Tag Archives: remake

The Magnificent Seven (2016)

So I was on a short flight recently and had the opportunity to either do some work or watch a movie. When I saw that they had The Magnificent Seven, which I missed out on during its theatrical run,  the choice became a no brainer.

I’ve never watched the 1960 classic or Seven Samurai, the 1954 Japanese film that inspired the American version, but I knew of their reputation and the fact that this remake was unlikely to live up to either. That said, I also knew this latest version of The Magnificent Seven is directed by gritty action director Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and written by Nic Pizzolatto, creator of True Detective, so I knew it was unlikely to be bad. After all, it does feature a superstar cast led by Denzel Washington, along with Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Peter Sarsgaard, Haley Bennett, Cam Gigandet, and Matt Bomer.

I was kind of surprised just how simple the premise is. Sarsgaard plays a corrupt, mean baddie who likes to take advantage of the little people. Before he returns to pillage a little town, Haley Bennet decides to hire a warrant officer played by Denzel Washington to save them. Denzel goes on to recruit a group of magnificent gunslingers and warriors from all walks of life to help him, along with assistance of the townspeople. They prepare and then engage in a spectacular battle. It’s essentially a tower defense game masquerading as a Western.

I liked the tone and spirit of the film. All seven dudes are cool and charismatic in their own ways, with Denzel and Pratt being the obvious standouts. And the action, when it finally hits, is spectacular and unrelenting. I didn’t time it, but it sure feels like nearly half the movie was spent on this all-out gunfight with bullets and explosions galore. It’s well-executed action with a blazing score from legendary composer James Horner before his tragic passing last year. As far as popcorn entertainment goes, The Magnificent Seven is indeed quite magnificent if you’re into old school Westerns.

On the other hand, it felt like the movie didn’t have time to develop the characters with any level of depth. There are, after all, seven of them, plus a main villain and a couple of important supporting characters, but there’s only 133 minutes to share between them. So really, all you get is a slick introduction and then not much more with the exception of a one-liner here or there. Some are handled better than others, but on the whole,  film is unable able to do any of the characters or their interactions and relationships justice. And as  result, the motivations of these characters in fighting a battle with the odds firmly stacked against them are never properly fleshed out. There are virtually no subplots, and certain plot points are set up in a way that make the resolutions blindingly obvious.

In all honesty, I think The Magnificent Seven would have been better off as something like a 10-episode TV series, where you introduce a new character each episode and have them fight it out in a long two-episode finale. That’s the only way they would have been able to address the shortcomings and add a little more flesh to the bare bones story. As a full-length feature film, it is what it is — a fun, largely forgettable popcorn ride with a super cast and some cool moments — but not much more than that.

3.25 stars out of 5

Ben-Hur (2016)

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I must begin this review with a caveat: I have not seen the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, which won a record 11 Academy Awards (tied with Titanic and Return of the King for the all-time record), and so I have the luxury of not having to compare this ill-fated remake/reimagining to that film. And what an ill-fated effort this is, earning measly US$23.7 million at the international box office (to date) against a US$100 million budget. It has become the unfortunate poster child of a disappointing summer of blockbuster flops.

In my humble opinion, however, this new version of Ben-Hur is, for the most part, not bad. I was rooting for it to be good while expecting it to be horrible, but for the majority of the 123-minute running time, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Problems aside, this was a very watchable movie fuelled by excellent performances and a couple of spectacular sequences. Sadly — and I’ll get to this later — the ending was one of the worst of any movie I’ve seen in a very long time, and still leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian auteur who gave us Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (one of those films everyone hated but I loved), Ben-Hur retells the classic Biblical story of adoptive brothers Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), who go from best friends to mortal enemies against the backdrop of the Roman control of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). It’s an epic tale of brotherhood, betrayal and revenge, and of course — as it also stars Morgan Freeman — redemption.

As sceptical as I was, Ben-Hur managed to suck me in right from the get-go. Part of it is simply that it’s a great story, though much of the credit has to go to the two super-talented leads, Jack Huston and Tony Kebbell (who will always be Koba to me), who act the shit out of their roles to elevate the film above the quality of the writing. Their chemistry made their brotherhood and friendship believable, and I could see the torment in their eyes when fate tore them apart.

Then there’s the action, which was generally very exciting and well-executed. The highlights are a gut-wrenching sequence on the high seas, and of course the chariot race. Some may accuse those scenes of being too reliant on CGI, but I honestly thought they looked realistic enough to get a pass. Special mention goes to the long shots of landscapes and especially the chariot racing stadium, which have a tendency to look fake in other films but were close to perfect here. If there is a complaint, it’s that the editing was too choppy due to the need to maintain the PG-13 rating. It got so bad that a key moment in the race was lost amid the confusion (I know I wasn’t the only one because I heard two separate groups of people talking about the same thing immediately after the film). I hate it when films undercut themselves in this way.

Nonetheless, the core of Ben-Hur is solid, and if it weren’t for a bunch of nagging problems, the film could have been a contender for most underrated movie of the year. First off, the look of most of the characters don’t feel quite right. There’s just too much of a modern vibe, from their hairstyles to the costumes. And don’t even get me started on Morgan Freeman’s dreadlocks. It was the most visually jarring hairdo in cinema since Tom Hank’s abomination in The Da Vinci Code.

On top of that, the film has a few pacing issues. While it does not feel like a long movie, there are moments where the film sags because it wastes too much time on things that are unimportant. I can’t go into specifics without spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Finally, there’s that ending. Had the film ended 5 minutes earlier, I would have liked it a lot more. But they had to go and ruin it with a cop-out ending that totally undermined the emotional payoff the film had been building up to for 2 hours. I understand, with the heavy religious undertones (which I didn’t mind), that it was an attempt to deliver a final message. As well-intentioned as it may be, the ending came across as forced and unnecessary. Honestly, it would have been preferable had they just pretended the entire movie was just a dream. It wasn’t just the decision to end the movie in this way either. Even the final scene and song they chose to accompany it irked me — as Donald Trump would say — “bigly.”

On the whole, however, I would still say Ben-Hur is a better movie than I had anticipated. It’s hard to get the bad ending out of my head, but there are enough positives to this remake to render it not a complete waste of time. I’m glad I saw it despite the negative reviews.

3 stars out of 5

Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

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Hollywood remakes seldom live up to the originals, especially if the original as an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. That’s unfortunately also the case for Secret in Their Eyes, a remake of the 2009 Argentine film El secreto de sus ojos (review here) that took home the gong in 2010, even though the Hollywood version features heavyweights such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, as well as Alfred Molina and familiar TV faces such as Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) and Michael Kelly (House of Cards).

I remember hearing about the remake years ago and was surprised that it took them this long to finally release it. Most of the elements of the original are there, but the setting is of course changed to the United States and the time period updated to the post-911 world. The story is essentially the same in that it revolves around a tragic incident that forever changes the lives of three people in different ways. Thirteen years later, the ghost of the past resurfaces, and the narrative switches back and forth between the two periods as we gradually piece together the shocking mystery.

Like the original, Secret in Their Eyes is a slow burn of a film with some intense moments, brutal violence and heavy drama. It is a tribute to the Argentine film that when I watched the remake I was able to recall the exact same scenes I saw more than five years ago. The execution by writer and director Billy Ray (best known for directing Shattered Glass and penning the scripts for The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips) is solid, though for some reason the film never managed to fully grip me like the original. Part of it is that it was sometimes difficult to tell which time period we were in (they all aged well), and another part is that the atmosphere wasn’t as well-crafted. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the original I would have thought differently, but now I’ll never know,

The performances from the two Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee are, needless to say, splendid. Ejiofor, who plays an obsessive FBI agent in the counter-terrorism unit, carries the film pretty much from start to finish with his usual intensity and emotion, while Nicole Kidman, a district attorney, fulfills her role with grace and underlying fierceness. That said, the chemistry between the two could have been stronger, making the relationship less involving than it otherwise should have been. Julia Roberts is the standout of the trio. It’s an extremely difficult role to portray, but she does it without underselling or overcooking her performance.

I’m somewhat surprised by the film’s low 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and score of 45 on Metacritic. It’s perhaps a little disappointing given how remarkable the original film was and the incredible cast, but in my mind it’s certainly a much better movie than the reviews suggest. My wife, who has not seen the original, didn’t think it was great but thought it was quite a compelling and gut-wrenching story, and I can’t disagree with her assessment. Flaws notwithstanding, this is a very solid film that probably should have been more, though certainly not a failure by any means.

3.5 stars out of 5

Point Break (2015)

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I swear, I was all pumped to hop on the Point Break remake bandwagon. The 1991 original with Keanu and Swayze was a guilty pleasure of mine growing up. It was cool, exciting and extremely rewatchable. I must have seen it at least half a dozen times, mostly on TV reruns. And I didn’t even know until a few years ago that it was directed by future Oscar-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), though in hindsight her trademark intensity was indeed all over the movie.

As you may recall, the film is about a young FBI agent named Johnny Utah who investigates a bank robbery case and ends up infiltrating a surf gang led by a mysterious and charismatic leader called Bodhi. Of course, Utah grows close to Bodhi over time and begins to question where his loyalties lie.

I don’t know how the film holds up today, but I agree that a remake was completely unnecessary. That said, the trailer for Point Break 2015 didn’t look all that bad, upping the ante from regular surfing to extreme sports all around the world. I had just seen Edgar Ramirez in Joy and thought he had the charisma to pull off Bodhi, and while no one would ever be “dude” enough to replace Keanu, I’m always up for supporting Aussie actors like Luke Bracey, who plays Johnny Utah. Bracey hasn’t wowed me with his past performances like November Man with Pierce Brosnan and Nicholas Sparks’ The Best of Me, but at least he’s still better than Jai Courtney.

Point Break 2015 turned out to be one of the biggest flops of the year, both critically and commercially, scoring a paltry 9% on Rotten Tomatoes and making just US$100 million worldwide against a mammoth US$130 million production budget. In all honesty, I went into this one hoping to play devil’s advocate. I wanted to be the guy to tell everyone that Point Break 2015 isn’t as bad as it has been made out to be.

Unfortunately, I can’t. For once, the critics and audiences got it right. The film sucks sweaty balls on a hot summer’s day. There are just so many things wrong with it, starting from the fact that it didn’t even need to be called Point Break. And it shouldn’t have been because there are substantial differences. Change the characters’ names and make a few more tweaks around the edges and you could have called this something else altogether. It wouldn’t have made everybody who didn’t want a remake roll their eyes, and it wouldn’t have been doomed with expectations it can’t possibly live up to. So that’s mistake number one.

Secondly, the script is really, really bad. In short, it tries way to hard. In trying to be a cool new take on the original story or even an homage, screenwriter Kurt Wimmer (whose other winning writing efforts include the 2012 Total Recall remake and the shitty Law Abiding Citizen from 2009) arbitrarily takes bits from the 1991 script and actually makes them lamer. Apart from all the contrivances and stuff that makes little sense, the dialogue is atrocious and occasionally laughable, and there’s just no cohesive narrative thread. It’s like a bunch of set pieces that has been forcibly stringed together, with a few key plot points from the original thrown in there to guide the plot. On top of that there’s this spiritual journey BS and silly mystical quest business that I didn’t buy at all. The more seriously the characters took it the less I believed in it.

Thirdly, the film is surprisingly dull. You would think with all these extreme sport scenes it would be one adrenaline rush after another. Instead, what we got was a lot of CGI-heavy sequences that looked quite fake. And instead of getting your blood pumping all it does is make you wonder why people would do such stupid things. I remember there were some wonderfully executed action sequences in the original, but they were nowhere to be found here. Rather, they filmed at all these amazingly beautiful places around the world and chose a greyish colour tone that just made it look bleak and unattractive.

At the end of the day, the biggest problem is that the film doesn’t make you care about the characters. They aren’t developed at all, so you don’t really give a crap if they live or die. At least with Swayze’s Bodhi I kind of liked him while being wary of what he’s capable of. With Ramirez’s Bodhi I was just indifferent. And while Bracey does his best as Utah, I think we can all agree that he’s no Keanu. It never felt like he was torn between two sides. There was simply no emotional connection to anything he was doing. It’s as though the film takes for granted that audiences know Bodhi and Utah will bond, that Utah will have a love interest, and puts zero effort into actually creating organic relationships and characters that we can believe in.

As for the supporting cast, both Delroy Lindo and Ray Winstone (is he the Gary Busey character?!) look liked they phoned it in. And Aussie Teresa Palmer, who plays the Lori Petty love-interest character but renamed to Samsara (seriously, WTF?), was barely passable in a completely thankless token role.

I didn’t want to dislike Point Break 2015 this much. Sadly, it’s a complete mess, a spastic remake that takes a massive dump on everything that was good about the original. Inexplicably boring for an action thriller, contrived and predictable drama; this is one of those films that make you go what were they thinking? US$130 million for this? Some remakes didn’t need to be made. Point Break 2015 unequivocally should not have been made at all.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Poltergeist (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part III

Diana (2013)

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Sixteen years after her tragic death, someone finally decided to make a big Princess Diana movie. But of all the types of films that could have been made, director Oliver Hirschbiegel (The Invasion) went for a sappy, melodramatic borefest that focuses on a very short period of her life.

Look, Diana is not as bad as some critics have made it out to be (ie, worst movie of the year), but it has been understandably panned because of expectations. Based on the book Diana: Her Last Love by Kate Snell, the film targets the tumultuous love affair between Diana (Naomi Watts) and British Pakistani doctor Hasnat Khan (Naveen Andrews, henceforth referred to as Sayid from Lost!!!).

So basically, the movie starts after Diania has divorced Prince Charles (who’s not even in it) and ends at her death a couple of years later. It suggests that she really only went out with Dodi Fayed, her last boyfriend, because she was trying to make Sayid jealous (and you don’t want to do that to Sayid!).

The problem with the movie is not that it is a romance. The problem is that it’s a very boring romance. They eat, they talk, the have sex, then they fight because Sayid doesn’t like the attention that comes with dating the most famous woman in the world. Then she wins him back, and the same cycle continues.

Naomi Watts delivers a good, albeit unconvincing performance as Princess Diana. By that I mean she did her best with the hair and the mannerisms and so forth, but she still looked and felt like Naomi Watts to me. Sayid, on the other hand, was great – at torturing people, that is — this time with boring conversations and tamper tantrums.

People who go into Diana thinking they are watching a biopic about the Princess’s life will be bitterly disappointed because it’s actually a romance that spans for just two years of her life, with the only other thing it touches upon being her fight against eradicating land mines. People who go into the film knowing all of this will still be disappointed because it’s crap.

2 stars out of 5

Oldboy (2013)

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I haven’t seen the original Korean version of Oldboy, which is based on a Japanese manga and widely regarded as a cult classic, but by all accounts it is miles better than Spike Lee’s US version, one of the biggest critical and box office bombs of 2013.

The premise behind Oldboy is fascinating enough, which is why I guess they decided to adapt it for American audiences. A fat douchebag played by Josh Brolin is imprisoned in a hotel room for reasons unknown to him for a whopping 20 years, with nothing but basic amenities and a TV set. When he is eventually set free after doing nothing except preparing for vengeance, he goes on a violent spree to find out who ruined his life, and why.

The problem with Oldboy is that the tone of it is all over the place and never feels quite right. It’s a crazy premise with a lot of gaps in logic and common sense, and the film can’t figure out whether it wants to be realistic or surreal. There are moments when the film feels like a comical farce, such as when Brolin takes on whole gangs of goons, but there are other times when the film feels dead serious and very disturbing.

And as for the mystery itself, though it keeps up the film’s intrigue factor it’s not really anything mindblowing, and the motivations actually turn out to be quite simple in the end. That said, the whole process of getting to that point is so ludicrous that the film falls apart when it is revealed why Brolin was imprisoned for so long. You also know that there is of course a twist, but it’s pretty easy to guess if you ask me.

Brolin is a good actor so you know he delivers here, but physically and with his performance, but it’s surprising how little he ages over the course of the 20 years, looking old when he went in and young when he came out. Elizabeth Olsen (younger sister of the twins), who was brilliant in Martha Marcy May Marlene, is also very good but feels underutilized as this is such a male-dominated movie. In terms of the supporting cast, I was surprised to see Sharlto Copley put on a fake British accent, but I was very happy to see Samuel L Jackson launch some of his patented expletives while being tortured.

I don’t know if I will see the Korean original now that I’ve seen Lee’s version, but my guess is that if you’ve seen the Korean version you should avoid the American one. I don’t deny that Oldboy starts off on a fascinating note and is occasionally entertaining, but there were simply too many obvious problems with it for me to be fully engaged with it.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: I find it interesting that both Lee and Brolin were annoyed that the studio cut the film from its original length of 140 minutes, which they believed was a superior version, to a more manageable 105 minutes. Perhaps a director’s cut will better do the film justice.

Fruitvale Station (2013)

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I remember seeing a shaky, grainy video of a young black man being pinned down and then shot by police a few years back, but like many of these viral videos it was quickly shifted to the back of my mind. Little did I know that the short piece of footage would go on to inspire a critically-acclaimed film that would in the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award for US dramatic film at 2013 Sundance.

Fruitvale Station, written and directed by Ryan Coogler (in his feature debut), tells of the story of what happened to 22-year-old Oscar Grant on the final day of his life. It could have easily been boring, or worse, melodramatic and manipulative, but instead Coogler has produced a powerful film driven by a dynamic performance from Michael B Jordan (whom I had seen recently in the underrated Chronicle).

The impressive thing about Fruitvale Station is that the events leading up to the shooting, which take up the vast majority of the 85-minute running time, do not feel like pointless filler. We get to learn what kind of person Oscar Grant is, what he has been through and what he has ahead of him. He isn’t painted as some kind of hero or flawless guy – he’s just a normal African American male from a disadvantaged background trying to get through life and be there for his young daughter.

There is a sense of inevitability running through the first part of the film, but it conjures up a feeling of dread rather than predictability. And when Oscar and his friends are accosted by police at Fruitvale Station, the “incident” itself is handled with a lot of raw emotion but also even-handedness. It doesn’t try to portray the cops as super evil or play up the race angle – it’s just one of those things where egos got the better of both sides and someone ended up doing something incredibly stupid and tragic.

I don’t know how accurate the film is compared to the real events, though some have criticized the film for inaccuracies and omissions, arguably to drive the filmmaker’s agenda for victim’s rights. All I can say is that from what I have seen, Fruitvale Station is a very impressive debut, a devastating, poignant drama that goes far beyond what was captured on a mobile phone camera back in 2009.

4 stars out of 5

Despicable Me 2 (2013)

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I was pleasantly surprised by the first Despicable Me, which, like many recent animated features, decided to focus on a villain (voiced by Steve Carrell) who’s not really such a bad guy. It was funny enough in places, sweet because of the little kids he eventually adopts, and cute because of those crazy minions, who are about to get their own spin-off movie.

Despicable Me 2 did not have to be made, but the success of the original guaranteed it. It follows on from the first film, with Carrell’s ex-villain, Gru, trying to juggle the responsibilities of looking after three little girls (Margo, Edith and Agnes). To get the ball rolling, the writers went for the most obvious plot device, which is to get the authorities (in this case the Anti-Villain League, or AVL) to recruit Gru and his villainous talents to help them catch a new villain.

I didn’t find Despicable Me 2 as funny as the first one. The story, largely surrounding Gru and his potential love interest Lucy (voiced by Kristen Wiig), felt a little forced, and the attempts at humour appeared more geared towards younger audiences.

People who like the minions will get a kick out of this one, but personally I think a lot of their charisma has already dried up because it’s obvious they are trying too hard to be cute. Even the efforts to make the trio of little girls sweet may have gone overboard, making the overall tone of the film somewhat saccharine.

I’m surprised the film has been nominated for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars this year. I’m not saying that it’s bad, but for me it was just serviceable and at best a fairly average sequel that’s clearly just trying to cash in.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: RoboCop (2014)

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Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, made back in 1987, is widely regarded as one of his best movies alongside 1990’s Total Recall and 1997’s Starship Troopers, all sci-fi action blockbusters featuring amazing special effects (for its time) and boasting a sharp satirical edge that made them unforgettable classics. Last year, Hollywood attempted to remake Total Recall (with Colin Farrell in Arnie’s old role) and it was an epic failure. Apart from improved special effects, every aspect of the new film, from the story to the characters to the action, was inferior. Most of all, the charm and wit of the original was all gone.

This year they’ve decided to remake RoboCop, with Brazilian Jose Padilha directing and largely unknown actor Joel Kinnaman (I only knew him as Oliva Munn’s boyfriend) in the title role and a bunch of big names from Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach!), Michael K Williams (Omar from The Wire!), Abbie Cornish and Jay Baruchel in the supporting cast. The result this time is a mixed bag. Some might call it a failure too, but there is no doubt that the remake of RoboCop is much much better than the remake of Total Recall.

This time, the story is set in the not-too-distant future (2028, I believe), when high-powered robots made by the wealthy OmniCorp have replaced soldiers in overseas territories with a US military presence. However, robot cops are still outlawed in the United States, OmniCorp’s largest potential market, thanks to a senator played by Zach Grenier (I know him as annoying partner David Lee on The Good Wife). To get around the legal restrictions, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) comes up with the idea of putting a disabled human in a robot, and that’s where Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a good cop on the verge of death after being betrayed by corrupt cops, comes in. This is all pretty obvious stuff.

The good news about this RoboCop reboot is that apart from the title, the name of the protagonist and a few key plot points, the film is very different to the original. After all, why remake a movie if it’s just going to be exactly the same? This RoboCop places more attention on the internal emotional struggles of Murphy than the original and spends a lot of time on the course of his development and the logistics of operation, most probably because a big star like Gary Oldman plays the scientist/doctor in charge of the project. In that sense, this RoboCop is a much more personal and serious film, though it doesn’t forget to pay homage to the original through some references such as suit and robot design.

The special effects are, needless to say, impressive, as you would expect from a 2014 film. The action scenes are also well done, though I had expected a little more innovation and creativity as the choreography was fairly standard and contained no particularly memorable sequences.

Joel Kinnaman is an interesting choice for Murphy (especially given that A-listers such as Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves were considered). He seems tall but not really a leading-man type of guy, but neither was Peter Weller (the original). Like Weller though, Kinnaman does have a prominent jaw/lip area and that’s rather important as RoboCop spends a lot of his time with all but that part of his face covered. He doesn’t exude much charisma but does a solid job of playing both the cop and the RoboCop (ie, one with emotion and the other without). The jury’s still out as to whether he’s going to become a bigger star after this.

As for the supporting cast, Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton have the juiciest roles as the sympathetic doctor and the villainous CEO, while it was interesting to see the man who played Omar (Michael K Williams) play a cop instead of a crook. Aussie Abbie Cornish has a thankless role as the distressed and helpless wife, while Jackie Earle Haley is another interesting choice as the commander of the robots given his diminutive stature, but he more than makes up for it with his disturbing versatility. As for Samuel L Jackson, he was pretty much the same as always.

The main problem with the film is that it couldn’t exactly decide whether it wanted to be a serious film or be laced with satire like the original. I’m not saying that the remake had to take the same angle as Verhoeven’s version, and in fact I tend to prefer something fresh. This reboot starts with and features, sporadically, a series of TV segments hosted by Samuel L Jackson that are clearly intended to satirize America’s manipulative right wing TV shows (like those on Fox News). While these segments are semi-amusing and have strong political undertones (though they are nowhere near as good as those in Starship Troopers), they are also completely at odds with the tone and feel of the rest of the film, which is completely devoid of jokes, tongue-in-cheek one-liners and cheesy dialogue. It’s like they wanted to have fun and play it straight at the same time, and the result is confusing and renders the film frustratingly uneven.

I had high expectations for RoboCop and named it as one of my most anticipated movies of 2014 because I loved the 1987 original so much. It’s one of those movies I’ve seen heaps of times and will always keep watching if I happen to stumble across it on TV. I felt there was a lot they could have done with a remake given the advancements in modern technology and medicine since 1987. And I’m not just talking about special effects and character design either. They could have completely revamped the system, introduced some cool new stuff like innovative gadgets or vehicles which would make way for fresh action sequences that would override anything from the original. Instead, apart from showing us how efficient crime fighting would be with all the entire police database and CCTV camera footage in a cop’s head, the film fails to deliver any of those things. On a deeper level, I didn’t expect the remake to recapture the magic of the original, and I didn’t think it had to have the same satirical edge, but I had hoped that it would at least produce some of the same wit. Sadly, it didn’t do much of that either.

That said, if you take RoboCop 2014 as a standalone popcorn flick, it’s actually not bad — maybe even pretty good. The story is still cool, the cast is fantastic, the effects are great and the action is solid. I wasn’t anywhere near bored but neither was I thoroughly entertained like I hoped I would be. This remake is not a worthless one like Total Recall was, though it still missed an excellent opportunity to deliver something truly special.

3.25 stars out of 5

PS: Apparently a Starship Troopers remake is tentatively in the works. I can’t think of a film that needs a remake less than that one.

Movie Review: Carrie (2013)

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I guess it was only going to be matter of time before they attempted another remake of Carrie, the classic 1976 horror film based on Stephen King’s first published novel of the same name. Technically, this is just another adaptation of King’s novel (there was another TV movie version made in 2002, and an ill-advised “sequel” in 1999), though the standard it will be compared against will always be the version that made Sissy Spacek famous and boosted the careers of Nancy Allen and John Travolta.

This time, the film stars Chloe Grace Moretz as the bullied but “gifted” school girl Carrie White and Julianne Moore as her religious fanatic mother. Judy Greer plays Carrie’s sympathetic gym teacher, which is unfortunate for a horror movie because I will always think of her as the crazy secretary in Arrested Development.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u1alISOTGfE

Anyway, it’s hard for me review this new Carrie objectively as a standalone film because it is so close to the original film and fails to offer anything genuinely new apart from improved special effects and some updated technology in the lives of the students (such as smartphones and YouTube). This is not to say it’s a bad film, because it’s actually a pretty good remake driven by excellent performances from the two female leads. Moore, in particular, was absolutely freaky and helps you understand why Carrie turned out the way she did. The real question is why they felt the need to make it again when the original was so iconic and still remains effective. 

If you have not seen the 1976 film and don’t know what happens in the story then you could find Carrie a terrifying experience. There are some effective horror moments executed craftily by director Kimberly Peirce, whose previous works include Boys Don’t Cry and Stop-Loss. For me, however, it was difficult to truly enjoy Carrie because I knew what was coming. Everything that happens in the first half of the film boils down to that one pivotal moment, that one key scene — and most people should know what I’m talking about here — so there was a sense of inevitability throughout the whole thing. It’s just not the same when you are expecting it.

I do have a few other problems with this version as well. For starters, Chloe Grace Moretz is just too damn pretty to be the Carrie White, even when she’s “uglied up”. Even if she’s brought up by a lunatic and socially inept it’s difficult to imagine her being such a target. Secondly, the “villain” of the movie, a girl named Chris, was too one-dimensional and evil, while her friend Sue, was too “nice”. I know that’s how the story goes but a little more nuance would have been welcome.

Carrie 1976 is widely regarded as a landmark horror film and garnered Oscar nominations for the two leads. Carrie 2013 is still a decent horror movie and a pretty good remake, but that’s all it can hope to be.

3.5 stars out of 5

Recent Movie Reviews: Part V

Let’s take some time out from my 2012 Movie Blitz to go back to some movies I have watched more recently.

Evil Dead (2013)

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The original Evil Dead directed by Sam Raimi is now widely considered classic even though it’s actually a very flawed horror film that happens to have a few iconic images. Thirty-two years later, we have what is considered a reboot as well as a loose continuation of the franchise. This time, the film is directed by Fede Alvarez in his big screen debut — and the results are surprising.

In keeping up with tradition, this reboot is also about a bunch of young people who end up in a cabin in the woods (this time for drug rehab purposes) and one of them stupidly brings a demon to life by opening a book he/she shouldn’t have. The demon possesses one of them, and like a zombie virus, the possession is spread from one to the next.

Much of the scares come from the visceral details of the graphic injuries. They get scalded by hot water, get stabbed, punctured, tossed around, covered in glass and have limbs torn right off, and yet they just keep soldiering on. And the craziest thing is that the non-possessed humans are even harder to kill than the demon-possessed characters. It’s so outrageous it’s funny — but in a good way.

I didn’t expect much from Evil Dead given the disappointing horror reboots in recent years (just about all the ones you can think of). I had heard that this one was effectively gory and disgusting but not particularly frightening — but I respectfully disagree. Yes, it was excessively bloody and gruesome and gross, but it was done effectively and not gratuitously like say the horror porn films such as Hostel and the later entries in the Saw franchise.

I didn’t recognise any of the actors except Shiloh Fernandez, who was in that awful Red Riding Hood movie, but everyone does a decent job — no small feat considering that most casts of such film are laughably bad.

So yeah, while this rendition of Evil Dead won’t make us forget the original any time soon, it was still an unexpected pleasure in the way that only gross horror movies can be.

3.5 stars out of 5

Gangster Squad (2013)

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Gangster Squad has all the ingredients of a great blockbuster — the “loosely based on a true story” concept, the noir atmosphere of the post-WWII era, a fundamental good vs evil storyline, and a ridiculous cast headed by Josh Brolin, Sean Penn, Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, plus Giovanni Ribisi, Nick Nolte, Anthony Mackie, Michael Pena and Robert Patrick. Everything was seemingly there, and yet the film felt like it was missing…something.

I can’t quite put my finger on it except to say that there was a sense of familiarity with the film, as though I had seen it or experienced it all before. Strictly speaking there is nothing wrong with that, but for a film of this magnitude carrying hefty expectations it just felt like the film fell well short of expectations.

The story is based around real-life notorious crime boss and former pro-boxer Mickey Cohen (Sean Penn), who basically ran LA back in those days by eliminating witnesses and bringing legal officials. When even the cops tell their own not to venture into Mickey’s property, you know he’s not to be messed with. But Josh Brolin is a sergeant who can’t say no to justice, and he accepts a clandestine mission from his boss, Nick Nolte, to bring Cohen down off official police books. The rest of the cast mentioned above are pretty much all members of Brolin’s Gangster Squad, except for of course Emma Stone, one of Cohen’s women who falls in love with Ryan Gosling (because everyone loves Ryan Gosling — even though he puts on this weird, whiny voice in this movie).

Gangster Squad is a pretty-looking film that successfully captivates the mood of the era and has some crafty action sequences (including a bare-knuckle showdown that made little sense). It is ultra-violent and perhaps unnecessarily so, but I never have a huge problem with violence as long as it’s not blatantly gratuitous (well, and even then…). Where I think the film falters is the script, which never brought out the characters properly and as a result we never develop any emotional connection to them. It’s not awful by any means, but given the stars involved being merely average is not good enough.

3 stars out of 5

Dark Skies (2013)

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I love horror films and I love alien/UFO films, and Dark Skies is an attempt to roll both genres into one.

Keri Russell and Josh Hamilton are a couple struggling with financial difficulties, bringing a lot of tension to their relationship with each other and as well as with their two sons. Like a poltergeist movie, strange things start happening in and around their home, and if you know your alien abduction cliches, you would have seen them all. But thanks to some effective direction from Scott Stewart (who last gave us the lacklustre Priest), the scares are still quite effective.

The frequency and intensity of the weird stuff increases as the couple realise that there might a sinister force trying to take over their lives, leading them to seek the help of an “expert” played by JK Simmons (with some unintentionally amusing results). After receiving some advice, they buckle down and face what is going to inevitably come at them anyway — but wait, there might be a twist. Sound familiar?

I sound harsh about this film, but the thing is, you should not approach Dark Skies like it’s going to be some fantastic masterpiece. It’s a sci-fi horror about alien abduction, so keep your expectations in check. All you can really hope for are some eerie atmospheric tensions, a few creepy incidents, some “boo!” scares, an effectively climax and an ending that doesn’t suck too badly. Dark Skies delivers all of the above, albeit in ways we’ve all seen before. Thanks to my bias for scary aliens, I still had a pretty good time with it.

3.25 stars out of 5

Odd Thomas (2013)

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I first became acquainted with Odd Thomas, the character not the film, a couple of years ago, when a friend got me In Odd We Trust, a graphic novel about a young man who can see dead people and decides to do something about it. The graphic novel is based on a series of novels written by horror master Dean Koontz.

I liked the graphic novel but thought it would be even better as a movie, and what do you know, a year or two later and we have Odd Thomas, the motion picture version, starring Anton Yelchin (one of my favourite young actors) as the titular character and the pretty Addison Timlin (whom some might recognise from Californication) as love interest Stormy. The film is actually in limbo at the moment because of a lawsuit, so I won’t disclose how I actually came about to watching it.

Odd Thomas is a film that is tonally difficult to get right because it’s supposed to be scary (with dead people and ghosts and demonic creatures and so forth) but at the same time it has to have that kiddy graphic novel feel where you have to partially suspend disbelief but not to the extent where it becomes a farce. And at the center of it lies a sweet romance between Odd and his one true love, Stormy, but it can’t be too sweet or else it will put off viewers.

Amazingly, director Stephen Sommers (GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra and The Mummy franchise) gets it right, or at least gets close enough. Odd Thomas is essentially a fun, quirky and sweet detective film laced with elements of horror and fantasy — and some well-executed action. Not everything works (some of the concepts were either too “out there” or convoluted for my liking) but on the whole the elements meshed well together.

Anton Yelchin’s unusual look makes him a perfect Odd, and his chemistry with Timlin is scorching. Willem Dafoe also gets to show off some of his comedic chops as the police chief who can’t seem to get a minute alone with his wife. It’s not cult classic material but I’d like to think it’s enjoyable enough to possibly be the first instalment of a franchise.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Red Dawn (2012)

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Given the recent tensions in the Korean Peninsula, I thought it would be apt to review Red Dawn, a strong candidate for the worst movie of 2012.

A friend told me the other day that I needed to be more definitive in my movie reviews and tell readers to avoid certain movies at all cost. I don’t think I can ever do that because I truly want to believe that every movie has its merits, but I suppose Red Dawn is about as close as it gets to an unwatchable movie.

It wasn’t supposed to be that way. Red Dawn was supposed to be one of the biggest blockbusters of the year. A remake of the successful 1984 film of the same name about a hypothetical Chinese invasion of the United States (changed to North Korea during post-production for the remake — I guess they just dubbed the voices? They probably think all Asians look the same anyway). An all-star cast led by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Peeta from The Hunger Games (Josh Hutcherson), Aussie bombshell Isabel Lucas and Josh Peck (who starred in that other piece of shit from 2011, ATM — review here). How could things go so wrong?

Honestly, I don’t know. I just know Red Dawn was completely devoid of excitement, drama, tension and most of all, common sense. I scratched my head so many times that my scalp bled for a week.

Hemsworth is a US marine who returns home to visit his father, the town sheriff, and his brother (Peck), a high school football star. Boom, the North Koreans invade, and somehow Hemsworth and a bunch of school kids evade capture and take cover in the woods. Instead of crapping their pants and organizing drunken orgies, the kids decide to become super soldiers and fight back. Go America! F*&% yeah!

Perhaps this concept — kids becoming effective soldiers in an unexpected attack — could have worked 30 years ago. Heck, it kinda worked in 2010, when Aussie filmmakers pulled off Tomorrow, When the War Began (review here), based on the classic novel by John Marsden. But here, thanks to a clumsy script, uninspired direction and cliched plot points, Red Dawn felt like a B-grade affair made by a bunch of people who have lost all touch with reality. Top that off with cheesy dialogue, a predictable storyline, no surprises whatsoever, shitty performances and poor special effects, and what we have on our hands is a royal mess.

Forget how ludicrous the idea of North Korea invading the US, on its own, sounds for the moment. Even if we can accept the premise for a couple of hours, there are still just too many gaps in logic. Why did the North Koreans choose their pointless suburban city? Did they have a presence in all cities? Why did they let the kids run off without pursuing them in the first place? Why is the North Korean army capable of taking over the United States, seemingly with ease, but incapable of standing up to a few kids who have no idea what they are doing? Why can’t trained professional soldiers beat a few kids who just practiced shooting a few bottles in the woods for a week? Why do they keep allowing the kids to sneak into the city to carry out guerrilla attacks and then let them sneak out again? Why do they keep letting the kids get on rooftops (ie, trap themselves), and then let them get away? What the heck were the North Koreans doing in that city again?

So many questions, so little answers.

Hemsworth and Hutcherson exhibit barely passable acting skills, but you could tell from their faces that they knew they were starring in something that was going to be panned for eternity. Peck, on the other hand, was unbearable — a whiny, self-absorbed, greasy-haired douche who discovers the world is not all about him and decides to suddenly grow up and turn into a world-saving hero. None of the other characters were memorable, except for maybe the Chinese, sorry, North Korean army chief (Will Yun Lee), and that was because he played the lead character in the awesome PS3 game Sleeping Dogs!

I’m ashamed to say that I initially thought Red Dawn would be good and was excited to see it. Unfortunately, it turned out to be an absurd joke (complete with unintentional laugh-out-loud moments) and a complete waste of 93 minutes of my life. There were times when I wanted to stop the torture but I persisted until the brutal final shot, which was, of course, the American flag.

0.5 stars out of 5