Monday, October 20, 2014

The Book Of Life

Year: 2014
Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Voice cast: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Hector Elizondo, Kate del Castillo

Plot: Two friends compete with each other for the love of one woman, with the keepers of the Land of The Remembered and the Forgotten making a wager on the winner.

Review: I read a review of this film somewhere stating that The Book Of Life is very similar to Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas. I can certainly see why.

The Book Of Life has its roots deep in Mexican culture, particularly on The Day Of The Dead. It begins with a group of kids taking a museum tour, where the tour guide introduces them to The Book Of Life, and tells a story from the book about three friends who grew up in San Angel in Mexico: Manolo, Joaquin and Maria. Manolo and Joaquin are both in love with Maria and compete for her attention, from the time they were kids until they're all grown up. La Muerte, ruler of the Land Of The Remembered and Xibalba, ruler of the Land Of The Forgotten, strike a wager on which of the two men will win Maria's heart. Xibalba tries to cheat by giving Joaquin an edge, and even pulls a few tricks to get Manolo out of the way. Finding himself in the Land Of The Remembered, Manolo has to find a way to get back to the Land Of The Living and win Maria back.

Without a doubt, the best thing about this film is the animation. Director Jorge Gutierrez and producer Guillermo del Toro (the one and only) fill the film with lots of colours, which is immediately attractive and vibrant. The animators even go to great lengths to differentiate the various worlds the film inhabits; the museum characters look normal, the story characters in the Land Of The Living look like wooden puppets and the characters in the Land Of The Remembered look like the Day Of The Dead dolls. Best of all, each character is very detailed and distinct in appearance, so all in all it's just lovely to watch.

But the story has to matter too, and I'm glad to note that it's pretty solid. It's a love triangle obviously, but in this case, both men are essentially good guys, each with their own pros and cons. Manolo is a bullfighter who doesn't want to kill bulls and become a musician instead, but is torn between his love for music and his responsibility to his family tradition. Joaquin wants to be a hero like his late father, but doesn't quite know the finer points of being a hero. In the end, both men will find their path of course, but the journey is what makes it good.

The film is filled with loads of other things worth noting, like the Mexican culture on display, the action (which occasionally moves too fast) and some good comedy (mostly coming from a Mariachi band and Maria's pet pig). There's a lot of music too, which gives it a Disney feel, though personally I didn't dig the songs that much, even though they were written quite well.

I do have a minor complaint to add, that being Joaquin's role overall, which seemed a bit underwritten. Of course, the outcome of this love triangle is quite predictable, but even so, Joaquin deserved a bit more development. If we had that, it would make him a better challenge for Manolo and not seem like a understated character in the second half of the film.

Oh, I forgot to mention the voice talents. They're all good, even though it can get jarring when some of them don't speak in a Mexican accent, but I can overlook this one.

The Book Of Life is a pleasant surprise, and certainly deserves more attention than it's getting. Recommended. (8/10)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Kill The Messenger

Year: 2014
Director: Michael Cuesta
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia

Plot: Based on a true story, this film is about Gary Webb, a reporter who uncovers facts on the CIA trafficking cocaine in America to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.

Review: Kill The Messenger turned out better than I thought it would. But then again, what was I thinking? Jeremy Renner is a solid actor, so this should be great already.

This story takes place in 1996, when Gary Webb, a reporter for a small newspaper company, stumbles on a story that could make his career. He discovers that the government, specifically the CIA, has been buying cocaine from Central America and selling them to the poor and mostly black folk in the country. The money earned is used to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Although urged not to go ahead with it, Gary writes the story and gains fame, at first. Then things start to get ugly when various parties attempt to discredit or silence him, and his integrity and family are jeopardized.

Director Michael Cuesta and screenwriter Peter Landesman deserve plenty of credit for their great work here. Landesman puts in all the important facts (taken from two books, one written by the real Gary Webb) and Cuesta nicely pieces them together and makes it fascinating, thrilling and dramatic at the same time. He wisely inserts real footage of the story in between his own film scenes and keeps the pace taut, so there is not a single dull moment here, even when it's quiet.

Renner is excellent as Gary, presenting him as a man who simply wants to tell the truth, not for fame or fortune, but because he feels it's his job as a reporter to do so. This could possibly be his best role yet. Credit also goes to the supporting cast, namely Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his editor. The former is solid as the spouse who stands by him despite the many things that threaten to destroy their family, the latter also equally good as the editor who is torn between supporting Gary or the paper they both work for. Michael Sheen, OliverPlatt and Andy Garcia also make their presence felt here, and Ray Liotta even manages to impress with a small but unusually low key performance as a CIA informant.

My only gripe is that the film doesn't quite end the way I wanted it to, but I can't say I blame them, facts are facts. I can only say it's kinda sad, but on a brighter note, in a world now focused on invasion of privacy and terrorism, having this story brought to our attention so well by Cuesta and Renner is an astounding achievement.

As far as true stories being adapted to the screen go, no matter how much of this actually happened the way it unfolded here, this is one of the best I've seen. Recommended. (8/10)

Monday, October 06, 2014

Dracula Untold

Year: 2014
Director: Gary Shore
Cast: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance

Plot: An alternate story on how Vlad The Impaler became Dracula, in this case, to protect his family and kingdom from the Turks.

Review: One can't help but be intrigued by the ideas brought forth by the filmmakers behind this piece, especially after seeing the trailer, though it still feels like a B-grade attempt at creating an action horror flick. While the end result is not too shabby, I ought to warn you that it's more like I, Frankenstein than Underworld.

In this retelling of Vlad The Impaler's legend, Luke Evans plays the titular character, who had earned his nickname after being a feared warrior among the Turks who had claimed him when he was a boy and made him who he is. Now he seeks peace with his family and kingdom, only for the Turks to show up and ask for a thousand boys to join them as their soldiers, or Transylvania perishes. Vlad then seeks help from a monster in a cave, who can give him the power to fight the Turks and save his people, but it involves becoming a monster who has an undying thirst for blood.

As far as story goes, director Gary Shore and the writers have come up with a good one, presenting us with a hero who must resist temptation to the dark side in order to do something good. It's a familiar tale but it works nonetheless. At a lean 92 minutes, Shore doesn't overstay his welcome and makes the film watchable overall, and paces it well enough so there's a fine balance of action and substance.

Evans makes a solid hero as Vlad, achieving a nice balance between desperate man and deadly monster. Sarah Gadon is both gorgeous and talented, fitting the role as Vlad's wife well. Dominic Cooper though gets too little screen time as the villain Mehmed, leader of the Turks. Game Of Thrones' Charles Dance is as menacing as ever in the role of the vampire that grants Vlad his power. His time on screen may be short, but he's excellent in every second of it.

The weakness of the film comes from the overreliance of CGI in the second half, when a more practical approach would be best. Lighting and camerawork overall also could have been improved as I found it hard at times to see what's going on. And lastly, maybe the film would benefit more from having a higher rating instead of watering it down to PG13, after all it is Dracula we're talking about.

Dracula Untold is not bad at all if you want entertainment for an hour and a half. I'll admit there have been better vampire stories made, but it's okay to indulge in this. (7/10)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The November Man

Year: 2014
Director: Roger Donaldson
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Will Patton, Eliza Taylor

Plot: A retired CIA operative is called back in on a mission with personal entanglements, only to find himself in a cat and mouse game with his former protege that involves high ranking CIA officials and the next Russian president.

Review: A spy thriller involving former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan? That alone would pique anyone's interest, knowing what Brosnan is capable of as an action man. It's unfortunate however that it falls short of expectations.

Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, an ex CIA agent called back in on a mission that involves extracting his former lover from Russia. However the mission goes south, and not only does she wind up on the wrong end of a bullet, Devereaux learns that his former apprentice, Mason is the one who pulled the trigger. Then he finds out that she has information about the next Russian president that could end his campaign, and it involves people whom Devereaux used to work for.

The last time Roger Donaldson directed a CIA type thriller, it was The Recruit, which was interesting as far as spy thrillers go. While The November Man has a lot of potential, Donaldson doesn't quite use it effectively. The action sequences are decent enough and the feel of a spy thriller movie is there, but it failed to impress me as much as I hoped. It starts off well enough but begins to lose its way at the half mark, and then races to a messy and rushed ending which doesn't quite satisfactorily wrap the film up.

Acting wise, Brosnan at least is in top form here. Aside from Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington (who both have films currently running now), you can't do better than having Brosnan in this role of a retired spy getting back in the game. The same can't be said however for Luke Bracey as Mason. Bracey resembles a younger Richard Roxburgh, only not as charming. Bracey is quite bland actually, which is a pity. Olga Kurylenko shows up as the pretty face for the film, and being a former Bond girl, she fits right in.

The film also has a couple of other problems, one being the choppy storytelling in the second half, which threw me off the story for a bit. The other problem is a scene where Brosnan and Bracey are face to face with a woman in between, and here the former almost seemed like the villain all of a sudden. The relationship between the two men was poorly explored, which robbed any opportunity for the audience to understand them better, and as to why they do what they do.

The November Man isn't a bad film, in fact it's decent. I just wish Donaldson tightened it up better, then we would have something really cool here. (6/10)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Equalizer

Year: 2014
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Moretz, Melissa Leo

Plot: A man who has left his checkered past behind decides to help a young prostitute escape her violent pimp, only to cross the path of the Russian mob.

Review: The Equalizer is based on the hit TV show of the same name back in the 80s starring Edward Woodward as a man who acts as a problem solver and protects the weak and innocent from bad guys. In this version, Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall, a guy who works at the hardware mart by day and reads books at the 24 hour diner by night. He comes to the aid of Alina, a young prostitute who was beaten by her pimp and hospitalised. By solving her problem, in violence, he incurs the wrath of the Russian mob, who wants payback.

Director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk go to great lengths to expand McCall's character, spending a good amount of time showing us his day to day life as an everyman at the hardware mart. They describe him as an unassuming man, quiet yet helpful, but at night he's a guy that spends time reading at the 24 hour diner, a man who hardly sleeps and is somewhat obsessive compulsive. If you're the kind of viewer who loves seeing action sequences every five minutes, you won't enjoy this film. But if you like lots of meat to go with the action Fuqua is serving, you'll like this.

Speaking of the action sequences, Fuqua and company did the right thing by giving the viewers practical stuff, not over the top, illogical crap we get from other films. McCall is a guy that can take people out using various objects around him, and with great ease. He's violent, yet quick and resourceful, reminiscent of Jason Bourne or Taken's Bryan Mills. It does take some patience to enjoy the action here, but it's well worth it. The final confrontation between McCall and the Russians is pretty cool.

Washington, as usual is in top form here, displaying the same kind of heroism we've seen in Man On Fire and The Book Of Eli, except he's more calm and collected than he's ever been, even when he starts spilling blood. This could be one of his best roles yet. Marton Csokas, no stranger to playing a villain, does a great job as well portraying Teddy, the Russian thug sent to take out McCall. Chloe Moretz is good as Alina the hooker, but gets much less screen time than I expected, which is a shame. Fuqua chose to focus the majority of his film on Washington's McCall, who not only spends time facing the Russians, but also sticks up for his co-workers who are in trouble (hence the 'equalizer' quality).

The film does suffer a bit from the lengthy runtime, made worse by the numerous endings in its final moments. While I enjoyed the efforts made by Fuqua relating to character development and background stuff, a bit of editing wouldn't hurt.

This is a sure winner from Denzel and Fuqua. Oh, and do watch out for a surprise appearance from Bill Pullman, whom I've not seen in a long time. Recommended. (8/10)


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