Saturday, March 29, 2008

Death Sentence

Year: 2007
Director: James Wan
Cast: Kevin Bacon, Garrett Hedlund, Kelly Preston, John Goodman, Aisha Tyler, Jordan Garrett

I loved Saw, the crafty killer thriller by James Wan that has spawned 3 sequels so far, and a fourth one coming up. It's interesting to note that Wan was born in Malaysia. Something I can be proud of. And now Wan tries his hand at a different genre.

Death Sentence is a revenge flick not unlike The Brave One and The Punisher. It starts off with a collection of home videos of Nick Hume and his family. Nick is an insurance executive who has a loving family, made up of his wife Helen and his two sons, Brendan and Lucas. One day, all that changes when Nick is on his way home with Brendan after the latter's hockey game at school. They stop by a gas station, where a gang of punks suddenly turns up and brutally murders the owner and Brendan.

Nick and his family are shaken by the incident, of course. The cops manage to catch the boy who did it, but then the prosecution lawyer tells Nick that his testimony will only get him jailed for a few years. This doesn't sit well with the grieving father, who decides to waive his testimony and go after the punk on his own. He succeeds later in following the kid, whose name is Joe Darley, and kills him.

Killing him wasn't exactly easy for Nick, especially since he's just a father seeking retribution, and not a cold blooded murderer. But he's got bigger problems, when Joe's older brother Billy is looking for retribution of his own after learning about who killed his brother. Billy and his gang attack Nick and his family, which sets off a chain reaction of events, a tit for tat that constantly ends with violence. But can Nick put an end to it once and for all?

James Wan did a tremendous job with Saw, by using dim lighting and brooding sets. He does almost the same here in Death Sentence. It's a different genre, it's not horror. It's not an action film, but more of a drama, of family, losing the people you love, the emotions that you experience from that, and the actions that result from it. You'd think that Wan wouldn't be able to do justice to it if you've seen his films, but he doesn't do a bad job at all.

Casting wise, Kevin Bacon gives a sterling performance as Nick Hume. You'll feel his pain, his anger, his fear as well as his guilt for turning into the killer he has to become to fight this war and protect his family. Garrett Hedlund makes a nice turn as a villain by playing the ruthless Billy Darley. Gone are the memories of Hedlund being the naive Patrocles in Troy. But what I truly love watching is John Goodman as Billy's father Bones, a badass car body shop owner that sells guns on the side. Despite his short screen time, his appearances are very memorable.

From my point of view, Wan didn't turn this into a straightforward action flick, probably because it wasn't his intention. It's all about revenge, and what it does to a person, and the people caught in the crossfire. He succeeds in bringing that point out, as shown through some poignant dramatic sequences. However, despite the unflinching violence, the film could use a few more suspense and thrills here and there. The ending was quite anti-climactic for me. Thank goodness the dramatic turns by the talented cast saves it from being mediocre.

Less thrilling than The Punisher, but more to the point than The Brave One. It's like a modern day western now that I think of it. Not bad, all in all. (3.5/5)

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Be Kind Rewind

Year: 2008
Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, Melonie Diaz

I needed to laugh, because I'm the guy that rarely goes to watch a comedy. I usually stick to serious films, since Hollywood tends to give us really pathetic and lame comedies, like all those spoof films. So when Be Kind Rewind came along, I had to check it out.

Be Kind Rewind takes place at a video store, an old school kind of store, where they still use videotapes instead of DVDs. Elroy Fletcher (Danny Glover), the owner of the store (incidentally named Be Kind Rewind), leaves for an out-of-town trip and asks his employee Mike (Mos Def) to watch the store for him. But it's easier said than done, because of the presence of Mike's trouble making friend Jerry (Jack Black), who keeps thinking that the power plant nearby is making everyone crazy in the head.

One night, Jerry sabotages the power plant and as a result, gets himself magnetized. Yes, as silly as it sounds. So what happens when a big magnet walks into a video store? All the tapes get erased! And now Mike is in deep trouble, for there are no tapes left to rent out. Then when an old lady (Mia Farrow) wants to rent Ghostbusters, Mike delays her request and gets Jerry to help him re-film the movie on camera.

Now, how much sense does this make? Well, it makes sense if the customer hasn't actually seen the film, so Mike and Jerry re-film Ghostbusters using their own props and a video camera. And guess what? The lady and her nephew and his friends love it! They remake other films later, and the neighborhood love their versions as well, and start making a line outside the store for Mike and Jerry's versions of popular films. When Mr Fletcher returns, and discovers their idea, he isn't too keen on it, especially since he's more concerned on saving his store from being demolished by developers. But soon, he comes to love the idea and all is well. Until the FBI show up and sue them for copyright infringement.....

First off, let me tell you that I had watched Gondry's work on Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind and I wasn't too impressed. It was quirky, but hard to like, maybe because I don't like seeing Jim Carrey being so depressed. But Be Kind Rewind is fabulous. It's funny, it's creative, and not over the top like most Jack Black films tend to be. Here, his brand of inane and over-animated comedy is well balanced by Mos Def, who brings a sense of realism to the quirkyness of the film. Melonie Diaz almost steals the show as Alma, a girl from the neighborhood who helps them 'swede' the films.

But the real attraction of the movie is seeing Gondry reenact the popular films like King Kong, Rush Hour 2, Carrie, Driving Miss Daisy, Robocop and even The Lion King. The final result of the 'remakes' look like stuff you'd see on Youtube, but that's exactly what makes it so genuinely funny. It's an original idea about unoriginality, and well executed indeed.

The last third of the film may seem a tad less watchable, but it does end with a feel good conclusion. Overall, a well-made comedy you can appreciate. (4/5)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Gone Baby Gone

Year: 2007
Director: Ben Affleck
Cast: Casey Affleck, Michelle Monaghan, Ed Harris, Morgan Freeman, Amy Ryan, John Ashton

Gone Baby Gone is actor Ben Affleck's directorial debut, and it's quite an achievement, garnering one Oscar nomination for best supporting actress.

The film takes place in Boston, where a little girl called Amanda McCready has been kidnapped. The local police do all they can to investigate her abduction, but Amanda's aunt Beatrice (Amy Madigan) decides to hire outside help.

Enter private investigators Patrick Kenzie (Casey Affleck) and Angie Gennaro (Michelle Monaghan), who aren't exactly experienced in cases like this. But they decide to accept the case anyway. Their investigation however isn't smooth as they are being discouraged by the local police captain Jack Doyle (Morgan Freeman) and the girl's irresponsible crackhead mother Helene (Amy Ryan), who refuses to cooperate or even show concern for her child. Doyle assigns his two senior officers, Nick Poole (John Ashton) and Remy Bressant (Ed Harris) to let Patrick and Angie assist them in finding Amanda.

They learn that Amanda may have been kidnapped because of a drug deal gone wrong, and try to get her back by paying off the dealers. But things go wrong and they lose Amanda. However Patrick isn't quite finished with his investigation, and he slowly uncovers the truth about the kidnap, and the real players involved.

Ben Affleck does tremendously well with his first film, hiring the right cast and hitting all the right notes. It's gritty, dramatic and dark, just as the way it should be. It's based on a novel by Dennis Lehane, who also wrote Mystic River, and both films share the same qualities mentioned. One wonders if Boston really is like that in reality. It would be scary indeed.

Ben's little brother Casey is perfect as the lead character. As Patrick, Casey turns in a sterling performance as a man who takes up the case out of pride perhaps, but then slowly changes towards the end as a man who wants to do the right thing, despite what everyone else says. Monaghan, Ashton and Harris also provide great support. Harris in particular, never disappoints. It is Amy Ryan however that is mesmerising as the hopelessly unreliable Helene, and truly deserves her Oscar nomination.

I only wished that the local censors weren't so uneven with the profanity cuts, it really disrupted the movie's flow. But for those of you who are able to watch films censor free, go for this one. (4/5)

Sunday, March 16, 2008

10,000 B.C.

Year: 2008
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: Steven Strait, Camilla Belle, Cliff Curtis, Joel Virgel, Nathanael Baring, Mona Hammond

When you want a film of huge scale and effects done right, you need to go see Roland Emmerich. He's the go-to guy if your film boasts huge sets and wondrous effects shots, and even if your script sucks, Roland will make your film look like a major blockbuster. Independence Day and Godzilla aren't exactly brain food, but you have to admit it's fun to watch.

Which brings us to Emmerich's new flick, 10000 B.C. Basically it's a film about heroism, being the chosen one, rising up against a tyrant, falling in love and saving your other half from death, becoming a leader of the oppressed and the list goes on. Just pick your favourite hero from the countless characters you've seen over the years in an action adventure flick, and chances are you'll see a part of him/her here.

In Emmerich's film, set in you-know-what-year, we focus on the Yagahl tribe, who are waiting for the last hunt for the woolly mammoth. It's a coming-of-age ritual for the young warriors of the tribe. D'leh, our young hero and protagonist, hopes to be the one to slay the great mammoth in order to claim his woman, Evolet. The tribe's ancient seer, Old Mother, predicts that the chosen one will be Evolet's other half and become the leader of the tribe in the future. But why Evolet? Because she is from a neighbouring tribe, that has been slaughtered by vicious warlords, and her presence among the Yagahl has a reason of its own.

Anyway, D'leh wins the ritual by luck, and though he gains the respect of his brethren, his mentor, Tic'Tic thinks otherwise. D'leh gives up Evolet in guilt, but then things take an even worser turn when the warlords attack his village and capture several of the Yagahl, and Evolet too. Now D'leh must travel across many hundred miles with his friends to rescue the girl he loves, and along the way learn about his destiny, the truth about his father who had left him when he was young, as well as his adversary at the end of the journey.

Emmerich knows how to make a movie of great scale. He makes alien spaceships look as big as a city in Independence Day. He makes a giant lizard stomp the Big Apple look real in Godzilla. He makes global warming a serious threat on film in The Day After Tomorrow. And here, he once again succeeds in making everything look authentic, from the vast landscapes to the creature effects, though the terror birds that look like oversized ostriches weren't very convincing.

However, where his previous films had at least hilarious dialogue to mask the corniness of his script, 10000 B.C. takes a different path. The dialogue is silly, humourless and disappointing. I know that people back in those days didn't use complex language, but if they're going to speak English for our benefit, at least let them say something worth saying. I think the dialogue should have been minimised, because the more the characters spoke, the sillier they appeared. And the Omar Sharif narration made it even worse. That should have been minimised too.

The acting is nowhere superb. Steven Strait is really new at this, for he doesn't have the screen presence to be D'leh, though his physique is spot on. The others do just as bad, but it's really the lines fed to them that made it more obvious. And the plot about D'leh leading the people to overthrow a self-proclaimed god was badly executed. I mean, the so-called God looks like a reject from an Asian horror flick, escorted by advisors that came from India. Weird.

There were 5 trailers that played before the film started: The Dark Knight, Hellboy II, The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian, Iron Man and the new Indiana Jones film. I guarantee you that all those films will be better than 10000 B.C. Hell, I'd rather watch those 5 trailers again than go back to see this film. Emmerich falls short this year, seriously. (2.5/5)

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Vantage Point

Year: 2008
Director: Pete Travis
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Matthew Fox, Forest Whitaker, William Hurt, Edgar Ramirez, Sigourney Weaver, Eduardo Noriega, Said Taghmaoui, Ayelet Zurer

This film has one heck of a trailer. I love it, can't get enough of it. It's just my affection for adrenaline pumping trailers. Watching it made me decide that I had to see this film, no matter what anyone says.

Vantage Point is a Rashomon style narrative on the sequence of events that take place when the President of America (William Hurt) attends a summit on the war against terrorism in Salamanca, Spain. We first see the events unfold from the point of view of the media crew covering the event, headed by Rex Brooks (Sigourney Weaver). Then suddenly, the president gets shot as he steps to the podium. Panic and chaos ensues. And before anyone can make sense of the goings-on, a bomb explodes on the scene and carnage follows.

Then the film rewinds back to the starting point and moves again, this time from other points of view of the incident. Among them, the Secret Service agent assigned to protect the president, Thomas Barnes (Dennis Quaid), a local cop with an agenda (Eduardo Noriega), Howard Lewis (Forest Whitaker), an American tourist filming the event, and also the president himself. Every time we watch a different point of view, another clue is revealed, another secret is uncovered until all the players in the game cross paths at the blood pumping climax. Naturally, nothing is what it seems, and everyone has a secret.

Director Pete Travis does an excellent job in keeping the pace tight, and manages to keep his audience on the edge of their seats in the short time frame that the film takes place. The plot only covers the same 20 minutes or so, in order to accomodate all the points of view of the players. Despite that, the film is short at 90 minutes long, which is good, otherwise it would have been dull to see the same events stretch themselves out too long. And although some people may not like to see the same thing again and again, I feel that the different points of view made it possible for the film to not look too similar every time they rewind, so it's not exactly a dejavu experience, at least not for me.

The cast performs well, from the most important to the least. Quaid is always dependable as the ageing hero who never quits, and here he gives Thomas Barnes the same quality. Whitaker, despite not getting much screen time here, also acquits himself well. His Howard Lewis is just an ordinary guy who finds himself thrust into an extraordinary situation, and Whitaker pulls it off so well, you'll forget he was the same guy who played the ruthless Internal Affairs cop in The Shield. He's truly talented. The international cast, who basically play the masterminds and instruments of the attack, leave a lasting impression too. Weaver gets very little to do, however, and Matthew Fox, who plays Barnes' partner, is much better on Lost than he was here.

As for the storytelling, I like the different narrative style used here, but let me tell you this: it's not entirely perfect. After seeing the whole film, one feels that if they had not used the different POV style, Vantage Point can still work as an effective action thriller. And the fact that Travis did not use it well enough to reveal the final twist at the end, pulls the film's excitement down a few notches.

But in the end, I still like it very much. It's nice entertainment for the masses. (4/5)

Monday, March 03, 2008

The Mist

Year: 2007
Director: Frank Darabont
Cast: Thomas Jane, Marcia Gay Harden, Laurie Holden, Andre Braugher, Toby Jones, Nathan Gamble, William Sadler, Jeffrey DeMunn, Frances Sternhagen, Sam Witwer, Alexa Davalos

The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption are both written by Stephen King and adapted for film by Frank Darabont. Both were great hits, and now we have yet another Darabont-King classic. But unlike the former two, that are more drama oriented, this one has a nice mix of terror and drama.

The Mist takes place in a small town, where a freak storm kills the power supply. David Drayton, a movie poster artist, takes his son Billy and heads for the supermarket to stock up on supplies. He isn't alone, as everyone else in town is there to do just that. Then suddenly, an old man runs into the store and yells about something being in the mist coming straight for them. People outside start screaming, others panic, and everyone takes shelter in the supermarket.

Before they know it, the mysterious mist surrounds the whole store, and communications are cut off. The people inside try to make sense of what's happening. Then mysterious creatures, from giant tentacles to gigantic bugs and bats and spiders make their presence known from within the mist, and people start dying. David tries desperately to protect his son and keep order among his friends, but it's not easy with the presence of Mrs Carmody, a woman who is part religious zealot, part mentally unstable.

Mrs Carmody believes that whatever is happening is caused by the wrath of God, and that the end is near. The more people fall victim to the carnage, the more she preaches, and the more frightened survivors start listening to her. The fear that escalates within the supermarket, caused by both the mist and Mrs Carmody's preaching, threatens David's life and everyone else's as well.

After watching this film, I am truly convinced that Darabont is a master storyteller. This is a horror flick, through and through. But Darabont doesn't follow the path of most horror directors, who would get straight to the point and scare their audiences right away. Darabont takes his time to unfold the tale and get you to take a good look at the protagonists involved. This gives us a chance to notice everyone in the film, and give them a face you'll remember later on. A horror film that's over 2 hours long such as this is rare, but fitting indeed.

Thomas Jane, who played tough action heroes in Deep Blue Sea and my personal favourite, The Punisher, does a splendid job playing David, a man who would do anything to protect his son, and yet manages to hold his senses together as he leads the more sensible lot to safety. Marcia Gay Harden on the other hand, is superb as the demented Mrs Carmody. I think she will be a truly memorable villain in cinema history. Two thumbs up for Harden. But not to be outdone are the supporting cast. Toby Jones, Andre Braugher, Frances Sternhagen, Jeffrey DeMunn and William Sadler all deliver memorable performances too.

Oh, I seem to have neglected the horror part for a moment there. OK, here. The horror part was also well executed. The special effects are average at best, not as good as watching the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, but definitely better than the sorry graphics we were served in The Mummy Returns. Darabont does a great job in balancing the terror between scary creatures and the ones caused by fearful individuals. As you watch this, you'll see that there's more than one way to strike fear in others. And then there's the ending, which differs from King's original version. It's one that I can say defies Hollywood's natural tendencies, and because of that, it left a very lasting impression on me. I think it will for the rest of you too.

It's better than I expected it to be. One of the best films I've seen, ever. Recommended. (4.5/5)

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Elizabeth: The Golden Age

Year: 2007
Director: Shekhar Kapur
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Clive Owen, Geoffrey Rush, Abbie Cornish, Samantha Morton

In order to prepare myself for this film, I rented the video to Elizabeth, the prequel. I found the prequel a little boring, to be honest. But Elizabeth: The Golden Age is much more interesting.

Set in 1585, this film chronicles the story of Queen Elizabeth, as she rules England while the country is divided between her Protestant supporters and the Roman Catholics who despise her. Her faithful advisor, Sir Francis Walsingham warns her of the dangers from the latter group, but she intends to win them over by earning their love.

Meanwhile, Spain, the most powerful Roman Catholic country in Europe, has started a holy war. Its ruler, Philip II, plans to invade England and remove Elizabeth from her throne. He secretly hatches an assassination plot with Elizabeth's cousin, Mary, Queen Of Scots, who is in prison, and plans to place Mary as Queen.

Elizabeth is advised by Walsingham to find a suitor, but none of the available choices please her. She then meets Sir Walter Raleigh, a sailor who has returned from the new world, bearing gifts and tales of his adventures. Elizabeth is no doubt attracted to him, and gives him plenty of attention. She cannot commit to him however, due to her position, so she sends her favourite lady-in-waiting, Bess to be his companion. Bess and Raleigh fall for each other, thereby making his friendship with the queen more complicated. But Elizabeth has no time to spare for her heart, as Philip's armada closes in on England.

Shekhar Kapur once again takes the helm for the sequel to his previous film, and he does a good job of putting the queen at the center of attention, and depicting her as a force to be reckoned with, yet vulnerable at the same time. Cate Blanchett deserves all the accolades she gets for portraying the monarch, as she brings all of Elizabeth's characteristics, be it strength, weakness, bravado and sincerity to the fore. Clive Owen is equally good, bringing a tremendous amount of charm to Walter Raleigh, and making him an equal alongside the queen. Geoffrey Rush doesn't have much to do this time around, but makes his presence felt nonetheless.

The costumes for this film, particularly for Elizabeth, are the best part of the whole experience. It truly deserves the Oscar it earned for costume design. However, the film suffers from a lack of a proper climax, and not much to show for other than Blanchett & Owen's fine performances. Maybe I'm not so into period dramas like these, I never have been. But I do love Cate Blanchett, and she rarely disappoints me.

A nice film to spend 2 hours with, just don't expect too much from it. (3.5/5)


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