Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Last Witch Hunter

Year: 2015
Director: Breck Eisner
Cast: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Michael Caine, Elijah Wood

Plot: After successfully killing the Witch Queen, witch hunter Kaulder was cursed with immortality. For 800 years he lives and keeps evil at bay, until he discovers a plan concocted by an evil witch to resurrect the Witch Queen, and he has to rely on a young witch to stop it.

Review: Action fantasy films, when done right, can be quite entertaining. But it's not easy for sure, since the various recent attempts have received critical beatings (Seventh Son, Dracula Untold, RIPD). Personally I thought Seventh Son wasn't bad overall, but I digress.

The Last Witch Hunter begins in medieval times, where a group of men do battle with the Witch Queen, who has cursed the land with the black plague. One of the men, Kaulder, successfully kills her, but not before she curses him with immortality. 800 years later, Kaulder is still keeping the peace for the Axe & Cross, a group sworn to protect the world from evil witches. When his longtime friend and sidekick, Dolan the 36th, is killed by witches, Kaulder looks into his death and discovers a plan to resurrect the Witch Queen. He has to rely on a young witch named Chloe to stop them.

With seemingly all the right elements in place, The Last Witch Hunter should have worked quite well. It surely looks like Keanu Reeves' Constantine in many aspects, but unfortunately it's not as memorable as that movie. Director Breck Eisner manages to keep the film competently moving for the most part, but the flawed script makes it hard for him to sustain the audience's attention. For one thing, the dialogue is cliched and the all too familiar plot of stopping an apocalypse is riddled with plot holes. The occasionally choppy CGI doesn't help either, and the fight scenes suffer from the same problem of being filmed too close.

But it's not all doom and gloom though. Underneath this mess lies a few gems here and there. The film has its entertaining moments, mostly when star Vin Diesel is in form and the CGI actually works. Diesel usually has plenty of screen presence and he brings it again here as Kaulder, though one gets the feeling he's much more comfortable playing Dom Toretto. Game Of Thrones' Rose Leslie gets the lion's share of support duty as Chloe, and acquits herself well despite not having much chemistry with Diesel. Elijah Wood is terribly wasted in a thankless role as Dolan the 37th, by being inserted in the film's climax as part of a plot twist that didn't work at all. Michael Caine is great of course as Dolan the 36th, but has much too little to do here (he does get a pretty funny line somewhere at the end involving a fly). The Witch Queen, played by Julie Engelbrecht, looks almost as bad as the CGI Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, especially in the final fight. But credit goes to Olafur Darri Olafsson as witch lackey Belial, who is rather intimidating in size, along with a bass voice to match.

Judging by how the film ended, obviously Diesel is hoping to make a sequel. I won't lie, the potential is there, and if done right, it can be great. But it certainly isn't off to a very good start here. The Last Witch Hunter is overall fun but forgettable. (6/10)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Crimson Peak

Year: 2015
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver

Plot: After a family tragedy, an aspiring writer marries an aristocrat and moves into his crumbling mansion, Allerdale Hall. Soon she discovers her new husband and his sister may be hiding a sinister secret, as there are ghosts in the house that won't leave her alone.

Review: I'm currently following Guillermo del Toro's horror TV show The Strain in its first season. Awesome stuff. While that one is straightforward horror, his latest film Crimson Peak is slightly different.

Crimson Peak, set in early 20th century, centers on Edith Cushing, a young aspiring writer who lost her mother to disease when she was ten years old and now lives with her father, a builder. One day she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe from England, who takes interest in her and her writings, and they subsequently fall for each other. Her father disapproves of Thomas and his more dubious looking sister Lucille, but then he suddenly dies and Edith swiftly marries Thomas and moves into the Sharpe's crumbling home, Allerdale Hall. Shortly after, Edith encounters dead spirits in the house, and begins to suspect that her new husband and his sister aren't what they seem to be.

If you're looking for a visually beautiful film this year, there isn't one more lovely than Crimson Peak (except maybe Mad Max: Fury Road). Cinematography, set design and costume design are all top notch. The set for Allerdale Hall is simply awesome, from the wide open field between the house and its gate, to the eerie mansion that looks gorgeous despite being dilapidated and bearing a huge hole in the roof. It's a set that's begging for an Oscar next year. The visual effects depicting the ghosts are cool too, with long time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones chipping in again as the spirits Edith runs into. The effects show them as bloody skeletons, and they can be quite disarming.

As for the cast, Mia Wasikowska is simply perfect in the role of Edith. Word has it that she is replacing Emma Stone, and thank goodness for that (I can't picture Stone in this role honestly). Wasikowska is a perfect fit for the era in this film, looking really lovely in every frame, and she brings across Edith's enthusiasm, youth and eventual fear very well. Jessica Chastain is also great as Lucille, a character very far removed from her recent astronaut role in The Martian. Chastain is menacing and cold here, a person who is equally disturbing as the spirits in the house. Tom Hiddleston, like Wasikowska, is perfect for the era, and plays the nicer Sharpe sibling Thomas with much charm and gusto. Charlie Hunnam, last seen in del Toro's Pacific Rim, acquits himself well as Edith's childhood friend Alan, but doesn't get much screen time except at the beginning and end of the film. Rounding up the cast is Supernatural's Jim Beaver as Edith's father, and is also a perfect fit for the role.

Now while casting and acting are all solid here, it is the script that is slightly flawed. The story itself isn't a problem, but the dialogue sinks itself into unnecessary melodrama many times. The pacing is also a bit off in the middle third of the film, and while the ghosts are well depicted, I wanted to see more of them. But thankfully del Toro sort of makes up for this with a blood drenched climax, so if you like violence you're in for a treat.

Overall, Crimson Peak is a visual marvel and a solid watch, even though it's flawed here and there. Guillermo del Toro may have not recaptured the brilliance of his magnum opus, Pan's Labyrinth here but it isn't for lack of trying. (7/10) 

Sunday, October 11, 2015


Year: 2015
Director: Alejandro Amenabar
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Emma Watson, David Thewlis, Lothaire Bluteau, David Dencik, Dale Dickey

Plot: Set in 1990 in Hoyer, Minnesota, Detective Bruce Kenner investigates a case of a man who had molested his own daughter, but he subsequently discovers its connection to satanic rituals.

Review: On the surface, Regression looked like a film that I would really enjoy. It had a good cast, good premise and a dark setting. Somehow it just fell short of the mark. I'll get to that in a bit.

The film begins with the familiar 'inspired by true events' caption, followed by some information on the increasing reports of satanic rituals in America during the 1980s, which leads us to Hoyer, Minnesota in 1990. Detective Bruce Kenner has been put on a case where a man named John Gray has been arrested for sexually abusing his daughter, Angela. However he has no recollection of the incident. Kenner manages to persuade a reluctant Angela to give her side of the story, and that plus sessions of regression therapy (a form of hypnosis) on John, performed by psychologist Professor Raines, leads him to conclude that a satanic cult is active in town, and they were responsible for what happened. Eventually Kenner starts getting nightmares and is convinced he is the cult's next target.

For the first two thirds of Regression, I felt that we had a film that was on to something. Director Alejandro Amenabar was presenting a psychological thriller with a small dose of horror in it. The pace was deliberate and rather slow at times, but it was moving with a purpose. The cast was good, the revelations were interesting for the most part, and the dark setting of a small town in Minnesota was perfect to create the discomforting mood Amenabar was going for.

Alas, it is in the final third when the film disappoints. Some films heavily depend on its huge twist as its trump card, and though Regression's surprise revelation makes sense more or less, it is rather underwhelming in effect. It also left me with a few questions which I won't divulge here, you'll have to see it for yourself.

Ethan Hawke is doing great work these days and puts in another solid performance as Kenner. Emma Watson is good too as Angela, though she can't quite shake off the Hermione vibe yet. Watson's Harry Potter co-star David Thewlis fares better as Professor Raines, who provides a scientific side of the case quite convincingly. The rest of the cast put in solid work as well, especially David Dencik as John Gray.

Despite all the good work Amenabar and company put in here, the film only manages to be a decent thriller at best. They built it up quite well but wasted its potential towards the finish line. (6/10)

Saturday, October 03, 2015

The Martian

Year: 2015
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Matt Damon, Jessica Chastain, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Jeff Daniels, Kate Mara, Sean Bean, Michael Pena, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan, Kristen Wiig, Mackenzie Davis, Benedict Wong

Plot: Astronaut Mark Watney is left behind on Mars and presumed dead after a freak storm forces his crew to abandon the planet. Stranded by himself, Watney has to figure out how to survive as long as possible and at the same time attempt to make contact with NASA and inform them he's alive.

Review: The Martian has been compared by many people to recent space movies like Gravity and Interstellar, and the similarities are definitely there. In terms of scope, it's somewhere between those two films.

The Martian, based on the book by Andy Weir, tells the story of Mark Watney, who was left behind and presumed dead by his crew after a massive storm hits them on Mars, forcing them to abort their mission and flee. Left alone with their equipment and a generous supply of food and water, Watney has to survive on his own, and knowing that even if he were able to somehow tell NASA that he's alive, he has to last the amount of time it takes for them to rescue him. With that in mind, he, as the trailer of the film shows us, sciences the shit out of the planet, and thanks to his resourcefulness, stays alive day after day on Mars, though not without obstacles.

Ridley Scott has finally returned to form after a few critical failures (Exodus, The Counselor) and gives moviegoers a real treat with this film. The Martian is 141 minutes long, but it's engaging enough for us that we don't feel the time passing by. It's refreshing to watch a movie about Mars that isn't a sci-fi horror or fantasy, and not a tale about isolation and what it does to a person's psyche either. Hollywood already has enough films to cover all that. The Martian is a mostly scientifically accurate adventure film with a balanced focus on drama and humour.

Thanks to Scott's steady direction and Drew Goddard's inspired and sometimes funny screenplay, The Martian is never boring, and with the absence of an actual villain, it's nice to watch a film that shows the best side of humanity for once. Credit also goes to Dariusz Wolski for some great cinematography and Arthur Max for his excellent production designs.

The cast, made up of Hollywood's finest, all put in excellent performances, especially leading man Matt Damon. Damon has demonstrated in the past that he's terrific at portraying the everyman, and here he does it again as Mark Watney. Damon makes Watney very affable from the get go, as well as very human after he finds himself stranded. Watney's never say die attitude is a real inspiration and Damon is in fine form here. The rest of the cast may not hold a candle to him though (it's Damon's show mostly) but they all perform pretty well. Worthy mentions go to Jessica Chastain as mission commander Lewis, Chiwetel Ejiofor as NASA mission control director, Sean Bean as flight director and Jeff Daniels as NASA director Sanders.

The only flaw in the film is that it slows down just a bit whenever the story doesn't focus on Watney. Don't get me wrong, the plot on how NASA plans to bring him back safely is engaging and funny, but watching Watney's struggles and successes is just more interesting to this reviewer.

Overall The Martian is a very satisfying way to spend time at the cinema. Highly recommended. (9/10)   


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