Monday, December 05, 2016

Apprentice

Year: 2016
Director: Boo Junfeng
Cast: Fir Rahman, Wan Hanafi Su, Mastura Ahmad


Plot: Aiman, a young correctional officer, is transferred to a maximum security prison, where he befriends senior officer Rahim, who is in charge of executions. The two men start a friendship, but unknown to Rahim, Aiman's father had been executed by him many years ago.


Review: Apprentice is Singapore's official submission for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Oscars. It is an interesting, if not totally perfect film.

Aiman is a young correctional officer transferred to Larangan Prison, assigned to the rehabilitation section. He takes an interest in Rahim, a senior officer in the executions section, and befriends him. The old man takes a liking to Aiman, seeing a younger version of himself in him, but what he doesn't know is that he had executed Aiman's father many years ago. So the question is, why is Aiman seeking him out now?

The answer isn't forthcoming however, or if it was answered, it was done vaguely. Writer/director Boo Junfeng isn't interested in making a vengeance story, which Apprentice clearly is not. This is actually a character study, and an insight into an executioner's duty and what it feels like to work in a prison. Boo's story focuses on two men, one who has a chip on his shoulder, and another who is good at what he does, but not as content with it as he claims to be.

We watch the two men mostly from Aiman's point of view. Aiman carries the burden of his father's crime, and lashes out his anger at his older sister, who is in a relationship with an Australian expat. Rahim on the other hand has done his duty for three decades, and though it seems easy to him, it is clear that taking a person's life does take a toll on him. While Boo fleshes out both characters well, the question as to Aiman's intentions in pursuing the executioner's job and getting close to Rahim is never fully explained. It's obvious he doesn't want revenge, and he can excel at anything other than this, so why? Aside from that, Aiman's disdain for his sister's expat boyfriend is not properly explored either, and his anger towards her for making a life changing decision at the film's half mark is baffling, since he's always so indifferent with her.

But it must be said that Apprentice excels in sound and cinematography. The film is almost scoreless, so every footstep, door slam and the pull of the trap door lever sounds really crisp and perfect. The camerawork is also splendid, as the narrow confines of a prison cell, rooms and corridors are perfectly captured. Even the early morning shots of Aiman going to work are well done.

Acting wise, Fir Rahman is alright as Aiman, but rather inconsistent. In some scenes, he's on point, but in other times he seems much too aloof. Wan Hanafi Su is faultless as Rahim, balancing the character's mentor friendly demeanor and pent up rage brilliantly. Mastura Ahmad also puts in a strong performance as Suhaila, Aiman's sister, who doesn't know what to do with her little brother most of the time.

Another interesting aspect of the film is the execution scenes. While Hollywood likes to portray death row inmates as tough and unafraid of death, it's refreshing to see Boo show them as fearful of their fated walk down the dark corridor to the noose. Boo even spares some time to point his lens at the inmates' family and how they deal with the matter.

In summation, Apprentice is a solid film about the life of an executioner and how it is like working in a prison. The film is a bit rough around the edges, but very promising indeed and worth checking out. (7/10) 

Sunday, December 04, 2016

Underworld: Blood Wars

Year: 2016
Director: Anna Foerster
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Theo James, Lara Pulver, Tobias Menzies, Charles Dance, James Faulkner, Clementine Nicholson, Daisy Head, Bradley James, Peter Andersson


Plot: Selene has grown weary of the vampire-lycan war, and is now on the run from both clans, each seeking to capture her for her unique blood, which will give either side the power to win the war. Now she has to fight for her life, with only David, the vampire she saved in Awakening, as her ally.


Review: The Underworld franchise is similar to the Resident Evil franchise: violent, fun and disposable entertainment. The kind that you watch now, have a nice ride and accept for what it is, seldom ranking it as art. So if you've always had a great disdain for these films, you can stop reading now.

Kate Beckinsale has been the center piece of the Underworld series (except for the third film prequel) and continues to do what she does best: kicking ass. In this fifth instalment, Selene is on her own again. She has separated herself from her daughter Eve (introduced in Awakening), not even knowing her whereabouts to protect her from being found. Selene has grown tired of the war, but both lycan and vampire groups continue to hunt her down. Through David, her only ally left, she learns that the vampire council has requested her to train their army into formidable Death Dealers like herself, in order to face the onslaught of the lycans, now united under Marius. However, she's in for a few surprises, and again forced to seek help elsewhere.

New director Anna Foerster, working with a script by Kyle Ward and Cory Goodman, just manages to keep the new Underworld film engaging enough by introducing new places and characters. Sure, some will say the action is more or less similar and the vampires and lycans just picked up where they left off, but for fans, they get to revisit the vampire council (not seen since the first film) and check out a new vampire faction that live in the northern mountains. There is also a subplot involving David's origins which tie in to the vampire council. These elements somehow elevate Blood Wars above what would have been a mediocre Underworld outing.

In terms of acting, the cast do well enough, nothing outstanding, which is forgivable, being an action film and all. Beckinsale does seem a tad tired from doing this role again, but she clearly hasn't lost a step in the action department. Theo James continues to be rather bland as David, but he does try harder this time around as his role has expanded somewhat. Da Vinci's Demons' Lara Pulver and Game Of Thrones' Tobias Menzies are the antagonists here, the former faring better in her role as the scheming Semira, the latter being rather miscast as Marius (sorry, but Edmure Tully just doesn't have what it takes to look evil). Glad to see another Da Vinci cast member, James Faulkner show up as vampire council member Cassius, but he doesn't have enough screen time though. Clementine Nicholson makes an interesting character out of Lena, one of the vampires from the northern clan, though the spiritual mumbo jumbo was a bit too hard to swallow.

If compared to the previous films, Blood Wars does fall short in the action department (Evolution and Awakening were the best), and the ambiguous final shot doesn't help matters. But like I said, one watches these films for entertainment, and as a movie fan, I was entertained.

Bottom line is, if you never liked this franchise, Blood Wars won't change your mind. If you love it, then go see it. (7/10)

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The Girl With All The Gifts

Year: 2016
Director: Colm McCarthy
Cast: Gemma Arterton, Paddy Considine, Sennia Nanua, Glenn Close


Plot: In a dystopian future where most people have been either wiped out or turned into hungries i.e. rabid flesh eaters, a young girl named Melanie may be the key to save mankind.


Review: Much like Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later, The Girl With All The Gifts is set in a world where most of humanity has been wiped out by a virus, and only a few remain trying to survive against the infected, here known as hungries.

The story begins at a military base, where a group of children are kept prisoner. These children are special because while they have the bloodthirsty instincts of the hungries, they are still able to maintain their sense of humanity and capable of communicating with others. They are kept under surveillance by military sergeant Parks, who considers them abominations, educated by Helen Justineau, the only one who treats them with respect, and experimented upon by Dr Caldwell, who is desperate to find a cure. One particular child, Melanie, stands out among them as she is bright, observant and cares about people around her. However, the army base is overrun by the hungries, and Parks, Caldwell, Helen and Melanie have to run and find shelter in the city.

Colm McCarthy's film may seem like a handsome nod to 28 Days Later at first, but once the film settles into the second half, it partly becomes a character study as we see Melanie learn more about the world around her. Since she had never left the base from the start, it is fascinating to see her react to the world around her, and how quickly she learns to adapt. To that end, young actress Sennia Nanua, impresses in her first feature debut. Her inexperience does show in a few scenes, but her overall performance is very solid.

Gemma Arterton puts in one of her best works as the kind Helen Justineau, who treats the children like actual people, as opposed to Glenn Close's Dr Caldwell, who looks at them like guinea pigs. Close is also strong here, portraying a desperate character who isn't necessarily all bad. The same can also be said about Paddy Considine's Sgt Parks, who demonstrates his mean side early on in the film, but somewhat justifies his motivations towards the end. Considine is also memorable in his role. 

As far as the hungries go, there are a couple of stand out moments. The first involves the initial attack on the base, the second is when the group tries to silently walk through a static horde of hungries in the city, that may turn on them at any second. Credit goes out to the film's cinematography, set design and music team for a job well done.

The film could afford to lose about ten minutes or so, as it feels draggy at times. I also have a slight issue with the manner of demise of two characters at the end, as it seemed too easy. But it's a minor thing, and should not be a reason to not catch this film.

The Girl With All The Gifts is a solid entry into the zombie horror genre, and worth checking out. (7/10)     

Sunday, November 06, 2016

Jack Reacher: Never Go Back

Year: 2016
Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Tom Cruise, Cobie Smulders, Aldis Hodge, Danika Yarosh, Patrick Heusinger, Robert Knepper


Plot: Jack Reacher tries to help a female military officer clear her name over espionage accusations while dealing with the possibility that he may have a daughter from a past relationship.


Review: The first Jack Reacher film released four years ago was a solid action film that takes superstar Tom Cruise out of the Ethan Hunt super action hero mold into something more grounded and serious. This sequel pretty much follows the same road taken by the first film.

Reacher, ex-army major now living on the road and off the grid, helping people whenever possible, comes to the aid of Major Susan Turner, who is arrested by military police on espionage charges shortly after her two investigators were murdered in Afghanistan for possibly stumbling upon something nobody is supposed to know about. Reacher helps her escape custody and goes on the run while dragging along a 15 year old girl named Samantha, who may or may not be Reacher's daughter from a past relationship. As it turns out, the bad guys are military contractors who were supposed to bring back weapons confiscated in Afghanistan, but apparently did not, and are willing to kill to keep it secret.

Director Edward Zwick successfully keeps the pace tight so there isn't a dull moment here. The Jack Reacher films may not have the outrageous stunts or high adrenaline excitement of the Mission: Impossible films but it's fine. It makes up for it by presenting Cruise as a mysterious former army man with a strong moral code, and dangerous skills to go along with it. Zwick keeps the story flowing smoothly, and slightly better than the first film's sluggish middle portion.

Cruise is on point as Reacher, still being able to play a full fledged action hero despite his age starting to show on his face. Cobie Smulders is equally good as Turner, playing her as a tough, ass kicking female soldier who isn't afraid to stand up to Reacher or anyone else that talks down to her. Heroes Reborn's Danika Yarosh is annoying at first as Samantha, but starts growing on you as the story progresses.

The weakness of the film is the villains. Patrick Heusinger's nameless antagonist is clearly a physical match for Reacher, but much too two-dimensional. Robert Knepper, who plays his boss, is also a textbook villain, with too little screen time to shine. There's also the plothole on how Reacher seems to know everything and rarely makes a mistake. It's like he's the perfect hero, his only flaw being unable to connect with Turner and Samantha at times.

All in all, Jack Reacher: Never Go Back is a serviceable action movie slightly elevated by Tom Cruise's star power. I certainly wouldn't mind at all if he kept making more of these. (7/10) 

Sunday, October 30, 2016

Doctor Strange

Year: 2016
Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Tilda Swinton, Rachel McAdams, Mads Mikkelsen, Benedict Wong


Plot: When a brilliant neurosurgeon loses the use of his hands in a car accident, he travels east to Nepal to find a cure. Instead he discovers a group of mages who opens his eyes to the truth about the universe, and learns how to be one of them.


Review: After seeing a group of heroes defend the world together as the Avengers, who became so mostly due to science and physics, it's time to meet a hero who defies science altogether and uses magic instead.

Stephen Strange is a brilliant but arrogant neurosurgeon who gets into a car accident and injures his hands severely, and now unable to continue being a surgeon. After exhausting all his options, he travels to Nepal to find a group that healed a paralyzed man, hoping they can do the same for him. He discovers the Kamar-Taj, led by the Ancient One, who teaches him about the multiverse and how he can use magic not only to heal himself, but to become one of them and save the world from evil. In this case, it is a former student of the Ancient One, Kaecilius, who seeks to open a door to the Dark Dimension in search of immortality.

I keep hearing how this movie is being compared to Inception and I hate that, since this film is better than Inception and nowhere similar in concept. I prefer comparing Doctor Strange to The Matrix, since both films are about a man who learns that the world is not what he always thought it was, and that he is the chosen one to save it. Director Scott Derrickson (Sinister) uses a truckload of CGI to present the multiverses and how the film's characters travel through them by opening portals, or fold and spin the world around them (hence the Inception comparison). I have to say that the result is quite impressive, and definitely something Marvel fans haven't seen before in previous MCU entries.

Benedict Cumberbatch is very charismatic as Strange, giving the character an equal balance of ego and subsequent humility, with a dose of humor. Chiwetel Ejiofor in contrast is more serious as Mordo, Strange's comrade, though if you've seen the trailers, you'd know he gets the best joke in the film. Benedict Wong also does well as Wong, the group's librarian, who gets some funny scenes with Cumberbatch. Tilda Swinton throws in a straightforward yet curious performance as the Ancient One, and it sort of works.

The weakness of the film is the same thing that has plagued Marvel films as of late: the villain. It's been hard to find one that can match Loki, and unfortunately Mads Mikkelsen's Kaecilius is nowhere close to being intimidating or memorable. It certainly isn't his fault, it's just the way the character was written. Rachel McAdams' Christine Palmer is also a rather poorly written character, being nothing more than Strange's glorified love interest. McAdams does try to stand out though.

The action sequences are quite good, though some of the fights looked a bit blurry. Derrickson probably isn't accustomed to filming fights, but he makes up for it by overall making an MCU film that can stand on its own, with only subtle references to the Avengers, so one can enjoy it without referring to previous entries.

Overall, Doctor Strange is yet another strong entry into the Marvel universe. And as usual, stay for the post-credits scene. (8/10)

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