Film Review: The Hungover Games & The Starving Games

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 22nd April 2014.

Beginning with the hilarious Airplane! (AKA Flying High) in 1980, Hollywood has built a fine tradition of spoofing itself through parody movies. Actually, I’ve just reread that last sentence. I think I’ll start again.

Beginning with the hilarious Airplane! (AKA Flying High) in 1980, Hollywood has a tradition of spoofing itself through parody movies which have suffered from the law of diminishing returns. Sure, there have been a few spikes in quality such as The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad (1988) starring the iconic Leslie Nielsen and um…well, every other comedy he made after that, but the rest of the pack over the past thirty years has been pretty much miss and miss.

I recommend that you look up one of Nielsen’s pre-comedy performances. A noted dramatic actor before he started carrying a fart gun twenty four seven, it’s impossible not to laugh at his ultra serious delivery style, which strangely is also the same as his subsequent comedy style.

The thing about parodies is that they are really cheap to produce compared to a Hollywood blockbuster. Even a bomb at the box office will easily slide into the black with DVD sales and downloads. Unfortunately, for the two latest parodies to hit the straight to DVD shelf, jokes must have been at a premium, because both of these abominations are low budget in every way.

Teen box office smash The Hunger Games has spun off not one, but two parodies. In the spirit of Easter, I have watched them so you don’t have to. You’re welcome.

The Hungover Games combines The Hangover Franchise (already a comedy, I know) with The Hunger Games. Four unknown actors have received their “big breaks” impersonating Bradley Cooper’s Phil and so on. What’s more irritating than Zach Galifanakis? Well that would be someone pretending to be Zach Galifanakis.

Instead of losing Doug in Las Vegas or Thailand, our heroes are instead thrown into The Hungover Games, a battle to the death between various Hollywood franchises including Thor, Carrie, zombies, The Lord of the Rings, 300, Avatar and Ted. Featuring cameos from the incredibly unfunny Tara Reid, Jonathan Silverman and Jamie Kennedy, this film is simply awful. Shot in what appears to be a park in Los Angeles, no-one seems to care when street lights are visible in the background, nor when a car drives up the said street.

As an indicator of the humour blackhole that is The Hungover Games, here are the “sidesplitting” new names of The Hunger Games characters: Katnip, Effing White, Skip Bayflick and Justmitch.

The Starving Games is only slightly better, earning just a handful of titters and maybe a smirk. Following the original storyline more closely, our hero must battle for survival, with not only her life at stake but also prizes including an old ham, a coupon for a footlong sub and a partially eaten pickle.

Shot with a Z grade cast in probably the same park as its counterpart, the film also features ho-hum appearances from The Avengers, Thor, the Na’vi, Harry Potter and The Expendables. For your convenience, here are The Hunger Games alter egos: Kantmiss Evershot, Effoff and President Snowballs.

A sure sign of a terrible comedy is when the bloopers are funnier than the film. Unfortunately, that’s the case for both of these disasters. Avoid at all cost, but if you are a sucker for punishment, ensure that you forget your Hungover / Starving Games experience immediately, Barry O’Farrell style.

Film Review: Pompeii

This column was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 8th April 2014.

Pompeii is the latest 3D action epic from English director Paul W. S. Anderson. Not to be confused with Paul Thomas Anderson (There Will Be Blood, Magnolia, The Master, Boogie Nights) who is a director of repute with a body of brilliantly crafted motion pictures, Anderson is generally a director of disposable eye candy with a preference for exploding bodies, usually of the zombie kind.

Milo (Game of Thrones’ Kit Harington) is a slave forced to become a gladiator in Pompeii, where he attracts the eye of Cassia (Australian actress Emily Browning), the daughter of the city’s ruler Severus (Jared Harris). Unfortunately, Cassia is betrothed to the Roman Senator Corvus (Kiefer Sutherland). As the battle for her heart becomes physical, proceedings are interrupted by a natural disaster, namely the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Does this plot sound familiar? Yep, it’s the storyline from Titanic, ripped off wholesale and transplanted to sword and sandal land. Where James Cameron’s epic benefitted from strong performances from a talented cast, in particular the magnetic Kate Winslet and star on the rise Leonardo DiCaprio (I can’t really explain Billy Zane), Pompeii suffers from a uneven lineup of thespians ranging from emerging star Harington (treading water in a role not far removed at all from his character in Game of Thrones) to the scenery chewing antics of Sutherland (who is easily next in line to replace his father Donald Sutherland as cinema’s bad guy de jour). Even the usually reliable Browning, who shone in the mediocre Sucker Punch and the arduous Sleeping Beauty, can do little but look concerned.

Pompeii is director Anderson’s fourth foray into using 3D cameras (as opposed to post- production rendering) which I found surprising as the film rarely popped on the screen and reminded me of the disastrous 3D conversion of Clash of the Titans. Besides a singular moment when the guy next to me and I ducked to avoid a flying log, the visuals lacked a depth of field and I pretty soon forgot that I was watching a 3D movie. Lots and lots of CGI ash falling in 3D is hardly a reason to force me to wear those annoying glasses for ninety minutes.

Pompeii has flopped at the US box office so far with a meagre $10 million taking on its first weekend. With a $100 million budget to recoup, plus marketing expenses, German production house Constantin Film may well have a disaster (about a disaster) on its hands.

With the majority of the cast reduced to the famous death casts that can be found in museums (although I understand that these were actually produced by injecting plaster into the spaces left by decomposing bodies but hey, it’s a Paul W. S. Anderson film) and the credits rolling, I left the cinema with a feeling of positivity and hope. At least there can’t be a sequel.

Film Review: Sneezing Baby Panda: The Movie

This review was published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 6th May 2014.

In 2006, a sixteen second clip of a baby panda sneezing was uploaded on to YouTube.
195,875,796 views later (as of today), the viral video has generated hundreds of tribute and parody spin-offs and was named one of YouTube’s Best Fifty Videos by Time Magazine. Although uploaded by a fan, the original footage was taken by Australian documentary filmmakers Lesley Hammond and Jenny Walsh, who have now unleashed upon the world, Sneezing Baby Panda: The Movie. A cynical cash-in perhaps, but after sitting through this bizarre motion picture, I would suggest that they just relax and enjoy their YouTube royalties instead.

Billed as a mockumentary, SBP:TM is the cinematic equivalent of rogue taxidermy. My best description of this strange creature is a doco-narrative-comedy (pronounced “rubbish”).

Our sneezing panda, Chi Chi, portrayed by renown panda thespian Tai Shan (the first panda born at the National Zoo in Washington D.C.) tells us about his life through the irritating voice over work of Jane Ubrien. Via the magic of editing, footage of pandas doing stuff has been crafted to produce a storyline, of sorts. To add “fun”, sound effects have also been added. All that’s missing is Jo Beth Taylor. Think a panda farting is funny? Trust me, it is less so by the fourth time.

To add a human element to the film, we also follow zoologist Marnie Tyler (Amber Clayton) who is attempting to secure Chi Chi for the fictitious Ullamulla Zoo (the only zoo in Australia that is entirely run by two people). The only problem is that she has no idea where in China the panda resides. Rather than do some research online (she knows how the internet works because we see her watching that damn video a dozen times) Marnie simply purchases an airline ticket and begins her quest on foot, asking bemused Chinese locals if they recognises Chi Chi from a photo. Did I mention that the UN is also in hot pursuit? They apparently need a live panda too.

The 2008 earthquake in Sichuan Province which jeopardised two hundred and eighty pandas at the Wolong National Nature Reserve and killed one is an enclosure collapse is briefly touched upon. I would have happily sat through a documentary about this event, but instead we have pandas falling in love, being bullied by “thug” pandas and copious unfunny clips of historical, sporting and cultural events with a panda digitally inserted, Forrest Gump style. Don’t ask me to explain the dinosaurs either.

The novelty wears thin really, really quickly and SBP:TM’s eighty nine minute run time drags. I would happily endure the same amount of time watching unedited footage of pandas doing their thing in the wild, or even better still, the uber-cute Amber Clayton washing her car and doing the grocery shopping.

There is nothing in SBP:TM that cannot be found in the sixteen seconds of the original viral video. This point is made even more obvious when the original clip is show multiple times throughout the film. I stopped counting at twenty.

With distribution deals in China sealed and other international territories in negotiation, the makers of Sneezing Baby Panda: The Movie may well have the last laugh, or sneeze.

Published in: on May 12, 2014 at 00:15  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Chef

This review was originally published in the Central Western Daily on Tuesday 13th May 2014.

There really should be a warning on the poster of John Favreau’s Chef that informs cinema goers that they must eat before attending a screening. Because if you wander into a midday screening like I did, with nothing but a coffee in the tank, the onscreen depictions of some of the most gorgeous cuisine ever will have you feeling hungry and cheated by your overpriced bland popcorn.

Carl Casper (Favreau) is a chef stuck in a creative rut. Once considered a promising talent, he is now struggling to hold his family life together and work in a restaurant where the owner, Riva (Dustin Hoffman), insists on the same menu day in and out. When a war of words with food blogger Ramsey Michel (Oliver Platt) gets out of hand, Casper loses his job and his only option appears to be a dilapidated food truck which he must renovate and then drive from Miami back to Los Angeles with his son Percy (Emjay Anthony) and fellow chef Martin (John Leguizamo), stopping to serve hungry mouths along the way.

Favreau, most recently at the helm of the bloated Iron Man 2, returns to his independent film roots with this delicious morsel of cinema. Part road comedy, part family drama, part MasterChef, Chef has an all star cast. With supporting turns from Scarlett Johansson, Bobby Cannavale, Sofia Vergara and Robert Downey Jr, the film could easily have become a messy ensemble pic, but Favreau smartly keeps the focus on his bearlike protagonist.

To prepare for the role, Favreau apparently spent months working his way up from a kitchen hand to qualified chef and it shows on screen. The opening scenes of Casper preparing ingredients, including a whole pig, in his kitchen will have your mouth watering, unless you are a vegetarian (or a pig). By the time you witness the most amazing depiction of a cheese toastie being made, you’ll be wishing that the candy bar sold sliders and cuban sandwiches.

Casper is a genius in the kitchen but not so strong in the family and fatherhood department. When forced to accept help from his estranged wife’s ex-husband (Downey Jr) in a hilarious scene, the dirty taco truck he accepts is his salvation, career-wise and more importantly, for his relationship with his son. Once on the road, the father and son bonding scenes are heartwarming, without stepping into saccharine territory.

With a soundtrack to die for, Chef is a gem amongst the bangs and crashes of endless superhero movies. With uniformly strong performances throughout, Favreau has crafted a concoction that is as tasty and satisfying as the dished created on the screen. Highly recommended.

Published in: on May 12, 2014 at 00:12  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Transcendence

This review was originally posted at The Orange Post on Sunday 11th May 2014.

The problem with movies entrenched in the technology of the day is that they do not age well. As with last year’s godawful Paranoia (smart phones, wow!) technology soon surpasses the “future” depicted onscreen, rendering the film irrelevant (Hackers) , or at best, a museum piece for us to gawk at with amusement (The Net).

Conversely, every decade or so produces a standout film foreboding the dangers of artificial intelligence. In the sixties, we had (arguably) 2001: A Space Odyssey. The seventies gave us Westworld and the eighties, WarGames. Terminator 2: Judgment Day sprung for the nineties, and the last decade produced er, Eagle Eye.

I’m not sure yet which category Transcendence will eventually fall, but for the moment, let’s just call it a thoughtful slow burner of a sci-fi thriller, with legendary cinematographer Wally Pfister firmly in control of proceedings until the very last reel, when it all gets a bit silly.

Will and Evelyn Caster (Johnny Depp and Rebecca Hall) are brilliant computer nerds who have developed an artificial intelligence system known as PINN. Alongside their colleague Max Waters (Paul Bettany), the scientists struggle with the ethical consequences of their work, however, when Will is fatally injured by anti-technology extremists, led by Bree (Kate Mara), they are forced to upload him into the digital work, a process known as transcendence. As the online Will grows exponentially into an omnipresent “god”, government officials Buchanan and Tagger (CIllian Murphy and Morgan Freeman) attempt to shut the experiment down. But how do you switch off god?

Pfister is best known for his cinematography work alongside director Christopher Nolan on the Dark Knight Trilogy and Inception. On his directorial debut, Pfister has assembled a cast to die for, and even manages extract a nuanced performance from the usually mugging Depp.

As expected, Transcendence looks beautiful, particularly the scenes set in New Mexico. The CGI is flawless and believable within the context of the storyline.

Throughout the screening I kept thinking that the film could so easily have been the pilot episode of TV’s Revolution, or a prequel to the Terminator films. Perhaps it is proof that the film is a little too slow paced that my mind was wandering slightly, but overall, Transcendence worked for me. A box office failure worldwide, I hope it eventually finds an audience in the home video market.

With this promising directorial effort, I look forward to Ffister’s next project.


Published in: on May 12, 2014 at 00:09  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Bad Neighbours

This review was originally published on the Orange Post on Monday 5th May 2014.

Bad Neighbours certainly has a fine comedy pedigree with Nicholas Stoller (writer of the recent 2 Muppets films and director of Forgetting Sarah Marshall) at the helm, and dependable comedy writers Seth Rogan and Evan Goldberg in the producer seats. The good news is that the film (entitled Neighbors in the US) is one of the better comedies in recent years, with star comedy turns from Rose Byrne and Zac Efron.

Mac and Kelly (Rogan and Byrne) are a newlywed couple settling in to their first home with a new baby. Struggling with the loss of their independence and social lives, their peace and quiet is soon disrupted by the purchase of the house next door by college fraternity Delta Psi, led by the all testosterone, no brains Teddy and his second in command, Pete (Dave Franco). Initially the couple attempt to ingratiate themselves as the cool parents next door but it soon turns into an all out war.

There are actually three films I’d be happy to sit through at play here: the generation X parents struggling to hang onto their youth, neighbours at war and frat boy leader Teddy stepping into the adult world where drinking, drugs and the social pecking order of Delta Psi is irrelevant. Combined into one film, I was often distracted by my brain wanting to follow a particular plot further, but the jokes and gags, mostly filthy and bawdy, come so often that you’ll be laughing too much to care (much).

Rogan is his usual teddy bear of a man-child character, but the film is almost stolen by Byrne, who shows remarkable comedy timing. Already tested in the ensemble waters of Get Him to the Greek and Bridesmaids, Byrne proves that she deserves more comedy leads. Zac Efron draws plenty of laughs and pathos as the muscly but rather doughy Teddy. Is there nothing Efron can’t do?

Although the humour may be a little filthy for some, Bad Neighbours is a solid comedy that is all worth your time. In an era where crappy parodies take up too much space in the multiplex, this one deserves attention.

Film Review: The Lego Movie

This film review was published in The Central Western Daily on Tuesday 1st April 2014.

Everything is indeed awesome in The Lego Movie, a surprise package that will delight young audiences and the young at heart. Originally mooted as one of a slew of toy based flicks, including the flop Battleship and the abandoned Monopoly, it was anticipated that a film based on Danish construction bricks would be all concept and no fun for anyone over ten, however, I had a great time and was pleased to be swept away in a fun storyline with a bunch of well written and memorable plastic characters.

I have a mate who is an adult Lego collector. Once his pricey kits are constructed and displayed, that’s how they will stay forever. Strangely, that’s exactly what The Lego Movie plot rallies against with our hero Emmett (Chris Pratt), an ordinary Lego mini-figure, drawn into a rebellion opposing the controlling Lord Business (Will Ferrell). With his new allies, the Master Builders (those with the power to create anything out of Lego bricks without instructions), Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman), Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), Unikitty (Alison Brie) and an ultra serious Batman (Will Arnett), Emmett struggles with the notion of being “special” on an adventure which spans the Lego universe.

There’s a local connection to The Lego Movie. Australian studio Animal Logic are responsible for the animation. I found the stop motion style of animation jarring for the first thirty seconds of the film, but my brain adapted quickly and was soon revelling in the delightful visual style of a world completely composed of plastic bricks.

The appeal of the film for me lies in the humour of the screenplay by the screenwriting / directing team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs) and the all-star voice cast. How can you top a supporting cast of characters voiced by Liam Neeson, Cobie Smothers, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill? There’re plenty of cameos too, including one which was particularly close to my heart. I won’t spoil it for you (think Kessel Run).

The gags fly thick and fast, and I’m certain that the flick warrants another sitting to catch all the laughs. There are jokes to appeal to all ages as well as a decent helping of sight gags and slapstick that will be universally appreciated.

My only minor gripe is a slightly saccharine ending that tarnished my overall immersion into the Lego universe. However, the momentum of the fantastic fun to be had gets The Lego Movie over the finish line and will have you salivating for the inevitable (and already greenlit) sequel.

Just a word of warning that the bubblegum pop theme tune is as catchy as it is irritating. It is impossible to leave the cinema without having “Everything is Awesome” stuck in your head for days.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 23:11  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: The Raid 2

This film review was originally published on The Orange Post on 29th March 2014.

Welsh director Gareth Evan’s The Raid (2011), shot in Indonesia, is easily one of the best martial arts action flick ever committed to film. With a simple, video game-like structure, policeman Rama (the kinetic Iko Uwais) must fight his way from the ground floor of a criminal infested tower block, all the way to the boss fight at the top. Featuring wince inducing bone crunching action sequences, The Raid found a small but enthusiastic audience on DVD.

Two years later, Evans returns with The Raid 2. Picking up minutes after the final moments of the original, our hero Rama is thrust undercover into a criminal melee between the Japanese Yakuza, local Indonesian mafia and crooked cops, or something like that. Don’t ask me to explain the plot any further. It’s the action that counts.

With a more complex and sprawling plot structure (and obviously a bigger budget), Evan’s is able to transfer his now iconic visceral action to more locations, including a car chase scene which had the premiere audience applauding and cheering.

Featuring new villains, including the rather obviously named (but deadly nonetheless) Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, The Raid 2 does not disappoint, but be warned, it is not for the faint hearted. Is it better than the original film? Perhaps not, but it is easily on par and will be hard to top in the action flick stakes this year. Highly recommended.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 23:09  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Noah

This film review was originally published on The Orange Post on 29th March 2014.

“Visonary” director Darren Aronofsky’s latest opus is his take on the Biblical tale of Noah and the Ark. With an uncredited original story by, well, God, screenwriters Aronofsky and Ari Handel have concocted a strange, convoluted film that frankly left me cold. A humourless concoction, it’s part Transformers, part The Shining and part Gladiator, which deviates too far from traditional takes on the story for religious folk and is way too weird for everybody else.

Noah (Russell Crowe in serious mode) and his family are the world’s first vegans, scratching amongst the rocks for tasty lichens and moss, when word comes from “The Creator” (God is never mentioned by name throughout the whole picture) that the human race will be wiped out by a worldwide flood. Descendants of Methuselah (Anthony Hopkins playing a wizened man, much like his role in Thor: The Dark World), they are tasked with building an ark to save the innocent, that is, the animal kingdom.

At this point, the unbalanced nature of the film reveals itself. With a forest miraculously springing up around them, the ark is suddenly built in a single edit, with not a montage in sight. This is all due to the assistance of “The Watchers”, archangels trapped on earth, encrusted in stone. Think rock Transformers. A jarring instrument, I’m not surprised that they do not appear in the film’s trailer.

As the leader of the ancestors of Cain (as in Cain and Abel), Ray Winstone as Tubal-cain is appropriately nasty. Knowing that the ark is his people’s only salvation, their attempt to hijack the Ark is thwarted by the Transformers, er, Watchers with only Winstone sneaking aboard.

With the ark ready, we are rushed along to the flood and onto an inordinate amount of screen time at sea.

Once on the ark, the films takes a turn to The Shining territory with Noah determined to put an end to the human race with a plan that will result in the demise of his wife (a gaunt Jennifer Connolly), his sons Ham (logan Lerman), Shem (Douglas Booth) and Japheth (leo McHugh Carroll) as well as his pregnant adopted daughter Ila (Emma Watson). Although Aronofsky’s decision to give us the story from Noah’s perspective is admirable, it is pretty hard for the audience to empathise with any of the lead characters, particularly when the titular protagonist becomes the antagonist midway through the feature.

As for the CGI animals, they indeed enthusiastically board the ark two by two and then are promptly put into magic hibernation. I guess that saves on the catering problems. With Emma Watson’s Ila becoming pregnant pre-flood and giving birth on board, the menagerie must have been pretty hungry after nine months of sleeping. Add to this gap in logic a bunch of mysterious glowing fire making stones dug up from the Garden of Eden and you have a fairly simple premise that is sunk (pun intended) by too many elements, including Noah’s quick turn into alcoholism.

The performances are all uniformly strong, although the script often slides into melodrama. Crowe is deservedly the lynchpin of the film, but I would have appreciated just a hint of humour or warmth.

By the end of the two hour flick, I was yearning for dry land and the inevitable incest dilemma (both animal and human) to commence. Worn thin by this curious beast of a motion picture, I wholeheartedly agreed with Noah when he proclaimed, “We are all being punished.”

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 23:05  Leave a Comment  
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Film Review: Wolf Creek 2

This film review was originally published on The Orange Post on 5th March 2014.

Back in 2005, I wandered into a screening of Greg Mclean’s Wolf Creek to discover that I was the only person in the cinema. What followed was a visceral horror experience that I loved and hated at the same time. Nine years later, John Jarratt’s iconic serial killer Mick Taylor is back and unfortunately, the shock value has gone and for horror fans it’s more of the same.

Wolf Creek 2 opens with everyone’s favourite ocker pig hunting psycho encountering a pair of highway patrol police. With Mick in the interesting position of the bully being bullied, I was hopeful for a change of direction in the franchise with the killer switched into the protagonist role, or at least being portrayed as the underdog.

An exploding head or two later, it became clear that this was not to be, as the audience was instead taken back to familiar territory, both figuratively and literally.

Remember that point in the Elm Street series where Freddy Kruger jumped the shark and transformed from a mysterious killer into a wisecracking comedy character? I would place it somewhere between the third and fourth instalments. With Wolf Creek 2, Taylor has already become a walking and talking cliche. Swear a bit then stab someone in the spine. Decapitate a backpacker and give us your catchphrase. Repeat ad nauseum for 106 minutes and you have yourself a box office hit.

As our doomed tourists, Shannon Ashlyn, Phillipe Klaus and Ryan Corr are perfectly fine, although a lack of introduction time meant that I cared very little when the stabby stabby stuff began. The charismatic Jarratt once again disappears completely into his most famous character to date. With his unnerving laugh and hatred for all things carrying a backpack, Mick Taylor deserves a better second outing.

For the majority of the film, there is simply no tension. The claret flows freely but besides a few wincing moments of gore, there is little to make you want to watch through your fingers, unlike the original. A road chase scene harking back to Steven Spielberg’s Duel and the final twenty minutes which involves a pub quiz with the highest stakes ever are suggestive of a much more terrifying experience that I would have preferred to see.

Published in: on April 6, 2014 at 22:52  Leave a Comment  
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