Sunday, November 22, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

Year: 2015
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Donald Sutherland, Julianne Moore, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin, Jena Malone

Plot: Katniss Everdeen's final confrontation with President Snow is preceded by battles, traps, more deaths and the demise of a love triangle.

Review: After 3 years we are finally given the opportunity to say goodbye to The Hunger Games, which had its moments, but felt like it was drawn out too long to make its point, and even then, it ends weakly.

So the final film's plot goes as follows: Katniss is more determined than ever to end President Snow's control over Panem, but doesn't care much about District 13 President Alma Coin's initiative to rally all the districts together to take the Capitol. So she attempts to make it to the Capitol on her own, and soon gets a small team of escorts made up of familiar faces, and Peeta Mellark, who almost crushed her larynx the last time we saw him. But the many traps set in place by Snow will test this small group of rebels greatly, and there are deaths to be had.

For the first two thirds of this final instalment, I was sort of digging what director Francis Lawrence was going for. There's some solid buildup and an intense second act where Katniss and company take on the many obstacles in their path, the best of which is a sewer fight against creatures that seem inspired by the vampires in Paul Bettany's Priest. At the same time the group has to be wary of Peeta, who is still psychologically damaged from Snow's brainwashing, and could turn against them at any second.

And then the film takes a twist in the third act, and I must say, if this is what happened in the books, it must have worked better on paper. This turn of events pretty much killed whatever momentum that came before it, not just this film but the other instalments as well. Just think about it; the story was always about Katniss building up towards facing the one enemy that tormented her all this time, and not only did they take the wind out of that face-off, they killed a key supporting character to do it. To make matters worse, they used it to end the much ballyhooed love triangle between Katniss, Peeta and Gale. Overly convenient for my liking.

The best thing about Mockingjay Part 2 though, is Jennifer Lawrence, who is in almost every scene. She pretty much carries the entire film on her shoulders, even at its worst moments. Josh Hutcherson comes a close second as Peeta, while Liam Hemsworth is still terribly bland as Gale. The other supporting characters don't get much time to shine, except Donald Sutherland as Snow, still stealing every scene he's in. Sam Claflin does alright as Finnick, but I saw his fate coming a mile away. Jena Malone returns as Johanna for a couple of scenes with Lawrence, but doesn't get much else to do otherwise, which is a damn shame. And how much did they pay Gwendoline Christie and Robert Knepper for their five minutes of screen time? A terrible waste of two talents here.

As the film sputters towards a pretty weak ending, I had to ask: are there only three people left from District 12? It just seems so strange that there are a handful of questions still left unanswered, and how certain characters' fates and reactions seem muted.

After all this I can finally be happy to close the book on The Hunger Games, and turn my attention to other potentially better YA adaptations, like The Maze Runner for instance. Watch this just for closure, and nothing else. (6/10)     

Monday, November 09, 2015


Year: 2015
Director: Sam Mendes
Cast: Daniel Craig, Lea Seydoux, Christoph Waltz, Dave Bautista, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Ben Whishaw, Monica Bellucci

Plot: James Bond follows up on the previous M's final order to pursue a secret organisation and subsequently discovers that its leader has ties to his own past.

Review: Skyfall, the previous Bond movie was pretty damn good, so much so that it has set the bar rather high for future instalments to reach. While Spectre no doubt tries hard, it doesn't quite match its predecessor's quality, though not for lack of trying.

Spectre begins in Mexico, where 007 kills a man and takes his ring. We discover later that this was the previous M's final order before her death. The ring leads Bond to a sinister organisation known as Spectre, which has connections to people he had killed before. Along the way, he has to protect Madeleine Swann, the daughter of Mr White, who used to work for Spectre. In the meantime, a merger between MI5 and MI6 allows the head of the Centre of National Security to take control and terminate the 00 program, much to M's chagrin.

Director Sam Mendes tries his best to outdo himself here, but with mixed results. A few action sequences, such as the opening chase in Mexico leading to a helicopter stunt, and a scrap between Bond and Dave Bautista's Mr Hinx, look pretty good. Even the snow covered chase between Bond and Madeleine's kidnappers involving jeeps and a plane, while looking simple, was shot quite well. But knowing what he had done in Skyfall, it's hard not to make comparisons and see Mendes come up short. And while the script attempts to make this story as personal as possible by having Spectre's leader be connected to Bond's past in a big way, its execution isn't as convincing as it could have been. The impending shutdown of the 00 program is also somewhat familiar to the plot of this year's Mission Impossible instalment, but to be honest, I don't mind it.

Daniel Craig is on point again as 007, no surprise there. Christoph Waltz is almost playing Hans Landa again here as the leader of Spectre. He's good but much too familiar. Lea Seydoux acquits herself well as Madeleine Swann, getting to save Bond at one point despite being mostly a damsel here. Monica Bellucci has little more than a glorified cameo here while Ralph Fiennes and Naomie Harris return as the new M and Moneypenny respectively. Ben Whishaw also returns as Q, and provides some much needed laughter.

If there's one thing here that I like better than Skyfall is Sam Smith's theme song, though I'm aware I'm in the minority. It doesn't quite have the energy of my all time favorite theme done by Duran Duran, but it fits the film well.

Bottom line is, comparisons aside, Spectre is a solid Bond entry. Maybe with tighter editing (148 minutes is hefty) and a bit more creativity, it would have been awesome. But go see it anyway. You've come this far. (7/10)

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Bridge Of Spies

Year: 2015
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Tom Hanks, Mark Rylance, Amy Ryan, Alan Alda, Austin Stowell, Scott Shepherd

Plot: Based on the true story of Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer who helped negotiate the successful exchange of two American prisoners and a convicted Russian spy during the Cold War.

Review: It's been a long three years since Steven Spielberg directed a film, the last being Lincoln. Bridge Of Spies is another entry into his long list of true story adaptations.

In his latest, set during the Cold War in 1957, Tom Hanks portrays Jim Donovan, an insurance lawyer hired by the US government to represent Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy arrested by the FBI. From the outset, it's pretty clear everyone wants to sentence Abel to death, except for Donovan, who believes in giving the man a fair defense in court. Doing so comes at a high price towards him and his family, and getting no cooperation from anyone including his firm and even the judge makes it even harder, but he tries his best anyway, and subsequently loses. Then, an American pilot gets shot down in Russia while carrying out spying activities and Donovan is asked to negotiate an exchange between the US and USSR: Abel for Powers, the pilot. Things become more complicated when an American student named Pryor is arrested in East Berlin by the Stasi, and Donovan wants him released as well.

As usual, in terms of authenticity, Spielberg scores a lot of points. The setting looks good, the costumes fit the era and the things we see on the street, television and cinemas of the era are all spot on. Even schoolchildren are seen being educated about nuclear destruction, as the fear of nuclear war was on the rise at the time. Credit also goes into the amount of details the film shows as regards to story and facts. Spielberg, working on a script by the Coen brothers, puts all the facts in place and for the most part, paces the film well, though it does get a tad tiresome towards the end.

Hanks is as always on point, never making a bad film as I recall. As Donovan, he balances the line between a good family man and a skilful lawyer very well. There is a great scene between Hanks and Scott Shepherd as a CIA agent, arguing about his role in Abel's case, and Hanks shows what Donovan is truly made of. Mark Rylance delivers a solid performance too as Abel, presenting him as an unassuming man who doesn't look like a spy at all, just an old man who served his country and accepts whatever judgment passed on him. The rest of the cast are alright, but they don't have enough screen time to make a mark.

The film is overall solid, as most Spielberg films are, but the man kept the audience at arm's length here. The emotional connection between us and the story isn't really felt, despite the great performances at hand. It serves better as a historical account than an engaging story, though it does have its moments. The editing can also be tightened a little to shorten the 141 minute runtime.

Overall, Bridge Of Spies is a watchable film thanks to Tom Hanks, though it's clearly not Steven Spielberg's best work. (7/10)

Sunday, October 25, 2015

The Last Witch Hunter

Year: 2015
Director: Breck Eisner
Cast: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Michael Caine, Elijah Wood

Plot: After successfully killing the Witch Queen, witch hunter Kaulder was cursed with immortality. For 800 years he lives and keeps evil at bay, until he discovers a plan concocted by an evil witch to resurrect the Witch Queen, and he has to rely on a young witch to stop it.

Review: Action fantasy films, when done right, can be quite entertaining. But it's not easy for sure, since the various recent attempts have received critical beatings (Seventh Son, Dracula Untold, RIPD). Personally I thought Seventh Son wasn't bad overall, but I digress.

The Last Witch Hunter begins in medieval times, where a group of men do battle with the Witch Queen, who has cursed the land with the black plague. One of the men, Kaulder, successfully kills her, but not before she curses him with immortality. 800 years later, Kaulder is still keeping the peace for the Axe & Cross, a group sworn to protect the world from evil witches. When his longtime friend and sidekick, Dolan the 36th, is killed by witches, Kaulder looks into his death and discovers a plan to resurrect the Witch Queen. He has to rely on a young witch named Chloe to stop them.

With seemingly all the right elements in place, The Last Witch Hunter should have worked quite well. It surely looks like Keanu Reeves' Constantine in many aspects, but unfortunately it's not as memorable as that movie. Director Breck Eisner manages to keep the film competently moving for the most part, but the flawed script makes it hard for him to sustain the audience's attention. For one thing, the dialogue is cliched and the all too familiar plot of stopping an apocalypse is riddled with plot holes. The occasionally choppy CGI doesn't help either, and the fight scenes suffer from the same problem of being filmed too close.

But it's not all doom and gloom though. Underneath this mess lies a few gems here and there. The film has its entertaining moments, mostly when star Vin Diesel is in form and the CGI actually works. Diesel usually has plenty of screen presence and he brings it again here as Kaulder, though one gets the feeling he's much more comfortable playing Dom Toretto. Game Of Thrones' Rose Leslie gets the lion's share of support duty as Chloe, and acquits herself well despite not having much chemistry with Diesel. Elijah Wood is terribly wasted in a thankless role as Dolan the 37th, by being inserted in the film's climax as part of a plot twist that didn't work at all. Michael Caine is great of course as Dolan the 36th, but has much too little to do here (he does get a pretty funny line somewhere at the end involving a fly). The Witch Queen, played by Julie Engelbrecht, looks almost as bad as the CGI Scorpion King in The Mummy Returns, especially in the final fight. But credit goes to Olafur Darri Olafsson as witch lackey Belial, who is rather intimidating in size, along with a bass voice to match.

Judging by how the film ended, obviously Diesel is hoping to make a sequel. I won't lie, the potential is there, and if done right, it can be great. But it certainly isn't off to a very good start here. The Last Witch Hunter is overall fun but forgettable. (6/10)

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Crimson Peak

Year: 2015
Director: Guillermo del Toro
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston, Charlie Hunnam, Jim Beaver

Plot: After a family tragedy, an aspiring writer marries an aristocrat and moves into his crumbling mansion, Allerdale Hall. Soon she discovers her new husband and his sister may be hiding a sinister secret, as there are ghosts in the house that won't leave her alone.

Review: I'm currently following Guillermo del Toro's horror TV show The Strain in its first season. Awesome stuff. While that one is straightforward horror, his latest film Crimson Peak is slightly different.

Crimson Peak, set in early 20th century, centers on Edith Cushing, a young aspiring writer who lost her mother to disease when she was ten years old and now lives with her father, a builder. One day she meets Sir Thomas Sharpe from England, who takes interest in her and her writings, and they subsequently fall for each other. Her father disapproves of Thomas and his more dubious looking sister Lucille, but then he suddenly dies and Edith swiftly marries Thomas and moves into the Sharpe's crumbling home, Allerdale Hall. Shortly after, Edith encounters dead spirits in the house, and begins to suspect that her new husband and his sister aren't what they seem to be.

If you're looking for a visually beautiful film this year, there isn't one more lovely than Crimson Peak (except maybe Mad Max: Fury Road). Cinematography, set design and costume design are all top notch. The set for Allerdale Hall is simply awesome, from the wide open field between the house and its gate, to the eerie mansion that looks gorgeous despite being dilapidated and bearing a huge hole in the roof. It's a set that's begging for an Oscar next year. The visual effects depicting the ghosts are cool too, with long time del Toro collaborator Doug Jones chipping in again as the spirits Edith runs into. The effects show them as bloody skeletons, and they can be quite disarming.

As for the cast, Mia Wasikowska is simply perfect in the role of Edith. Word has it that she is replacing Emma Stone, and thank goodness for that (I can't picture Stone in this role honestly). Wasikowska is a perfect fit for the era in this film, looking really lovely in every frame, and she brings across Edith's enthusiasm, youth and eventual fear very well. Jessica Chastain is also great as Lucille, a character very far removed from her recent astronaut role in The Martian. Chastain is menacing and cold here, a person who is equally disturbing as the spirits in the house. Tom Hiddleston, like Wasikowska, is perfect for the era, and plays the nicer Sharpe sibling Thomas with much charm and gusto. Charlie Hunnam, last seen in del Toro's Pacific Rim, acquits himself well as Edith's childhood friend Alan, but doesn't get much screen time except at the beginning and end of the film. Rounding up the cast is Supernatural's Jim Beaver as Edith's father, and is also a perfect fit for the role.

Now while casting and acting are all solid here, it is the script that is slightly flawed. The story itself isn't a problem, but the dialogue sinks itself into unnecessary melodrama many times. The pacing is also a bit off in the middle third of the film, and while the ghosts are well depicted, I wanted to see more of them. But thankfully del Toro sort of makes up for this with a blood drenched climax, so if you like violence you're in for a treat.

Overall, Crimson Peak is a visual marvel and a solid watch, even though it's flawed here and there. Guillermo del Toro may have not recaptured the brilliance of his magnum opus, Pan's Labyrinth here but it isn't for lack of trying. (7/10) 


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