Sunday, March 22, 2015

Wild

Year: 2014
Director: Jean-Marc Vallee
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern


Plot: The true story of Cheryl Strayed, who hiked 1100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail from the Mexican border to Canada, in an effort to heal from a recent tragedy.


Review: Wild is somewhat a mixture of Emil Hirsch's Into The Wild and Mia Wasikowska's Tracks, combining the scope of the latter and the introspective story of the former, minus the tragic ending.

Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl Strayed, who life has descended into chaos after her beloved mother's death. She spirals into a bout of sexual promiscuity and drugs, causing her to split from her husband. In an effort to rediscover herself, she decides to hike 1100 miles on the Pacific Crest trail all alone, and on this journey, we see her overcome the many physical obstacles in her path while pondering her dark past.

Director Jean-Marc Vallee presents Cheryl's journey from start to finish and inserts several moments of her past life in between, which include her happy and sad moments with her late mother, her drug abuse, her sexual encounters with many men as well as her childhood spent in the presence of her drunk and abusive father. While all these past recollections define her character, I found the physical journey on the trail to be equally enthralling. Vallee wisely focuses on little details like Cheryl struggling to pick up her backpack (which you will notice looks way heavier than she is) on the first day, or her frustration from not being able to cook her own food, or her boots injuring her feet badly...all this in between seeing her walk for miles and meeting people. Many of the people she comes across are nice and kind hikers, save for one particularly creepy dude, as well as non-hikers who assist her along the way. 

As far as technical aspects go, Vallee scores full points. The cinematography is excellent and the music choices are all spot on. Personally I've not heard any of these songs before, but they fit the film like a glove and actually enhances the experience.

Witherspoon puts in a strong performance as Cheryl, showing the woman's dark side as well as her nicer demeanour, making her likable despite being flawed. It's easy to root for her as we see her take on a herculean task in an effort to regain control of her life. For that Witherspoon deserves all the credit she got. Laura Dern is solid as well in the role of Cheryl's mother, and while she doesn't get a lot of screen time, manages to shine in each of her moments as someone who has so much zest for life and love despite being a victim of abuse and the illness that eventually takes her life.

Wild does suffer though from the non-linear jumps to the past, which does well to establish Cheryl's life prior to the walk, but jarring at times when it didn't feel necessary. In this case, less would be more. The ending was also a bit abrupt, but it's not a big deal.

All in all, Wild is another solid journey story which is made all the better by Witherspoon and Dern's performances. It's worth a look. (7/10)

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Whiplash

Year: 2014
Director: Damien Chazelle
Cast: Miles Teller, J.K. Simmons, Paul Reiser, Melissa Benoist


Plot: An aspiring drummer attempts to achieve greatness under the tutelage of an abusive jazz instructor.


Review: Much has been said about Whiplash before I finally got the chance to see this. I'm glad to report that it's as good as they say it is, or at least almost.

The teacher-student relationship has been explored several times on film, but never quite like this. We've never had a student this determined to be great, and a teacher this hard and abusive on his students.

Whiplash focuses on Andrew Nieman, a young drummer who wants to be a legend like Buddy Rich. He enrolls in Shaffer Conservatory and becomes a student of Terence Fletcher, a jazz instructor who's mean and abusive to his students. He demands perfection from them, and if he doesn't get it, he'll start yelling and throwing things. Despite getting harsh treatment from him, Andrew keeps practising till his hands bleed, all to achieve the standard Fletcher wants.

Writer/director Damien Chazelle has made the most basic story possible, narrowing the focus down to two things: achieving perfection, and the relationship between two men. Fletcher is tough on his band of students, but in his eyes, it's a necessity in order to attain the level he requires. Despite that, outside of class, he's a regular guy that one would be able to talk to or receive friendly advice from, indicating that he's not necessarily a monster. J.K. Simmons owns the role perfectly, making the man understandable and not someone we'd consider a villain or a person we hate. If we ever met him, we'd be afraid of him perhaps, but we won't dislike him. Simmons earned the Oscar for sure.

Similarly, Miles Teller puts in a strong performance as Andrew, going from being a nice kid to someone who wants to be the best at any cost. We slowly watch Andrew sacrificing his own well being and getting in Fletcher's face when he doesn't get what he wants, becoming nearly as bad as his instructor. Teller is awesome as well, and it needs to be noted.

Paul Reiser and Melissa Benoist play Andrew's dad and love interest respectively, and though they serve up good performances, the focus isn't on them. Plus, Benoist's role seems unnecessary overall, the film doesn't change even if it was excised completely.

I'll have to admit; if you're the type of person that doesn't like the kind of music played here, you might be put off by what transpires throughout the film. That being said, I strongly recommend this film to anyone who wants to see great acting and possibly learn something about achieving your goal.

If you can get your hands on this film, give it a shot. (8/10)

Run All Night

Year: 2015
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Joel Kinnaman, Ed Harris, Vincent D'Onofrio, Common, Genesis Rodriguez, Bruce McGill


Plot: Mobster Jimmy Conlon is forced to kill his boss' son in order to save his own son's life. Now he has to survive one night on the run with his son as the entire city, made up of his boss' goons, a contract killer and New York cops hunt them down.


Review: This is the third time Liam Neeson has collaborated with director Jaume Collet-Serra, and as it turns out, this is the best one yet. Unknown and Non-Stop were solid action vehicles, but Run All Night is a gritty actioner with a solid father-son drama thrown into the mix.

Neeson plays Jimmy Conlon, a hired gun for mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) who is forced to kill Shawn's wayward son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) in order to protect his own son Michael (Joel Kinnaman). Michael had earlier witnessed Danny kill two men, and the latter targeted him to tie up loose ends, only to end up on the wrong side of Jimmy's gun. With Shawn's men, NY cops and a contract killer (Common) hired by Shawn on their tail, both father and son have to survive one night on the run, which isn't made easier by their estranged relationship.

I would say that this movie is a clear step up in terms of story as compared to Jaume and Neeson's previous work. In place of the mystery solving that was the main focus of Unknown and Non-Stop is a gritty gangster thriller paired with a dramatic play between a father and his son. Jimmy is a man with many sins and blood on his hands, but clearly a man who regrets all that he has done. He inadvertently put more blood on his hands when he kills Shawn's son, but he has one last chance to make things right by keeping Michael alive and turning himself in to Detective Harding (Vincent D'Onofrio) when it's over. But it's a long night as Michael hates his father for leaving him and being a criminal, so the two men have tons of issues to sort out.

Jaume does a brilliant job of displaying the underbelly of New York, filled with dark alleys, darker basements, rough neighborhoods, crooked cops and foul-mouthed gangsters. Not that it hasn't been done before, of course, but his efforts here rank among the best I've seen. The pace is also quite rapid and there isn't a scene out of place here. As stated, the father-son drama was well handled and becomes the film's main selling point.

The entire cast perform well, except Genesis Rodriguez who is given a thankless role as Michael's wife. Neeson and Kinnaman have a great rapport playing father and son here, with the former scoring once again as a troubled hero with nightmares and alcoholism. Kinnaman does well too, but he plays his character a tad too serious at times. D'Onofrio is surprisingly effective as the cop on Jimmy's trail, which is a departure from the guys he usually plays. Ed Harris is also great as Shawn, giving a balance of calmness and viciousness in every scene he's in, while Common isn't bad at all as hired killer Price.

The downside of the film however would be Jaume's poor handling of filming action sequences, which appear mostly shaky or too dark here. The level of violence on display throughout the film makes up for it somehow though.

In conclusion, I'd say Run All Night turned out better than I thought it would. If you like gangster thrillers, this is a good one to check out. (8/10)  

Sunday, March 08, 2015

Chappie

Year: 2015
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Dev Patel, Hugh Jackman, Sigourney Weaver, Ninja and Yolandi Visser, Jose Pablo Cantillo


Plot: In the future, Johannesburg is overrun with crime, until a robotic police force known as Scouts is created, and it successfully maintains the peace. The Scouts' creator manages to invent an AI program and wants to test it, but a group of gangbangers kidnap him and force him to implement the program on a stolen Scout robot, so that they can use him for their criminal activities. The robot, named Chappie, however becomes much more than any of them expected.


Review: Neill Blomkamp's films have a certain amount of things in common: oppression, violence and actor Sharlto Copley. District 9 is still his crown jewel but Elysium was a slight letdown. I'm happy to note that Chappie is pretty good work from Blomkamp.

While many people may think that Chappie is similar to Short Circuit, it actually shares some common ground with Robocop as well. The story of a robot thinking and feeling like a human is the main focus here, but also present is the fierce competition between two robot makers. In Robocop, Miguel Ferrer's successful invention made Ronny Cox's heavy duty robot look bad, the same way Dev Patel's Scout robots does to Hugh Jackman's huge and ugly contraption here.

But as said above, Chappie is mostly about a robot discovering human emotions, and Copley does a tremendous job in creating the movements for Chappie, as well as providing the voice for him. After receiving his AI program, Chappie behaves like a curious child, then slowly evolves into something that becomes smarter each day while maintaining a certain level of naivety, which adds to his charm. Credit goes to Blomkamp and Terri Tatchell for creating a great non-human character that is so lovable and relatable.

Dev Patel and Hugh Jackman also deserve some kudos for their roles as Chappie's creator Deon and his rival Vincent respectively. Patel gives the right balance of ambition and conscience to his role while Jackman is clearly enjoying playing the bad guy here, who will stop at nothing to destroy Deon's robots so that he can market his own robot. Sigourney Weaver doesn't get much to do here as company boss Michelle Bradley though, it's a role anyone else could have done.

I can't write this review without mentioning the contribution of Ninja and Yolandi Visser from hip hop group Die Antwoord, who play two of the gangbangers that kidnap Deon and the robot that becomes Chappie. The duo essentially become Chappie's parents, with Yolandi teaching him all the good qualities of a human like a mother would, while Ninja trains him to be a badass and imparts toughness and violence to him as a father. This leads to some very hilarious moments, watch how he teaches Chappie to steal a car. Awesome. Anyway, the duo have no prior acting experience, but they do very well here as the criminals who end up being the people that shape Chappie's personality and behavior. The duo also provide some of the music for the film, supporting Hans Zimmer's great score.

As good as the film is, with some very well shot action sequences (especially the one at the end), the final 10 minutes may require some suspension of disbelief. I wouldn't say it's totally ridiculous, but Blomkamp may have tried a bit too hard to tie up his story in one neat little bow here, when a slightly less ambitious route would have sufficed.

All in all, Chappie is an entertaining film that is a clear step up from Elysium and a step below from District 9. Here's hoping his upcoming Alien project blows everyone away. (8/10)

  

Dragon Blade

Year: 2015
Director: Daniel Lee
Cast: Jackie Chan, John Cusack, Adrien Brody


Plot: The Silk Road Protection Squad, led by Huo An, are framed for stealing royal gold and sentenced to hard labor at Wild Geese City in the Gobi desert. While there, they encounter Roman general Lucius, who is on the run with his men and Roman Consul Publius. The young consul is being hunted by his vicious older brother Tiberius, who wants the title for himself.


Review: Let's face it, Jackie Chan films aren't what they used to be. We're way past the era where he made jaw dropping stunts and fluid kungfu moves. We're also past his Hollywood career era where the Rush Hour movies struck gold. Now we're in his twilight era, where he makes movies to pass along positive messages while still doing what he knows best.

If the message in CZ12 is preserving historical treasures, Dragon Blade's message is undoubtedly racial harmony. Chan and director Daniel Lee put in a lot of effort not just in making the film look like an epic (it cost 65 million dollars), but also getting that very message across. Watch as Chan and Lee get people of various nationalities work together to a common goal, then the Chinese and Romans engage in friendly sparring, then they sing their respective anthems, then they build flags...it's overwhelming up to the point where you would just want them to get the film over with already.

But I will give credit where it's due, the action sequences are mostly well shot and choreographed. I'm happy to note that John Cusack and Adrien Brody do quite well in the sword fighting sequences against Chan. Best of all they fight in Roman style i.e. no Chinese style flying kungfu stuff. They look good enough to be convincing, so my hats off to them. The acting is mostly effective, except for a select few who look like they haven't had any acting lessons at all, but Chan, Cusack and Brody deliver their roles well. The two female lead characters played by Mika Wang and Lin Peng are unfortunately the common kind you would find in a Chan film.

On the whole, the film is entertaining enough, but it could use some editing, especially in the above mentioned message passing, and the pointless present day scenes featuring treasure hunters led by Vanness Wu. The film does get serious in the final third when Brody's Tiberius gets the ball rolling, but one wishes the entire movie was more balanced.

Overall, Dragon Blade is passable entertainment for the Lunar New Year, but I do have one question: why is the film titled Dragon Blade? (6/10) 

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