Tag Archives: film

The Girl on the Train (2016)


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 stars out of 5

Warcraft (2016)


I must admit, Warcraft was my least anticipated major blockbuster of 2016, with the possible exception of Suicide Squad (I’ll watch that too, but expectations cannot be lower). Having never played the popular video game on which the film is based, or with any intention of ever doing so, it seemed somewhat destined to be yet another disappointing video game adaptation, following in the footsteps of the likes of Doom, Street Fighter, and Prince of Persia.

Having said that, director Duncan Jones is quite a visionary filmmaker, and many were apparently quite optimistic that Warcraft would buck the trend. However, the trailers did not instill much confidence in me — giant, muscular creatures in large-scale battle scenes with humans and magicians, and loads and loads of CGI-heavy special affects. It was pretty much just Hollywood telling the same old story.

It was with such a mindset that I went to see Warcraft, and I have to say that I came out of it very pleasantly surprised. There are plenty of flaws with it, some impossible to overcome given the circumstances, but on the whole it was about as much as I could have expected from a fantasy film of this nature.

I don’t want to get into the plot because it’s not really that important in the scheme of things, but I guess it should come as no surprise that there are humans, orcs, elves, dwarves and so forth -– but mainly humans and orcs –- who all all live in a magical realm with mythical creatures, magic powers, evil warlocks, master wizards and apprentice mages. It’s about fighting for your people and your tribe, honour and loyalty, family and friends and all that shit. It’s more less your typical RPG game.

Now, if you can get past the first stage, which is to take this kind of video-gamey premise seriously, then the rest of the film has a decent chance. Mind you, this does not have the gritty realism of something like say Game of Thrones — this is legitimate high fantasy, where you can actually see the light shooting out of magicians hands and souls being literally sucked out of bodies. 

When you take into account just what a difficult task this was for director Duncan Jones to get right, you start to appreciate the great job he did with this movie. While the storyline is indeed cliched, the storytelling is, for the most part, well done. Instead of making the orcs just brainless monsters hell bent on killing humans for no reason, Jones makes proper characters with proper character development. It’s not quite a two-sides-to-the-story kind of scenario, where the humans characters and orc characters are genuinely on an equal footing (hint: the humans still get more love), it’s at least good to see them apply a less conventional approach.

The cast is also really solid. On the human size, you’ve got Aussie Travis Fimmel, Dominic Cooper and Ben Foster, while on the orc side there’s Toby Kebbel (he will always be Koba to me) and Daniel Wu (I was shocked when I discovered he’s in it), and in between there’s Paula Patton, looking a little on the green side. None of these names are A-listers, but they’re all quality performers who bring gravitas to their respective roles. 

As for the action, it’s of course predominantly CGI, and to be honest it’s really nothing we haven’t seen before in terms of scale, creativity or choreography. What it does do well is the depiction of magic, which is rarely done well on film, and building up some character relationships so that we will care about the outcome of the battles and duels.

So absolutely, Jones should be commended for doing everything he could to make Warcraft the “great” film he tried to make. If you manage to immerse yourself in the story (like my wife, who said she really enjoyed it), you’ll likely think the film is a success. For me, on the other hand, there were elements I liked and places where I thought the film did a great job with, but I couldn’t get into the story or care for the characters as much as like I hoped I would. It really comes down to it being virtually impossible to introduce a whole new realm with all these different races and conflicts, not to mention focusing on both sides of the war, in a movie barely over 2 hours long. If this were a TV series where you have 10 hours to play with, then maybe you could achieve all these things. But given the time constraints and the need to devote a good chunk of that time to battle scenes, you’re going to have scenes and dialogue of obvious and annoying exposition cramming. 

Could they have reduced the number of characters and shifted the balance from CGI battles to more character and relationship development? Of course they could have. But as a one-shot opportunity to make a successful blockbuster for which sequels are no certainty, it would have been too risky an approach for any studio to take. It’s easy for critics to dismiss the cliched aspects of the movie, but sometimes commercial realities dictate these things.

The same goes for the CGI, which was limited by the technology and budget. As a result, it was a little patchy — photorealistic at times and like an Xbox cutscene at others. Perhaps part of it is also the way the orcs have been designed — they just don’t look like creatures I could genuinely believe, a feeling that is heightened whenever I see Paula Patton’s half-orc, half-human character, who looks basically like a human in green paint with two little tusks coming out the bottom of her mouth. It’s ridiculous.

Despite all these flaws, I still appreciate and admire the film Warcraft had set out to be. It’s not quite the “great” film Jones had dreamed of or the saviour of all video-game adaptation movies (that baton has now been passed on to Assbender in Assassin’s Creed), but as a high fantasy film with all the hard-to-swallow things that come with it, Warcraft is not bad at all. If you see it with an open mind, you might agree too.

3.5 stars out of 5

Amy (2015)

Artwork courtesy of Sydney artist Hubert Widjaya

I was recently on a 3-hour flight and there was nothing good to watch in the TV or Movie sections, so I tapped into the Documentary category to try my luck. And there, like an oasis in the desert, was Amy, the critically acclaimed doco on the tragic life of Amy Winehouse, the troubled jazz singer who died from alcohol-related causes in 2011, at the age of 27.

To be honest, I’ve never been a fan of Winehouse or her music, so I didn’t really know much about her at all except she had a big hit with Rehab and later turned into the butt of jokes for her drug and alcohol addiction. Whenever I saw her on TV or magazines she looked awful, and the natural inclination is to just shake your head and judge her based on what you see — a young woman with he world at her feet but is throwing it all away.

Perhaps with that common negative perception in mind, director Asif Kapadia (Senna) goes to great lengths to show us who Amy Winehouse truly is, behind all the fame and all the tabloid photos — and the picture he paints is a heartbreaking one.

It begins with Amy’s childhood from a broken family and how she came to become a recording artist, then traced her meteoric rise to stardom with Back to Black in 2006 and her descent into darkness thereafter. Depression, self-destructive tendencies, alcohol and drug abuse, and bulimia plays a major role all the way through, and by the end of the 128-minute film I felt like it was almost inevitable that things turned out the way they did. It was as though her darkness and her ability to write great music — music I came to appreciate as the film progressed, especially the personal, cutting lyrics — came hand in hand and fed off one another.

I was utterly amazed by how comprehensive and detailed the movie is. Of course there is archived footage of her live and studio performances, interviews and news clips, but a significant part of the documentary is made up of home video footage — seems people in her life have enjoyed filming her since she was a kid — giving rare insights into her character when she isn’t in front of media cameras. There are also extensive interviews with all the key influences in her life, from parents to best friends to boyfriends to to collaborators to idols to managers and label execs — and all of them are frank and raw.

Almost the entire film is chronological, which tracks her growth and progression, both in musical style and personality. I really enjoyed the footage of her live performances with the lyrics popping up on screen, which always reflect the current stage of her life perfectly. Great job by Kapadia in stringing together all these different pieces to build such a compelling story.

You do get a sense that Kapadia is trying to evoke sympathy — or at least empathy — for Winehouse, but he doesn’t exactly give her a free pass either. The blame goes around, from her absent then excessively present father to the love of her life, Blake Fielder, who is perhaps her most lethal and irresistible drug. These negative influences in her life don’t absolve her of responsibility, but it does help us understand why she ended up the way she did. Winehouse has simply always been weak-willed and needed someone to rein her in — she desperately wanted it — and without that support she would keep gravitating towards self-sabotage.

At the end of the day, Amy is a remarkable documentary, not just because of how much rare and valuable footage, images and sounds it contains, but also the impressive storytelling and filmmaking from Kapadia, who delivers Winehouse’s pain and unique talent with the respect it deserves and the emotional punch it needs. Even though I wasn’t all that interested in Winehouse before, I still think it is one of the best documentaries I’ve seen in a long time, and I’m rooting for it to win Best Documentary at the Oscars next month.

4.5 stars out of 5

Sisters (2015)


Anyone who considers themselves a fan of Tina Fey and/or Amy Poehler (as I do) should be disappointed with Sisters. Partly because of high expectations and partly because of its uneven tone, extremely conventional narrative, weak plot and shades of racism. At the end of the day, as the long-awaited collaboration between two of the finest comedians of this generation, Sisters is simply not funny enough.

The film actually starts off with a lot of promise. As the title suggests, Fey and Poehler play sisters. They are close, but their personalities could not be further apart. Fey is Kate, the wild, irresponsible one who doesn’t even know where her much more mature daughter (Madison Davenport) has been hiding the entire summer. Poehler, on the other hand, is Maura, the sweet Good Samaritan with a penchant for inspirational quotes.

As fate would have it, they are both brought back to the family home in Orlando where they grew up, and decide to hold one final massive party with all their old high school friends. Think Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion meets Project X, with some Parenthood thrown in there (Dianne Wiest does play their mother, after all, and she’s fantastic as always).

I understand the tendency to want to like this film because Fey and Poehler are such likable people in real life. I enjoy their sassy brand of comedy and quirky wit, and thought it was a smart idea to toss up their personalities for this film to give audiences something different and to showcase what they can do. And to be fair, both of them have their moments of hilarity — Poehler in particular — and if we’re being strict about the six-laugh rule of thumb for a good comedy I believe Sisters hits that threshold.

However, that’s as far as I can go with the positivity. Sisters suffers from a multitude of problems, beginning with the fact that neither Kate not Maura are particularly likable people — that is, if you can separate the characters from the actresses who play them. There are times when their inner charm shines through, but when they are forced to stay in the characters written for them they simply aren’t as likable — or as funny.

That’s my way of saying it’s not all Fey and Poehler’s fault. They didn’t write or direct the film — those honours go to Paula Pell (best known for her sketches on Saturday Night Live) and Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), and I blame them for not making the most of their opportunities. They seem to be quite good at introducing characters, but aren’t nearly as good in sustaining our interest in them. Case in point: pretty much all the supporting characters in the movie — from John Leguizamo’s dropkick former classmate Dave and Maura’s love interest James (Ike Barinholtz) to Kate’s nemesis Brinda (Maya Rudolph) and super awkward Alex (Bobby Moynihan), and even Korean nail salon worker Hae Won (Greta Lee) — are funnier and more endearing when they first appear, but become boring and much obnoxious the more screen time they get.

The exceptions are probably John Cena’s buffed drug dealer Pazuzu and the time-sensitive and depressed Kelly (Rachel Dratch), though in general I got the feeling that the film is really just a series of sketches filled with caricatures (eg, the wacky Koreans, the butch lesbians, the highly sexualized couple, etc). They are good for a joke or two, but once all the best jokes are used up they don’t really know what else to do with them.

As a series of sketches, Sisters also suffers from other problems, such as tonal inconsistencies and a weak narrative thread. The comedy is a strange mix of Fey and Poehler’s witty humour, modern vulgar humour, stupidity humour, saccharine rom-com humour and annoying yelling and screaming humour. At the same time, there are detours to sweet romance and family drama, and Moore can’t seem to quite figure out how blend all of these elements properly to find a comfortable equilibrium.

There’s also not much of a plot. The vast majority of the movie is hijacked by this long and tedious party that would never end. It just goes on and on, resulting in a ridiculously long 118-minute running time that should have been at least 20-30 minutes shorter.

I sound harsher than I mean to, but that’s because I wanted so much more from the film. Sure, Tina and Amy are great when they’re allowed to work their magic and have amazing chemistry, as we all expected, though I couldn’t avoid the sneaking suspicion throughout the movie that everyone involved in the making of it was having way more fun than the people watching it.

2.5 stars out of 5

Goosebumps (2015)


I owe a massive debt to RL Stein for cultivating my interest in reading as a kid. Unable to satisfy my horror cravings just from the video store, I looked to his Goosebumps book series to get my fix of ghouls and monsters. I still remember looking forward to receiving the monthly book club order forms in primary school so I could get my hands on the next instalment. Granted, they’re not the greatest books from my current perspective as an adult — they’re highly derivative, cliched and predictable — but when I was nine years old I thought they were the best things ever.

Having said that, so much time has passed that I wasn’t particularly eager to see the long-awaited film adaptation. But my son, who is obsessed with monsters himself right now, went nuts when he saw the poster and trailer for the movie, and bugged me until I took him to see it.

To my own surprise, I liked Goosebumps much more than I expected. While it’s not a standout film by any stretch, I still found it to be a fun, funny and occasionally thrilling experience that both current and older fans of the books should be able to enjoy.

For starters, I think it was a brilliant idea to shy away from a direct adaptation of RL Stein’s books and instead include the author himself as a character in the mythology of the universe he invented. The premise is that all the monsters created (well, “blatantly ripped off” is probably more accurate) by Stein are actually real, and they are somehow unleashed by a well-intentioned kid (Dylan Minnette) who moves in next door to the bestselling author (played by Jack Black) and his teenage daughter (Odeya Rush).

This plot device allows all of Stein’s books to play a part, and I was very surprised to discover that I still remembered a lot — if not most — of them. That’s pretty cool. I guess it also means his earlier books were much better than his later ones.

That said, nostalgia alone isn’t enough, and what makes Goosebumps punch above its weight is that it’s actually pretty funny, largely thanks to some solid writing, the brilliance of Jack Black’s performance, and decent comedic timing from director Rob Letterman, who last collaborated with Black on the not-very-good Gulliver’s Travels (there’s even a nice little nod to that film in this one).

Anyway, Black is in excellent form here, really dictating the tone with his quirkiness and distinct style of humour but without steering the movie off path. I’ve never even considered myself a fan of his, but Black was perfect for this role and his presence elevates Goosebumps above what it otherwise should have been.

As a family film, the horror elements are intentionally not very scary, and so the film relies more on frantic action and humour, a lot of which is tongue-in-cheek, which I didn’t have a problem with because the execution is good enough for the overall film to easily roar pass a passing grade. To be fair, some of the CGI characters do look quite cartoonish, but if you look at them as monsters brought to life from the pages of children’s books then it becomes easier to digest.

Like the books, Goosebumps the film is also not too long (103 minutes) and somewhat cliched and predictable, though if you appreciate the film for what it is aiming to be and consider the target audience I think you can call it a success. My son certainly thinks it’s a 5-star film. As for me?

3.5 stars out of 5!

Deep Dark (2015)


Horror films have been making a bit of a comeback in recent years, and I had heard some good things about Deep Dark, a little indie film with a bizarre premise: a struggling artist finds a talking hole in the wall that can fulfill his dreams for greatness — at a price.

I knew it was not going to be a spectacular horror flick given its low budget — and sure does look cheap — but I was hoping that there would be some intriguing ideas that I would find creepy or at least weird me out.

Unfortunately, Deep Dark fails to deliver. It is indeed an odd film, with a lot more moments of comedy than I had anticipated. However, the storytelling is weak, especially after the hole in the wall appears, taking us down a fairly familiar and predictable path despite the best efforts of writer and director Michael Medaglia to make the film stand out from the pack.

It also did not help that the protagonist is not likable, and neither him nor the supporting characters are well written or developed. The no-name cast is okay, I suppose, adequate but not providing particularly strong performances.

The idea of a talking hole in the wall is cool, though there was no feel of mystery to it. Most importantly, it simply wasn’t scary. There were times when I felt like the scene was building up to something with potential, but apart from a few clever visual gimmicks nothing genuinely horrific eventuates. Instead of a climatic revelation the film went for disappointing melodrama.

Ultimately, Deep Dark is one of those interesting concepts that wasn’t fleshed out effectively enough for a feature-length film (albeit a 79-minute one). Perhaps a short film would have been a better idea.

1.5 stars out of 5

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)


Most people have probably heard of the controversial Stanford Prison Experiment, in which a bunch of elite college students in 1971 got more than they bargained for when they volunteered for an unusual psychological study to play either inmates and guards in a simulated prison environment. There have been a few movies based on the concept, most notably the 2010 film The Experiment (starring Adrien Brody and Forest Whitaker), but I wasn’t aware of a film that tried to depict the actual events — until now.

The Stanford Prison Experiment is largely based on the book by Stanford University psychology professor Philip Zimbardo, the man who conducted the study back in 1971 to test the hypothesis that the personality traits of prisoners and guards are the chief cause of abusive behaviour between them. And so begins a fascinating look into the complex and unexpected dynamics between power and authority, subservience and rebellion, empathy and cruelty. It’s not just the inmates and guards either — the effects of the experiment extended to the teachers and the supervisors, and even to the relationship between Zimbardo and his girlfriend, who happens to be a former student of his.

This is by no means an easy film to watch — some parts are unbearably tense, others just plain unbearable — but it’s one that absolutely captivated me from start to finish. Part of it is indeed the intrigue of the premise itself, though it would be unfair to attribute it all to that since I basically already knew what would happen and what the outcome would be.

It is a low budget film, but it’s also a film that didn’t need much of a budget because almost all of it is set in the simulated prison on the university campus. The filmmakers do a fantastic job of creating a sense of claustrophobia and paranoia, and most importantly they somehow manage to make you believe what is happening on screen despite how little sense it seems to make. It made me incredulous, it made me angry, and it made me sad — it’s one of those surreal experiences that make you question what you think you know about human nature and even yourself.

The film is far from fast-paced, though there’s always enough drama and tension — notwithstanding some repetitiveness — to compel me to keep watching. I suspect it will be remembered as a polarising film, and I can definitely understand if some people dislike it for its dark tones and ugliness.

First announced in 2002,  The Stanford Prison Experiment was in developmental hell for a dozen years before unknown director Kyle Patrick Alvarez managed to get it done with a brilliant cast of established actors and up-and-coming stars.

Headlining the performers is Billy Crudup, who plays the well-intentioned Zimbardo, with a whole bunch of recognisable names — or at least faces — filling out the other roles. These include Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, and soon-to-be Flash in the new DC cinematic universe), Michael Angarano (The Final Kingdom, Red State), Tye Sheridan (Mud, Tree of Life, and soon-to-be young Cyclops in X-Men: Apocalypse), Logan Miller (Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse), James Frecheville (the fantastic Aussie man-child from Animal Kingdom), Johnny Simmons (Jennifer’s Body, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, The Perks of Being a Wallflower), Ki Hong Lee (The Maze Runner series), Jack Kilmer (Palo Alto; Val Kilmer’s son), Thomas Mann (Project X, Me Earl and the Dying Girl, Barely Lethal), Olivia Thirlby (Juno, Dredd), and Nelsan Ellis (True Blood).

Interestingly, the script is co-written by Christoper McQuarrie, best known for winning the screenplay Oscar for The Usual Suspects and more recently for writing Edge of Tomorrow and directing the awesome Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation.

As uncomfortable and frustrating as it is, I think The Stanford Prison Experiment is a brilliant film that will have you asking yourself how you might react in their situations. Though it’s based on events that are more than 40 years old, the concepts and themes remain as relevant today as they did then, perhaps even more so in light of what we now know since the outbreak of the War on Terror. Thanks to the wonderful performances from the talented cast, a great script and skillful filmmaking, I found myself engrossed in the experiment, much like its participants. It’s a chilling and troubling experience that deserves a lot more attention and discussion than it’s been receiving.

4.5 stars out of 5

Curve (2015)


After seeing several blockbusters recently, I decided it was time to go sample something small and low budget. In the end, I went with Curve, a thriller-horror of sorts directed by Iain Softley, best known for Hackers and K-PAX.

The story is about an attractive young woman (Julianne Hough from Rock of Ages and the Footloose remake) who makes a cross country trip in a car before her wedding. Shockingly (or not), her car breaks down on a mountainous desert road, and out of nowhere a handsome stranger (Teddy Sears) comes to her rescue.

You can guess what happens next, but chances are, like me, you won’t get it completely right. Curve is a film that borrows liberally from other thrillers and horrors without being an obvious rip off of any. Just off the top of my head I can see shadows of Misery, Wolf Creek and even 127 Hours, though it would be unfair to say the film lacks its own ideas.

Despite the low budget, Softley does a solid job of creating an atmosphere of uneasiness and unpredictability. The progression of the story might actually not be hard to figure out, though at least in the moment I had the feeling that anything could happen next. A lot of the scares came from the fear of what could happen and what could be taking place off screen as opposed to what I was seeing.

However, the film still suffers from the typical irrational decisions and reactions of the characters. I have a feeling some of it is intentional and aimed at infuriating viewers, which is fine, but on occasion it oversteps the mark and becomes a detriment to the level of tension Softley is attempting to achieve.

The dialogue is for the most part strong despite some lapses when it tries too hard to make a character seem creepy. In my opinion those moments don’t quite sit right with the rest of film’s tone and the level of extremity it is targeting.

Hough’s performance is very good. She doesn’t quite make you desperately want to see her live, though at least she doesn’t make you want to see her die a gruesome death. At least I didn’t anyway. By contrast, Sears is weaker. I can see what he was supposed to be but he lacks both the initial charm and likability as well as the later creepiness and fear-inducing demeanor. He’s not terrible but he’s not terrifying either.

The final act of the film also unfortunately stumbles into familiar territory, and this is where the predictability and nonsensical irrationality ramps up to border on annoying. I’m not proclaiming to know a better solution but it just seems to me that all of these films tend to dovetail into a similar climax with the same outcome.

Overall, Curve does have its moments of intrigue and tension, which is more than I can say for the majority of low-budget thriller-horrors these days. It doesn’t get to where it needs to be, but there are enough positives here to justify a rental when there are no better alternatives.

2.75 stars out of 5

Straight Outta Compton (2015)


You know you’re not the target market for this movie when your idea of rap is Vanilla Ice. I knew nothing about the Californian hip hop group NWA or their debut album, Straight Outta Compton, from which the film borrows its title. I knew vaguely about Dr Dre (primarily through Eminem) and I thought Ice Cube was mostly known for being the porky fella in crap movies like XXX: State of the Union and Ride Along.

And so it surprises me to say that I absolutely loved Straight Outta Compton.  I think it’s one of the most fascinating and gripping dramas I’ve seen all year.

For those as ignorant as me, the film tells the remarkable true story of a bunch of poor black kids from Compton, California who rise to become one of the first and certainly most influential gangsta rap groups of the late-80s to the mid-90s. Since it’s produced by Ice Cube and Dr Dre, the film largely focuses on the two of them (played by Ice Cube’s real-life son, O’Shea Jackson Jr and The Walking Dead‘s Corey Hawkins) along with the popular Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell), while other members such as DJ Yella and MC Ren are largely left in the background and Arabian Prince is controversially ignored nearly altogether.

Other key characters include their Jewish manager, Jerry Heller (played by Paul Giamatti), and Dr Dre’s Death Row Records co-founder Suge Knight (R Marcos Taylor), who has incidentally been charged with murder and attempted murder following an altercation with two men on the set of the film earlier this year. You’ll also see young versions of Snoop Dogg  (Keith Stanfield), Tupac (Marcc Rose), Warren G  (Sheldon A Smith), and so forth, which for some fans will be pretty cool.

As expected, race plays a central theme in the film, and it’s mostly controlled with a strong but delicate hand that neither understates nor overstates its importance. Those who know NWA will be familiar with their controversial songs and lyrics and the way they reflected black attitudes and shaped black culture at the time. Real-life events such as the Rodney King beating are also prominently featured to give a gritty sense of time and place.

However, the heart of the film — and what makes it so compelling — is ultimately the relationships between the members of the group (and to a lesser extent their relationship with Heller). It’s depicted as a genuine brotherhood, albeit one that grows full of conflict as they each deal with their ascensions to stardom in different ways. Kudos to director F Gary Gray (The Negotiator, The Italian Job remake) and actors for making the characters really stand out, having their own unique personalities but also that common thread of the sobering reality of being a young black man in the United States.

I must admit — with the risk of coming off as a complete racist — that at the beginning of the movie I was having trouble telling characters apart because they were all wearing the same black caps and speaking the same way, though it didn’t take long for their individual traits to shine through. That’s the sign of good filmmaking.

With no prior knowledge of their history or story, I was captivated by their journey, as well as the underlying political strife and the murky dynamics of record companies. Many of the issues tackled in the film — such as police profiling and brutality, freedom of speech vs inciting unrest, and the dark side of the music industry — remain pertinent today.

Now, I took their story, as depicted in the film, with a grain of salt. Any time you have a biographical film, especially with stars producing a film about their younger selves — you’re probably getting a highly glamourised version of the tale with the uglier truths glossed over. I knew that was probably the case here, even before I read about the complaints on how certain characters’ roles with diminished, how some people were unhappy with the way they were portrayed (Heller is suing), and the inevitable accusations of misogyny.

While I have no doubt that most of these criticisms have elements of truth, I think the filmmakers still did a great job given the circumstances. There is only so much you can cram into a 147-minute movie with so many characters over so many years. Taking into account that two of the producers are actually in the film, and that liberties have to be taken to make the story more exciting and cinematic, Straight Outta Compton turned out to be much more even-handed than I was expecting. Dr Dre’s Image was probably cleaned up a little bit more, though it’s good to see Ice Cube not having a problem with seeing himself doing some things that perhaps don’t reflect on him too well (and getting his son to reenact them!).

In all, Straight Outta Compton is a fabulously fascinating biopic, full of energy and drama but without the cheesiness and the cliched atmosphere this type of film would have been plagued with in lesser hands. Apart from a cast of actors who resemble their real-life counterparts, it’s powered by strong, memorable performances that never feels short of chemistry between them. I wouldn’t go as far as to say I am now a fan of NWA or their music, but I definitely have no problem saying that I am a big fan of the movie. It’s perhaps not as powerful as some, though it certainly is one of the most watchable and entertaining biopics I’ve seen in years.

4.5 stars out of 5

Howl (2015)


And the horror binge continues.

I can’t remember where, but I saw the trailer for Howl not long ago and was instantly intrigued. I’m a fan of the “strangers stuck in a place” conceit, and this one’s set on a London train that breaks down in the middle of a dark and stormy night with a small group of characters on board.

There’s the ticket inspector, the food cart operator, an elderly couple, a teenage girl, a middle-aged woman, a middle-aged sleazeball, and so on and so forth. We’re talking about a cast of around 10 people. Only a few of them know each other, and the rest are standoffish strangers in mostly bad moods.

Of course, as the title suggests, there’s something howling in the surrounding woods, and it’s out for fresh blood. Sounds kinda interesting, right?

The lead actor looked extremely familiar to me, but I couldn’t recall his name or where I had seen him until I looked it up. Ed Speelers…does that ring a bell? And no, I have not seen Downtown Abby, so it’s not from there. Think back to 2006; a fantasy story about a boy and his dragon before How to Train Your Dragon came along.

Yes, ladies and gentleman. If you ever wondered what happened to the kid who played the titular character in Eragon. The film was supposed to be the next Harry Potter at the time but got panned by critics despite moderate financial success (US$250m box office on a US$100m budget). Still, surprised they didn’t make a sequel.

I digress; Ed Speelers is pretty good in this as the hapless ticket inspector turned reluctant leader of the pack, but unfortunately, Howl burns through its positive aspects pretty quickly before resorting to a bunch of horror tropes. It’s a campy monster flick that has very few scares, especially after the monster appears, and the laughs are virtually non-existent.

It’s one of those movies that make no sense whichever way you dissect it, from the actions and motives of the characters to that of the monster. Everything is manipulated to conveniently fit the progression of the script, including the sudden stupidity of the characters who dies and when and how it happens.

There’s a time and place for enjoyable campy horrors and guilty pleasures, but Howl falls short of both thresholds.

2 stars out of 5