Sunday, September 24, 2017

Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Year: 2017
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Julianne Moore, Pedro Pascal, Halle Berry, Jeff Bridges, Channing Tatum

Plot: When a drug lord poisons every drug user in the world with her new revolutionary drug and destroys the Kingsman's headquarters, Eggsy and Merlin head to the U.S and joins forces with their American covert relatives, Statesman, where they discover Harry, the original Galahad, is still alive.

Review: Matthew Vaughn's KIngsman: The Secret Service was a surprise hit, even for me as I didn't expect to enjoy it as much as I did. That success paved the way for this sequel, where Vaughn expands on Kingsman's universe.

As far as our young hero Eggsy is concerned, life couldn't be better. He's a top agent who's in a relationship with a Swedish princess, but it all goes south real quick when Poppy Adams, an eccentric drug queen, destroys each one of Kingsman's secret bases and kills all their agents, save for Eggsy and Merlin. The duo discover the existence of the American version of their organization, Statesman, and travel there to seek their help. They find out that Harry survived the supposed fatal gunshot in the first film and now suffers from amnesia. The two spy teams join forces in an effort to stop Poppy, who has poisoned every drug user on earth and will only save them if the President shuts down their war on drugs.

In essence, The Golden Circle is a lot like The Secret Service, minus the part where Eggsy has to learn the ropes on how to be a super agent. We have more ridiculous stunts, fights, violence and another over-the-top villain with an over-the-top scheme. But one can't help but feel that Vaughn was overindulgent here, as he spends a lot of time on exposition and taking the long way around to get to his point, which results in this sequel being 141 minutes long. There were definitely a few things that could have been edited, including a supposedly dramatic twist at the climax which led to another excuse for a ridiculous fight sequence.

Taron Egerton and Colin Firth are still the main stars here, still kicking ass as Eggsy and Harry respectively. Egerton in particular seems to have settled in with his role quite well. Channing Tatum and Jeff Bridges only make minor appearances as Tequila and Champagne respectively, leaving Pedro Pascal with most of the Statesman's action as Whiskey. Halle Berry is okay as the Statesman's tech support Ginger Ale, but doesn't get much to do other than speak about being underappreciated by her peers. Mark Strong still scores as Merlin while Julianne Moore, like Samuel L Jackson before her, hams it up as Poppy, but comes off being more annoying than intimidating. Look out for Elton John playing himself as a prisoner of Poppy, it's quite funny actually.

Besides the overindulgence above, I was also displeased with Vaughn for eliminating a few characters from the first film here, whom I felt deserved to continue appearing in future instalments. Then there's the music choices, which were terrible, except for Take Me Home, Country Road.

All in all, Kingsman: The Golden Circle is an imperfect but fun sequel, which could use some tighter editing. (7/10) 

Sunday, September 17, 2017

American Assassin

Year: 2017
Director: Michael Cuesta
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Michael Keaton, Sanaa Lathan, Taylor Kitsch, Shiva Negar, Scott Adkins

Plot: A young man hell bent on taking revenge against terrorists is recruited by the CIA to join their special team of elite killers.

Review: The success of the Bourne films have generated a massive number of similar copycat films over the last decade. Some films like Salt and Safe House were successful, while others like Hitman: Agent 47, The Expatriate, The November Man and Survivor were only so-so. Now we can add one more to the genre.

Based on one of the Mitch Rapp novels by the late Vince Flynn, American Assassin tells the story of Rapp, whose girlfriend is killed by a terrorist attack in Spain. Fueled by vengeance, Rapp trains himself to become a killer all on his own and successfully infiltrates the terrorist cell responsible. CIA deputy director of counter intelligence Irene Kennedy sees potential in him and recruits him to join Orion, a special black ops team under the tutelage of former Navy SEAL Stan Hurley, a no-nonsense instructor. Rapp turns out to be an efficient spy despite having problems taking orders from people. When the CIA discovers a former student of Hurley's attempting to make a nuclear bomb, Hurley and Rapp are sent to handle the problem.

The storyline here is rather similar to Skyfall, where a spy has gone rogue and wants to get even with his handler, though this particular plot isn't fully explored. The idea of two spies, in this case Rapp and Ghost, his predecessor, being pitted against one another by people who have or is pulling their strings, and having so much in common, would have been interesting to watch. But director Michael Cuesta (Kill The Messenger) spends most of the film focusing on Rapp's training and his drive for vengeance or getting things done his way. Ghost's intentions here only seem to be getting even with Hurley, which is fine, but makes him a less cerebral antagonist.

As far as the action sequences go, Cuesta doesn't hold back on the violence, just the way I like it. The opening terrorist attack was a sight to behold, and there are some well choreographed fights and a decent torture sequence, so overall Cuesta got it right.

Dylan O'Brien is splendid as Rapp, looking very different from playing Thomas in The Maze Runner films. Here, he's intense and mostly angry, but still easy to root for. Michael Keaton scores the most points here as Hurley, being convincing enough as the tough spy trainer with experience during the Cold War. Sanaa Lathan's Irene Kennedy is mostly a suit-wearing bureaucrat here, but she makes it work, while newcomer Shiva Negar does alright as a Turkish agent working with Rapp. As for Taylor Kitsch, he is believable enough as Ghost, the man who has an axe to grind with his superiors, but doesn't quite get enough time to show what he's really capable of, which is a pity. Initially I thought his acting would be a letdown, but he kinda impressed me. I am disappointed though, that B-movie action star Scott Adkins is reduced to playing an unlucky second fiddle agent, since he's supposed to be a badass.

In essence, American Assassin doesn't quite break new ground on the spy genre. If you've seen the Bourne films already and seeking something innovative, you won't find it here. Personally though, I found it entertaining. I've learnt that some movies need not be original to entertain the audience, that one can go see an action movie and enjoy it for what it is, and American Assassin is that kind of film. (7/10)  

Sunday, September 10, 2017


Year: 2017
Director: Andy Muschietti
Cast: Jaden Lieberher, Sophia Lillis, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgard

Plot: In the summer of 1989, seven high school kids battle a demonic clown that has been kidnapping and eating children in the town of Derry, Maine.

Review: The much hyped remake of Stephen King's It has finally arrived. This reviewer only has vague memories of the original TV miniseries, so he won't be making comparisons here.

We begin in October 1988 as the film shows how the evil Pennywise the dancing clown kills seven year old Georgie Denbrough while he was playing with his paper boat in the rain. Cut to eight months later, where we are introduced to a bunch of high school kids who are considered "losers" by their seniors: Ben, a tubby kid who loves listening to New Kids On The Block; Stanley, a Jewish boy struggling to pass his upcoming Torah test; Eddie, a hypochondriac kid; Richie, a fast talking boy who isn't as cool as he thinks he is; Beverly, a young girl who is a victim of sexual abuse by her dad; Mike, an African American kid working at a meat factory; and Bill, Georgie's stuttering older brother who still believes he's alive. Each of them encounter Pennywise on different occasions, and when they realise this, they decide to band together and take the fight to him.

Director Andy Muschietti skilfully balances the drama and horror elements here, and even manages to throw in some humour while he's at it. The horror here is based on what frightens the kids the most and how Pennywise uses them to his advantage, so we get a variety of scares here, from a dark library to an abandoned house, to a flooded basement, a scary painting etc ....though my favorite one involves a bathroom sink. To be honest, if you're a seasoned horror fan, none of these scares might seem original, but Muschietti uses them well and films them perfectly (the cinematography by Chung Hoon Chung is sublime), so none of them feel out of place at all. 

Performance wise, all the kids chosen to play the losers put in stellar performances, but personally I enjoyed Jaden Lieberher and Sophia Lillis' work the most as Bill and Beverly respectively. Lieberher, recently seen in Midnight Special, is very convincing as the boy struggling to come to terms with his brother's demise, while Lillis, who resembles a young Elizabeth Olsen, is perfect as the tough yet vulnerable Beverly. As for Pennywise himself, Bill Skarsgard does a good enough job here, but I personally didn't find him scary. I wouldn't blame this on Skarsgard though, perhaps the script just didn't paint him as dark as he could have been.

On the flipside, the film does take a good amount of time to build itself up to the final battle, but it's well worth the wait. Muschietti doesn't hold back on the violence here, so this is definitely not for the faint-hearted. 

In the book, the kids will return as adults to face the clown one last time, but we will have to wait for the sequel to see this. No worries, It is a solid horror flick which will perform well enough at the box office to earn the sequel it needs. (7.5/10)

Saturday, September 02, 2017

Cage Dive

Year: 2017
Director: Gerald Rascionato
Cast: Joel Hogan, Josh Potthoff, Megan Peta Hill

Plot: Two brothers and a girl travel to Australia to participate in cage diving with sharks, and plan to film their entire experience so that they can appear on a reality show. But when their boat gets hit by a tidal wave, the trio are forced to survive in open water surrounded by sharks.

Review: Cage Dive is supposed to be the third film in the Open Water franchise, though the film itself didn't use the Open Water title. Anyway, let's get to the review.

Jeff and Josh are a pair of half brothers, who along with Jeff's girlfriend Megan, plan on signing up for a reality show, and for their entry video, they travel to Australia to go cage diving with sharks. Naturally, things go wrong when their boat is hit with a tidal wave and they wind up in the ocean with no protection against the deadly sharks. Will they be rescued before they become shark food?

Considering this is a found footage film, you already know the answer to that. The film begins with a broken camera found on the ocean floor by a diver, who retrieves the memory card and plays back the footage for the audience. They even include interviews with the brothers' cousin living in Australia and some news footage to make it feel authentic. And while it is a nice touch by director and writer Gerald Rascionato, it doesn't hide the film's weaknesses. 

The main weakness here is Rascionato's attempt to give the trio a background, which lasts for quite some time. The first third of the film features the trio preparing for the trip, as Josh acts on his secret feelings for his brother's girl, which creates a love triangle that comes into play towards the end of the second act. Personally I felt that this angle wasn't necessary and only felt like padding on top of a story that could work on its own, and it made the film feel longer even though it only runs 80 minutes.

Another thing would be Rascionato's decision to have Megan commit a bone headed move in the second act. Now, I know all about people making dumb decisions in horror movies, but this one takes the cake. This move was a means to an end, but Rascionato could have justified it way better than that.

Acting wise, Joel Hogan, Josh Potthoff and Megan Peta Hill are convincing enough as Jeff, Josh and Megan respectively, but the occasionally poor writing lets them down and makes them look bad.

On the plus side, the cinematography is good despite it being shaky due to the found footage aspect. Like most films of its kind, it utilises night vision during the night scenes, and even throws in a handful of blackouts every now and then when something bad hits the camera. Authenticity is the one thing the film got right.

In the end, Cage Dive is merely a decent shark attack film which uses its found footage aspect well, but not much else. (6/10)

Sunday, August 27, 2017

SPL: Paradox

Year: 2017
Director: Wilson Yip
Cast: Louis Koo, Wu Yue, Gordon Lam, Chris Collins, Hanna Chan, Jacky Cai, Tony Jaa, Ken Lo

Plot: When his daughter is kidnapped in Pattaya, a Hong Kong cop travels there and teams up with a Chinese born local cop to find her.

Review: Paradox is the third entry in the SPL anthology of films, which began with Donnie Yen, followed by Wu Jing and Tony Jaa as the heroes, and now Louis Koo and Wu Yue in those roles.

Koo plays Lee, a Hong Kong cop who raised his teenage daughter by himself after his wife's death in a car accident. When she travels to Pattaya and subsequently gets kidnapped by an organ trafficking ring, Lee heads there and joins forces with Chui, a Chinese born local cop, (himself an expecting father) to find her. But their investigation is hampered by interference from someone in the higher ranks of the police department, who is in the pocket of the mayor's assistant. The mayor is in dire need of a heart transplant, and Lee's daughter is a candidate for an involuntary donation.

From the way this movie was filmed, and the fact that organ trafficking is once again the chosen subject matter (SPL II covered the same crime), one has to believe that director Wilson Yip wants to highlight the seriousness of this issue, and to that end he succeeds. This is a despicable crime that goes from the ruthless criminals running the syndicate, to people in power that are willing to abuse that power to keep it going smoothly. Yip shows all of that in a gritty, no holds barred manner, focusing more on the violence than the action that the film keeps marketing.

Koo does well as the desperate dad who is willing to overturn every stone in Pattaya to find his only child. Wu is also equally commendable as the expecting father who tries to uphold the law while helping Koo in his quest. Gordon Lam plays the cold mannered, goal driven mayor's assistant to perfection, though he isn't really the film's main villain. That role belongs to Chris Collins, who although fights very well, isn't quite a convincing actor. Tony Jaa unfortunately only gets a brief appearance here as Wu's partner, though he manages to squeeze in one solid fight sequence with Collins, so if you're a fan of Jaa, you might be a bit bummed like I was.

Sammo Hung, the man himself, did a splendid job in choreographing the fight sequences, even managing to make Koo (an actor not well versed in fighting) look good. Granted, Koo's style is mostly grounded, while Wu is given the more complicated sequences with Collins, but bottom line is Hung has done a great job here.

The only issues I have with the film are a couple of scenes that didn't quite make sense, and Jaa's brief appearance (along with his precognitive ability which is not explained). Otherwise, Yip deserves credit for tackling this subject matter and not sugarcoating the outcome.

Overall, SPL: Paradox is a commendable action thriller worth checking out. (7.5/10)


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