Saturday, February 21, 2009

Punisher: Warzone

Year: 2008
Director: Lexi Alexander
Cast: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Doug Hutchison, Colin Salmon, Dash Mihok, Wayne Knight

In case any of you were unaware, I am a huge fan of The Punisher comic book series, and subsequently became a fan of the film made in 2004 starring Thomas Jane. And just like The Incredible Hulk last year, Marvel launches a new film on the great anti-hero. But considering the fact that Thomas Jane actually was in the running to be in this film only to pull out later, one wonders if this is actually a sequel. And after viewing it today, I noticed how little relevance it made to the original film, so how can this be a sequel at all?

For the uninitiated, The Punisher a.k.a. Frank Castle (Ray Stevenson) is a former Vietnam war veteran who lost his family at the hands of the mob when they became witnesses to a gang war. Castle has been waging a one man war against criminals since that day. In this film, he is up against Billy Russoti (Dominic West), a ruthless mobster with a penchant for violence. One night, Castle engages Russoti and his gang while they were trying to smuggle dangerous cargo into the country, and in the process, Russoti ends up getting disfigured badly. Castle on the other hand kills a man whom he thought was working for Russoti, but is actually an undercover FBI agent.

Castle is overwhelmed with guilt and decides to quit his crime fighting activity for good, until his friend and weapons supplier Micro (Wayne Knight) convinces him to nail Russoti before he goes after the wife and daughter of the fallen agent for doublecrossing him. Now Castle has to protect the agent's family from Russoti, who now calls himself Jigsaw, and his lunatic brother Loony Bin Jim (Doug Hutchison) while trying to evade capture from the fallen agent's colleague Budiansky (Colin Salmon).

It's interesting to note that the director of this film is a female. Lexi Alexander helms a film that is dark, brutal and unflinching in its portrayal of violence. The censors cut out most of the stuff, but there are still plenty of shots of people getting blown up, shot in the head and thrown into walls. This is exactly the way The Punisher is portrayed in the books, and even Ray Stevenson looks the part. Most of the supporting characters like Jigsaw, his goons and the cops are also based on the comic book, so for a fan of the book like myself, it's like a fitting tribute to see them all on screen, though not exactly in the same way they were meant to be.

But the question is, is it good? Well, not really. Not if you compared this to the Thomas Jane version. Sure, this film has the violence and the feel down pat, and Stevenson is almost perfect as Castle. However the action sequences aren't mind blowing, save for one hilarious scene where a guy that jumps off a building gets shot with a rocket. Aside from lots of gunfire and explosions, there isn't much to shout about. Alexander opts to favour brutality over finesse, so you get a lot of in your face action, but nothing you haven't already seen someplace else.

More importantly, the fact that this film doesn't make any references to the Thomas Jane version or give a more detailed insight into Frank Castle's origins will leave lesser informed viewers confused. Surely they'd like to know where he came from, what makes him tick etc instead of just a brief skimming of it by the cops in this film. Like every comic book film before it, The Punisher should have his own origins spelled out properly.

I'll give Punisher: Warzone full points for accuracy, but not for entertainment value. It deserves just a little more depth and drama. (3.5/5)

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire

Year: 2008
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor

Now here's something you don't get to see all the time: a movie almost destined for a DVD release until someone decided to give it a theatrical run, and now it is vying for a Best Picture Oscar.

Slumdog Millionaire takes place in India, and focuses on a young man named Jamal, a poor tea boy who becomes a contestant on India's version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? game show. Shortly after answering the second last question correctly, the police arrest him on suspicion of cheating. The show's host and the police apparently think that a simple tea boy could not possibly know all the answers. As they interrogate him, Jamal tells them his life story and how it relates to all the answers he chose.

His life began in a slum neighborhood, where he lived with his mother and older brother, Salim. He and his brother would spend their time playing cricket and finding ways to earn small change from the people around them. We get a glimpse of Jamal and Salim trying to survive together after their mother is killed during a riot, how they meet a street girl named Latika, how all three of them are recruited by a gang that runs a child begging ring, how they eventually escape from the gang, get separated, grow up and live on the streets and get themselves in trouble with the law.

Jamal is the protagonist, so we get to watch his turbulent relationship with his selfish brother Salim as well as his undying affection for Latika, that never ceases no matter how much time has passed or whatever events that come between them. Eventually we learn how Jamal got himself onto the game show in the first place, and how all his answers take him to his destiny.

Just as I was surprised about David Fincher directing The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button, so am I here with Danny Boyle. A tale set in India, with an Indian cast and part of the film in Hindi, directed by Danny Boyle? Yeah, it is amazing. And Boyle brings all the realism that this film requires to the fore. The cruelty, brutality and hardship of reality faced by the poor folk living in the slums are well portrayed here. The violence, the darkness, the frightening world of living a life of crime there is vividly brought to the screen. Added to that the Indian music score by AR Rahman, and the setting is just perfect for a touching yet sometimes sad story.

Dev Patel, who portrays Jamal however, isn't too impressive. He probably only had two expressions throughout the film, but I'll give him some credit for trying. Freida Pinto fares only slightly better as Latika. Madhur Mittal plays Salim with the right amount of venom and selfishness, but sometimes I am left wondering whether he truly cares about Jamal or not, based on his actions. And that hairdo, not right at all. The younger cast that plays the three characters are actually more spot on than their adult counterparts. It is deserving that the kids get paid well for their education after the film was done.

When you get to the end, which by the way is a feel good ending, you'll see that Slumdog Millionaire is a fairytale love story set in the real world. There is a hero, a heroine, a villain, many tragic circumstances thrown in and how all these play in to a fitting finale. Yeah, some of the stuff in this film may seem far fetched despite all the realism present, especially the questions used for the game show, but don't let it throw you. This is a great movie, and you should see it.

I am however not ready to say it deserves the Best Picture Oscar, since I can't decide yet if it's better than The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. I do admit leaning towards Button a little bit, but Slumdog is a gem of its own. Do make time for it. (4/5)

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button

Year: 2008
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Tilda Swinton, Jared Harris, Jason Flemyng

Oscar season continues, and this week I'm writing about a Best Picture contender that has 12 other nominations running alongside it.

The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button begins in a hospital in New Orleans, where a woman named Caroline (Julia Ormond) is visiting her mother Daisy (Cate Blanchett) as Hurricane Katrina blows outside. Daisy is on her deathbed and asks Caroline to read a diary to her, a diary that belongs to Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt).

And so the story of Benjamin begins in New Orleans after the end of World War I, the day he was born. His father Thomas Button (Jason Flemyng) takes a look at his newborn son and sees an abnormal child, one covered in wrinkles and looking so fragile and horrifying. He abandons his son at the doorstep of a nursing home, run by a kind black woman named Queenie (Taraji P. Henson). Queenie is equally shocked by the child's appearance, but decides to give him a home amongst the old folk she looks after. She gives him the name Benjamin.

As time passes, Benjamin grows younger and younger, and looks less and less like the old people living in the nursing home. You see, Benjamin has a rare condition where he is born old and ages backwards. Despite his strange condition, Benjamin tries to lead a normal life under Queenie's care as well as the elderly folk he mingles with daily. He eventually leaves home and has his own little adventure, working with tugboat captain Mike Clark (Jared Harris), travelling to Russia and having a relationship with a married woman (Tilda Swinton), discovering the identity of his father and running into his childhood sweetheart Daisy, and how their love progresses through tragedy and pain.

I must say that this film is beautifully made, and it's astonishing to know that it was directed by David Fincher, a man who is well known for thrillers like Se7en, The Game and Panic Room. Fincher takes his time in telling his story, which is based on a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and puts everything into place without overdoing it or misplacing his focus. Everything, from visual effects, makeup and score to pacing and cinematography is near perfect. Yes, at 2 hours and 45 minutes, it does feel long, but unlike his last film Zodiac, it doesn't feel tiring at all to sit through this.

Brad Pitt gives a subdued performance as Benjamin. He paints Benjamin as a calm and quiet man, who meets many people along the way and watches them all go when their time comes, and the sadness he must experience with every loss. His only real happiness comes when he is with his true love Daisy, played very well by Cate Blanchett. With her southern accent, Blanchett reminded me of her character in Ron Howard's The Missing, except here she gets a wider range of emotions to play with. The other supporting cast members, even the smaller ones all make their presence felt throughout the movie.

In hindsight, this film is a lot like Forrest Gump, as it charts the story of one man narrating his life from beginning till end, telling his story of all the people he met, cared about, lost and the adventures and moments in between that mattered the most to him. The only difference is the story of Benjamin Button is a little more tragic, and it has an underlying message, that no matter which way you age, you can't escape the pain and loss that comes with life.

Pitt is up against some great competition for Best Actor come Oscar night, and I'm thinking it's still not his time yet despite his great performance here. But it would be a shame if this film didn't win some awards for such a splendid effort by its cast and crew. Recommended. (4/5)

Sunday, February 08, 2009


Year: 2008
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Colm Feore, Michael Kelly, Jason Butler Harner, Amy Ryan, Denis O'Hare

Wow, I haven't updated this place for a long time. My apologies. The festive season got to me. Anyway, I'm back, and it's Oscar season again. To start it off, I'm reviewing Clint Eastwood's latest vehicle, Changeling.

Based on a true story, Changeling takes place in 1928 Los Angeles, and centres on Christine Collins, a telegraph switchboard supervisor who is a single mother to her son Walter. One day, she goes to work for an unplanned overtime and leaves Walter at home. She returns later to discover that he's missing. Christine lodges a police report, but no word comes on Walter's whereabouts, until several months later when LAPD captain JJ Jones informs Christine that they have found her son in Illinois. However when they reunite Christine with the boy, she discovers that the boy they brought back isn't Walter.

The police attempt to convince her that the boy is indeed her son and advise her to bring him home. Christine does so, thinking at first that she is in shock. But there is no mistake on her part, Christine is certain that the boy is not Walter. She complains to Captain Jones on his department's error but he won't have any of it. He even sends a doctor to convince Christine of the 'changes' Walter may have gone through the past few months to end up looking different. Christine remains defiant and takes her case to the media, supported by Rev Gustav Brieglieb of the community church, who himself is on a mission to expose corruption in the LAPD. Jones responds in kind by having Christine committed to an asylum under the suggestion that she is delusional.

But just when all hope is lost, a discovery is made by an LAPD detective on a child serial killer up north who may have been responsible for the disappearance of Walter and many other young boys. With that discovery, Christine and Rev Gustav work together to take down the LAPD's corrupt members.

Since it's Clint Eastwood, you can expect this film to be lengthy and very elaborate. Eastwood loves taking his time and it shows. As far as set design and costumes go, Eastwood hits it spot on. The look of 1920-30s LA is beautifully recreated and filmed. Everything from cars, trams, streetwalks and buildings seem authentic.

Performance wise, it's Angelina Jolie that drives it from start to finish. She puts in a good, but not great performance as the distraught yet courageous Christine. I say good but not great because she has put in better work before, such as in Girl, Interrupted (though personally I didn't like her in that one). The other supporting cast members do well too, but all of them take a backseat to Jolie. Even John Malkovich who plays Rev Gustav only comes on half as many times as she does.

But there is something else that bugs me about Changeling. Compared to Eastwood's other films, this one seems less connected on an emotional level. Sure, we do feel for Christine and her plight, but the entire film is more of a reenactment of facts than a drama. In Mystic River, we get to see consequences of emotionally disturbing events. In Million Dollar Baby we get heartbreaking drama. But here, we see how this story based on real events happen, from the start right up to how it ends, fact by fact. Some dramatic scenes are added here and there, but not much registers. It's like everyone's just going through the motions, with no surprises.

And then there's the last 45 minutes of the film which I thought was unnecessarily long. It features Christine confronting the man who supposedly killed her son, his eventual execution and ends with a scene that hints of a possibility that Walter is still alive. All I can say is that this could have been shortened tremendously. The viewers need not be continuosly reminded that Christine loves her son and won't give up on him despite all the facts presented to her blah blah blah. Mr Eastwood, please tighten your film a bit, that's all I ask of you.

In the end, Changeling is an interesting film about the Wineville Chicken Coop murders (that's what the case was called back then), but is not very gripping emotionally. I don't see Jolie winning the Oscar later this month (she's nominated for Best Actress), but I'll give her credit for successfully making this film slightly above average. Just don't put high expectations on it. (3.5/5)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...