Category Archives: Genre: Romance

Passengers (2016)

You got Morten Tyldum, the guy who directed The Imitation Game, one of my favourite movies of 2014, paired with two of the hottest movie stars around, Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence. There was every reason to be optimistic about Passengers. And yet the reception of the posters was negative, as was the reaction to the early trailers (which I largely avoided). On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has a fairly sad rating of 31%. My expectations were naturally lowered, but the premise — about two people who somehow wake up decades before everyone else on a spaceship heading to a new colony — was intriguing enough to entice me into watching it at the cinema.

Verdict? I don’t regret spending the money. Despite all the negativity, Passengers was a couple of hours of solid entertainment featuring two very attractive and likable leads. It wasn’t the thought-provoking experience I had hoped for, but it was fun and watchable. Unfortunately, I just think there were a lot of missed opportunities throughout.

Without giving too much away, I feel like the movie didn’t have a clear idea of what it wanted to be. It’s a science-fiction film where the science is clearly a little iffy, even for a complete science retard like myself. Some aspects lacked logic and common sense, while others were conveniently shaped to fit the narrative. It’s also, as many know, a romance, but then it’s also a mystery of sorts as well as an action thriller at times. There’s also a good dose of comedy here and there. It tries to be so many different things at the same time, and it ends up creating tonal issues and never going into any depth on the most interesting themes or questions. I don’t necessarily have a problem with shallow—it’s just disappointing when a film hints at more depth but doesn’t pursue that path.

The first part of the film is the strongest and the most fascinating because of how it sets up its major turning point. It’s still actually quite good after that point, though at some stage in the second act I started feeling like the film was being pulled in too many different directions. And the third act just got too much for me. I kept hoping that certain cliched or preposterous things would not happen, and every damn time it happened like I had feared. Whereas The Imitation Game was such a controlled piece of filmmaking, Passengers was all over the place.

Still, there are worse things to do than watching pretty people like Chris Pratt and Jennifer Lawrence run around on the big screen. Both performances are actually really good, especially Lawrence, who handles the emotional scenes particularly well. As expected, their chemistry is fantastic. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know Michael Sheen also has a sizable role, and there are a couple of other big name actors who make appearances (one of them for literally just a few seconds). Its just a visually impressive film to watch overall, with slick set designs and excellent special effects.

By the end of it, I didn’t find myself annoyed, angry, or disappointed. Passengers wasn’t as good as I hoped it would be, but it’s certainly nowhere near as bad as I had braced myself for. As shallow and unremarkable as the film is, it’s at least fun, entertaining, and nice to look at.

3.25 stars out of 5

Brooklyn (2015)

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I’d like to say that I saved the best for last, but no, Brooklyn is not the best of the eight Best Picture Oscar nominees this year. It’s a solid movie, though in my opinion also the weakest of the lot. It is, in fact, the only nominee I didn’t genuinely love.

Adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel of the same name by none other than Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley, Brooklyn is a period drama-romance set in the 1950s. It tells the story of Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), a young Irish woman who leaves home for the United States (guess which area?) for a job and prospects of a better life. I don’t want to give too much away — I had no idea where the story was heading and probably liked the movie more because of it — except to say that of course she meets a nice young fellow (Emory Cohen), resulting in some classic romance but also plenty of heartache as Eilis finds herself forced to make some difficult choices.

Brooklyn is without a doubt exquisitely made, capturing the look and feel of the era and infusing the narrative with a good dose of nostalgia. It was a more innocent and optimistic time back then, and Crowley does a fine job of developing the young romance in a sweet albeit slightly romanticised way.

Saoirse Ronan delivers a wonderful performance that’s as good as any of the other Best Actress nominees this year (I’d probably still give it to Brie Larson or Charlotte Rampling though), and it’s a delight to hear her speak in her natural accent for once. She was almost good enough to make me forget she was in The Host, one of the biggest atrocities to hit the screen in 2013.

The rest of the cast is solid too, with Emory Cohen showing off enough charm to make us believe in the courtship and the ubiquitous Domhnall Gleeson delivering yet another strong, understated performance. Julie Walters, Jim Broadbent — it’s a classy ensemble with no weak links.

Thanks to the script, direction and acting, the central romance works in an awkward and cute way, and not without a touch of humour. I started to like the film, and, as expected, something happens to change its trajectory. I even enjoyed this change of pace and how the plot continues to develop — until a deflating and thoroughly unsatisfying final act that totally ruined it for me. It made me realise that I actually didn’t like the protagonist and I didn’t want to root for her after all.

That shouldn’t take away from all the good Brooklyn delivers, though when a film leaves a bad aftertaste that’s the thing you remember the most. However, even if you discount the disappointing third act, I thought the film would have had more of an impact on me with its depiction of that feeling of fear, uncertainty and homesickness that comes with moving to a foreign land, especially since I had experienced something similar. Not to say there weren’t moments that tugged my heartstrings, though pound for pound, Carol, another period romance-drama fueled by phenomenal performances, was the superior experience for me (that said, neither makes my personal Best Picture list).

It’s always easier to be critical of an acclaimed film because of heightened expectations, and Brooklyn is no different. While I appreciate the quality of the production and the performances, I personally feel there are more deserving films that could have replaced it in the Best Picture category. At the end of the day, Brooklyn is still a fine film, an lovely motion picture with some touching moments, just not one of the top eight of the year.

3.5 stars out of 5

Carol (2015)


I was, in all honesty, dreading Carol a little bit before I watched it. Despite the famous director (Todd Haynes) and superb cast (Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara, both of whom are up for Oscars in a couple of weeks), it seemed like one of those slow, boring movies I could find myself dozing off in. The word of mouth I’ve been privy to has been polarising — some said they regretted watching it, while others lamented why it was snubbed for the Best Picture Oscar.

And so I am kind of shocked to say that I actually really liked Carol. Perhaps not to the extent that I feel the movie was snubbed by the Academy Awards for Best Picture, but it certainly exceeded my expectations and pulled a few heart strings along the way. That said, I’m still of the opinion that the overwhelming critical praise is overrating the film a little bit, and my guess is that critics factored in the historical significance of the source material (Patricia Highsmith’s 1952 groundbreaking semi-biographical novel) when formulating their reviews.

At its core, Carol is quite a simple love story between a young, aspiring photographer, Therese (Rooney Mara) and an older, married woman, the titular Carol (Cate Blanchett). But back in the 1950s, homosexuality was considered a medical condition that could be cured through psychotherapy, and many women didn’t even know what the word “lesbian” meant.

Admittedly, Carol is a slow-paced film that requires a lot of patience and attention before reaping the emotional rewards. If it loses you at the beginning it might be a struggle to get through the rest of it, but if the film manages to hook you through the enticing chemistry of its lead stars, you may end up falling for its subtle romantic charm like I did.

The reason why romance is probably my least favourite movie genre is because it’s so hard to get it right. Infusing a film with the right characters and requisite passion to get audiences to care — usually in under two hours — without making it feel contrived or melodramatic or saccharine, is a tall task indeed. And so it is a true testament to the entire crew — from Hayne to screenwriter Phyllis Nagy to the cast — that the dialogue, the character interactions, and thus the attraction and romance, comes across as so natural. The result is a love story that’s perhaps not as intense or dramatic as that of Brokeback Mountain or Blue is the Warmest Color, though for me it’s every bit as genuine and emotionally engrossing as those films.

From a technical standpoint, the film is also beautifully crafted — the look and feel of the era is perfectly captured by the sets and the costumes — and even the excellent cinematography and music score play important roles in the overall production.

Still, the film wouldn’t have worked without the two outstanding central performances. It’s a little strange that Mara was nominated for Best Supporting Actress while Blanchett was nominated for Best Actress — it probably should have been the other way around or both should have been in the Best Actress category — but there’s no denying that both deserve to be recognised by the Oscars for their remarkably nuanced portrayals. Mara, in particular, is as good as I’ve seen her in anything, and now that I’ve seen all the Best Supporting Actress nominee films I’d say she gets my vote (though Alicia Vikander will probably win).

The supporting cast, by the way, is also fantastic. Sarah Paulson, Kyle Chandler, Jake Lacy and co all deliver effective performances that do Mara and Blanchett’s efforts justice.

Having said all that, I don’t think Carol is a spectacular film. It’s a little too slow and understated for my liking, though I connected with the central romance and appreciate that it is exquisitely made and fueled by Oscar-worthy performances. This is one of the rare instances where, for a film that has largely divided critics and mainstream audiences, I find myself siding — for the most part — with the critics.

4 stars out of 5

Aloha (2015)

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It’s so unfortunate that Aloha, the new Cameron Crowe film, will forever be remembered for its supposed “whitewashing” and controversial casting of Emma Stone as a quarter-Hawaiian character. Because what it should really be remembered for is being a shit movie.

Truth be told, I was ready to play devil’s advocate. I had planned to be the guy to tell everyone to lay off this film. Seriously, all that furore over the lack of Hawaiians and the casting. Who gives a shit? It’s Crowe’s movie. It’s his prerogative to focus on whatever characters he wants, cast whoever he wants. Why can’t a film based in Hawaii focus on white characters? Are there no white people in Hawaii? Are there no white soldiers based there? Why must he tell the story you think he should tell rather than the story he wants to tell? Call it bad casting or writing, but don’t make it political. It would be a different story if the film was based on true events, but it’s not, so what’s the big deal?

To be fair, Stone’s character might have attracted less attention had she not been blonde and her surname not been “Ng”. It may have been wiser to make her say one-eighth or even one-sixteenth Hawaiian, or change the last name to something more Anglo. But you’re telling me there are no blonde quarter-Hawaiians in this world? Or that there are no blonde Ngs on this planet? (Apparently the character was based on a real-life red-head). Don’t shit on the movie because of that — not when there are so many other things you should be shitting on the movie for.

Let’s start with the premise. Bradley Cooper is Brian Gilcrest, a disillusioned, cynical former soldier who has become a contractor for a billionaire played by Bill Murray. Gilcrest goes to Hawaii to help negotiate a deal with a Hawaiian king to support the launch of a private satellite, and while there, he meets young and naive pilot Allison Ng (Stone) and bumps into his ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who is now married to Woody (John Krasinski) and has two kids.

If that sounds boring to you, that’s because it is. Crowe’s got some interesting ideas on his CV, such as Jerry Maguire, Almost Famous, We Bought a Zoo, but Aloha is not one of them. The film never seems to be able to settle on a proper focus, drifting around aimlessly between Gilcrest’s work and his relationships with Ng and Tracy. The problem is, none of those three things are compelling. They’re either uninteresting, cliched or predictable. Crowe is usually pretty good tricking audiences into falling for sentimentality, though in this case I thought all the tactics were far too obvious.

To make matters worse, none of the characters are charismatic, which is an amazing feat given that it stars three of the most charismatic actors around today in Cooper, Stone and McAdams. Gilcrest just seems blase all the time, while Ng is overly enthusiastic about everything, to the extent that her character feels contrived. Tracy isn’t very sympathetic either, and Woody only has a few scenes to provide comedic relief.

Speaking of which, though the film is promoted as a comedy-drama, Aloha is almost completely devoid of laughs. I can’t think of a single joke in the film apart from one very strange scene towards the end, though it is so different in tone to the rest of the film that it just becomes jarring.

I suppose Crowe was aiming for a Hawaiian-themed film similar to Alexander Payne’s 2011 effort The Descendants (the one with George Clooney and Shailene Woodley). That one was also a laid back drama with familial themes, but it was also much better crafted and a lot funnier. Aloha, on the other hand, is all over the place, with a dull premise, poor storytelling and characters not worth caring for. I kept wondering how such a simple story could be such a struggle to follow, and then I realised it was because I simply didn’t care enough. Even without the controversy, Aloha is a real mess, one that even its talented cast could not salvage.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Longest Ride (2015)

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I’m as shocked as you. The Longest Ride, the 10th Nicholas Sparks film adaptation, isn’t vomit-inducingly bad. In fact, it might just be the best Nicholas Sparks film since The Notebook.

Petite blonde Sophia (played by Tomorrowland‘s rising star Britt Robertson) follows her college sorority sisters to a bull riding event in North Carolina and meets the gentlemanly rider Luke (Clint Eastwood’s son, Scott). A natural attraction develops, but as a young woman with aspirations in the art world, Sophia is from a different world to the thrill-seeking Luke, and besides, she has secured an internship in New York that is set to commence in a couple of months.

For some contrived reason, the two also meet a mysterious old man named Ira (played by Alan Alda), who for another contrived reason starts telling Britt the story about the love of his life from back in the WWII era. The young Ira is played by Jack Huston and his girl is Charlie Chaplin’s real-life great-granddaughter Oona Chaplin.

So as with many of Sparks’s stories, The Longest Ride is a passionate love story that spans multiple generations and features an impossibly dashing, considerate, perfect man. It has old people, saccharine dates, romantic letters, contrived obstacles that get in the way of true love, and of course trips to the hospital. It’s a well-worn template, but a damn effective one judging by the fact that we’re now into double figures.

If they ever make a biopic about Sparks it should be titled What Women Want, because he seems to certainly know exactly what some members of the fairer sex demand. I think I’ve started to figure it out — it’s a man who is not just charming, handsome and ripped but also driven, annoyingly persistent, romantic, caring and always madly in love with you and only you until the end of time. In other words, it’s a man who doesn’t exist in reality.  It’s the same conceit that made Twilight and Fifty Shades commercial successes. Whoever creates a female version of the same character for a male audience he would be vilified, but a male version means $$$.

That said, The Longest Ride is less manipulative and cringeworthy than I expected. The opening scenes of when the young lovers meet had me worried, though as the story slowly progresses you start to get the feeling that these characters may be more “real” than they’ve been in any Sparks film for a long time. Some of the more emotional interactions, as ashamed as I am to admit, got to me.

Some of the credit has to go to the solid performances. Robertson and Eastwood do have chemistry and might be the better looking couple, though the romance between Huston and Chaplin’s characters is the stronger and more heart-string-tugging of the two. It’s supposed to be a secondary story that allows the core characters to reflect on their own lives, but in my opinion it overtakes them and becomes the heart and soul of the movie.

I didn’t really care for the bull riding aspect of the story. Like the way some people don’t get boxing, I don’t get bull riding. Why anyone would risk death and/or serious pain to stay on the back of an animal for a few seconds is a mystery I will probably never understand. I will say though that inserting bull riding into the romance is at least a little different and adds an old-fashioned, Americana charm to the film that I didn’t mind.

The Longest Ride is vintage Sparks in that it is corny and schmaltzy and a complete fantasy. It is also predictable, though, without giving too much away, not as predictable as some of Sparks’s other efforts, especially in how he decides to bring the story to a close. It’s not a conclusion I liked, but at least it doesn’t go down the exact same bittersweet path as some of his other films. And look, Sparks’s movies are the opposite of a box of chocolates — you always know what you’re gonna get — and in this case the quality of the chocolates are better than usual. What I’m trying to say, against my better judgment, is that I quite enjoyed it.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Age of Adaline (2015)

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The Age of Adaline, about a beautiful woman who suddenly stops ageing, is one of the weirdest movies I’ve seen this year. I liked it from a big picture perspective, but if I start to think about the specifics it starts to creep me out a bit.

Blake Lively plays Adaline Bowman, a young widow and single mother who suddenly stops ageing at the age of 29 after an accident. Being unable to have  a lasting relationship with anyone apart from her daughter (Ellen Burstyn), Adaline is afraid to love and basically lives like the Cullen family from Twilight, using fake names and moving locations periodically to avoid being recognised.

It’s a fascinating concept filled with intriguing possibilities, but The Age of Adaline barely touches on any of them so it can focus solely on love. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, especially if the execution is as effective as it is here.

The story centres on Adaline’s relationships with two dudes — a young one played by Michiel Huisman (best known as Daario from Game of Thrones) and an old one played by Harrison Ford. I won’t divulge more than that except to say the dynamics are really weird; some might go as far as to call it plain wrong. Such is the problem with a woman who doesn’t age.

The best way to describe this film is a fantasy romance. It has a fantastical feel to it in the vein of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, but it’s also a melodramatic love story that channels Nicholas Sparks. Not as cringy, of course, though it has the same type of sweetness and longing and regret Sparks is renowned for.

It’s a movie that relies on coincidences and promotes the idea of fate. It ignores what should be extreme awkwardness so it won’t get in the way of the “magical” vibe of the love story. There is even a narrator who talks like he’s reading from a children’s story book, explaining to us — in semi-scientific and semi-magical terms — precisely what is happening to Adaline’s body.

The result is a strange but also strangely satisfying experience. Full credit to Blake Lively for arguably the best performance of her career. I’ve always only seen her as Serena van der Woodsen from Gossip Girl, and this is the first time it feels like she has completely embodied a different character. It’s not easy playing someone who looks young but is old at heart, but she’s good enough to make it convincing, even when starring opposite a heavyweight like Burstyn who is 54 years older than her in real life.

Ford also puts in one of the best performances I’ve seen from him in years. I knew he could do brooding but I had no idea he could do yearning old man so well. Huisman, by comparison, is good-looking but isn’t charismatic enough to convince me that he would be capable of being the one to woo Adaline when so many others have failed.

At the end of the day, The Age of Adaline is a fable about mortality that doesn’t tell us anything new or better than what others have done before it. It’s also fantastical and absurd, though it’s hard to deny that there is a dreamy sweetness to the tale that tugs at all the right heart strings. While It may fall short of captivating, I found it entertaining and romantic enough to be enjoyable.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Cinderella (2015)

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There have been a lot — some would say too many — fairytale reimaginings over the last few years. Snow White and the Huntsman, Mirror Mirror, Red Riding Hood, Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, Beastly, Jack the Giant Slayer, Maleficent, just to name a few.

Kenneth Brannagh’s Cinderella, I’m glad to say, is not like any of those movies. It’s a return to roots; a reminder that such stories don’t necessarily need a makeover, and that perhaps keeping them the way they are might be for the best. It’s basically the studio reminding us — and let’s face it, they’re right — that reimaginings might not be as good the originals.

That’s not to say Cinderella is merely a lazy live-action remake of the old 1950s Disney animated film. Brannagh and writer Chris Weitz (The Golden Compass, About a Boy, and soon, Star Wars Anthology: Rogue One) manage to inject new life into the story with some subtle but welcome variations while maintaining the overall structure and spirit or the original tale. The humour is light and Brannagh-ish, and the special effects and costumes are pretty but not overwhelming. Fuelled by solid performances, this is an authentic and charming adaptation. Notwithstanding how straightforward it is, the results are surprisingly effective and strangely refreshing.

You know the story already so there’s no point in giving a proper overview. Skinny-waisted Lily James from Downton Abbey plays the titular heroine, who is left to the mercy of her stepmother (Cate Blanchett) and two stepsisters (Sophie McShera and Holliday Grainger) after her parents (Hayley Atwell and Ben Chaplin) pass away. Richard Madden (holy crap I just realised he’s Robb Stark!!!) plays the Prince, Derek Jacobi plays his father the King, Stellan Skarsgard plays the Grand Duke, and Helena Bonham Carter is of course the Fairy Godmother.

However, rather than just being about a pretty girl who falls for and gets rescued from poverty and slavery by a stud muffin — with the help of some magic — this adaptation tries to add some workable dimensions and cover up flaws of the original story.

Cate Blanchett’s stepmother character, for instance, isn’t just evil for the sake of being evil. We’re given glimpses of her genuine concerns, which helps us understand why she has become the way she is. Plus Blanchett is really good in the role, as she seems to be relishing the opportunity to play a devilish, multi-faceted villain.

Recurring themes include kindness and forgiveness, duty and love, and a lot is said about economic and social status. Bear in mind most of it is just on the surface, but kudos to Brannagh for at least trying to insert some layers and depth into what is still ultimately a fairytale. I don’t agree with criticisms that it’s not “feminist enough.” This Cinderella is progressive; not every woman wants to go full Joan of Arc like Kristen Stewart in Snow White and the Huntsman.

Despite Brannagh’s efforts, there are still some things that a live-action movie adaptation of a flawed story cannot work around. The whole glass slipper thing — you know, getting every girl in the kingdom to try it out when they know what she looks like — still makes no sense.

Quibbles notwithstanding, Cinderella is a strong film, one that is suitable for children and adults alike. Humour, romance, magic and a good lesson or two, it’s a feel-good experience the whole family can enjoy. I’d rank it just behind my second-favourite Cinderella film, Ever After, and there’s no shame in that.

3.75 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.

Jamie Dornan

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

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

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

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Theory of Everything (2014)

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I’m not much of a science guy (ironically I wanted to be a scientist in the early stages of my childhood), and so I’ve always been more interested in Stephen Hawking as the witty man who battled insurmountable physical odds as opposed to the brilliant scientist with the revolutionary theories.

The Theory of Everything, up for five gongs at the Oscars in a couple of weeks including Best Picture, is therefore custom made for people like me. Based on a memoir, the film places its focus firmly on the incredible love story of Hawking and his first wife Jane, who married him despite knowing that he was going to be handicapped and probably die shortly from his early onset motor neuron disease — better known today as its sub-category, ALS, thanks to all those ice bucket challenges — and bore him several children while looking after him and studying for a PhD herself.

You might have already guessed (correctly) that this is one of those moving and inspirational true stories about surviving the odds and overcoming adversity. While reality prevents the film from turning their story into a happily-ever-after fairytale, viewers need to be prepared for a highly romanticised version of what really happened, where events are cut, altered or made up and inconvenient facts are glossed over or ignored. It doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff, but it does smooth over the ugliest side of his illness and their relationship. And let’s face it, there must have been one — I could barely handle what he went through and what she had to put up with in a sanitised two-hour film, let alone fathom what it was like in real life stretched over decades.

Unfortunately, The Theory of Everything is also one of those movies where the more you read about how untrue the true story is, the more your impression of it becomes clouded and conflicted. So I would advise anyone wanting to watch it to avoid reading about Hawking’s life until afterwards, especially this Guardian review by Michelle Dean.

As for the science, you get a basic idea of what Hawking’s theories are about, but this aspect of his life is secondary to his disease and family in the film. The science in the story is not educational; it’s a tool to make statements about God and the meaning of life, themes highlighted by the contrast between Hawking’s atheism and Jane’s strong Christian faith, as well as the fact that God, if he exists, appears to have played a cruel joke on Hawking by awarding him one of the brilliant minds in history but crippling his disease-ravaged body beyond repair.

Some viewers might be disappointed by the decision to push science out of the film’s equation, but it was a necessary one to give the necessary attention to the story that it wanted to tell. What’s important is that the film makes it clear that whatever Hawking came up with was very impressive and world-changing, so much so that the expenses of his round-the-clock care are taken care of by charitable organisations and benevolent folk. At the same time, Hawking is no saint, and this film makes sure audiences know that, notwithstanding his brilliance, he was certainly a very flawed person with negative character traits like everyone else.

Inaccuracies aside, The Theory of Everything is an exceptional film; a touching, tear-jerking drama that deserves its Oscar-bait reputation. Backed by the pleasing direction of Oscar-winning documentary maker James Marsh (Man on Wire) and the assured yet conventional script by Anthony McCarten, the movie ticks all the boxes from a technical perspective. It is, however, the jaw-dropping performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones as Stephen and Jane Hawking that fuel the heart of the film.

Of all the Academy Awards Best Actor nominees for 2015, the only one I haven’t yet seen is Steve Carrell in Foxcatcher, though I can’t imagine anyone more deserving of the award than Redmayne. Apart from the striking physical resemblance, Redmayne also channels Hawking’s expressions, mannerisms and demeanour. Having seen Hawking in the flesh a couple of times during my year in Cambridge, I can personally vouch for how good Redmayne is. In fact, he’s so good that Hawking himself said he couldn’t distinguish between the actor and himself.

Jones’ performance as the resilient Jane is arguably just as good, albeit for different reasons. The strength of her portrayal lies in the nuanced ways in which she displays the simmering emotions suppressed just beneath her stoic exterior, at times with only her love for her husband and faith in God helping her hang on by a thread. I doubt she will win the Oscar, though the nomination is certainly deserving.

It may have its share of detractors (who do have legitimate concerns), but it’s hard to watch The Theory of Everything and not get a lump in your throat. It’s easy to regard the film’s emotional punch as a natural reaction to Hawking’s devastating disease — especially when he had such a bright future ahead of him — though full credit must still go to the director, writer and cast for creating an experience that feels a lot less manipulative than it really is. This is a beautiful, bittersweet experience that ranks up there as one of the most emotionally engaging films of the year.

4 stars out of 5