Tag Archives: 2012

Movie Review: Red Dawn (2012)

Red-dawn-Poster

Given the recent tensions in the Korean Peninsula, I thought it would be apt to review Red Dawn, a strong candidate for the worst movie of 2012.

A friend told me the other day that I needed to be more definitive in my movie reviews and tell readers to avoid certain movies at all cost. I don’t think I can ever do that because I truly want to believe that every movie has its merits, but I suppose Red Dawn is about as close as it gets to an unwatchable movie.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Red Dawn was supposed to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. A remake of the successful 1984 film of the same name about a hypothetical Chinese invasion of the United States (changed to North Korea during post-production for the remake — I guess they just dubbed the voices? They probably think all Asians look the same anyway). An all-star cast led by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Peeta from The Hunger Games (Josh Hutcherson), Aussie bombshell Isabel Lucas and Josh Peck (who starred in that other piece of shit from 2011, ATM — review here). How could things go so wrong?

Honestly, I don’t know. I just know Red Dawn was completely devoid of excitement, drama, tension and most of all, common sense. I scratched my head so many times that my scalp bled for a week.

Hemsworth is a US marine who returns home to visit his father, the town sheriff, and his brother (Peck), a high school football star. Boom, the North Koreans invade, and somehow Hemsworth and a bunch of school kids evade capture and take cover in the woods. Instead of crapping their pants and organizing drunken orgies, the kids decide to become super soldiers and fight back. Go America! F*&% yeah!

Perhaps this concept — kids becoming effective soldiers in an unexpected attack — could have worked 30 years ago. Heck, it kinda worked in 2010, when Aussie filmmakers pulled off Tomorrow, When the War Began (review here), based on the classic novel by John Marsden. But here, thanks to a clumsy script, uninspired direction and cliched plot points, Red Dawn felt like a B-grade affair made by a bunch of people who have lost all touch with reality. Top that off with cheesy dialogue, a predictable storyline, no surprises whatsoever, shitty performances and poor special effects, and what we have on our hands is a royal mess.

Forget how ludicrous the idea of North Korea invading the US, on its own, sounds for the moment. Even if we can accept the premise for a couple of hours, there are still just too many gaps in logic. Why did the North Koreans choose their pointless suburban city? Did they have a presence in all cities? Why did they let the kids run off without pursuing them in the first place? Why is the North Korean army capable of taking over the United States, seemingly with ease, but incapable of standing up to a few kids who have no idea what they are doing? Why can’t trained professional soldiers beat a few kids who just practiced shooting a few bottles in the woods for a week? Why do they keep allowing the kids to sneak into the city to carry out guerrilla attacks and then let them sneak out again? Why do they keep letting the kids get on rooftops (ie, trap themselves), and then let them get away? What the heck were the North Koreans doing in that city again?

So many questions, so little answers.

Hemsworth and Hutcherson exhibit barely passable acting skills, but you could tell from their faces that they knew they were starring in something that was going to be panned for eternity. Peck, on the other hand, was unbearable — a whiny, self-absorbed, greasy-haired douche who discovers the world is not all about him and decides to suddenly grow up and turn into a world-saving hero. None of the other characters were memorable, except for maybe the Chinese, sorry, North Korean army chief (Will Yun Lee), and that was because he played the lead character in the awesome PS3 game Sleeping Dogs!

I’m ashamed to say that I initially thought Red Dawn would be good and was excited to see it. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an absurd joke (complete with unintentional laugh-out-loud moments) and a complete waste of 93 minutes of my life. There were times when I wanted to stop the torture but I persisted until the brutal final shot, which was, of course, the American flag.

0.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Zero Dark Thirty (2012)

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This was the film everybody knew was coming when US President Barack Obama announced that Osama Bin Laden had been killed in a raid in Pakistan in the early hours of May 2, 2011. I remember thinking at the time that the film was most probably going to be another “Team America!” (f*%k yeah!) style-film like Act of Valor (which I am yet to review) and that it was most likely going to suck balls.

But then I heard that the film was going to be directed by Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow, who gave us Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, and more importantly, she had already been planning a film about the hunt for Bin Laden for years and done stacks of background research that could be imported over to this new project.

The result, Zero Dark Thirty, is a tense, meticulously crafted, superbly acted and unsensationalized account of the 10-year hunt for in Laden since 9/11. While I don’t agree with a lot of American critics who are calling it the best film of the year — I actually think it’s an inferior film to The Hurt Locker — I was still fascinated and riveted by this film from start to finish. The final extended raid sequence, which is like another film in itself, felt so authentic that I almost thought I was watching a documentary with actual footage of the assault on Bin Laden’s compound.

This speaks volumes about Bigelow’s ability as a director. We know how the story begins and how it ends, but somehow she still manages to create tension and drama with everything in between. The story focuses on Maya, a young federal agent played by Jessica Chastain (who picked up the Golden Globe and is a favourite for the Oscars) whose job description consists of only one thing: find Bin Laden. We follow Maya for a decade as she endures numerous close calls and goes from green rookie to seasoned veteran, from a novice interrogator (aka torturer) to one of the most instrumental contributors in locating Bin Laden and ultimately convincing the White House to carry out the raid.

Chastain, with her obsessive work ethic and feistiness, is the heart and soul of the film and rightfully deserves the Oscar nomination. A couple of Aussies, Jason Clarke and Joel Edgerton (both of whom will be seen next in The Great Gatsby) also shine in pivotal roles. The most recognizable members of the cast, Mark Strong, Kyle Chandler and James Gandolfini, are also stellar and surprisingly non-distracting.

Some say Zero Dark Thirty is a controversial film because of its supposedly pro-torture stance. Yes, it shows torture and the torture being effective in getting terror suspects to talk, but I don’t think that is necessarily saying torture is a good thing. The fact is, the US government did torture terror suspects (though the extent is disputed by officials), and it probably worked. But it’s not just that — I think Bigelow was trying to show the audience the price America had to pay to get their man, and questions us whether it was worth it. In that sense it’s arguable that Zero Dark Thirty is in fact an anti-torture movie. But to be honest I don’t really care. It’s just a movie.

There are parts of the 160-minute film that some viewers will find a little slow. I’ve been addicted to Homeland lately so all that espionage talk and the insights into the politics of politics was right up my alley, though I admit there was, naturally, a sense of inevitability to the whole thing. This is why I still think The Hurt Locker is a better film, but there is no doubt that Zero Dark Thirty will go down in history as the far more memorable one.

4 stars out of 5

PS: The trailer to the sequel below.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bfD6-5Qf-cc

Movie Review: Pitch Perfect (2012)

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Pitch Perfect by Hubert Widjaya — watercolor and pen on Canson paper.

Note: Huge shoutout to Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya for providing the wonderful artwork for this post. See below for a casual chat we had about the film following my review.

I’m not ordinarily a fan of musicals, especially ones that look like they are riding the wave of a popular trend to make a quick buck at the box office. But as it turned out, Pitch Perfect was one of the my biggest surprises of 2012, and I must admit that I was completely wrong to prejudge the film as simply a two-hour episode of Glee.

So what made Pitch Perfect so good? It had a formulaic premise — a new girl, played by Anna Kendrick (Twilight, Up in the Air, 50/50, End of Watch — she’s obviously killing it right now) joins an all-girl a cappella group full of misfits and leads them against a rival campy all-boy group in a battle to capture the national title. It was also a little hit and miss at times, as most comedies involving teens and college students can be.

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Original film poster

But Pitch Perfect was funny — very funny, and unexpectedly so. Full credit to director Jason Moore (former TV director) and screenwriter Kay Cannon (who worked on 30 Rock — that explains a lot) for making the humour dry, quirky and satirical, without overstepping the mark (for the most part).

Massive kudos to Aussie Rebel Wilson, who appears to be conquering Hollywood with one scene-stealing role after another. Here she plays Fat Amy, easily the standout character of the whole group and the provider of the best laughs. The rest of the cast, which includes Skylar Astin (Spring Awakening), Anna Camp (The Help) and Brittany Snow (Hairspray), as well as the always welcome Elizabeth Banks and John Michael Higgins, were also all very good.

Oh yes, and the singing. I was pleasantly surprised by how excellent it was, especially considering much of the main cast, as far as I know, aren’t known for their vocal cords. I’ve only ever heard bits and pieces of Glee but it was easily just as good as any of the singing in that.

Singing is, of course, just half of the equation. What made Pitch Perfect a real treat for me was the classic songs covered by the singers. If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, you’ll find yourself nodding along to the Bangles, Ace of Base and the theme from The Breakfast Club, among others, many of which are given fresh interpretations or mixed with more recent hits to form catchy medleys.

While you’re likely to forget about Pitch Perfect in a couple of years, you’re also likely to have a great time while watching it. I certainly did.

Conversation with HW:

PJM: Are you a fan of Glee? Chances are, Pitch Perfect is  an attempt to cash in on the success of Glee, which I thought would have been a recipe for disaster, but I think they pulled it off. What did you think?

HW: Haven’t seen Glee. Judging by the ads Glee looks like its aimed at a girly/female audience, whereas Pitch Perfect had a streetwise chick vibe — which is why I saw it. It solidly lived up to expectation. Great one liners and natural performances.

PJM: Who were the standouts for you?

HW: I have only seen Rebel Wilson in this, but can see why she’s popular. She has a sweet but dirty vibe, and isn’t forcing her charisma, which she does apparently in Bridesmaids. Anna Kendrick though is a standout; she brings the heart, and sweet emotional center to what could have been a low-brow teen flick. In fact, it loses a star for two ill-judged vomit scenes. Like they were trying to appeal to teen boy market.

PJM: I never expected Anna Kendrick to have such a great set of pipes.

HW: You’ve raised a good point. Do you know if they all sing for real or if it’s dubbed?

PJM: I understand it’s all real voices but recorded in the studio. It’s not live like in Les Miserables.

HW: Right.

PJM: How does this film compare to other musicals you’ve seen in recent years, if any?

HW: Only really seen Chicago I think at the cinema, but that was brilliant too. Pitch Perfect was almost like two forms of entertainment for the price of one. A movie and entertaining songs within. Where does it lose marks for you?

PJM: It’s not really losing marks as opposed to not gaining marks. Some of the jokes were a little hit and miss and enjoyment depends on your musical tastes. It’s a good film for people who grew up on the classic songs they sing but have not given up on more modern hits. So what would you give it out of five?

HW: A solid, sing songy 4 stars.

PJM: Me too. 4 stars out of 5.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F03N-ApQdmw

Movie Review: Alex Cross (2012)

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It’s probably best if you don’t remember the old Alex Cross played by Morgan Freeman from Kiss the Girls and Along Came a Spider. This new Alex Cross from the franchise “reboot” (of sorts) is not a charismatic, middle-aged man with a magnetic, made-for-narration voice. This new Alex Cross is played by a hulking, 6’5″ dude best known for performing in drag.

I can only imagine how Alex Cross, vaguely based on the 12th novel of the series, Cross, by James Patterson, would have turned out had the producers been able to secure their first choice, Idris Elba from The Wire. It wouldn’t have made up for the atrocious script and the deficiencies in the direction, but at least our protagonist would have the edge that Tyler Perry sorely lacks. Perry is clearly very good at what he does (his fortune from the Madea movies, where he plays a thuggish elderly woman, speaks for itself), but this role just felt uncomfortable for him.

Let me backtrack a little. Alex Cross is a psychologist and police lieutenant in Detroit who accepts a job as an FBI profiler. In Alex Cross, he and his partner (Ed Burns) begin a dangerous cat and mouse game with a psychotic killer known as Picasso, played by Matthew Fox from Lost, who enjoys drugging and torturing his victims. That’s basically it. Picasso does a lot of crazy stuff and acts all crazy and Alex Cross and his partner try to track him down and bring him to justice.

The biggest problem with this movie is the script, which I am told has very little to do with the original story. Alex Cross is supposed to be some super clever detective, but in this film all he does is get angry, jerked around and continuously outsmarted by the villain. What’s the point of this movie if all our detective uses is his massive muscles and not his brain?

My second issue is with the direction of Rob Cohen, who really shouldn’t be that bad because he’s the director of The Fast and the Furious, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story and Stealth, none of which are nearly as horrible as this effort. But instead, the film comes across like a B-grade, straight-to-DVD affair that reeks of laziness. The movie flatlines all the way through without any genuine thrills or excitement. Even the special effects are weak. And what the heck is the deal with those amateurish slow-mo effects during the fight scenes?

This brings me to Tyler Perry, who, to be fair, wasn’t given much to work with but still underperformed as the titular character. I didn’t feel his intelligence or his emotion, even at a pivotal moment when tragedy struck. Still, he was better than Ed Burns and his annoying voice.

Matthew Fox apparently underwent some serious workouts and diets to totally transform his body for this role, and it looks like it was a waste of time. His villain looks menacing enough but isn’t given much substance. He’s undoubtedly crazy, but just not very interesting. Hannibal Lecter he certainly isn’t.

Not much else to say except to confirm that Alex Cross was indeed a huge disappointment. A sequel with Perry reprising the role was announced before this one was even released, but I wonder whether the plans will change with the film being bombarded by poor reviews and a subpar box office performance.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (2D)

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The Lord of the Rings is the holy grail of epic fantasy, both in print and on the big screen. When I heard Peter Jackson (originally Guillermo del Toro) was bringing us The Hobbit as a prequel, I was naturally excited. I grew less excited when I heard it was being made into two films, and even less excited again when I heard it was being stretched into a trilogy.

With the exception of greed, the decision didn’t make much sense. The Hobbit is a tiny book compared to any one of the three volumes of Rings, and yet they were going to make three movies out of it? Despite assurances that they were going to expand Middle Earth and add in a bunch of details from Tolkien’s other writings and appendices and so forth, it didn’t strike me as a recipe for success.

As it turned out, the first film of the new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey justified both my excitement and my scepticism. On the one hand, the film did bring back some of the best memories from Rings and reminded me why it will likely never be topped as the best fantasy franchise of all time. On the other, at a whopping 2 hours and 49 minutes, it was unnecessarily bloated, occasionally tedious and sometimes, dare I saw, even boring.

Jackson replacing del Toro meant that we were likely to get a continuation of the Middle Earth established in Rings as opposed to a fresh interpretation of Tolkien’s universe. This was the correct assumption, as An Unexpected Journey looked and felt exactly like the world we were still immersed in when Return of the King departed our cinema screens nearly a decade ago.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Hobbit centers around a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman — the old one was played by Ian Holm in Rings, who also has a cameo to kick things off here), who travels with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) to recapture a treasure-filled dwarf kingdom guarded by the dragon Smaug. It happens years before Frodo’s adventures and first introduces us to the powerful ring that would become the centerpiece of the books.

Apart from a whole host of familiar faces (I won’t spoil who they all are for those who like surprises), An Unexpected Journey is full of nostalgia. You can tell Jackson is trying very hard to recapture the magic of Rings, and as a result there’s also a strong sense of deja vu. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the plot progression feels eerily similar (if you want an explanation with minor spoilers see below after the rating).

But The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings and it shouldn’t have tried to be. For starters, the difference in length means An Unexpected Journey should never have been 2 hours and 49 minutes, which might have been perfect for fanboys who spray their shorts over the extended DVD cuts but not for casual fans and regular audiences.

In fact, the whole film felt like an extended DVD cut. I think the running time would have been OK if there were only two films rather than three, but there’s no reason why An Unexpected Journey had to be nearly three hours long, especially not when it traverses so little of a story that takes up only 275 pages in a paperback.

The result is a really long and uneventful introduction and significant chunks where uninteresting conversation dominates the action. It’s not that the first couple of hours of An Unexpected Journey is bad — it’s just not that good when compared to the high standards set by Rings.

That said, the final hour of the movie is brilliant and as exciting as the Mines of Moria from Fellowship of the Ring, the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers and the siege at Minas Tirith from The Return of the King. I don’t want to reveal too much except to say I wished the rest of the movie was just like it.

Martin Freeman, whom Jackson said was the only choice all along, is pretty good as the young Bilbo, while Ian McKellen doesn’t miss a step as a slightly younger and seemingly less mature Gandalf. Richard Armitage is solid as dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield, but he’s no Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, though to be fair no one could have been that freaking awesome. The rest of the dwarves are generally quite forgettable, and I still haven’t figured out why only two or three of them look fairly normal while the rest are plastered with prosthesis and look like absolute freaks.

The special effects are of course seamless, though without having seen the original trilogy again I don’t think they are too different to the effects from 10 years ago. A change this time is the decision to create all the orcs and goblins using CGI as opposed to real actors with makeup, but they are all done so well that the difference is negligible.

I was one of those people that made a conscious choice to watch the film in 2D and at 24 frames per second, as opposed to the 3D at 48 frames per second that was on offer. I’m well and truly over 3D now, and I was not curious about 48 frames at all after hearing all the negative comments, from the nausea to how everything look too fast and real and how the props looked fake because of it. Besides, if you really want The Hobbit to be a continuation of The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t you want to experience it the same way?

On the whole, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a mixed bag. It contains flashes of brilliance and a final hour that rivals the best of The Lord of the Rings, but at the same time there’s also too much unnecessary fluff at the beginning to prevent it from ultimately living up to the hype. As the first entry to a new trilogy, however, I think it holds promise and should hopefully open the door to two sensational sequels.

3.75 stars out of 5

(Minor spoilers) PS: The Hobbit follows the trajectory of The Fellowship of the Ring very closely. It starts off in the Shire as a gentle but reluctant hobbit is dragged onto an adventure after a visit from Gandalf. He is pursued by dangerous enemies throughout his journey, runs into trolls and goes through an underground mine before finishing up in the woods with an epic battle. It’s exactly the same!

Movie Review: Looper (2012)

I love time travel films, and one of my favourites of all-time also had Bruce Willis in it (Twelve Monkeys, of course). Given that I have also recently developed a man-crush on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Looper appeared to be a tailor-made film for me.

The movie is set in the year 2044 and the future of that future is 2074, a time when time travel has finally been invented (I still have a chance to live to that day, so fingers crossed that this is based on a true story). Unfortunately, time travel is outlawed then but is still being used by criminal organizations, which need a “looper” to help them in the past when they transport things back over from the future. Gordon-Levitt is a young looper. Bruce Willis is him in 30 years. I can’t say why, but they don’t like each other.

It may sound complicated but I actually found Looper to be a really straightforward time-travel movie. The mechanics and laws of time travel in the film’s universe are sufficiently described in the beginning and there’s not much to be confused about, which is why I was really confused by all these reviewers saying that the film was confusing. Some even compared it to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which I found strange because they are nothing alike apart from the fact that both star Gordon-Levitt.

Looper is an unusual and unusually clever time-travel film in the sense that it’s more of a character movie about how people deal with the effects of time travel rather than the time travel itself. From that perspective it means less trying to figure out what’s going on/pointing out gaps in logic and more just enjoying the movie for its action and freaky futuristic stuff.

It’s always hard to review a movie like this without slipping in unnecessary spoilers, so all I will say is that it also stars Emily Blunt and is in part related to genetic mutations which occur naturally in the human body at some point in the future (I am begging for this to be based on a true story).

Some people have criticized the decision to use prosthetics and make-up on Gordon-Levitt to make him look like a young Bruce Willis. I thought it was awesome. I have to admit, the thin-framed Gordon Levitt is one of the last actors I would have pictured playing John “Yippee-ki-yay” McClane, but the prosthetics made me believe he could have eventually grown to look like him. He still looks like Gordon-Levitt but it also reminds you a little of Bruce Willis – I don’t get what the big deal is.

Despite my praises, I think there is something missing from Looper that prevents it from being a time-travel classic like Twelve Monkeys, Back to the Future, Terminator 2, and so forth. The film has a great premise, interesting characters, solid action and enough twists and turns to make it a highly enjoyable experience, but perhaps it lacked the grand vision and scale that would have pushed it to that next level.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Cold War (2012)

I am cynical when it comes to Hong Kong and Taiwanese films because they rarely live up to expectations, but word of mouth got me interested in Cold War, a big-budget effort that has been promoted as “the best Hong Kong movie in the last 10 years.”

I was warned before watching Cold War that while I cannot compare it to first class Hollywood productions, it’s pretty good “for a Hong Kong movie.” That’s pretty much my assessment of the movie too.

The title of the movie refers to the code name given to a police operation after a busy shopping district explodes and a van carrying five officers and weapons suddenly goes missing. One of the officers happens to be the son of the deputy commissioner of police (Tony Leung), currently filling in as acting commissioner.

The incident escalates tensions in an already tense Hong Kong police department, which has been eager to promote the region as the “safest city in Asia.” There are internal power plays between Leung’s character, who is in charge of the “operations” side of things, and the character played by Aaron Kwok, the deputy commissioner on the “management” side of the department. Both men apparently want to solve the case, but at the same time they are jostling for the head job as the commissioner is set to retire.

There’s more to the story than that, which makes the film sound more complicated than it really is. I have a feeling it’s intentional. The truth is, Cold War has a rather standard plot that takes a few pages out of another crafty and highly successful Hong Kong film franchise, Infernal Affairs (remade into the Oscar-winning The Departed).

The strengths of the film lie in the interesting power play between the two leads and the twists and turns in the evolving plot, although I can’t say they weren’t predictable. The action sequences are well-done and realistic, although some of the special effects could have been a lot more polished.

Directors/co-writers Sunny Luk and Longman Leung have a certain visual style that borrows from Hollywood but retains a Hong Kong flavor, which is nice, but they do have a tendency to over-sensationalize things. We are regularly made to feel or expect that a certain scene, incident or character is supposed to have a particular significance, only to find out later that it meant nothing, or that the character was only minor and would never be seen again for the rest of the movie.

One of the introductory scenes exemplifies this perfectly. We see a half-naked girl in her underwear walking to a fridge to get a drink (with a particular focus on her swinging backside) when armed police bust in and forces what looks like a cup of faeces into her sleeping boyfriend’s mouth. It’s a provocative scene that raises a lot of questions, but it turns out that the guy was actually just a police IT expert who forgot to answer his phone (making what just happened seem extremely over the top). We don’t get to see the girl again, and the guy disappears after a couple of scenes later, making me wonder what the point of the whole thing was other than to make a big deal out of nothing.

This happens a lot, albeit mostly at the beginning. A lot of characters are given solid introductions (I presume because they are all considered “stars” in the industry), but apart from the two leads, we don’t get any development or insight into any of them. They come and go, in what are essentially cameo roles, but it feel as though they had their roles cut substantially in the editing room. I’d like to think the directors were trying to throw audiences off intentionally but I think that would be giving them too much credit.

The performances of Kwok and Leung are very strong, and carry the film a long way. The most important supporting character, an anti-corruption officer played by Cantopop singer Aarif Rahman, is passable, though his voice is really irritating, while the lead female role given to Charlie Yeung was botched because Yeung can’t act (and you don’t have to understand Cantonese to see that).

So I highly doubt Cold War is the best Hong Kong movie of the last decade as it boldly proclaims, but despite the flaws and rough edges it does have some commendable qualities, with occasional moments of tension, excitement and intrigue. The ending suggests that there will be at least one sequel to come, and while I might eventually watch it I think it will most probably be on DVD.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Sinister (2012)

It’s rare to see an original horror movie these days and even more unusual to see one starring Ethan Hawke (I think Daybreakers is his only other one), so I made sure I caught Sinister, a movie about a writer who becomes entangled in a bizarre murder-mystery with a possible occult slant.

Without giving away too much, Hawke plays Ellison Oswalt, a true crime writer whose last hit was more than a decade old and is desperately trying to land a homerun to revive his career. He becomes attracted to a chilling case about a missing girl and the hanging of her family from a tree that was caught on film, and relocates to the town where the tragedy occurred — with his wife (English stage actress Juliet Rylance) and two young children — so he can begin work on his ultimate masterpiece.

Despite its unimaginative title, Sinister is actually quite a creative horror film that worked really well for its first half. And unlike most horror films that dissolve into silliness towards the end, Sinister fails in its second half not because of the story but because of stylistic choices by director Scott Derrickson (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), who also co-wrote the script.

The film excelled in the beginning because it relied almost solely on its creepy, unsettling atmosphere. The audience is drawn in by this eerie unsolved mystery and what are essentially ghoulish snuff films that are undeniably alarming yet captivating. The scenes with Hawke sitting alone in a dark room watching chilling 8mm home videos can make me shrivel up every time (interpret that as you wish).

So for the first hour or so of the film I was kept at the edge of my seat and I had no idea where the story was heading and whether it even had anything to do with the supernatural. For all I knew it was just a really strange case where lots of unexplained stuff was happening.

At some point, however, the film takes a wrong turn down an alley we’ve all seen too many times with modern horror films. Instead of watching the horror unfold through Ellison’s eyes we begin to watch it unfold around him – in that we get to see things he doesn’t – and this actually removes us from the closeness and proximity to the fear and confusion he’s feeling.

The scares also become more predictable and clichéd. Atmosphere takes a back seat to “boo” moments with grotesque images jumping out in front of the camera purely for cheap thrills. Granted, some of them are effective, especially with the blaring sound effects and music, but it brings Sinister closer to your average horror flick than distinguishes it, which is a real shame.

Fortunately, the film doesn’t fall apart completely. There are still enough twists and turns to keep audiences interested, and Hawke’s solid performance as Ellison, as well as Ryance’s as his very reasonable wife, keep the film afloat through some of its rockier moments. As always with such movies, there are some plot issues that are best ignored (such as how everyone in the house apart from Ellison can sleep through all that noise), but all things considered Sinister is still one of the better horror flicks of 2012.

3.75 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Compliance (2012)

This movie has moved up my review list because I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

Compliance is the kind of movie that’s so crazy and so against all common sense that you have to keep reminding yourself that it’s based on a true story. It is inspired by the infamous strip search prank calls that swept across the United States a few years ago, and more specifically, by the Mount Washington case in 2004 where things went further than anyone could have ever imagined.

The film takes place in a fictional fast food franchise called ChickWich (the real life one was a McDonald’s), which is run by a middle-aged store manager called Sandra. On this day she receives a call from a man identifying himself as police officer Daniels, who claims a girl whose description matches a store employee stole money from a customer. What happens from there is both bizarre and ridiculous, as the call escalates from one improbable incident to the next.

Compliance premiered at the 2012 Sundance Festival and was met with mixed reactions and a number of walkouts. Some thought it was a masterpiece, a fascinating study of human obedience and submission to authority that works and feels like a horror movie. Others thought it was stupid, exploitative and simply too implausible to swallow.

While I didn’t quite think it was a masterpiece, I was captivated by this film from start to finish. Part of it was because I knew of the background and that it was very closely based on the true story. So every time I saw something that stretched my boundaries of incredulity I just told myself — this really happened. If I didn’t know that I probably would have felt the same way as those who walked out.

Part of the reason the film felt believable was because of the performance of Ann Dowd, who plays the manipulated Sandra. She came across as a typical unintelligent, gullible store manager, and the way she reacted to the caller, including to his praise and in her desire to please him, just seemed so real to me.

Less convincing was Dreama Walker (pretty sure I’ve seen her on Gossip Girl), who plays the teenager worked caught up in the mess. I’m not sure if it was her performance or the script (by writer and director Craig Zobel), but she didn’t seem naive or stupid enough to do some of the things she was told to do towards the very end. I haven’t seen the surveillance footage of the real life incident, but there appears to be a sizable gap between some of the tamer and more extreme things the psycho caller gets her to do.

My verdict on Compliance is that it’s definitely a worthwhile film to catch if you get the chance. It’s a surreal, provocative, frustrating and often bewildering 90-minute experience that will likely remain locked in your memory long after the credits finish rolling.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Argo (2012)

Argo, Ben Affleck’s latest film, proves two things. One, he is still a mediocre actor. And two, he is developing into one heck of a director.

Following on from one of my favourite films from 2010, The Town, Affleck returns to the director’s chair for Argo, a film about the 1979 Iran hostage crisis where 52 Americans at the US Embassy in Tehran were held hostage by Islamist students and militants.

The movie itself centers on a fascinating but lesser-known aspect of a side story to the crisis in which US involvement was not declassified until 1997. Affleck plays Tony Mendez, a CIA operative tasked with finding a way to bring back six Americans who escaped the embassy at the start of the crisis and took refuge at the home of the Canadian ambassador (Victor Garber). At a time where the six Americans would likely be tortured and killed if discovered, Mendez concocted a plan that would have been unbelievable had it not been true: producing a fake sci-fi movie.

The timing was perfect, given Star Wars had taken off and Hollywood producers were scrambling to make rip-offs. But of course, if it were so easy to get them out the film would not be two hours long.

Argo doesn’t have much of that stuff you see in action films these days, but it’s still incredibly tense and exciting all the way through. The background and context to the crisis is swiftly and effectively dealt with at the beginning, and the initial scenes of the civil unrest expertly generate a genuine sense of terror and panic that lingers on for the rest of the film.

It could have been very easy for this film to become dull and stagnant, but Affleck sustains the tension through a series of well-crafted incidents and conversations, ensuring viewers never lost track of what was at stake and the imminent danger the Americans were in at all times. Needless to say, things were probably never that tense in real life, but that’s why this is a movie.

Credit has to go to Affleck for his brilliantly authentic recreation of 1979 Tehran, which as the end credits showed paid painstaking attention to detail. Everything from the architecture, the clothing and the hairstyles brought me back to those times, and I wasn’t even born then!

The performances from the all-star cast were solid. The ever-present Bryan Cranston (sorry, Heisenberg) was subtle as Jack O’Donnell, Mendez’s supervisor, and yet electrifying when he needed to be. Breaking Bad has already proven Cranston to be one of the greatest TV actors of all-time, and I hear maybe Argo has given him some Oscar buzz. John Goodman, who plays Hollywood make-up artist John Chambers, and Alan Arkin, who plays  director Lester Siegel, provide some of the more lighthearted moments and are both excellent.

As for the six US diplomats, the only actors I recognised were Tate Donovan (best known for being engaged to Jennifer Aniston and Sandra Bullock) and Clea DuVall (whom I will always associate with The Faculty), but all of them were very good.

As it turned out, the weakest link was probably Affleck himself as Mendez. Apart from the lack of a physical resemblance (everyone else was pretty spot on), Affleck played Mendez with his usual “blank” face and unlayered line delivery. Perhaps I’m being a little harsh and perhaps the muted performance was intentional, but to be honest I never really felt as much for his character as I probably should have.

Overall, Argo is unquestionably compelling cinema and solidifies Affleck’s reputation as a director who knows how to craft impeccable dramas filled with thrills and style. I can’t wait to see what he comes up with next.

4 stars out of 5