Tag Archives: 2015

Awaiting (2015)

awaiting

So my dear sister recommends me this British movie called Awaiting, which she claims will “blow my mind!”

I had never heard of it, and for good reason. It’s written and directed by Mark Murphy, whose first project was 2014’s Crypt, which has a glowing 3.8 rating on IMDB. Awaiting is only slightly better with a rating of 4.6, and has only one review (a positive one, no less) on Rotten Tomatoes. The cast features Tony Curran, who has been in a whole bunch of stuff but rarely as anything notable, TV actor Rupert Hill, and former X-Factor contestant Diana Vickers.

Filled with healthy scepticism, I took on Awaiting anyway, not expecting much. Granted, the premise seems promising — kind of. Curran plays Morris, a psychotic recluse with a daughter (Vickers) who has grown up isolated from the rest of the world. One rainy night, a lawyer (Hill) is involved in a freak accident and wakes up in Morris’s home, and thus kicks off a nightmare that begins awkwardly and soon turns to terror.

To Murphy’s credit, Awaiting does have some positives. The basic idea and the direction of the narrative is strong, and I enjoyed the slow build up of tension and creeping sense of unease. There are also some great twists and turns towards the end as the film turns crazier and bloodier and descends into absolute . It’s not particularly original, but the sum of the various borrowed bits and pieces make it an unusual, and occasionally chilling — or at least visceral — experience.

My main problem with the film is that it is just really rough around the edges. It’s very low budget and it looks that way. The dialogue is horrible. At first I thought it might just have been bad acting, but later I realised it’s not the actors’ fault — they’re actually not bad. It’s just that the reactions of the characters aren’t always logical, or they’re too over the top, often out of nowhere.

None of the characters are particularly well-developed either. The lawyer does not elicit any sympathy and the psycho isn’t anywhere near as creepy as he ought to have been. I know the worst psychos tend to be the ones who catch you off guard, but here, even when he’s supposed to be terrifying, he’s only scaring us with what he’s doing as opposed to who he is.

Couple that with a bunch of logic gaps and continuity errors, the result is a campy vibe and a cheap feel that takes away much of the film’s effectiveness. It’s a shame, because I think in the hands of a quality production team — a director with a slicker visual style, scriptwriters who can iron out the kinks and sharpen up the dialogue, a better music score and a bigger budget for sets and effects — I think Awaiting could have been pretty awesome.

2.75 stars out of 5

Lost After Dark (2015)

lost after dark

I was coming off the disappointing Curse of Downers Grove and felt things couldn’t get much worse when I decided to watch Lost After Dark, a low budget slasher movie. I turned out to be very very wrong. Compared to Lost After Dark, Downers Grove is a damn near-masterpiece.

I didn’t actually expect it to be any good, though I was hoping the film would surprise me as I had rather quite enjoyed 2003’s Wrong Turn, a similar sort of movie about a bunch of young people who find themselves being hunted down by a bunch of cannibalistic inbreeding freaks.

Wrong Turn was not generally well-received, but I remember it being tense and scary. Lost After Dark was the complete opposite. As a homage to 80s slasher flicks, the premise is that a group of young people find themselves lost after a vehicle breakdown, and soon after the carnage begins.

Apart from moronic cardboard characters, the film suffers from a distinct lack of genuine scares or intriguing developments. A big reason is the laughably designed killer, who looks more like a parody than someone you ought to be running from. And while the film doesn’t take itself too seriously, it’s not exactly tongue-in-cheek enough to be fun either. Throw in some tame, unimaginative killings, bad acting and a “keep gettin’ ’em cheques” performance from Robert Patrick in more or less an cameo role, and what you end up with is film that’s bad but not consciously bad enough to be “so bad it’s good.”

I understand the aim was replicate that retro 80s slasher vibe, though the problem is that the vast majority of such films from that era were actually really terrible. Why you would want to aspire to recreate that without trying to surprise us with something different or intelligent is beyond me.

0.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Backcountry (2015)

Backcountry

Contrary to what many people have asked me when I tell them the title, this is not a sequel or prequel to Brokeback Mountain.

Backcountry is a actually low budget (wo)man-versus-wild thriller that is supposedly inspired by a true story. The premise is simple: a young couple head into the wild on a hiking trip and get lost. They eventually find themselves being hunted by a giant grizzly bear who seems really hungry for flesh, especially the tasty human kind.

I admit I was sceptical. Man vs wild films (like The Grey), or more specifically, man vs bear films (like The Edge) are usually anchored by a big-name star and have a more intricate plot and/or more characters to kill off. Here, it’s mostly just a typical couple walking through the woods, talking and bickering and not doing much else.

Surprisingly, the simplicity of Backcountry actually works to its advantage. There’s not a lot of distractions, allowing audiences to focus on the characters and their relationship, and the small cast enhances the feeling of isolation and dread.

Both Missy Peregrym and Jeff Roop are pretty good as the couple. They don’t play likable characters, but you feel like you get to know them well enough to empathise with their situation and their fate. It’s a fairly cliched relationship, but at least the script is well written enough and the performances are solid enough to sustain the film through its slower moments.

These moments are necessary, because the film relies on the build-up of tension to deliver a sense of unease and creeping dread. Much of the horror ultimately comes from the bear, though an argument can be made that the most chilling part of the movie is an earlier encounter with a mysterious stranger played by familiar B-grade star Eric Balfour. I don’t know how good his Irish accent is, but the performance is a fantastic one.

As often is the case with simple yet effective horror/thriller flicks like this, I preach reasonable expectations to avoid disappointment. For instance, I can definitely see how some viewers mate be bored by the couple’s relationship, while I myself was frequently annoyed by their stupidity in the face of mortal danger. Flaws notwithstanding, Backcountry is a solid, more-than-serviceable thriller with the potential to satisfy a lot of unsuspecting audiences.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Cinderella (2015)

cinderella

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Spy (2015)

spy-poster

I won’t lie. I initially had zero interest in Spy, the new comedy directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring his favourite collaborator Melissa McCarthy. The poster just made it look generic and lame, and I always thought Feig’s earlier films were overrated.

Just shows we shouldn’t judge a movie by its poster or preconceived notions based on the past. Because Spy is really funny. Hilarious stuff. Laugh-out-loud gags with a progressive slant. In my opinion it’s easily the best film either Feig or McCarthy have been involved in.

It doesn’t have a mindblowing plot — McCarthy plays a former teacher-turned-CIA-agent who acts as the eyes and ears of the agency’s top spy, played by Jude Law. She’s meek and awkward and disappointed with how her career change has turned out.

Naturally, an opportunity arises in which she is thrust into dangerous undercover field work, and this brings out the hidden beast in her as she tries to track down a lethal nuclear weapon.

All the kudos in the world for having McCarthy as the undisputed female lead and a kickass spy, an absolute rarity in sexist, beauty- and weight-obsessed Hollywood, but none of that would have mattered if Spy turned out to be a stinker.

Fortunately, Spy smashes the six-laugh quota for a decent comedy with ease thanks to a variety of factors. First and foremost, McCarthy, who gets the opportunity to show her range by playing essentially two personalities — the meek, and the snarky one we’re used to seeing from Bridesmaids and The Heat. 

In the former, she’s funny in the hesitant, awkward manner she’s very capable of pulling off. However, she’s at her ripping best in the latter, firing off quick-witted, sharp, acidic one-liners and well-placed profanity to elicit the chuckles. I always found this crude version of McCarthy funny, but too much of it felt grating and exhausting. Feig’s decision to give us half a film of it ended up being perfect; just the right amount of familiar McCarthy.

Rose Byrne, who seems to be in absolutely everything these days, once again displays her  ample comedic chops as the stuck-up villain with the posh accent. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself and go head-to-head wih McCarthy in the profanity stakes; I believe this could be as funny as she has ever been.

Jude Law, who has been out of the limelight in recent years, returns as a James Bond spoof of sorts, probably a nod to the fact that he was almost picked to be the iconic spy years ago. He’s clearly aged and appears to have gotten some plugs, though the charisma is still there. He gets to joke around the least as the tongue-in-cheek straight-man of the comedy but takes the role in stride.

Up to this point, Spy is already a fairly decent comedy. What takes it to the next level, however, is the presence of Jason Statham. As the most bankable martial arts action star of today, Statham has only been on the fringes of comedy, and by that I mean wisecracks and one-liners in between beating people up on screen. He finally gets to show off his incredible self-awareness and untapped comedic timing in Spy as a disgruntled rogue agent who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Statham’s character is British, but he’s also crass, profane, arrogant, mysognistic and hyperbolic. He reminds of a hardened version of Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China. His hilarity is undeniable, and it adds an edge to the film I doubt anyone else could have offered.

I thought after Kingsman: The Secret Service the year’s best action-comedy had been set in stone, but now I’m not so sure. Spy isn’t nearly as stylish or visually impressive, but it’s much more of a pure comedy in that it generates bigger and more frequent belly laughs. I had an unexpectedly good time.

4.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Poltergeist (2015)

poltergeist

I don’t remember much of the original 1982 Poltergeist save for a few iconic scenes and phrases. You know the ones I’m talking about. I haven’t seen it for probably 15-20 years, but I do remember it was scary, though I’ve been hearing lately that it wasn’t really that good and was vastly overrated.

Still, it must be a lot better than this hilariously bad remake, which had zero scares but a lot of WTF moments and unintentional humour.

The story is a familiar one. A family moves into a new home that turns out to be haunted by malevolent spirits. Ghost hunters are called in and a kid must be saved.

The biggest problem with the film is its complete lack of subtlety and knowledge of how to scare an audience. Director Gil Kenan (Monster House, City of Ember) seems to know, nominally at least, what is supposed to be scary, such as TV static, closets and clowns, but he doesn’t understand how to elicit genuine scares out of them.

It’s basically a handful of predictable “boo” moments most horror lovers would be numb to by now, and the rest is just completely over-the-top nonsense that is closer to Ghostbusters than anything else I can think of. I’m not even exaggerating here.

There’s no build up of tension or atmosphere, as Kenan obviously does not subscribe to the less is more doctrine in horror, going all out and throwing the entire bag of tricks at the audience from the get go.

What makes it worse is that the tone is all over the place, splicing humour and horror in an awkward manner that damages the effectiveness of both. Serious scares and wisecracks rarely work well together, especially when they come at the same time. As a result I was often left wondering whether it was trying to be scary or funny, but what I do know was that it managed to be neither. I’m stunned that some people thought it was scary.

It’s so bad that the ordinarily awesome Sam Rockwell, who plays the father, appears depressed by just how awful a film he managed to get himself into. Rosemarie DeWitt, who plays his wife, seems to be putting in a little more effort, but even she is clearly disinterested at times. They have three kids in the film, and the two younger ones, who experience the most of the haunting in the beginning, are not very good actors, further reducing the scariness of the whole affair.

The ghost hunters are played by Jared Harris and Jane Adams, who I find difficult to imagine as anyone else but the pathetic girl from Happiness. They’re not nearly as creepy as the short old lady with the weird voice from original (Zelda Rubenstein).

I don’t know what I’d think of the 1982 original now if I saw it again, but I’d be shocked if it’s worse than this laughable remake.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Focus (2015)

focus_ver4

If it feels like it’s been ages since Will Smith has been in a movie, it’s probably because it has been. The Fresh Prince’s last genuine feature film (if you discount basically cameos in Winter’s Tale and Anchorman 2) is the abysmal After Earth, which practically destroyed his son Jaden’s acting future and put a severe dent in his own.

And so I found it interesting that Smith went for a project like Focus, which is a departure from his typical sci-fi blockbusters (Independence Day, MIB, Hancock, I Robot, I am Legend) and melodramatic “acting” efforts (Six Degrees of Separation, The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds). The closest things on his resume is probably Hitch, made 10 years ago, which has a consistent vibe and has him playing a similar sort of character.

In Focus, Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a con man who takes a beautiful young woman (Margot Robbie) under his wing to learn the tricks of the trade. They scam people, they make money, they have fun. Naturally, there is an attraction between the two, which is a no-no for their line of work. It’s one of those films where you’re supposed to be constantly unsure of the characters’ motivations and just who is playing whom.

Focus relies on the chemistry between the two leads, which is apparently so good that the gossip mags had a field day with all the affair rumors when the film was being made. Smith and Robbie are nice to look at and do make a good team, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like Smith’s character, who came across as too familiar to distinguish from his other roles. It’s always the same  — the “I’m so cool and suave and deadpan” and “I’m always in perfect control and never get rattled by anything” demeanour Smith has been crafting since his Fresh Prince days and perfected through Bay Boys, Independence Day, MIB, Wild Wild West and so forth. The act can be funny and all, but I found myself getting tired of it in this film.

There’s not a lot of depth in Focus, though I admit it had some fun and exciting moments as the stakes kept being raised higher and higher.  Fans of plot twists will also probably get a kick out of the movie because there are plenty of twists and turns all the way through. The problem I had with it was that rather than being shocked again and again, I became prepared for every twist that came my way and grew suspicious each time the plot took another turn. Most of all, underneath all of that, I carried the feeling that everything was going to be just fine in the end, so it kind of rendered all the twists superfluous anyway.

In the end, I found Focus to be forgettable experience. It may be slick and stylish but it wasn’t particularly funny and was only sporadically entertaining. The ending was also predictable and not as clever as it should have been. Chalk this one up as a DVD rental.

2.25 stars out of 5

Last Minute 2015 Oscar Predictions

oscar-predictions-oscars-2015-fan-made-trailer-oscars-2015

Crap. Can’t believe the Oscars are going to be on in less than 10 hours. Fortunately, I’ve now seen all the Best Picture nominees and almost all of the films in the major categories. So without further ado, here’s who I think will win and who I think should win. By the way, I have not been following the buzz and betting odds.

Best Picture:
Nominees: American Sniper, Birdman, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Selma, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash
Prediction: Birdman
Should win: Boyhood

Best Actor:
Nominees: Steve Carell (Foxcatcher), Bradley Cooper (American Sniper), Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game), Michael Keaton (Birdman), Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)
Prediction: Michael Keaton (Birdman)
Should win: Eddie Redmayne (The Theory of Everything)

Best Actress:
Nominees: Marion Cottilard (Two Days, One Night), Felicity Jones (The Theory of Everything), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), Rosamund Pike (Gone Girl), Reese Witherspoon (Wild)
Prediction: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)
Should win: Julianne Moore (Still Alice)

Best Supporting Actor
Nominees: Robert Duvall (The Judge), Ethan Hawke (Boyhood), Edward Norton (Birdman), Mark Ruffalo (Foxcatcher), JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Prediction: JK Simmons (Whiplash)
Should win: JK Simmons (Whiplash)

Best Supporting Actress
Nominees: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood), Laura Dern (Wild), Kiera Knightley (The Imitation Game), Emma Stone (Birdman), Meryl Streep (Into the Woods)
Prediction: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)
Should win: Patricia Arquette (Boyhood)

Best Director
Nominees: 
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman), Richard Linklater (Boyhood), Bennett Miller (Foxcatcher), Wes Anderson (The Grand Budapest Hotel), Morten Tyldum (The Imitation Game)
Prediction: 
Alejandro G. Iñárritu (Birdman)
Should win: 
Richard Linklater (Boyhood)

Best Original Screenplay
Nominees: Birdman, Boyhood, Foxcatcher, Grand Budapest Hotel, Nightcrawler
Prediction:
Birdman
Should win:
 Boyhood

Best Adapted Screenplay
Nominees:
American Sniper, The Imitation Game, Inherent Vice, The Theory of Everything, Whiplash 
Prediction:
Whiplash
Should win:
The Imitation Game

Best Animated Feature
Nominees: Big Hero 6, The Boxtrolls, How to Train Your Dragon 2, Song of the Sea, The Tale of Princess Kaguya
Prediction:
Big Hero 6
Should win: Big Hero 6

Cinematography
Nominees:
Birdman, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Ida Mr Turner, Unbroken
Prediction:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel

Costume Design
Nominees:
The Grand Budapest Hotel, Inherent Vice, Into the Woods, Maleficent, Mr Turner
Prediction:
Into the Woods
Should win: 
Maleficent

Documentary Feature
Nominees: CitizenFour, Finding Vivian Maier, Last Days in Vietnam, The Salt of the Earth, Virunga
Prediction: CitizenFour
Should win: Finding Vivian Maier

Documentary Short
Nominees:
Crisis Hotline: Veterans Press 1, Joanna, Our Curse, The Reaper, White Earth
Prediction:
White Earth
Should win:
No idea

Editing
Nominees:
American Sniper, Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Whiplash
Prediction: The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: Boyhood

Foreign Language Film
Nominees:
Ida, Leviathan, Tangerines, Timbuktu, Wild Tales
Prediction:
Leviathan
Should win:
No idea

Makeup and Hair
Nominees:
Foxcatcher, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Guardians of the Galaxy
Prediction: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win: 
Guardians of the Galaxy

Best Original Score
Nominees:
The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Mr Turner, The Theory of Everything
Prediction:
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:
The Theory of Everything

Best Original Song
Nominees:
Everything is Awesome (The Lego Movie), Glory (Selma), Grateful (Beyond the Lights), I’m Not Gonna MIss You (Glen Campbell…I’ll Be Me), Lost Stars (Begin Again)
Prediction:
Glory (Sela)
Should win: 
Everything is Awesome (The Lego Movie)

Production Design
Nominees: The Grand Budapest Hotel, The Imitation Game, Interstellar, Into the Woods, Mr Turner
Prediction: 
The Grand Budapest Hotel
Should win:
Interstellar

Sound Editing
Nominees:
America Sniper, Birdman, The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies, Interstellar, Unbroken
Prediction:
American Sniper
Should win:
Interstellar

Sound Mixing
Nominees:
American Sniper, Birdman, Interstellar, Unbroken, Whiplash
Prediction:
Whiplash
Should win:
Whiplash

Visual Effects
Nominees:
Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, Guardians of the Galaxy, Interstellar, X-Men: Days of Future Past
Prediction:
Interstellar
Should win:
Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Short Film (Animated)
Nominees:
The Bigger Picture, The Dam Keeper, Feast, Me and My Moulton, A Single Life
Prediction:
The Dam Keeper
Should win:
No idea

Short Film (Live Action)
Nominees:
Aya, Boogaloo and Graham, Butter Lamp, Parvaneh, The Phone Call
Prediction:
Aya
Should win:
No idea