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Movie Review: Source Code (2011) May 9, 2011

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews, Reviews.
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There’s nothing like a clever, action-packed sci-fi film to get the mind spinning and the blood pumping, and that’s exactly what Source Code is.

Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up on a Chicago-bound train sitting across from Michelle Monaghan, not knowing how he got there and uncertain of who he is.

Without giving away too much, there’s a terrorist threat and he’s the only one that can stop it, thanks to some top secret military experiment that allows him to relive the same eight minutes over and over again.  I’ll stop there, but there’s a lot more to the story than just that.

To be fair, it’s not exactly an original idea, because we’ve seen this type of concept before, perhaps most recently in Tony Scott’s 2006 film Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington.  But Source Code, directed by David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, and based on a screenplay written by Ben Ridley, is a much better film that intrigues from start to finish with its compelling mysteries, many twists and turns, and some top notch performances from its stars (in particular Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga, though I thought Jeffrey Wright’s performance was a little over the top).

Initially I was concerned because the idea of reliving the same eight minutes over and over for even a 93-minute film seemed kind of tiring to me.  But thankfully, the film was much more than that, creating such different scenarios each time and mixing it up with interesting breaks in between, never making the film repetitive and always making you wonder what will happen next.

What set it apart from others similar films in the genre, however, was the crafty human edge they managed to splice with the techno-thriller plot.  Without being corny or overly melodramatic (always such a fine, difficult line), Source Code featured some unexpected moments of tenderness and packed more heart than films of this type could have hoped for.

Of course, as with most sci-fi movies, logic issues and plot holes are always there if you go looking for them.  But on an overall level, I was satisfied with all the explanations once we got to the end.  In any case, with all the tension and trying to figure out the mystery of the ‘Source Code’, it wasn’t hard to overlook the flaws.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Skyline (2010) November 15, 2010

Posted by pacejmiller in Movie Reviews.
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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

Movie Review: Monsters (2010) November 12, 2010

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Monsters commences across Australia on 25 November 2010

Tell me this is not an awesome premise for a film:

To find alien life in the universe, NASA sends a probe into space.  The probe crashes at the US-Mexico border upon its return.  Six years later, the US and Mexican military are still struggling to contain the “creatures” in a sealed off area dubbed the “Infected Zone”.  And now, an American photojournalist is entrusted with escorting his boss’s daughter through Mexico back to US soil as the mayhem continues around them…

If that synopsis got you a little interested, then you might understand why I was super excited to catch a screening of Monsters, the low budget British sci-fi written and directed by special effects master Gareth Edwards.

Unfortunately, Monsters doesn’t come close to living up to its promising premise.  There were some good moments, but the main problem is that Edwards decided to place the focus of the film on the relationship between the two central characters, Andrew (Scoot McNairy), the photojournalist, and Sam (Whitney Able), the boss’s daughter.  While the two actors have chemistry (they were dating at the time and are now married), neither character came across as particularly likable, making it a bit of a stale romance in my opinion.

Consequently, Monsters became a bizarre hybrid between an alien sci-fi and road romance movie — kind of like a mix between District 9 (or Cloverfield) and Before Sunrise — except neither aspect was done very well.  There were moments of genuine tension and excitement whenever the “creatures” were nearby, but they were too often overshadowed by the tedious glances and conversations between the leads as well as the long montages of them travelling through Mexico.  This doesn’t mean those things weren’t done well, but man, I just wish Edwards took a different path with this film.

Having said all of that, Monsters does have a lot of positives.  The visual effects were magnificent (as you would expect from a writer and director who specialises in it), despite the fact that the entire film was made on a budget that would ordinarily only be enough to cover the catering expenses of most Hollywood blockbusters.  The acting was solid, as was the cinematography.  Much of the dialogue was apparently improvised, and I think it shows (in a good way), coming across as natural and unforced, for the most part.

Clever idea, intriguing premise, good performances, wonderful special effects, and when it wanted to be, pretty exciting.  But at the end of the day, Monsters was not what I wanted it to be.  That’s really my problem, but it is what it is.

2.5 stars out fo 5

Movie Review: Splice (2010) July 24, 2010

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Splice opens in cinemas across Australia on 12 August 2010

I’ve always had an unheathy fascination with monsters, mutants and freaks of nature.  There’s just something about them that intrigues and yet unsettles me.  Unfortunately, the track record of such films have — let’s face it — not been great.

And so it was with some reserved excitement that I went to see a media preview screening of Splice (with an unprecedented full house), the latest sci-fi horror offering from director and co-writer Vincenzo Natali (the guy who brought us the excellent and innovative Cube) and executive producer Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Hellboy).  I thought, if anyone could pull off a worthy sci-fi horror about genetic experimentation gone wrong, it’s these two dudes.

So?  Well, I think they came very very close.

Splice tells the story of a hip scientist couple, Clive and Elsa (played by a pre-buffed, pre-Predators Adrien Brody and an older, post-hot Sarah Polley, you know, the blonde girl from Go and Dawn of the Dead), who have become rockstars of the scientific community for their breakthroughs in splicing DNA of different animals to create weird mutant hybrids.  The next step is to splice animal and human DNA, but of course their corporate sponsors don’t approve.  Just to prove they could do it, Clive and Elsa take their experiments underground…

As usual, the less known about the plot the better, but it’s not hard to guess what happens next.  Splice follows a familiar trajectory (a bit of Frankenstein with a touch of Species 2), but it doesn’t mean it’s still not a genuinely creepy, unsettling, and at times utterly bizarre film well worth your time.  Especially if you are into (extremely well-designed) freaks!

The film is anchored by the strong performance of Adrien Brody (having now seen him in back-to-back movies in completely different roles and physically transformed, I can only say I am impressed with this guy).  Sarah Polley picks her up her acting towards the end, but there was something about her dialogue in the first half of the film that didn’t ring true.  I’m not sure if it’s her or the script.  The other standout is their ‘creation’, Dren, played by newcomer Delphine Chaneac and spliced with terrific special effects.  She’s creepy.

Splice is not without its flaws.  It was difficult to connect with the protagonists who are supposed to be intelligent people but they keep doing incredibly stupid, unlikable and non-sensical things.  There were a couple of grossly over-the-top moments that generated more laughter than horrified gasps from the crowd, though that may have been intentional.  The ‘twists’ were also a little too telegraphed and obvious for my liking.

But these are relatively minor complaints because Splice doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not.  I’m glad Natali made it a straight horror/psychological thriller as opposed to some sort of deep philosophical contemplation about the slippery slope of genetic engineering, because that would have totally ruined it.

Splice is no masterpiece, but it’s rare to see a sci-fi horror these days that is actually scary, entertaining, well-acted and doesn’t completely fall apart by the end.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: I can’t think of many good sci-fi horrors depicting experimental freaks of nature off the top of my head.  I mentioned Frankenstein and Species 2, but I’m sure there are others.  I thought  Frankenstein (the one with Robert De Niro) was pretty good, but let’s be honest — we all know why people flocked to see Species.

PPS: Oh, forgot about the underrated The Island of Dr Moreau.

Movie Review: Surrogates (2009) September 30, 2009

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Directed by Jonathan Mostow (Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines) and starring Bruce Willis, Surrogates is a sci-fi film with tremendous potential but falls well short of reaching it.  It is based on a comic book series but feels more like an under-developed short story – you know, the type you see in sci-fi anthologies based on a brilliant idea but with only a so-so plot.  At the end of the day, it’s not a bad film, but certainly not one you’re likely to remember a couple of years down the track.

Surrogates is a difficult film to introduce because it’s hard to talk about the premise of the film without giving the essence of the story away.  Nevertheless, most people will have a fair idea if they’ve seen a preview or can put two and two together (think sci-fi and the title of the film).

As often the case with such films, the best part of Surrogates is the beginning when it brings the viewer up to speed with this new high-tech world in which the story takes place.  You then have a mystery that needs to be solved, and in comes Bruce Willis to save the day.  However, as it turns out, the plot itself is not particularly intelligent.  It’s a pretty standard affair with plot twists that are more likely to elicit ‘mehs’ than gasps.

The action was good, but was it outstanding?  No.  The drama was adequate, but was it great?  Definitely not.  What you end up with is a sci-fi film with a promising premise (albeit not an entirely original one) but a poor storyline that fails to fully engage the audience.  While it was effectively an action flick, it got too caught up in the moral/ethical/philosophical stuff and ended up not properly developing either aspect of the film.  The short running time of 89 minutes is fine for a movie like this, but it makes you wish they did more with it.  With a better script and improved execution, Surrogates could have been a lot more than it turned out to be.

That said, the special effects and make-up were impressive.  We are beginning to reach a point in time where the age of the actor will become irrelevant.  We might soon start to see movies where 70-year-old actors can play 20-year-olds – for the entire length of the film.

Jonathan Mostow is a decent director, having been at the helm of films such as Terminator 3, U571 and Breakdown (his last 3 films), but in this case you wonder whether he was restricted by the script.  Bruce Willis provides another ‘tortured soul’ performance we’re used to seeing.  Rosamund Pike is okay, but Radha Mitchell finds herself in a rather thankless role.  The worst, however, had to be James Cromwell and in particular Ving Rhames, who both appeared as though they were just in it for the paycheck.

To be honest, I was surprised at how little marketing Surrogates received.  With a budget of $80 million and Bruce Willis (plus an assortment of recognisable stars) you would have thought it deserved more.  Perhaps they knew well in advance that it wouldn’t be worth it.

3 stars out of 5!

To be honest, I was surprised at how little marketing Surrogates received.  With a budget of $80 million and Bruce Willis (plus an assortment of recognisable stars) you would have thought it deserved more.  Perhaps they
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