dwarves, hobbits, etc) in The Lord of the Rings. And those movies were was made more than a decade ago. The worst still has to be the metallic transformations of the gods, which look like they were taken straight out of a PS2 video game. All these flaws are accentuated on the big screen, and it’s hard to focus on the story and characters when you’re constantly distracted by how fake it looks.

Taking all this into account, it’s amazing that the performances aren’t horrible. Considering they must have been acting against green screens and inanimate objects most of the time, everyone on the cast gives it their best shot. Brenton Thwaites has a terrible wig on his head, but he does what he needs to do as the stereotypical humble human hero who accomplishes miraculous things. The same goes for Coster-Waldau, who channels “good” Jamie Lannister for the most part, as well as Butler, who tries to add some more layers to his otherwise conventional villain. It was good to see Elodie Yung (the new Elektra on Netflix’s Daredevil) show off her acting range as goddess Hathor, and Aussie starlet Courtney Eaton (last seen in Mad Max: Fury Road) serves her purpose as the love interest and cleavage supplier. The only weak link in my opinion was Chadwick Boseman, the future Black Panther, who seems to be exerting most of his effort on his British accent. Amazingly, the great Geoffrey Rush, who plays the Sun God Ra, manages to deliver his role with a completely straight face, when any other great actor probably would have given us yet another Eddie Redmayne in Jupiter Ascending.

Speaking of which, I’ve heard some label Gods of Egypt as this year’s Jupiter Ascending in that it’s a crazy mess of an action flick overwhelmed by CGI and flopped badly against a massive budget. I think it’s an apt analogy, though I was also one of those people who didn’t think Jupiter Ascending wasn’t as atrocious as critics made it out to be. Both are ambitious failures, but I applaud Proyas for having the balls to at least go for it and try something different. I like the vision he had for the film, but I think he just went a little (or a lot) overboard. A tighter script with more humour, less reliance on CGI, and none of that metallic monsters business, and Gods of Egypt might have been pretty good. Sadly, it will end up being remembered for all the wrong reasons, much like Clash and Wrath of the Titans, though that’s arguably still better than being completely forgotten, like Immortals (remember the Greek mythology film with Henry Cavill and Freida Pinto?).

As we stepped out of the cinema, my son started asking me about when they’re going to make a sequel to Gods of Egypt. He really enjoyed it that much. With a dumbfounding budget of US$140 million (plus much more on marketing) and current box office returns of just US$43 million, it breaks my heart to have to tell him that it’s probably not going to happen.

2.5 stars out of 5

The Forest (2016)

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We all need a shit horror movie every now and then to remind us to appreciate all the good movies released every year.

To be fair, The Forest is not as garbage as I thought it would be. Yes, it’s a little rubbish, but its biggest problem is that it is as generic as its title suggests. The film is basically a sobering reminder that Hollywood almost never gets J-horror right.

Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer plays Sara, a young American woman who heads to Japan in search of her messed up twin sister, Jess. Apparently, Jess has ventured into Aokigahara, a forest at the foot of Mount Fuji notorious for being a suicide site. This aspect of the story is true — dozens, sometimes hundreds of suicides are reported in the forest each year, making it a naturally suitable location for a horror flick.

As expected, Sara meets a bunch of stereotypically weird and creepy Japanese people and a mysterious hunky American (Taylor Kinney, aka Mr Gaga), who offers to be a bridge of sorts between American and Japanese language and culture. In defiance of about a hundred warnings (I believe it’s close to literal) about angry spirits and hallucinations and other nasty, dangerous, potentially lethal threats, Sara decides to venture into the suicide forest in search of her sister. What do you think happens next?

If there have been any Japanese films about Aokigahara forest I’d sure like to see them. Because with its history and real-life stories of stumbling across dead bodies all over the place, the atmosphere alone would be eerie enough to creep me out. But in the hands of Hollywood, it becomes all about stupid, annoying people, predictable jump scares, and scary faces that fly into the screen.

It’s hard not to be cynical about The Forest being a cash grab. Made on a shoestring US$10 million budget, the film has already grossed more than US$30 million worldwide. And yet it seems they put such little effort into making the movie stand out or simply a little different to what’s already been done a thousand times before. I’m not exaggerating when I say I could predict exactly what’s about to happen next. Most things that happen in the plot are contrivances to set up scary situations (eg, when someone warns Sara about something, you can be sure she’ll do the exact opposite), and even the scares are telegraphed so badly that you can basically pinpoint exactly when the “boo” moment will come (it’s usually three beats after everything goes completely silent).

On top of that, the plot makes very little sense, but I envy how the filmmakers just pretended all the ridiculousness was par for the course. The ending, in particular, was so ludicrous I actually laughed out loud.

Sadly, Natalie Dormer is pretty good in this, but watching her spew out such impossibly bad dialogue only accentuates what a joke the script is. And while Mr Gaga has been described as so wooden that he might as well have been playing the titular forest, I actually thought he wasn’t too bad. He’s ambiguous and creepy enough to make his character the only interesting subplot of the film.

As atrocious as The Forest is, I didn’t hate it or get angry while watching it. Technically, it’s roughly on par with films like The Grudge and so forth, and if you haven’t seen much J-horror before you might even get a few thrills out of it. I didn’t take the movie as seriously as it took itself, and as a result I found it quite an amusing experience that offered a nice release from all the heavy-hitting Oscar nominees I’ve been viewing lately. Go in with zero expectations like I did so you can’t possibly be disappointed.

2.5 stars out of 5

Deadpool (2016)

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My first 2016 film at the cinema was also one of my most anticipated of the year.

The hype surrounding Deadpool has been astronomic thanks to rave reviews from early screenings and a wicked marketing campaign that has been described as the best of all-time. It is thus hard to keep expectations down under such circumstances, but I’m glad to say Deadool lived up to what I had hoped for — for the most part.  It’s clever, witty, funny, satirical, referential, parodic, irreverent, action-packed, and above all, incredibly entertaining. In many ways, it’s the perfect popcorn movie for adults looking for a fun night out.

The story is conventional — a mercenary named Wade Wilson (Ryan Reynolds) makes a drastic decision to save his life but the consequence is that he becomes horrifically scarred with superpowers. He then proceeds to exact revenge against those who have wronged him in a tight red suit. At the heart of the film is actually a love story, which acts as the main source of character development and delivering emotional impact, but also makes things much more complicated for our protagonist. It’s an origins story we’ve seen before.

However, writers Rhett Reese Paul Wernick ensure that the plot is the only thing about Deadpool that’s conventional. The super duo — who are now no doubt in hot demand — infuse the narrative with loads of wild ideas, starting with repeated breaks of the fourth wall and a non-linear structure that utilises flashbacks to keep the momentum rolling. Like it did for Ant-Man, the simplicity works in Deadpool‘s favour. It’s not a story about the end of the world and the stakes are relatively small, but the effect of this is that the story feels more personal and appropriate for an origins movie. There’s no excess of characters either: just the hero, the love interest, two X-Men, two villains and two comic relief sidekicks.

The action, perhaps the most underrated part of the movie, is innovative, brutal and features copious amounts of blood. Considering the minuscule budget of US$58 million, the action sequences are as thrilling and exciting as anything I’ve seen in the big-budget Marvel blockbusters. The special effects and stunts are close to seamless (I watched it on an IMAX screen), and I was impressed by the variety of the violence — guns, sword fights, fist fights, car chases, superhero powers, you name it — most of which was done without the laziness of rapid cuts.

Still, the biggest draw of Deadpool is of course the comedy. The gags come fast and furious, and absolutely nothing is off limits. The actors (even those not in the movie), the director, other superheroes, other films, even the film’s low budget, are all targets for jokes. The majority of the humour comes from one-liners and wisecracks as opposed to set-pieces, so you’ll find yourself giggling all throughout the movie. Contrary to some reviews, however, the movie is not always in a joking mood — there are darker moments and “character development” scenes, mostly in the film’s middle section. But I recognise that this part of the film is necessary to make us care, and director Tim Miller does a great job in his feature debut in moving from one tone to another without making it feel jarring.

Unfortunately, as funny as I found the film to be, I didn’t laugh out loud as often as I thought I would (ie, all throughout), and this is because I had seen a lot of the jokes in the trailers. That’s partly my fault for watching all the trailers, and partly the fault of the marketing team for putting them in there to sell the movie. That said, thanks to the R-rating, there were still enough jokes I hadn’t seen to help me easily cruise past the six-laugh test for a good comedy. In fact, the jokes in Deadpool are so relentless at times that you may miss some because you’re still recovering from the previous gag. On the whole, there may have been a few too many masturbation jokes for my liking, but the hit rate of the jokes is already much, much higher than most other crude comedies.

Ryan Reynolds deserves all the credit in the world for being the driving force behind the film, which reportedly spent more than a decade in developmental hell. He is not only perfect as the titular character, he is also a fantastic comedian who apparently ad-libbed many of the classic one-liners. Plus he is ripped!

Homeland’s Morena Baccarin plays Vanessa, the other half of the love story. When I first heard she was the love interest I thought it was a bit of a strange choice, but now it makes complete sense after having watched the film. They needed someone as damaged as Wade but also someone with enough strength and sassiness to be more than just a damsel in distress. Baccarin fits the bill perfectly.

I enjoyed the X-Men characters not just because of their powers but because their banter with Deadpool works so well. I guess I’ll just leave it at that so as to not reveal too much.

As for the villains, I thought Ed Skrein (who was in that horrible Transporter reboot last year) could have been a little more formidable as Ajax, but his performance was generally pretty good. It’s unfortunate he kept reminding me of a buffer Nicholas Hoult. On the other hand, Gina Carano as Angel Dust was fantastic, largely because she rarely needed to change expressions.

Leslie Uggums is hilarious as a blind old lady with the acid tongue and heart of gold, though I was a little disappointed with TJ Miller’s role in the film, not because he wasn’t any good, but because he’s one of the best things about it and I wish he could have gotten more screen time. I loved his chemistry with Ryan Reynolds and thought he might get to do a little more since he delivered all my favourite lines. I’m looking forward to the DVD extras and hope he can feature more prominently in the sequel, which has to be a certainty after the film smashed the R-rated opening weekend record in the US with a haul of US$135 million (the previous record was US$91.7 million held by The Matrix Reloaded) and a worldwide box office of around US$300 million.

We’ve had R-rated (under the US classification system) superhero/comic book films before — Watchmen, Blade, V for Vendetta, Sin City, just to name a few — but never one that deliberately pushes the limits as far as Deadpool does with its gruesome violence, machine-gun-rapid profanity and crude, snarky humour. Kick-Ass is the nearest comparison but it’s not a close contest. As with all films that receive a lot of buzz before its release, Deadpool could not help but be overhyped, though despite this, the movie still turned out to be one of the most fun and funny cinematic experiences I’ve had in years.

4.25 stars out of 5!