Sunday, April 26, 2015

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Year: 2015
Director: Joss Whedon
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Elizabeth Olsen, James Spader, Samuel L Jackson


Plot: Tony Stark attempts to create an artificially intelligent program called Ultron that can protect the world, but it turns on the Avengers and intends to destroy mankind. The team joins forces with a pair of gifted twins to stop Ultron from carrying out his plan.


Review: It's pretty hard to top a hit film like The Avengers, and I have to say Joss Whedon put in a humongous effort to make Age Of Ultron awesome and memorable. To be honest, it wasn't perfect (then again, what film is?) but it never stops being hugely entertaining, and that's what essentially counts.

So in this film, the Avengers take down Hydra and retrieve Loki's sceptre, only for Tony Stark to use it to finish his Ultron program i.e. a peacekeeping program that can operate by itself. The plan of course goes south when Ultron decides to turn against him and eradicate mankind. The Avengers attempt to stop him, but he's more than prepared for them.

As usual, when it comes to Marvel films, technical elements are never short of perfect. The visual effects here are as good as it was back when they made the first Avengers, in fact it did a great job in keeping the action sequences exciting and visually decipherable. There are plenty of action set pieces to behold, the best of them being the Hulk taking on Iron Man in a Hulkbuster armor. In between all this, Whedon throws in the humour he is well known for, while adding more layers to the characters. For instance, Hawkeye, who got the least screen time previously, gets more to do here, and a relationship develops between Bruce Banner and Black Widow.

Acting wise, all of them deliver strong performances, with Mark Ruffalo and Scarlett Johansson standing out the most as they bring forth their characters' emotions and weaknesses. New cast members Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen also do well as Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch respectively, the former doing a better job than Evan Peters in X-Men: DOFP in playing the same guy. Olsen successfully gives Scarlet Witch the vulnerability that is required of her, wielding powers that may be too much for her to handle. James Spader surprisingly gives a very human performance as Ultron, in the way he moves, talks and gestures. He kinda threw me off with that performance, but it's not a bad thing. Paul Bettany finally gets to physically be in these films as he evolves from being JARVIS to Vision, Ultron's creation. He too, puts in a splendid effort.

The only thing that bothered me about Age Of Ultron is the fact that it felt a little less coherent compared to its predecessor. Whedon threw in a ton of things here, and occasionally moves so fast you'd likely miss something. I think I may have to go back and see this film again, just to enjoy it one more time and properly take it all in.

To sum it up, Age Of Ultron is awesome and a whole lot of fun. If you've been following all of Marvel's films so far, there's no reason not to go see this one. Recommended. (8/10)

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The Gunman

Year: 2015
Director: Pierre Morel
Cast: Sean Penn, Jasmine Trinca, Ray Winstone, Mark Rylance, Javier Bardem, Idris Elba


Plot: An ex-soldier who carried out an assassination on the Minister of Mining of the Democratic Republic Of Congo finds himself being targeted by a hit squad eight years later. In order to find out who's behind it, he goes in search of all the people who knew about his hit job.


Review: It's truly baffling that Pierre Morel, the director of Taken and From Paris With Love, could miss the mark on his latest feature, The Gunman. I suppose every director has his day off. The truth is, it's not a terrible film, just not close to the quality that is expected of him.

The film focuses on Jim Terrier, an ex-soldier who's doing security work for NGOs in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but secretly carrying out hit orders for private contractors who want control of the minerals in the country. Terrier's last job is killing the Minister of Mining, after which he goes into hiding, forcing to leave behind his girlfriend Annie (who's a doctor helping war victims in Congo). Eight years later, Terrier is targeted by a hit squad, and he suspects whoever's behind it is connected to the job he carried out. So he seeks out everyone who knew about that job, including old friends who have now become rivals.

The setup was actually promising, to be honest. Despite the all too familiar scenario of spy thrillers that involve travelling, covert ops and finding out who to trust and who not to, it can be entertaining if done right. Unfortunately, Morel chooses to focus on the plot points that are less interesting and leaves little time for the ones that are. The most glaring example is the love triangle between Terrier, Annie and their friend Felix played by Javier Bardem. This part of the film takes up at least a third of the screen time, with another chunk of the film spent on Terrier rekindling his relationship with Annie. As a result of this, too little time is spent on some much needed action sequences and plot twists to spice up the film.

The only real reason to see this is Sean Penn, who holds the film together by being its lead actor and anchor. He's solid as the tired man who wants to know why he's being hunted and by whom. It would have been better if they followed up on the subplot about his illness though. Out of the supporting cast, Ray Winstone and Jasmine Trinca fare the best, the former as an ally of Terrier and the latter as Annie, though admittedly, Trinca is mostly a damsel to be gawked at by male viewers, not that I mind. Bardem and poor Idris Elba are unjustly underused here, but Mark Rylance gives a good portrayal as another one of Terrier's acquaintances.

There are a few action sequences here, and while they were shot well enough, there should have been more. Morel spent too much time on exposition and personal drama, and too little on the mystery behind who's targeting Terrier, which is quite predictable to be honest.

The Gunman is basically wasted potential, considering the people involved in it. If you're a fan of Sean Penn, you can check it out. Otherwise, try something else. (6/10)  

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Furious 7

Year: 2015
Director: James Wan
Cast: Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Michelle Rodriguez, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Ludacris, Tyrese Gibson, Nathalie Emmanuel, Djimon Hounsou, Jordana Brewster, Kurt Russell, Tony Jaa


Plot: Deckard Shaw, the older brother of Owen Shaw, seeks revenge against Dom Toretto and his crew after the events of the previous film. To get to him first, Dom and his team agree to carry out a mission for the CIA where they attempt to rescue a hacker whose latest invention may help them find Shaw wherever he may be.


Review: The Fast & Furious series has never been about high level acting or award winning scripts. It's always been about fast cars, daredevil stunts and great action. The last few instalments have focused on the theme of family, which is even more emphasized here, not just on screen but also off it, due to the untimely passing of Paul Walker.

As mentioned, it's about family. Deckard Shaw wants revenge for what happened to his brother in Furious 6, so he starts hunting Dom and his crew, killing Han to kick things off. With Agent Hobbs injured after a confrontation with Shaw, Dom is offered an assist from a shady CIA agent who offers his help to find Shaw, in exchange for rescuing a hacker who has invented a program that can find anyone in the world. In between, Dom tries to reconnect with the amnesiac Letty and Brian tries to cope with fatherhood, which is interrupted by Shaw's presence.

James Wan definitely had a herculean task before him, to not only keep the momentum of the franchise going, but to make a film without Walker after his death. Using some camera tricks and Paul's brothers as stand-ins for certain scenes, Wan and company pull it off very well. His absence ends up being barely noticeable, though you can sense it quite strongly in the film's closing.

Lest we forget, the film is about stunts, action and cars, and in this area Wan succeeds for the most part. These films tend to outdo themselves every time and it's no exception here. We have cars jumping out of planes, cars jumping from one skyscraper to the next, fist fights and explosions, though the best one in my book is a highway sequence involving Dom's crew and a heavily armored bus. Some of these sequences defy logic immensely, but you'll be having so much fun it won't matter.

The team of Walker, Vin Diesel, Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese Gibson, Jordana Brewster and Ludacris have been together for a pretty long time, so their great camaraderie translates well on screen. They genuinely look like a real family, and it pays dividends for the film. They spend a bit more time on Dom and Letty this time around as the two try to get back their relationship, but it feels real enough to make the audience believe it. Dwayne Johnson on the other hand spends much less time here as Hobbs, paving the way for the newer cast members such as Kurt Russell as the CIA man (great choice), Nathalie Emmanuel as the hacker and Djimon Hounsou as the man the team is assigned to stop. Even the great Tony Jaa has a role here as Hounsou's right hand man. Oh, and Jason Statham of course, who is probably the best guy to pit against Diesel in an action film, being known as The Transporter prior to this. It's a dream pairing.

However, Wan, like many directors before him, hasn't mastered the art of filming action sequences smoothly. Some sequences end up looking too dark or shaky, especially the fist fights. The film's climax, which takes place at night, suffers from this as well, which is a minor shame, considering all the stuff that came before it. But Wan and company make up for it by firing on all cylinders and as a result, it's never boring despite running 137 minutes.

Overall, this is a more than solid entry to the Fast & Furious franchise, which has a bittersweet sendoff for the late Paul Walker. I have to hand it to Wan and the cast for giving us that ending. He'll be sorely missed. (4/5)    

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Wild

Year: 2014
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern


Plot: The true story of Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Canada, in an effort to heal from a recent tragedy.


Review: Wild is somewhat a mixture of Emil Hirsch's Into The Wild and Mia Wasikowska's Tracks, combining the scope of the latter and the introspective story of the former, minus the tragic ending.

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who life has descended into chaos after her beloved mother's death. She spirals into a bout of sexual promiscuity and drugs, causing her to split from her husband. In an effort to rediscover herself, she decides to hike 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest trail all alone, and on this journey, we see her overcome the many physical obstacles in her path while pondering her dark past.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee presents Cheryl's journey from start to finish and inserts several moments of her past life in between, which include her happy and sad moments with her late mother, her drug abuse, her sexual encounters with many men as well as her childhood spent in the presence of her drunk and abusive father. While all these past recollections define her character, I found the physical journey on the trail to be equally enthralling. Vallee wisely focuses on little details like Cheryl struggling to pick up her backpack (which you will notice looks way heavier than she is) on the first day, or her frustration from not being able to cook her own food, or her boots injuring her feet badly...all this in between seeing her walk for miles and meeting people. Many of the people she comes across are nice and kind hikers, save for one particularly creepy dude, as well as non-hikers who assist her along the way. 

As far as technical aspects go, Vallee scores full points. The cinematography is excellent and the music choices are all spot on. Personally I've not heard any of these songs before, but they fit the film like a glove and actually enhances the experience.

Witherspoon puts in a strong performance as Cheryl, showing the woman's dark side as well as her nicer demeanour, making her likable despite being flawed. It's easy to root for her as we see her take on a herculean task in an effort to regain control of her life. For that Witherspoon deserves all the credit she got. Laura Dern is solid as well in the role of Cheryl's mother, and while she doesn't get a lot of screen time, manages to shine in each of her moments as someone who has so much zest for life and love despite being a victim of abuse and the illness that eventually takes her life.

Wild does suffer though from the non-linear jumps to the past, which does well to establish Cheryl's life prior to the walk, but jarring at times when it didn't feel necessary. In this case, less would be more. The ending was also a bit abrupt, but it's not a big deal.

All in all, Wild is another solid journey story which is made all the better by Witherspoon and Dern's performances. It's worth a look. (7/10)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Whiplash

Year: 2014
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist


Plot: An aspiring drummer attempts to achieve greatness under the tutelage of an abusive jazz instructor.


Review: Much has been said about Whiplash before I finally got the chance to see this. I'm glad to report that it's as good as they say it is, or at least almost.

The teacher-student relationship has been explored several times on film, but never quite like this. We've never had a student this determined to be great, and a teacher this hard and abusive on his students.

Whiplash focuses on Andrew Nieman, a young drummer who wants to be a legend like Buddy Rich. He enrolls in Shaffer Conservatory and becomes a student of Terence Fletcher, a jazz instructor who's mean and abusive to his students. He demands perfection from them, and if he doesn't get it, he'll start yelling and throwing things. Despite getting harsh treatment from him, Andrew keeps practising till his hands bleed, all to achieve the standard Fletcher wants.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle has made the most basic story possible, narrowing the focus down to two things: achieving perfection, and the relationship between two men. Fletcher is tough on his band of students, but in his eyes, it's a necessity in order to attain the level he requires. Despite that, outside of class, he's a regular guy that one would be able to talk to or receive friendly advice from, indicating that he's not necessarily a monster. J.K. Simmons owns the role perfectly, making the man understandable and not someone we'd consider a villain or a person we hate. If we ever met him, we'd be afraid of him perhaps, but we won't dislike him. Simmons earned the Oscar for sure.

Similarly, Miles Teller puts in a strong performance as Andrew, going from being a nice kid to someone who wants to be the best at any cost. We slowly watch Andrew sacrificing his own well being and getting in Fletcher's face when he doesn't get what he wants, becoming nearly as bad as his instructor. Teller is awesome as well, and it needs to be noted.

Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist play Andrew's dad and love interest respectively, and though they serve up good performances, the focus isn't on them. Plus, Benoist's role seems unnecessary overall, the film doesn't change even if it was excised completely.

I'll have to admit; if you're the type of person that doesn't like the kind of music played here, you might be put off by what transpires throughout the film. That being said, I strongly recommend this film to anyone who wants to see great acting and possibly learn something about achieving your goal.

If you can get your hands on this film, give it a shot. (8/10)

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