Tag Archives: Olivia Wilde

Movie Review: The Lazarus Effect (2015)


Jesus may have raised Lazarus from the dead, but in the case of the Lazarus Effect, death would actually be a welcome relief from this disaster of a horror flick.

I didn’t have high hopes for this film, but I figured anything with a star like Olivia Wilde in the lead role can’t be that bad. Wilde plays a medical researcher (really believable already) who along with her fiancé (Mark Duplass) and a couple of other guys who could not look less like medical researchers (Evan Peters and Donald Glover) develop the “Lazarus” serum, a magical concoction they believe can bring the dead back to life.

You already see where this is heading, right?

The catalyst for moving the plot along is the arrival of a young and attractive videographer (Sarah Bolger), who has asked to tape their experiments — though thankfully, this is not a found-footage film.

I don’t consider the following a spoiler because it’s obvious from the poster. Naturally, after attaining some level of success, something happens that ends up requiring Duplass to inject Wilde with the serum. And of course, she “comes back”, but is not quite the same, and shit soon starts to happen.

The biggest problem I had with The Lazarus Effect is its complete sense of predictability. The premise is actually quite good, but the script pulled out every horror cliche in the catalogue and the story went along exactly as you would have guessed for a movie of this kind. I don’t claim to know what they could have done differently, I just know whatever they did failed to work.

There were a handful of times throughout the movie when I said to my wife, “X is going to happen” or “Y is going to say Z”, and each time I was proven right, and right on cue. Maybe I’ve seen too many horror films, but it was just disappointing to not experience anything unexpected, including the scare tactics, most of which were “boo” moments we’ve seen many times.

The cast is nice to look at and their performances are fine, though they don’t get to do much because of the insipid characters they’ve been given.

It’s a shame, because The Lazarus Effect has some interesting themes and questions about life, death and the afterlife, but none of these are even close to being fleshed out. Instead, the experience was bogged down by familiar horror tropes, wasting a promising premise and cast.

1.5 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VII

I know I saw no more 2013 movie blitzes, but I lied. So here’s another one with some high profile flicks.

The Butler (2013)

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The natural inclination is to assume that The Butler is the black Forrest Gump — a simple unassuming man who happens to be a bystander in major historical events that shaped the world.

But that’s not really fair. For starters, The Butler is a “true story”, apparently, as it is loosely based on the life of Eugene Allen, a real-life African-American butler who worked for the White House for 34 years. Here he is renamed Cecil Gaines and is played by Forest Whitaker. Secondly, most of the film is focused on the civil rights movement in the 1960s, contrasting Cecil’s desire to just “do his job” at the White House against his son Louis’s (David Oyelowo) active involvement. Thirdly, The Butler is nothing like Forrest Gump in that it is a serious drama almost devoid of humor. And lastly, The Butler stars Oprah!

The film is directed by Lee Daniels, who was at the helm of the award-winning Precious back in 2009. That was a small budget, personal drama, whereas this is an ambitious epic filled with major Hollywood stars, though the general feel of the films are largely similar. In other words, it is engaging, never really dull, but never superior entertainment. And depending on your perspective, you may find it either emotionally satisfying or too obviously manipulative. 

I have heard mixed reviews about the film, which reflects my feelings toward it. The performances are brilliant — there is no doubt about that and I don’t think anyone expected anything less with this cast. That said, I found the casting a little bit jarring. With the exception of the little known David Oyelowo, just about everyone else is a recognizable star. You have Mariah Carey playing Cecil’s mother in a small cameo, Terrence Howard as a neighbour, Cuba Gooding Jr and Lenny Kravitz as co-workers, and a whole bunch of big names playing American presidents — Robin Williams is Eisenhower, James Marston is JFK, Liev Schreiber is Lyndon Johnson, John Cusack is Richard Nixon, and strangely, Alan Rickman is Ronald Reagan. That doesn’t even include all the other recognisable names such as Jane Fonda, Minka Kelly, Vanessa Redgrave, Alex Pettyfer, and so forth. And of course, there’s Oprah, who is an excellent actress but too…Oprah…to avoid being a distraction.

It was interesting watching the historical events unfold, though if you are not American, and in particular African-American, the emotional impact may be less powerful. More importantly, Cecil Gaines was not a particularly charming protagonist — he had his moments, but by and large he was a very muted, restrained man, and anytime he did something out of the ordinary it felt overly sentimental. I’m not saying there wasn’t any subtlety, though the nuances definitely could have been handled better. The relationship that drove the movie, that between father and son, was executed well, but I think the film undercuts itself with too much obviously intentional melodrama that audiences who know what they’re in for will easily see through. 

3 stars out of 5

The Counselor (2013)

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The Counselor is one of those WTF movies where there are a lot of big names attached and you can’t figure out why. It’s based on an original screenplay by Cormick McCarthy, whose novels have been adapted into solid films such as No Country for Old Men and The Road. It’s directed by the legendary ridley Scott and features an all star cast including Michael Fassbender, Penelope Cruz, Cameron Diaz, Javier Bardem and Brad Pitt. But the film — and I have to be honest here — is crap.

Fassbender plays eponymous Counseler, a lawyer of some sort who gets in over his head when he becomes involved in a drug deal with Mexican cartels. The film features a lot of conversations that appeared to have no direct relation to the plot, and they speak in ways that make you feel like there is some big mystery involved when things are actually very straightforward and simple. It is also a film that fancies itself as a bit of an erotic thriller — there is some raunchy pillow talk between Fassbender and his in-film girlfriend Cruz, and Cameron Diaz makes love to a car. Yes, you read that correctly.

It is quite a violent film, though there is really only one scene that made me a little squirmish. People who hate Brad Pitt should love it.

My main problem with this movie is that it tries too hard to create an atmosphere it does not deserve. The makers of the movie talk about things such as greed, primal instincts and dealing with the consequences of our choices, but at the end of the day it’s just about a guy who gets into a drug deal, things go wrong and shit happens. Except not a whole lot actually happens. For all the talking and acting, it is shocking how little action and suspense there is.

So despite the big names and the solid performances, The Counselor has to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. We know Cormick McCarthy can be brilliant, but this is him at his pretentious worst.

1.75 stars out of 5

The Way Way Back (2013)

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A film that should have gotten way more buzz than it did. Coming of age films aren’t what they used to be, which is why The Way Way Back is such a refreshing and yet nostalgic breath of fresh air.

Liam James is quite the revelation as 14-year-old Duncan, and awkward, withdrawn and humorless teenager who reluctantly goes on a summer holiday to a small seaside town with his mother (Toni Collette), her boyfriend Trent (Steve Carell), and his typical teenage daughter (Steph Ramsey). 

Being the way that he is, Duncan naturally hates it there as everyone else seems to be having the time of their lives without him. But then he meets two people who change his life. The first is the pretty older daughter of a neighbour, played by AnnaSophia Robb, who seems to be more intrigued by Duncan’s odd personality than hanging out with other popular girls her age. The second is the manager of the local water park, played by Sam Rockwell, a carefree dude who is full of fun and jokes but appears to be stuck permanently in a state of arrested development.

Before long Duncan begins working at the water park and gets to know a whole host of quirky, oddball characters. While he struggles at home dealing with his family life, he begins coming out of his shell at work where everything seems to flourish for him.

At first glance this is the type of film we all feel like we have seen before, but there is just something about it that works. 

My guess starts with the immensely likable characters who all have their own quirks and are believable despite not being developed to perfection. Duncan, to be brutally honest, comes across initially as a potential mass shooting waiting to happen, but then we fall in love with his innocence and naivete. He makes you want to root for him, and that’s very important.

Rockwell is also brilliant as the lovable larrikin, the type of big brother we all wished we had. Even Steve Carell is brilliant playing against type as the douche bag villain who is not necessarily a terrible guy but whose judgmental attitude and selfish motivations we instantly recognize.

Additionally they are a bunch of scene stealing minor characters, from Allison Janney’s talkative neighbour and Toni Collette conflicted mother to Maya Rudolph’s  frustrated water park employee. All of them are memorable in their own way.

While there is nothing remarkable about it, The Way Way Back is a delight. It’s sweet, funny, heartfelt and powered by great characters and performances. It’s a pleasant surprise and one of my underrated hits of 2013.

4 stars out of 5

Drinking Buddies (2013)

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I heard about Drinking Buddies through word-of-mouth. It’s an indie film with Hollywood stars; an exploration of workplace relationships that relies predominantly on improvised dialogue.

Olivia Wilde stars as Kate, a pretty girl who is mutually attracted to her co-worker Luke (Jake Johnson) at a Chicago brewery. Unfortunately for both of them, they are each involved in a relationship with someone else. For Kate, it’s a casual boyfriend (Ron Livingston), but for Like, it’s a little more serious with his steady girlfriend (Anna Kendrick).

The strength of Drinking Buddies lies in the performances, which feel very natural (probably because of all the improv), and as a result the relationships also come across as genuine.

It’s an interesting premise, one most of us who have worked closely with others in a group environment can relate to, and in this case everything is accentuated because their inhibitions are lowered by the constant presence of alcohol.

It asks us what the boundaries are in a supposed “platonic” relationship between co-workers. It’s one thing to be attracted to someone, but it’s another when it comes out to acting out forbidden desires. What is the line and what constitutes crossing it?

My main gripe with the film. and the primary reason I couldn’t enjoy it as much as I wanted to, was that I couldn’t bring myself to like either Kate or Luke, in particular Kate.

Without giving too much away, I was uncomfortable with the way they acted around each other, and, without revealing how far things go, I felt they crossed a lot of lines even early on.

I kept feeling like they kind of deserved each other, but I wasn’t rooting for them to be together because I didn’t care for them. By contrast, I developed much more sympathy for their significant others, even though they arguably crossed more lines than Kate and Luke.

Still, this was a well-made, well-performed drama that tackles some complex and thought-provoking issues. I just wish I liked it more.

2.5 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 11

Safe House (2012)

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Denzel Washington plays an ex-CIA operative who turns rogue and becomes an international criminal who, unsurprisingly,  appears to be more than meets the eye. Ryan Reynolds plays a low-level CIA agent who is tasked with looking after Denzel when the latter is captured and brought to a South African safe house (hence the title. Disaster strikes, and Reynolds is thrust into a dangerous situation in which he must figure out who he can trust in order to discover the truth behind everything.

It’s the type of basic premise we have seen dozens of times before (albeit with slight variations) — where a decent but relatively inexperienced guy out of his depth is paired with a slick professional and there is a big conspiracy waiting to be unveiled (is this considered a huge spoiler?).

I don’t mind these movies per se, but I’m a bit sick of the whole “Denzel is so cool” routine we seem to be getting in just about every film we see him in these days. You know, charismatic, super cool under pressure, extremely gifted in firefights and hand-to-hand combat, acts like he doesn’t give a crap about anything but cares deeply about doing the right thing in accordance with his own principles. As for Reynolds, I’m assuming he just played exactly the same type of character in RIPD (which I haven’t seen yet but will).

Look, Safe House isn’t bad — there’s intensity, action, suspense and a few semi-predictable twists here and there — but there is nothing that makes it memorable or stand out. In fact, I had forgotten a lot of the details and had to give myself a little refresher on YouTube and Wikipedia just to write this review. The performances are solid, but I didn’t like how the action sequences were edited with those quick, choppy cuts that prevent you from seeing exactly what is happening.

On the whole just an OK thriller that fails to live up to its full potential despite Denzel and an all-star cast that also features Vera Farmiga and Brendan Gleeson.

2.75 stars out of 5

The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012)

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I swear I still intend to get to the acclaimed book on which this film is based, written by Stephen Chbosky. I’ve heard so many people rave on about the book that it would be an injustice for me to ignore it. Interestingly, the film version is directed by the author, who wrote the screenplay as well. Usually it’s a recipe for disaster to place so much of a story in the hands of a single person, but in this case it was complete justified because The Perks of Being a Wallflower turned out to be one of the best coming-of-age movies I’ve seen in a long time.

Charlie, played by Percy Jackson‘s Logan Lerman, is a high school freshman dealing with a traumatic loss from the year before. Shy and withdrawn, he is a wallflower, someone who observes but is never really part of the story — until he meets step-siblings Sam and Patrick, played by Emma Watson (Harry Potter) and Ezra Miller (We Need to Talk About Kevin), who accept him as part of their group.

Without going into too much more detail, this is a story about the loss of innocence, friendship, falling in love, loyalty, betrayal, and all those things many of us go through as we grow into adults. With full control over the material, Chbosky delivers an extremely genuine and heartfelt story told through a sensitive and delicate lens that I’m sure will be easy for many teens to relate to and conjure up a deep sense of nostalgia in adults. It’s hard to explain except to say that I connected with this film more than I thought I would and that I fully believed in the story from start to finish. Yes it is sentimental in parts but not overly so.

I’m astounded that Chbosky has only previously directed one other film, in 1995. The tone and atmosphere he creates in The Perks of Being a Wallflower is masterful and reflects just how in command of the material he is. He must also be credited for eliciting the best performances I have ever seen from Logan Lerman and Emma Watson. Let’s face it, Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers are not the best films for a thespian to show off their acting talents, but Lerman is unbelievably believable as the mild-mannered Charlie who is immediately likable but is also clearly holding onto something that prevents him from opening up. Your heart goes out to him. The only complaints could be that he is not quite young-looking enough to pull off a freshman or that he is too good looking to play such a loner.

As for Emma Watson, wow. I always thought she was the most talented out of the Harry Potter trio, but here she completely sheds the shackles of Hermoine and gives us the best performance of her career. The same can be said for Ezra Miller, whom I thought would forever be trapped in my nightmares as the horrific Kevin (from We Need to Talk About Kevin, one of the best movies of 2011). Here he is a completely different character as the giddy and affable Patrick and totally made me forget that he butchered a bunch of kids in his previous role.

In some ways, The Perks of Being a Wallflower might oversimplify or even glamorize some difficult issues in adolescent life, but for me it’s a small flaw in an otherwise brilliant motion picture.

4.5 stars out of 5

PS: I’m almost doing The Perks of Being a Wallflower a disservice by reviewing it as part of a four-film movie blitz, because it deserves a solo review of its own. But I am lazy and I can’t be bothered.

Deadfall (2012)

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A stylish crime drama of intersecting subplots that feels strangely complicated but is actually very straightforward.

Eric Bana and Olivia Wilde play a pair of siblings on the run after a casino heist has gone horribly wrong. For some reason they must split up so they could reach their goal of making it across the Canadian border under blizzard conditions, kicking off a string of violent events and coincidences that eventually all comes to a head in a climatic flurry. The film is powered by an A-list cast that also features Charlie Hunnam (Pacific Rim), Kate Mara (House of Cards), Kris Krisofferson, Treat Williams and Sissy Spacek.

I found Deadfall a difficult film to grasp because it seems to be moving along confidently, taking the audience in several directions seemingly without aim, but there is actually an underlying strategy all along to pull all the strands together by the end. But at the end of it all, I said to myself, “Is that it?” Despite the intrigue, I was left wondering what the fuss was all about.

That said, I was engaged and kept wondering what was going on through the majority of the 94-minute running time. I suppose you could call it dark, character-driven film, but then again I didn’t really care for any of the characters. Could it be described as a B-grade movie masquerading as an A-grade movie because of its sound technical efficiency and the super cast? I dunno. I can’t decide whether I liked the film, disliked the film, or if I am just indifferent about it. Meh.

2.5 stars out of 5

Seeking a Friend for the End of the World (2012)

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Every now and then comes along a really interesting idea for a movie and the execution is nearly good enough to pull it off, but for whatever reason just doesn’t quite get there. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, starring Steve Carrell and Keira Knightley, is such a film. It starts off brilliantly and has its fair share of genuine laughs and oddly comical moments all the way through, but unfortunately it loses steam halfway through and drifts towards a rather disappointing final act.

The film starts off with the announcement that the world, as we know it, is coming to an end. A giant asteroid is coming to Earth and there’s no Bruce Willis to save us. With just three weeks until impact, the world is understandably flipped into chaos (with drugs and suicides and looting and guilt-free sex dominating), but at the same time there are many lost and lonely individuals out there who have no idea how they are going to spend the last few days of their lives. Steve Carrell, whose wife leaves him in the opening scene, is one of them, until he meets Knightley, who had just broken up with her boyfriend and has no chance to see her family in England one last time.

Seeking a Friend could be described as a road trip comedy-drama, but it’s really a fascinating imagining of how the world would react if everyone thought they had just days to live. Would you keep working in your job because you have nothing else better to do? Or would you stay with family and go have beach BBQs all day? Or will you go crazy and break every law you can think of, just for the sake of it? A lot of the things depicted in this film, as random and outrageous and hilarious as they are, strangely ring true. I laughed often and hard, especially early on.

I’ve never been a big fan of either Carrell or Knightley, so I was shocked to discover that I really liked both of them in this. Despite the age gap (51 to 28), they had a comfortable rapport and a sweetness to them, and the resulting banter was sharp and clicking.

However, perhaps feeling like it cannot be a pure comedy with no emotion (given it is the end of the world, after all), the film starts to become more personal and begins venturing into light melodrama, regretfully sucking out its earlier charm. The closer it got to the end, the more flat and uninteresting things got. Some of the attempts are indeed poignant, but frankly I just wanted more laughs.

3.5 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 7

Dark Shadows (2012)

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During my 9 month studying at Cambridge between 2008-2009, the only extra-curricular event I attended without being invited is a session about Dark Shadows, the cult American gothic soap opera from the 1960s. I didn’t know anything about the show at all, but it was about TV/entertainment and it had a horror slant to it, so I figured it was good enough for someone bored out of their mind from reading law textbooks all day. So on that afternoon, I saw an episode of the show, and heard that a movie version was in the works directed by Tim Burton, and of course, Johnny Depp. I thought it had potential.

Fast forward to last year, and Dark Shadows the movie was finally here, with Depp as the protagonist vampire Barnabas Collins and Eva Green as his jealous ex-lover. The all-star cast also features Michelle Pfeiffer, Helena Bonham Carter, Chloe Grace Moretz and Jackie Earle Haley.

Though technically a horror, Dark Shadows intended to be a campy comedy about a vampire locked away for two centuries before being released in 1972. Most of the jokes, therefore, stem from Depp’s clueless attitude towards the “modern” world and the people who inhabit it, kind of like Brendan Fraser in Encino Man.

Unfortunately, while not horrible, Dark Shadows was rather lame and elicited few chuckles. It was pretty to look at, but the whole film was a tiring affair with obvious gags and not a lot of life (and I don’t mean that as a joke because vampires are supposed to be dead). To be fair, it was always going to be a difficult task to make a film based on a 60s TV show, but in this case it had me wondering whether they completely wasted their own and everyone else’s time. There just wasn’t anything inspiring or memorable about it. Encino Man was so bad it was awesome. Dark Shadows isn’t anything.

2 stars out of 5

The Words (2012)

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A seemingly interesting film that really doesn’t say much in the end. Bradley Cooper plays (like he does in Limitless) an impossibly handsome but struggling writer, who finds a riveting manuscript he decides to pass off as his own. But of course, he was never going to get away with it, and must face the consequences, including answering to his wife, Zoe Saldana.

To make matters more complicated, Cooper and Saldana’s story is actually a book written by Dennis Quaid, and he’s unveiling the story at a public reading. Meanwhile, there’s Olivia Wilde, an attendee at the reading who gets cozy with Quaid but can’t figure out how much of the story is autobiographical. And to really mess with you, when Cooper is confronted by the real author, he is told the story of how the manuscript came to be.

On the surface, The Words looks like three-tiered a morality tale, a story within a story within a story that tells us it’s naughty to steal someone’s work. And for most of the movie, I was hoping it would turn out to be something really intelligent and thought-provoking. But eventually I realized that it was just a bunch of contrived plot tricks masquerading as a clever movie, one that never really provides any answers or a satisfactory conclusion.

That said, as I kept hoping to be impressed and was curious about the questions the film raised, I was completely engaged for the majority of the film’s 96-minute running time. Unfortunately the payoff was a huge disappointment, but at least it wasn’t boring.

2.5 stars out of 5

PS: Ironically, the film was accused of having ripped off a German novel (true fact).

The Five Year Engagement (2012)

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I thought The Five Year Engagement looked like a pretty “meh” film from the trailers, to be honest, but in the end I was pleasantly surprised by how funny, warm and genuine it felt.

Emily Blunt and Jason Segel, who have amazing chemistry in this, are a couple who get engaged but then for various reasons are unable to marry and keep extending the engagement (for guess how long?). From work to deaths to misunderstandings and mishaps and temptations, the engagement just keeps going and going. I thought it would get tedious after a while but somehow director Nicholas Stoller (Forgetting Sarah Marshall) keeps it interesting by varying things up with jokes couples can relate to, plus the occasional bit of wacky or random humor.

It’s one of those films where you’re likely to find yourself rooting for them to stay together because the leads and the characters they are playing are so likable and they make such a sweet couple, but at the same time the circumstances make you wonder whether things are just not meant to be. As a result the film’s tone is infused with a sense of bittersweet melancholy — that mixes unexpectedly well with the light humour.

I wouldn’t call it an excellent film, but The Five Year Engagement is certainly one of the better rom-coms of the year.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Babymakers (2012)

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This was another attempt to cash in on the adult comedy market with a crude, outrageous jokes, but according to Wikipedia the film made about $8,000. I don’t think it’s that bad, but it’s not particularly funny and there’s nothing really helping it stand out from the rest of the pack.

Olivia Munn (The Newsroom) and Paul Schneider (Parks & Recreation) are a couple trying to get pregnant without much luck. Schneider discovers that his boys aren’t exactly swimming but remembers that he used to donate regularly to the local sperm bank years ago, when his boys were more capable swimmers.

But for some reason the bank won’t budge and Schneider intends to break in to steal his “stuff”, along with his buddies and a “professional” played by the film’s director, Jay Chandrasekhar. Craziness ensues.

Sounds like a fun premise — a heist film where the bank is filled with something other than money — and I have to admit there were moments when The Babymakers elicited a chuckle here and there. But the humour was too sporadic and was overshadowed by all the gross-out stuff that was completely unnecessary (sperm plays a large role, as you can imagine) and frankly not all that funny. And the film just trips and falls flat on its face by the end.

I like Olivia Munn from watching The Newsroom and she does have some comedic chops, as does Schneider, but sadly The Babymakers’ few good jokes were lost in a sea of crap ones.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: In Time (2011)

I am more accepting of average sci-fi movies than most, primarily because I believe having an intelligent, creative premise means you’re almost halfway there.

In Time, the new star-studded sci-fi action film written and directed by Andrew Niccol (best known for Gattaca and Lord of War), has what I think is a brilliant premise — at some time in the future, genetic engineering has enabled humans to stop ageing physically past the age of 25, and the phrase ‘time is money’ has become literal.  All currencies have been replaced by time, which can be earned, spent and gambled just like money.  Everybody has a clock on their forearm that counts down towards zero, and when it hits zero, you die.

Naturally, people want time, and they’re willing to do just about anything to get it.  However, like money, some people have more than they know what to do withy, while others are living day-to-day, not knowing where the next minute or second might come from.  Though not entirely unique (Logan’s Run, for instance, has a similar premise), I found that to be a very compelling idea brimming with potential.

And so I was excited about In Time.  Sure it had Justin Timberlake (the hero from the ghetto), but it also had Amanda Seyfried (the poor little rich girl), Cillian Murphy (the ‘Timekeeper’), Alex Pettyffer (that’s Mr I Am Number Four, as a time stealing thug), Olivia Wilde (I’ll keep her role as a surprise) and that guy from White Collar (Matt Bomer).  Call me optimistic, but I was hoping that it would be this year’s Inception.

Well, I was wrong.  While In Time was not the painfully horrible piece of crap some critics have labelled it to be, it was undoubtedly a frustrating waste of a promising premise.  There were so many interesting places they could have gone with this film, and instead they went down an utterly bizarre path, one that completely underutilised the concepts the premise afforded.

I could forgive all the half-assed sci-fi concepts and stuff that made little sense and had no explanation (like the time transfer mechanism and the whole point of the system), but what I couldn’t ignore was all the false hope that the film built up in the first third but failed to deliver.  And my goodness, the loose ends they just kicked to the curb (Timberlake’s dad, anyone?)!

Timberlake and Seyfried make a cute couple and there are some slick action sequences, but the further the film went along the more disappointed I became in the generic direction it was heading.  Just because there is an emphasis on action and romance doesn’t mean the film cannot also be intelligent and challenge audiences to use their brains a little.

Then again, I suppose if all you’re looking for is a forgettable action sci-fi romp with sexy stars, then In Time might be enough.

2.5 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Change-Up (2011)

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Body-swap movies have been done plenty of times before, and they all seem to follow a similar trajectory — but it doesn’t mean they can’t be funny, especially if done right. The Change-Up, yet another Jason Bateman movie, was much better an expected, and probably the best of his recent batch of films (being Couples Retreat, The Switch, Paul and Horrible Bosses — though some may enjoy the latter two more).

Bateman plays Dave, a corporate lawyer on the verge of partnership. He has a beautiful and loving wife (Leslie Mann) and three young children, but he hardly has any time for them. His unlikely best friend Mitch is played by Ryan Reynolds. Mitch is an immature, struggling actor who spends most of his time on drugs and sex. On a wild boys night out a drunken wish is turned into reality, and before things can be rectified, Dave must now live as Mitch and vice versa.

Of course, you probably already knew this. The selling point of The Change-Up is not the predictable premise, but the laughs spawned from watching Bateman and Reynolds play each other. And there are quite a few decent laughs (which I won’t spoil except to say they are not all revealed in the trailer like the majority of comedies these days) because we are so used to seeing Bateman as the straight man (which he is in just about everything — Smoking Aces is the only exception I can think of) and Reynolds as the cocky, charming hotshot/slacker.

The unfortunate thing about The Change-Up is that it often resorts to crude jokes and gross-out shock tactics. Some of them work; some of them don’t. Honestly, I don’t get what is wrong with so many comedies nowadays, which seem to confuse outraging audiences with amusing them using genuine wit and comedic timing.

Some might also feel that the main female characters don’t get a fair shake in the movie. Mann is your typically supportive but emotional housewife, while Olivia Wilde’s ‘hot law associate’ is perhaps more of a plot device than a realistic character. And before you boys spray your shorts, nudity from both these actresses are done through body doubles and digital effects.

A further problem audiences might pick up is the gaping plot holes. But trying to figure out how a bum with no college education can not only work as a senior associate for days without anyone getting suspicious but also stuff up mega deals without repercussions will only dampen your enjoyment of the movie — so it’s best just to go with the flow and forget about them.

Flaws notwithstanding, The Change-Up is still funnier and more engaging than I had expected. Part of it is due to the fantastic chemistry between Bateman and Reynolds, but what surprised me was that the film actually had some heart at its core. Sure it was the exact same message that all body-swap movies have, but I somehow found myself caring much more than I should have in the end.

3.25 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

James Bond (Daniel Craig) and Han Solo/Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) in a western fused with nasty aliens, directed by John Favreau (Iron Man), with producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer and executive producer Steven Spielberg.  In terms of expectations, they don’t get much higher than Cowboys and Aliens (adapted from the graphic novel of the same name), which could explain the lukewarm reception the film has received thus far.

But was it really that bad?  No.  I actually thought it was okay.  Big stars, freaky monsters, large-scale battle scenes and some well-executed action sequences.  But given what this film could have been, Cowboys and Aliens was ultimately somewhat of a disappointment.

The story is relatively simple — Daniel Craig wakes up in the middle of the desert with an alien bracelet on his wrist and no recollection of who he is or where he has been.  Stuff happens, and along with Ford, Olivia Wilde, Sam Rockwell and Clancy Brown (everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank), he goes on a mission to rescue some humans while trying to piece together his shattered memory.

All the requisite elements for an engaging motion picture are there.  Craig is excellent as the kick-ass, “don’t mess with me” protagonist, while the supporting roles are adequately filled by legend Ford and rising star Wilde.  The film has that dusty, gritty western feel, along with old fashioned bravado and gun fights — plus the strangeness and unknown feel you get from alien invasion films.  The special affects are fine by current standards.  The story is formulaic enough for a typical summer blockbuster but not to the extent that it becomes a distraction.  The character development and subplot boxes are also ticked.

And yet Cowboys and Aliens feels like an empty blockbuster — all style, (to be fair) a little substance, but no soul.  If I had to pinpoint what went wrong, I would probably say that the biggest problem lies with the aliens, who are menacing but that’s about it.  They’re just there to kill and be killed, monsters with no personality whatsoever, and as a result don’t invoke genuine suspense.

Another problem is that everybody in the film seems to play their roles too straight — there are some elements of humour but for the most part it’s all about being cool.  There’s nothing wrong with that per se, though I feel with such a potentially fun premise they should have had more fun with it than they did.

(And I’m not sure if it was just the cinema I attended, but many of the night scenes in the film came across as incredibly dark, to the point where it became irritating.)

Having said all that, Cowboys and Aliens is better than a lot of the criticism suggests.  I was never disengaged during the 118-minute running time, and I almost wished they could have dedicated more time to certain plot points (especially those involving Ford).  As far as action blockbusters go, it’s certainly a lot better than say Transformers 3, but given the crew involved I should never have even considered comparing the two films.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Tron: Legacy (2010)

Tron: Legacy was one 3D movie that I actually wanted to see (and was not too torn about forking out the extra cash to see it).

I’m too young to have seen the original Tron (except maybe on video, though I can’t remember it), but I have older friends who keep raving on about it and say that it’s a timeless classic.  Made in 1982, Tron featured special effects that were revolutionary for its time, and it’s fascinating to see just how far CGI has improved over the last 28 years.

I can’t say the trailer instilled much confidence in the film itself, but I was willing to give it a shot.  It seemed like one of those movies where the visuals were going to be impressive but the story was going to suck.

As it turned out, the visuals were even more incredible than I could have hoped for, and the story probably sucked a little more than I had expected.  Nevertheless, I was satisfied with the overall result — style over substance, for sure, but still a dazzling and (for the most part) exciting spectacle that’s different to anything I’ve seen before.

The film begins in 1989, several years after the first film, where Kevin Flynn (a young Jeff Bridges) is telling his young son Sam about the virtual world he created in Tron.  Twenty years later, Sam (Garrett Hedlund) is all grown up and through a series of discoveries finds himself transported to that very world.

And it’s a very very cool world, full of neon lights, flying discs, and amazing bikes (‘Light Cycles’) and planes (Light Jets).  A gamer’s wet dream.

Interestingly, even though Tron:Legacy is only released in 3D, the parts of the film set in the ‘real world’ are intentionally shot in 2D so as to contrast the awesomeness of the virtual world.  You will be hard pressed to find a more vocal critic of 3D films than me, but I didn’t mind it so much here.  At least it was a clever idea, and at least it enhanced the special effects.

Speaking of special effects, Tron: Legacy may not have been as revolutionary as its predecessor, but it was still a visual feast that made my eyeballs dance in awe.  However, the young version of Jeff Bridges didn’t feel quite right to me — perhaps it was his Beowulf-like eyeballs or the way his mouth moved, but it felt less authentic than the de-ageing technology I saw in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button from two years ago.

As for the story…well…after a cracker of a start, as soon as the action died down it became rather boring and muddled.  A lot of techno talk that didn’t make much sense to me, and still doesn’t.  Not that it mattered.

3.5 stars out of 5