Tag Archives: James Franco

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Unlike the majority of the movie-going audience, I was one of those people who really enjoyed 2012’s Prometheus. While I acknowledged its flaws and all the nonsensical, I found myself captivated by the horror and action elements as well as the creature designs and mythology of the universe it had created.

Fast forward now to Alien: Covenant, which is carrying high expectations given Ridley Scott’s return to form following The Martian. Whereas Prometheus tried to shy away from a direct connection to the Alien franchise, the title of this sequel indicates that they are fully embracing it this time. The trailers also showed that the movie appeared to be returning to the horror roots of the original. To be honest, even though I thought the trailers looked good, I wasn’t all that sold on Alien: Covenant because it felt like it was trying too hard to recapture the magic of the original, putting it at risk of resorting to cliches and thinly veiled homages.

Turned out I was wrong. Alien: Covenant is without a doubt a true sequel to Prometheus, but it also fails to duplicate the sense of genuine terror that made Alien so great and the awesome action that made Aliens an instant classic.

The story picks up about a decade after the Prometheus went missing, with the Covenant carrying a new crew and a whole bunch of colonists and embryos in cryosleep. The only waking member when the film starts is Walter (Michael Fassbender), an android with the same likeness as David from Prometheus. Naturally, stuff happens, and the crew finds themselves on a detour where deadly alien life may or may not be lurking.

The cast is led by the brilliant Assbender (he bends so much ass in this film) and Katherine Waterston as Daniels, with a surprisingly effective dramatic performance by usual stoner Danny McBride and the typically reliable Billy Crudup. There are about half a dozen other supporting characters, but none of them are particularly memorable, which is one of the key problems I had with the film. In fact, apart from Assbender, no one really stands out, not even Waterston, who falls way short of channeling her inner Ellen Ripley. Despite the similar height and the hair, it’s not even close.

You don’t need to have seen Prometheus to understand what happens in this film, though it certainly helps. That said, I can still imagine a lot of people being confused as to what’s going on with the plot, especially regarding what happened on the planet on which the characters find themselves on. Even I had to go back and read up on Prometheus again on Wikipedia to give myself a bit of a refresher on all the stuff about the mysterious Engineers and so forth.

However, the most important reason people will watch Alien: Covenant is for the horror/action, and the film does enough to satisfy, for the most part. Notwithstanding a couple of scenarios I found somewhat tacky, most of the horror sequences in the film deliver, with one in particular standing out from the first half of the movie. I liked that the film did not shy away from the gore and some very disgusting visuals, though I felt not enough time was spent on building up the suspense. I also enjoyed the evolution of the creatures throughout the film until we see the classic facehuggers and of course the first xenomorph. Kudos for using mostly animatronics for the creature effects as they simply look a lot more realistic than CGI.

So I found myself frightened, disgusted and excited at various parts throughout the 123-minute movie, but never truly terrified like I was for Alien or on the edge of my seat like I was for Aliens.  Considering it also had a plot that was probably more convoluted than necessary, a fairly predictable ending, and a lack of memorable characters, Alien: Covenant was clearly not as good as I wanted it to be. Despite enjoying it for what it was and being engaged all the way through, I actually think I prefer Prometheus more.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: I just heard they are filming the sequel to Alien: Covenant starting next year.

True Story (2015)

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When you think of Jonah Hill and James Franco in a movie called True Story, the last thing you’d expect is a serious drama about a journalist and a suspected killer (you’re probably thinking a homo-erotic stoner comedy). That’s perhaps why their latest collaboration hasn’t done well with critics (45% Rotten Tomatoes) or at the box office (US$5.1 million).

To be honest, while the film has its fair share of flaws, I didn’t think it was bad at all. It’s a really fascinating true story that explores the complex relationship between two interesting characters with questionable motives.

Hill plays Michael Finkel, a journalist whose career is in tatters after his editors at the New York Times discover that he was not entirely truthful in his latest feature article. While scrambling for work back home in Montana with his wife Jill (Felicity Jones), he stumbles upon a unique opportunity: a man who charged with multiple homicides, Christian Longo (Franco), was using Finkel’s identity while on the run.

Sensing a book in the vein of the classic The Journalist and the Murderer by Janet Malcolm, Finkel visits Longo in prison and the two strike up an unlikely friendship. Much of the film revolves around the face-to-face meetings between the two, with each gradually opening up and divulging more about their personalities. Finkel sees the relationship as his chance for career redemption, but also begins to develop a kinship with the charming suspect, who remains evasive about his role in the deaths, if any.

I like how the story develops before Longo’s trial, so the court scenes end up being the film’s climax. True Story‘s biggest problem is that it fails to take full advantage of the intrigue due to a long and slow-burning middle patch where the narrative stalls. It’s an unfortunate lull, because it’s supposed to be the time when the story digs below the surface to get to the core of the characters, or at least build them up sufficiently for the climatic finish.

As a result, True Story lacks that heart-pounding suspense and the bone-chilling sensations a more effective film would have brought out of the premise. It’s like all the ingredients are there, but the chef couldn’t quite put them together the right way to maximise the tastiness of the dish. When I was watching the film I wondered whether it might have been more suited to being a stage production. Interestingly, the director of the film, Rupert Goold, is known predominantly as a theater director and had only made two Shakespearean TV films before this one.

Still, Hill and Franco deliver solid performances and exude expected chemistry. While the film is no doubt duller than it ought to have been, it certainly has more depth than your average Law & Order episode. Fans of the two actors and those interested in true crime stories could be pleasantly surprised.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Interview (2014)

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Let’s face it, the Sony hacking incident was the biggest blessing for The Interview, the most talked-about movie of 2014. Without all the furore, it would have been just another shitty Seth Rogan comedy, albeit one about two entertainment industry morons hired by the CIA to assassinate North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-in.

I too watched it out of curiosity more than anything else, with the hope that the low expectations created from the bad reviews would improve my overall impression of the film.

And for the first half or so, The Interview was exceeding my expectations. As anticipated, Seth Rogan and James “freak” Franco basically played versions of themselves, which is irritating but not the worst thing in the world. The introduction to Franco’s gossip entertainment show, Skylark Tonight, was a brilliant segment featuring Eminem where we learned that Rogen, the show’s producer, is the straight face of the comedy duo. They followed this up with a few more interesting set pieces such as the Rob Lowe sketch, the setting up of the interview itself and the subsequent CIA training with Lizzy Caplan.

Even the first few scenes after their arrival in Pyongyang contained some solid laughs, and by this stage I was wondering why people appeared to hate this movie more than any of Seth Rogen’s other efforts. I grew optimistic that The Interview could best arguably Rogen’s two best films, This is the End (which I didn’t even like that much) and Pineapple Express.

Ironically, it was when the subject of the interview, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park) appeared on screen that the film began  accelerating downhill. After about half a dozen of laugh-out-loud moments in the film’s first hour — the rule of thumb for a good comedy — I didn’t laugh again. Not once.

Part of the blame has to go to the directors, Seth Rogan and his buddy Evan Goldberg, and another part has to go to the screenwriter, Dan Sterling. It was as though they did not know how to handle Kim’s character. They had the right idea with the daddy issues, the deceit, and the secret love of American culture, but the execution was flat and the punchlines lacked, well, punch.

The main culprit, however, was probably Randall Park, or at least whoever cast him in the role. Park’s version of Kim was simply not comical enough. I know he put on weight for the role, but the added girth simply gave him the heavy look, not the tubby, pudgy cuteness Kim has going for him. Kim looks and feels like a petulant chubby kid, whereas Park comes across as a full-grown man with a mean streak in him. Whether it was the look, the voice, the accent or the expressions, Park’s performance felt off the mark. It’s strange, but the Kim Jong-in I have in my mind just from seeing his photos and reading about him in papers is much more hilarious than the version portrayed in this movie.

Having said all that, half a decent comedy is better than a completely shit comedy all the way through. Accordingly, I have to admit that The Interview is better than I expected. There are moments of satirical brilliance scattered throughout in the first half, but the second half, perhaps constrained by the need to live up to the premise, was a dud filled with obvious gags and witless humour. So I guess you could ultimately look at The Interview in two mutually inclusive ways — a fundamentally shit film with a handful of funny-to-very-funny moments, or just another mediocre Seth Rogen movie that will make no absolutely difference to your life whether you watch it or not.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Good People (2014)

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Interesting premise, but that’s unfortunately the only genuinely good thing I can say about Good People, a violent thriller starring James Franco and Kate Hudson as an American couple in London who of discover a bag of dirty money.

The film, the feature debut of Danish director Henrik Ruben Genz, starts off relatively well, with a robbery-gone-wrong scenario that leaves a bunch of ruthless criminals desperate to get their hands on money they think they deserve. Enter Tom (Franco) and Anna (Hudson) Wright, a couple who relocated to the UK for a new start after the financial crisis. Things aren’t much better for them in London, but that hasn’t stopped Anna pining for a baby.

Things supposedly make a turn for the better when the couple discover the robbery money, which can make a lot of their financial problems go away. But of course, it also brings along with it a whole bunch of new problems. It’s one of those “What would you do in the same situation?” ideas, and for the first half of the movie or so I understood where they were going with it.

But as the film progressed it started falling into the trap of a typical crappy Hollywood thriller, where things start getting more and more ridiculous and idiotic. There’s a lot of stuff here that fails the smell test of basic logic and common sense, and before long the whole thing crumbles into an expected bloodbath with a predictable and utterly unrealistic ending. Making the couple American while setting the story in the London also didn’t add anything.

Genz’s style is dark and somber, which matches the tone of the film well. He’s also pretty adept at creating tension through visceral violence, which worked to the film’s advantage in the first half until it became a little too much to swallow. There’s just nothing particularly exciting or fresh with his approach though.

As for the performances…I’m not much of a fan of either lead, and they haven’t exactly won me over after watching this movie. Franco was a little better — you can tell he’s trying to put on a serious face — but Hudson was just plain weird. Some of the blame has to go to the script, which made her inconsistent and unlikable. And that’s one of the main problems of the film — you’re not actually rooting for the protagonists to make it out alive because they don’t really deserve to. Tom Wilkinson plays a detective who gets caught up in the mess and he’s just a completely unbelievable character.

In the end, Good People turned out to be a forgettable disappointment. I didn’t have high expectations to begin with, but this was at best a pedestrian DVD rental or late-night cable movie you stumble upon, not a film worthy of a cinematic release.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Those who have read an article or two on this blog might have noticed that I have what you might call a bit of a Planet of the Apes infatuation. I declared the franchise reboot, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the best film of 2011. I declared its long awaited sequel, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, my most anticipated movie of 2014. I’m not quite sure what it is, but there’s just something about the story, the franchise, that has me going all ape.

This time around, the story takes place about a decade after the end of the previous film, when the so-called Simian flu — the same virus that gave the apes their intelligence — has wiped out the vast majority of the human population. All that remains, as far as we know, is a group of naturally immune survivors living in San Francisco led by a man named Dreyfus (Gary Oldman). Desperate for a source of power, a band of humans led by Malcolm (Aussie Jason Clarke) venture into the woods, where they run into the protagonist of the Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Caesar (Andy Serkis), and his growing tribe of smart apes.

Just like its predecessor, the humans in Dawn take a back seat to the apes, who are far more interesting and dominate the narrative. It was a necessary decision to abandon the human cast from the first film, in particular James Franco’s Dr Will Rodman, the man responsible for creating the Simian flu in the first place (Franco is too busy posting nude photos of himself on the internet anyway). This is because, as an ape film, it’s important to see Caesar’s continued growth into the great revolutionary leader he’s destined to be. In Dawn, he has established societal order in his ape tribe, built a home, and started a family. He is compassionate, loyal and intelligent — but he can still be a total badass when he needs to be.

Key returning ape characters include Maurice (Karin Konoval), the big, clever orangutan who acts as third in command and the apes’ voice of reason, as well as Koba (Toby Kebbell), the tortured, mutilated ape Caesar liberated in the first film who understandably has trouble containing his distrust for humans and his violent temper. The most important new additions are Cornelia (Judy Greer), Caesar’s partner, and Blue Eyes (Nick Thurston), their rebellious son.

On the human side, the central character is Jason Clarke’s Malcolm, but apart from him everyone else is underdeveloped. There’s his second wife, Ellie (Kerri Russell), and his teenage son, Alexander (fellow Aussie Kodi Smit-McPhee), plus a stereotypical human a-hole named Carver (Kirk Acevedo from Fringe), but none of the supporting human characters get to do much, not even the legendary Gary Oldman.

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To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised by how much of the film is driven by the characters and their relationships. Apart from the bond between Caesar and Malcolm, which forms the heart of the film, there’s also well-executed conflicts between Caesar and his son Blue Eyes and with his second-in-command Koba. This could have very easily been a big, dumb action flick with lots of loud explosions, pointless violence and flashy effects (in the vein of Michael Bay), but director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield), who took over the reins from Rupert Wyatt, managed to keep his focus on the things that truly matter.

Dawn is not just a humans vs apes story — it’s a tale of survival that traverses universal themes such as ingrained discrimination, tribal loyalties, political complexities and familial bonds. It’s Reeves’ ability to craft these themes amid the chaos and action that enable the emotions to resonate, and it’s also what makes Dawn more memorable than your average sci-fi.

There were perhaps some missed opportunities to explore relationships on the human side (in particular Malcolm and his son), and some audiences might be disappointed with the lack of prominent female roles (Cornelia, in particular, felt like a wasted character), though on the whole I felt like the script by returning writers Amanda Silver, Rick Jaffa and new addition Mark Bomback (who has s chequered history with Die Hard 4 and the crap Total Recall remake but also the underrated Unstoppable and last year’s The Wolverine on his resume), was more than adequate.

Part of the reason the ape characters are so compelling to watch is because they come across as real people (even more so than the humans), but at the same time we are constantly reminded of how different they are and how dangerous they can be. All wonderful ape performances are again done by motion capture, and the technology is even more impressive than it was last time as the apes have a more expansive vocabulary and hence more facial movements and expressions. I’m sure real apes don’t look quite like the apes in the film, but what matters is that they look incredibly realistic, not only in their physical appearance but also in the way their bodies move and interact with their surroundings. There was not a second during the film when I thought anything looked unnatural or out of place, and full credit must go to the special effects team and the understated performance capture of the actors.

And it is thanks in large part to the special effects that Dawn contains some of the most epic battle sequences and fight scenes you’ll see this year. As the number of apes have increased dramatically, the scale of the action dwarfs that in Rise, with several sublimely choreographed scenes that had me staring in awe from the edge of my seat. Further, the violence was never without reason or purpose, so unlike some action flicks (cough, Michael Bay) I never felt like I was getting numb from it all. Apes against humans, humans against humans, apes against apes. It’s pure, satisfying, mindblowing entertainment.

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Having set myself up for disappointment by living in ape hype for the last three years, Dawn actually lived up to my unrealistic expectations. Yes, I admit I am partial to the franchise, but how rare does a blockbuster of this magnitude turn out to be as good as you predicted? While the film was different to what I thought it would be, it was still bloody freaking sensational. As tense, emotional and exciting as I had envisioned. As visually stunning as I had imagined. As epic as I had hoped. Sure, if you want to you can nitpick all day, about the weakness in the script, the lack of development of the human characters (especially the females), the Hollywood stereotypes and cliches, the too-obvious exposition in the dialogue, the untied loose ends, and so forth.

Ultimately, however, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is about as close as you can get to the perfect summer blockbuster. This goes beyond just living up to its excellent predecessor — Dawn is to Rise what The Empire Strikes Back is to Star Wars, what The Godfather: Part II is to The Godfather. It might not be as intelligent as it wanted to be, but it’s still undeniably thought-provoking. It might not be as emotionally involving as it could have been, but it still tugs at the heart strings. There could have potentially been more action sequences earlier on or a more climatic ending, but you can hardly complain about what’s already there. When you factor in everything the film got right and the complete-package experience that it provides, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes is simply the most flat-out awesome movie of the year.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Now it’s another 2-year wait until the next instalment in the series, currently scheduled for July 26, 2016 release date.

2013 Movie Blitz: Part IX

This is the last one. Seriously. The best and worst of 2013 coming right up after this!

The Family (2013)

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Robert De Niro may be a legend, but his career choices are inching closer and closer to Nicholas Cage territory with every mediocre film he decides to star in. The Family, on its face, should not have fallen into that category, as it’s directed by legendary Frenchman Luc Besson and features an all-star cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron. But somehow, this uneven, largely unfunny black comedy manages to turn itself into a mess that De Niro will likely want to pretend never existed.

De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, Mafia boss who turns to snitching after an attempt on his life. So together with his wife (Pfeiffer) and two kids (Agron and John D’Leo), they relocate to France under a witness protection program under the supervision of FBI agent Stansfield (Jones).

It’s an interesting premise brimming with potential. The central joke is that, as a Mafia family, they can’t be normal even if they tried. They’re scheming sociopaths and borderline psychopaths who just can’t play along and pretend to be a normal family. De Niro can’t stop killing people who offend him; Pfeiffer loves burning stuff down; Agron has a violent streak in her; and D’Leo is a scheming weasel who is the ultimate reconnaissance expert.

There are several key problems with The Family. The first is that Besson never gets the tone quite right. It’s a very dark comedy accompanied by over-the-top violence, but the violence itself is not funny like it is for a film like say Pulp Fiction or Fargo. It felt like the violence never found its role properly.

Secondly, all the central characters are just a little off, and as a result they don’t come across as likable. And it’s hard to root for them when you don’t like them very much. But you can tell Besson is trying to make them likable, which is why it was so strange watching them on screen.

And thirdly, and very strangely, Besson makes French people look like complete a-holes. I understand it was necessary to some extent so that the family can rain their vengeance upon them, but in my opinion it felt obligatory and unnecessary. I know the French are supposed to dislike Americans and vice versa, but this was too much. And they all spoke surprisingly good English too.

In the end I just couldn’t bring myself to like this one. Despite the strong cast, legendary director and best of intentions, The Family is a top-grade disappointment.

2 stars out of 5

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

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First of all, Welcome to the Punch is a really horrible title for this movie. It makes it sound like an action comedy, when in fact it is a gritty action thriller. But apart from that, it’s actually not a bad British cops and robbers flick with some solid performances, stylish action sequences and a few interesting twists and turns.

James McAvoy is Max Lewinsky, a headstrong London cop determined to catch Icelandic criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), who has surfaced after his son was involved in a heist gone wrong. It’s a complicated case that has been a major headache for the police, and so Lewinsky and his partner Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough) are frequently met with internal opposition — opposition that might be intended to impede their progress, and the only person they appear to have in their corner is their superior, Thomas Geiger (The Walking Dead‘s David Morrisey).

What follows is an intriguing game of cat and mouse that features a lot of well executed gunfights. The plot is a little convoluted for my liking, and I admit McAvoy’s protagonist is somewhat douchey, but on the whole I enjoyed the friend-or-foe dynamic between him and the intense and charismatic Strong, whom I believe has a dominating’s screen presence that is second to none.

Welcome to the Punch is not a superior thriller, but it’s a damn serviceable one that can be quite enjoyable if you go in with moderate expectations. Recommended DVD rental.

3.5 stars 

Devil’s Knot (2013)

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I’m always intrigued by Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s take on grief and loss, and so I was somewhat disappointed to hear lukewarm reviews for Devil’s Knot, a dramatization of the true story of the notorious West Memphis Three. Well guess what, I ended up being riveted by the movie from start to finish, so much so that I went on to devour all four documentaries made on the subject — Paradise Lost and its two sequels, and last year’s West of Memphis, made by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and wife Fran Walsh.

The true story, for those unfamiliar, takes place in 1993 and begins when three young boys in West Memphis disappear one afternoon and are later found dead, naked, tied up and mutilated. Given that hysteria surrounding Satanic worship was at a peak, it came as no surprise that police targeted local “white trash” teenage outcast Damien Echols and his two friends, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley — the trio that would later be known as the West Memphis Three.

The evidence against them is supposedly strong (Misskelley, who is borderline retarded, confesses), and the penalty is potentially death. This leads anti-capital punishment advocate and private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) to lend his services to the overwhelmed defense team. Lax starts out only wanting to prevent the boys from being executed, but the more he digs, the more he becomes convinced that the teens are innocent. On the other hand, Pamela Hobbs (a frumpy Reese Witherspoon, who was pregnant at time of filming), the mother of one of the victims, struggles to deal with her son’s death and the subsequent media circus.

Putting aside the merits of the film, Devil’s Knot is one of those films that’s inherently compulsive to watch simply because of the subject matter. It’s a true story that’s stranger than fiction, complete with a long list of potential suspects, intriguing characters, bizarre pieces of evidence and mass hysteria. The police witch hunt and incompetence is undeniable. And yet, at the end of the day, there are no definitive answers, only suspicions.

I suppose that is why critics were harsh on the film, with many calling it a “frustrating” experience because of the lack of a genuine resolution. I do agree with that to some point, but at the same time it does point us in a certain direction and asks us to draw our own conclusions as to the guilt of the West Memphis Three and the “alternate” suspects. Maybe that was the point Egoyan was trying to get across — that is, this is perhaps a mystery we’ll never truly get to the bottom of, and many true crime stories of immense loss fall in the same category.

For me, this was fantastic filmmaking, backed up by excellent performances. The initial pain and devastating felt real. The subsequent anger and thirst for revenge felt real. And that feeling when everything you thought to be true is turned upside down was expertly delivered. My main complaint about it is how abruptly it ends and how it required a long slab of writing onscreen to explain an aftermath that would extend for another 18 years.

Now having seen all the documentaries, I sort of understand why critics say Devil’s Knot did not provide any new insight and really had nothing to add. I don’t agree. While the film only captures a fraction of all there is to tell, and dramatizes scenes that are already captured in the documentaries, I still think there is something to be gained from the viewing experience. It’s a different medium with a different style, and as a result the emotional impact is also completely different. Perhaps my opinion would be different had I watched the documentaries first, but since I did not, and did not know how things turned out in the end, I found Devil’s Knot to be one of the most haunting and engrossing films of the year. I’d definitely recommend it for people who haven’t seen the documentaries and know little of the true story.

4 stars out of 5

Homefront (2013)

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Feels like we’ve seen it all before, but what the heck. A bit more ass-kicking from  Jason Statham is rarely ever a bad thing.

In Homefront, Statham plays an undercover DEA agent who relocates to a country town with his young daughter after his cover is blown. And guess what? the place is running amok with the rednecks and hillbillies, who present themselves as perfect fodder for Statham to beat the crap out of them.

But wait, there’s more. After a run in with a hillbilly woman played by Kate Bosworth and her fat bully son, Statham becomes embroiled in an increasingly dangerous dispute with her brother and local meth kingpin, James Franco. Yes, James Franco!

From there it’s all very predictable. A lot of danger and a lot of ass kicking. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill action thriller that reminds me of those low-budget 80s classics, though I must say I enjoyed it somewhat on a pure entertainment level. If you want to see Franco get the shit kicked out of him then this is the movie for you. The story is actually based on a book that has been adapted into a screenplay by none other than Sylvester Stallone, so you know it’s overcharged with masculinity and macho dialogue. And of course, realism is not a priority.

I was also surprised by the cast. Apart from Statham, Bosworth and Franco, there was also Winona Ryder in a strange role as Franco’s ex-girlfriend, and everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank, Clancy Brown, playing the local sheriff.

The trailers made Homefront look much more A-grade and intriguing than it really is. I’m not saying it’s bad — as I said I rather enjoyed it — though ultimately it is one of those forgettable films that don’t really matter, and without its all-star cast, it’s hard to see how this film could have gotten a cinematic release.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Spring Breakers (2013)

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I thought Project X, that sorry excuse for a film about three losers who decide to throw a massive house party, was the worst movie of 2012. Spring Breakers is more attractive visually and has much bigger names attached to it, but it’s pretty much the Project X of 2013, except more pretentious.

Written and directed by Harmony Korine (Gummo), Spring Breakers is about four college girls – Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Vanessa Hudgens and Rachel Korine (the director’s wife) – who head to a spring break party full of drunken rowdiness and intoxicated/drugged up debauchery in skimpy outfits. After a brief brush with the law, they meet Alien, a local gangster played by a corn-rolled James Franco, causing their world to spiral out of control.

That doesn’t make it sound too bad, except that it is. Spring Breakers was made with the intention to shock and disgust audiences with the despicable behaviour of college students on spring break. This means there’s lots of raunchy dancing, drug use, alcohol abuse and nudity and swearing, which is not necessarily bad if done in the right way.

But Korine’s approach feels gratuitous and contrived, with a really lame narrative structure that jumps around and repeats pointlessly behind an even more irritating Terrence Malick-style voiceover that only accentuates how unattractive and unlikable the protagonists are. Most of all, despite decent performances from all four of them, they don’t feel real. Stupid and obnoxious, yes, but not genuine people.

James Franco’s acting is actually fairly strong in this, but his character is a laughable parody. He’s hilarious (unintentionally), actually, but only because he is so pathetic. In fact, there are several moments in this movie that fall between unintentionally funny and cringeworthy, and none of them are intended. The film’s Wikipedia page calls it a “comedy drama” but it’s really an “unintentionally comedic drama.”

Spring Breakers would have still been salvageable had the story been interesting or compelling, but there wasn’t really much of a story to speak of either. And the ending was just flat out horrible. A ridiculous and fitting end to a loathsome movie.

0.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: This is the End (2013)

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While I’m not the biggest fan of Seth Rogen, I was really looking forward to This is the End,  an apocalypse movie featuring a bunch of comedic actors as parodied versions of themselves. The list of celebrities in the film is long — the leads include Rogen, Jay Baruchel, James Franco, Jonah Hill, Craig Robinson and Danny McBride, with cameos from the likes of Emma Watson, Michael Cera, Rihanna, Paul Rudd, Kevin Hart, Christopher Mintz-Plasse, David Krumholtz, Channing Tatum and Aziz Ansari. The film has received mixed reviews, and I can see why. It’s undoubtedly a good time and funny, albeit a little too hit-and-miss, and could have and probably should have been a lot funnier.

The central character of the whole thing is actually Jay Baruchel (She’s Out of My League, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and How to Train Your Dragon), who arrives in LA to catch up with his buddy Seth Rogen as they head off to a house party at James Franco’s house attended by all the above stars. Midway through the party the biblical End of Days (as depicted in the Arnie movie of the same name) descends upon them and the surviving celebs must find a way to deal with the terrifying aftermath, one that involves demonic monsters and possession.

It’s such an obvious idea, but as you can imagine, it’s also brimming with potential for laughs. I imagine the writers, Rogen and buddy Evan Goldberg, were likely stoned when they wrote this loose script, and it shows. There isn’t much of a plot, and the majority of the movie involves moronic, childish and sexually explicit banter and one-liners from the cast that serve to lampoon themselves.

Each of the actors plays a version of their real-life persona, one that corresponds with the public perception of them. Rogen, for example, is the same goofball you see in all his films, while McBride is the obnoxious slacker he portrayed in Your Highness. James Franco is interesting as a pretentious, sexually ambiguous nerd, though the funniest (and also most obvious) one is Michael Cera, whose has played this over-the-top douchebag version of himself so many times now that it has to make you wonder…

With so many comedians given free rein to show what they can do, you can expect at least some laughs, though how funny you find This is the End will likely depend on how much you like the particular brand of comedy of the six lead characters — ie, loud, profane, occasionally sharp, random, politically incorrect stoner comedy. I’ve always found this type of comedy a bit of a mixed bag. For instance, I really enjoyed Pineapple Express but hated Your Highness and thought films like Superbad and Knocked Up were overrated. I would place this film near the higher end the spectrum, mainly because no particular actor dominates and it was fun watching them play off each other. A couple of clever ideas had me laughing out loud pretty hard.

That said, I think it could have been funnier — perhaps with more scripted jokes, or less, or more editing to refine the material down to just the best parts. There were just too many jokes wasted for missing the mark or being too obvious.

Still, This is the End has enough quality stuff packed into it to make it one of the more memorable comedies of the year. Strangely, even though the story becomes more farcical as it progressed, it did not feel as though there was a mismatch with the “reality” TV style of comedy they were trying to make. That probably says more about reality TV than it does about this film.

3.5 stars out of 5

PS: Excellent ending sequence, so stick around for the surprise.

DVD Review: Your Highness (2011)

Amazingly, when I searched for this movie poster with the search term ‘Your Highness’, most of the results featured pictures of Natalie Portman’s infamous butt scene.

Your Highness is the ultimate ‘stoner’ movie.  The writers were likely stoned when they wrote the ‘script’.  The director and actors were probably stoned when they shot the film.  And as the title of the film suggests, you most definitely have to be stoned (or 8 years old, probably both) to find it funny.  Sadly for me, I wasn’t.  My single feeble attempt in Amsterdam several years ago (with a space cake and lollipop) did nothing except put me to sleep.  A great sleep, mind you, but nevertheless…

I actually had relatively high expectations for Your Highness.  I’m a big fan of Pineapple Express, which featured the two lead stars of this film, Danny McBride and James Franco. This time, they are two polar-opposite princes, and it’s not hard to guess which one is the prince charming and which one is the slacker.  Throw in two of my favourite actresses, Natalie Portman and Zooey Deschanel, and put them all in a farcical high fantasy setting — the potential for belly-ripping laughs was enormous.

But as it turned out, Your Highness was 102 minutes of adolescent, poorly conceived sex, penis and gay jokes and gags, laced with copious amounts of mostly ill-timed profanity (well-timed profanity can be funny).  If you were as high as the people who made the film, maybe you would have found it as funny as they did, but I simply found it, for the most part, incredibly lame.  A few mild cackles here and there, but nothing approaching a genuine laugh.

I really don’t understand what they were trying to achieve with this.  As a comedy, it wasn’t funny, or at least nowhere near funny enough.  As a fantasy, it was cliched, unimaginative and lacking in wonder (and the special effects were atrocious, though perhaps intentionally so).  As an action film, the fight scenes were tame and lethargic.  Calling it ‘mediocre’ would be a huge compliment.

After doing some research, I discovered that the dialogue for Your Highness was ‘entirely improvised’, save for a basic written outline by scriptwriters Ben Best and Danny McBride.  That explains a lot.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes (2011)

This review was supposed to be further back in my backlog of to-do posts, but I’m moving it right to the top because I can’t stop thinking about it.

The reboot origins film, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, had been my ‘most anticipated movie of the year’ for months ever since I caught a glimpse of the awesome trailer.  I had always been somewhat interested in the Apes franchise, even though I had only seen the 1968 original and the entertaining but slightly misguided Tim Burton 2001 remake.  But this one was a must-see: an ingenious present-day setting, seamless digital effects, what appeared to be all-out action, and Andy Serkis (Gollum, Kong) doing motion capture for the lead ape, Caesar.

With such high expectations, it would have easy to have been disappointed.  But no, Rise of the Planet of the Apes was everything I could have hoped for and more.

Those who have seen the trailers and/or are familiar with the franchise will have a fairly good idea of what happens in this film.  James Franco plays Will Rodman, a young scientist working on a cure for a debilitating human illness.  The clinical trials are conducted on apes, and unexpected side-effects arm the mistreated subjects with human-like intelligence.  And you don’t need much intelligence (human or otherwise) to guess what happens next.

Ordinarily, knowing how a story unfolds dampens the excitement of a film, but surprisingly not in this case.  Rise of the Planet of the Apes takes the audience straight into the action and doesn’t let up.  The storytelling is so efficient that I found myself utterly engrossed throughout the 110-minute running time, never getting the feeling that I knew exactly what was going to happen next or pausing to contemplate potential gaps in logic.

Of course, a main reason to go see this film is the special effects, which are amongst the best I have ever seen.  No more humans in clunky ape make-up — these apes look creepily, frighteningly real, and the range of facial expressions they exhibit make them easy to connect with emotionally whilst keeping us wary of what they are capable of.  Andy Serkis as Caesar, in particular, is absolutely mesmerising as the true ‘star’ of the film.  You know the effects team have done a good job when you don’t even think about the quality of the effects until the credits start rolling — you just take it for granted that what you’re seeing on the screen is real.

Having saturated the film in praise, I have to admit that Rise of the Planet of the Apes does have flaws.  I’m not sure if it was miscasting or just a poorly written character, but James Franco’s human scientist came across as a fairly weak protagonist.  I never really felt that the bond between him and Caesar was as strong as it ought to have been.

Perhaps it was intentional to allow the apes to be propelled into the forefront, as the rest of the human characters were all rather weak — either cardboard cut-outs or over-the-top stereotypes (I’m looking at you, Tom Felton and David Oyelowo!).  Freida Pinto (from Slumdog Millionaire) as Franco’s love interest was almost invisible — you could have written her out of the script entirely and it wouldn’t have made much of a difference.  The only human character that made a connection with me was the great John Lithgow as Franco’s father.

However, my issues with the human characters aren’t as crucial as they may seem, for Rise of the Planet of the Apes is really Caesar’s story, told from his point of view.  I just find it bizarre for me to wonder whether it’s a good thing that the apes were more human than the humans…

Finally, the all-important rating.  Usually it would be inconceivable for me to contemplate giving a film like this anything more than 4 stars.  Sure it’s clever, entertaining, exciting and visually spectacular, but it’s still a flawed movie about apes taking over the planet.  But you know what?  I’ve looked through all my reviews this year and I can honestly say there is no other film that I’ve liked more and enjoyed more in 2011 than Rise of the Planet of the Apes.  So what the heck.

5 stars out of 5!

PS: Note that this film is considered a ‘new origins’ prequel to the 1968 original (and has numerous delicious allusions to it) because it does not match up with the storyline in any of the subsequent films.  In many ways, this is a much better origins story that reflects the rate of our current (frighteningly rapid) advances in technology and sets the stage for at least a couple of mind-blowing sequels (can’t wait already!).