Tag Archives: Michael Pena

The Vatican Tapes (2015)

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I need an exorcism to expunge this demon inside me that keeps forcing me to watch exorcism films.

Case in point: The Vatican Tapes, yet another been-there-done-that effort that somehow managed to attract some notable stars. While Michael Pena, Djimon Hounsou, Kathleen Robertson and Dougray Scott aren’t exactly household names, they  at least lend credence to a project — or so I thought.

The premise is as cookie-cutter as they come: a young woman (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is involved in an accident and suddenly starts acting all erratic and creepy. I wonder what could be the problem? Call the priests! The power of Christ compels you!

So what makes this possession movie different to its predecessors? Well, as stated explicitly at the start of the film, it’s the idea that the Vatican has a large collection of video and audio tapes of exorcisms it has conducted throughout history (which I think may have already been used in another movie).

While I loathe found footage films, I have to admit the premise seemed suitable for a found footage horror or faux documentary. The problem is, The Vatican Tapes is actually just a conventional horror flick with a few “security cam” scenes tossed in. And just in case we forget the name of the movie, the footage actually has “Vatican Tapes” printed on the bottom of the screen.

In other words, the so-called idea of the Vatican Tapes doesn’t have much to do with the story at all. It’s symbolic of the film’s muddled attempt to differentiate itself and ultimately not knowing what he hell it’s supposed to be. This is made abundantly clear as the film goes completely off the rails in its third act and takes the concept of demonic possession to another level.

Strangely, Kathleen Robertson (TV’s 90210 and Boss) gets top billing although she’s a supporting character who only occupies the middle chunk of the film. Djimon Hounsou is listed third but literally has a cameo, while Michael Pena and Dougray Scott are obviously just there for the cheques. Pena, in particular, playing a serious role for once, seems almost ashamed to be in it.

All of these issues would have been bearable had The Vatican Tapes actually been scary. Sadly, it doesn’t even get close to producing a single scare. Anything this film tries has been done a thousand times before, except better, and with a more effective atmosphere.

So that can only lead to one conclusion: The Vatican Tapes sucked balls. There probably have been worse exorcism films made, but at least they’ll be more memorable than this scareless, run-of-the-mill wannabe.

1.5 stars out of 5

The Martian (2015)

The Martian Launch One Sheet

After a long and agonising delay brought on by unforeseen circumstances (sick kid), I finally got to see Ridley Scott’s The Martian, one of my most anticipated movies of the year. And it was well worth the wait.

I had been hoping to see the film before all the positive buzz hit (93% Rottan Tomatoes, 81% Metacritic) hit the web so I wouldn’t develop unrealistic expectations. That didn’t happen, and yet the film somehow managed to live up to the hype for me.

If you’ve heard anything about this movie at all, you’ll know it’s about an astronaut named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars. The premise can’t be a spoiler. I knew a little more than that before going in, but for the most part I was prepared for anything.

There have been a lot of comparisons thrown around. Most would have heard of the inevitable comments regarding Interstellar because — spoiler-alert for those who haven’t seen it yet — both films star Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain. And in both films Damon happens to be an astronaut stuck on a distant planet.

There are also many who have called it “Castaway on Mars” or “Life of Pi in Space” and so forth. It is true that The Martian has elements of all these movies, but it is also vastly different and stands very well on its own.

Personally, I would say that the film is like the perfect love child of Interstellar, Gravity and Apollo 13. It has the big ideas and spectacle of Interstellar without all the fantastical/theoretical mumble jumbo that turned a lot of people off. It has the beauty, tension and thrills of Gravity without the eerie silence and lack of character interaction and development. And the Apollo 13-esque tactic of cutting back and forth with ground control on Earth makes the story about more than just one person and breaks up the monotony of space travel and a life of solitude on a barren planet.

There are so many things to like about this movie. For starters, The Martian is ingenious. It’s one of the smartest films I’ve seen in recent years. I’m not sure how legit the science is (and there’s a lot of it), but all of it feels credible. I would imagine you’d need to be at least a semi-expert or very knowledgeable in certain fields to be able to poke holes in the story; for most general audiences it wouldn’t matter. And as a member of the uneducated general audience I found it all absolutely fascinating. I was engrossed.

I know the book on which the film is based, written and originally self-published by Andy Weir, has been panned by many for alleged “bad writing.” Be that as it may, the thought that Weir has built into the story and the science behind it is remarkable. It’s at least as impressive as say the work Dan Brown (a fellow oft-criticised writer) puts into blending history, religion and architecture into his novels. I can’t help but be happy for his success.

Secondly, the “action” sequences — if you can call them that — are well-executed. When you feel the tension and the adrenaline even when you know what is going to happen, and when you don’t notice the CGI even though you know most of it probably is, you know they’re doing a good job.

The other thing that stands out about The Martian is that it is surprisingly funny. That is not to say that the film is a comedy by any stretch, though it is without a doubt filled with more laughs than Interstellar, Gravity and Apollo 13 — combined.

The main reason is because of Watney’s personality, which is, for the most part, optimistic and stoic despite the odds against him. He’s a guy who tries to see the lighter side of things and can find humour in the most dire of predicaments. Because sometimes, that’s all you can do. It fits in well with the uplifting and occasionally fun tone the film tries to convey. Some might complain that it glosses over the darker aspects of the tale — the isolation, the stress, the fragile emotional state — but ultimately this is not that kind of movie, and I am glad it didn’t go down that path.

As clever and funny The Martian is, I also found myself unexpectedly moved by the drama. At its heart, it’s a simple story about one man’s unrelenting will to survive. It’s about finding solutions to problems as they arise, one at a time. It’s about human kinship and international solidarity. Ridley Scott does a great job of developing the characters into likable people we care about, not just Watney but the entire extended cast. There’s no real villain in the story, just a bunch of people doing what they think is best in a very difficult situation. The relationships and dynamics are set up early and skilfully so the emotional payoffs work when they eventually have to.

Kudos of course to the spectacular cast. Apart from Damon and Chastain there’s also Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as NASA’s Mars mission director, Sean Bean as the spacecrafts’s crew commander and Kristen Wiig as NASA spokesperson, plus Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan as crew members. Everyone’s fantastic, and I also enjoyed the witty references to films that some of the actors have been in it are affiliated with.

At 2 hours and 22 minutes, the length is perfect. It never feels too long; there is always something going on, and I was always either being amused or thrilled or educated. I was certainly always entertained.

While The Martian doesn’t necessarily have the feel of a masterpiece — it’s not as epic as say Interstellar or as majestic or awe-inspiring as Gravity — it delivers as good of a time as I’ve had at the cinemas this year or any year.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Fury (2014)

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I was surprised to see that Fury has received generally positive reviews and performed very well at the box office — not because it’s a crap film, but because I’ve heard almost zero buzz about it since its release. Indeed, the film has been overlooked completely at the upcoming Oscars, and no one is calling it a snub.

After finally watching the film with tempered expectations, I’m calling Fury a borderline snub. It might be treading on familiar territory, and it’s certainly not be the most memorable war film out there, but the overall production — from David Ayer’s script and direction to the performances from the all-star cast — is simply too good for Fury to be called anything but an A-grade movie.

As with most coming-of-age war movies, Fury is told from the perspective of a young and naive young man not prepared for the horrors of war. In this case the protagonist is Norman (Logan Lerman, aka Percy Jackson), who is assigned to the crew of Don “Wardaddy” Collier (Brad Pitt), chief of the fictional WWII tank Fury.

Together with a veteran crew — played by an interesting ensemble featuring Shia LaBeouf, typically comedic actor Michael Pena and Walking Dead alum John Bernthal –Norman is thrown into the deep end, where he must learn to kill or be killed.

Those who have seen Ayer’s previous films (End of Watch, Sabotage) know they’re in for a gritty, violent experience that puts an emphasis on realism and well-rounded characters. Fury is a visceral affair, with plenty of explosions, ripped limbs, bodies getting shredded by bullets and exploding heads. It heightens the sense of reality and also offers a sobering reminder of how cheap life is in times of war.

Both the Americans and Germans are depicted as humans as opposed to WWII stereotypes, with even individual members of the Fury crew showing shades of good, bad and in between. When it comes to the battlefield, however, there is a camaraderie and trust that allows them to put their differences aside, adding further depth to the narrative and the characters.

As expected, the cast delivers, with Brad Pitt’s Wardaddy standing out as a complex leader hardened by the realities of war, his ruthless exterior mixed in with moments of tenderness and kindness. And as much as he might be a douche in real life, Shia LaBeouf demonstrates once again that he’s one of the most remarkable young actors of his generation, even with that horrible moustache on his face. Logan Lerman has been the lead in coming-of-age dramas before (The Perks of Being a Wallflower), so he’s right at home as the innocent Norman. Michael Pena showed he could do drama in End of Watch, which is probably why Ayer brought him back, and we all know after The Walking Dead that Jon Bernthal can play an a-hole to perfection. It’s a superb cast, with each member of the crew having moments that belong exclusively to them.

The only real knock I have against the film is that it doesn’t tell us anything new or offer anything we haven’t seen before. It doesn’t exactly try to avoid war cliches, though I wouldn’t go as far as saying that it embraces them. It’s as though the film had ambitions to be great, but didn’t quite know what to do to get there. Having said that, I can’t deny Fury succeeds as an engaging war drama fuelled by strong performances and tense, realistic battle sequences. It might not be one of the best war movies of all-time, but it’s certainly one of the better war movies in recent years.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: End of Watch (2012)

I initially wasn’t planning on watching End of Watch even though it was directed and written by David Ayer, the same guy who gave us Training Day (as well as SWAT and Street Kings) — which was fantastic but also emotionally draining and exhausting to get through because it was so heavy duty. The trailer made it look like just another gritty cop drama, which I usually prefer to catch on DVD rather than at the cinemas. But in the end, strong word of mouth won me over.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two police officers working in South Central LA, which is one nasty place filled with drug dealers, gangs and drive by shootings. Gyllenhaal’s character is doing a film project for class, which requires him to carry around a camera whilst on duty.

I didn’t like how the film started or where it appeared to be heading. I am sick of these “found footage” or faux documentary films made with shaky cameras that make me want to throw up, and End of Watch initially made me think that the whole film was going to be a frustratingly nauseating ride.

Fortunately, although somewhat strangely, the film more or less reverted back to traditional film-making methods with steady shots, interspersed with these film project cams and other police security cams (such as from their patrol vehicle). On the one hand it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t have to feel like vomiting all throughout the movie, but on the other it begged the question of why those shaky shots were necessary at all, given it wasn’t pretending to be real footage anyway.

Like Training Day, End of Watch is gritty and hardcore, with intense action, edge-of-your-seat suspense and confronting scenes that challenge the audience to not avert their gaze. The key difference between the two films is that End of Watch is driven by the close friendship and brotherhood between the two leads. I like Gyllenhaal and I love Pena (I think he is one of Hollywood’s funniest and most underrated actors), so I guess that helped skew things in the film’s favour for me.

The movie is dedicated to police officers, but it’s not a total suck job like say Act of Valor. The characters are presented as believable people with personality quirks and flaws, real hopes and fears. It’s proof that well fleshed out characters can do wonders in terms of engaging the audience.

The supporting cast is also solid, including the recently omnipresent Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, who play the partners of the two leads, as well as America Ferrera aka Ugly Betty, a no-nonsense female police officer. Special mention goes to Yahira Garcia, who was frighteningly convincing as gang member Lala (at least for someone who has no idea what gang members act like).

End of Watch is a film that creeps up on you. In the beginning I was thought I was going to hate it because of the camera issues. Then for a while I thought it was repetitive and wasn’t getting anywhere — it felt like a Cops marathon, with the two officers going on episodic missions, one after another, with no real sense of a progressive narrative.

Eventually, as the various strands began to become tied together, I discovered that it was actually a very well-crafted film. The final climax, in particular, was riveting stuff, as suspenseful as anything I’ve seen from an action or thriller this year. It was also good to see the film not bow down to cliches and finish on a strong note that tugs the heartstrings by just the right amount.

On the whole, End of Watch wasn’t quite what I had expected, but it turned out to be a satisfying experience largely thanks to the genuine chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena. I did have some issues with the arguably unnecessary shaky camera and an occasionally stagnant narrative during the first half, but all things considered it’s still a superior action thriller.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: It’s actually a good thing if you don’t know what End of Watch means (its a euphemism) because it gives away part of the plot.

Movie Review: 30 Minutes or Less (2011)

The good thing about being stuck a home with a baby is that I can finally start to catch up on my backlog of posts without having an opportunity to increase that backlog.

So today I am going to start with a movie review, the surprisingly decent 30 Minutes or Less.

Danny McBride is a somewhat polarising figure.  We know he can be funny (Pineapple Express) but we also know he can be annoyingly unfunny (Your Highness).  Now we know he can play nasty, stupid villain quite well too.

In the Ruben Fleischer-directed 30 Minutes or Less, he plays a scheming slacker who is after his father’s “fortune”, and together with his bumbling but  knowledgeable sidekick (Nick Swardson) come up with an unnecessary convoluted plan to get his hands on the money.  Without giving away too much more, that plan somehow involves putting under duress Jesse Eisenberg’s character Nick, an abused pizza delivery boy who works for a pizza joint that offers the titular “30 minutes or less” delivery policy (or you get your pizza free and the money comes out of the delivery boy’s wages).

Like many other McBride films, 30 Minutes or Less is highly sporadic, relies on sex jokes (though not as extreme or frequently as some of his other films) and is frankly a little hit and miss — that said, I did find it quite funny.  There was more plot than I had expected (which, for a McBride movie, doesn’t necessarily mean much), but what I think helped the film was the wonderfully talented comedic cast.

Jesse Eisenberg, coming off his performance as Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network, isn’t overtly funny but does a great job as the straight man in this farce.  It’s similar to what he did in Zombieland, also a film directed by Ruben Fleischer.

Eisenberg allows the comedic talents of the other actors to shine through, in particular his best friend, Indian-American comedian  Aziz Ansari, who has some ripper lines and, for lack of a better expression, a funny face.  Another, who almost steals the show, is Michael Pena, who is utterly hilarious as an assassin.  Fred Ward, who plays McBride’s domineering father, is pretty good as well.

I guess it depends on your tolerance level for jokes based on stupidity and crudeness.  For me, 30 Minutes or Less pressed my buttons but didn’t cross my threshold, which is why I thought it was one of the better comedies of the year.

3.5 stars out of 5!