Category Archives: Genre: Thriller

2009 DVD Blitz!

I had initially planned on doing separate reviews for all of these DVDs I watched over the last couple of weeks, but I decided it was wasting too much of my life.  I need to focus on my studies and my novels more, and less on blogging.

Maybe I’ll eventually get around to reviewing them in full on 7Tavern.  But for now, here are some brief reviews.

The Taking of Pelham 123

I expected a bit of a stinker and my expectations were fulfilled. John Travolta was a shocker in this one (simply swearing a lot doesn’t make a villain cool or menacing or interesting), and Denzel feels the same as always. There were a couple of decent moments and flashes of excitement that prevented the film from being a total disaster, but on the whole this was one to forget.

2 out of 5

Never Back Down

Teenage mixed martial arts movie with all the expected crap that comes with it – average acting, bad dialogue and predictable flow. Good fight scenes though. Cam Gigandet’s evil smile reminded me of a chiseled Hayden Christensen.

2 out of 5

Redbelt

I was getting my MMA fix.  Hard hitting, both physically and emotionally, in true Mamet-style. For once a martial arts film that deals with more than just punching and kicking. Keeps you wondering where it would take you next. Awesome.

4 out of 5

Whatever Works

Look, it’s not a bad film. It’s just that Larry David is annoying enough for half an hour on Curb, so Larry David for 92 minutes straight gets a bit…

And it’s hard to ignore the fact that the movie is written and directed by Woody Allen, and surprise surprise, it’s about the relationship between a misunderstood old man and a girl that is far too young to be married to him. Thankfully, it’s not his daughter. 

2.5 out of 5

The Hangover

Maybe I expected too much. The Hangover is pretty good but not as gut-bustingly hilarious as I thought it would be. That said, it could have been way worse. Ken Jeong is an absolute classic.

3 out of 5

Lost Boys: The Tribe

Long awaited sequel to the 87 classic went pretty much according to script. B-grade all the way, but that doesn’t mean it was destined to be crap. I liked the tongue-in-cheek moments but there was too much serious stuff mixed in there which made it uneven. It could have been worse, I suppose.  RIP Corey Haim.

2 out 5

Michael Clayton

Oozes class all the way through. A tremendous opening sequence, an intriguing plot, and handled with style and precision. A well-made, gripping thriller.

4 out of 5

Fool’s Gold

Should have been simply titled “Fools”. Horrible plot (where is the adventure? People sit around, talk, and figure out where the treasure is?), annoying characters, and action without excitement. And it’s 110 minutes! And the ultimate killer blow? Matthew McConaughey.

1.5 out of 5

Did I mention I’ve been kinda busy lately?

Late addition – can’t believe I saw this film but totally forgot about it!

Vantage Point

Pretty clever idea and a great cast, but unfortunately they didn’t nail it. Despite the gimmick, in the end it turned out to be a rather pedestrian thriller plot. That said, there were some exciting scenes and at 90 minutes, the film didn’t outstay its welcome.

3 out of 5

Movie Review: Shutter Island (2010)

I've already used the poster with Leo's mug in another post, so I decided to go with this one, which I actually like a lot more

[Note: I was supposed to read the book first, but I couldn’t wait.  Reading the book now.]

Shutter Island.  Based on the book by Dennis Lehane, award-winning author of Mystic River.  Directed by Martin Scorsese, Academy Award winner for The Departed (and director of such classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas). Cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, and one of my favourites, Jackie Earle Haley.  Been looking forward to seeing it since I first heard about the production in 2008. Expectations: sky high.

So how was it?

Very good, but ultimately not the masterpiece I had been waiting for.

The story follows DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall summoned to Shutter Island in 1954 to investigate the disappearance of a patient at Ashcliffe, a mental hospital for the criminally insane.  A ripper of a premise, and you don’t even have to wait to see the island to know you’re in for a eerie, frighteningly atmospheric time.

Shutter Island is a wild, fantastic ride.  It’s one of those mysteries where you have to question everything that happens.  Naturally, in a mental hospital, you’d have to.  Why are people acting so strangely?  What secrets are being kept at Shutter Island?  Who can be trusted?  Just what the crap is going on?

You get that a lot when watching Shutter Island.  Scorsese has intentionally created a very disjointed, fragmented film that keeps the audience as confused as Teddy Daniels.  Flashbacks, dreams and visions come and go.  Words and actions consistently don’t make much sense.  Clues and red herrings are mixed in everywhere.  It was weird.  I even started questioning my own sanity by the end of the movie!

So no doubt, it’s a good film, but it was a bit too over the place for my liking.  I was intrigued but also increasingly frustrated as the movie progressed, and I never got into it emotionally like I thought I would.  And the ending, while well-executed, was not totally unexpected.  That said, I did like the last scene, especially the haunting final words.

Can’t complain about the performances though.  Leo is still awesome, Ruffalo is great, Gandhi is solid, and Rorshach (the new Freddy Krueger!) is still terrific as always.

3.5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Box (2009)

The Box is one of those films that’s likely to polarise viewers – either love the intriguing premise and go wherever the film takes you, or hate it for being a confusing mess.  That said, I found myself somewhere in the middle.  I was intrigued by it all but was not overly impressed.

Directed by Richard Kelly (who also co-wrote the script), best known for his cult masterpiece Donnie Darko, The Box deals with a fascinating idea.  Press a button and you’ll get one million dollars (1976 money), tax free – but someone in the world, someone you don’t know, will die.  It’s based on a 1970s short story by Richard Matheson called “Button, Button”, which got badly butchered by the Twilight Zone in the 80s (Matheson apparently hated the changes they made to it).

Sure, people in the world die all the time, but you’ll have to live with knowing that it was your greedy decision that directly led to that person’s death.  Would you do it?

Well, that’s what James Marsden (underrated Mr Cyclops) and Cameron Diaz (her face still looks weird to me) have to deal with in The Box.

Full credit to Kelly for infusing that Donnie Darko weirdness into The Box.  For starters, it has by far the most WTF moments since Mulholland Drive (coincidentally released the same year as DD).  You just never know where the film is heading, why people are doing the things they do or acting the way they are.  Is it an elaborate prank?  Is it a government experiment?  Is it even happening?  Am I crazy?

Of course, don’t expect any definitive answers to all your questions by the end of the film.  Usually, movies of this kind fizzle when they run out of places to go, but The Box manages to handle the final resolution pretty well, much better than I had expected.

That said, The Box didn’t blow me away or anything.  It’s good, but a notch below DD in terms of enjoyment, and nowhere near as memorable.

The Box is far from perfect, but I liked it.

3.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: I picked the poster with James Marsden in it – there is another version where it’s just Cameron Diaz’s weird face]

Movie Review: The Hurt Locker (2009)

The Hurt Locker isn’t a film that jumps out at you as a front-runner for the Best Picture Oscar while you are watching it.  It has the feel of a small-scale film, focused on a specific subject in a specific setting, with largely unknowns in the lead roles.  But don’t let that put you off.  It is undoubtedly one of the best films of the year.

I would call The Hurt Locker an American war suspense-action-thriller.  Directed by Kathryn Bigelow (K-19: The Widowmaker, Point Break – yes, that’s right!  Point Break!), it tells the story of an United States EOD (Explosives Ordnance Disposal) team in post US-invaded Iraq.  To many viewers, it will be a world that is as foreign as Pandora from James Cameron’s Avatar.

The Hurt Locker a cut above most other post-911 war movies for several reasons.

First of all, it is probably the most suspenseful film in recent memory.  The thrills come in waves, but when it comes, the tension is so unbelievably high that it made me forget how to breathe.  Full credit must go to Bigelow, who combines life-and-death situations with documentary-style shooting to create an atmosphere that makes the audience feel like they are right there in the pressure cooker with the EOD team members.

Second, the script by Mark Boal is outstanding.  Boal is a freelance journalist who actually spent time with a bomb squad in Iraq.  This experience, coupled with his ability to create intriguing, well-developed characters, makes The Hurt Locker the most authentic-feeling Iraq war movie to date.

Third, the acting is first class.  The three main leads (Jeremy Renner, Anthony Mackie and Brian Geraghty) are considered relative no-names in Hollywood, but all deliver performances that bring their respective characters to life.  Renner (28 Weeks Later) is particularly excellent and is well-deserving of his Academy Award nomination for Best Actor.  He brings a brooding arrogance and obsessive quality to Sergeant First Class William James that makes the already-tense environment even more explosive.  Renner’s face reminds me of a pudgier Jason Bateman, but his screen presence (according to a friend) is reminiscent of a young Mel Gibson (before he went off the rails, of course).

Lastly, I really enjoyed the subtlety of The Hurt Locker.  It may be an anti-war movie at heart, but it doesn’t ram any political messages down your throat.  There’s no American hero bravado or that ‘Americans are evil’ sentiment.  There’s a telling image here and there, but for the most part, you can simply enjoy the movie for its intense action and ignore the underlying message.

Having raved about the film, it isn’t quite perfect.  At 131 minutes, The Hurt Locker is probably 15-20 minutes too long, and partly because of this, the last third of the film isn’t quite as exhiliarating as the first two-thirds.  However, these are only minor complaints in an otherwise superb film.  The only thing really preventing The Hurt Locker from getting full marks from me is that I simply don’t think it is memorable enough.  It may be one of the best films of the year, but it’s unlikely to be one of those classics people will easily recall years down the track.

4.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: I now think The Hurt Locker has a pretty good chance of beating Avatar for Best Picture because of this new preferential voting system.  That said, I’m sticking with my prediction of Avatar for Best Picture.  The one with the bigger chance of an upset could be Bigelow over her ex-husband James Cameron for Best Director.  This is one of those years where voters seem to rally around a cause, and this year the stars may be aligned for the first ever female director to take the prize.]

Movie Review: Orphan (2009)

orphan

In some ways, Orphan is your typical ‘child from hell’ movie.  However, it is also a superior horror/thriller that can keep you at the edge of your seat for a couple of hours.

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I went to see the film – it had a fantastic poster (see above) and a stellar cast, but it’s also directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, who was at the helm of such classics (not) such as House of Wax (2005) and Goal! 2: Living the Dream (2007).  Well, I came out of it pleasantly surprised and rather impressed.

The plot, of course, is pretty self-explanatory, so I won’t go into it too much.  The adopted child Esther is a seemingly charming 9 year-old girl who dresses weird, has a secretive past and gives one hell of a dirty stare.  Yes, it has a cliched storyline with cliched characters, but don’t let that put you off.  It’s all in the execution. 

Collet-Serra has injected much style and tension into the film, with a strong beginning and a ripper of an ending (which, even though I unfortunately guessed in advance, was still good).  He mixes it up with the voyeur cam and the POV (point-of-view) cam, and in addition to the ‘boo!’ scares, throws in the occasional ‘feint’ scare (where he sets up a ‘boo!’ shock that never comes).  Combined with the cool colour scheme, the icy surroundings and the smooth wooden house, the atmosphere is superb for a horror film.  

Collet-Serra also doesn’t shy away from the violence and the visceral shocks, which was a little unexpected as the incidents all involve young children.  And for those who think the movie will be entirely predictable, think again because not everything will go according to the way such films usually pan out.  It’s these little breaks away from the cliches that kept things interesting for me.  Oh, and there’s a dash of dark comedy as well.  Intentional or not, it was amusing.

The highest praise is reserved for the cast.  Vera Farmiga and Peter Sarsgaard are both outstanding as the parents (which you would expect from actors of their calibre), but of course it’s the title character, played by Isabelle Fuhrman, that really lifts the film to another level.  Fuhrman is really a wonderful little actress that manages to captivate the audience whenever she’s on screen.  She demands your attention.  She can be sweet, funny, scary and downright terrifying.  She makes you believe.  I can’t wait to see what she’s in next.

No doubt there are a lot of critics out there that would call Orphan trash – but really, what do people expect when they watch such a film?  It may be a little overlong (122 minutes) and totally unbelievable, but Orphan succeeds at what it set out to do – scare and shock the audience.  Can’t ask for much more than that.

4 stars out of 5!

[PS: they really shouldn’t say things like ‘You’ll never guess her secret’ in the trailers and posters because whenever they do I always end up guessing it!  Keep silent and surprise the audience!]

Movie Review: Angels & Demons (2009)

Angels and Demons

Yesterday I saw Angels & Demons, you know, the highly anticipated follow-up to the controversial (and hugely successful) The Da Vinci Code, also adapted from the novel of the same name written by Dan Brown.

After the somewhat modest reactions to the The Da Vinci Code (which I actually think deserved more credit), my expectations were held in check this time.  Another good thing is that it had been so long since I read the book that I had kind of forgotten what it was all about.  Consequently, I was pleasantly surprised.  It was fun, exciting, and the pieces came together at the right moments.

In short, it was a vast improvement on the first film and I totally enjoyed it!

Background

Angels & Demons the book is a prequel to The Da Vinci Code, but the movie is filmed as a sequel (and there are several references to the events of the first film in the opening scenes).  As per my review etiquette, I won’t divulge plot details, but given the success of the novel, it’s safe to assume most people at least have an idea of what it is about.   All I will say is that, like its predecessor, Angels & Demons is heavily influenced by religious themes and involves a desperate race against time that leads to a lot of running around.  Whereas The Da Vinci Code was set predominantly in Paris, Angels & Demons leads you through a breath-taking adventure through the various attractions and sights of Rome and Vatican City.

Action, action and more action

Dan Brown’s novels are known to unveil at neck-breaking pace.  However, unlike the book, many felt that The Da Vinci Code movie was, frankly, a bit of a bore.  Angels & Demons doesn’t suffer from the same problem because it’s made as more of a popcorn movie with full-throttle action right from the beginning, rarely pausing to catch its breath.

The difference is in the adaptationThe Da Vinci Code movie was bogged down by the need to fully explain its complex conspiracy theories, and despite doing so very well (and innovatively), it led to dull patches that killed the momentum.  Director Ron Howard certainly learned his lesson, because even though the plot and theories of Angels & Demons also require a fair amount of explanation, this time they did it right – by giving you the essentials upfront and then feeding you bits of information at a time so that the pace never sags for very long and things are kept moving.

Though I couldn’t recall much from the book, Ron Howard definitely changed or deliberately left out certain parts of the storyline in the film – and I think it was for the better.  To be honest, the conspiracy theories in Angels & Demons sounded pretty silly when transformed from the page to the big screen (and coming from me that says a lot because I tend to believe in a lot of that stuff), so I felt it was a smart choice to leave the emphasis off all of that and focus on keeping the foot on the gas pedal.  There’s probably another reason why they decided to do it, but I won’t say because it may lead to a potential spoiler.  Nevertheless, the end product was much closer in style and pace to the novel than The Da Vinci Code was, and therein lies the biggest contrast between the two films.

Cast

The mullet is gone
The mullet is gone

Terrific all-star cast.

Of course, Tom Hanks returned as professor Robert Langdon, sans the infamous mullet from last time (I still think the new hairdo is a FAIL, just not an EPIC FAIL – perhaps he needs sideburns or something).  Hanks clearly got into good shape to portray the character, as evident from his very first scene, but there was still some awkwardness to him.  Maybe he just wasn’t the right choice for Langdon, but it’s too late now because like it or not the character will forever be associated with the actor.

The big upgrade was Ayelet Zurer (Israeli actress best known from Munich – the film not the city), who portrays the scientist/sidekick to Hank’s Langdon.  As much as I like Audrey Tautou (from The Da Vinci Code), Zurer’s chemistry with Hanks was so much better, and she more than holds her own in the film.

I was glad to see Ewan McGregor (as the ‘Camerlengo’) again on the big screen after bumping into him in person while vacationing in Berlin.  By the way, he was brilliant in the role.

There were other solid supporting roles too, such as Stellan Skarsgard as Commander Richter of the Swiss Guard and the always trusty Armin Mueller-Stahl as Cardinal Strauss.  Note both names were changed from the novel.

Special Effects

Ron Howard and his special effects team really worked miracles in Angels & Demons, because despite the film being set almost entirely in Rome and Vatican City, the Vatican made it virtually impossible for them to shoot there.  And yet you would have never noticed if no one had told you.

I don’t know how they did it, but it must have involved building full-scale replicas, smaller scale replicas and lots of digital effects.  Really just shows you can pretty much do whatever you want in movies these days (as long as you have the budget).

There were also some other sensational special effects sequences that were done with amazing realism, though I can’t discuss them without spoiling the plot.  You’ll just have to watch it!

Religious Themes

I found it interesting that the Vatican basically condemned this film before it even began shooting.  It probably had a lot to do with the anti-church reputation The Da Vinci Code had developed, but I actually thought that Angels & Demons had a pro-church and pro-faith undercurrent.  Sure, there were some thinly-veiled criticisms of the Catholic Church, but on the whole the film did a decent job of reconciling science and religion, and reminding everyone that religion is, ultimately, a man-made thing that is not perfect.  Perhaps Catholics might even find the film uplifting.  Regardless, I’m sure the boycotts are already in motion.

Dan Brown

Angels & Demons, apart from being a fun action flick, really reminded me of what Dan Brown is capable of. You see all the copycat authors that are out there today and it tends to dilute what Brown accomplished with his two most popular novels.  Seeing the film made me remember how great the storyline was and how brilliant Brown was in being able to link everything together so intricately, making all the pieces fit so perfectly.  A mind-boggling amount of research and thought must have gone into it.  It’s a great example for aspiring writers who want to pen the next international bestseller.  Brown may not be a great (or even good) writer but he’s put a lot of effort into creating these engaging stories.

This has definitely reinvigorated my enthusiasm for Brown’s upcoming new novel, The Lost Symbol, which is coming out this September (s0me preliminary thoughts here).

Final Thoughts

In all, Angels & Demons is a great action film (with a little extra) that doesn’t pretend to be something it’s not.  It’s a movie that caters for a wide audience.

Those that have been to Rome or the Vatican will get a kick out of seeing all those places being used in the film (I had a few ‘remember that place?’ moments myself).  It’s also good for people who haven’t, because it will probably make them want to go now!

I’m sure those who have already read the book will enjoy the film because it is genuinely exciting and captures the thrill ride entailed in the novel.  However, I think those that will like the film most are those who haven’t read the book (and there’s probably not many out there), because they will be even more impressed by the scale of the story and the way the symbols, conspiracies, science, religion, action and storyline is all woven together.

Just go in with an open mind, don’t expect everything to make sense, take the conspiracy theories with a large chunk of salt – and you might be surprised how enjoyable the film can be.

4 out of 5 stars!