Monday, August 31, 2015

Hitman: Agent 47

Year: 2015
Director: Aleksander Bach
Cast: Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann


Plot: Katia, a girl whose father created the Agent program that breeds perfect assassins, is hunted by a mysterious syndicate that wants to force her father to restart the program for them. Her only hope is 47, an Agent from the program sent after the syndicate.


Review: This is a reboot of the previous Hitman film starring Timothy Olyphant, with Rupert Friend taking over the lead role of 47. However this reboot is not much better than the original.

As the story goes, Katia, the daughter of Litvenko, who created the Agent program, has been looking for her father. She is hunted by two sides, one is 47, the other is The Syndicate (not very original for a name) led by Le Clerq. Le Clerq has been searching for her father too, hoping to restart the Agent program for his own benefit. 47 manages to rescue her, and subsequently gets her to realise that she too has abilities that came from the program.

First time director Aleksander Bach follows the same beats most action films take, but in a time when Mad Max and Mission Impossible are scoring high points in the genre, his efforts just aren't good enough. At the very least, it's a decent attempt and the film is somewhat competent. There is a solid chase sequence in a parking lot that ends on a street junction in Singapore, but every other action sequence suffers from shaky camerawork or too close shots.

Friend plays 47 well enough as an emotionless killer, and excels in the action sequences, but one has to wonder why he chooses to walk instead of run half the time. This is where style triumphs over logic. Hannah Ware is decent as Katia while Zachary Quinto is alright as Le Clerq's point man John Smith, who goes toe-to-toe with 47 a handful of times. Ciaran Hinds and Thomas Kretschmann are underutilised as Litvenko and Le Clerq respectively but it's not a huge issue.

As an action film, it's not too bad overall. But the half-baked plot and weak ending that sets up future sequels just drags the film down to being mediocre. Subplots about humanity and whether 47 feels anything are brought up but not followed through.

I'd say Hitman: Agent 47 is a decent way to kill time, but not much else. (6/10) 

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Pixels

Year: 2015
Director: Chris Columbus
Cast: Adam Sandler, Josh Gad, Kevin James, Michelle Monaghan, Peter Dinklage, Brian Cox


Plot: Aliens misinterpret video feeds of 80s arcade games as a declaration of war and attack Earth in the form of those video games. The President calls up his childhood buddy, a former video game champion, to help him fight back and save the planet.


Review: If you were an 80s child, like I was, then you'd know some, if not all of the classic video games that you'll see in Pixels. If you were a gamer during your childhood, then this film will certainly be of great interest to you.

Pixels stars Adam Sandler as Brenner, who was a video game maestro back in 1982. In the present, he's a mere TV installer who is good friends with the president (Kevin James). One day, aliens invade the Earth in the form of classic 80s video games. Having misinterpreted messages featuring those games sent out to space back in 1982 as a declaration of war, they challenge Earth to a fight. The president is forced to call on Brenner and their mutual friend Ludlow (Josh Gad), both video game experts, to stop the aliens. Along the way they recruit Brenner's old rival Eddie Plant (Peter Dinklage), who beat Brenner at the world championships in 1982, for assistance.

Director Chris Columbus does a great job in making the well loved 80s video games be a character of their own in this film. While most of the time they turn out to be villains (including the popular Pac Man) some actually become good guys like Q*Bert. The visual effects depicting the games are top notch, making every battle scene a true highlight of the film. While the Pac Man chase is the most obvious favorite of most, I liked the Centipede battle in London.

Sandler and Dinklage are the best members of the cast, the former being a lot more tolerable than he usually is, dialing his style down a bit, the latter being the exact opposite of Tyrion Lannister. In fact, Dinklage is a riot here, being somewhat braggadocious and over the top, but it works. Michele Monaghan fills the requisite love interest role well enough while Brian Cox is quite funny as the comedic version of the army head who just wants to blow stuff up. Kevin James is just okay as the bumbling President, but Josh Gad is annoying most of the time as Ludlow, especially when he screams for no good reason.

Gad isn't the only problem here, as Sandler's brand of comedy is still present every now and then. Thankfully, Columbus manages to keep the film balanced and on track, so Sandler's regular immature hijinks don't become a hindrance.

Overall, Pixels is quite entertaining, even more so if you were a gamer back in the 80s. If not, you might still enjoy seeing stuff like Max Headroom, Hall & Oates, Madonna and even Fantasy Island on screen. Oh, and look out for cameos by Sean Bean and Serena Williams. (7/10)

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Inside Out

Year: 2015
Directors: Pete Docter and Ronaldo Del Carmen
Voice cast: Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, Lewis Black, Mindy Kaling, Richard Kind


Plot: Eleven year old Riley moves from Minnesota to San Francisco, and her five primary emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger and Disgust, deal with her personality change as she adapts to her new environment.


Review: Pixar is probably the most consistent animation studio there is out there. They are always capable of churning out hits, with stories ranging from talking toys to lost fish to rats who cook to robots that feel and an old man's final adventure with a boy scout.

That last story, Up is one of my favorites, and its director, Pete Docter, co-directs Inside Out with Ronaldo Del Carmen, and they both wrote it as well. The film basically follows the daily activities of the five emotions of eleven year old Riley, starting from the day she was born. It began with just Joy, and then she was joined by Sadness, Disgust, Fear and Anger. Together they control Riley's emotion centre and collect her memories, which they then store away in her mind to build her personality as she grows. One day her family decides to move from Minnesota to San Francisco, so as Riley struggles to adapt, the emotions struggle to keep control of her. Trouble brews when Joy and Sadness get sucked into her long term memory bank, leaving the other three emotions in charge. Being the lead emotion among them, Joy has to return to Riley's emotion center i.e. "headquarters" before things get out of hand.

On the surface, the five emotions' adventures is almost similar to Woody, Buzz and the rest of Andy's toys in Toy Story, but the truth is, it's much deeper than that. The five emotions have bigger responsibilities here than the toys ever did. The way they react to whatever Riley faces, from meeting new friends to playing hockey to moving away from home, ultimately decides Riley's own reactions and subsequently, what she does in accordance to them. Joy, being the de facto leader among them, does her best to keep Riley happy while letting Fear, Disgust and Anger chip in whenever necessary, but doesn't quite know how to deal with Sadness, who is pretty much her opposite. When the two get lost in the girl's memories, their adventure to make it back is quite perplexing and fun at the same time, as viewers are introduced to Riley's personality islands, and we get to see stuff like Train Of Thought, Imagination Land, meet Riley's imaginary friend Bing Bong and the memory dump, where memories go when they're forgotten. I gotta hand it to Docter and Del Carmen for thoroughly thinking this whole thing out and putting it on screen, with solid animation to boot. Of course, when it comes to Pixar, the animation never ceases to amaze, so I don't have to elaborate too much in that regard.

But in every Pixar story, the most important moment is the dramatic climax, when the point of the story has to come across to the viewer. In this one, Docter and company pulled it off so well, I almost cried, and I haven't felt that way since Jessie's backstory in Toy Story 2. The crux of the story is how Joy and Sadness have to save Riley's personality and memories, which are slowly crumbling away, and while we see this as a sign of inevitable growth for the girl, we also see Joy understanding fully how everything works and what Sadness' role really is. It all comes together beautifully in the last third of the film, and before that we're treated to plenty of hilarious moments, courtesy of the other three emotions' handling of Riley's behavior, so on the whole, it's just awesome.

If there's any downside to this, well.....it's the opening short that Pixar puts in front of each of their films. This one features singing volcanoes. Yes, you heard me. No offence to the people who came up with this, but it was awful. Truly. 

That aside, should you watch Inside Out? Absolutely. Granted, maybe it will be a bit hard to sell this story to really young kids, as I feel adults and younger adults will relate to this better, but from my standpoint, this is one of Pixar's best. Only time will tell if it will achieve classic status. Recommended. (9/10)

Sunday, August 16, 2015

The Man From U.N.C.L.E.

Year: 2015
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Jared Harris, Hugh Grant


Plot: Set in the early 1960s, CIA agent Napoleon Solo and KGB operative Illya Kuryakin team up to stop someone from building a nuclear warhead.


Review: I'm not familiar with the TV series this film is based on, so comparisons are out the window. On the surface, it looks like the James Bond films of the Sean Connery era, but actually it's a lot less serious than that, thanks to Guy Ritchie.

As the story goes, Germany has been separated by the Berlin Wall. The year is 1963 and CIA agent Napoleon Solo is in Germany to extract Gaby Teller, whose father is a known Nazi scientist that disappeared recently. They run into KGB agent Illya Kuryakin, and after a series of fisticuffs and chase sequences, the two organisations decide to make them partners, and go undercover with Gaby to find her father. Their target is a wealthy couple in Rome with Nazi connections.

Since it's Guy Ritchie, you can see the similarities between this and his Sherlock Holmes films, especially the lead duo. The only difference is Holmes and Watson know each other well and are used to one another, whereas Solo and Kuryakin go through a lot of trouble just to get to know one another. Their uneasy partnership is one of the few good things about this movie. The other good stuff are the rather hilarious sequence at the beginning when the two men first meet, a handful of well timed comedic scenes and a short fight towards the end. I also liked the music choices and the authentic looking costumes and sets. Unfortunately, besides that, the film is a rather dull affair.

The problem lies with Ritchie, who also co-wrote the film. He unwisely chose to make this more of a comedy than an action adventure, with too much focus on charming dialogue and lots of style. By doing this, the film suffers from a serious lack of urgency. Now, I do like some bits of comedy in an action adventure flick, but not when it overshadows what the film's real purpose should be. Not only is there too much comedy, some of it just doesn't work. For example, watching Solo take a timeout to eat a sandwich while watching Kuryakin battle some guys on a speedboat chase. Or the way Solo responds after realising he's been drugged. Or the way a certain villain lackey meets his end while the two heroes argue about what to do with him. 

Henry Cavill plays Solo as a former soldier turned thief who exchanges his prison time for a spy job with the CIA, and he brings a good load of charm to his role. Unfortunately Cavill's American accent isn't very convincing. Armie Hammer gets to play a competent hero this time unlike The Lone Ranger and Mirror Mirror as Kuryakin, a KGB agent with a temper problem. His seriousness contrasts Solo's comedic charm well enough, and Hammer and Cavill share a good rapport on screen. Alicia Vikander however is quite dull as Gaby, wearing a one note expression for most of the film. Elizabeth Debicki on the other hand fits the ice queen villain role quite well, but impresses more with her fashion sense than her evil deeds here.

Personally I would have preferred Ritchie to ramp up the film with a bit more action and maybe some drama, but that was obviously not what he was going for. In the wake of spy movies like Kingsman and Mission Impossible Rogue Nation, and even the Melissa McCarthy comedy Spy, The Man From U.N.C.L.E. could have been something. Alas it was having so much fun with itself, it forgot to get the audience in on it. (6/10)    

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Southpaw

Year: 2015
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Forest Whitaker, Rachel McAdams, Oona Laurence, 50 Cent


Plot: Due to his reckless behavior, boxer Billy Hope loses everything. Now he has to pick himself back up with the help of a boxing trainer and win his daughter's love again.


Review: Southpaw is a term used to describe a left hander. In this case, it's something Billy Hope's trainer Tick Wills tells him to become in the closing moments of the film.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Hope, the light heavyweight boxing champion of the world who had it all; money, fame and a loving family in the form of his loving wife Maureen and little daughter Leila. But the man has a penchant for being reckless, and one day it inadvertently causes Maureen's death. From that point on, everything starts to fall apart for Billy. His debts rise, he loses his property, and he hits rock bottom when child services takes Leila away from him. So he has no other choice but to pull himself together and get his life back, starting with training to get back in the ring, with the help of no-nonsense trainer Tick Wills.

There have been many boxing films in the past, and Southpaw is not very different from them. But its strength lies in its execution. Southpaw is a tale of redemption, which is always a great story for the big screen. Director Antoine Fuqua puts most of his focus on his lead character Billy Hope, and lets the film become more than just about boxing. It is about a man's rags-to-riches-to-rags journey, and how he has to regain victory not just in the ring, but outside of it as well. To that end, Fuqua does well in showing the audience in a steady pace, Hope's fall from grace, and how he reacts to the big wake up call on the way people treat him when he's on top, and the contrast when he's not anymore, and how he eventually deals with it. 

Gyllenhaal trained well for the role of a boxer, but he was always a great actor and he proves it again here. As a boxer he looks totally ripped and convincing, but as a man on a journey of redemption, Gyllenhaal is simply awesome. Despite his flaws, Billy remains a likable man and you never stop rooting for him, even in his worst moments. It is to Gyllenhaal's credit that you love the character. Forest Whitaker, who only appears in the second half of the film, brings gravitas to the role of Tick Wills, who reluctantly agrees to give Billy a chance. Rachel McAdams shines in her brief role as Maureen, evidently the rock that holds Billy's life together until she tragically passes on. The revelation of this film is young Oona Laurence as Leila Hope. This girl is a fantastic actress for a 13 year old (though I'm guessing her on screen age is smaller) and she has a bright future ahead of her.

The only downside to this film is the predictability, though I admit I wasn't sure how Billy's fight at the end would turn out (because ultimately it doesn't really matter). Most boxing stories follow a certain thread if you've seen enough films of its ilk. But like I said, it's in the execution, so Southpaw is already a winner no matter what.

My advice: go watch this instead of the Fantastic Four remake that's also currently playing. (8/10)  

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