Tag Archives: 2013

Movie Review: Lovelace (2013)

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There are a lot of ways the filmmakers could have gone about making Lovelace, a biopic about one of the most well-known porn stars in history who spent a grand total of 17 days in the industry. Directors Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman ended up going for a pretty straight-up story about a young, naive woman who was abused and manipulated to star in what turned out to be the most famous porno of all-time. While the film was interesting because of its subject matter and strong performances from Amanda Seyfried (the titular character) and Peter Sarsgaard (abusive husband Chuck Traynor), it’s hard for me to decide whether it was really any better than an above-average TV movie.

The film begins in 1970, when a 21-year-old Linda goes ice skating with her more precocious friend and gets picked up by the charismatic Traynor. The two quickly fall into a relationship despite Linda’s strict parents and get married, and that’s when things start to take a turn for the worse. The core of the straightforward narrative is about how Linda comes to star in Deep Throat and temporarily rises to stardom due to the film’s unexpected success, but never really gets to enjoy the fruits of that success due to the film’s producers and her husband’s controlling and abusive nature.

In many ways, Lovelace feels like a fairly standard battered wife film, though to the directors’ and Seyfriend’s credit you do kind of understand why things turned out the way they did. How does someone star in a porno against their will and appear to be relatively happy about it when they are in fact miserable and depressed? To be honest I still don’t know, but  Lovelace does a good job of helping viewers understand how she fell into her predicament through her naive disposition and orthodox upbringing in the that era.

I’m not sure how accurate the film is, but Lovelace is portrayed sympathetically as a tragic young woman who was led down the wrong path and had to learn her lessons the hard way before restoring some sort of normality to her life, though it is clear that the scars she endured from the Deep Throat experience will never fade completely. On the other hand, this type of handling of the narrative makes the story feel a little oversimplified. As harrowing as it was for Lovelace, was she really completely blameless for what happened to her and was her husband the root of all evil? The film certainly makes it feel that way.

Seyfried is excellent as Linda Lovelace, even though I thought she was a strange casting choice considering that she is far too pretty for the role even with the attempt to “ugly” her up. Sarsgaard has always been an underrated actor in my opinion, and it was good to see him relish the opportunity to play a sleazy bad guy, albeit a very one-dimensional one. I was also shocked to see Sharon Stone, who knows a thing or two about spreading her legs herself, play Seyfried’s mother. There’s no kind way to say this, but Ms Basic Instinct is really starting to show her age. But she still put up a solid performance that had more layers than her screen time afforded. Playing her husband and Seyfried’s dad is T-1000, Robert Patrick, who has run up a few miles on his odometer as well and doesn’t stand out much here. Rounding out the all-star cast are James Franco as Hugh Hefner, and Hank Azaria and Chris Noth as Deep Throat execs.

On the whole, I’d say Lovelace is a well-made,  well-acted and tastefully-crafted film (considering the subject matter) that avoids feeling exploitative or sensationalised, but there isn’t anything about it in particular that elevates it above your average biopic. I just feel there was more emotional complexity to be explored but the conventional approach ended up hamstringing the production and prevented it from being something edgier and more memorable.

3 stars out of 5

PS: I have not seen Deep Throat but am interested in checking out the acclaimed 2005 documentary on the film called Inside Deep Throat.

Movie Review: Prisoners (2013)

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I really wanted to watch this one and I’m glad I got the chance because it’s very very good. It’s the type of film that could have been a B-movie but ended up being a punch-in-the-gut type thriller because of the confident direction of Denis Villeneuve, the terrific ensemble cast and powerful performances by the two leads, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The story starts off simple: Jackman and his wife Maria Bello take their daughter to the home of their friends played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who have a daughter of their own. The two girls go missing, and Jackman, who is a bit of a hotheaded psycho, decides to take matters into his own hands even though the case is being handled by a very capable detective played by Gyllenhaal. That’s a nice little premise summary that doesn’t give too much away, and the only thing I will add is that the film’s title is an apt one.

Prisoners is a dark, disturbing and emotional roller coaster ride that will have you questioning right and wrong and the lengths you would go to if your own child was taken and you feel like the police aren’t doing their job properly. It’s brutally violent but not in a gratuitous way because the psychological impact wouldn’t have been the same without it. There aren’t a lot, but there a few solid twists and turns which I much prefer to a lot of cheap ones, and it keeps up the tension as the characters become more desperate with the clock running out.

A big part of the reason why the film is so compelling is the performances of Jackman and Gyllenhall. These are complex characters with demons lurking behind them in the shadows, without these two Oscar-nominated actors in the roles I’m not sure all the layers could have been brought out as well as they were.

Also fantastic is Paul Dano, who I have always been a big fan of, as a mentally challenged suspect. Melissa Leo is again a chameleon in yet another unrecognisable role, while Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Mario Bello round out the superb ensemble cast by making the most of their more limited screen time.

While there is nothing jaw-dropping or groundbreaking about the plot and the final revelations don’t quite live up to the rest of the film, Prisoners is still one of the best suspense thrillers of the year, an unsettling, creepy climb into darkness thanks to effective execution and great performances from the all-star cast.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Gravity (2013) (2D)

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I’m probably biased because I am a massive fan of director Alfonso Cuaron (responsible for possibly my favourite movie from the last 10 years, 2006’s Children of Men, as well as the best Harry Potter movie, The Prisoner of Azkaban), but let me just put it out there: I reckon his latest, Gravity, could very well be a masterpiece.

I saw just one scene of the film in one of the trailers, so I went into it with relatively little knowledge of what it’s all about, potentially a key reason why I found it so engrossing. I won’t say much except that it takes place in space and is about a bunch of astronauts (headed by George Clooney and Sandra Bullock) on a mission. It is unconventional and a bit of a “concept” film in that there is only a handful of actors, minimal dialogue and limited human interaction. But it is one heck of a ride, one that is packed with a wide range of emotions ranging from fear, horror, desperation and claustrophobia to serenity, solitariness and hope.

The script is written by Alfonso Cuaron and his son Jonas Cuaron. I don’t think there is anything exceptional about it or the dialogue (there’s not a lot of it anyway), but I do think it is Cuaron’s masterful direction that makes Gravity work so well. He employs a lot of his trademark long takes which I absolutely adore, some of which feel like they last for 5 to 10 minutes each (the film’s first scene has no visible cuts for about 10 minutes). I’m sure a lot of it is just clever effects and editing, but the feel of a long, continuous, winding shot that moves from place to place and character to character really immerses you in the moment and the action.

Gravity is also one of the most visually stunning films I’ve seen and makes you wonder how Cuaron went about shooting it and creating the special effects. I assume pretty much all of it is shot in studios with green screens, but the end product comes across as frighteningly realistic and genuine (I say “comes across” because very few of us know what it actually looks like in space). The same could be said for the space stations and shuttles in the film, which, I assume again, are close replicas of their real-life counterparts. The stunning and soothing views of Earth from space are incredible as well, and provide a beautiful contrast to all the man-made chaos happening right above it.

I was tempted to watch the film in 3D because apparently it’s “worth it,” but I’ve heard that so many times now and every time I’ve fallen for it I’ve come away disappointed. That said, there were parts of the film where I thought 3D might work well, and if I had the opportunity (sadly, I probably don’t) I’d love to watch it again in IMAX 3D. Either way, it’s a film that definitely should be seen on the big screen for maximum appreciation.

As with almost all films with only few characters, the quality of the acting is vital. In this regard Gravity also delivers, with Sandra Bullock — who I’ve never been very high on as an actress despite her Oscar win for The Blind Side — giving one of the best performances of her career. She spends a lot of the film on her own but somehow still manages to make us connect with her on an emotional level and forces us to sense her fear and dread. Apparently Bullock was one of the last choices for the challenging role after the talks with the likes of Angelina Jolie, Marion Cotillard, Scarlett Johansson, Blake Lively and Natalie Portman fell through, but it has turned out to be a stroke of good fortune.

The other major role is played by George Clooney, the experienced wisecracking team captain who is so cool and calm under extreme pressure that it makes you wonder whether he is either a robot or a psychopath. Damn this perfect man (again) because he delivers a perfect performance, one I can’t really find any faults with.

I see a LOT of films, so I always welcome something that is a little different to your typical Hollywood blockbuster. It doesn’t mean I prefer them or will necessarily like them more (for example, I liked the concept of the 2010 Ryan Reynolds film Buried, though I didn’t think they ultimately pulled it off), but I find it exciting to experience something I haven’t before. Gravity is definitely something different, so I can appreciate that it is not for everyone. As I was walking out of the cinema, most of the comments I heard from my fellow viewers were negative, such as, “It was too slow and depressing”, “There weren’t enough people in it”, and “There’s too much internal psychological drama”. Even my wife thought it was just “OK”, not boring but not great either.

But for me, Gravity ticks all the boxes for a great film. It’s engrossing, exciting and intelligent, visually captivating, masterfully directly and skillfully performed. And it’s daring and memorable. It will dash the desire of anyone who ever dreamed of being an astronaut, and viewers used to more conventional films might feel like something’s missing, but apart from that, it’s as close to a masterpiece as any film I’ve seen in years.

5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Jobs (2013)

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First of all, let me be clear. Jobs, the new biopic of the Apple legend starring Ashton Kutcher, is nowhere near as bad as some critics have made it out to be. For those who don’t know about the founding of Apple and the early days of the Steve Jobs story, the film can be an interesting glimpse into the world of the most iconic commercial innovator of this generation. That said, it is nevertheless a disappointing effort given the expectations and the subject of the biopic; for the most part, it was good while it lasted, but ultimately the film comes across as rushed, malnourished and incomplete, and despite the best of intentions, unable to deliver the engrossing experience curious audiences have been hoping for since Jobs’ untimely death in October 2011.

The strange thing about this film is that it, like Jobs the man, begins with what appears to be lofty ambitions, but then, unlike him, surprisingly fizzles out, almost like it decided to give up because the challenge had grown too difficult, or even because it had lost interest in what it was trying to achieve.

I don’t want to give away any spoilers, but it should be known that Jobs is not an attempt to capture the life story of Steve Jobs. In fact, it only covers a small part of his life, from how he came about starting Apple with Steve Wozniak in the 1970s to (without being too specific) the turn of the century (as foretold by the film’s opening scenes). What this curious time frame means is that we know almost nothing of his childhood or his adopted parents, and we see nothing of what are supposed to be the best years of his career. Also, it means the film assumes a certain level of knowledge about Apple and Jobs, which is fine, but a complete failure to even acknowledge the existence some of the biggest milestones outside of this chosen time frame (such as Jobs’s association with Pixar and some of Apple’s most iconic products) just feels…wrong.

Of course, it would have been impossible to capture every aspect of Jobs’s life, but in my opinion (others may differ) the makers of this movie made wrong decisions in choosing what parts of his life to emphasize and what parts to skim over. Without delving into spoilers, let’s just say the film’s last half hour or so is a bit of a hurried mess, and even though it ends on (I suppose) a good note at a particular juncture of Jobs’s life, it leaves you wanting a lot more. This is one of those rare occasions where a film should have been longer — it’s 122 minutes but could have easily added another 20 quality minutes without it feeling bloated. In a sense, the film feels almost like it’s setting itself up for a sequel, except there isn’t going to be one.

There are two additional problems with the film that comes to mind. The first is that it feels as though it is canonizing Jobs. Of course, the prick side of Jobs, which has been documented so well, is not missing from the film — we do get to see him lose his temper and the dark side of his obstinate and vindictive nature (most evidently in his relationship with his eldest daughter) — but the feeling I got (others may have a different interpretation) is that they tried to make him look like a misunderstood genius whose failures only came about because others (old fashioned business executives) did not believe him or share his ambitious vision. In reality, Jobs was at times reckless and his adventurous streak often got the best of him and his projects.

The second problem is that while the film is titled Jobs, it is more about Apple than the life of Steve Jobs. Apart from Jobs’s strained relationship with his first daughter Lisa, there really isn’t much else in the film about his life in the film that isn’t directly related to Apple. How they could make a movie called Jobs and not even let audiences know he’s dead strikes me as bizarre.

Having said all that, the film did start off on a strong note and most of the major events within the chosen period (such as Apple’s IPO and the 1984 commercial — and many more, though they could technically be considered spoilers) are featured and executed well. As a dramatization of that period of Jobs’s life, there’s not much to complain about. But as I had read Jobs’s official biography written by Walter Isaacson just last year, many of the things that happen in the film are still fresh in my mind and thus lacked punch, but for those who aren’t as familiar with Apple’s history and Jobs’s life (eg, my wife), the film could be quite a compelling eye-opener. People interested in Apple’s humble beginnings and geeks interested in the early PC era won’t be disappointed.

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Central to the film is the portrayal of Jobs by Ashton Kutcher. I have mixed feelings about his performance. On the one hand, he definitely has the look and walk of Steve Jobs down pat. There are moments in the film, a flash here, a blurry shot there, where Kutcher is the spitting image of a young Jobs. Jobs’s temper and narcissism also feel genuine. On the other hand, Kutcher looks too much like…Ashton Kutcher, and I wonder if a lesser known actor would have been more suitable for the role. The voice was also too distinctively Kutcher and not quite there.

In the supporting cast, which includes the likes of James Woods, Lukas Haas, Ron Eldard JK Simmons and Kevin Dunn, the standouts are Matthew Modine as one-time Apple CEO John Sculley and Dermot Mulroney as key venture capitalist Mike Markkula. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of Josh Gad as Steve Wozniak, but apparently Wozniak himself as rubbished the portrayal and also his relationship with Jobs in the movie. However, it should be noted here that Wozniak was paid consult on the forthcoming Sony version of the Jobs biopic to be scripted by Aaron Sorkin and based on Isaacson’s book, scheduled for release next year. Whichever way you look at it, that film appears much better equipped to deliver the definitive Steve Jobs biopic we’ve been waiting for (albeit with a lot more rapid-fire dialogue). It seems in the rush to get in first, Jobs had to compromise on quality, which shows in the final product.

The final word on Jobs? A perfectly adequate and generally compelling dramatization of the founding and early years of Apple, but a somewhat incomplete and disappointing portrait of the life of the man it is named after.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: After Earth (2013)

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I am…well, was…one of the staunchest M Night Shyamalan defenders out there. I loved The Village and thought The Happening was, er, good (up until the ending) and didn’t think The Last Airbender was as awful as advertised, though Lady In the Water pushed me about as far as my limit would go. And so when I discovered that he was directing Will Smith’s latest sci-fi adventure After Earth (the same Will Smith who does not choose to make bad movies, apparently), I did not run off screaming like most other people.

I probably should have.

After Earth is, plain and simple, a bore, which is an incredible feat considering the semi-interesting premise and how much “action” there is. Basically, humans are forced to abandon Earth at some time in the future after making the place inhabitable, and the new place they decided to settle down has these alien creatures who are blind but can sense fear. Will Smith is some legendary commander who can suppress his fear (and hence practically invincible), and Jaden Smith (his real life son), is constantly living in his shadow. On a final trip to an abandoned Earth, their spaceship crashes and Will is hurt, and the only person who can save them (by trekking through dangerous terrain with evolved/mutated monsters) is Jaden.

So yeah, After Earth is basically a Jaden Smith star-making vehicle produced by his family. Will Smith, who came up with the idea for the movie, is more or less there for the star power and barely moves for the entire film. Jaden’s name even comes up first in the credits (this is living proof of fatherly love).

Apparently the original premise was not sci-fi and was about a father and son duo who are trapped after their car breaks down in the wilderness. That idea might have made a better motion picture, because the sci-fi elements in After Earth don’t really work. Maybe it’s the effects of a hangover from The Last Airbender, but After Earth has a childish feel to it, as though it was made with a Nickelodeon-esque audience in mind. It’s a morality tale and a coming of age story, but there is no nuance or subtlety. Everything is so painfully obvious and predictable. Bland and uninteresting, even when the characters are supposedly in danger. It’s not often that a 100-minute film feels too long. I’m not kidding here, but I think perhaps the film would have been better as an animation.

It’s pointless dissecting Will Smith’s performance because he has so little do to. As for Jaden Smith, I think his acting abilities have regressed from The Pursuit of Happyness (made 7 years ago) and The Karate Kid remake (3 years ago). Maybe it’s the script’s fault, or simply a lack of charisma, because I could not connect with his character at all. The most emotional parts of the film, including a (remote) tearful exchange with his father, felt strangely empty and cliched.

That said, the film is not quite as bad as it has been made out to be. Though clunky, the film tells its story adequately, and the special effects and scale are quite impressive. It’s not the worst of the movie of the year and 11% on Rotten Tomatoes is a brutal overreaction. However, After Earth is still ultimately a huge disappointment and a failed experiment. Maybe it’s time for M Night to retreat into the shadows and get back to the smaller, more intimate projects that made him a respected filmmaker in the first place.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Frozen Ground (2013)

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The Frozen Ground is a disturbing true story about Robert Hansen, an Alaskan serial killer who stalked, kidnapped and killed at least 17 women in the 1980s. But despite an all-star cast, solid performances and a well-crafted bleak, dreary atmosphere, it felt like a run-of-the-mill, straight-to-DVD thriller that may have been held back by trying too hard to adhere to real-life events.

The narrative follows Nicholas Cage, who plays Sgt Jack Halcombe, a righteous detective who sets out to find the killer and end his 13-year killing spree but has difficulty collecting the evidence necessary to put him away. Enter 17-year-old Cindy Poulson, played by Vanessa Hudgens, a local stripper/prostitute who managed to escape the killer once following a brutal encounter but is too neglected and afraid to step forward.

The interesting thing is, the police have had a suspect the whole time, Robert Hansen, who is chillingly portrayed by John Cusack. They just don’t have what it takes to arrest and convict him. So the challenge for Halcombe is essentially to gather that evidence, which includes coaxing Cindy to assist, while also protecting her from Hansen.

There really isn’t anything “wrong” with The Frozen Ground, written and directed by Scott Walker. The atmosphere is great, with the icy chill of Alaska mixing well with the dark tones and grim feel. There are moments of tension and drama (mostly involving Hudgens), and the acts of a deranged psychopath like Hansen always make for compelling viewing. The performances are excellent, and watching this film almost makes you remember that Nicholas Cage is an Oscar-winning actor who once turned down roles instead of appearing in every turd that comes his way. Vanessa Hudgens also looks and feels like a great stripper/prostitute with real psychological and emotional scars, and I mean that as a compliment. I suppose this film and Spring Breakers is her Jennifer Aniston-esque attempt to destroy her “good girl” image (though I thought those leaked nude pics had done that already…). Last but not least, John Cusack, who I’m almost always used to playing the charismatic good guy. Here he is creepy, calculating and silently vicious — completely making me forget that he and Cage once made an awesome duo in Con Air.

The problem with The Frozen Ground is that it’s too generic and straightforward, so much so that it feels like a glamorized feature length version or an extended finale of an episode of Law & Order (probably SVU). We know fairly early on that Hansen is the killer, and the revelations that follow — mostly interrogations and property searches — all come with an air of predictability. There are no exciting discoveries or twists and only a handful of sequences that could be considered “action”, the result of what I am assuming is an effort to align the story with what really happened as much as possible. We often complain about filmmakers abusing their “artistic license” when it comes to true stories, and this film is the opposite. Without being disrespectful to the real-life victims, this is a story that lacked genuine intrigue and excitement.

Overall, this is a well-acted, well-executed true crime thriller without a lot of thrills, and despite the chilly atmosphere comes across as too bland to be memorable. Probably would have been a straight-to-DVD flick (a pretty decent one, mind you) but for the A-list cast.

3 stars out of 5

Recent Movie Reviews: Part V

Let’s take some time out from my 2012 Movie Blitz to go back to some movies I have watched more recently.

Evil Dead (2013)

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The original Evil Dead directed by Sam Raimi is now widely considered classic even though it’s actually a very flawed horror film that happens to have a few iconic images. Thirty-two years later, we have what is considered a reboot as well as a loose continuation of the franchise. This time, the film is directed by Fede Alvarez in his big screen debut — and the results are surprising.

In keeping up with tradition, this reboot is also about a bunch of young people who end up in a cabin in the woods (this time for drug rehab purposes) and one of them stupidly brings a demon to life by opening a book he/she shouldn’t have. The demon possesses one of them, and like a zombie virus, the possession is spread from one to the next.

Much of the scares come from the visceral details of the graphic injuries. They get scalded by hot water, get stabbed, punctured, tossed around, covered in glass and have limbs torn right off, and yet they just keep soldiering on. And the craziest thing is that the non-possessed humans are even harder to kill than the demon-possessed characters. It’s so outrageous it’s funny — but in a good way.

I didn’t expect much from Evil Dead given the disappointing horror reboots in recent years (just about all the ones you can think of). I had heard that this one was effectively gory and disgusting but not particularly frightening — but I respectfully disagree. Yes, it was excessively bloody and gruesome and gross, but it was done effectively and not gratuitously like say the horror porn films such as Hostel and the later entries in the Saw franchise.

I didn’t recognise any of the actors except Shiloh Fernandez, who was in that awful Red Riding Hood movie, but everyone does a decent job — no small feat considering that most casts of such film are laughably bad.

So yeah, while this rendition of Evil Dead won’t make us forget the original any time soon, it was still an unexpected pleasure in the way that only gross horror movies can be.

3.5 stars out of 5

Gangster Squad (2013)

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Gangster Squad has all the ingredients of a great blockbuster — the “loosely based on a true story” concept, the noir atmosphere of the post-WWII era, a fundamental good vs evil storyline, and a ridiculous cast headed by Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, plus Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick. Everything was seemingly there, and yet the film felt like it was missing…something.

I can’t quite put my finger on it except to say that there was a sense of familiarity with the film, as though I had seen it or experienced it all before. Strictly speaking there is nothing wrong with that, but for a film of this magnitude carrying hefty expectations it just felt like the film fell well short of expectations.

The story is based around real-life notorious crime boss and former pro-boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who basically ran LA back in those days by eliminating witnesses and bringing legal officials. When even the cops tell their own not to venture into Mickey’s property, you know he’s not to be messed with. But Josh Brolin is a sergeant who can’t say no to justice, and he accepts a clandestine mission from his boss, Nick Nolte, to bring Cohen down off official police books. The rest of the cast mentioned above are pretty much all members of Brolin’s Gangster Squad, except for of course Emma Stone, one of Cohen’s women who falls in love with Ryan Gosling (because everyone loves Ryan Gosling — even though he puts on this weird, whiny voice in this movie).

Gangster Squad is a pretty-looking film that successfully captivates the mood of the era and has some crafty action sequences (including a bare-knuckle showdown that made little sense). It is ultra-violent and perhaps unnecessarily so, but I never have a huge problem with violence as long as it’s not blatantly gratuitous (well, and even then…). Where I think the film falters is the script, which never brought out the characters properly and as a result we never develop any emotional connection to them. It’s not awful by any means, but given the stars involved being merely average is not good enough.

3 stars out of 5

Dark Skies (2013)

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I love horror films and I love alien/UFO films, and Dark Skies is an attempt to roll both genres into one.

Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton are a couple struggling with financial difficulties, bringing a lot of tension to their relationship with each other and as well as with their two sons. Like a poltergeist movie, strange things start happening in and around their home, and if you know your alien abduction cliches, you would have seen them all. But thanks to some effective direction from Scott Stewart (who last gave us the lacklustre Priest), the scares are still quite effective.

The frequency and intensity of the weird stuff increases as the couple realise that there might a sinister force trying to take over their lives, leading them to seek the help of an “expert” played by JK Simmons (with some unintentionally amusing results). After receiving some advice, they buckle down and face what is going to inevitably come at them anyway — but wait, there might be a twist. Sound familiar?

I sound harsh about this film, but the thing is, you should not approach Dark Skies like it’s going to be some fantastic masterpiece. It’s a sci-fi horror about alien abduction, so keep your expectations in check. All you can really hope for are some eerie atmospheric tensions, a few creepy incidents, some “boo!” scares, an effectively climax and an ending that doesn’t suck too badly. Dark Skies delivers all of the above, albeit in ways we’ve all seen before. Thanks to my bias for scary aliens, I still had a pretty good time with it.

3.25 stars out of 5

Odd Thomas (2013)

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I first became acquainted with Odd Thomas, the character not the film, a couple of years ago, when a friend got me In Odd We Trust, a graphic novel about a young man who can see dead people and decides to do something about it. The graphic novel is based on a series of novels written by horror master Dean Koontz.

I liked the graphic novel but thought it would be even better as a movie, and what do you know, a year or two later and we have Odd Thomas, the motion picture version, starring Anton Yelchin (one of my favourite young actors) as the titular character and the pretty Addison Timlin (whom some might recognise from Californication) as love interest Stormy. The film is actually in limbo at the moment because of a lawsuit, so I won’t disclose how I actually came about to watching it.

Odd Thomas is a film that is tonally difficult to get right because it’s supposed to be scary (with dead people and ghosts and demonic creatures and so forth) but at the same time it has to have that kiddy graphic novel feel where you have to partially suspend disbelief but not to the extent where it becomes a farce. And at the center of it lies a sweet romance between Odd and his one true love, Stormy, but it can’t be too sweet or else it will put off viewers.

Amazingly, director Stephen Sommers (GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra and The Mummy franchise) gets it right, or at least gets close enough. Odd Thomas is essentially a fun, quirky and sweet detective film laced with elements of horror and fantasy — and some well-executed action. Not everything works (some of the concepts were either too “out there” or convoluted for my liking) but on the whole the elements meshed well together.

Anton Yelchin’s unusual look makes him a perfect Odd, and his chemistry with Timlin is scorching. Willem Dafoe also gets to show off some of his comedic chops as the police chief who can’t seem to get a minute alone with his wife. It’s not cult classic material but I’d like to think it’s enjoyable enough to possibly be the first instalment of a franchise.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Man of Steel (2013) (2D)

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Every Superman movie comes with unreasonable expectations. We already saw how the 2006 Superman Returns directed by Bryan Singer and starring Brandon Routh (whatever happened to his career?) turned out when it tried to reboot the franchise with a more serious, thoughtful take on the Superman mythology. It wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was, but no matter which way you look at it, the film was a bitter disappointment.

And so I was somewhat apprehensive about yet another reboot, the long-awaited Man of Steel headed by Zack Snyder, the man who gave us 300 and Watchmen, two flawed films  I really enjoyed. Snyder is supposedly a massive Superman geek who knows the universe inside out. Coupled with his unique visual flair and penchant for relentless action, it seemed like a good fit. Indeed, the initial trailers and the pre-release word of mouth were promising.

Having now watched the film and given some time digest, I have to admit I still found Man of Steel a disappointment — albeit one that was very interesting (especially in the first half) and had a lot of positives going for it.

One of the biggest positives is Henry Cavill, formerly the unluckiest man in Hollywood (having just lost out on the lead role in Superman Returns to Brandon Routh, Casino Royale to Daniel Craig, and Twilight to Shovelface Pattinson),. Cavill is perfect as Clark Kent/Superman. Apart from being superhumanly handsome and buffed out of his mind, he exudes a vulnerability that at times reminded me of Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Nolan, by the way, served as a producer on Man of Steel.

Secondly, a problem with any Superman movie is that everyone knows the plot, so kudos to Snyder for making an origins story that covers some things we have not seen before, or at least not done in a way we’ve already seen before. I’m no Superman expert, but I understand there are quite a few subtle adjustments to the story, characters and narrative progression that made the film feel familiar but fresh.

The best parts of the film, surprisingly (or not surprisingly), are where Superman is out of his suit (which made the controversial decision to keep the underwear inside this time), the bits where he is learning who he is and how to control his powers. Kevin Costner and Diane Lane do a magnificent job as Clark Kent’s parents, stealing the show with the most human and emotional portions of the movie.

So the first half of Man of Steel is brilliant, dare I say almost Nolan-esque. The second half, when the villain, Zod, played by the brilliant Michael Shannon, arrives on Earth — well, that’s when things start to unravel and the film morphs into your more conventional superhero affair…except that it goes on for far too long and the carnage is so overboard that it all becomes numbing and dull. OK, maybe “dull” is taking it too far, but the tension and excitement was certainly not commensurate to the number of buildings being blown to pieces.

That said, the special effects were very good, and it wasn’t easy distinguishing between what’s real and what’s CGI. Some of the Krypton technology was pretty cool too, a clever divergence from the typical alien technology you might have seen in the past.

I like Amy Adams, but I never really liked Lois Lane in this one. Her relationship with Superman didn’t feel close enough to warrant some of the interactions between them. It was like we had to accept that there was chemistry between them (when there wasn’t) just because she’s Lois Lane. Adams is good, but the character felt lacking.

As for Russell Crowe as Jor-El, I have to admit he is pretty good in a “I’m Russell Crowe, the greatest f*&%ing actor in the world!” kind of way. I didn’t expect he’d have so much screen time either.

I sound more negative about Man of Steel than I should be, but only because my expectations were so high. The cast and the first half of the film were super but for whatever reason the storytelling in the second half lacked the emotional depth that would have made it a great film. And it was unnecessarily long. All things considered though, it is a solid Superman flick that is clearly better than Superman Returns, but not quite what I believe it was trying to achieve — ie, Dark Knight territory.  Perhaps the planned sequel(s) can get there.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness (2013) (2D)

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I’ve allowed a few weeks for Star Trek Into Darkness to sink in, but my opinion of it remains the same.

It’s a very good film that is extremely entertaining and features excellent action sequences, special effects and a brilliant villain, but it ultimately lacks the wow factor of its predecessor and somehow ends up feeling like a glorified big screen season finale of a TV series.

The 2009 reboot, Star Trek, also directed by JJ Abrams (who will now also take over the Star Wars franchise, yikes) was phenomenal. It was a film non-Trekkies such as myself could enjoy but it also had something for the die hard fans (or so I have been told). Apart from a slightly disappointing villain (not Eric Bana’s fault — more a problem with the character itself), it was a film that had it all — action, drama and romance; and enough space fantasies to make fan boys spray their shorts and casual fans become fan boys.

Four years later, we have the sequel, Star Trek Into Darkness, which hits the ground running with a spectacular opening sequence featuring the crew of the USS Enterprise headed by captain James T Kirk (Chris Pine) and first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto).

Naturally, Kirk’s maverick decision-making lands him in hot water and at odds with Spock, but then disaster strikes courtesy of a brand new villain played by the man with the best name and arguably best voice in Hollywood, Benedict Cumberbatch. It is then up to the regrouped Enterprise crew to track him down and avenge their losses.

Into Darkness has a lot going for it. The cast, of course, is fantastic. Apart from the aforementioned Pine, Quinto and Cumberbatch, there’s the old gang of John Cho (ie, Harold), Zoe Saldana, Karl Urban (who provides the dry humour), Simon Pegg (who provides the Simon Pegg humour), Anton Yelchin and Bruce Greenwood. Another newcomer is Alice Eve, who provides the obligatory eye candy. All of them have key roles to play and don’t just blend into the background, which is a reflection of Abrams’ mastery of character and character development. At its core, however, the film is still driven by the love/hate/trust/loyalty relationship between Kirk and Spock, which takes another big step forward in this sequel (it’s getting to that bizarre bromance, bizarre sexual tension level). As for Cumberbatch, all I can say is that this dude rocks. He’s terrifying, he arouses sympathy; he’s just an electrifying and magnetic screen presence. I think I love this man.

Given how fantastic Star Trek was as a reboot of a legendary franchise, it was always going to be difficult for the sequel to match it. You have to strike a balance between reintroducing the characters and not rehashing too much; you have to take the action and relationships to new heights; you have to make the faithfuls happy with references to the original series; you have to try and do something different, be it the storyline, the action or even the jokes.

For the most part, Into Darkness achieves all of these. For the Trekkies in particular, there are some special treats, especially if you have stayed away from the trailers and the gossip. As a non-Trekkie, even I had an inkling that some of the revelations in this film were HUGE. It sets things up nicely if they decide to extend the franchise, which they almost definitely will.

I have few complaints. The pace of the film moves so quickly that you rarely have time to stop and think about how illogical or improbable the things happening on screen are, which is a sign of good filmmaking. I was sort of expecting more despair given that the title of the film is, after all, Into Darkness. I thought there would be more “darkness”, more hopelessness for Kirk and the gang to crawl out of, but it wasn’t that bad, all things considered. (Speaking of which, it seems Hollywood has been using the exact same formula for these big action blockbusters for quite some time now. Hero gets defeated — absolutely smashed, really — by a seemingly unstoppable villain. Hero rises from the dead and goes on a journey of recovery. Hero returns and triumphs against all odds. Celebration!)

The more troubling thing for me was that the film, or maybe the script, didn’t feel like it was depicting an extraordinary event too big for the small screen. It’s difficult to describe the feeling, but at times it felt like I was watching an epic season finale on a big screen rather than a blockbuster made especially for the big screen. It’s a strange thing to say considering the scale of the film, the star power and the special effects were all more than sufficient, but that was just the way I felt.

Does that mean Into Darkness is an unworthy sequel? Absolutely not. In fact, it’s one of the better executed sequels in recent years. It didn’t blow me away like the first film, but it still provides 133 minutes of solid entertainment that everyone from old Trekkies, new-Trekkies and non-Trekkies to casual science-fiction and blockbuster fans can thoroughly enjoy.

4 stars out of 5

PS: You don’t need me to tell you again. Ignore the 3D version. Please. I beg you. Don’t waste your time and money.

Movie Review: The Host (2013)

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There is only a handful of times in a life that one will see a movie that is so laughably pathetic that they don’t even know how to react to it. The Host is one such movie.

Based on a book written by the skilled pen of Stephenie Meyer, the author who bestowed upon us the Twilight Saga, The Host tells the story of how mankind has been mostly taken over by an alien race. These aliens, who look like big dandelions and are called “Souls” (convenient), inject themselves into human bodies and use them as hosts (hence the clever title). The consciousness of the original human owner is erased and replaced by the alien, who still retains the human’s memories and knowledge. One particular alien called Wanderer takes over the body of a young girl, Melanie Stryder (Saoirse Ronan), whose consciousness refuses to subside and battles the alien for control of the body. The alien is moved by this wonderful love Melanie had as a human with Jeremy Iron’s son, Max Irons, but there’s also some other dude (Jake Abel from I Am Number Four — Kevin Bacon’s son?) that fancies her — cue patented Stephenie Meyer love triangle.

It’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers meets Twilight. Shudder.

I can imagine this kind of story working as a novel, but as a film (especially one that is merely hoping to cash in on Twilight‘s popularity) it just had no chance. I tried to give The Host a genuine shot, but the plot had more holes than Prometheus and the love triangle made the one in Twilight seem like the greatest love triangle of all time. I found myself either shaking my head or bursting out in laughter from the unintentional hilarity for almost the entirety of the torturous 125-minute running time.

Technically, the visuals and the direction of Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, In Time) are fine. Even the performances from the all-star cast (which also includes William Hurt and Diane Kruger) are not too bad, considering the lines they had to spew out. But there is little anyone could do when the source material and the screenplay and dialogue are so awful. For starters, Saoirse Ronan has conversations with herself all throughout the movie because she is, um, trapped within herself. Trust me, it’s stupid.

Then there are the questions. Of all the relationships in the world, the alien is moved by one between a young girl and guy who have known each other for a couple of months? WTF? Why does Wanderer (“Wanda”) go from hated enemy one second to the most beloved and trusted ally the next? Why does Jake Abel go from wanting to kill Wanda one second to wanting to make out with her the next? Why does she have to make out with people for contrived reasons? (There is, I swear, one scene where the guys take turns making out with her). The list goes on.

And the ending, which I will not give away, is the icing on the cake. You have to see it to believe it.

What else can I say? The Host is dull, lacking in tension, excitement and heart, and just plain absurd. Avoid it if you dare.

0.5 out of 5…