Movie Review: The Mortal Instruments City of Bones

The horrendous Twilight movies didn’t just make money and leave quietly. They took a giant dump on the world and left skid marks all over so that Hollywood could scrape away the yellow and sell it as gold. The last thing we needed was Twilight spawning a whole barrage of even stupider films targeted towards intellectually vacuous teenagers. But as The Host showed, the trend has clearly declined, and the absence of the shiny soap bar Robert Pattinson would prevent The Mortal Instruments: City of Bones from finding success at the box office.

Based on the Mortal Instruments series by Cassandra Clare, City of Bones is a rare film that invokes an emotion that is seldom felt by audiences – pity. The awfulness of City of Bones’ narrative is explained when you get to know that Harald Zwart, the guy who previously made the Karate Kid and the Pink Panther remakes directed this film. The latter was responsible for pretty much ending Aishwarya Rai’s Hollywood journey, and though it may not reflect on Zwart’s talent as a filmmaker it is nearly impossible to forgive someone who launched Jaden Smith’s career.

The story is formulaic to begin with but the lack of creativity in this film is staggering. Girl begins to see strange otherworldly things. Girl’s parents disappear. Girl discovers that there is a world within our world and that she has a gift. Girl joins a band of other boys and girls with gifts to overthrow the evil dark forces of the other world who want to take over our world. This is as unimaginative as it gets and the only explanation for this film being funded is that the studio is under the impression that Buffy the vampire slayer, Harry Potter, Star Wars and Twilightnever happened. In the film people who aren’t gifted are called ‘mundane’ – it’s a term that can be used to describe the film itself. 

You can’t help but feel bad for the star – Lilly Collins is a gorgeous, talented young girl who clearly thought this film would make her the next Kristen Stewart. It must be frustrating for the poor girl because this is not the first time Stewart stole her thunder – they both had Snow White films last year and Stewart’s version made money, albeit with a little cushion for the pushin’.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: We're the Millers

I get that humor is relative. For some it may mean the dark feisty stings of British satire. For others it means the unbridled entertainment of watching a spider sting a kid in the ball sack, or the unrelenting pleasure of watching said kid kissing women pretending to be his sister and mother. I won’t judge you if you have an appetite for the latter, it’s just that We’re the Millers isn’t nasty entertainment, it’s only nasty.

Director Rawson Thurber made the passably funny Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story ten years ago, so it’s a little surprising that he doesn’t understand what risqué comedy actually is. He simply throws in one offensive gag after another and forgets to make the gags funny. The whole film is an assembly line of grotesque things that the director picks up and shows you and asks if you were offended. This is not comedy, this is lazy filmmaking. Sure, there are some people in the world who laugh just because someone mentions the human body’s nether regions but there are significantly more people who prefer a well written quality comedy over tedious skits. It’s not that you can’t make a comedy by only relying on shock value – Dumb and Dumber and Ace Ventura are just offensive sight gags but somewhere between the smut is also a heart, apart from Jim Carrey’s gigantic funny bone.

Which brings me to another major reason why the jokes fail - the bland cast. Dodgeballhad the consistently funny Ben stiller and Vince Vaughn before he turned into someone who looks like a coke dealer hanging outside schools. We’re the Millers has Jason Sudeikis who is at best a harmless side kick in Saturday Night Live but is as funny and likable as a tumor in a lead role. When he’s not flexing his unfunny muscles on screen, the film relies on its lone joke of Jennifer Aniston being a stripper and pretending to be his wife. It’s not that Aniston is a bore, it’s that she is a sad pathetic mess. The poor thing is clad in stripper clothes but is not only an unconvincing stripper, but is also a really tedious comedienne. Rachel Greene was a one trick pony and this film is even cruel enough to mock this very fact during the end credits.

What really infuriates is the wastage of the gigantic talent of Nick Offerman, who exists in this film only to finger bang the ear of Sudeikis’ character. Ron Swanson is capable of dismantling the innards of your stomach with his hilarious lines, but it looks like he needs to get a new agent.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: The Frozen Ground

Nicholas Cage is a legend. He deliberately stars in bad movies and hams his way to glory to make them entertaining on some bizarre B-film level. So it’s a pity when he takes a break and doles out a decent performance in a terrible film.

The serial killer thriller The Frozen Ground is so clunky a guy who has seen less than five movies in his life could come up with a better script. It is so clichéd and derivative that directly ripping off some other thrillers would still make for a comparatively fresher film. Reminiscent of Chris Nolan’s Insomnia but sans the stellar acting, photography and direction, the film is set in an Alaskan town and is allegedly based on a true story of a guy who killed 20 young women in the 80’s. Cage stars as a cop assigned to catch the killer who is played by a one note, completely unthreatening John Cusack.

To say the film scrapes the bottom of the barrel would be giving it too much credit. Director Scott Walker makes absolutely no effort to make any part of the film interesting or new. The procedural style follows the plot points and tropes of nearly every single serial killer film made in Hollywood. The killer is a mild mannered man with a dark secret. He has a basement. He kidnaps and tortures women. These are scenes shown a zillion times in cinema and it is strange that the filmmakers seem to believe that bathing the audience in a stinky mud of clichés would entertain them. It’s not that we’re perverts and want different or new twisted scenes of torture, but the film neither gets into the mind of the mad man nor keeps us guessing the identity of the killer. There is nothing exciting about watching a film where we know who the killer is and what he would do next.

There’s also Vanessa Hudgens who almost bursts a vein or two in her effort to get out of her Disney persona and play an ‘adult’ character. Her role of a prostitute is so terribly realized and acted it makes you appreciate the stereotypical serial killer victim Ashley Judd character from the 90’s. Perhaps had Cage let fly, hammed to the hilt, stole bicycles, swallowed some bees, worn a bear costume and punched women the film could’ve salvaged some unintentional off-kilter entertainment. As for John Cusack, he needs to stand with a boombox under the window of those who saw this film and apologize.

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Percy Jackson Sea of Monsters

There were problems with the first Percy Jackson film – it was a really bad Xerox copy of Harry Potter. It’s been three years since the first film and one would imagine Hollywood would learn from its mistakes and make the sequel unique and interesting. Sadly Sea of Monsters is also a really terrible copy of Harry Potter, and with worse looking visual effects that the first film.

I do not know how closely Sea of Monsters follows Rick Riordan’s book on which it is based, but the film is such an uninspired, inconsequential waste of resources it doesn’t really matter. It’s hard to figure out whom the film was made for. It’s certainly not for kids because most of the jokes and the story are young adult based, but it’s not a date movie for young adults because the romantic angle is practically nonexistent and the CGI is lame, and it’s certainly not for adults because no self-respecting adult with a day job would step into a movie theater playing such cinematic drivel.

I deign to get into the story details not because I don’t remember much of it but because it would mean crediting the screenwriter for something he didn’t do. What I will mention is that it is a miracle that writer Marc Guggenheim got another job in Hollywood after lending his skills in Green Lantern.

Director Thor Freudenthal fortunately makes the wise choice of keeping the runtime short and the film mostly action packed and urgent. But like in the first film the ancient Greek mythology set in the modern world just doesn’t work on any comedic, fantasy or narrative level. The film looks way too cartoonish but pretends to have an air of seriousness throughout, it makes for a series of very clumsily staged scenes. It is frustrating that a film named Sea of Monsters doesn’t deliver the titular goods - the tiny sea monster battle in Beowulf was more epic than this entire film. Moreover, the big finale is an assault of special effects that is gigantic in scope but fails miserably because of the less than spectacular 3D conversion.

The film’s star Logan Lerman is a massive talent, he was absolutely terrific in last year’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower and he seems to be annoyed with being stuck in a contract in this film. He’s got Darren Aronofsky’s Noah lined up and he makes it clear in Sea of Monsters that he couldn’t give a damn if the film bombs. 

(First published in MiD Day)

The Act of Killing

Genre: Docu Drama | Country:Denmark | Year: 2013 | Dir: J Oppenheimer

Imagine if Hitler didn’t die and lived on to become the supreme leader of Germany, and turned it into his little playhouse to endlessly massacre people whenever he pleased. This is what happened to Indonesia, a country whose history isn't congruent to the beautiful vistas shown on TV. In 1965 the Indonesian government was overthrown by the military, and any citizen who opposed the military dictatorship was accused of being a communist and executed. In less than one year with the direct aid of the army, local gangsters and the CIA, over one million 'communists' were murdered.

Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary The Act of Killing doesn’t just chronicle the horrors of 1965, but takes an insane new direction. It doesn't give us a history lesson but instead taps into the psyche of people who were proud of committing the genocide, and questions how someone who has indulged in unspeakable violence views their actions and dodges guilt. The film focuses on one former executioner, Anwar Congo, who agrees to enact the killings in a faux film about the genocide. At first he and his accomplices are very pleased with what they did, but as the filming and the enactment goes on, he begins to see the horrors he's committed and begins to regret all the brutality of his past. It’s a searing plot device and the film becomes what every documentary sets out to be – something different. An average filmmaker could have made The Act of Killing about the victims but Oppenheimer makes it about the murderers.  

That said, The Act of Killing is a terrifying watch. The scenes where Congo and his friends cheerfully enact the way they killed different people with minimum and maximum suffering is one of the most chilling things you’ll experience in a film this year. In one scene Congo proudly takes a wire and demonstrates the cleanest way to strangle someone. In another scene he wears a cowboy hat and gleefully shows that he executed a man with a coffee table leg on his throat. He even does a cha-cha dance on the rooftop of a building where he slaughtered a dozen people, with no semblance of remorse. Sometimes there was even an orchestra playing as the throats of men, women, and children were slit, and the army encouraged people to kill innocent families. It’s maddening, to say the least. There is surrealism in the reality and reality seeping out of the surreal movie-within-a-movie segments. You end up questioning the definition of reality and justice and makes you wonder if the latter truly exists or even matters in our world.

The film was backed by the legendary Werner Herzog and Errol Morris, and it is not surprising  that it won top honors at the Berlin film festival. Director Oppenheimer does a swell job of making you simultaneously hate, empathize with and even laugh with Congo. The latter part makes you feel guilty when you realize you’re laughing with a mass murderer making jokes about murder, and the fact that the film elicits this emotion in you is testimony to its power. Oppenheimer builds up a crescendo where Congo finally experiences the full force of fifty years of guilt and self-loathing in one long poignant scene. Like Herzog’s own films, it reveals attributes of human nature through the extreme. The irony this film exudes is that Congo the executioner reflects most humans, and that these same people won't recognize that fact.

Every large nation has a bloody secret, and The Act of Killing drives home the message with large doses of the horrific, the funny and the fantastic. It’s a tad disturbing to find the parallels between the horrors charted in this film and the events that transpired in a certain part of India years ago. The head honcho of Indonesia was never tried for his war crimes and continued to become the most influential politico of the country. Many were arrested without trials and many more were killed. Moreover it is now taboo to talk about the incident and it’s become a sort of a public secret that could be erased from history texts. Sound familiar? 

(First published in DNA)

Movie Review: Jobs

Steve Jobs was an enigma. He made products with and for the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the ones who see things differently, the ones who are not fond of rules. You could quote him, disagree with him, glorify or vilify him. The only thing you couldn’t do was ignore him. Because he changed things. He pushed the human race forward. And while some saw him as the crazy one, we saw genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.

The film Jobs, starring Ashton Kutcher is quite unlike its titular visionary. It is not made by the crazy ones, the misfits or the rebels – it is made by people who don’t see things differently, people who follow formula. You can neither quote the film, nor glorify it. The only thing you can do is forget about it. Because it says nothing and doesn’t push the storytelling forward. And while some saw the film as genius, we see a lame cash grab. Because the people who are crazy enough to think this film could change the world are the ones who reach for your wallet when you’re not looking.

Perhaps it’s the case of David Fincher setting seriously high standards with The Social Network. Perhaps it’s the fact that Pirates of the Silicon Valley arrived more than a decade ago and told the exact same story in a much better way. Perhaps it’s because the film doesn’t even try to be factually correct. Perhaps it’s because Kutcher does a caricature of Steve Jobs, content to let his facial resemblance do all the acting. Or perhaps it’s that the film plays like a checklist of Steve Jobs’ Wikipedia page. Perhaps it’s a combination of all of those things, because Jobs simply fails on every imaginable level, tanking at every turn, much like Apple’s Power Mac G4 Cube and the Bandai Pippin. This is neither a film made for the geeks nor for audiences who aren’t familiar with Jobs’ life and persona. This is an extremely lame high school play, made by a bunch of hilariously clueless people who don’t seem to know the concepts of attention to detail and internet backlash.

There’s nothing really more to say about the film, apart from its sheer ineptness oozing through every agonizing second of its excruciatingly long two plus hour runtime. Pointing out each of its flaws would mean typing out a 1000 page document in bold Goudy Stout and thanking Jobs for paying attention to calligraphy and being adamant about including fonts in the word processor. Jobs was extremely impressed with Noah Wyle’s performance in Pirates of the Silicon Valley, he even invited Wyle to 1999's Apple keynote and had him fool the audience. But had he seen this film he’d have critiqued it with his trademark product review triage of words that made him infamous – This is shit. 

(First published in MiD Day)

Movie Review: Kick Ass 2

The biggest reason why I quite enjoyed watching Kick Ass 2 is that Hit Girl watches a boy band music video in disgust and mumbles ‘I would rather be waterboarded that listen to the songs of One Direction’. Hit Girl kicks ass. Even if there is little else in the film to appreciate, Hit Girl makes it a fun and entertaining watch.

A significantly lesser film than the original 2010 hit, Kick Ass 2 offers more of the same, with an amped up sense of nastiness and a smaller heart. That doesn’t necessarily make it an uninteresting movie, given the film’s premise, the characters that inhabit it. The film picks up a year post the events of the previous film, Dave (Aaron Taylor) has had enough of getting his ass kicked and asks Mindy (Chloe Moretz) to train him to be a proper fighter and become a real superhero instead of a mugging embarrassment. Mindy is forced to deal with the choice of being a normal school girl and a crime fighter. Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) is bitter and becomes a supervillain named The Motherfucker to avenge the death of his father. It’s a relatively clichéd plot but the film knowingly employs the familiar story just to suspend it in the crazy whacked out teenage setting.

The previous film had Nicholas Cage in the best role of his career, and Jim Carrey fills the void this time to somewhat middling results. It’s great to see him back on the screen after his decade long slump, but it is sad to see that his star power has been reduced to a sidekick role in a sequel to a minuscule budget film. Director Jeff Wadlow takes over from Matthew Vaughn and offers a lot of the edgy violence but little of the absurdist humor the first film became famous for. The original film established the brash and mean spirited tone, the shock value of kids swearing and punching people, and the interesting theme of the world needing the reassurance of superheroes being around to keep things afloat. The problem with the sequel is that it banks on the very same things to sell itself. More of the same is passable fun, but not satisfying enough to people who loved the first film and look forward to an expanded universe in the sequel. Given Kick Ass’ relatively tiny profit it was a miracle that the sequel got made, and in a way the filmmakers wasted a golden opportunity to create something truly great.

There’s a scene where Hit Girl shoots her crush in his bullet proof vest clad back, and another scene where a villain is defeated by being impaled on shards of glass. You could take these scenes on face value as satiric social commentary, but these sequences give one the impression that the film actually becomes an example of the social issues rather that satirizing the issues. That said, there are plenty of laughs courtesy of Chloe Moretz as Hit Girl. Perhaps one day we’ll see a movie that stars Moretz and Jennifer Lawrence and witness the theater screen explode due to excessive awesomeness.

(First published in MiD Day)