Tag Archives: special effects

A Monster Calls (2016)

I’m frankly a little stunned at how poorly A Monster Calls has performed at the box office. I remember the film getting a lot of buzz early on, and the trailer made it seem like the kind of emotionally-charged fantasy drama that critics adore . And the critical response was indeed kind (86% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and 76% on Metacritic). With a cast featuring Jynn Erso (ie, Felicity Jones), Sigourney Weaver and Aslan’s voice (ie, Liam Neeson) and directed by Spaniard JA Bayona (The Orphanage, The Impossible, and the upcoming Jurassic World sequel), you would think the film would draw in big numbers. Yet, the film has yet to make back its low budget of just US$43 million.

Personally, I liked A Monster Calls a lot. It’s perhaps not as amazing or enjoyable as I hoped it would be when I first encountered the initial buzz, but it’s nonetheless an unusual and original fantasy film with wonderful visual effects, powerful performances, and a good dose of heart.

Based on the eponymous novel by Patrick Ness, the film is essentially a coming-of-age story of a young boy (played magnificently by Lewis MacDougall from Pan) who conjures a giant tree monster (voiced by Liam Neeson) as a way of dealing with his single mother’s (Felicity Jones) struggle with cancer. Sigourney Weaver plays his traditional and strict grandmother, while Toby Kebbell plays his absent father.

As you can gather from that premise, A Monster Calls is a heavy film — dealing with death, bullying, and generation gaps — and I can understand if some people found it too emotionally draining to sit through. It also has a strange structure, in which the monster appears to tell fables rendered in stylish animation. Each fable has an underlying message, but it’s vague and subject to interpretation (think The Alchemist, if you’ve read that book), which could be frustrating or enlightening, depending on your perspective.

The colour palette is greyish and the tone of the film is dark — too dark for young children — and there are some scenes that could be described as scary or certainly unsettling. I wouldn’t say it’s anywhere near as creepy, but it does have a tinge of that Pan’s Labyrinth vibe. It’s got an odd feel to it, which I like  because it’s different and puts me on edge, though it could put a lot of audiences — both young and old — off the film. And I suppose that’s where it fails, as the film is too dark and heavy for kids and also potentially too confusing for adults expecting a more straightforward story.

That said, it’s hard for me to not appreciate the movie. The creature design is awesome, with the special effects capturing the weight and size of a moving, walking tree with all the fine details you would expect. The cast is fantastic, especially young MacDougall, who I believe is destined for stardom as he’s only 14. Felicity Jones is lovely as always, and the big surprise for me was Sigourney Weaver. It’s not just her ability to pull off the British accent either — the range of emotions and restraint she puts into the grandmother character is impressive. And of course, you can never go wrong with Liam Neeson’s powerful voice. You know the tree monster is a figment of the child’s imagination, and yet it’s done well enough that it makes you wonder — or is it?

So like I said, I recognise the weaknesses of A Monster Calls as a marketable film that appeals to audiences. It’s an emotional movie experience without a lot of laughs or joy, it’s too dark and it’s too strange. And yet, I found myself engrossed and hit by all the gut punches the film through at me. I like how it paints the cruel realities of the world and life through the eyes of a child and the ways we cope with stress and tragedy. Not for everyone, but if you are a fan of fantasy and like having your thoughts provoked and heartstrings tugged, definitely give A Monster Calls a try.

4 stars out of 5

Krampus (2015)

krampus0011

I don’t know why, but I was really looking forward to seeing Krampus, a Christmas horror movie reminiscent of the fun classics of of my childhood like GremlinsThe ‘Burbs, The Gate, Evil Dead, House, The Lost Boys, and Fright Night, just to name a few.

According to Wikipedia, Krampus “is a horned, anthropomorphic figure described as ‘half-goat, half-demon’ who, during the Christmas season, punishes children who have misbehaved”. I love this kind of folklore, and I’m a fan of horror films that don’t take themselves too serious and like to have a little fun. Plus I am a big fan of the four leads — Adam Scott, Toni Collette, Allison Tollman (from TV’s Fargo) and ubiquitous funnyman David Koechner. What’s there not to like?

Krampus kicks off by getting the atmosphere spot on.  It’s 3 days out from Christmas the a suburban family are gathering to celebrate. Adam Scott and Toni Collette play the homeowners, who have a teenage daughter (Stefania Lavie Owen) and young son (Emjay Anthony), as well as an elderly grandmother who lives with them (Krista Stadler) . Tollman plays Collette’s sister, while Koecher plays the former’s husband. They’ve got four children of their own, including a baby. Coming along uninvited is the family dog and an annoying single aunt (Conchata Ferrell).

When one of the kids inadvertently kills the Christmas spirit in that family, Krampus descends on their house with a bunch of his minions. And so begins a night of terror where no one is safe and things will get crazier and crazier until Krampus gets his way.

The thing I liked most about the film was the fun atmosphere. You could tell from the humour right from the outset that Krampus knew what it was aiming for and never wavers from that position. And it’s a very funny movie. All of the four leads are hilarious in their own ways, delivering sharp dialogue and witty lines all throughout, even as the tone grew darker and moments of horror are introduced. In many ways, Krampus is more black comedy than genuine horror.

On the other hand, this meant that the film wasn’t as scary as it needed to be. Perhaps this was intentional, but I wanted more genuine frights to keep me on edge a little bit. A lot of the scares come from the creepy designs of the monsters, but in terms of scare tactics the film was a little lacking. And some of the choices of creatures were too wacky — and the CGI special effects not good enough — to be truly frightening.

Nonetheless, if you’re after a bit of alternative Christmas fun, Krampus delivers. I like that writer and director Michael Dougherty (who is listed as a writer on the upcoming X-Men: Apocalpyse) had the balls to make audiences feel that no one is safe in this movie — even the baby. If you’re in the movie, you’re fair game. Demons don’t discriminate. On the downside I felt like there were too many characters to keep track of and that the ending was deflating (even though it redeems itself a little before the credits roll). It won’t be remembered as fondly as the classics it pays homage to, and I wish it could have had a little more bite in terms of the horror elements, but on the whole, I still had a good time with Krampus. 

3.25 stars out of 5

The Hallow (2015)

the-hallow-poster

Consider me surprised.

I went into The Hallow thinking it would be another low-budget horror flick with cheap thrills and cheap scares (don’t ask me why I keep watching such films), but in  the end I came out of it pleasantly impressed by the whole experience.

The premise is nothing special: a couple and their baby move into the Irish woods for conservation work. The locals are unusually hostile, but for good reason, as we soon find out that there is a sinister presence lurking in the darkness.

After a somewhat slow start, The Hallow picks up the pace and turns into a terrifying ordeal where the tension continuously ratches up with each encounter. It starts off with the little things, minor incidents, then gradually escalates until the demonic creatures make their first appearance.

Typically, horror films start to lose the plot around about here, crumbling into absurdity, silliness  and resorting to cliches. With The Hallow, the opposite is true, as the film actually gets scarier once you get a good look at the “monsters”. Full credit goes to debut filmmaker Corin Hardy in deciding to use predominantly practical effects in bringing the excellent creature designs to life. They look great — creepy when still and terrifying when on the move.

At the same time, Hardy, who also co-wrote the script, doesn’t forget about character development so that we care about what is happening to the protagonists. It’s not perfect — the edges are a little rough and not everything makes sense — but for a first feature I still found it to be better than most mainstream horror flicks that get wide releases these days.

The performances are also more convincing than typical for a movie of this kind. The male lead, Joseph Mawle, better known as Benjen Stark from Game of Thrones, was apparently handpicked by Hardy, and he’s very good (interestingly, like fellow Game of Thrones alum Rose Leslie, he’s chosen a small horror flick to launch his post-Thrones film career). Likewise is the female lead, Serbian-Aussie Bojana Novakovic, who provides a steady performance and manages to avoid overacting amid all the horror around her.

I wouldn’t go as far as calling The Hallow an original film, as there are traces of classics like Evil Dead, Alien and even Pan’s Labyrinth to be found throughout, though it does have several original moments and ideas. I enjoyed its mythology, the creative creatures, the creepy atmosphere and the tense scares, and I wouldn’t mind a sequel or prequel to explore this world again. The best scenario, however, would probably be for Hardy to get picked up for a big budget horror film to see if he can replicate the goods on a larger scale.

3.75 stars out of 5!

San Andreas (2015)

San Andreas

From the introductory scenes of San Andreas I could already tell that it was going to be big and stupid. But I also hoped that it would be big and stupid popcorn excitement and fun. Call it mission half-accomplished.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is an LA Fire  Department Air Rescue pilot unstoppable at rescuing people apart from himself, as he’s on the verge of divorce from his wife Emma, played by Carla Gugino. Emma’s moved on already with a mega wealthy property developer played by the original movie Mr Fantastic, Ioan Gruffuld, though fortunately for The Rock he’s still on good terms with his stunning daughter Blake, played by the stunning Alexandra Daddario.

Of course, a major disaster strikes the Bay Area and The Rock must do everything humanly possible (and let’s face it, inhumanly possible too) — including misappropriating government property for personal use at the time of a major disaster — to save his family. Cue epic action music!

The first thing I’ll say is that this movie is painfully predictable. It follows the archetypal disaster blockbuster template to a T. It’s as though director Brad Peyton (best known for, er, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore) and screenwriter Carlton Cuse (showrunner and writer on the campy sci-fi TV series The Strain) were handed a list of standard disaster plot points and characters and had to tick them off one by one.

Consequently, if you’ve seen any disaster movie before, you’ll likely be able to guess in this movie what will happen next, which characters will live and which will die, and how the character relationships and conflicts will be resolved. It’s actually quite funny.

The second problem is that the film takes itself far too seriously. I was hopeful in the beginning because the introductory sequence had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone, though the remainder of the movie suffers from a serious dearth of laughs and had one too many cringeworthy “dramatic” heart-to-heart scenes. Unintentional humour aside, there are really no jokes or gags in the film. Were they trying to balance the tone since millions of people probably died? Whatever the reason, it saps a lot of fun out of the experience. I’ve always stuck with the philosophy that if a film’s going to be cheesy it might as well go all in.

The action sequences are indeed well-executed and occasionally heart-thumping. San Andreas clearly takes a page out of the Fast and Furious franchise in that everyone lives in a world where the laws of physics do not exist and humans are borderline indestructible  — when the plot calls for it. They smash, they crash, they explode and get tossed all over the place, and most of the time they escape with nothing more than a scratch or two.

I later found out that the movie was shot primarily in Queensland, though it really could have been shot anywhere as it’s obvious the vast majority of action scenes were CGI. The effects were decent for a modern blockbuster, though there are times when it’s obvious we’re watching green-screen creations. There’s just something about the textures of the buildings and the landscape that doesn’t look quite realistic. There was also one shot of a photo where it was blatantly obvious that a young Daddario was photoshopped in.

Apart from the core cast, the lead supporting actor would have to be Paul Giamatti, who plays the scientist no one believes when he says the world is going to end. The weird thing is that, if we’re being honest here, he didn’t even have to be in the movie at all. I guess it was on the checklist. Aussie actor Hugo Johnstone-Burt also has a pretty big role as a Brit with a convincing accent, while Kyle Minogue (I was like WTF?! when she appeared) makes a jarring cameo to round out the local contingent cast.

The saving grace of San Andreas is The Rock, who has a magnetic charm and screen presence that instantly makes any movie more watchable. Surprisingly, he doesn’t get to do nearly as much as he has done — from a physical standpoint — in other recent action blockbusters he has been in, though just the fact that he’s on screen makes you feel like you’re in safe hands. Moreover, you’re never going to hear me complain whenever Alexandra Daddario is on screen.

Other positives include a welcome narrow focus — essentially just one family — which reduces the number of pointless characters, a manageable running-time of 114 minutes, and of course the spectacle of the whole thing. The sweeping catastrophe scenes aren’t jaw-dropping anymore because we’ve seen them so many times, but the visuals and execution are at least to be on par with other modern disaster flicks.

On the whole, San Andreas is a fairly typical disaster blockbuster in the vein of 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Into the Storm and so forth. It’s predictable, corny as hell, ridiculously unrealistic and fuelled by CGI special effects. The presence of The Rock elevates it above average, though it really could have been a lot better had they just lightened up a little and embraced the cheese.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Into the Storm (2014)

Into-The-Storm-poster-2

Blockbuster natural disaster movies these days tend to be either based on true events or completely made up and over the top. A couple of years ago there was The Impossible, about the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, and in recent years the world has also been rocked by made-for-TV parodies such as Sharknado.

Into the Storm is a return to the more “realistic” fictional natural disaster films such as 1996’s Twister. However, apart from superior special-effects owing to 18 years of improving technology, Into the Storm is an inferior film in every way.

In keeping up with the times, Into the Storm is a semi found-footage film in that it splices traditional filmmaking with handheld camera footage taken predominantly by two teenage brothers working on a time capsule project for school. I guess it makes the film easier to watch and less ridiculous than a film that is stitched together purely from found footage, but at the same time it feels like such a cop-out by trying to take advantage of both approaches.

The film stars Thorin Oakenshield, aka Richard Armitage, as a high school vice principal stuck in the worst storm of all time. But hey, he is freaking Thorin Oakenshield, so there is no task too difficult or dangerous for him, and it is no surprise that he is essentially a superhero in this film. If he’s not whisking high school kids to safety, he is searching for his eldest son (one of the camera wielders), who is trapped with the girl of his dreams (Aussie starlet Alycia Debnam-Carey) in an abandoned paper mill. Other times he just hangs out with a bunch of storm chasers, led by Prison Break and Walking Dead alumnus Sarah Wayne Callies. Naturally, there is also a dickhead filmmaker who doesn’t care about anyone’s safety and only just wants to get the whole thing down on camera.

Into the Storm admittedly boasts some impressive special effects, but as a whole the film is clumsy and forgettable. The characters are stock-standard and thus boring, and the danger never feels as close as it should be. You can more or less guess who’s going to die and who’s going to make it, and no amount of CGI can make up for the lack of imagination in the script or the lack of emotion in the drama.

I would have actually preferred it if the filmmakers pared back the special effects to spend more time on developing at least one character worth caring about, or if they went in the complete opposite direction to give audiences a cheesy, ridiculous spectacle where nothing is sacred. Instead, the film is stuck woefully in between, with no decent characters nor enough cheese to make it a popcorn-fun experience.

As disaster porn, Into the Storm gets the job done with its spectacular visuals and explosive carnage. If you missed it on the big screen, however, there’s probably not a whole lot the film can offer.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Maleficent (2014)

maleficent

Perhaps the biggest compliment I can give Maleficent, the new re-imagining of the classic Sleeping Beauty fairytale, is that I didn’t mind it. That’s already saying a lot, given that I have not withheld my disdain for similar efforts in recent years, from Red Riding Hood and Mirror Mirror to Snow White and the Huntsman and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters.

Maleficent is the most visually stunning film of the lot, with colorful creatures, fairies and a magical world full of wonder. It is also far more emotionally engaging than those other films thanks to Angelina Jolie, who is magnificent as Maleficent (see what I did there?) and deservedly singled out for her performance.

It was a relief to discover that Maleficent was not a supporting character — ie, the film was not simply trying to use Jolie’s fame to promote a film that is otherwise dominated by other lesser known actors. True to its title, Maleficent is all about Jolie’s character, who has been tweaked to become both the (wronged) villain and hero of this revisionist fairytale. 

Without giving too much away, Maleficient starts off as a cheerful young fairy who befriends a young human boy after saving him from the wrath of the creatures he stole from. Years later, as required by the story, an ultimate act of betrayal turns her into a vengeful bitch determined to exact her vengeance on the human world. Her fury ends up being manifested in a curse on a baby Princess Aurora (Elle Fanning, Dakota’s younger sister from 2011’s Super 8), who grows up to become — you guessed it — Sleeping Beauty.

The rest of the film goes off on a very different tangent to the Disney cartoon, and, as with most of these re-imaginings, contain plenty of action and obligatory fighting sequences, though to the film’s credit it does feel slightly less coerced. A big reason is because Jolie is so good as the titular character that you actually feel something for her, to the point where all the special-effects-fuelled violence — unlike other films of this kind — begins to means something.

The problem Jolie’s superb performance, and her dominance, is that it renders everyone else in the movie insignificant (even the special effects, prosthetics and makeup used on her seemed more advanced than the others). Apart from Sharlto Copley, who barely holds his own as the King, just about all other characters fail to hold our attention, from Maleficent’s useful shape-shifting sidekick Diaval (Sam Riley) and the boring prince (Aussie Brenton Thwaites) to the three “good” pixie fairies played by Imelda Staunton, Juno Temple and Lesley Manville.

Elle Fanning, in particular, came across as a poor choice for Sleeping Beauty. Her beauty is a subject for debate, but the strange thing is that she feels too young for the role, despite being the same age in real life as her character (16). I guess it says a lot about Hollywood’s tendency to cast much older actors for younger roles. More pertinent is Fanning’s “acting,” or lack thereof, as all I can pretty much remember of her is the fakish stupid grin she had plastered on her face throughout most of the film.

The other issue I had with Maleficent was how much they had to twist the story so that it fit within the scope of the Sleeping Beauty narrative. There’s a fine line between changing too little and changing too much, and in this case I think they couldn’t find the right balance because it opened up too many plot holes and occurrences that were illogical, even for a fairytale. Part of it is because they tried very hard to make Maleficent a villain you could root for, so that every bad thing she did was justified, and even when she was being “evil” she wasn’t really. What they ended up with was a completely new standalone story, rather than a side story that complemented the original fairytale and filled in the gaps to give audiences Maleficent’s perspective. There is nothing wrong with that, except they still tried to squeeze in too many elements from the original Sleeping Beauty story, resulting in a weird hybrid that didn’t fully work.

But as I said at the start of this review, I didn’t mind Maleficent. It’s a flawed film with a saggy middle act, but thanks to Jolie’s film-saving performance, it’s much better than it otherwise would have been. Coupled with my low expectations, I admit I don’t regret seeing it.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Godzilla (2014) (IMAX 3D)

godzilla2014_poster2

We generally tend to think blockbuster monster flicks aren’t going to be very good, and yet we always seem to expect a lot out of them. Well, the latest Hollywood rendition of the legendary Japanese lizard, Godzilla, was one of the my most anticipated movies of 2014, and I’m glad to report that it’s freaking awesome. It shits all over the 1998 Roland Emerich version (which was not as bad as historically remembered anyway) and is superior to last year’s Pacific Rim.  While it’s far from perfect, it more than lives up to the hype and demonstrates that monster movies can be good after all.

I haven’t seen any of the Japanese versions of Godzilla, but from what I understand, this version pays homage to the origins of the creature, born from the Japan’s collective consciousness in the aftermath of the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki during World War II. Cleverly, story writer David Callaham and screenwriter Max Borenstein take that and fuses it with the more recent nuclear meltdown in Fukushima to create a narrative that touches on both the past and the present.

It’s hard to discuss the plot without giving away spoilers (and trust me, there is a plot, and there are surprises for those who aren’t familiar with the Japanese franchise), but essentially the story focuses on the family of Kick-Ass (an unrecognisable, insanely buffed Aaron Taylor-Johnson), a US soldier in the mould of Jeremy Renner from The Hurt Locker (in that he diffuses bombs) and his wife (played by the non-anorexic Olsen sister, Elizabeth) and their young son. Kick-Ass grew up in Japan, where his parents Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche worked as supervisors of a nuclear power plant until an “accident” turned their lives upside down, and Cranston is still trying to uncover the conspiracy behind it 15 years on. Meanwhile, Ken Watanabe and Sally Hawkins (who was so brilliant in Blue Jasmine) play a couple of scientists who have been researching Godzilla for decades.

British director Gareth Evans was a natural choice for Godzilla. He was a the helm of the successful 2010 indie sci-fi flick Monsters, which I personally thought was a little overrated but did an excellent job of bringing forth the human elements of the story along with excellent special effects (not surprising as he started out his career in visual effects). Monsters was made on a shoestring US$500,000, whereas for Godzilla Edwards had US$160 million to play around with. Usually indie directors struggle when transitioning to big-budget blockbusters, but to Edwards’ credit he ensured that Godzilla had a compelling, emotional human story to tell, without forgetting that it is still ultimately a monster flick where everyone wants to see a lot of carnage and devastation.

Speaking of Godzilla’s “human” story, kudos must go to Heisenberg, or Tim Whatley, or whatever you want to call him. He stole every scene he’s in and was the epicenter of the film’s emotional core. The characters weren’t exactly well-written, but I cared about them and the story when he was on screen, and it was his absence later on that caused the me to stop caring about the humans (in particular Taylor-Johnson and Olsen’s relationship). It’s not that they were bad — to the contrary, actually — but they paled in comparison to Cranston’s now-mythical acting prowess and presence.

Fortunately, me losing interest in the human story coincided with Godzilla’s “in all his glory” appearance on the IMAX screen, which rendered everything else secondary. If you want to see Godzilla do what he does best, and that’s smashing shit up, then I guarantee you won’t be disappointed. The sheer scale of the action was jaw dropping enough, but Edwards also infused the scenes with intelligence and creativity. Watch it on the biggest screen you can find and just enjoy the ride. (I’d pass on the 3D though — once again a complete waste of time and money)

How do the monster scenes compare to Pacific Rim? Favourably, in my opinion. Pacific Rim was more about live-action anime-style eye candy designed to provide a lot of euphoric “cool” and “yeah” moments, whereas Godzilla was more “grounded in reality”, so to speak. In contrast to the energetic vibrancy of Pacific Rim’s bright colour schemes, Godzilla is almost entirely grey and misty, but it matches the sombre and mysterious tone well.

What sets Godzilla apart from Pacific Rim and most other big Hollywood monster movies, however, is that Godzilla himself is a character rather than just an ugly prop wreaking havoc for no discernible cause. There is a purpose for Godzilla’s existence and a reason behind his actions, and I anticipate that a lot of people will be surprised by how the big fella is portrayed.

I don’t agree with some of the criticisms levelled at the film, which include that Godzilla is too fat. He’s not fat. He’s just big-boned. I also believe, contrary to some claims, that Godzilla received sufficient screen time. I actually think Edwards arranged it perfectly, giving us enough glimpses early on to whet our appetites, building up the suspense throughout the second act, and finally giving Godzilla to us unencumbered — free from blurriness, rapid cuts and obstructions — in the climax. It’s not how much time he has on screen anyway; it’s what you do with him when he’s there, and Godzilla had ample opportunity to demonstrate why the film was named after him.

Having said that, I do have some other criticisms of my own. First, while the overall pace of the film is good, there were times when the momentum sagged because Edwards was trying too hard to establish the characters. It was more or less the same problem I had with Monsters, but to a lesser extent. Secondly, apart from Kick-Ass and Heisenberg, no other human character actually does anything in the entire film. Olsen, for instance, was just the anxious wife who spends all her time doing little other than being really worried about her husband. Watanabe and Hawkins just sat around and observed, pretty much, and by the end I had forgotten that they were even in the film at all. The problem is not as egregious as it sounds because if I had a choice between resolving these characters’ stories and watching Godzilla doing Godzilla things, I’d always choose the latter. And my guess is that Edwards, upon realising that the film should not be much longer than 2 hours (it’s 123 minutes), went in the same direction.

Despite its flaws, Godzilla is frighteningly close to everything I could have hoped for. An intelligent premise that pays homage to the original and contemporary events, an all-star cast powered by the almighty Bryan Cranston, passable characters and dialogue, and most of all, riveting, eye-popping monster action with impeccable special effects. It’s everything a summer blockbuster should be.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Nymphomaniac (2013)

Lars-von-Trier_-_Nymphomaniac
The Nymphomaniac posters are hilarious

I don’t consider myself a fan of Lars von Trier, but I do admire his ambition, tendency to take risks and willingness to attempt something a little different to what we’re used to seeing. His latest writer/director effort, Nymphomaniac, is a 4-hour epic split into two parts, contains a whole load of big Hollywood names, and features highly explicit sex scenes. I didn’t think I’d like it, but to my own amazement, I did.

The film starts off when an injured middle-aged woman, Joe (Charlotte Gainsbourg), is found in an alley by a middle-aged man, Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard). At Joe’s request, Seligman takes her home to attend to her wounds, and soon after she begins telling him her adventurous life story as a nymphomaniac, someone addicted to sex. In Volume I, the young Joe is played mostly by rail-thin Franco-English actress Stacy Martin, while the majority of Volume II reverts back to the older Gainsbrough.

The total length of the two parts is a whopping 241 minutes (with an additional 28 minutes in the uncut version I didn’t see). Even with an intermission, the film is a challenge for any moviegoer.

But it wasn’t as much of a challenge as I anticipated, because for the most part, Nymphomaniac is entertaining (or at least extremely fascinating) cinema; and no, it’s not because of the explicit sex scenes. First of all, you would be mistaken to catch this film if you’re only interested in the sex. if you are, then I’d recommend watching porn instead, because to be honest, the cut version I watched is not that bad. There are scenes that show what appear to be real sex acts featuring real genitalia, but as we’ve been told, they don’t belong to the actors you see on screen. It’s either done by prosthetics or porn actors and then digitally inserted (get that joke?) through movie magic. Some scenes are titillating, many others are not, and several even verge on gross. In any case, there are certainly plenty of other contemporary movies that are equal or worse in terms of explicitness, with the brilliant Blue is the Warmest Color being a recent candidate that springs to mind.

Instead, watch Nymphomaniac because it’s a very interesting movie with great characters played by a wonderful cast. Joe is a brilliant creation, someone born with a natural appetite for all things sexual. While she continuously questions the morality of her behaviour, she is not ashamed of it. For those who have seen Shame, Joe provides a thought-provoking contrast to Michael Fassbender’s character. Seligman, on the other hand, provides perfect balance to Joe through his asexuality, his wide knowledge of the world, and his ability to link them to Joe’s experiences. There’s an air of surrealism that feels just right when the two of them talk, and I couldn’t help but be captivated by their every word.

Stacy Martin, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Stellan Skarsgard take up the majority of the screen time, but there are also plenty of other big names such as Shia LeBeouf, Christian Slater, Connie Nielsen, Jamie Bell, Uma Thurman and Willem Dafoe. Shia LeBeouf has fallen off the wagon as of late, but he thankfully kept his douchebagginess to a minimum in this film. It’s just a shame he can’t do a proper British accent and can’t help but look annoying. On the other hand, the standout for me is clearly Uma Thurman, who steals the show with a farcical sequence as a scorned wife.

And that leads me into the thing that surprised me most about Nymphomaniac — it’s actually really really funny. My kind of black comedy all the way. The Uma Thurman sequence is genuinely laugh-out-loud stuff, and there are plenty of others littered throughout the film, including how Joe got her first job and how she subsequently performed her duties. The train competition scenes were also brilliantly executed — awkward and painful, but amusing and insightful at the same time.

Not everything in the film worked though, and there were portions, especially in Volume II, where I found it difficult to sustain my attention. It might be because I had already sat through three hours, but it might also be because the film was starting to lose its edge. The transition from the young Joe to the old Joe was also jarring because of the sudden switch between actresses. Part of the problem is because Charlotte Gainsbourg looks really young for her age and looks nothing like Stacy Martin other than their thin figures, and another part of the problem is that Shia LaBeouf’s character doesn’t age until the end. I’m sure there could have been a better way.

Anyway, if you treat Nymphomaniac as two separate films, as some have done, it’s likely you’ll prefer one Volume over the other. Personally, I thought Volume I was much more enjoyable. It’s lighter, funnier and more playful, whereas Volume II becomes much serious and tragic as Joe’s adventures get darker and darker in her desire to feel something. I also don’t get S&M at all, so maybe that played a factor too.

On the whole, I came away surprised by how much I enjoyed Nymphomaniac because I only watched it to see what all the fuss was about. Instead, I not only liked it, I liked it for reasons I had not expected. It might very well be my favourite Lars von Trier film.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

300-Rise-of-an-Empire

Hard to believe, but Zack Snyder’s 300 was released in 2006. It came out to mixed reviews, but personally I found it to be a revelation, a campy, delightful bloodbath of stylized action and popcorn fun of the purest kind, the closest thing we have to a direct translation of a graphic novel to the big screen. There is also no other film that makes people want to work out more than this one.

There was talk of a sequel almost immediately after it became a big hit, but it has taken nearly 8 years for 300: Rise of an Empire to be made. Any time it takes that long for a sequel to be made (I even remember seeing posters and trailers as long as two years ago), you have to be concerned — is there a reason? Was it a troubled production? Were there financial difficulties?

I have no idea, frankly, but what I do know is that much of the goodwill leftover from the original had just about dissipated by the time this film came out. They left it too long, and fans of the first film had either forgotten how much they enjoyed it or hyped it up so much that the sequel was doomed to unrealistic expectations.

Directed by Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire is not a direct sequel but rather a companion piece that examines events before, during and after the events in 300. There’s no Gerard Butler screaming “This. Is. Sparta!!!” this time, but his wife, played by Lena Headey, is still around looking like she just stepped off the set of Game of Thrones. The two central characters are General Themistocles, played by Aussie Sullivan Stapleton (who was brilliant in Animal Kingdom), and the ruthless naval commander Artemesia, played by the sultry Eva Green. Rodrigo Santoro returns as the God-King Xerxes (the man who killed Butler in the first film) and David Wenham also makes a cameo as Dilios, a survivor from the 300 (the one with bandages around one eye).

EW-300-rise-of-an-empire-banner

The story is more convoluted that necessary, but essentially it’s all about Themistocles leading the Greeks against Artemesia’s Persian forces. The action is, like its predecessor, bloody and stylistic, with plenty of flying fluids and severed limbs interspersed with rapid and slow-mo mass battle sequences. The distinctive colour tone is again grey with splashes of red and this time blue, and the special effects, though not noticeably improved since 2008, are as good as any blockbuster made in 2014.

The biggest positive about the film, apart from it being ab absolute visual feast, is that it feels like part of the 300 universe without being exactly the same. The films look similar but there are also plenty of differences, with the most obvious being that most of the battle scenes are on the sea, whereas in 300 they are all on the mountains and in the plains. It doesn’t come close to regenerating that freshness of its predecessor but still stands firm on its own.

The cheesy lines are harder to find this time, which is a shame, because it takes a lot of fun out of the film. As for the performances, Eva Green dominates and shines through the gloomy greys. She takes what is otherwise a fairly pedestrian script with a typical baddie and turns Artemesia into a memorable villain; a wild, vengeful nutjob who makes Stapleton’s Themistocles seem boring by comparison. Not to crap on Stapleton, who has already proven to me he can carry a role, but here his character feels sorely lacking in charisma.

At the end of the day, 300: Rise of an Empire is still a fairly enjoyable romp. It lacks the awe factor from the first film but the action sequences are still impressive and Eva Green is fantastic as the psycho villain. It’s a solid companion piece to the original but will likely be remembered as yet another sequel that didn’t really have to be made. Perhaps when another sequel is made (it’s being planned) to extend the series into a trilogy it will be viewed upon more favorably in hindsight.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Skyline (2010)

Contrary to popular opinion, Skyline is NOT the worst film of the year.  It certainly isn’t great, or even good, but in its defence, there have definitely been worse films this year.

This may sound slack, but to me, Skyline felt like a half-decent TV movie.  If I switched on the television one night and saw it, I would would probably keep watching.

I like aliens, and Skyline is a kind of cross between War of the Worlds, Independence Day and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s got scary mechanical monsters, explosions and eye-popping special effects.  It’s got Eric Balfour, who been in just about everything over the years (though usually as a minor character), and Donald Faison, that is, Dr Turk from Scrubs.  What’s there not to like?

But unfortunately, Skyline is not a TV movie.  It’s a medium-sized sci-fi blockbuster produced and directed by the Brothers Strause, a special effects duo probably best known for Aliens vs Predator: Requiem (which is not a good sign).

As a big screen feature, Skyline suddenly looks and feels pretty ordinary.  It doesn’t exactly have the most original premise — aliens arrive from out of nowhere and start sucking humans into their spaceships with a hypnotic blue light, while  a bunch of normal humans fight for survival in a nice LA apartment complex.  The Brothers Strause hope that Skyline will be the first of a series of films, but it’s hard to imagine the series going much further unless the plot (and box office numbers) takes a drastic turn.

The main problem with Skyline is that it’s simply not as engaging as it should have been.  I’m not sure if it’s appalling dialogue (truly cringeworthy in some parts), the boring, cliched characters, the trite human interactions, the general cheesiness, or the fact that I never felt a true sense of danger or urgency (or perhaps I just didn’t care).  There were a few blistering action sequences, especially towards the end, but it was clear that something was missing.

That said, as unoriginal and uninspiring Skyline was, I didn’t hate it.  It was occasionally interesting and exciting.  It still had scary mechanical monsters, explosions and eye-popping special effects.  I made it through to the end without moaning or falling asleep.  That has to count for something, right?

2.5 stars out of 5