mwburrows

IMDb member since September 2012
    Lifetime Total
    25+
    IMDb Member
    6 years

Reviews

Alien: Covenant
(2017)

...If you wrong us, shall we not revenge?
Michael Fassbender and the titular monster alone would be enough to carry Alien:Covenant, and at times, it feels like they do. David's soaring Nietzschean prose and verse on the meaning of life and philosophical question crackles with power and demands your attention - perhaps more so than the many set pieces of the film - and is both an asset and a liability to the new sibling in the Alien universe.

The conflicted android villain from Prometheus takes up a solid third of A:C's run time, forming the bedrock of meaning for the film. David's musings on right and wrong and his loathing for his creators is so vocal that it can't be ignored, drawing strong parallels with Frankenstein's Monster and other influential classics like Jekyll and Hyde. A:C is so preoccupied with developing the reasoning behind its Machiavellian villain that the story seems to sag under its weight - Alien:Covenant is less about the classic sci-fi creature than it is about ideas first explored by Isaac Asimov and Mary Shelley.

In this sense, A:C feels like two entirely separate films. Ridley Scott does an excellent job with a riveting first act, firmly signalling that we have returned to the universe he created on board a gorgeously detailed and suitably styled spaceship with a close-knit crew. The opening third of the film is gripping, intriguing, and exciting. However, no sooner than the dust has settled on the first explosive setback for our heroes, Alien:Covenant chokes on a pass and fumbles the ball.

The second act where David is introduced precedes a long, unfitting "haunted house" sequence that takes up the majority of the film and feels like a shoe two sizes too small. Here A:C reverts to the style and themes of Prometheus, a jarring shift from the body-horror that had set up Alien:Covenant's unique identity. It instantly detracts from both the visual style and the story, thrusting us into a different time and place. It is the single most difficult part of A:C to reconcile. Despite the divisive reaction to Prometheus, it seems Ridley Scott is reluctant to abandon the ideas he seeded in the 2012 prequel.

That being said there is still life in the "David" episode of Alien:Covenant. In fact, it's quite convincing. Taking shelter in the mad doctor's lair, our heroes are picked off one-by-one or lured away by the deluded David to be charmed to his ideas and forced to listen to his bleak, vengeful philosophy. David spends a lot of time with his compadre Walter, trying to convince him that they are one and the same, two brethren brought together by fate. A:C even manages to weave in David's unusual and twisted take on sex and love. He is A:C's single most rounded character and will leave you wondering.

It's not to say the rest of the cast isn't worth mentioning, but the spotlight is strongly focused on David and Walter. In the first and last third of the film, the human cast of soldiers, pilots and redshirts are well-acted and given much to do. Amy Seimetz' impresses with her sweat-inducing panic on the screen, and you can't help but feel yourself shaking alongside her. Her episode is short-lived and memorable, much like the other characters who are mostly given just enough to make their mark. Billy Crudup is completely absorbed in his role as the ships'second officer - the only deeply religious among them and not afraid to let it known. His beliefs preface an important moment in the film and his chestburster scene is poignant, shocking and tastefully directed, standing on its own among the other entries in the Alien series. Katherine Waterston crunches into top gear from the first frame and gradually shifts down, stunning us with real passion in the opening scenes that will shape her character for the rest of the film.

A:C does manage to recover the ball and race for the end-zone after a troubling mucky-middle, but it's a case of too little, too late. The Alien left me with mixed feelings. Instead of hiding in the shadows of the Nostromo, the creature is plain to see from head to toe in eye- popping CGI that feels somewhat unreal. It's moments of glory are over so fast that we never get enough time to indulge in the horror, and the penultimate mano-a-mano throw down is a thin stew peppered with just a few meaty moments.

Alien:Covenant finishes with a fantastic twist, sets itself up for an obvious sequel and elicits groans of frustration with its inconclusive ending. It's an appetizer for a better film just large enough to whet your appetite.

11.22.63: The Day in Question
(2016)
Episode 8, Season 1

A stunning finale.
While certainly less "Kingish" than most screen adaptations of his work (or perhaps more so, depending on your level of fandom), 11.22.63 is a remarkably moving drama based on a simple elevator premise that succeeds thanks to a compelling human story and relatable characters.

In the finale of Jake's odyssey, I was rooting for him the whole way through, hoping beyond hope that everything will work out for him and Sadie. The central premise of the story - stopping the assassination of JFK - seems to take a back seat to the romance subplot here (as it has the whole series through in my opinion), to excellent effect. The audience and Jake himself are left questioning whether it was all worthwhile, whether it was worth the sacrifice. 11.22.63 has taken us on a spectacular fantasy ride, where we find ourselves wondering what might have been, and what we would choose: to save a life, or save a true love. Ultimately the bargain Jake has entered into has ramifications, and much like the real world he returns to, nothing will ever work out exactly how it's supposed to.

The last few minutes of 11.22.63 are spellbinding, heartbreaking moments, a study of love and the human condition, exemplified in textbook storytelling, with Franco and Gadon on fire in standout lead roles.

11.22.63 is a meeting with someone we know from somewhere, in another life...

Gone Girl
(2014)

Almost as terrible as the book.
It's a mistake to recruit the author to do the screenplay - they are too emotionally invested, and if they aren't known for writing scripts the disparity in quality can be obvious. Take The Exorcist III for example. Or Gone Girl.

The Gone Girl novel was a lavishly praised exercise in cryptic dialogue, high school prose, and incompetent storytelling that defies conventional formula. Unfortunately, you can only defy the formula and get away with it if you are very good. Gillian Flynn just isn't.

Her characters speak with bizarre, hyperactive energy that made me feel breathless just from reading it. It's like listening to someone recall a fond memory at a party - a memory that nobody else cares about. It's inexplicably cryptic. It's not how people talk, and you can tell that on screen Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike don't really know what to make of their lines. Their sentences are too long, too wild, too verbose. They talk like stage actors fresh out of drama school. The supporting cast are also similarly lost - the two detectives especially. The female cop is just a frustrating "loose- cannon-independent-woman/symbol-of-women's-suffrage" poster girl. She talks fast and drinks coffee - black, no doubt (Yawn). Her male partner just seems to follow her around like a lost dog and nod agreeably with everything she says - three cheers for women's rights! Down with the glass ceiling!

You might as well slap a domestic violence advertisement in the credits.

The lack of tension evident in Flynn's writing translates well to the screen. Your nails will not be bitten to fleshy stubs watching Gone Girl. More likely you'll end up filing them into neat, buffed arches out of boredom. Fincher can't elevate the inherent drabness of the source material. He, like the rest of the cast, seem to misunderstand the script. They just "don't get it." Gone Girl is one of those wrongly-praised cause celebres. People are too keen to jump on the bandwagon after learning about the *gasp* "shock twist" in the final act (that is hardly shocking, original, or interesting).

Re-watch some of Fincher's better work instead. If you've already invested money in the novel, take solace in knowing it is the perfect size for a doorstop, and about as entertaining.

Frontera
(2014)

Mystery film lacking in mystery.
A competent rehash of drama plots we've seen before, Ed Harris and Michael Pena manage to keep this film afloat with the sheer passion of their performances. That being said, Frontera goes off half-cocked, and fails to deliver on its promises.

It's clear by now that Harris enjoys Western films and the influences are obvious, from the settings to the music. It's a shame he couldn't explore its themes more comprehensively, and it seems clear to me that much of Frontera was left on the cutting room floor to fit into a 90 minute running time. There are loose threads of plot left floating and multiple elements of the story that remain unsolved. Some scenes feel rushed and much of what happens to minor characters occurs off screen, perhaps having fallen victim to editing.

This is unfortunate because the key elements of a good drama are here. They just needed more polishing. As it is, Frontera is a dull rock reminiscent of a diamond but lacking the shine.

Other nagging problems weigh down this otherwise interesting rural drama. The direction is inconsistent, and can never quite reach the level of tension it aims for. Ed Harris is left with criminally few lines to speak, and fills his screen time with furrowed stares and glowers. I found him to be a joy to watch, and when he does speak he has good lines, but it feels like he could have brought so much more to the film. I found Michael Pena to be pleasantly immersed in his role and applaud his subtle, understated acting style. Unfortunately it's a misplaced effort.

The biggest issue is the fact that the mystery is answered immediately: we know "who dunnit". What's left to watch is a procedural where the criminals head inexorably toward a predictable fate, and the effects on those caught up in the crime. Perhaps removing the perspective of the crooks would have made the film more suspenseful and interesting, as ultimately it turns into an episodic anthology of stories on the American-Mexican frontier.

Given the current trend of polished HBO crime dramas, this would have made good competition for True Detective and the late Breaking bad as a series.

Recommended.

13 Sins
(2014)

An on-par Faustian thriller that could have been much better.
I will say it now: if you watch this film, don't quit until the 90 minutes have expired. Otherwise you will miss the devilishly clever final twists which are well-foreshadowed. In fact it is textbook screen writing. Fiction writers from all genres should take note - this is how you do it.

However, it's easy to change channels when watching 13 Sins. The low budget and (at times) pedestrian acting make it unremarkable to the eye, and it's tempting to go looking for something better. But stick with it, as what 13 Sins lacks in scale and scope it makes up for with suspense and intelligent twists. If you're very good, you might see it coming. The events of the third act are telegraphed clearly in the first, although you'll have to be smart to put the pieces together. This is where the film succeeds. Mysteries should always give the viewer a chance to solve the puzzle, and while 13 Sins doesn't make it easy, you can certainly do it. In fact I'm laughing out loud at myself for not seeing it coming.

That said, 13 Sins is a flawed film. It's tried to blur the lines between a suspense thriller and horror film. There are some hackneyed horror moments that could have been handled more effectively. A handful of gory scenes were obtuse and unnecessary, and perhaps would have been better if done with more subtlety. This seems to be the fault of the director who is apparently influenced by the style of independent horror-film makers of the 90s and 2000s who don't understand the value of tension. Gore on its own is ineffective. Horror is equal parts what we see and don't see. Case study: the original Alien showed us everywhere the creature could be, and in turn revealed them to be empty, letting our minds wander, letting us experience what the terrified characters were feeling. When the ultimate moment comes, it's done logically, and with nuance and flair. There's no gore on screen that didn't need to be there. All horror writers should study this.

The other problem lies with the film's occasional desire to go beyond it's limitations and try to establish a grander scale. There's an "escape" set piece that falls short of competency because they didn't have the money for good special effects, and it showed. You could have just left it out. An independent film should work around its budget instead of stretching it.

Anyway, out of all the slim pickings of 2014 so far - which is shaping up to be another terrible year for film - this low-budget suspense thriller has actually impressed me. Elliot's (the protagonist's) transformation was mostly plausible, aside from a few nonsense moments. It's sheer intelligence and gripping, relentless pace kept me watching until the bitter end. However, while I have said that the final act is quite good, it is let down by an incompetent epilogue which leaves us with a Downer Ending instead of one which is left open to the audience to interpret.

I recommend it as a rental only, but I DO recommend you see it.

300: Rise of an Empire
(2014)

Unintentional comedy.
The original 300 was a unique entry among historical epics. It's eye- catching visual style laid the seeds for its success. Strong set pieces and a fantasy take on ancient history helped make it a memorable war epic that we will revisit for years to come.

So as with any film where money is involved there has to be a sequel, right? If you throw enough money at someone they'll eventually say yes to whatever you want. Snyder isn't directing this time but the screenplay was written by him and his presence is felt constantly throughout the film.

Unfortunately, Rise of an Empire just sucks at everything, especially when compared side-by-side with its sibling. Terrible miscasts, stilted dialogue, and boring, predictable set pieces had me laughing at inappropriate moments. Eva Green...just no...she's meant to be a "warrior princess" tough girl, badass, but she's just not suited to the role. She got the job because she's a big name. She has the smirks and flirty smiles but that's about it. She had me cracking up at parts with the truly terrible lines she was forced to repeat, much like the rest of the cast, including the horrendously unqualified Sullivan Stapleton, who is not a leading man and should never be cast as one again after this debacle.

I liked Sully in Animal Kingdom and other Aussie roles he has done before, which he is best suited to (Like Sam Worthington...who is likewise NOT a leading man, but Hollywood doesn't get the idea). He is most tolerable and believable when he is being himself and projecting his own personality on screen. Here, he is forced to adopt a "English- speaking character in ancient period" accent and recite some of the worst dialogue in recent history, even among historical epics. Many of his lines have suspiciously modern wording and he fails to deliver them with any real understanding of what he's actually saying. In fact this is one of my greatest pet peeves in cinema. Actors put on their best grimaces and wave their hands about without knowing what they're actually talking about, without any genuine passion, reciting the script word-for-word without any improvisation or interpretation. It reeks.

Sully is not the only perpetrator here.

Callan Mulvey continues in his success as a supporting actor in Hollywood, playing a nameless minor character who brings nothing of value or interest to the screen. He is, however, getting more screen time and starring in bigger and better films, which is good to see considering I remember him best from being in that domestic cop show "Rush", in which he was quite good. Career progression to one side, he absolutely annoyed me in Rise of Empire. Pointless role. The movie would truly be unchanged if he was simply removed from all scenes. Waste of money.

There's a third Australian actor here too - David Wenham - who briefly reprises his role from the first film, only this time he was incredibly annoying. His accent was...what was it? It grated my ears just listening to him.

Terrible acting, terrible dialogue to one side, surely you're saying "You watch it for the action," but that's not true either. The slow-mo, smash-cut, extreme close-up, etc is all entirely predictable and repeated verbatim from the first film, lacking originality, imagination or flair. It's like they watched each set piece in 300 and then tried to copy it as closely as possible. I've seen it all before. Why try something new if you can't do anything different? The filters have changed from gold to grey, but everything else is the same. There's some additional 3d blood splatter. That's it really.

The narrative itself happens side-by-side in sequence with the events of the original 300 and a large portion is told through lazy flashback or exposition. This left me confused as to what was going on at times - especially if you zone out or check your phone, as I was doing occasionally. Not to mention this just smacks of bad screen writing. On the odd occasion it works (the Usual Suspects), but you have to have actual talent for that. Snyder merely highlights his incompetence by storytelling this way. Much of the exposition was to illustrate the history of Greece and Sparta and to reiterate the events of the first film, the background of minor characters and other boring things that have no real importance to us. Again, bad screen writing.

Not to mention the visual style of Rise of Empire is inherently flawed in that it is too confident in its technology. At times I was laughing out loud at the painfully obvious greenscreen backgrounds. There were some scenes with a visible distinction in lighting between the actor and the CGI background, or in fact, another actor standing across from them (CGI'd in).

I could go on all day, but I won't. There are many other gripes I have with Rise of an Empire (lack of narrative arc, no rising and falling action, no suspense, no character arc, cookie-cutter characters lacking emotional depth, etc). If you haven't seen it already do yourself a favor and steer clear, as Rise of an Empire will spoil whatever fond memories of 300 that you might have.

3 Days to Kill
(2014)

The least annoying Luc Besson film ever.
And that may be because he wasn't directing.

You know the drill: recycled 90s spy/action plot, with compulsory sprinklings of contrived character development, a big name, and set pieces that are either overdone or too hackneyed to be the film's saving grace. While 3 Days to Kill adheres to parts of the Besson formula, it's execution is good, even to the point that I liked it - in fact, yeah, I liked it!

In the vein of Leon, the Professional, 3 Days to Kill succeeds because it doesn't try to be an action film. In ways I found it to be equal parts drama and thriller, with a strong focus on the protagonist's personal life, his struggles and vices. Kevin Costner really anchors this movie and gives an A+ performance which he needed after the lacklustre Jack Ryan reboot. I feel he's going down the same road as Liam Neeson, trying to reinvent himself and - most importantly - find roles that he enjoys playing, and it shows. Never did he seem bored or unsatisfied with the lines he was given. Same goes for the supporting cast, including Hailee Steinfeld who I have to give an honourable mention to for bringing so much energy and passion to the film.

Amber Heard appears and reappears throughout as a femme fatale type, and while she may not be entirely believable as a CIA spook with limitless power, and while it is convenient she gets what Ethan needs at exactly the right time, she is nonetheless superb eye candy and a satisfying contrast to Kevin Costner's character, acting as the devil's advocate.

Yes it is a typically flawed Besson film but it is the least flawed that I have seen in a long time. It certainly blows the abysmal Robert De Niro vehicle "The Family" out of the water, and even achieves some emotional resonance at times. Most of all, it sucks you into its world and keeps you immersed for its entire two-hour running time - perhaps this is thanks to (slightly) better direction by the American "McG", as he calls himself. However, the one thing that irks me and remains consistent in Besson films is his xenophobic depiction of France which is almost insulting to me - if you make films you are an ambassador for your country, and Besson is constantly making the French out to be snotty, pompous elitists who despise anyone who isn't one of their own, as previously shown in "The Family," which takes the cake in my book for deferring the most amount of tourism from France out of any film, ever. Gripes to one side, I found the action scenes to be competently done, above par in my opinion. What really made 3 Days to Kill shine was the interaction between Ethan and his daughter which was nothing short of excellent. There's a scene where he teaches her to ride a bike, which was simple and beautiful.

I'm glad to say that 3 Days to Kill is worth the price of admission for all moviegoers, from the snobbiest critic to the most casual viewer. It has something for everyone (even me)!

Out of the Furnace
(2013)

Infuriatingly bad, but also infuriatingly good.
Out of the Furnace violates every rule in the book when it comes to fiction writing. The opening scene tells us very little that we couldn't already guess. The typical wisdom is that you must start with the "inciting incident", but that doesn't come until well near the half-way point of the film. There's clearly a lot of passion that went into Out of the Furnace, and at the end I did feel like I had experienced this incredible journey with Russell and his family - almost like I lost a friend. But as far as thrillers go - which this is advertised as - it is not conventional nor effective.

If it were marketed as a rural crime drama (Which it is, really), I would have been more welcoming. But because it wants to be part TV soap opera and part white-knuckle thriller, it irked me to sit there waiting for the ball to get rolling for a whole hour before it switched gears to action mode (sprinkled in sparse quantities, no doubt). It has the glacial pace of a classic novel. The characters are there, the direction is competent, the actors are deeply immersed and never wink at the audience. These are all good things. Where it flops is in its desperation to avoid the formula, and in doing so injures itself.

Here's an idea: (SPOILERS) Get rid of Russell being sent to jail, forget about the "wife leaving him" subplot, don't show us Casey Affleck getting shot on screen (let us sit in suspense, let us experience the mystery alongside Russell), and you would have a much, much better film. Unfortunately what we get in the end is a grandiose melodrama that bites off more than it can chew and tries desperately to distinguish itself, succeeding only in highlighting its flaws.

Stick to the formula. It's there because it works.

Ain't Them Bodies Saints
(2013)

Self-indulgent art-house neo-noir.
I'm on the fence with this one. I don't hate it quite so much as to give it one star, as I'm tempted to. The direction and photography feel like a year 10 high school project. True beauty is best captured inconspicuously on film, whereas Saints is obsessed with getting the perfect shot of shivering fir trees and fields of barley coated in gold at sunset - there's no nuance or subtlety to it. It appears ham fisted when the director is obviously choosing his shots carefully, but when he lets intuition guide him he manages to capture some great moments on film.

Like one scene where Rooney Mara's character leaves church, and the local sheriff gives her a tip of a hat outside in a short tracking shot to the tune of a quirky soundtrack - it's simple and effective. Most viewers won't even remember that tiny twenty second scene and are probably too busy salivating over Casey Affleck's felt hats and film student mise en scene.

That being said, while the photography is desperate to impress, the way scenes play out is more effective. The director has some idea of how to generate tension, but at times he flops. The opening action sequence is one example; boring, flat, over quickly. Though perhaps what success there is is more to the credit of the screenwriter than the director, it's hard to say.

Flaws to one side, there are several small, tender moments that elevate Saints. For example, the interactions between Rooney Mara's character and her daughter, which are, at times, heartwarming, and very natural. Ben Foster too, feels well-casted and is careful not to turn his small town sheriff character into a walking cliché. In fact, he did so well you barely noticed him at all. He blends perfectly into the background. Casey Affleck seemed to recycle his character from "The Killer Inside Me," but his performance was tolerable.

So, all in all, Saints makes a lot of swings for few runs, succeeding just enough to be an honourable mention. I understand this is one of the director's first works, so for a debut it is certainly noteworthy. If he can learn to stop grovelling at the feet of critics he may improve in the future.

Closed Circuit
(2013)

Three Days of the Condor's bastard cousin.
Let me ask you this: What is the most logical and inconspicuous way to close the lid on a damaging legal court battle? Do you:

1. Find legal loopholes? 2. Hire rich barristers? 3. Kill off your high-profile rivals with convenient "accident" after accident until they are all conveniently dead?

Well, it appears that the best course of action is for all your enemies to wind up dead, regardless of how incredibly conspicuous that is and despite all blame being focused directly on you. The plot twists in Closed Circuit should be apparent to lobotomy patients let alone the regular audience. For further insult Closed Circuit underlines and italicises every single plot point to be sure you understand (including an exciting increase in musical tempo to let you know this is important!).

In fact, Closed Circuit does precisely the opposite of what a good spy flick should. It shows it's hand too early. If you're paying attention you can figure out the whole story by the thirty minute mark (if you haven't seen it yet, try and guess the major twist as you watch it. Whatever you're thinking you're probably right.) The foreshadowing is clumsy to the point of formula, and again, underlined and italicised so you know this is foreshadowing!

Other jarring production goofs also diminish the quality of the film. Apparently London has armed police on every corner, outside Chinese restaurants and inside courtrooms too. Has the director ever been to court? On a further note, he makes London look bland and drab with a boring grey palette and fails to distinguish it from any city in the world. There's so much beauty and cultural richness which is simply swept under the rug or ignored altogether. Instead of being a living background to the story the city just feels like "some place in Britain".

Then there's "Spy Sh*t 101" like wiretaps, bugs, plain-clothed agents and corrupting the incorruptible. Oh, and the "Room looks slightly askew so someone must have been here" cliché, completed with a dance of piano to let you know that the character has stumbled upon something important.

Oh well. I guess there's nothing good released this time of year anyway. Tune in for a pirated version if you have the spare time and nothing else to watch.

Riddick
(2013)

A good return to form. Fans of the original will be pleased.
The third instalment in the Riddick series sees the titular anti-hero conned into returning to his native planet by the necro-mongers whose favour he was won, if only temporarily. When he is double-crossed and left to die, Riddick embarks on a journey of survival as he "resets the clock to zero" and starts all over again.

Riddick has improved on the sequel to Pitch Black, "Chronicles of Riddick", in that it goes bigger but at the same time holds true to the original premise. Chronicles failed because it was TOO big, and too loosely tied to the ideas of the original. 2013s Riddick really goes back to basics with a small cast of characters and a focused plot - in fact, in some ways I think there was potential for three sequels squeezed into this film. The first act is a kind of wilderness survival, the second a tit-for-tat game of cat and mouse, and the third an epic confrontation between all the forces at play. It really changes direction several times and I wasn't quite expecting what I got.

There is some quality comic relief on show and the rarest twinge of an emotional bond between Riddick and an alien dog he adopts, but it is underdeveloped and underused, which irked me as it had great potential. The writers also tried to form some kind of sexual innuendo between Riddick and "Dahl", the only female character. It is ultimately ineffective and leaves much to be desired. The Riddick-dog relationship yields the most emotional investment for the viewer, who will see as I did the waste in ending that bond too early in the film.

Another note on sex: there's some very crude aforementioned innuendo in Riddick. It feels kind of unnecessary and threatens to drag the film into B-movie territory at points. No amount of good storytelling can excuse it, as the blatant sex talk feels like something a teenager would write and serves no real purpose. The character of Dahl too, feels unfairly used as a vehicle for it, and it never amounts to anything but more bad jokes.

There's a couple of annoying clichés besides the "tough chick", including the "religious guy", for example. The writer acts wisely by limiting our exposure to them, especially the preachy kid who really annoyed me. "Santana" and "Johns" were the highlight of the supporting cast, providing just enough charisma and identity for you to enjoy their on screen presence.

Story aside, Riddick looks spectacular. I'm not sure if it was filmed in 4K, thought it certainly looks like it. Some of the CGI was of such a high quality I found myself questioning whether it was prosthetics or not, or a combination of the two. It's really reached a level of quality so high that it feels like the creatures occupy the same physical space as the actors, adding to a grittiness that captures the action well. Creature design is great (although some obvious inspiration is taken from Alien), and rivals that of the original.

Though carefully paced and (at times) not quite sure what it wanted to be, Riddick is a fitting conclusion to the trilogy that returns to the territory Pitch Black first explored. Those who didn't like the sequel Chronicles will definitely enjoy this 2013 offering instead, as it has all the essential components of the original mixed with some new ideas and a twist or two keep the story going. It's a flawed epic and won't win any awards, but it certainly will keep you entertained and is well worth the two hour investment.

Forbidden Ground
(2013)

Regretfully unconvincing.
Forbidden Ground is an Australian-made rendition of the plight of British soldiers trapped in no-man's land, and should have been the war epic it was (once) anticipated to be. The unfortunate truth is that it falls short of all expectations, and as a patriotic Australian I take no pleasure in saying it.

From the first moments the small budget is apparent. Close-ups try and disguise the limited scale of the production. The battles in the film are all no more than small skirmishes and never really produced with any flair, impact, or suspense. The constant reliance on CGI for special effects cripples the action, unlike it's predecessor Beneath Hill 60 - which it will surely be compared to - which used mostly practical visual effects and captures gritty violence effectively. As such, when the horror of trench warfare comes along in this film, it is woefully un- engaging, and downright boring in parts. I felt no connection with the men going to their deaths. The obvious computer-generated explosions and squibs left a lot to be desired and had no "punch." It's an anti-war film, as most WWI films are, so you would expect a focus on correctly portraying the shocking waste of war, but Forbidden Ground lacks the budget or know-how to do it properly.

There are some tired clichés including snobby, arrogant officers and the hard-nosed NCO, and while historically accurate in some ways, Forbidden Ground doesn't cast the roles with conviction, simply recycling scenes and minor characters from a dozen better war films. The other problem with authenticity is that most of the cast is Australian, and while our accents may be more or less similar and we often are mistaken for Poms, the actors on show here can't quite make it sound natural and every line feels laborious and forced. If they'd just spoken with their normal accents they would probably have sounded more comfortable with their characters, but alas every Pommy soldier on screen sounds like a caricature of British stereotypes.

Another problem with authenticity is that the unit that is focused on seems to be an amalgamation of British accents. Whether intentional or by accident, units were formed from specific locales (universities, rugby clubs, towns, cities, etc) and would only occasionally be mixed with troops from broadly different locations (casualty replacements).

So the end result is a disappointing straight-to-DVD war drama without any magnetism or flair. I praise the cast and crew for doing what they could to commemorate the war, but I can't recommend Forbidden Ground as good viewing. Better luck next time.

Empire State
(2013)

A barely competent armed blag thriller.
Chris Hemsworth is Chris Potamitis, the eldest child of a Greek immigrant family living in America who thirsts for greater purpose in a world of crime, thuggery and greed.

Always at his side is his stereotypically loud-mouthed, crass mate Eddie, who does not understand why Chris would want to aspire to bigger things. Eddie's attitude reflects that of his struggling family who are constantly bogged down in poverty and surrounded by negativity.

As Chris struggles to do good in the world, he finds himself knocked down a peg when his partner is killed during a robbery after he takes a security guard job, and Chris is once again thrust into a world of crime as he tries to make something out of the situation he's in, eventually leading to greater and more dangerous repercussions than he could imagine.

There's lots of potential in Empire State, and all the elements of a good thriller are here. The trailer certainly set the stage for a grand drama. Unfortunately, this film is less than the sum of its parts. All of the necessary ingredients are in the recipe, but they are delivered without any real bang. Set pieces fizzle, and the tired American stereotypes tested my patience. There are twists that will peak your interest and there is some good character development on Hemsworth's behalf, but it all feels rather unambitious. The narrative never takes the time to slow down crucial moments and transitions from scene to scene of fast-talking Latin-Americans. Visually, the 80s have been better depicted in many other films. Some care and passion in the production process would have created a better product.

Worth the price of admission? Hard to say. It's easy to enjoy if you're not too critical, but there are much better offerings both in the genre and from 2013.

Only God Forgives
(2013)

It is a piece of art, not a thriller.
Think back to 2011 for a moment. When Refn's Drive came up under the radar as an overnight hit and created a legion of breathless fanboys. There was enough energy and excitement surrounding Only God Forgives to echo any number of disappointments in film over the years, and it was galling to have all the potent ingredients of Drive that we've all come to enjoy, but no sooner has the first chapter of OGF concluded than we realise it is a very different sibling of the same family.

With clinical, gory precision, the body count rises quickly with no small measure of subtlety. The surgically composed violence of Drive is dealt out in buckets in OGF, somewhat lessening its impact, but gripping and shocking all the same. In fact, one of the fundamental flaws of OGF, in my opinion, is that it uses too much violence to get the point across, and too little characterisation. There is literally less than six pages of dialogue in the whole film. The focus is entirely visual and aural.

That being said, there's an overwhelming abundance of symbolism for the audience to interpret as they want, which is one of the film's triumphs. The ending is left for you to ponder and its meaning will be different to all viewers. Many seemingly pointless scenes in OGF have strong underlying themes and messages that may not be immediately apparent to you, but will linger in your mind long after the credits have rolled. I can see how the critics are divided with OGF's lack of substance. I understand it. But once you start looking at it as a piece of art rather than a thriller or crime film you will get the most out of it. I think this is the biggest criticism of Only God Forgives. There are no twists and the narrative is very straightforward. It's value lies in its imagery and symbolism, which it does better than anyone else in 2013.

That being said if you're looking for an edge of your seat thriller you'll be disappointed. It certainly hooked me, but not with adrenaline. I was hypnotised by the landscapes and the slow-burning evolution of ideas that were portrayed. It very much has the same pacing as "The Place Beyond the Pines", or "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance." If you enjoyed either of those, you will get something out of Only God Forgives.

Go into the cinema like it's an art exhibit with an open mind and an eye for detail and you will not be disappointed.

Killing Season
(2013)

Retarded from beginning to end. An absolute stinker. Do not watch.
Where to start? Don't second-guess yourself: it's been panned for a reason. It is an ugly, pointless potboiler lacking in brains, charisma and even the slightest hint of excitement. What follows is one and a half hours of very crude torture scenes, mock character development, Macgyver-like scenarios of escape and an abundance of completely unnecessary CGI effects.

It just reeks of "cut and dry". Obviously it was too much effort to spend time on practical special effects so the director just found a cheap CGI company to scribble in the animals, the weapon effects, the squibs, the sunsets, the lighting, and anything else he can think of. Poor direction. Frankly I would think after such long and successful careers that Travolta and De Niro were beneath such roles.

Travolta, as always, brings a kind of raw energy to his role and immerses himself in his character, even if his accent is off he never winks to the audience and does his best to do his job to a good standard. De Niro, however, is out of his element here, with a slipping southern accent that wasn't necessary. He feigns injury like Pierce Brosnan (poorly). Even when threading a metal cable through the exposed wound in his leg he is not convincing.

After a poorly conceived prologue, a taut first act will draw you in, but unfortunately it all goes downhill from there. The sheer excess of symbolism and foreshadowing is a clumsy misfire. Macgyver scenarios pile up quickly and the action climax will have you practically laughing at how stupid it is. Seriously. Don't pay to watch this crap.

This Is the End
(2013)

If you laugh at dick jokes and are under the age of 18 you will enjoy this.
Well, there's lots of profanity, comedic actors feeding off each other, sex jokes, drugs, and excessive use of the word "dick", but nothing really funny.

If you're still in puberty and you're the kind of person who laughs at Uranus jokes and cracks up at the mere allusion to the word penis then you will find something to like. If you have a single braincell in your head and have grown above cheap puberty antics then you'll squeeze nothing from This is the End no matter how hard you try.

The cast seem to think they're funny without any good gags or wit. They feed off each other like a pack of schoolyard kids. The director seems to have given them free reign to improvise at will which results in remarks and unscripted dialogue that fall terribly flat. The sheer reliance on low brow sex humour and use of shock words like "titty f*ck" only reiterates how bad the film is. When they grow tired of the sex jokes and swearing, they turn to drugs and throw in a trip-out sequence that is pointless and witless.

Falls flat on its face in every conceivable way. I laughed while watching the trailer: can't say the same for the actual film. A low point for all cast and crew involved, a downright embarrassment for anyone of reputation to be caught up in. Save your money and watch a cam version online.

Furious 6
(2013)

Did a monkey get access to a typewriter again?
Does any writer actually know what Interpol does? Really? None of them seem to. Most blockbuster hacks like the dribbling baboon that wrote this garbage seem to think it is literally the "international police", but all it takes is a 10 second search and a quick squiz of the wikipedia article to find out Interpol is a bunch of deskbound intelligence analysts and little more - certainly not the gun-tooting American clichés that are depicted in this film.

As a budding writer it astonishes me that stuff like this gets made. There are no literary devices. There is no character arc. No exposition. No personality. It is nothing more than a stunt reel of car chases (some of which, to my frustration, used CGI, the use of which spoils any real tension). There is not a brain cell in its entire two hour body.

Not a single shot to inspire or charm. Not a single moment of inspiration. There is nothing here. It is like ordering a hamburger and getting two slices of bread - where is the meat, and all the things that enhance its flavour? Who are these people on screen I am meant to care about? Why should I care? The movie never even tries to reel you in. It just tosses the net into the sea and hopes to get a catch.

Lack of ideas/authenticity/effort to one side, the story is nothing but a slap in the face to any intelligent adult. What do you do when you have an international crisis on your hands? Do you comb through government employees for savvy specialists, investigators and special forces operatives? Do you source police experts, seasoned FBI detectives and forensic criminalists?

OF COURSE NOT. IDIOT. You recruit a retired bunch of untrained, utterly unqualified, convicted car thieves and thugs to hunt down an international fugitive, because that is the most logical course of action. Makes complete sense.

Then again, in this world every country except America is completely inept at catching crooks and couldn't handcuff a bag snatcher unless Vin Diesel and the Rock were pinning him down.

Oh, and there's British crooks with easy access to automatic firearms in downtown London cooking off rounds like it's going out of fashion. And somehow a bunch of convicted criminals are allowed to carry guns in London without any training/qualifications and nobody bats an eyelid. Very authentic.

Makes Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters look like Gone with the Wind by comparison.

Now You See Me
(2013)

Too much deus ex machina spoils the twists.
Now You See Me is a painstakingly woven thriller that, like a magic trick, is really much less intricate than it seems.

The truly over-the-top set ups left me sceptical that the writer could pull off something amazing, and I was right. He relies on unnecessarily elaborate explanations for events in the story that depend on complex plots, mannequins, and unrealistic escape plans.

SPOILER: There is one scene, the car chase, that had me shaking my head at the sheer lack of imagination. Let me explain: Bad guy escapes in a car. Bad guy is pursued by good guys. Bad guy crashes on a bridge, bursts into flames and dies. BUT as it turns out, the OTHER bad guys had an identical car on the bridge that was ACTUALLY the car that crashed with a cadaver from the morgue inside, leaving the bad guy unscathed. Jesus...really?

Anyway, when the final twist comes around it is a pick-pocketing cheat of a reveal that robs the audience of any chance to solve the mystery before it happens. There is no real explanation given for the motives of the villain. Basically he says "It was me", and there is no discussion as to his motivation whatsoever. It was frustrating to watch it unfold. It was almost like the writer had painted himself into a corner and desperately tried to weave in the true villain at the last moment.

That being said, watching the mystery thicken is entertaining and will keep you glued to the screen, even if you are cheated of your time at the end it is a worthwhile hour and a half, much better spent than other offerings of 2013. Give it a try.

Hummingbird
(2013)

An exploration of the individual journey that doesn't realise it's full potential.
Jason Statham is, for me, a polarising actor. He is gifted with the ability to create vivid characters but instead squanders his career on cheap action clichés. So when Hummingbird aka Redemption showed up on my radar I renewed hope that Statham was going to try and evolve with the times as he starts to age and his action blockbusters become more and more lacklustre.

Hummingbird is a story of belonging in a hard twenty-first century, where a nun and a former soldier are brought together by circumstance and help each other to grow as life intervenes and shakes up the status quo. Statham's character Joey Jones has slipped into a life of destitution when a twist of fate gives him a second chance. With his new found good luck, Joey makes sure to support those who have supported him in his time of hardship, giving money to a nun who ran a soup kitchen in downtown London. She is reluctant to accept his goodwill, knowing where the money had likely come from, but as she gets to know Joey better she finds herself growing more and more attached to him, growing to understand Joey as a human being and challenging her own worldviews in the process.

Along the way of Joey's transformation, he is hired as muscle by a Chinese gang, a job which he reluctantly takes, and which ultimately goes against the morals he decides to adhere to. His nun love interest, Agata Buzek, finds Joey's willingness to support crime repulsive, with it being the major barrier between the two and a relationship.

As his work becomes more and more violent and the world starts to close in on Joey, he is forced to make the decision between becoming a good man and being able to live with himself, or losing that which he truly holds dear. Agata meanwhile is confronted with her life choices with Joey's arrival and is torn between her duty as a nun and her natural instinct to be free.

Hummingbird is a brilliant achievement, injected with emotion, tension, love and passion. Thrills are more of a subplot than anything else. The film's objective is to find peace for its two protagonists and while there is not a typical "happy" ending, it is satisfyingly true to the heart of the characters and ties everything off nicely.

Reviews have been mixed about Hummingbird for a reason, though. A longer running time and better focus on the more thrilling aspects of the story would make it overall more effective. There are certain faucets of the story which don't quite gel as well as they are supposed to, but then again it's important to remember that a Shakespearean love story is very much at the core of Hummingbird, where it belongs.

Trance
(2013)

Doesn't go anywhere.
There's always space on a film company's schedule for a wacky post- modern philosophical thriller designed as critic bait and full of kooky, unusual ideas. Trance is, in parts, that kind of film: uncommon, interesting, and to its credit, inspired, but it fails to live up to the hype.

The ultimate sin is to be boring, and Trance is long overdue for a confession. The first act is a capable, fun, and interesting set-up, let down by a plodding middle that desperately clings to the flimsy premise of the story and forgets to throw in any of that secret herb called suspense that makes a thriller successful. There is no action. There are no sub plots. Just a long continuation of hypnosis scenes, one after the other, and the way I see it, they're just padding for the mucky middle.

You could easily cut out all the irrelevant hypnosis scenes and cram this movie into a 45 minute TV episode. There's so much filler it's insulting. If you're going to make a thriller, you could at least give the audience what they want, ie thrills.

Besides the poor screen writing, the antagonists of the film are just tough guy caricatures. I can't even remember their names. The French bloke is given lots of screen time but he is just uninteresting and there is too much focus on him. I started to feel like McAvoy's character was now in a supporting role in the second and third act. The focus turns mostly on the psychiatrist and Frenchie, and McAvoy just appears for a hypnosis scene now and then. The director has chosen to cut his scenes haphazardly and the result is sometimes confusing - there were some scenes where I couldn't tell what was a flashback/dream and what was actually happening.

I gave up around the 1 hour mark. I found a good quality cam online and I am very glad I didn't pay to watch this. The only good part for me was that Moby song, and I was constantly checking facebook because Trance couldn't hold my interest at all.

The Numbers Station
(2013)

Lazy potboiler accomplishes nothing.
Lazy paragraph of exposition in opening credits? Check. Lazy acting? Check. Lack of literary devices? Check. Unnecessary CGI squibs? Check. Spy clichés? Check. Phone in performance from big movie star? Check.

The Number Stations literally has no reason to exist. I really don't understand why films like this get made. This movie is like those novels from authors you've never heard about sold at petrol stations and supermarkets, the kind of fiction that exists purely to shift a small portion of units to generate some kind of income. A potboiler, really. Just a way to keep food on the table for the screenwriter and add to the revenue streams of the film company, in some small way.

There is precisely nothing exciting, interesting or original about this movie. It's just a copy-paste straight to DVD thriller flick about spies and stuff. Hire the cameramen, find some location to shoot it, get the actors there on time, let's get this crap over and done with and move on with our lives. That's all I got from the Numbers Station. Nothing but a money grab.

No suspense, no flair, no charisma, minimal special effects, actors and directors who don't really care what the end product looks like.

This is why piracy exists, because film companies are so utterly uncompetitive.

90 minutes of your life you won't get back.

Oblivion
(2013)

A memorable sci-fi fantasy world with a human heart at its core.
If there is a soul, it is made from the love we share.

There are many ways to describe Oblivion, but the softly spoken afterword by Tom Cruise's character really makes you feel the human heartbeat of this sci-fi epic.

As always, the trailer is full of explosions and set pieces. Oblivion the movie is an entirely different beast that values a human story and characters that are driven by common purpose. While the cast is tiny, I found much to enjoy from Cruise, Riseborough, Freeman and that Nordic guy from Headhunters who is showing up more frequently in Hollywood blockbusters. Aside from unusually limited screen-time, Morgan and other supporting cast are effective and memorable.

The threads of the plot are well-woven and I won't give anything away, so what I will tell you is to prepare for a powerful journey into the unknown where nothing is what it seems. Explosive set pieces take a backseat for sci-fi philosophy with twists to spare.

Oblivion ticks all the boxes for correct use of literary devices and establishes enough original cannon to stick in your mind long after the credits start rolling. It is a distinct success among the largely abysmal offerings of 2013 so far, don't miss it.

Welcome to the Punch
(2013)

Unnecessarily serious escapist crime thriller.
Hard-nosed cops, blue-grey filters, grimaces, motorcycles, retracted witness statements and incompetent lawyers. Pick your cliché.

Welcome to the Punch generates a modicum of interest with its better- than-average production values and direction. The premise is nothing new, but solid casting and writing could have elevated WttP to heights of accomplishment. Unfortunately, an abundance of silly cop clichés and stereotypes weaken the already thin story. WttP has no hesitation in piling on more of the same that we've seen in a dozen better action films, with none of the flair, charisma or thrills of its source inspiration, and is content with American police absurdity.

Case in point: suited thugs waving about automatic weapons in downtown London. Oh, and as if that wasn't realistic enough for you, our hero James McAvoy (who desperately wants to be American), takes the gun from an Armed Response Officer to chase down the villainous Sternwood (would probably result in an indefinite suspension and/or criminal charges for ol' Jimmy). Sorry, but I just couldn't suspend my disbelief when the film is happy to shovel American clichés onto a British thriller. Just doesn't work.

In another masterstroke of thriller writing, evil villain Sternwood becomes embroiled in a high-stakes shootout in a London hotel room. The odds stacked against him, Sternwood has to be smarter than his adversaries - a conveniently placed PROPANE TANK IN HIS 5-STAR HOTEL ROOM (!) helps tip the odds, and with a single well-placed shot he takes down a swathe of the baddies!

Really? REALLY?

It's precisely that sort of absurdity that spoils any enjoyment Welcome to the Punch may otherwise have.

At least Michael Bay can make absurdity look good!

Olympus Has Fallen
(2013)

Satisfying 90s nostalgia returns with a bang.
The Rock. Die Hard. Speed. Executive Decision. Under Siege.

Olympus brings a lot of classic action flicks to mind, picks and pinches from them, and rolls it all into one big, dumb, explosive shootfest with thrills to spare and a body count so high it would make John Woo baulk.

Gerard Butler stars as a hard-nosed Secret Service agent who has since been removed from the presidents' personal bodyguard after the death of the first lady in a car accident 18 months earlier. He is haunted by his failure and regrets the tragedy every day.

When tensions between North Korea and South Korea start to simmer, a South Korean envoy arrives at the White House to begin discussions with the US as to how to handle the dangerous North.

Unknowingly, the White House has just set in motion events that will lead to the capture of the iconic American building, as NK terrorists have infiltrated the SK envoy, and planned an articulate attack that will capture the president and force him to bend to their will. Only Gerard Butler and his bad American accent can save the day!

Olympus Has Fallen is a fun injection of 90s nostalgia. It wants to be an action movie. It wants to be included in the ranks of Under Siege, The Rock, and other iconic action movies of the 80s and 90s. It most desperately aspires to be a new Die Hard, and while it is significantly better than the newest instalment in that franchise, Olympus can't quite achieve the level of suspense and quality of thrills that the original Die Hard provides, but is certainly a sound standalone action film achievement.

Olympus has glaring plot holes that it skims over and a suspension of disbelief is essential if you are to enjoy it for what it is. Just deactivate your brain, don't think very hard, because if you do you will miss out on the experience.

The film, wanting to continue in the vein of its inspired material, tries not to overindulge in CGI, but ultimately succumbs to temptation considering the massive scale of set pieces and the sheer work involved in practical special effects. Olympus still offers enough squibs and human stuntmen to bring back more of those good memories of Steven Seagal and Nic Cage blasting baddies and jumping from rooftops.

It has flaws, its no Shakespeare, it has bad accents, it has glaringly obtuse Die Hard references, it has Morgan Freeman, but most of all, Olympus has hard-boiled action that will keep you glued to the screen from start to finish and makes your $15 ticket feel valuable.

Give it a try.

The Call
(2013)

Film student direction and a lack of subplots and twists spoil the potential.
"The Call" is an average thriller that promises more than it can deliver. At some points, I wondered how the film could be improved if it was a novel instead of a screenplay, as the writer really did indicate some ability in crafting his characters and developing an engaging story. I thought the villain's understated backstory had so much potential if only a more talented actor were given the role and time allowed to develop his identity. Unfortunately, The Call only offers brief glimpses into his troubled mind that could have been much improved on. The Call is desperate to get to the chase, and rushes through exposition without giving us an insight into the lives and personalities of the cast. There are some interesting characters who are given just minutes (or seconds) of screen time who could have contributed to the plot, like "Terrence", a disturbed but entertaining ex-con who frequently calls our heroine in a drunken stupor. Unfortunately, the potential for a subplot is wasted as Terrence disappears after the first act, never to be mentioned again. He, like many others in The Call, could have helped elevate the film to greater heights than the final cut.

Other than poorly realised characters and a rushed feel, The Call also suffers from childish direction that one would usually expect from a first year film student. Rapid close ups and filters are the order of the day, sapping the energy and excitement from set pieces which should be suspenseful and nail-biting, but are demoted by full-screen close ups of teeth, grimaces and rolling eyeballs for poor dramatic effect.

That being said, it's not all bad. You can see the potential in every scene being steadily wasted by a writer trying to meet a deadline and producers who want to appeal to the limited attention spans of younger audiences.

Oh, and the ending? You'll have to watch it to see just how terrible it is.

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