Sunday, June 28, 2015

Dark Places

Year: 2015
Director: Gilles Paquet-Brenner
Cast: Charlize Theron, Nicholas Hoult, Christina Hendricks, Chloe Moretz, Corey Stoll, Tye Sheridan


Plot: Libby Day, the only survivor of her family massacre at the hands of her older brother Ben 30 years ago, is forced to revisit the crime when a club of private investigators and true crime fans approach her about the truth, believing that Ben is innocent.


Review: Dark Places is based on the novel by Gillian Flynn, who also wrote last year's hit Gone Girl. In comparison however, this film is much more low key and more importantly, not the thriller the trailer is marketing it as.

The story is about Libby Day, who was eight years old when her family was brutally killed, apparently by her own brother, Ben in 1985. Thirty years later, Libby is a mess, not having moved on from that tragedy, living on royalties from the book she made about the incident as well as donations from sympathetic members of the public. She's running out of money when she's approached by Lyle Wirth, a member of the Kill Club, a group of people made up of true crime fans and PIs, who believe that Ben is innocent. In exchange for money, they want Libby to revisit the tragedy and find out the truth. So Libby has to dig up her past and talk to people she had left behind: her brother, her estranged father as well as her brother's friends.

Director Gilles Paquet-Brenner sets the film on two courses, one in 1985 and one in the present. The past thread shows the events that led to the massacre while the present thread shows Libby and her investigation of events. The past thread is the duller of the two, though a few good performances here and there just manages to save it from being a waste of time. Perhaps they spent too much time in this thread, with possibly the sole purpose of throwing red herrings at the audience, and the effort doesn't quite work. The present thread works better, thanks to a solid performance from Charlize Theron, who makes Libby seem unlikable at first, but slowly grows on you as the film progresses.

Christina Hendricks puts in a good performance as Libby's mother Patty, who has to remain strong for her kids as a handful of problems threaten to derail the family which led to the tragedy. Tye Sheridan and Corey Stoll both do well as the younger and older Ben, while Chloe Moretz is convincing enough as the younger Ben's wild girlfriend Diondra, though she doesn't get much screen time. Nicholas Hoult also does his best as Lyle, but like Moretz, doesn't have much to do despite the both of them getting top billing.

As mentioned, the film isn't really a thriller like the trailers will have you believe. In fact, it's more of a slow burn mystery movie, and almost devoid of any thrills. There's some suspense towards the end but even that ends almost as quickly as it started. That and the way the film ends makes Dark Places look like a TV movie, and with the star power involved, it deserves better.

Overall, it's not a total drag. Dark Places works mostly because of Charlize Theron, and with some tighter editing and a bit more suspense, it would be more interesting. (6/10)

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Insidious: Chapter 3

Year: 2015
Director: Leigh Whannell
Cast: Lin Shaye, Stefanie Scott, Dermot Mulroney, Angus Sampson, Leigh Whannell


Plot: Set a few years before the Lambert haunting, psychic Elise Rainier comes out of retirement to help a young girl haunted by an evil spirit after trying to make contact with her late mother.


Review: In Chapter 3 of the Insidious franchise, we step away from the Lamberts and focus on Elise the psychic, who is actually one of the best things about these films.

While the story is also about the Brenner family, equal measure is given to Elise, who has retired from giving readings after coming into contact with a spirit who has threatened to kill her, a spirit which followers of the franchise will immediately recognize. Anyway, Quinn Brenner, a teenager and aspiring actress, has attempted to contact her late mother but inadvertently brings back an evil spirit that haunts her every night. Refusing to help at first, Elise finally relents when she realises the girl's life is in grave danger.

James Wan, director of the first two chapters, steps down this time and puts on the producer's hat (and supplies a cameo), leaving collaborator Leigh Whannell to direct instead. Whannell clearly knows his characters well and does his best to flesh them out, giving most of the attention to Elise and Quinn, though he strangely gives Quinn's father Sean too little to do. However, unlike Wan, Whannell doesn't have the ability to get under the audience's skin, resorting to jump scares plenty of times. There are some genuinely spooky moments here and there, but nothing truly terrifying.

But Whannell does succeed in connecting this film to the first two, by bringing back a couple of familiar spirits from the franchise, as well as the well loved duo of Tucker and Specs, played by Angus Sampson and Whannell himself. In this film, the duo are introduced as amateur ghost hunters, the kind you see on TV, and they're still quite entertaining to watch, lightening the mood whenever necessary. Whannell also gives Elise a solid backstory which solidifies her role as the franchise's hero.

The best thing about this film is Lin Shaye, who is the heart of this whole franchise. Shaye gives Elise the right balance of bravado and vulnerability to make her a believable hero and a very convincing psychic. Stefanie Scott is also promising as Quinn, but Dermot Mulroney doesn't have much to bring to the table as Sean here, but he does what he can with what he's given.

Overall, Insidious Chapter 3 may not be scary, but still manages to entertain on a certain level. Fans of the franchise will probably love this more than non-fans. (7/10) 

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Jurassic World

Year: 2015
Director: Colin Trevorrow
Cast: Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D'Onofrio, Ty Simpkins, Jake Johnson, Nick Robinson, BD Wong


Plot: 22 years after John Hammond's failure to open his prehistoric park, Isla Nublar now has a fully functional dinosaur theme park. Its new owner plans to introduce a new hybrid dinosaur to help boost falling ticket sales, but it backfires when the dinosaur escapes and causes chaos in the park.


Review: Jurassic Park happens to be one of my favorite films of all time. Steven Spielberg has made all kinds of groundbreaking and Oscar winning films, but this is his best, in my opinion. It's a classic, done so perfectly that every sequel that came after it was inferior, even if they were entertaining on their own.

Colin Trevorrow is the man who was reportedly picked by Spielberg himself to do this sequel. Together with three other co-writers, Trevorrow presents Jurassic World as a successful park finally open, with new owners, fully functional rides and lots of dinosaurs to look at. It's kinda like Universal Studios with dinosaurs, really. But, as expected, things are about to go wrong as the park's marketing chief plans to unveil a new hybrid dinosaur to boost the visitor count. As the story goes, nobody expected the Indominus Rex, the new creature, to be an extraordinary thing, and it escapes. The body count starts rising and our only hope is the velociraptor trainer and his pack of raptors.

Yes, you heard me. Raptors can be made to heed a human's command. Apparently, this was hinted at in Michael Crichton's book, but still, to see it happen is much too strange for me. I mean, where's the fun in that? This is one of several problems I had with this film. Trevorrow is trying to marry old ideas with new ones, with varying degrees of success.

Some of his nods to the original, like the abandoned original park lobby and the old jeeps, holograms of the spitting dinosaur and a quick glimpse of a statue of Hammond, work well. Some of the new ideas, like the mosasaur (a huge water dinosaur that is the jurassic version of a water park's pet whale), having over 20000 people become potential victims of an open park etc are welcome. But at the end of the day, the film needs strong characters and a healthy dose of suspense and thrills. Trevorrow is already 22 years too late to give audiences something groundbreaking, which isn't his fault, but it certainly works against him here.

As stated, the characters are rather weak or uninteresting. Chris Pratt does a decent enough job as Owen, the raptor trainer, but is nothing compared to Sam Neill's Alan Grant. Grant was an adventurer of sorts, but never portrayed himself as such, which made him more appealing. Pratt plays Owen like a dashing cowboy type, which is most obvious when he tells two kids that he's an alpha to his raptors. Bryce Dallas Howard is Claire, the marketing chief who comes off as pretty unlikable for most of the film. She gets a couple of good scenes with the dinosaurs, but that's about it. Howard's good, but again, her character is poorly written. Irrfan Khan tries hard, but clearly isn't as memorable as Richard Attenborough's John Hammond. And finally, Ty Simpkins and Nick Robinson are the two nephews of Howard's character who get caught up in the whole mess during their visit. They're not interesting either, and come off as annoying half the time, especially Robinson, who doesn't even want to be at the park. I mean, why? It's a dinosaur park for God's sake! Vincent D'Onofrio manages to shine at least, as a security officer who has other plans for the dinosaurs.

As for the thrills, Trevorrow doesn't quite have Spielberg's eye for creating a scene and drawing out the moments. He attempts to recreate some iconic moments from the original in his own way, like the T-Rex chase and the T-Rex attacking the kids in the jeep, but it doesn't match up. I did like his pteranodon attack as well as the final dinosaur throwdown in the film's climax, but it's much too late by then. He did take too much time in setting up the story before finally getting the ball rolling with the Indominus Rex's escape.

I know I made plenty of comparisons to the original here, but bottom line is: I never wanted this sequel, because it was not necessary. To be fair, Jurassic World isn't a bad film. It's decent in fact. But why settle for decent when you can put the Jurassic Park DVD into your player and enjoy excellence instead? (6/10) 

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Maggie

Year: 2015
Director: Henry Hobson
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Abigail Breslin, Joely Richardson


Plot: A father does everything he can to protect his daughter after she is infected by a virus that turns people into zombies.


Review: Arnold Schwarzenegger + zombies ought to equal to action horror vehicle, right? No, it's not that kind of film. It's rare to find a zombie film that isn't focused on the horror side of it, or the crazy action flick ala World War Z that it can be. Rather, Maggie is a quiet drama about a father and his daughter who has become infected with a zombie virus.

In this film, a viral outbreak has cost many lives and many infected people have been quarantined. Crops and fields have been torched to stop the spread of the virus. Wade Vogel is a farmer whose daughter Maggie has become infected with the virus, and only has a short time left to live. Doctors have advised him to bring her for quarantine once she shows signs of advanced stages of infection, or end her life himself. So Wade and Maggie's stepmother Caroline do all they can to make her final days as comfortable as possible, which isn't easy as her infection makes her unpredictable, and the local police are concerned about more infections happening.

As stated, this isn't your regular zombie film. Maggie is the kind of film that aims for your heart. If you've ever had a family member who was dying of a disease and there was very little you can do about it, you would relate to this immediately. Even if you don't, the film is well executed enough to make you feel for the lead characters as they do their best to delay the inevitable. New director Henry Hobson does a solid job of keeping the Vogel family relatable to the audience by showing moments of normalcy and laughter in between the gloomy parts of the situation at hand. Cinematographer Lukas Ettlin deserves credit for keeping his focus close on faces, eyes, hands, feet and objects in an effort to make things more intimate between them and the audience.

In a part that one would imagine actors like Sean Penn or Kevin Bacon to excel in, Arnold Schwarzenegger is an unlikely choice, but well made. The Governator still isn't a great actor after all these years (let's be real), but in this film, he does a great job as the father who would do anything to protect his daughter from harm. It's fascinating to note that the man can emote in a quiet film like this. Abigail Breslin is equally good as Maggie, trying to live a normal life as her last days pass her by. Joely Richardson is also solid as Wade's wife and Maggie's stepmother Caroline, who cares for Maggie but is wary of what she's turning into.

The film does take a strange turn in the middle third when Schwarzenegger disappears as Maggie hangs out with her friends and only reappears when her disease takes a bad upward swing. I found it a bit jarring and inconsistent, though not entirely baffling. There's also the question of the lack of focus on the disease itself, but as I've said, it's not that kind of film, so be warned if you're looking for excitement here. You won't find it.

My final verdict would be to check this film out, to satisfy a wee bit of your curiosity. If you ever want to see Schwarzenegger in a drama, then go see this. I say it's worth it. (7/10) 

Saturday, May 30, 2015

San Andreas

Year: 2015
Director: Brad Peyton
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino, Alexandra Daddario, Paul Giamatti, Ioan Gruffudd, Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson


Plot: A huge earthquake hits California, and a rescue chopper pilot has to make a dangerous journey to save his daughter who's trapped in San Francisco.


Review: Disaster films are mostly alike. They all follow the same formula. Big calamity hits. Lots of people die. A few heroes survive. San Andreas follows this too. The only thing that seems to separate these films now is the amount of CGI used.

San Andreas is set in California, where a massive earthquake unlike anything the world has ever seen hits. In the middle of this disaster is Ray Gaines, a rescue chopper pilot who has to save his estranged wife and daughter who are trapped in the city with thousands of other victims. The film shifts attention between the family and Caltech seismologist Lawrence Hayes, who tries to warn everyone of the oncoming destruction.

The most impressive thing about San Andreas is the special effects. The earthquake scenes, from the shaking to falling buildings, shifting grounds and the tsunami in the film's climax look pretty awesome. There are a few moments where you'd go 'wow' due to how realistic it looks. 

The other great thing is the acting, which is mostly convincing. Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino make a good couple, and Alexandra Daddario fares well as their daughter Blake, who's rather resourceful in times of danger. Paul Giamatti is ever reliable as the seismologist while Hugo-Johnstone-Burt and Art Parkinson add some variety to Blake's adventure as a pair of brothers who stick with her during the disaster.

But San Andreas is practically filled with cliches. Broken family as the lead characters? Check. Mum has a new boyfriend? Check. Selfish characters meet their demise? Check. Dad has to go rescue his kid? Check. Will the broken family be mended by the time it's over? You know the answer to that one too. If you've seen 2012 and The Day After Tomorrow, all this will be most familiar to you. To top it all off, they have Gugino's boyfriend (played by Ioan Gruffudd) turn out to be a not so good guy, which makes it all the more obvious that she'll reunite with her husband. The only curveball they gave here was the idea of a death in the family in their past, which at least gives some weight to the drama between them.

If there's any reason to see this film, it would be the superb CGI. The heart of the story serves its purpose, but doesn't really add anything new to what has come before. (7/10)

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