Saturday, March 11, 2017

Kong: Skull Island

Year: 2017
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts
Cast: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, Samuel L Jackson, John Goodman, Corey Hawkins, John C. Reilly, Toby Kebbell, Jing Tian, Shea Whigham, Jason Mitchell, Thomas Mann, John Ortiz


Plot: A team of scientists and soldiers explore an uncharted island in the Pacific in 1973, only to encounter a vast array of dangerous gigantic creatures, including a 104-foot ape known as Kong.


Review: The recent Godzilla remake was underwhelming to say the least, and movie fans would rightfully hope that Kong: Skull Island, the next film about gigantic monsters, would be better. I'm happy to report that it certainly is.

After a brief prologue that takes place in 1944, we jump to 1973 where the Vietnam War is at an end. Scientists from Monarch, a top secret research company, gain permission from the government to explore Skull Island, an uncharted island in the Pacific. Along for the ride are a group of soldiers just leaving Vietnam, a former SAS soldier acting as tracker, and an anti-war photographer. Once there however, they run into a gigantic ape that wastes no time in attacking and destroying their helicopters, forcing the survivors to travel through rough and dangerous terrain to make it to their pick up point. Along the way, they have to try to not get killed, and they run into someone who knows about the big ape and the island.

Relatively new director Jordan Vogt-Roberts wisely keeps the pace brisk here. Peter Jackson's King Kong was the last time Kong appeared on the silver screen, and though it was a magnificent film, it was a very long experience. So thankfully, Vogt-Roberts makes it easy on the viewers by keeping things swift. After all, this is more of a sci-fi fantasy and not the love story that Jackson's film is known for.

As an adventure flick, it certainly hits all the right notes. There is rarely a dull moment in the film as Vogt-Roberts throws one threat after another at our heroes, from giant spiders to killer pterodactyls and "skullcrawlers", which you would be familiar with if you've watched the trailers. And of course, there is Kong, who begins as a threat but as we all know, is the real hero of the story. Thanks to a very game cast and spectacular visual effects from Industrial Light & Magic, the film is pretty entertaining from start to finish.

The ensemble cast is pretty impressive, though only a select few really stand out. Tom Hiddleston's Conrad, the tracker and Samuel L Jackson's Col. Packard, leader of the soldiers, get the most airtime, and both actors are good in their roles. Jackson's Packard is like Ahab in Moby Dick, trying to kill Kong whom he views as an enemy. Brie Larson, playing Weaver the photographer, gets her chance to shine too, mostly with Kong. The best role however goes to John C Reilly. He plays Marlow, a pilot who crashed on the island 28 years prior, and becomes the group's guide. Partly eccentric and partly wise, he is the unsung hero of the story, and Reilly is truly the most memorable thing about the film other than Kong. 

The rest of the cast, including Jing Tian, Corey Hawkins, Shea Whigham, Toby Kebbell and Thomas Mann provide some good support but not enough time on screen unfortunately. Even the legendary John Goodman as head scientist Randa was sadly wasted when he could have really taken the role to another level if given the chance. Lastly, credit goes to Terry Notary who provides the movements for Kong; he had previously done so for Rise Of The Planet Of The Apes and Dawn Of The Planet Of The Apes.

At the end of the day though, Kong: Skull Island, despite the great effects and outstanding cast, is essentially a B movie. The theme of man versus nature is a good idea here, but one gets the feeling that the film only scratched the surface of that idea. With a bit more time, that idea can be further explored.

But if you're looking for a thrilling adventure flick this month, you can't go wrong with Skull Island. Do wait till the credits finish rolling for one last scene. (8/10)

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Logan

Year: 2017
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Patrick Stewart, Dafne Keen, Boyd Holbrook, Stephen Merchant, Richard E. Grant, Eriq La Salle, Elizabeth Rodriguez


Plot: In the near future, Logan, now a tired man looking after an aging and weak Charles Xavier, finds himself in charge of protecting an 11 year old mutant girl from her former captors.


Review: Wolverine's long 17 year journey through film comes to an end at last here, and it is bloody well done, pun not intended.

It's the future, and the X-Men no longer exist. All that's left is Logan, no longer the Wolverine, who works as a limo driver and looks after Charles Xavier, now 90 years old and prone to seizures, which for a telepath, causes everyone around him to suffer tremendously. One day, a Mexican woman asks him for help to get to North Dakota; she and an 11 year old girl are on the run from dangerous people. Logan reluctantly agrees since he needs the money, but things go south pretty quick when the bad people show up, all armed to the teeth and they have no issues about killing. Here's where we discover that the girl is special. She is a mutant, who is related to Logan, and is pretty much like him too.

If you're a comic reader, you would know that the girl is Laura Kinney aka X-23, Logan's clone daughter. She is played here by Dafne Keen, who is simply superb in portraying a feral child with claws. Watching her take down men twice her size is a lot of fun, and Keen's performance as a younger, more animalistic version of Wolverine is remarkable. She is yet another child actor bound for greatness.

Hugh Jackman's ninth and final appearance as Logan may be his best one ever. With his healing factor failing him, Logan is dying a slow death, and has become more vulnerable and resentful than ever. Essentially he's still a good man, which is why he can't turn his back on Laura when she needs him. Jackman is intense and emotionally tired as Logan, and he couldn't have done a better job. Patrick Stewart, also making a final appearance as Charles Xavier, puts in a splendid performance here as a near senile man, prone to dangerous seizures. Gone is the man who taught mutants at his school, and only a shell of a professor remains. Stewart's performance is so tragic, and yet it still carries hope. I think Jackman and Stewart ought to be seriously considered for Oscars by the Academy here.

Boyd Holbrook and Richard E Grant are solid as the film's villains, particularly the former as Donald Pierce (whom comic fans will recognize as leader of the Reavers). Also worth mentioning are Stephen Merchant as Caliban, a mutant who helps Logan take care of Xavier, and ER's Eriq La Salle as a farmer who gives refuge to Logan during his journey.

Director James Mangold, who had directed The Wolverine, pulls out all the stops in ensuring Logan gets a memorable farewell. Most obvious here is the R rating, which makes this X-Men film the most violent one you'll ever see, and no cartoonish Deadpool type violence here. This is as bloody and brutal as it gets, as people get clawed, stabbed and decapitated. So don't bring your kids to this one, folks. But more importantly, Mangold, drawing some inspiration from the Old Man Logan comic arc, presents a story that is touching and sad at the same time. It's definitely not the average X-Men type film, or even an average comic book film for that matter. Logan is like a modern day western, and Mangold even uses Johnny Cash's music and excerpts from Shane to make it work. Despite all the brutality that takes place on screen, it's really a beautiful film.

The only issue I have with this film is the editing, as it felt a bit long at times. But honestly, Logan is a phenomenal film overall. As Wolverine has always been my favorite character, it made me feel sad to see him go, but I think he couldn't have gone out a better way than this. Recommended. (9/10) 

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Hidden Figures

Year: 2016
Director: Theodore Melfi
Cast: Taraji P Henson, Octavia Spencer, Janelle Monae, Kevin Costner, Jim Parsons, Kirsten Dunst


Plot: Based on the true story of Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, three African American women who made significant contributions to NASA in their space program in the 1960s.


Review: Much like Selma and The Help before it, Hidden Figures tells the story of the struggle for colored folk in America several decades back, and is just as fascinating as those films, if not totally flawless.

The three women, Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan, have all the skills required to excel in their respective assignments, but due to their skin color, are mostly overlooked or underappreciated by their white peers. Johnson is a math genius, a prodigy since she was young, but after she is chosen to compute equations for NASA's space program, she gets sidelined and discriminated against by her colleagues. Jackson is a brilliant engineer, but the rulebook disallows her from applying for an engineering post due to her skin color. Vaughan is doing a supervisor's job but denied the proper post and salary of such a job. And so, the women do whatever they can to stand out and achieve equal respect among their white peers and superiors.

It's actually quite fun and occasionally frustrating to see them struggle with their problems, get a small victory only to get another setback throughout the film. Director Theodore Melfi successfully shows us their plight during racial tension in the 60s, where colored folk have to use their own restrooms, sit at the back of the bus, denied equal pay and even use the same library with white people. A great example of this is when Johnson gives her boss, Al Harrison and her colleagues a piece of her mind when he asks her where she disappears to every now and then due to the fact she has to walk half a mile to use the colored restrooms.

Taraji P Henson is splendid as Johnson, and that above mentioned scene with Kevin Costner as her boss is a standout moment for sure. Octavia Spencer plays Vaughan in a subtle manner, but still retaining some of her street smart comebacks. My favorite though is Janelle Monae, who gives Mary Jackson a nice amount of spunk in her attitude. Costner is also good as the fair but very result oriented boss while Jim Parsons and Kirsten Dunst fill the roles of white folk who discriminate them but eventually learns the error of their ways.

While everyone's acting is spot on, Melfi's storytelling isn't as smooth as it could have been. As the stories of the three women start to take their own course, he struggles to keep a coherent flow as he switches back and forth between their stories too often, which is most evident in the middle third of the film. But overall, I liked how informative the film is, even if some of the facts were altered (it is Hollywood after all).

In the end, Hidden Figures is an inspiring true story that is well acted by its cast. It may not be as memorable as The Help, but deserves to be checked out. (7/10) 

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)

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