Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Year: 2014
Director: Wes Anderson
Cast: Ralph Fiennes, Tony Revolori, Adrien Brody, Willem Dafoe, Saoirse Ronan, Tilda Swinton, Jude Law, F Murray Abraham, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton


Plot: This film follows the adventures of M. Gustave, the concierge of The Grand Budapest Hotel and his loyal prodigy Zero, the hotel's lobby boy.


Review: This is actually my first attempt at watching a Wes Anderson film, I did it due to good word of mouth. Because of that, I probably didn't get it as much as most of his fans do. But to his credit, The Grand Budapest Hotel is pretty good.

The film is set in 1932 in the fictional land of Zubrowka, in between the world wars. The Grand Budapest Hotel is a beautiful place run by M. Gustave, who is efficient at his work. On the side, he beds rich old women. The new lobby boy, Zero becomes his prodigy and learns the ropes from him on taking care of the hotel. One day, Madame D, one of Gustave's interests, dies and bequeaths to him a valuable painting, much to the ire of her son Dmitri. Soon after, Gustave is accused of murdering Madame D and imprisoned. Zero helps him escape and prove his innocence.

If there's one thing I love about this film is the production design. Anderson and his team made the film colorful and bright and at the same time very retro, which is no easy feat. The sight of the hotel near the cliff with a funicular train attached makes it look like a huge cake, or maybe even a three dimensional picture from a book. In short, it looks magnificent.

The film's other positives are the plot and great cast. The plot is quite easy to follow and never drags, in fact it moves really fast. It does flip many times over in the middle third of the film, but nothing too difficult to fathom. The punchlines are not laugh out loud funny, but there are quite a few moments when you can't help but chuckle and admire Anderson's sharp instinct to nail the joke right there.

Casting wise, Ralph Fiennes and young newcomer Tony Revolori make a great team of master and student in Gustave and Zero. Fiennes is sharp, charming and spot on with deadpan humor, which is well contrasted by Revolori's naive and well meaning lobby boy. Adrien Brody makes a good villain in Dmitri, balancing the act of being bad and not entirely hateful quite well. Willem Dafoe is awesome as Dmitri's right hand man Jopling, he's perfect actually. It's also nice to see Jeff Goldblum again after a long time as Madame D's lawyer, nailing the part too. The rest of the cast, such as Jude Law, F Murray Abraham, Lea Seydoux and Saoirse Ronan also perform up to expectations, even though they don't have that much screen time.

Now, while the cast is really spot on, some of the choices seem rather strange. Why would Anderson put his frequent collaborators such as Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman and Owen Wilson in such insignificant roles? I understand that these are probably just cameos, but Wilson had only two scenes and it was so basic, anyone else could have done it. And overall I felt like I was an outsider trying to enjoy something I wasn't used to. Admittedly I'm not an Anderson fan, so maybe I need to brush up on his work.

But I know good work when I see it, and for my money's worth, The Grand Budapest Hotel is worth checking out. It's not necessarily fun all the time, but it's never dull. (3.5/5)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

Sabotage

Year: 2014
Director: David Ayer
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Olivia Williams, Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, Mireille Enos, Josh Holloway, Harold Perrineau


Plot: A DEA strike team gets killed violently one by one after they steal $10 million from a drug cartel bust.


Review: David Ayer's name is synonymous with gritty cop stories like Training Day and End Of Watch. The DEA team in Sabotage is supposed to be like family, but unlike Jake Gylenhaal and Michael Pena in End Of Watch, this team doesn't really act like a family.

Thing is, Ayer somehow goes out of his way to make his ragtag bunch of door busters as unlikable as possible. Now, I get the part where they have to look like criminals, sporting tattoos, messy hairstyles and snorting drugs a lot, because they have to go undercover and all. But even when off duty, they act like horrible people, disrespecting authority and cussing a lot. Is Ayer saying that undercover law enforcement are allowed to be like that because they've been undercover so long, they can't turn it off? Maybe. But it doesn't quite help in making these guys worth rooting for, and therein lies the problem.

Anyway, a little bit on the story: Schwarzenegger plays Breacher, a leader of a rough and tough DEA strike team, and together they steal some money during a drug bust, only to find it missing when they come back for it later. They get investigated, suspended then later reinstated due to lack of evidence. Then the team members wind up dead one by one. Homicide detective Caroline Brentwood is on the case, but the team won't play ball, which doesn't make it better when she eventually finds out about them being investigated earlier.

Ayer is basically good at painting realistic profiles on cops, whether they're good or bad. In this case it's the latter. But like I said, despite the realistic presentation, the audience needs to care about these guys, and I for one do not. Only Arnold's character is somewhat redeemable, but the reason for that is something I can't reveal in order not to spoil things.

But there are good things to look forward to, like the unabashed violence, which is quite welcome. Arnold of course makes a great leader, not just for the team, but for the film too as his screen presence makes a big difference. Olivia Williams is also great as Brentwood, playing a character I haven't seen her do before. Special mention goes to Mireille Enos as the sole female member of the DEA team, who is as tough and mean as her male colleagues, and she is such a sleaze here you won't believe she's the same person who played Brad Pitt's wife in Wolrd War Z, or the detective in The Killing. The rest of the guys are not too memorable as they're too similar with one another.

Aside from the unlikable characters, there's also pacing problems here and there, and the excessive amount of profanity which drags the film down. The car chase at the climax is great, but not enough to make the whole film great.

As it is, Sabotage is passable entertainment. As an Arnold vehicle, and as a David Ayer film, it just isn't as good as what has come before. (3/5)

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Year: 2014
Directors: Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Anthony Mackie, Sebastian Stan, Robert Redford, Samuel L Jackson, Cobie Smulders, Frank Grillo, Emily VanCamp


Plot: While struggling to adapt to a world he doesn't recognise, Steve Rogers discovers treachery amongst SHIELD's ranks. With only a few people he can trust, he has to stop a plot that will radically change the world for the worse. At the same time, Rogers faces an enemy who was once his best friend he thought was dead.


Review: After seeing Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World ignore SHIELD's presence and influence, it's nice to see them back here. But then again, it's only fitting since Captain America is a man who fights for freedom, which in turn is related to SHIELD's worldwide peacekeeping activities.

In this sequel, Steve Rogers is a man out of time, trying to adapt to things he didn't have back in his day. But a bigger problem arises when Nick Fury tells him of SHIELD's latest project, which involves eliminating threats before they occur. This doesn't sit well with Rogers, who believes in freedom and not fear. But there's more to the project than what it seems, and Rogers discovers a long gestating plot within SHIELD's ranks that will be bad for everyone if left alone. On top of all this, he runs into someone he thought was long dead, and if you've been reading up on plot details or the comic book arc this film is based on, you'd know this person is his old friend turned foe, Bucky Barnes.

Joe & Anthony Russo deserve plenty of credit for their awesome work here. Along with scriptwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russos successfully blend a superhero film with a spy thriller, so there's a nice balance of action and intrigue overall. Having Robert Redford, the face of 70s spy thrillers in it surely doesn't hurt either. Speaking of the action, word has it that most of it was done without CGI, so I'm guessing they only used it for the grand final sequence involving three helicarriers, which makes this film all the more awesome.

Chris Evans once again steps into the role of Captain America / Steve Rogers, and he's certainly grown into it. He looks in great shape and hasn't missed a beat at all. Scarlett Johansson also returns to her Black Widow role, and does a great job with it. She still excels in the action sequences, though she stands out more in her quieter scenes with Evans, with a little insight on her character. Anthony Mackie makes his Marvel debut as Sam Wilson aka The Falcon, Rogers' sidekick, and is pretty much the funny guy in the film. Sebastian Stan reprises his role as Bucky Barnes, only this time he's a much meaner guy as Rogers' foe, and is pretty capable of matching him blow for blow. Stan doesn't get a lot of lines here, but makes good on becoming a tragic villain.

Also making a comeback are Samuel L Jackson and Cobie Smulders as Fury and Maria Hill respectively. Their presence almost makes this another Avengers film to be honest, and both fill their roles well, especially Jackson. Finally, Robert Redford, who doesn't look as old as he really is, lends his great screen presence as Alexander Pierce, Fury's superior. This is actually a key role as you will discover, and he does it effortlessly.

As far as post Avengers films are concerned, this is actually the strongest one to date. I can't think of anything bad about Captain America: The Winter Soldier right now, it's pretty damn good. I'm thinking it's even better than the upcoming Spider-Man sequel, but we'll see. Highly recommended.

P.S.: As usual, stay for the post credits scenes. The mid-credits one is especially exciting, if you're a comic geek like me. (4.5/5)   

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

300: Rise Of An Empire

Year: 2014
Director: Noam Murro
Cast: Sullivan Stapleton, Eva Green, Lena Headey, Hans Matheson, Rodrigo Santoro


Plot: As King Leonidas and the 300 Spartans battle the Persians at the Hot Gates, General Themistokles rallies all of Greece to unite against the Persians at the Aegean Sea.


Review: I loved the original 300 film. Yes, it was a dumb action film, with lots of corny lines and mindless violence, but it was so much fun.

Zack Snyder now moves from the director's chair into the producer's chair and lets new helmer Noam Murro present a sidequel, if you will, that centers on the other cities of Greece battling the invading Persians at sea. The Greeks, led by Themistokles, are outnumbered by the Persians, just like Leonidas and the Spartans, but thanks to the smart general, they hold their own very well. The Persians are led by Artemisia, a former Greek woman who now serves Persia, and she is as ruthless as they come.

Murro, to his credit, does not differ very much from Snyder's formula and loads his film with tons of violence. There are some pretty neat action scenes too, mostly taking place on floating ships. Murro also includes a few back stories for the principal characters like Themistokles, Artemisia and Xerxes, which helps us understand their characters better.

But as good as Murro's attempts are, it somehow pales in comparison to the original 300. It's not entirely his fault though. 300 was an awesome film, and it's pretty tough to follow up with something just as good. Thing is, the characters here are just not as fascinating as Leonidas and the Spartans, even if some may say that they hold more appeal due to them not being bulked up heroes like the Spartans. The above mentioned back stories, good as they are, just aren't enough to make them stand out.

Sullivan Stapleton is more than decent as Themistokles, but doesn't quite have the screen presence of Gerard Butler from the original. Eva Green fares slightly better as Artemisia, playing her somewhat similar to her character from TV's Camelot. Lena Headey and Rodrigo Santoro make short appearances as Gorgo and Xerxes respectively, to somewhat connect this story to the first 300.

Overall, 300: Rise Of An Empire is pretty good on its own. From the way things ended, there might be a follow up, so hopefully it'll be better then. (3.5/5)

Sunday, March 09, 2014

American Hustle

Year: 2013
Director: David O. Russell
Cast: Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Bradley Cooper, Jeremy Renner, Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro


Plot: An overzealous FBI agent forces a con man and his female partner to help him nab a politician and other powerful people for cheating and bribing.


Review: I read somewhere that David O. Russell is not so high on plot and more focused on characters. It certainly reflects his work on The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, but none more so than American Hustle. But in my humble opinion, he overshot his mark here.

American Hustle is set in the 70s, where Russell talks about Abscam, the supposed scam by a fake Arabian sheikh involving politicians in the US. The lead characters here are based on actual people involved. Basically it follows con man Irving Rosenfeld and his lover Sydney Prosser, and how they're forced by FBI agent Richie Dimaso to take down the Mayor of New Jersey, Carmine Polito, who seems like a real stand up guy, but whom Dimaso suspects to be corrupt.

I'll tell you what I like about it first. I like the look of the film. It's authentic and over the top at the same time. I mean, can you imagine Bradley Cooper putting on curls? He literally did it to get that permed curly look on his head, it's crazy but kinda awesome. Then there's the costumes and the soundtrack, very retro and fitting for the era. Some of the punchlines here are pretty good too, I'll give them that.

But man, Russell not only made this a character driven piece, he decided to let each of them go off the deep end on histrionics. Nearly every character (except maybe Robert De Niro's character) goes on and on yelling and arguing like they're all having PMS. Some of it is quite entertaining, sure. But at some point I found it too much and not moving the story along at all.

I'm man enough to admit that all of the lead actors did well in their roles despite the above flaws. Christian Bale is cool as a cucumber, and fitting as con man Irving. Amy Adams is sexy as hell as Sydney. Cooper is charming and likable as Richie, and you gotta love Jeremy Renner's Elvis perm (and his screen presence) as Carmine. I didn't love Jennifer Lawrence as Irving's wife Rosalyn though. She was basically playing her Silver Linings Playbook character all over again, except she yells a lot more here. Plus she isn't an integral part of the whole FBI scheme, so she seems to be here just because Russell wanted her here.

As I said, the character driven attempt by Russell isn't appealing to me, I can't speak for everyone. To me, this only lengthened the film's runtime unnecessarily. I would have preferred Russell to have a tighter hold on his script's flow overall.

It's not a bad film, some of you might just like this more than me. But all the same, I think I'd rather go back and watch The Fighter again. (3/5)

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