Sunday, January 15, 2017

Patriots Day

Year: 2016
Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, John Goodman, Kevin Bacon, J.K. Simmons, Michelle Monaghan, Alex Wolff, Themo Melikidze, Michael Beach


Plot: Based on the true story of the Boston Marathon bombings on April 19, 2013, from the points of view of the Boston police, victims and the bombers, and the manhunt that led to the bombers' capture.


Review: A quick follow up to the recent Deepwater Horizon, Peter Berg and Mark Wahlberg's Patriots Day is a more solid piece of work. Despite the strong qualities of the former, the result was underwhelming for me and it underperformed at the box office. This latest effort proves to be much better.

Patriots Day can be divided into two parts; the first being the morning that leads into the Boston Marathon and the blast, and the chaos that followed, and the second being the bombers' attempt to flee as the police and FBI organize an intense manhunt to nab them. Berg, who also co-wrote the screenplay, directs this film extremely well, keeping the flow of the story steady and never stalling too long at any time.

What I liked the most about Patriots Day however, is Berg's slick move to establish multiple points of view of the entire story. We get the police, the FBI, the victims and the bombers themselves, each with believable stories to tell. While the film is essentially a drama, it also works as a thriller, with two blood pumping set pieces; one being the blast and the other an intense firefight between the bombers and the police later on in the film, which is by far the best scene of them all.

Mark Wahlberg excels in the role of Tommy Saunders, which is a fictional role, an amalgamation of Boston cops during that time. While Wahlberg is great here, one cannot overlook the work of veterans like John Goodman as the police commissioner, Kevin Bacon as the FBI agent in charge and J.K. Simmons as the sergeant who shot one of the terrorists in the firefight. Also worth mentioning is Jimmy O. Yang as Dun Meng, a Chinese guy whose act of bravery after being carjacked by the bombers is admirable. Alex Wolff and Themo Melikidze also shine as the pair of Muslim brothers who executed the attacks. Basically, the entire cast brings their A game to the field, and the film works because of that.

Berg has certainly done his homework very well here, as nearly every aspect of the story is covered and it all comes together perfectly, making Patriots Day much closer to Lone Survivor than Deepwater Horizon in terms of quality. As a viewer, I felt like I was immersed in that world for the film's entirety, and I was genuinely concerned for everyone, from the cops to the victims. It's a compelling story and very well told.

As with previous Berg true stories, he makes time for the real faces to step forward at the end, and though I appreciate the effort, I felt it would be better if he made this part a bit more concise. Still, it doesn't ruin the film significantly, and it's something I can easily forgive.

Overall I was incredibly pleased by Patriots Day, a welcome return to form by Peter Berg. It's undoubtedly one of the best films of the year, and it's only January. (8.5/10) 

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

A Monster Calls

Year: 2016
Director: J.A. Bayona
Cast: Lewis MacDougall, Felicity Jones, Liam Neeson, Sigourney Weaver, Toby Kebbell


Plot: A young boy whose mother is suffering from terminal cancer befriends a tree monster who helps him deal with his grief.


Review: First things first. If you're thinking this film is similar to kiddie movies like The BFG or Pete's Dragon, you are seriously mistaken. This is not THAT kind of film. A Monster Calls may be a fantasy film, but it is not the cute type. In fact, it deals with some very serious issues, like life and death.

Connor is a young boy whose mother is suffering from cancer. Her condition grows worse day after day, and he tries to stay strong, but it isn't easy, and getting picked on by bullies at school certainly doesn't help. His overly strict grandmother drives him up the wall with her rules as well. One night, he encounters a tree monster outside his house. The monster offers to tell him three stories, and in return Connor has to tell him the truth about his nightmare, which keeps him up at night.

The theme of the film, about death and how to deal with it, may seem bleak, but director J.A. Bayona presents the subject matter in a way that never seems cliched or too tragic, and he certainly doesn't dumb it down for the audience. It's so effective that those of you who have ever lost someone will certainly relate to this. Heck, even the best cynics will probably choke up by the film's end.

The best moments of the film are when the monster tells his stories to Connor, which Bayona illustrates to us via water color graphics, which look really beautiful despite its simplicity. Connor himself sketches from time to time, so art definitely plays a significant part in this film. Speaking of the stories, they are good tales that will teach a thing or two about life, people and what we believe.

Fourteen year old Lewis MacDougall is simply superb as Connor, displaying a level of acting that would put many adult actors out there to shame. He makes Connor really easy to relate to and sympathize with, and in the film's climax, he's in such a way that you can't help but want to give the boy a hug. Lewis is gonna be a big deal in the future. Felicity Jones also puts in great work as Connor's sickly mother, a far cry from her lead role in Rogue One. Liam Neeson is also a perfect choice to voice the monster, which by the way looks like Treebeard from LOTR, but less menacing.

Sigourney Weaver is solid as Connor's grandmother, but I wonder why Bayona cast her when they could have picked an English actress, which for me would have been less distracting. Not that Weaver can't pull off an English accent, it just wasn't obvious enough. Toby Kebbell also shines as Connor's dad, but his subplot seemed extraneous to me, as it doesn't really affect the final outcome.

In the end, A Monster Calls is a cathartic film that convincingly deals with a subject most of us know about but most likely avoid thinking about. Like Pixar's Inside Out, it will stir all the right emotions and touch your heart. Recommended. (8.5/10) 

Sunday, January 08, 2017

Arrival

Year: 2016
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Amy Adams, Jeremy Renner, Forest Whitaker, Michael Stuhlbarg


Plot: A renowned linguist is recruited by the military to make contact with aliens who have arrived on Earth.


Review: In the trailers, Arrival looks like a sci-fi movie featuring Aliens, but it's more than that. There are serious dramatic undertones present here, which elevates the film above viewers' expectations.

We begin with Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who witnesses a shell-like spacecraft land in Montana, and eleven other similar ships land across the world. The military promptly recruit her to help them make contact with the aliens and find out the purpose of their visit. Along for the ride is physicist Ian Donnelly, and slowly but surely, Louise establishes contact with the visitors, but interpreting their circular writing symbols prove to be difficult at first.

Denis Villeneuve, director of Prisoners and Sicario, changes direction towards something less dire with Arrival, though the look of the film is more bleak than you'd expect. While one would expect lots of wide shots in a film like this, Villeneuve and cameraman Bradford Young opt to make more close up shots and tight shots of interiors. Then these are combined with dimly lit rooms and little sunlight to give the film a rainy morning kind of feel, which works very well.

As mentioned, Arrival isn't just a sci-fi, it's a drama too. In between scenes we are shown Louise's memories of raising her daughter and dealing with her eventual death. How this connects with her communication with the aliens is only revealed later on, but it certainly adds more layers to the film, which also focuses on seeking the aliens' purpose as the rest of the world reacts negatively to their presence.

While the film boasts a trio of talented actors, this movie truly belongs to Amy Adams. As Louise, Adams deftly balances her confusion with the aliens' writings and the pressure brought upon her by the government who are impatiently waiting for results, and the weight of her daughter's demise. Jeremy Renner gets the lighter and more humorous character of Ian, and plays off Adams perfectly. Forest Whitaker plays the military colonel in charge, and it's nice to see one who doesn't consider the aliens as hostile like other similar films. 

I do admit that this film moves at a deliberate pace and might disappoint those expecting more suspense. Please note that Arrival is not that kind of film. But at the end of it all, the payoff is tremendous. It will undoubtedly make you think more about life, death and the future.

Aside from one narrated scene in the middle which I felt was slightly out of place (simply because they should have asked Adams to narrate instead), Arrival is a splendid sci-fi drama which hopefully will get fair representation at the coming Oscars. (8/10)

Saturday, December 31, 2016

The Great Wall

Year: 2016
Director: Zhang Yimou
Cast: Matt Damon, Jing Tian, Pedro Pascal, Andy Lau, Willem Dafoe, Lu Han


Plot: A thief from the west travelling to the east in search of gunpowder gets involved in a battle between the guardians of the Great Wall and an ancient evil.


Review: I can't believe the amount of flak this film has been getting. It's strange. When films like Assassin's Creed take themselves too seriously, people hate them. Then when The Great Wall tries to liven things up with fantastical creatures and colorful costumes, people hate that too. There's just no pleasing everyone.

Anyway, acclaimed director Zhang Yimou collaborates with Hollywood to bring to life a fantasy adventure involving the famous Great Wall of China. We are first introduced to a couple of thieves, William and Tovar, who barely survive a strange creature attack on their journey towards the east looking for gunpowder. They end up getting captured by the Nameless Order, an army that watches and secures the Great Wall. Soon after, a large horde of those creatures, named Taotie, attack the wall, and William decides to forgo his original plan and help the Order, much to Tovar's chagrin.

As far as visuals are concerned, Zhang scores plenty of marks. Sure, some of the CGI looks weak, but overall the film looks really good. Just like Hero, Zhang puts his obsession for colors to use here by giving the Order different colored armors based on their skill set. I am aware that some critics have a problem with that, but I thought it was cool.

The action sequences are well done overall, with the opening battle sequence being the most impressive. There's also a cool sequence in the middle of the film when William and Tovar battle the Taotie in thick fog using noise as their guide.

Matt Damon, probably in his first ever role requiring him to use ancient weapons, does well as William, with Game Of Thrones' Pedro Pascal getting the funny sidekick role of Tovar, which he pulls off well too. Jing Tian (Special I.D.), appearing in next year's Kong: Skull Island, impresses as Lin, one of the few members of the order who admires William, while Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau makes good with his role as Strategist Wang, though his English sounds too phonetic at times.

It's unfortunate though that Willem Dafoe is rather wasted here as Ballard, a westerner looking to steal gunpowder and run first chance he gets. Also wasted are the rest of the commanders of the Order who don't get enough screen time, including star Eddie Peng. I'm also not fond of having the Emperor being a cowardly young boy, and it would have been nice if William had interacted with more of the Chinese cast aside from Lau, Jing and Lu Han (as a guard he rescued). And why do the Order wear their armor at all times, even during meals?

But you know what? Despite everything, and the film borrowing heavily from Aliens and Starship Troopers, I had a blast with The Great Wall. It certainly beats Jackie Chan's poor attempts to merge east and west while championing China in the last few years. This certainly isn't a Zhang Yimou artistic vehicle, but it's a lot of fun from start to finish, and a perfect way to close out the year. (7.5/10)  

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Assassin's Creed

Year: 2016
Director: Justin Kurzel
Cast: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Ariane Labed, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams


Plot: Callum Lynch, a convict sentenced to death, is captured by a secret society for an experiment that involves jumping back in time into his ancestor's body in search of an ancient artifact that can cure mankind's appetite for violence.


Review: Video games are the hardest to adapt into film. It seems only Paul W.S. Anderson has been able to get it right, first with Mortal Kombat and then with Resident Evil, the latter's sixth and final film coming out next month. Assassin's Creed, much like Warcraft earlier this year, has a skilled director and a stellar cast, and they both aim high, but both stumble somewhat.

Callum Lynch, sentenced to death by lethal injection, wakes up in a mysterious facility alongside other inmates, and told that he is a descendant of an assassin during the Spanish Inquisition in 1492. The facility is run by Sofia Rikkin and her father Alan; the former has a program that allows people to jump into the bodies of their ancestors and relive their experiences. Sofia wants Cal to jump into his ancestor Aguilar's body in 1492 and find out where he hid the Apple Of Eden, an artifact said to harbor the secret to eliminating violence in humans. And so Cal relives Aguilar's battles in 1492, where he and a group of assassins are at war with the Templar over the Apple. But, like most stories of its kind, there's a hidden agenda involved.

Director Justin Kurzel uses the same tactics he deployed in Macbeth, keeping the visuals dark and hazy, and half the time it proves to be a bit too much as it's hard to make out the actors' faces on screen. The fight sequences fare better though, and a dazzling rooftop chase sequence at the middle of the film looked pretty good. Kurzel also does a good job in setting up the plot; while the pace seems slow in the first third, it allows the film's backstory to be properly explored, but unfortunately one feels that a good chunk of the film was edited, particularly scenes involving the supporting characters at the facility. Basically put, in comparison Assassin's Creed succeeds in plot development but stumbles in visual execution, while Warcraft is the other way around.

Michael Fassbender plays the lead roles of Cal and Aguilar quite well, proving he can be an action hero with the right film. Marion Cotillard however is too subdued as Sofia, thus unable to display her true motivations towards the finale. Jeremy Irons is good as Alan Rikkin but isn't given enough time to shine. Brendan Gleeson only has a couple of scenes as Cal's father but makes them count.

As mentioned, the other supporting characters who are inmates at the facility should have been given more time on screen as their team up with Cal in the last third of the film feels rushed, leading to a non-climactic finish, and like Warcraft, an open-ended one (though I admit this finish beats the Warcraft one). 

Imdb states that the film ought to be 25 minutes longer. I wouldn't mind if it was another 15 minutes longer just for the film to be fleshed out better. At least the action sequences and the thumping soundtrack by Kurzel's younger brother Jed make Assassin's Creed a somewhat decent film, but that's about it. (6.5/10)

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