Tag Archives: review

Sisters (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.5 stars out of 5

Deep Dark (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

1.5 stars out of 5

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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First of all, you’re not going to get any spoilers here. Not even any mention of the plot. Zero. Nada. And you know my threshold for spoilers is extremely low, so don’t worry. Disney and Lucasfilm and the entire internet in general have all done a commendable job of keeping the show under wraps, and it’s because of their resilience that I enjoyed the film as much as I did. Seriously, avoid spoilers at all costs because — despite the rampant speculation across the internet — there are some surprises to be found. I actually wish now that I had skipped the relatively spoiler-free trailers.

Secondly, if there is only one piece of advice I could give to would be viewers, it would be to keep your expectations in check. I know it’s hard, considering it’s probably the most anticipated movie of all time. Some people have been waiting for the movie for years, if not decades, and the buzz surrounding it all from the second the film was announced has been out of this galaxy. But just remember that it’s still just a two-hour movie (135 minutes to be exact) and that there is no human, droid or Wookie who can make a film that lives up to the hype. Even I, more a fan of the idea of Star Wars than Star Wars itself, got swept up in the drama and had a dream last night where I arrived at the cinema only to discover that all tickets for the morning session I intended to see had been sold out (I woke up in the morning and pre-booked online immediately).

Now that I’ve gotten the formalities out of the way, it’s time for my spoiler-free review of The Force Awakens. All things considered, the film is a major triumph, a near-perfect blend of space opera and fantasy, fighter jet and lightsaber action, practical and CGI effects, mythology and nostalgia, old and new faces, drama and humour. Provided expectations are reasonable, the film will please everyone from newcomers to hardcore fans alike.

The film begins like all Star Wars movies and will surely give fans chills and goosebumps when the opening scrawl appears on the big screen. The story itself is simple to follow, with just enough exposition to allow those less familiar with the history of the franchise (like my wife) to keep up, without feeling like we’re getting a rehash of previous events.

This already gives The Force Awakens a distinct advantage over the three disappointing Star Wars prequels. JJ Abrams has clearly learned from George Lucas’s mistakes and gone back to the roots of the franchise. He said himself that he was trying to recapture the magic of the first film that entranced him when he was just a child.

Accordingly, there was — as many of you will already know — a special emphasis on costumes and practical effects, with the CGI kept to a minimum where possible. The difference in the visual experience is profound, giving the film that tangible look and feel that has been missing from most major blockbusters in recent years.

What really elevates The Force Awakens to the level of the original films, however, is the characters. Kudos to Abrams for creating and putting a lot of effort into developing the three new-generation leads: Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn) and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren). All of them are kick-ass characters who have already exhibited more depth than Anakin Skywalker and Queen Amidala put together in the three prequels. I was originally worried that casting a female/black lead may come across as trying too hard, or that Kylo Ren would just be a carbon copy of Darth Vader — but boy was I wrong on all counts. All will be household names soon enough and they deserve to be.

Special mention also goes to the new CGI characters played by the king of motion capture, Andy Serkis, as well as Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o. Fans will already know who they play, but if you didn’t know they are in it you probably wouldn’t be able to figure out which characters they play. That’s one of the things I loved about the movie — it’s not about the name of the star but the character they play that stands out.

As awesome as the new characters are and as much freshness as they inject into the franchise, the movie just wouldn’t have been the same without the members of the original cast. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know who they are, and you can tell all of them are happy to be back. Far from just being there to infuse a healthy dose of nostalgia, these beloved characters are pivotal to the story and serve important purposes without stealing anyone’s thunder. The balance and blend of new and old must not have been easy to get right, but JJ got it as close as you could hope for.

As for the action, for my money it was at least on par with the original trilogy. Thanks to modern technology, the spacecraft sequences are sensational and make use of innovative angles and maneuvers. The prequel trilogy may have had better lightsaber duels, but they don’t mean much when the emotional connection isn’t there. In The Force Awakens, the duels actually feel like they mean something, and as a result they come across as much more powerful and impactful.

Having said all that, The Force Awakens isn’t without flaws. Not all the dialogue and humour worked all the time, and there were a couple of occasions where time appears to be stretched or condensed to fit the narrative. Apart from Kylo Ren, the villains didn’t get as much screen time as I had hoped, in particular Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma and Domhnall Gleeson’s General Hux, though I do get the feeling that they are playing the long game with these two and that they will feature more prominently in episodes VIII and IX.

Perhaps the biggest complaint that has leaked out since the worldwide premiere is that The Force Awakens has too many parallels to — without being too specific — some of the previous films in the series. I admit this is true as it is something I noticed myself, though there are enough differences and new ideas for The Force Awakens to be both a sequel and a reboot of sorts — something I believe Abrams was aiming for in the first place.

In all, The Force Awakens delivers. While it didn’t blow my mind, it’s a fun, exciting experience that brings back memories, creates new ones, and sets things up magnificently for what is yet to come. As long as you can accept that it will never live up to your impossible expectations, the film might very well turn out to be one of your best cinematic experiences of the year.

4.25 stars out of 5

PS: Episode VIII, scheduled for release in May 2017, will be directed by Rian Johnson, best known for Looper and directing three episodes of Breaking Bad, most notably “Ozymandias”,  arguably the show’s greatest episode. Episode IX will be directed by Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World).

The Stanford Prison Experiment (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5 stars out of 5

Straight Outta Compton (2015)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5 stars out of 5

Howl (2015)

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And the horror binge continues.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2 stars out of 5

The Exorcism of Molly Hartley (2015)

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Two exorcism films in two nights. I surely must be possessed.

The Exorcism of Molly Hartley is apparently a rare sequel to a straight-to-DVD film from 2008 called The Haunting of Molly Hartley. That one had Haley Bennett and Chace Crawford (from TV’s Gossip Girl)and other recognisable names such as AnnaLynn McCord and Jake Weber (I know it sounds like I’m being sarcastic but I actually recognise these names). I may have seen the film (poster rings a bell) but don’t remember a thing about it.

The story takes place years after the first one ended and features a completely new cast, led by Sarah Lind as the “grown up” Molly Hartley.

It doesn’t get off to the best of starts. The very first scene sees a priest looking through an exorcism kit before a camera focuses on the back of his closely-shaved head. The way the camera lingers and slowly zooms in makes you expect to see freaking Brad Pitt on the other side, but eventually it’s revealed to be…Devon Sawa!

I didn’t recognise him at first because it’s been that long. Remember Devon Sawa? The teen heartthrob who was at the cusp of superstardom with films like CasperIdle Hands and Final Destination in the late 1990s all the way to the turn of the century? He was even the star of the music video for that Eminem song Stan, remember that?

Anyway, back to The Exorcism of Molly Hartley. Basically, Devon Sawa plays a priest ostracized by the church and gets the chance to redeem himself when Molly Hartley gets possessed (it can’t be a spoiler if it’s implied by the film title, right?).

To be fair, the film is better than The Vatican Tapes, which I saw the night before and was stunned by how derivative and shit it was. The experience of that shocker perhaps elevates Molly Hartley higher than it should be, but at least this one had a few decent attempts at scares, primarily through the ghastly appearances of the possessed victims. The plot also has a few twists and turns to keep it interesting. In all, despite not offering much else, it’s a better executed film than Vatican Tapes.

But a B-grade straight-to-DVD film is still just that. Molly Hartley is, to put it lightly, rough around the edges. There are scenes of unintentional comedy, logic and common sense gaps galore, and of course appalling dialogue. I can’t tell if certain sequences are homages to exorcism classics (include the classic) or poor imitations. I remember laughing out loud then being confused near the start of the movie when I heard that Molly had just been made the partner of a law firm at age 24. First of all, that’s impossible, and secondly, Sarah Lind looks like the oldest 24 year old in the world (she’s actually an old-looking 30 in real life). I would have been okay with cheesy, but much of this film is just plain bad.

Oh well, at least I got to see Devon Sawa again. He’s not in the best shape but at just 37 it’s not too late for a career revival. Unfortunately, this is not the film to kick that off.

Any other 2015 exorcism films to recommend?

2.25 stars out of 5

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

Crimson Peak (2015)

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I love horror movies, but let’s face it: the vast majority being rolled out these days are shit. Found footage, demonic possession, teen slasher, torture porn, or unnecessary remakes — they all seem to blend into one massive flaming dump after a while.

And so it is refreshing to see Guillermo del Toro go back to his horror roots with Crimson Peak, an old-fashioned gothic fantasy ghost story the likes of which have become virtually extinct. Since it’s Del Toro, it means you’re also guaranteed splendid visuals, beautiful colour palettes and haunting imagery. I even saw it in IMAX for the full immersive experience.

The plot, set in the late 1800s, will feel vaguely familiar: Edith Cushing (Mia Wasikowska) is an aspiring young American novelist with a fascination for ghost stories. Her life is changed forever when a dashing young British aristocrat named Thomas Sharpe (Tom Hiddleston) and his sister Lucille (Jessica Chastain) arrive to seek project funding from Edith’s father (Jim Beaver), a self-made businessman with an observant eye.

It’s one of those films where there are mysteries and secrets to be unravelled, though I was surprised that it did not have any big surprises. The narrative progressed in a familiar direction and things more or less turned out as I expected as Del Toro never really tries to mislead us with red herrings. I believe part of the reason is because Del Toro has insisted that Crimson Peak is not a horror film but a gothic romance, and has accordingly tried to stick to the conventions of the genre.

I’ll stop there to avoid spoilers, but if you’ve seen the trailer or the posters you’ll know much of the story revolves around a massive old gothic manor. Once majestic, time, nature and economic hardship have eroded its beauty, leaving behind a dilapidated facade full of unspeakable secrets. It’s a magnificent creation of Del Toro’s imagination, the kind of place where dreams and nightmares are made of. Amazingly, almost of all of it was built from scratch as opposed to relying on digital effects, and you can genuinely sense the superior aesthetics.

So as you may have gathered, Crimson Peak has a distinctly dreamy and fantastical tone driven by location and atmosphere. Everything from the gorgeous imagery to the exquisite costumes and sets contributes to the type of film Del Toro is trying to unleash from his twisted mind. I will admit though, that at times the old-fashioned approach of the film, coupled with the over-the-top melodrama and romance, walks a tightrope between charming and campy. I belong in the former category, for the most part, but I can definitely see some audiences falling in the latter.

What also makes Crimson Peak different to most ghost films these days is that there’s very little build-up to the appearances of the apparitions. Del Toro gets right to it and doesn’t waste time with shadows, fleeting glimpses or sceptical minds doubting our protagonist for three-quarters of the movie. Fans of Del Toro’s previous creature designs in Pans Labyrinth are in for a treat.

Don’t for a second, however, think that Crimson Peak is an “easy” film to watch just because it looks pretty. Del Toro likes to remind his viewers that this is indeed still a horror film with occasional bursts of brutal, visceral violence. It comes swiftly, shockingly, and jolts audiences to the edge of their seats. Frankly, I found these scenes far more terrifying than any of the supernatural stuff.

In terms of performances, the central trio of Wasikowska, Hiddleston and Chastain are all terrific. There is a strange mix of elegance, naivete and strength about Wasikowska that makes her so suitable for such roles, and for me it was great to see Hiddleston channel his charm into a character other than Loki (I had previously only seen him in Marvel movies). The standout, however, is Chastain, who seems to relish the opportunity to play a completely different character to what she’s typically used to. I had just seen her in The Martian the day before and it had no effect on how I perceived her performance in this movie at all.

Crimson Peak may not be one of the scarier horror films I’ve seen (supposedly because it’s not even supposed to be a horror film), but it at least offers a genre experience that is vastly different to what Hollywood has been churning out in recent years. I was delighted by its rich, sprawling visuals, creepy atmosphere, stunning sets and fine cast, and was never bored or frustrated by the story. I know it won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but this is one of those rare instances where I think these positives, while not making up for a lack of surprises and originality, are enough to make a film worth watching and recommending.

3.75 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