Category Archives: Genre: Thriller

Snowden (2016)

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I was really looking forward to Snowden for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s directed by Oliver Stone. Secondly, because I’m fascinated by Edward Snowden’s story and feel like I already know a lot about it, and was interested to see what kind of take Stone would have on the man and his story.

Oliver Stone doesn’t always make great movies, but he’s a director who I will always watch because of his track record. And for the record, I quite liked his last movie, Savages. When it comes to grit and drama, there are few American directors in his class.

The verdict? Snowden is a very solid movie, but sadly it’s nowhere near a great one. I might even call it a little disappointing, if only because I was expecting a lot more.

For those who have been living under a rock for the last three years, Snowden is a biographical film about former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who shocked the world in 2013 when he stole and gave to the media classified documents exposing that the US government is conducting illegal mass surveillance on not just foreign countries but their own people.

The film doesn’t tell us much about Snowden’s birth or family, instead choosing to follow him starting from his early years in the military. I don’t know how accurate the film is when it comes to certain details about Snowden’s character and history, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Stone had made up a lot of stuff (his track record is a little iffy).

In this film, Snowden is portrayed as a surprisingly normal guy (I was thinking socially awkward, reclusive, arrogant). Well, apart from the fact he’s a tech genius. He starts off as a patriot with relatively conservative political leanings, and ends up as a liberal hero some call a traitor to his own country. And make no mistake, Snowden is presented as a hero in the film. I would have preferred some ambiguity because these are clearly some very complex issues here, but it’s obvious which side Stone stands on. That said, I do appreciate that Snowden’s heroic image isn’t stuffed down our throats all the way (at least not until the end).

For what is supposedly a “political thriller”, Snowden is relatively tame in terms of action, and there’s also a lot less suspense than I had anticipated. The film is never boring, but I expected the film to spend more time on how he stole the classified information and how he escaped from Hong Kong to Russia. The latter, in particular, was dealt with rather quickly and without any drama, which I felt was a missed opportunity.

What the film does well is in portraying the relationship between Snowden and his long-term girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. It’s a central part of his life and the source of most of the film’s drama. The two of them have surprisingly good chemistry and their performances are elevated as a result.

Speaking of performances, Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal as Snowden. I was one of the many who raised an eyebrow when I heard he was cast, given the seeming lack of physical resemblance. Seriously, I don’t know how they did it, but he is totally Snowden in the film. Apart from getting the voice right, he gets the look right too. There were a few shots, especially in the Hong Kong hotel, where the similarities were stunning. Not sure if Gordon-Levitt will get an Oscar nomination for the performance because the film hasn’t been received that well, though I would certainly not be annoyed if he received the honour.

Apart from Gordon-Levitt and Woodley, the rest of the cast is solid too. Chameleon Melissa Leo plays documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, while Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson play the journalists who break Snowden’s story. Timothy Oliphant plays a CIA agent, Scott Eastwood is an NSA supervisor, and Ben Schnetzer, the apprentice wizard in Warcraft, portrays a tech wizard this time. The one casting choice I didn’t like was Nicholas Cage, in a small role as a teacher in the CIA, because he’s Nicholas Cage, and it’s hard for me to take anything seriously when I see his face these days. I was also not a fan of Snowden’s CIA mentor, played by Rhys Ifans. The performance itself was fine, but the character was too much of a caricature.

And I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler—it’s not a plot spoiler—but skip this paragraph if you don’t want to find out. Anyway, I don’t like how the real Edward Snowden makes an appearance at the end of the film. Throughout the entire movie he is Joseph Gordon Levitt, but this changes in the final minutes, first with protesters holding photos of the real Snowden, and then the appearance of Snowden himself. It takes you out of the reality the film had built over the last two hours. More importantly, it also reminds you that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t actually look or sound as much like Snowden as you thought he did during the film.

In sum, Snowden gets just a moderately above-average grade from me. I had expected an intelligent, exciting thriller (think Argo) that tackles Snowden’s actions and the consequences of his actions—from the both sides of the debate. Instead, I got a milder, one-sided version that failed to make the most of its opportunities.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Girl on the Train (2016)

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There is a girl—and a missing girl at that—but Gone Girl this is not.

I was so looking forward to The Girl on the Train, the film adaptation of the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins. I heard about the book a while ago and even read the first chapter or two, but my Kindle’s battery died and I forgot all about it until I realised the film was just around the corner. So as I usually do, I decided to just watch the movie version instead.

It starts off intriguing enough: A woman (Emily Blunt) who rides a train into New York for work likes to watch a seemingly happy couple as she passes their house every day. Then of course, something shocking happens, and she finds herself drawn into a missing person / murder mystery that is somehow intertwined with her own history. Like Gone Girl, it has damaged characters, utilises the narrative device of a potentially unreliable narrator, and cuts back and forth in time and through different points of view, gradually piecing together the clues to the mystery like pieces of a puzzle.

Sadly, I would have to call Girl on the Train an average disappointment. I thought I would like it a little more, considering that I had seen some of the lukewarm reviews (just the ratings, without reading anything) and thought low expectations might be beneficial in this case. But even leaving plot holes aside, I found the story—and especially the mystery at the heart of it—very predictable (more on this later), and most importantly, lacking in genuine suspense. This film tried to be this year’s Gone Girl, a deserved smash hit, but was really just a B-grade thriller more in the vein of 2014’s Before I Go to Sleep. That was based on a bestselling book too and starred Nicole Kidman, but it came and went, doing poorly both with critics and at the box office.

As such, The Girl on the Train is a waste of a talented cast that also includes Rebecca Ferguson (the standout from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Justin Theroux, Haley Bennett, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Lisa Kudrow, and the always wonderful Allison Janney, who all deliver quite solid performances.

However, there are just some very fundamental problems with the movie. First of all, the whole “girl on the train” thing is a bit of a gimmick. It sounds intriguing, but is really not much more than a hook lead into the story. It doesn’t take long before the whole train thing becomes an irrelevant part of the story. Moreover, as I understand it, the book was based in London, whereas for the film they switched the setting to New York. And yet they got Emily Blunt to keep her accent and play a British woman. It doesn’t hurt the movie much, though I think a London setting would have suited the overall vibe better.

Secondly, there is a point of view problem with this movie. I’m sure it works better on the pages of a book, because on the screen it struggles to build a proper narrative thread. The story is told from at least three points of view because there are parts of it that Emily Blunt’s character could not have possibly known. Also, it jumps back in time quite often, from several years to a few months to a few days, breaking any momentum in the suspense the film manages to build. So the structure really takes the film away from Blunt’s protagonist, and as a result it doesn’t feel like we are in this mystery with her, trying to figure everything out alongside her. Instead, we’re simply watching from afar as the story feeds us bits and pieces of information in an arbitrary way, making it feel more manipulative. It doesn’t help that there aren’t any particularly sympathetic or at least interesting characters.

Thirdly, the answer to the central mystery is not very hard to guess. I would be very surprised if more than half of the people who watched it didn’t figure it out at least an hour away from the ending. A lot of it has to do with the script, but some blame also needs to go director Tate Taylor (The Help), who doesn’t offer enough red herrings and suspects to mislead the audience. There just aren’t many alternate possibilities to explain what happened, especially because you know the most obvious answer in such movies are almost always wrong.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t called The Girl on the Train a terrible film. It’s not poorly made and the cast and performances are pretty good. But it’s just an uninspiring adaptation that fails to bring out whatever it is that made the source material “the novel that shocked the world”.

2.5 stars out of 5

Don’t Breathe (2016)

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Man, it’s been way too long since I’ve posted a review, so I’m going to try pump some out before the backlog gets even more out of hand (it currently stands at 51). Fortunately, I’ve got a good one to kick things off: Don’t Breathe, an original, terrifying thriller/horror by Fede Alvarez, the dude who did the Evil Dead remake in 2013. It may be one  of the tensest experiences I’ve had in a cinema in years.

The premise is so simple: Three youths living in Detroit like to make money from breaking into people’s houses and stealing their stuff. They hear about an easy score — a blind old man (Stephen Lang) living alone in a deserted neighbourhood who supposedly has a large amount of money stashed away. But of course, the kids get a lot more than they bargained for because this old man is not as weak and vulnerable as they think he is.

Let’s get right down to it: Don’t Breathe is INTENSE. The title is apt because you (almost) find yourself holding your breath along with the protagonists. Fede does a fantastic job of mixing it up — you get well-executed jump scares, of course, but there’s also a lot of incredibly nerve-wracking moments where you can see everything that is going on, plus a nice sense of claustrophobia and terrific use of silence. I was on the edge of my seat pretty much from the moment the kids enter the house until the end of the movie.

Surprisingly, there is not a lot of blood or gore in the film. I had been expecting torture porn to some extent, but for the most part, the film doesn’t try to gross you out. Instead of revulsion, it gets to you through primal fear. And personally, I prefer this method a lot more.

What is interesting about the film is that it turns the typical home invasion premise on its head. You’re usually supposed to sympathise with the people whose home has been broken into, and you cheer on the homeowner(s) when they finally give the invaders a taste of their own medicine at the end. Don’t Breathe somehow makes you sympathise (well, at least empathise) with these kids while making you afraid of the homeowner. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Fede gives us a few small scenes and interactions at the start of the film to help us become acquainted with the kids and their personalities, and it’s done well enough that we actually hope nothing horrible happens to them.

I was also worried about struggling with my suspension of disbelief (I mean, how hard is it really for three people to steal from a blind old man?) but such concerns were unfounded. Fede throws a lot of subtle little things into the movie to make the story believable, making things that are supposed to work to the kids’ advantage work against them instead. It helps that the kids are portrayed as rather scrawny, inexperienced and nervous, while the blind man is freaking Stephen Lang!

Kudos to all the performers too. Lang, of course, is fabulous. The dude not only looks like a tank but also exudes loads of screen presence, which particular helps in this film because he barely has any dialogue. You’d be scared of him too. As for the kids, the only one I recognised was Dylan Minnette (from the Goosebumps movie), who plays the wimpiest one of the lot. The girl is played by Jane Levy, who was actually also in the Evil Dead remake. She’s basically discount Kirsten Stewart, with a little more white-trashiness (if that’s possible). And rounding off the cast is Daniel Zovatto, who I probably saw on TV in Revenge. He adds a nice edge to the dynamic of the trio.

Don’t Breathe does spiral out of control a little in its third act, venturing down a path I didn’t really think was necessary. Even though it’s only 88 minutes, the film actually felt slightly long towards the end because of this, but it’s also because it’s not easy to remain in a state of high tension for so long. I had a really fabulous time with this movie. It’s brutal, relentless and atmospheric, but it doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks or gratuitous blood and gore to get the job done. It’s rare to see a horror film without supernatural elements that is so simple yet effective. Definitely check it out if you like getting scared.

4.5 stars out of 5

Careful What You Wish For (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars out of 5

Jason Bourne (2016)

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He’s back!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.5 stars out of 5

Triple 9 (2016)

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Every now and then you get a movie with a cast that’s out of this world, and yet the movie itself doesn’t get much buzz. This raises two questions: one, why did so many big stars attach themselves to this project, and two, why didn’t the movie get more buzz? Triple 9 is one such movie.

The answer to the first question is probably director John Hillcoat, the master Aussie filmmaker who gave us The Proposition, The Road, and most recently Lawless. Although a bunch of actors such as Shia La Beouf, Charlie Hunnam, Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, Triple 9 still ended up with a ridiculous ensemble cast featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelslon, Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus and Teresa Palmer.

The answer to the second question is that the film, while finely made, doesn’t quite live up to the cast. It’s barely made back its US$20 million budget on paper (which means a loss in real terms), and that’s because it got neither much advertising nor hype through word of mouth.

Set in the summer heat of Atlanta, Georgia, Triple 9 is a fairly standard crime thriller/drama about a bunch of crooks and corrupt police officers who pull off a heist. Things start to unravel when the crime boss they work for, played by Kate Winslet in an uneven Russian accent, forces them into one final job, while a newly transferred police officer (Casey Affleck) starts to suspect there might be more to things than meets the eye.

In typical Hillcoat style, Triple 9 is bleak, uncompromising and gritty. There’s brutal violence and scary depictions of gang life and police corruption. It’s intense stuff, but really, it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before — and arguably done better — in films like The Town, End of Watch, Training Day and so forth.

I don’t think it’s really Hillcoat’s fault — the issue is the unspectacular script by Matt Cook, which offers nothing truly fresh or intriguing. There aren’t many twists and turns, and the only surprises are from seeing all these big-name actors dying one by one in matter-of-fact fashion. But on the other hand, all these deaths mean there’s no real central protagonist. We know who the good guys and bad guys are, but we don’t really get a chance to genuinely care about any of them. Casey Affleck is supposed to be that guy, but he splits so much screen time with the rest of the cast that you never get the sense that he’s the lead.

On the whole, Triple 9 is a solid crime film due to Hillcoat’s skills and bolstered by a brilliant cast and strong performances all round. However, the boilerplate storyline — that does nothing to differentiate itself from other thrillers in the genre –severely limits how good the movie can be. It’s more of a good rental than a film you feel like you need to see at the cinema.

3 stars out of 5

The Invitation (2016)

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So this fellow movie buff friend of mine recommends me this new film called The Invitation, a low-budget horror/psychological thriller supposedly about a dinner party. I checked out the trailer — which was brilliantly put together — and still had no  idea what the film was about.

If you watched the above you might have gotten the sense I got — it’s eerie and tense and very unsettling overall. In other words, my kind of movie. Setting-wise, it reminded me of the excellent 2013 sci-fi flick Coherence, which was also about a dinner party that goes pear shaped.

Okay, so I don’t want to give away anything, but this is a film where it might help to understand the premise a little more so you don’t get confused. Essentially, it’s about a guy named Will (Logan Marshall-Green, who was in Prometheus) who gets invited to a dinner party by his ex-wife (Tammy Blanchard from Into the Woods, Moneyball and Blue Jasmine) and her new partner (Michiel Huisman from Game of Thrones) out of the blue, many years after their marriage was torn apart by a tragedy.

There are a bunch of old friends and strangers there, as dinner parties often do, but all throughout the evening Will can’t shake the feeling that something’s just off. We as the audience are led to believe that it could the hosts, the guests, or Will himself, or it could be just all in everyone’s heads.

The Invitation is a slow burn that gradually peels away the layers like an onion. The paranoia and tension are undeniable, fuelled by moments of strange behaviour, awkwardness and hints of sinister motivations. Director Karyn Kusama (best known for Girlfight and Jennifer’s Body) has a knack for creating a somewhat surreal and almost dreamlike atmosphere, where things appear normal but your intuition tells you something is wrong with the picture.

The performances also deserve a lot of credit for contributing to the unsettling atmosphere, with Logan-Marshall, Blanchard and Huisman all doing a solid job of keeping audiences interested. Well, at least it kept me interested enough to stick with it through the 99-minute running time, which felt a little long, to be honest.

Kudos for creating something out of very little, but for all its originality and creativity The Invitation is, in my opinion, overrated. A 91% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 78% on Metacritic suggest something more remarkable than what the film actually delivers. Yes, it is unnerving at times and makes you feel uncomfortable, though I felt the direction the film was heading in was quite easy to predict through some common-sense reasoning. And there’s no denying that the film is slow — really slow at times — and the only thing holding up our patience is the apparent promise of a twist or some kind of impending disaster.

So on the whole, The Invitation is a film worth checking out if this kind of slow-burning, claustrophobic experience is your cup of tea. But in my view, the inevitable payoff isn’t enough to justify the lengthy and repetitive lead-up. It’s still an interesting movie, though it left me hoping it could have been a lot more.

3.25 stars out of 5

Hush (2016)

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Hush is half a great home invasion/slasher thriller with a nice twist. The other half? Not so much.

Co-written and directed by Mike Flanagan, who previously found success with the better-than-expected Oculus back in 2013, Hush tells the story of Maddie (Katie Siegel, who co-wrote the script), a writer who lost her hearing and speech following a bout of illness in her youth. She’s published her first book and lives alone in a secluded area trying to finish off her second and to forget about a former boyfriend. One night, a mysterious masked assailant (John Gallagher Jr) appears at her house, intent on terrifying the poor young woman before killing her.

It’s a simple premise without much of a need for any explanation, but the deaf and mute protagonist certainly does add an interesting wrinkle to the well-trodden genre. Not being able to hear danger when it’s right behind you, and of course, not being able to scream, does create a sense of terror audiences aren’t as used to seeing. It makes us realise just how vulnerable we become when we can’t hear and can’t speak — something as simple as calling the police becomes a challenge, and you immediately become at a disadvantage to whoever is trying to hunt you down. I like how Flanagan would occasionally switch to Maddie’s point of view — well, kind of — so that the sound is heavily muted, providing a nice contrast to the hysteria of the fight for survival.

For at least the first half of the movie, probably even two-thirds, Hush is an effective thriller thanks to the premise and some skillful execution from Flanagan. Gallagher Jr is fantastic as the creepy antagonist, quite a revelation given that he plays completely different characters in the only two other things I’ve seen him in — The Newsroom (on TV) and more recently, 10 Cloverfield Lane.

Unfortunately, at some point in the second half of the film, the pace and tension begins to lag, and Flanagan begins resorting to my pet hate for such thrillers — relying on the stupidity of the characters to come up with ways to create more tension and prolong the running time (the film’s only 81 minutes, by the way). The thing is, Maddie actually seemed like quite an intelligent person up until that point, but then suddenly turns into a moron who gives up about a dozen chances to escape and kill the assailant, who also suddenly becomes dim-witted so as to match her. On top of that, the film begins to toss in a bunch of cheap tricks before limping to a predictable and nonsensical climax.

It’s a real shame, because you tend to remember movies like this for the bad taste it leaves in your mouth rather than all the good that came before it. By the time the credits started rolling, I had gone from really enjoying Hush to rather disliking it. Writing this review, however, as put things in a bit more perspective, and the positives of the movie have risen back to the surface. The film does start off well and has some nice moments and effective atmosphere, and because of that it still has more going for it than the majority of movies in the genre.

3 stars out of 5

10 Cloverfield Lane (2016)

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There are some movies that are remembered to be better than they really are. The 2008 Matt Reeves film, Cloverfield, is one such movie. The found-footage alien-monster horror flick has a solid reputation today, but in my opinion it is vastly overrated. The shaky-cam literally made scores of people vomit (and brought me perilously close to it), while the characters were annoying and the dialogue insipid. Yeah, it was an innovative idea for its time, had a cool marketing campaign with a memorable poster (the one with the Statue of Liberty missing its head) and a well-designed monster at the end, but we had to endure 80 minutes of filler before a brief glimpse of it at the very end.

Still, Cloverfield earned its reputation and became a recognisable brand, which is why, eight years later, we got 10 Cloverfied Lane, a little side project described as a “blood relative” and also produced by JJ Abrams. Like the film it got its name from, 10 Cloverfield Lane was made on a super low budget (US$15 million, compared to US$25 million for Cloverfield) and got a fantastic marketing campaign. No one even knew the film existed until the start of this year, and even after the trailer was released people still didn’t know what it was about or what to make of it. In other words, huge success, because the less you know about this movie the better.

I saw it after having managed to avoid all spoilers (I only saw the moronic super-spoiler international poster later) and was absolutely blown away by the film. Simply put, 10 Cloverfield Lane is the best movie I’ve seen on the big screen thus far in 2016. It’s clever, incredibly tense and full of twists and turns. It’s one of those films where you don’t really know where it is heading, which makes it an absolute rarity in today’s cinematic landscape.

The premise is simple. A young woman named Michelle (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) wakes up in a mysterious location after an accident. There are two other people there — a middle-aged man (John Goodman) and a young man (John Gallagher Jr — ie, Jim from The Newsroom). She’s being told there’s a reason why she’s there, but she doesn’t know if it’s true. She’s not sure what to believe and who to trust. And it’s all a matter of life and death.

I feel like I’ve already revealed too much, but all of this is in the trailer. As I said, the less the better. The screenplay by Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken and Damien Chazelle is something every wannabe screenwriter ought to aspire to. It’s (relatively) cheap to make, it has only a handful of characters, and most of the story takes place in one place. And yet, it is one of the most suspenseful movies I’ve seen in a while. There is so much tension in the dialogue, the actions of the characters, and even the silences; the growing sense of dread, the paranoia, the claustrophobia from the confined spaces. And it’s not like the film is dead serious all the time — there are lighter moments that bring some welcome relief and remind you to breathe. All of it is crafted so well, with a kick-ass musical score to boot, and executed to near-perfection by director Dan Trachtenberg in his feature debut.

I love how, like Michelle, you don’t know who or what to believe, and that what you believe could keep changing, sometimes in an instant. I had my suspicions throughout the film, but I could never be sure and kept second-guessing myself. I knew the title of the film would lead to certain insinuations, though at the same time I wondered if it was merely a red herring. And after being gripped by the story for more than an hour, the climatic payoff was, at least in my opinion, worth the wait. It might not be what some people are hoping for, but I enjoyed how bold it was and how certain it was of its vision.

The performances are outstanding — all three of the leads shape their characters the way they need to be. John Goodman, in particular, is ridiculous, and I’m sure some nominations (for whatever awards) are going to be coming his way. I’ve been watching him in movies for decades and I never knew he could be this good in a non-comedy role.

Of course, this is still a small film for which expectations need to be kept in check. You’re not going to be getting loads of action or special effects, and to make the story work there are certain contrivances and deliberate tactics that might not be entirely realistic. Having said that, 10 Cloverfield Lane is still intelligent, thrilling, horrifying and fun — it’s the type of film cinemagoers should relish because they don’t come around very often. In a year where we’re getting more than half a dozen big superhero movies, several major epics/blockbusters and another Star Wars film, it’s great to be able to see a little gem like this come out of nowhere and remind us that great movies can come in all shapes and sizes.

5 stars out of 5

Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

secret in their eyes

Hollywood remakes seldom live up to the originals, especially if the original as an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. That’s unfortunately also the case for Secret in Their Eyes, a remake of the 2009 Argentine film El secreto de sus ojos (review here) that took home the gong in 2010, even though the Hollywood version features heavyweights such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, as well as Alfred Molina and familiar TV faces such as Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) and Michael Kelly (House of Cards).

I remember hearing about the remake years ago and was surprised that it took them this long to finally release it. Most of the elements of the original are there, but the setting is of course changed to the United States and the time period updated to the post-911 world. The story is essentially the same in that it revolves around a tragic incident that forever changes the lives of three people in different ways. Thirteen years later, the ghost of the past resurfaces, and the narrative switches back and forth between the two periods as we gradually piece together the shocking mystery.

Like the original, Secret in Their Eyes is a slow burn of a film with some intense moments, brutal violence and heavy drama. It is a tribute to the Argentine film that when I watched the remake I was able to recall the exact same scenes I saw more than five years ago. The execution by writer and director Billy Ray (best known for directing Shattered Glass and penning the scripts for The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips) is solid, though for some reason the film never managed to fully grip me like the original. Part of it is that it was sometimes difficult to tell which time period we were in (they all aged well), and another part is that the atmosphere wasn’t as well-crafted. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the original I would have thought differently, but now I’ll never know,

The performances from the two Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee are, needless to say, splendid. Ejiofor, who plays an obsessive FBI agent in the counter-terrorism unit, carries the film pretty much from start to finish with his usual intensity and emotion, while Nicole Kidman, a district attorney, fulfills her role with grace and underlying fierceness. That said, the chemistry between the two could have been stronger, making the relationship less involving than it otherwise should have been. Julia Roberts is the standout of the trio. It’s an extremely difficult role to portray, but she does it without underselling or overcooking her performance.

I’m somewhat surprised by the film’s low 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and score of 45 on Metacritic. It’s perhaps a little disappointing given how remarkable the original film was and the incredible cast, but in my mind it’s certainly a much better movie than the reviews suggest. My wife, who has not seen the original, didn’t think it was great but thought it was quite a compelling and gut-wrenching story, and I can’t disagree with her assessment. Flaws notwithstanding, this is a very solid film that probably should have been more, though certainly not a failure by any means.

3.5 stars out of 5