Sunday, February 19, 2017

Hacksaw Ridge

Year: 2016
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Andrew Garfield, Sam Worthington, Teresa Palmer, Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving, Luke Bracey, Rachel Griffiths


Plot: Based on the true story of Desmond Doss, an American war medic who saved dozens of American soldiers during World War II without carrying a weapon.


Review: Hacksaw Ridge is Mel Gibson's first film as a director in ten years (after 2006's Apocalypto), and he seems to have not lost a beat, judging by all the acclaim it has received so far.

This film is about the life of Desmond Doss, a war medic who rescued plenty of American soldiers during World War II at Okinawa, Japan. After a childhood incident, along with his religious upbringing and the actions of his drunk father while growing up, Doss renounces violence and enlists in the army to become a war medic. However, since he refuses to touch a firearm due to his beliefs, his superiors and fellow trainees give him a hard time, but to his credit, he doesn't quit. 

The second half of the story focuses on the battle for Hacksaw Ridge in Okinawa, where Doss risks his life over and over to save his fellow comrades, and never once firing a gun. This part of the story has a Saving Private Ryan feel to it, as Gibson does not relent in showing the horror and violence of war, with plenty of headshots, blood and severed limbs on screen.

Despite the lengthy screen time at 139 minutes, the film feels lean and well paced. Credit goes to Gibson for making the film's flow perfectly smooth and not wasting any time, even during the quieter moments. The battle sequences are also pretty intense and well shot, thus the second half of the film is pretty action packed and suspenseful.

Andrew Garfield puts in a strong performance as Doss, though I'm not sure if he deserves to win the Best Actor Oscar just yet. Don't get me wrong, he is great. But superb? Maybe not. Vince Vaughn and Sam Worthington lend some good support as Doss' superiors, with the former giving a Full Metal Jacket inspired performance during the training scenes, which will give audiences a good laugh. Teresa Palmer is the perfect match for Garfield as his love interest, Dorothy while Hugo Weaving and Rachel Griffiths are awesome as Doss' parents, particularly Weaving. Weaving's portrayal of a emotionally scarred former soldier is reminiscent of William Fichtner's brief appearance in Pearl Harbor, and he should have earned an Oscar nomination next to Garfield. Finally Luke Bracey, who is usually a bland actor, actually does well as Smitty, Doss' comrade who is hard on him during training but eventually comes to respect him.

Now, while Hacksaw Ridge is a great film with all the right elements in place, it feels somewhat derivative of other better war films that have come before it. Saving Private Ryan immediately comes to mind, and even Braveheart, Gibson's crown jewel, both feel more compelling than this film. 

Nevertheless, Hacksaw Ridge is a solid war film which is a guaranteed crowd pleaser, and should be watched by all war movie fans. (8/10)

Thursday, February 09, 2017

John Wick: Chapter 2

Year: 2017
Director: Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Laurence Fishburne, Ruby Rose, Lance Reddick, Ian McShane, Franco Nero


Plot: John Wick is forced by a blood oath to do a job for an Italian mobster who seeks to overthrow his sister from her place in the underworld hierarchy.


Review: The first John Wick movie was a huge success, putting Keanu Reeves back in the spotlight as an action star. This sequel seeks to do more of what the first film delivered i.e. violence and action, and boy does it deliver in spades.

But Chapter 2 isn't just John Wick blasting bad guy after bad guy, it's also an expansion of the universe introduced in Chapter 1. In the first film, we get to see a hotel for assassins where they are not allowed to conduct business while staying in it, as well as a clean up crew on call. In Chapter 2, we are shown how wide the underworld's network truly is, and how the infamous Continental Hotel has a Roman branch, using the same rules of course. And apparently, John Wick is a well known figure in this world, as everyone knows his reputation, and a lot of them fear him too.

This time around, John is forced by an Italian mobster, who had helped John successfully retire in the past, to help kill his sister in an attempted coup d'etat. John has to finish the job and stay alive as every hitman on the mobster's payroll tries to kill him to tie up loose ends, and his sister's men are also after him for payback.

Director Chad Stahelski, who co-directed the first film, and writer Derek Kolstad have outdone themselves here by not simply rehashing what has come before, but adding more characters and layers to a fascinating universe. If you thought there were plenty of assassins in the first film, get ready to meet even more of them here, all ready to spring into action via text message, and they can come from anywhere. It's also interesting to see the various professions that support hitmen like John, such as pawnbrokers, weapons dealers and even tailors who make body armor.

Reeves is still a badass here as John, looking like he just stepped off the first film and walked into this one. I do have a slight issue with Reeves' habit of nodding his head nearly every time he says something (which is weird), but one doesn't really give a damn if he can still kick ass, right? Riccardo Scamarcio is solid as the antagonist Santino, looking like a younger version of Marton Csokas. Common and Ruby Rose (her third film in a month) also shine as fellow assassins trying to kill John, while Lance Reddick, Ian McShane and John Leguizamo all make welcome returns from the first film. Reeves' Matrix co-star Laurence Fishburne also shows up as an underworld boss who uses pigeons and beggars to gather and dispense information.

As for the action, it is downright brutal from the get go. The lengthy opening sequence sees John take on the Russian mob in an attempt to get his car back, and the sight of car crashes, broken bones and bullet shots in succession is simply awesome to behold. After that? More close quarters shooting, knife fights, lots of headshots and a final fight in a house of mirrors. If that doesn't please you, I don't know what will.

Like the first film, one is left wondering why the police never show up when shit goes down, save for officer Jimmy from the first film making a comeback here. But it's a small issue that you won't be thinking about, not until the film's over anyway.

All in all, John Wick: Chapter 2 is fun, violent and bloody, as it should be. Another sequel is definitely coming judging by how it ends. Bring it on. (8.5/10)

Sunday, January 29, 2017

Split

Year: 2017
Director: M Night Shyamalan
Cast: James McAvoy, Anya Taylor-Joy, Betty Buckley, Jessica Sula, Haley Lu Richardson


Plot: Three girls are kidnapped by a man with 23 different personalities.


Review: The success of The Sixth Sense has been hard on M Night Shyamalan, as he has struggled to make a film as sublime as that one. And while Split has been doing good business at the box office, I personally feel that he hasn't quite made a complete turnaround just yet.

In Split, three girls: Casey, Claire and Marcia, are kidnapped by Kevin, a man who suffers from dissociative identity disorder (DID). He has 23 personalities in total, with the dominant ones being Dennis, who is obsessive compulsive, Patricia, who is reminiscent of Norman Bates' mother, only slightly nicer, and Hedwig, a nine year old. The girls try to escape but eventually discover that Kevin is manifesting a 24th personality, one that is extremely dangerous and will most certainly kill them.

The idea of a person with multiple personalities as a story's protagonist (or antagonist, depending on the scene in this case) has been done before, though perhaps not as ambitious as this film. For this to work, Shyamalan needs an actor that can bring forth many identities and make them convincing. Thankfully, James McAvoy is more than capable for this task. He turns in a tour de force performance as Kevin and seven other personalities throughout the film. It's a pity that Shyamalan didn't make time for the other identities to show up as we only got to see one third of the total, but it's understandable this was done probably to make the film more concise. Anyway, McAvoy is excellent and should have been given attention this awards season.

However, I have to mention the film's main weakness, which is Shyamalan's uneven direction and writing. The premise itself is intriguing, but personally I felt it would be better to view the story only from the eyes of the three girls and Kevin himself. Shyamalan inserts Kevin's psychiatrist, Dr Fletcher into the mix, most likely to guide the less informed members of the audience on DID, but her presence in the film becomes more of a hindrance than a plus. Every time she is on screen, the film slows down. Shyamalan also fails to generate enough suspense here. I mean, this is a kidnap film too, right? So where's the suspense? And lastly, Shyamalan spends too much time giving us flashbacks of Casey's past, which in a way influences how she deals with the situation at hand. I felt there were too many scenes of these, and they could have been lessened in favor of expanding the other two girls' characters perhaps.

Anya Taylor-Joy excels in the role of Casey, obviously the smartest of the three girls, so much so that the other two seem very disposable in comparison. While Taylor-Joy is great here, it is McAvoy's film through and through. The entire film hinges on his performance and he does not disappoint.

All in all, I found Split to be a bit underwhelming despite a superb performance by McAvoy and a surprising but unnecessary cameo at the end. Even so, it's still worth checking out. (7/10)  

Saturday, January 28, 2017

XXX: Return Of Xander Cage

Year: 2017
Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Vin Diesel, Donnie Yen, Toni Collette, Deepika Padukone, Tony Jaa, Ruby Rose, Kris Wu, Rory McCann, Nina Dobrev, Samuel L Jackson

Plot: Xander Cage is coerced out of hiding to help the CIA to retrieve Pandora's Box, a device capable of crashing satellites to specific targets.


Review: In his prime, Vin Diesel made three movie characters popular: the ruthless anti-hero Richard B Riddick, Dom Toretto, the carjacker who's a family man at heart, and Xander Cage, the extreme sports enthusiast recruited as a secret agent. Out of the three, Cage is probably the least likable one, for me anyway.

In this sequel, Diesel returns as Cage, assigned by CIA agent Jane Marke to retrieve a device known as Pandora's Box from a team of agents led by Xiang. The device is capable of crashing satellites and was recently used to kill Cage's recruiter Augustus Gibbons. Cage assembles his own team of ragtag individuals and locates Xiang's team, only to discover that not everything is as it seems.

I'll start with what I don't like. From the get go, it's obvious that director D.J. Caruso and writer F Scott Frazier were trying to make a fun filled movie, as it's littered with one liners and jokes. The problem is, most of them fall really flat. The dialogue is pretty awful at times, and I'm well aware that they probably want us to not take this film too seriously, but personally I wished they did. I don't mind watching a dumb action movie with funny lines, but the comedy needs to be spot on and they need to be serious when necessary. In this case they were off the mark.

Poor Toni Collette was given some of the worst lines ever as Marke. You would notice her trying to say them with a straight face and not laugh, it was uncomfortable to watch. Tony Jaa was unwisely wasted by the filmmakers here, being utilized only for a handful of acrobatic flips and not much else. Nina Dobrev's nerdy weapons expert/computer whiz is rather annoying overall and Kris Wu's character is here for, get this....taking over a nightclub deejay spot and getting the party started. No shit. Oh, he shoots a few bad guys at the end. That's it. And how much did they pay Samuel L Jackson to show up for five minutes and attempt to recruit Neymar? Really odd thing to see.

On the flipside, Donnie Yen shines as Xiang, excelling in what he does best: kicking ass. His opening fight sequence in the boardroom is pretty awesome. Game Of Thrones' Rory McCann is somewhat hilarious as Cage's team member who drives the team and has a tendency of crashing the vehicle. It's an oddball role but it actually works. Deepika Padukone is alright as Xiang's partner Serena, holding her own against two leading action stars, while Ruby Rose gets more time to shine here than in Resident Evil: The Final Chapter as a sniper on Cage's team. As for Diesel, he's still solid in action sequences, but the Cage character really isn't that appealing here to be honest. I can't take him seriously when he's wearing a fur coat while working.

At the very least, where the script fails, the action succeeds most of the time. There are some ridiculous sequences involving skiing between jungle trees and riding a bike on the ocean, but the final third of the film showcases some neat action sequences as both Cage and Xiang's teams battle the bad guys on the ground and in the air, with a surprise cameo to boot. 

To sum it up, Return Of Xander Cage is an over the top sequel that really requires viewers to turn off their brains and enjoy the action. If they had made the script a lot smarter, it would have been genuinely entertaining. (6.5/10)  

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Resident Evil: The Final Chapter

Year: 2017
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Iain Glen, Ali Larter, Shawn Roberts


Plot: The Red Queen gives Alice one last chance to save humanity: an airborne anti-virus that will effectively eliminate all those infected with the T-virus. But in order to get to it, Alice has to go through her old nemesis Dr Isaacs and the man who betrayed her, Albert Wesker.


Review: After 15 years, Resident Evil is at its end at last. Or is it? Hollywood has the tendency to continue beating on a dead horse. For what it's worth, star Milla Jovovich and director Paul W.S. Anderson have withstood all the bad criticism to keep on making these films till now, and that merits them some respect.

In this final chapter, Alice emerges from the rubble of Washington, humanity's supposed last stand against the undead. She runs into the Red Queen, who gives her a mission: retrieve an airborne anti-virus that will save humanity once and for all. A bonus: she gets some answers about her past. However, Dr. Isaacs, whom she thought she had killed in RE: Extinction, is alive and determined to stop her.

First, what I don't like. For the past few RE films, continuity has has been severely absent. Characters disappear and reappear again with no explanation, and new characters are introduced, only to be killed off or vanish again. Perhaps getting the same actors to return had been more difficult than we thought, but they could have been recast. Secondly, Anderson oddly chooses to abandon his slow motion filming style and adopt a quick cut, multiple angle style instead, making it very difficult to see the action sequences properly.

Strangely enough, this would be the first RE film where plot triumphs over action, as we get some answers on Alice's true origins and her connection to the Red Queen. This, coupled with a few twists, make this RE much better plotwise than its predecessors, where the story was paper thin and inconsequential.

Milla is of course, still on point as Alice, with Iain Glen making a solid foe as Dr Isaacs, who is more than capable holding his own against her. Ali Larter and Shawn Roberts return as Claire Redfield and Wesker respectively, but both get next to nothing to do. It really feels like they're here just to fill a contractual obligation and nothing more. The rest of the cast are just fodder for the undead, as usual.

It's a pity that the action sequences were poorly filmed, as Anderson goes all out in creating some awesome sequences, borrowing ideas from Book Of Eli, The Equalizer and even Kingdom Of Heaven. Anderson also adds in more types of monsters to play with, including giant bats. It would really have been nice to be able to see them properly.

Resident Evil ends appropriately, with a tiny window for the future, but not as perfectly as it could have been. If you've been following this franchise from the start, go see this and give it a proper farewell. (7/10)

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