Sunday, January 27, 2008
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Julie Benz, Paul Schulze, Matthew Marsden
Mention the name Stallone and you'll immediately associate him with two well known movie icons. One is the boxer Rocky Balboa, the other is Vietnam war veteran John Rambo, whom Stallone has played in 3 films in the past.
In those films, Rambo was portrayed as a killing machine, being the best there is at destroying his enemies. But at the same time, Rambo is still a man underneath. A man who has grown disillusioned by the violence, yet he can't run from it forever. I am personally a big fan of this character, despite the larger than life way Stallone presents him on screen.
In the fourth and latest film, we head to Burma. Rambo is now living in northern Thailand, catching snakes and fish for the local villagers. He's finally at peace, not concerning himself with any war. One day, a small group of missionaries led by Michael (Paul Schulze) and Sarah (Julie Benz) come to meet him. They ask him to take them into Burma in order for them to deliver food and aid to the Karen people, who have been suffering at the hands of Burmese soldiers in a 60 year old civil war. At first, Rambo refuses, convinced that the group will only get themselves killed. But Sarah manages to persuade him to take them there.
Rambo successfully brings them to their destination and heads home. But as fate would have it, the Burmese soldiers ambush the Karen village and take the group hostage. The group's friends hire a band of mercenaries and ask Rambo to take them back there on a rescue mission. This is where the man himself has to get his hands dirty and take action.
Sylvester Stallone has outdone himself this time, by wearing three hats as actor, writer and director. I am happy to say that he succeeds on all 3 fronts. He plays Rambo as the tough guy who has to once again do what he does best to save innocent people. As the reluctant hero who wishes he could put his violent past behind him, Stallone scores with his words and facial expressions. As the action hero, the 61 year old actor can certainly still kick ass and take names.
Stallone also shines as director of the film. He knows what his audience wants i.e. pure unadulterated action. He piles it on in spades, and keeps the dialogue and run time short, so as not to bore us with unnecessary details. There's also plenty of unflinching violence and blood here, which isn't out of place when you think about it. Perhaps some may say that there is more violence here than the past 3 Rambo films combined, but it is well meant. Stallone had said he wanted to portray the brutality of the civil war in Burma convincingly, so that the audience can see the war as it really is. So even though the Burmese soldiers end up looking like stereotype evil men, they do a hell of a job being the meanest scum of the earth, thereby making it easier for us to watch them meet their doom in the most vile manner.
If you're a Rambo fan, go watch this. If you love action without too much drama, watch this too. It's just great stuff. As a fan, I'd say it's a fitting way to end the Rambo series. Long live Stallone. (4/5)
Saturday, January 26, 2008
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, Russell Crowe, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Josh Brolin, Ted Levine, Armand Assante, Ruby Dee, John Hawkes, Lymari Nadal, Cuba Gooding Jr
I'm not that much into gangster films. I haven't even watched any of the Godfather films, or any of Scorsese's flicks on the mob, save for The Departed, which I thought was a little unnecessarily lengthy, but well performed by the cast. Somehow all films about gangsters and mobs made by Hollywood take up more than 2 hours of screen time. Must be a pre-requisite, or a conspiracy. Or some real life mobsters want it that way. Who knows?
Anyway, it's Ridley Scott's turn to make one. The guy who is well known for Alien, Black Hawk Down and Gladiator presents us the story of real life drug kingpin Frank Lucas. Lucas is portrayed in this film as a ruthless businessman, yet loving to his family. The film also focuses on the policeman that brought Frank to justice: Ritchie Roberts. Scott picks the best two actors for the job: Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe.
American Gangster begins in New York 1969, where we see Frank Lucas working as black crime boss Bumpy Johnson's driver and bodyguard. When Bumpy suddenly dies, Frank takes his place as head of the organisation, using everything he learnt from his mentor to run the show. Frank however wanted to do better than his boss. He wanted to get ahead of everyone in the gangster community, specifically in the drug trade. So he goes to Vietnam, at the time when American soldiers are there fighting the war, makes a deal with the local manufacturers and finds a way to ship it back to the States. Then he sells it at a lower price than his peers, and purer quality too.
His latest move up the street crime ladder raises some eyebrows on both sides of the law, but he manages to either buy them off, or kill them off. He gets his brothers to join the business and buys a mansion for his mother, and becomes the family man that everyone respects. Despite his ruthless and sometimes violent business tactics, people in his organisation love him, because of his honesty. As he says to them "The most important thing in business is honesty."
Then there is Detective Ritchie Roberts, a white cop who does his best to be honest at his job, but not because he is a good man deep down. He does it to balance out the dishonest things he does, like cheating on his wife. His life isn't an easy one, as he goes through a messy divorce with his wife and gets shunned by his colleagues for turning in a large sum of money he found to his superiors. They can't trust him because they are corrupt.
His boss finally finds Ritchie a task he can do without the hassle of bureaucracy and unreliable comrades. He lets Ritchie head his own task force to bust the drug trade. So Ritchie gathers a team and starts spying the streets, and comes across Frank Lucas.
Ridley Scott has done a tremendous job yet again. I admire how the guy takes his time in telling his story, and not make it look like it's taking way too long. He is elaborate and thorough, and he gets the best performances from his cast. The look of the film, set in 1970s New York is very authentic too. Steven Zaillian writes a good screenplay as well, balancing the two main characters of Frank and Ritchie effectively.
Washington of course, doesn't disappoint in his performance as Frank Lucas. Despite playing his roles with a sense of familiarity, he never goes out of style, or end up being boring. Denzel is a force of nature, and he dominates the film. Crowe on the other hand, gets the slightly smaller lead role as Ritchie, but still makes his presence felt. He may have been eclipsed by Denzel here, but he shines in every scene he's in. The supporting cast members also do well, from Ruby Dee, who plays Frank's mother, to Chiwetel Ejiofor as Frank's brother, to John Hawkes as Ritchie's partner, to Josh Brolin as the corrupt Detective Trupo.
I remember the last time Washington and Crowe faced off against each other in a film. It was in the action film Virtuosity, where action takes precedence over performance. Well executed at the time, but not remembered by most. In here, they don't meet until the last 15 minutes, and their verbal sparring is quite impressive. Perhaps my favourite scene in the entire film.
It's an excellent gangster flick, less theatrical than The Departed. Highly recommended. (4/5)
Sunday, January 20, 2008
Director: Andy Fickman
Cast: Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson, Madison Pettis, Kyra Sedgwick, Rosalyn Sanchez
I love The Rock. As a wrestler, he was magnetic. He could get the crowd cheering for him without even saying a word. He had those cool catchphrases that his fans love saying. My favourite would be "It doesn't matter!" The Rock has charm, and it shows. He's definitely a natural for the acting gig. Which is why his transition into Hollywood superstar is effortless.
Now, while being an action hero in The Scorpion King, Doom and The Rundown was easy for him, being a muscle bound guy and all, being in a comedy will require him to act a little more. In The Game Plan, he gets to do exactly that.
The Rock plays Joe Kingman, a star quarterback for the Boston Rebels football team. He's rich, single and living the life any bachelor would die for. He's popular with the fans, and almost everyone wants to be near this guy. One day, Joe gets the surprise of his life when an 8 year old girl shows up at his doorstep and claims to be his daughter!
Peyton Kelly (Madison Pettis) walks in literally, shows him a birth certificate and claims Joe's ex-wife from his past is her mother. This is of course, the absolute worst moment for him to discover all this, as his team is on their way to a championship final, and he can't afford to be distracted by this, now can he?
He tries to seek help from his agent Stella (Kyra Sedgwick), but she only cares about getting Joe more money through endorsements, and she hates the kid anyway. So Joe has no choice but to juggle the responsibilities of being a football player and a full time dad simultaneously. Joe and Peyton go through many hilarious misadventures, from messing up the kitchen, to media foul ups, to ballet class snafus etc. They learn more about each other along the way, and learn to love one another too, until something comes along to challenge their unique bond.
The Rock may not be the best actor in the world, but he can definitely make fun of himself. You'll love seeing him being a happy bachelor one minute, then a muscle man in a leotard in the next. He also shares great chemistry with Pettis, who is very charming as Peyton. Though you do get the feeling that she is way too smart for an 8 year old sometimes. Director Andy Fickman does a great job in making a wholesome feel good family movie which wouldn't look out of place in a Father's Day movie marathon.
Films like The Game Plan however are rather predictable. You can smell the happy ending coming a mile off. But we don't watch films like this to be surprised, we watch them to feel good and all that crap. Haha. Besides, The Rock gets to sing and play guitar in this movie. And he gets to do ballet on stage, which I thought was beautiful. Isn't that worth something? (3.5/5)
Saturday, January 12, 2008
Director: Colin & Greg Strause
Cast: Steven Pasquale, Reiko Aylesworth, John Ortiz, Johnny Lewis, Ariel Gade, Robert Joy
What happens when you try putting together two hit franchises to make a new one? It's hard to say really, and even after two films, I'm still not entirely sure if it was better to try, or leave the franchises alone as they were.
I mean, it's hard to top the Alien films, when Scott, Cameron, Fincher and Jeunet did a great job on them, each with their own signature style. Even the widely panned Alien3 had Fincher's unique camera angles and dark brooding moods. And Predator? OK, forget the mess that was the sequel. The original Predator featuring Arnie is still one of his best films, and the predator became a very memorable screen monster for years to come.
And then, Resident Evil director Paul W.S Anderson decided to bring the two creatures together, as every geek worshipper of the two franchises who have read the comicbooks have dreamed of for so long. I'd give Anderson a B for his effort. And now, the sequel.
AVPR starts right where AVP left off: the predator that died at the hands of the Alien Queen was brought onto a Predator ship, where an Alien hybrid burst from his chest. The new Predalien kills all the predators on board and crashes the ship back onto Earth, in Gunnison, Colorado to be exact. A collection of facehuggers on board break loose and attack a man and his son in the woods.
This latest development is discovered by the Predator homeworld, and a lone Predator sets out to Earth to clean up the mess. Meanwhile, the aliens start breeding and killing the townsfolk in quick fashion, and between them and the Predator are the usual motley crew of survivors: a pair of brothers, the town sheriff, a female soldier who just returned from Iraq, her estranged daughter, and some really stupid kids.
And how do the Strause brothers fare? I can tell that they are huge fans of both series, as they borrow numerous references from the two franchises. One wonders if they're paying homage to them, or just ripping off from them. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but I am unsure as to how sincere this move is. Anyway, the Strauses do a good job in one aspect: the violence. What you see in this film surpasses AVP in blood and gore, and maybe this would be the kind of film Anderson wanted to make back then, but was apparently disallowed. The darkness factor, which comes with all the Alien films, is also present and nicely done by the brothers, although it was too dark in certain scenes.
But just like Anderson, the Strauses fail to give us the same feeling the core films did, which is a sense of awe. No matter how many times you watch the Alien and Predator films, you get that feeling, the feeling that something astounding is unfolding, from the Aliens' intelligent slaughter tactics, to the Predator's high tech hunting gadgets. And Ripley's dramatic face-offs with her enemies, Dutch's fight for survival against an enemy he can't see....this is all great storytelling. But the Strauses speed through their film so fast, you might miss someone getting maimed if you blinked.
They didn't make time to develop the characters, who aren't worth sympathising for in the first place. It's bad enough that most of the cast can't act, and even Reiko Aylesworth, from hit TV show 24 is a disappointment. At least Anderson gave us a decent story and slightly above average acting in AVP. Maybe the Strauses wanted the audience to root for the monsters instead. Well, no problem. Though the Predalien looks kinda silly. Really. We do get to see some cool new weapons from the Predators, and Robert Joy gets a small but fitting role as an Army colonel with an ulterior motive. But not much to save this film from being a B-grade monster movie.
It's fun enough and watchable, but I'd rather watch Aliens and Predator 5 more times. Recommended if you have 90 minutes to waste and nothing better to do. (3.5/5)
Saturday, January 05, 2008
Director: Gavin Hood
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Reese Witherspoon, Peter Sarsgaard, Alan Arkin, Meryl Streep, Omar Metwally, Igal Naor, J.K. Simmons, Moa Khouas, Zineb Oukach
After looking at the poster closely, I realised that it's very similar to the posters for The Siege and Babel, where there are multiple levels showing different cast members and locations. Pretty neat.
Rendition in English means "handing over", in this case, handing over a person to another country for interrogation purposes. Rendition focuses on a suicide bombing in Egypt, that kills 19 people and wounds 75 others. The target was police chief interrogator Abasi Fawal (Igal Naor), who escapes unhurt. One of the victims however, is an American CIA agent.
This prompts CIA top brass Corrine Whitman (Meryl Streep) to take extreme measures to find the men responsible. She puts CIA analyst Douglas Freeman (Jake Gyllenhaal) in charge of the investigation and assigns him to witness the interrogation of a suspect connected with the people behind the bombing. Freeman, who was next to the dead agent at the time, and who is relatively new to the job, reluctantly agrees.
The suspect is an Egyptian born chemical engineer named Anwar El-Ibrahimi (Omar Metwally), who is on the way home to Chicago when he is snatched by the CIA at the airport. Whitman sends him to Egypt to be questioned by Freeman and Abasi. The man maintains his innocence, so Abasi resorts to brutal interrogation exercises, much to Freeman's discomfort.
Meanwhile, back in the US, Anwar's American wife, Isabella (Reese Witherspoon) tries her best to find her missing husband. She turns to an old friend, Alan Smith (Peter Sarsgaard) for help. Alan is the secretary for a top ranking senator (played by Alan Arkin), and he learns of Whitman's involvement, and tries to fight for Anwar's freedom. Meanwhile, there is a subplot involving Abasi's daughter Fatima (Zineb Oukach), whose boyfriend Khalid (Moa Khouas) is part of the terrorist group responsible for the bombing.Like Syriana and Babel, Rendition has several smaller plots running simultaneously to form the film's main storyline. In this case, there are three plots: Isabella's quest to find her husband, Freeman's involvement in an interrogation he doesn't approve of, and Abasi's daughter's connection with terrorists. All these weave seamlessly together to form a stunning film in a visual and verbal sense. Director Gavin Hood does well in not only getting the best out of his cast, but also telling his story satisfactorily. There's rarely a moment wasted on film. Screenwriter Kelley Sane has done a marvelous job as well with the script at hand.
The cast perform splendidly too. Streep is a lot like her character in The Manchurian Candidate; ruthless and defiant. But it works nonetheless. Gyllenhaal isn't too bad either as the conflicted Freeman, while Witherspoon does well as Isabella. But the standout performance comes from Metwally, who gives just the right amount of fear and despair of a man under torture in his portrayal of Anwar. The Middle Eastern cast are also very impressive in their roles.
To the film's credit, it presents the issue of brutal and inhuman torture in the name of the war on terror convincingly. But I feel that despite that, it merely scratches the surface on the matter. Sure, it shows us how low we can go in pursuing evil men based on information that may or may not be reliable, but the film doesn't quite address the bottom line of such actions. If it does happen, has anyone done anything about it?
In any case, I'd still recommend it. Look out for a twist in the last 20 minutes that puts things in perspective. Good stuff. (4/5)