Sunday, February 18, 2018

Black Panther

Year: 2018
Director: Ryan Coogler
Cast: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, Martin Freeman, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown

Plot: After the events of Civil War, T'Challa returns to Wakanda to assume his late father's place as King, but the emergence of the ruthless Erik Killmonger, a violent man with a score to settle, threatens his rule.

Review: The best new character to come out of Civil War was Black Panther. Most MCU fans will say it's Spider-Man, but for me, T'Challa, the crown prince of Wakanda who sought justice for his slain father, was the real show stealer then.

Now Ryan Coogler, the acclaimed director of Creed, puts his stamp on the MCU with his take on Black Panther. While the film does begin with a brief history of Wakanda and the origin of the Black Panther, the story really is about Wakanda's changing role in world affairs, and how a personal vendetta threatens to upend T'Challa's rule before it even begins. In this sense, Coogler deserves credit for developing the film's villain, Erik Killmonger as extensively as he does for the hero. Unlike the throwaway villains of previous MCU entries (a fact most critics love bringing up) such as Kaecilius, Yellowjacket or Zemo, Killmonger is an equal to T'Challa in nearly every way, and proves to be a genuine threat to him. He's probably the best MCU villain since Loki.

Some have said that this film is Marvel's version of James Bond, and they're not wrong, with T'Challa using high tech gadgets designed by his Q-like sister Shuri, while being assisted by strong female fighters such as his lady love Nakia and his chief bodyguard Okoye. In fact, in certain parts of the movie, these women damn near outshine our illustrious hero.

Speaking of our hero, Chadwick Boseman plays T'Challa as a fair man, brave and steadfast, and sympathetic even to his arch nemesis. Boseman is a natural for this role undoubtedly. Michael B. Jordan is equally superb as Killmonger, a man with an axe to grind and something to prove. You can almost understand where the man's rage is coming from, which makes him more than just a standard baddie. Letitia Wright, Lupita Nyong'o and The Walking Dead's Danai Gurira all score as Shuri, Nakia and Okoye respectively. Wright is perfect as the occasional comedic relief, Nyong'o makes a sultry love interest and Gurira is superb as a lady not to be messed with.

Despite the lack of Avengers here (which in hindsight is more of a blessing really), we still have Martin Freeman and Andy Serkis showing up as Everett Ross and Ulysses Klaue respectively. Serkis' unorthodox portrayal as Klaue is very interesting, he ought to do more live action performances in the future.

Most of the action sequences were well shot, especially the waterfall duels between T'Challa and Winston Duke's M'Baku, and Killmonger later, and the car chase sequence you've seen in the trailers. But some of the CGI, especially when it comes to the flying spaceships, look a bit poor, and the final fight between T'Challa and Killmonger was too brief. But Coogler makes up for this by giving every character their time to shine and make an impact, including the supporting ones played by Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Winston Duke, Sterling K. Brown and Get Out's Daniel Kaluuya.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Black Panther, and barely felt the 134 minute running time pass by. If you've been following the MCU movies till now, there's zero reason to not go see this. Recommended.

P.S.: As usual, stay for the post credit sequences. (8.5/10)

Sunday, February 04, 2018

Darkest Hour

Year: 2017
Director: Joe Wright
Cast: Gary Oldman, Kristin Scott Thomas, Lily James, Stephen Dillane, Ben Mendelsohn, Ronald Pickup

Plot: Based on the true story of Winston Churchill, who was elected Prime Minister of Great Britain in May 1940, and tasked to deal with the German invasion of Western Europe during World War II.

Review: Darkest Hour is not to be mistaken with that poor sci-fi movie in 2011. This is a story of Winston Churchill and his days as Prime Minister of Great Britain during the height of WW2.

In this film which takes place in May 1940, Europe faces the Nazi threat as German forces invade Norway, Denmark, Holland, Belgium and France, among others. With current Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain being unable to win the confidence of the House, the Conservatives elect Churchill to take over. Churchill is already deemed unpopular among his peers and King George as well due to his questionable past, and his move to continue the fight against the Germans does not go down well with his fellow ministers, who prefer to negotiate peace instead.

Director Joe Wright presents not just the darkest hour of Great Britain and Europe at the time, but Churchill's as well. Wright shows us that the man is proud, stubborn and unrelenting, and even difficult at times. But even when he was unpopular and his choices were dubious among his war room members, he stayed true to his guns and made a decision that we all know now was the right one. For those of you who have seen The King's Speech and Dunkirk, some of the things you will witness in this film will be most familiar to you.

Gary Oldman, a fine actor in any genre he finds himself in, is superb as Churchill. Sure, the makeup effects help a great deal in making him look like the man, but Oldman's talent in bringing forth his mannerisms and disappearing into the role must be applauded. He pretty much owns every scene he's in, whether he's at his most confident or at his lowest point. Kristin Scott Thomas and Lily James lend some solid support as Churchill's wife and secretary respectively, while Rogue One's Ben Mendelsohn also impresses in his minor role as King George VI.

While the film captures Churchill's darkest and subsequently finest hour, it does take a couple of historic liberties here, which I will not mention. This was obviously to create more drama for the audience to consume, and overall I sort of appreciated it. It does make me wonder if a more honest approach would achieve the same result.

Overall, Darkest Hour is a solid film about one of the most well known historic figures of all time. Much like Lincoln, it isn't a biography, but an in depth look at one man's efforts during a critical period in history. It's well worth checking out. (7.5/10)

Monday, January 29, 2018

Maze Runner: The Death Cure

Year: 2018
Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Rosa Salazar, Will Poulter, Dexter Darden, Aiden Gillen, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper, Patricia Clarkson, Walton Goggins, Ki Hong Lee

Plot: Thomas and his friends attempt to break into WCKD's fortified stronghold to save Minho and the other kids, with the help of a deformed rebel leader, an unexpected ally and Thomas' former friend, Teresa.

Review: After star Dylan O'Brien was injured in an accident on set, causing a delay in filming, The Death Cure is finally finished, and the wait is well worth it.

Granted, YA adaptations have been a mixed bag in the last few years. Twilight was a success though critically panned, Divergent was a failure, and The Hunger Games was rather overrated in my book. But The Maze Runner series has been quite consistent, despite its flaws. Director Wes Ball has deftly merged action, sci-fi and a touch of horror in all three films, thus creating a very fascinating yet dangerous universe for Thomas and his friends.

The action sequences were well done, beginning with a train sequence, later followed by a tunnel sequence that seems slightly inspired by 28 Days Later. While the final 30 minutes is a long action sequence that feels a bit all over the place at times, it still manages to thrill and properly end the trilogy on a high note. Even the quieter moments of the film work well and never feel extraneous, thus making the 142 minute run time real easy to sit through.

The entire cast execute their roles well, even though the dialogue felt hammy every now and then, but it's surely no fault of theirs. The best of them would have to be Walton Goggins as Lawrence, whose gnarly makeup and low voice make him quite intimidating to watch. It's unfortunate that his appearance was too brief. Aiden Gillen scores as the bad guy here, who gets elevated to main villain status over Patricia Clarkson's Ava, which surprised me a bit. Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Kaya Scodelario and O'Brien all deliver as usual.

Other than the hammy dialogue, I was also a bit disappointed with the limited time given to Harriet, Aris and Sonya, who were introduced in The Scorch Trials, but barely allowed to make an impact here. The again, it's understandable since there are too many characters to focus on.

Overall, I enjoyed The Death Cure very much, which strongly ends the Maze Runner series, and is currently my favorite YA adaptation so far. (7.5/10) 

Saturday, January 20, 2018

12 Strong

Year: 2018
Director: Nicolai Fuglsig
Cast: Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena, Trevante Rhodes, Navid Negahban, William Fichtner

Plot: Based on the true story of Task Force Dagger, a team of twelve American soldiers sent to Afghanistan shortly after 9/11 to fight alongside an Afghan warlord against the Taliban.

Review: 12 Strong certainly treads familiar territory as far as US military true stories are concerned. It is reminiscent of films like Lone Survivor and Black Hawk Down, the latter also produced by 12 Strong producer Jerry Bruckheimer. Unfortunately, this movie isn't as compelling as those two. In fact, it's not even as interesting as Rambo III, which was mostly fiction, but was also set in Afghanistan.

The set up is interesting though. When the World Trade Center is attacked and destroyed on September 11th 2001, a group of soldiers led by inexperienced captain Mitch Nelson are deployed to Afghanistan. From the get go, the team faces many obstacles. Nelson has never been in actual combat before, despite being very motivated. There are language and cultural barriers to overcome. The team have no experience riding horses, which is the Afghan's primary mode of transportation. The Afghan warlord, General Dostum, isn't entirely convinced of the team's capability, and he has his own agenda as well. However, the team perseveres eventually, thanks to good teamwork, bravery and some help from the US air force dropping bombs on the Taliban.

Rookie director Nicolai Fuglsig films the battle scenes decently enough, though there are many instances where it's hard to tell who's firing at whom. The film also takes a considerable amount of time to get to its first action sequence, almost at the half mark. But really, the main problem with 12 Strong is being unable to fully engage the audience in its story or characters. 

Fuglsig and the screenwriters do make attempts to flesh out the men's personal lives, particularly the characters played by Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon and Michael Pena, but it's nothing we haven't seen in other similar movies. Out of the twelve men, only these three and Trevante Rhodes stand out; the rest are mostly interchangeable with each other. Navid Negahban fares better as General Dostum, and his interactions with Hemsworth are interesting at times, but it doesn't leave a lasting impression. In fact, the most compelling scene in the entire film is the execution of an Afghan woman by the Taliban for educating young girls.

Still, all is not lost. The battle sequences, particularly in the second half, look good. But in the end, 12 Strong is just an average telling of a true story. Fuglsig and Bruckheimer try their best to emulate the works of Peter Berg but fall a bit short. (6.5/10)  

Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Commuter

Year: 2018
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Sam Neill

Plot: A recently laid off insurance salesman is approached by a mysterious woman on a commuter train, who offers him $100000 to find a specific passenger. He soon finds himself caught in a dangerous game where the lives of his family and the passengers on the train are on the line.

Review: The Commuter marks Liam Neeson's fourth collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra, after Unknown, Non-Stop and Run All Night. For me, each film was better than the previous one, but The Commuter just slightly misses the bar set by Run All Night.

In this film, Neeson plays Michael, a former cop turned insurance salesman who has just been laid off. On his way home, a woman named Joanna approaches him and persuades him to help her locate a specific passenger, giving him very vague clues to the passenger's identity. In exchange, he gets $100000. He doesn't think she's serious, until he actually finds the money in the restroom, right where she said it would be. But taking the money means agreeing to participate, and now he's forced to find the passenger, or his family will die. Michael realizes that these people are serious when people start getting killed around him.

The premise certainly feels a lot like Non-Stop, but it also shares similarity with another film: Nick Of Time starring Johnny Depp, in the sense that the protagonist is forced to do something so that the bad guys don't have to get their hands dirty. But unlike Depp, who was very much an everyman in that film, Neeson is a former cop here, which gives him a slight advantage in this situation, and thus takes the edge off the suspense a little. But to Neeson and Collet-Serra's credit, The Commuter turns out to be quite a ride from start to finish. Just like Non-Stop, Neeson has to find a person among many, which is part of the fun as he walks the audience through the process of elimination. Along the way, Neeson gets to throw hands and take names, and I gotta say, I've never seen him take this much of a beating in a movie before. But I sure am not complaining, because it's Liam Neeson, you know?

Neeson pretty much commands nearly every scene he's in, the film was tailor made for an action hero like him. Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson and Sam Neill all provide nice support as Joanna, Neeson's ex-partner and police chief respectively, but this is Neeson's movie through and through. Credit also goes to the cast who play the colorful passengers on the train, some of whom are quite familiar in type: the over friendly guy, the rude stock broker, a nurse, a girl in trouble with her ex-boyfriend, and a handful of suspicious looking guys. They all make their roles believable enough.

The Commuter falters slightly in the final act when the plot twist is much too obvious, but up to that point, Collet-Serra serves up a very entertaining film which culminates in a spectacular CGI sequence. I can't reveal much about it, though you might know if you've seen the trailers.

Overall, The Commuter is a lot of fun to watch. Granted, it doesn't stray too far from the kind of movies Liam Neeson makes these days. But who cares? There are movies that we go watch because we want to have fun at the theater and this is that kind of movie. (7.5/10)


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