Sunday, May 01, 2016

Captain America: Civil War

Year: 2016
Directors: Joe Russo & Anthony Russo
Cast: Chris Evans, Robert Downey Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Chadwick Boseman, Elizabeth Olsen, Don Cheadle, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany, Tom Holland, Paul Rudd, Daniel Bruhl, Jeremy Renner, William Hurt

Plot: Collateral damage caused by the Avengers in their past attempts to save the world has been massive, resulting in the UN compelling them to sign an accord which will effectively have their activities policed and monitored. While Tony Stark is supportive of this idea, Steve Rogers is not, and a rift builds within the team. Things get worse when Bucky Barnes is set up for a terrorist attack on the UN, forcing Rogers to break the law to save his friend.

Review: 2016 is the year of the comicbook movies, and though the year is far from over, it's hard to argue the probability that the third Captain America film is the best of all of them.

The story is as follows: despite saving the world successfully from aliens, gods and robots, the Avengers have caused too much collateral damage for the UN to ignore. The world body plans to pass the Sokovia Accords, which will allow them to monitor and police the Avengers' activities. After being held accountable by a grieving parent of a victim, Tony Stark is on board with the idea. But Steve Rogers refuses, unwilling to let someone else dictate when to save lives and when not to. Then matters get more complicated when Bucky Barnes, Steve's old friend is accused of a terrorist attack on the UN, which results in the death of the ruler of Wakanda, prompting his son T'Challa aka Black Panther to seek revenge. Steve has to assemble a team to save Bucky as Stark assembles one of his own to bring them both in.

The Russo brothers, who previously directed Captain America: The Winter Soldier, have done splendidly again. Working on a script by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, the Russos combine great action sequences with a plausible plot on what it would be like if heroes fought each other and why. I like how they present neither side as being totally right, though as a comic fan myself, I can't help but choose one (not telling, though). Unlike Zack Snyder's recent superhero showdown film that took too much time to get to the action, the Russos waste little time and throw in a solid battle between four Avengers and Frank Grillo's Crossbones to start things off. There are a handful more of well choreographed action sequences, but the airport fight between Rogers and Stark's respective teams is superb to behold. It manages to be thrilling and funny at the same time, which is hard to do.

Every cast member puts in an excellent performance without a doubt, the main ones being Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. Evans continues being the stand up hero he's always been, only this time it's more of a personal reason than a general one, with Downey Jr contrasting him well as the guy trying to keep his friends out of trouble without being biased. Another impressive cast member is Chadwick Boseman as the Black Panther, whose judgment is clouded by revenge, but not necessarily a reckless man filled with rage. I can't wait to see how he will fare in future Marvel films to come. The other newcomer to the Marvel universe, Tom Holland, impresses as Spider-Man, though to me, he isn't as endearing as previous incarnations have been, but it's not totally his fault.

The filmmakers ought to be commended for the incredible world building that they have done. Four years ago, The Avengers was successful because of all the Marvel films that have built towards it. Now Civil War is the result of all the films that have come before it (save Guardians Of the Galaxy), and it truly feels like their story has come full circle.

The only thing I can complain about is the limited screen time of Paul Rudd's Ant-Man and Jeremy Renner's Hawkeye, both showing up only at the half mark of the film. But the Russos give everyone else mostly equal time to shine, even allowing time for Paul Bettany's Vision and Elizabeth Olsen's Scarlet Witch to build something towards a relationship, like they did in the books.

Captain America: Civil War is truly a remarkable feat by Marvel Studios. For me, it's right up there with X2, The Avengers and The Dark Knight as the best comicbook films ever made. Highly recommended. (9/10)  

P.S.: As usual, stay for the end credits scene.

Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Jungle Book

Year: 2016
Director: Jon Favreau
Cast: Ben Kingsley, Bill Murray, Idris Elba, Lupita Nyong'o, Scarlett Johansson, Christopher Walken, Giancarlo Esposito, Neel Sethi

Plot: Based on the well known story by Rudyard Kipling. The man-cub Mowgli is raised by a pack of wolves and the panther Bagheera in the jungle. When the tiger Shere Khan threatens his life, Bagheera sends Mowgli on a journey to his own people. Along the way, Mowgli meets a few new animals and learns to accept his destiny.

Review: I'm not familiar with The Jungle Book, though I did catch the Jason Scott Lee version many years ago. I do see the similarities between this version by Jon Favreau and The Lion King though.

Favreau wastes no time and immediately introdcues us to Mowgli, a boy living happily with a pack of wolves led by Akela and a panther named Bagheera. However the tiger Shere Khan, hateful of humans, particularly Mowgli's father who had burnt his face, vows to kill Mowgli first chance he gets. So Bagheera offers to take Mowgli back to his own kind at the edge of the forest for his own good. Along the way, the boy meets Baloo, a friendly bear who teaches him Hakuna Matata, and a bunch of monkeys led by King Louie.

The best thing about this film is without a doubt, the CGI. It's hard to believe that Favreau filmed this in a studio in Los Angeles, using green screen and top notch CGI to recreate the Indian jungle. Jim Henson's studio and some motion capture work did the animal effects, and I have to hand it to them, they did a splendid job. All this blend together seamlessly to create a very believable jungle world.

All the actors playing the animals were also accurately cast, from the funny Bill Murray as Baloo to serious actor Ben Kingsley as Bagheera, to the rugged Idris Elba as Shere Khan. Lupita Nyong'o lends a gentle air to Raksha, the wolf that raised Mowgli as her own. Christopher Walken is also great as King Louie, giving the huge ape a mafia boss type personality. It's sad though that Scarlett Johansson got just one scene as the python Kaa, she was perfect in the role. 

The Jungle Book's main weakness though is Neel Sethi, the 12 year old boy who plays Mowgli. Sethi isn't a very good actor and it shows, but he's young so he will probably get better if he keeps at it. I was also not a fan of the songs in the film. I know it's Disney and it was inevitable, but I'm just not into that sort of thing.

To sum it up, The Jungle Book is a solid adventure film for the whole family, though if you're looking for edgier entertainment, you should look elsewhere. (7/10) 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Eye In The Sky

Year: 2016
Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Helen Mirren, Aaron Paul, Alan Rickman, Barkhad Abdi, Iain Glen, Phoebe Fox

Plot: A joint military operation conducted by American, British and Kenyan forces aims to take out a wanted terrorist using drone technology. But the operation is thrown into disorder when an innocent civilian is within the kill radius of the drone's missile.

Review: Eye In The Sky is the second film in recent memory that focuses on drone warfare, the first being Ethan Hawke's Good Kill.

In this film by Rendition director Gavin Hood, a military operation is conducted by three countries to apprehend a terrorist in Kenya. The head of the operation, Colonel Katherine Powell, commands and supervises the effort, using an American drone piloted by Lt. Steve Watts, while Kenyan forces provide ground support. Together they learn that the terrorist is planning a bombing which will happen imminently. The capture order has now become a kill order. But trouble begins when a young Kenyan girl steps within the kill radius of the drone's missile, and Powell struggles to get clearance from her superiors to launch an attack as they are afraid of the political backlash stemming from civilian casualties.

Unlike the dull Good Kill, which focuses on Ethan Hawke's character missing the feel of piloting a real military jet, Eye In The Sky takes the more interesting route by debating the ethics of drone warfare. In this case, the joint military forces have an opportunity to eliminate a dangerous terrorist, but at the expense of an innocent life. Do they save this one girl, or save the scores of other people who will die at the hands of the terrorist's suicide bombers? Hood and writer Guy Hibbert take their time to explore both arguments, mostly among Powell's superiors, made up of General Benson and ministers of British government. Their discussions actually manage to venture into slightly comedic territory at times, (because apparently nobody wants to make the hard decisions) but it still successfully holds your attention to the matter at hand, which is a feat indeed.

The cast all perform splendidly, the best being Helen Mirren as Powell, trying desperately to accomplish her mission with the sole purpose of saving lives. Aaron Paul is also effective as the drone pilot wanting to execute his orders properly without killing innocent people. Alan Rickman, in his final role before his recent death, is great as Benson as he attempts to persuade the nervous ministers into making the right call. And then there's Barkhad Abdi as a Kenyan agent providing ground surveillance, risking his life in the process. It's good to see him on screen again, despite the somewhat unavoidable typecasting.

The slight downside of this film is the rather predictable elements of how certain things play out, which is most evident during the third act. But to Hood's credit, he maintains the suspense and intrigue as much as possible while making the audience think of the moral debate at the same time.

Eye In The Sky is a gripping war thriller that sends its message without the need to get too personal. Recommended. (8/10) 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Huntsman: Winter's War

Year: 2016
Director: Cedric Nicolas-Troyan
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Emily Blunt, Jessica Chastain, Charlize Theron, Nick Frost, Rob Brydon

Plot: Before Eric the huntsman helped Snow White defeat Ravenna, he was one of many children taken from their families by Ravenna's sister Freya, raised and trained to become hardened warriors under her command. When Freya learns of her sister's demise, she hatches a plan to retrieve the magic mirror, as Eric is dispatched by Snow White to help take the mirror to a sanctuary where it will be safe.

Review: Word went around during the time of the trailer's release that this film is the sequel no one asked for. To be fair, it's both a prequel and a sequel, much like 300: Rise Of An Empire was to 300. 

This film begins with the story of Freya, Ravenna's sister, whose lover killed their child, causing her to manifest ice powers. No longer believing in love, she travels to the north and kidnaps children, raising them to be her army of huntsmen. Eric and Sara, two of her finest, fall in love against her wishes, and she separates them. Years later, after Eric had succeeded in aiding Snow White against Ravenna, he is asked to find the magic mirror, which Snow White had commanded to be taken to a sanctuary, but was lost in transit. With the help of a quartet of dwarfs, Eric has to get to it before Freya does.

Director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, who was assistant director on Snow White And The Huntsman as well as visual effects man for it, tries to recapture the magic of that film for this side-quel, though he only half succeeds. I like the technical aspects of The Huntsman, such as costume, visual effects and cinematography, which are all pretty awesome. Cedric succeeds in crafting some solid action sequences, especially the final fight, but the overall story isn't quite as engaging. Without Snow White and six of the seven dwarfs from the previous film, The Huntsman feels much too detached and a little haphazardly strung together to justify it as a worthy side-quel.

In the place of those characters we have Sara, Eric's wife who was presumed dead but actually not, plus three other dwarfs, two of them female, to assist Eric in his quest for the mirror. While Sara is a welcome addition, the dwarfs are quite an unnecessary distraction this time around.

Out of the cast, Emily Blunt performs the best here. She balances Freya's cold demeanor and despair from a broken heart very well to create a villain the audience can understand and sympathize with. Chris Hemsworth on the other hand seems disengaged for the most part as Eric, spending more time showing audiences the lighter side of his character, which doesn't always work. Jessica Chastain is impressive in the action sequences as Sara, and looks good for the first two thirds of the film, and then mysteriously turns disinterested in the last third. Charlize Theron gets just a little more than a glorified cameo as Ravenna, but is actually more effective here than in the previous film. Nick Frost, Rob Brydon, Sheridan Smith and Alexandra Roach drum up some decent humor as the dwarfs, but prove to be less fascinating than the original seven dwarfs.

Overall, The Huntsman: Winter's War doesn't quite hold a candle to its predecessor. If they somehow manage to make more Huntsman films, I suggest bringing back Snow White and more of the original dwarfs as their presence here is sorely missed. (6/10)  

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Before I Wake

Year: 2016
Director: Mike Flanagan
Cast: Kate Bosworth, Thomas Jane, Jacob Tremblay, Annabeth Gish, Dash Mihok, Jay Karnes

Plot: A couple whose son recently died decide to adopt a young boy. They subsequently discover that whenever he's asleep, his dreams become reality. If he has happy dreams, all is well. But if he has nightmares, it's really bad.

Review: Before I Wake was supposed to be released late last year, but it was delayed due to their distributor, Relativity Films going bankrupt. Now, thanks to the half a dozen film companies whose titles I saw as the film begins, audiences finally get to check this out.

Jessie and Mark Hobson are a couple who recently lost their son when he drowned in their bathtub. In an attempt to heal and move on, they adopt a young boy named Cody, who seems adorable and smart. Soon after, they discover he has a unique gift. Whenever he's asleep, whatever he dreams manifest physically, and vanish once he awakens. Since Cody loves butterflies, good dreams creates colorful butterflies flying around. But every kid has nightmares, and Cody's nightmare is in the form of a vile creature he calls the Canker Man, and whenever he shows up, bad things happen in the real world.

Mike Flanagan, director of Oculus (a sleeper hit this reviewer has yet to see) also co-wrote this film. It's interesting to note that Before I Wake isn't a straight up horror flick, as there are strong elements of drama concerning how Jessie and Mark deal with their loss. For a significant portion of the film, Jessie, after discovering Cody's gift, uses him to manifest her late son Sean, something that Mark isn't happy about as he thinks it doesn't constitute good parenting (which is true). Later on, Jessie tries digging up Cody's past and it weaves itself into the film's ending. For true blue horror fans, this would be a letdown for sure, but it all depends on what the viewer expects as they walk in to see this.

Kate Bosworth plays a grieving mother generally well, but strangely enough her character is more courageous in the face of Cody's nightmares and her own than we'd expect. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. Thomas Jane is alright as Mark but doesn't get enough to work with here. Jacob Tremblay from the Oscar winning Room is very likable as Cody. He's probably the best thing about the film.

As I've stated, this isn't a straight up horror film, that being said, the horror elements here are in the 'been there done that' category. There are a handful of jump scares here and there, and a few creepy moments, but nothing totally freaky. It's not very scary, but the story might just tug at your heartstrings a little, which works to some extent for me.

Before I Wake is indeed a watchable film if you lower your expectations especially in the horror department. If you want something scary, look elsewhere. (6/10)


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