Friday, December 31, 2010

Gulliver's Travels

Year: 2010
Director: Rob Letterman
Cast: Jack Black, Amanda Peet, Emily Blunt, Jason Segel, Billy Connolly, Chris O'Dowd


Remember the story Gulliver's Travels about an adventurer who winds up on an island filled with tiny people? Hollywood finally decided to make a movie out of it.

Jack Black plays Lemuel Gulliver, a laidback mail room clerk who has a major crush on Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), who writes for a travel column. In an attempt to impress her, Gulliver takes up an assignment to write about his extensive travelling experience, even when he actually does not have any.

So he plagiarises other travel columns to write a nice article for her, and Darcy is so impressed that she sends him on an assignment to the Bermuda Triangle. Gulliver goes there by boat on his own, when he is suddenly sucked up into a waterspout. When he awakens, he finds himself being taken prisoner by an army of little people no taller than six inches!

Soon he learns he is on the island of Lilliput, and is now regarded as a beast because of his size. He befriends fellow inmate Horatio (Jason Segel), who is imprisoned because of attempting to court Princess Mary (Emily Blunt). One day, Gulliver succeeds in preventing a kidnapping attempt on the princess by invading forces and is subsequently declared a hero by her father King Theodore (Billy Connolly). Gulliver, who now enjoys accolades he had never received in his life before, makes up a bunch of stories about his identity in order to impress the Lilliputians.

However, the head of the Lilliputian army, General Edward (Chris O'Dowd) is furious over being replaced by Gulliver as the island's hero, and hatches a plan to eliminate him.

The one thing that impressed me first about Gulliver's Travels is the special effects. They successfully made it look like Jack Black is communicating with little people, physically manhandling them or being manhandled in return etc. And since it's Jack Black we're talking about, you know what kind of comedy to expect. The crass, occasionally low brow and mostly spontaneous humour. Black still manages to pull it off here, even though he's been way better in previous films.

However, despite all that, the film comes off as very mediocre. Black is fun to watch, but he doesn't have the best material to work with here. The script makes the film look more suited for children, leaving very little for adults to have fun with. Perhaps that's what director Rob Letterman was aiming for, to entertain the young ones. But it would have been nice if the older audience members have something to laugh at here.

On a brighter note, Emily Blunt does a good job hamming things up as Princess Mary, while Billy Connolly is a tad underused as King Theodore. Chris O'Dowd makes a good villain as General Edward, and Jason Segel is spot on as Gulliver's sidekick Horatio.

An average Jack Black vehicle to end the year with. I should have watched Tron Legacy already. (By the way, you might want to leave the hall when Jack Black starts to sing Edwin Starr's War at the end, it was really cheesy.) (3/5)

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Due Date

Year: 2010
Director: Todd Phillips
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Zach Galifianakis, Michelle Monaghan, Jamie Foxx


There was an old comedy called Planes, Trains & Automobiles where Steve Martin and John Candy played two mismatched guys stuck with each other as they made their way home. I never saw that film, but Due Date is said to be a lot like that.

In this film, Robert Downey Jr plays Peter Highman, a father-to-be on his way home from Atlanta to Los Angeles to make it for his child's birth. At the airport, he bumps into Ethan Tremblay (Zach Galifianakis), an aspiring actor, and they subsequently get their luggage mixed up. Things get worse when on the plane, Ethan inadvertently gets himself and Peter thrown out because of a misunderstanding with the air marshal.

Now being put on the No Fly List, Peter has no other way home, except to hitch a ride with Ethan in a rented car. With Ethan being a weed smoker, carrying a bulldog and add Ethan's annoying attitude, Peter is gonna have one long trip ahead of him, and one full of mishaps too.

Director Todd Phillips was at the helm of The Hangover, last year's hit comedy which also starred Galifianakis. I plan on seeing that on cable soon. Here in Due Date, the usual jokes come forth: slapstick, low brow and a lot of accidental injuries. Most of them only made me snigger, and not because they were badly executed, but because it's nothing new. There were a few good ones, like the one where Peter punches a kid in the gut for yanking on his tie, which I know would be rather controversial as to whether it's funny or outrageous, but I think Downey pulled that one off well without making it look bad.

Speaking of Downey, he does a good job here as Peter. He sounds a lot like Tony Stark, except he's not very nice. In fact, Peter is a very unlikable guy who is prone to losing his temper and insulting people without flinching, which kinda makes it tough for us to sympathise with him. But at the very least, Downey manages to show Peter's caring side when the scene calls for it. He is balanced off perfectly by Galifianakis, who gives Ethan a certain air of lovable quality, even though he isn't the smartest of people. The best way to describe Ethan is to picture that guy you sit next to on a bus or train, and he goes on and on about himself, being very earnest but not knowing if we want to hear him talk that much. THAT'S the guy Ethan is. The duo's budding friendship as the story progresses, through every painful and embarrassing situation is the driving force of the picture.

Jamie Foxx and Juliette Lewis make short appearances as Peter's best friend and a drug dealer respectively, and they're not too shabby. But I didn't like the inclusion of Danny McBride as the disgruntled Western Union employee that beats Peter up. That attempt at humour is rather overused in films like these, it just didn't work for me.

Overall, it's a decent attempt at comedy about a mismatched duo, just don't expect much else. (3.5/5)

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Next Three Days

Year: 2010
Director: Paul Haggis
Cast: Russell Crowe, Elizabeth Banks, Olivia Wilde, Liam Neeson


If you've seen the hit TV show Prison Break, then you'll get an idea of what The Next Three Days is essentially about, though it is not nearly as complicated.

The Next Three Days is about John Brennan, a university lecturer who is also a loving husband and father. His perfect world comes crashing down one day when the police barge into his home and arrest his wife Lara for murder.

Naturally John believes she is innocent, but the evidence says she isn't, and she goes to jail. As time passes, the couple's young son grows distant from her, and she loses appeal after appeal in court. When Lara attempts suicide and fails, John realizes that he has only one choice to save his family: break Lara out of prison.

Paul Haggis, who directed the Oscar winning Crash, brings to us a very interesting conundrum, and succeeds in making us relate to the protagonist's situation. Unlike Prison Break, where you'd have to suspend disbelief many times to enjoy it fully, The Next Three Days feels very real. A majority of the film is spent on John's efforts in learning how to break someone out of prison, which he starts by consulting a man who has written books on escaping prisons, played by Liam Neeson. From there, John begins planning, knowing what to do and when, how to get the necessary resources, how fast he must go from point to point, the dos and don'ts etc. All this contributes to the realism of the story at hand. And yes, it is not without flaws of its own, there were times when some things didn't seem plausible, but it is all right to ignore them.

Russell Crowe once again excels in becoming the driving force of this film. As John, he gets our sympathy as a desperate man who would do whatever it takes to save his wife, knowing the consequences if he fails. Unlike Wentworth Miller in Prison Break, John is a regular guy, a teacher, who has to learn from scratch on doing the seemingly impossible, and muster the courage to see it through to the end. Crowe is very convincing in delivering that side of John.

Elizabeth Banks isn't as convincing as Crowe here, but she does shine in some of her scenes as Lara. Although only getting one scene, Neeson puts in a great performance as Damon Pennington, the expert on prison breaking. Special mention must also be made for Brian Dennehy as John's father. His age is definitely showing, but his presence is very welcome here, as he shows plenty of emotion even when he says nothing. Home Alone's Daniel Stern also gets a nice turn as John's lawyer, something you'd never expect from him.

It's a well made thriller with a lot of good drama thrown in. Based on the support its getting, I think it's seriously underrated, and if any of you are reading this, you should go see it. (4/5)

Friday, December 17, 2010

Harry Potter And The Deathly Hallows: Part 1

Year: 2010
Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Helena Bonham Carter, Ralph Fiennes, Jason Isaacs, Bill Nighy, Robbie Coltrane, Alan Rickman, David Thewlis


The Harry Potter films stopped being fun the day Cedric Diggory died.

But it's not because Cedric was such a well loved character. His death simply meant that things were going to get ugly, and it was not going to stop until either Harry or Voldermort dies. Cedric unfortunately was merely the first in a long line of characters in the adventures of Harry Potter that will bite the dust.

In my opinion, only real Potter fans, that is, those who read the books, would really feel anything when these characters meet their demise. For people like me, the regular movie fan, and many others who love it for the epicness, we just wonder when it will end, and how. So when I sat down to watch The Deathly Hallows, the only thing I felt was a small measure of relief that it would soon end at last. Not that it hasn't been fun. It has. It's just that I want to take something significant away from these films besides seeing everyone either grow up or die.

So Deathly Hallows begins with Harry and his two friends, Ron and Hermione, prepare for the hard days to come. Voldermort and his forces grow stronger now that Prof. Dumbledore is dead, thanks to Prof. Snape. Harry, Ron and Hermione attempt to locate Voldermort's horcruxes, objects which contain pieces of his soul. If they can find all of them and destroy them, they can defeat him.

Through their journey and a subsequent meeting with Luna Lovegood's father Xenophilius, the trio learn of the Deathly Hallows; three magical things that would make its owner the master of death. They also learn that Voldermort is after the same things.

David Yates takes the helm again after doing the last two instalments, and once again the mood is dark and grey. And like before, Yates is very thorough in his approach. I assume this is to please the fans so that all the important points in the book are covered, which is why there are two parts to this final chapter, the second one scheduled for next year.

However, I must question Yates' decision to film certain scenes that I thought wasn't crucial. In the middle third of the film, the story drags as Harry, Ron and Hermione teleport from place to place, camping and doing nothing much other than sulking over their fate. Harry and Hermione even have time to engage in a dance sequence, which I know was an attempt to ease the tension between them. But all this did not serve the story and should have been edited out.

The other thing I hate relates to something I should point at J.K. Rowling to address. Why would she kill off good guys only? She kills Cedric, then Sirius Black, then Dumbledore, and two more here. But bad guys? Nuh uh! The Malfoys live, the annoying Bellatrix Lestrange still hangs around, and if any bad guys got killed in this film, they weren't important enough to put in here anyway. So Ms Rowling, why would you write like that? Gosh. I guess that's my flaw for not being a fan of the books.

But what is good about the film is the fact that the kids are all grown up. Radcliffe, Grint and Watson have now comfortably fit into their roles and do a splendid job indeed. In this film, they go through grief, anger and sadness, and they all deliver. Two particular scenes stand out: the first is something Hermione does at the start of the film, and the second at the end when Harry cries over a friend's death. Ron also gets some emotional drama midway and Grint does not disappoint.

Bill Nighy gets a small role here as the Minister of Magic but still manages to make his presence felt. Rhys Ifans is a perfect fit as the quirky Xenophilius Lovegood, much like Evanna Lynch who plays his daughter Luna. The other supporting cast only get a few scenes, and Prof. McGonagall is missing altogether, though I hear she'll be in part 2.

With a bit of tightening on the runtime, this would have been better. But I must say, I do want to see how this entire series comes to a close next summer when part 2 is released. Let's hope it ends with a bang. (3.5/5)

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Machete

Year: 2010
Directors: Robert Rodriguez, Ethan Maniquis
Cast: Danny Trejo, Steven Seagal, Jessica Alba, Robert DeNiro, Michelle Rodriguez, Jeff Fahey, Cheech Marin, Don Johnson


So I finally managed to get a copy of Machete, which is banned here due to its over-the-top violence and sexual content. For those of you who don't know, Machete was originally a fake trailer for Robert Rodriguez's Grindhouse film, and it became so popular Rodriguez decided to make a full length film out of it.

The story begins with Machete (Danny Trejo), a Federale carrying out a rescue mission involving a girl, only to get double crossed by his superiors. His arch nemesis Torrez (Steven Seagal), who masterminded the double cross subsequently kills Machete's wife and daughter, and leaves him for dead.

Three years later, Machete is doing odd jobs near the border when he is approached by Michael Booth (Jeff Fahey), a businessman who offers him $150,000 to kill Senator McLaughlin (Robert DeNiro). The senator is a staunch supporter of preventing illegal immigrants from crossing the border, and Booth wants him silenced so that the flow of cheap labour will continue to bring him profits. Machete agrees, but when he attempts to shoot the man, he gets double crossed by Booth and is now a wanted man. It turns out that Booth works for McLaughlin, and the attempt was meant to swing support for the senator's campaign.

Machete is now on the run, but he gets assistance from Mexican vigilante Luz (Michelle Rodriguez), his brother turned priest Padre (Cheech Marin) and ICE agent Sartana Rivera (Jessica Alba). He eventually learns that Booth is in cahoots with Torrez, therefore an opportunity to get even emerges.

Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis, who has helped edit Rodriguez's films in the past, share directing credits here. Like Planet Terror, Machete has the old 70s feel to it, from the way it was shot, to the action choreography and the music as well.There is rarely a dull moment as Rodriguez piles on the action, gore and some funny moments too. Some of the lines here are downright corny, like it was a B-grade action flick, but it doesn't make you cringe, in fact it kinda suits the mood of the film and would easily make you chuckle.

The cast perform splendidly for the most part. Trejo gets a chance at last to be the lead hero, and though his age is showing, he has great screen presence here. Alba and Michelle Rodriguez make for good eye candy, while Seagal and Fahey are convincing as the slimy villains, especially the latter. DeNiro is also fun to watch as the slightly weasel-like senator. Cheech Marin is quite underused here but makes his short screen time memorable. Don Johnson is good as a menacing border vigilante, while Lindsay Lohan gets a thankless role as Booth's daughter, and she gets topless in a couple of scenes too.

What works against Machete however is the fact that there are too many characters to follow here. It does make things a tad complicated in the middle third of the film. Perhaps Rodriguez ought to condense his film a little bit, not in the running time aspect but in the plot and characters aspect.

Overall, it's quite fun to watch Machete. It doesn't make me want to look forward to the upcoming sequel Machete Kills though. (3.5/5)

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Unstoppable

Year: 2010
Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pine, Rosario Dawson, Kevin Dunn


I gotta tell ya, the only thing Tony Scott loves more than trains is his leading man, Denzel Washington.

I mean, another train movie after The Taking Of Pelham 123? And Denzel again? Oh well, I guess it's true: if it ain't broke, don't fix it. If working with Denzel brings in the goods, why change that?

Anyway, their new collaboration Unstoppable takes place in Pennsylvania, where Denzel's character Frank Barnes works as a train engineer. He meets Will Colson (Chris Pine), a rookie conductor who will join him today on his train. The two get off on the wrong foot initially, due to word spreading around that old guys like Frank are being let go in favor of younger guys like Will.

However, there's a bigger problem rearing its head today. A careless train conductor lets his train run off with no brakes and it's barreling down the tracks, destroying anything that comes in its way. Worst of all, it's carrying cars containing hazardous materials and it's headed for a highly populated area. Yardmaster Connie Hooper (Rosario Dawson) tries her best to organize efforts to stop the train but fails. When her suggestion to derail the train falls on the deaf ears of the train's owner (Kevin Dunn), Frank and Will decide to do what they can to stop it instead.

This is officially Scott's fifth collaboration with Denzel, with the latter once again playing the everyman that eventually turns heroic. This time around, Scott sets his film in the blue collar society and how they can get underappreciated by the higher ups, until things like this happen. Although Unstoppable is supposedly based on true events, I doubt it was as dramatic or thrilling as the film makes it out to be. Nevertheless, exaggeration can sometimes be a good thing in the name of entertainment.

As for Scott, he successfully makes this film as kinetic as it can be. It's kinda like Speed on a train, and comparatively, the possibilities are much less interesting. But to his credit, Scott makes it believable, that situations like this are possible in the real world.

Denzel once again brings his indomitable screen presence to the fore. It's almost effortless for this guy to be a likable everyman that saves the day. Chris Pine balances it well as the rookie Will Colson, and manages to hold his own against Denzel. Rosario Dawson also gives good support as Connie, whose verbal sparring with the train owner and her own staff makes for good entertainment.

If there is a drawback to Unstoppable, is the fact that it doesn't have a real villain other than the runaway train, which makes it less thrilling than Scott's other films. But all in all, it's still rather entertaining that will have you cheering for the heroes when the climax comes.

An A- train thriller that is well driven by its cast, Unstoppable is worth its 100 minute screen time. (3.5/5)

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Social Network

Year: 2010
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Andrew Garfield, Justin Timberlake, Rooney Mara, Armie Hammer, Max Minghella, Joseph Mazzello, Rashida Jones


I love Facebook. In fact, I'd like to believe that everyone who enjoys surfing the net and keeping in touch with their friends and family online love Facebook. It's probably the greatest invention for the Internet currently in use.

And now we have a film that follows the birth of Facebook and the drama that ensued between its creators as the battle for its ownership and rights take place in court.

It begins with a Harvard student named Mark Zuckerberg, who after breaking up with his girlfriend Erica, hacks into the university's webpages and steals pictures of the undergraduates to create a website for comparing girls. He subsequently gets punished by the board, but it's just the beginning.

A pair of twin brothers, Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss and their friend Divya Narendra, hear of this and hire Mark to create a website for them, which would be exclusive for Harvard students only. Mark on the other hand decides to take their idea, make the website and exclude them. He ropes in his best friend Eduardo Saverin, who pumps in some money to get the site started. And thus Facebook is born.

Before long, it becomes a big hit amongst the students. Mark and Eduardo become popular, much to the chagrin of the Winklevosses and Narendra, who contemplate on suing the duo. Then Sean Parker, the creator of Napster, hears about the new fad and arranges a meeting with Mark and Eduardo. Mark is keen on taking Sean's advice on how to get financial backing to expand the site, but Eduardo isn't. This is where things get ugly, after Sean inserts himself into the Facebook company and Eduardo becomes a victim.

Acclaimed director David Fincher successfully helms this interesting take on Facebook's history, but credit must also be given to screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, who adapted the book The Accidental Billionaires for his script. What we get is a fast paced and fascinating insight into the creators of Facebook, what they did, how they did it, the trials and tribulations they faced and the legal battle that followed. When I say fast paced, I'm referring to the bullet speed dialogue that the cast throw at each other throughout the film, and amazingly enough the dramatic impact isn't lost at all. And I feel that it's because Fincher has chosen a top notch cast for his film.

Zombieland's Jesse Eisenberg is brilliant as Mark Zuckerberg. Mark is viewed in this story as someone who believes he isn't wrong, and that he doesn't owe anyone anything because he's the smart guy that made it happen. Mark isn't really a bad guy, just perceived as such by the people around him. Andrew Garfield is also equally awesome as Eduardo Saverin, Mark's best friend who helped him along the way and gets screwed over. Eduardo basically is a nice guy who deserved a little more than what he got, and Garfield successfully gets our sympathy here. And what of Justin Timberlake? Well, I'll say that he did a good job playing an asshole in Sean Parker, but I'm not so convinced on him being an actor just yet. He needs more exposure.

To be fair, I'd say that The Social Network isn't one of Fincher's more accessible films, like Se7en or Panic Room. This one falls into the less accessible stuff like Zodiac. But overall I liked this film, the way it was handled, crafted and presented to the audience. The fact that the real Mark Zuckerberg claimed that this film is more fiction than fact makes you even more curious as to what really happened back then.

So go see this, even if you're not a Facebook fan. You won't regret it. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to post this review on my Facebook wall. (4/5)

Friday, November 19, 2010

Skyline

Year: 2010
Directors: The Brothers Strause
Cast: Eric Balfour, Scottie Thompson, Donald Faison, David Zayas, Brittany Daniel, Crystal Reed


Cool poster huh? The trailer looked pretty neat too. Alien invasion films, if done right, can be immensely fun to watch. And this one kinda looked fun on the surface.

Skyline revolves around a group of friends spending the night at a penthouse of a large condominium who are awakened by a bright light outside their window. The bright light attracts people like moths to a flame, and before they know it, they'll be sucked right in....to an alien spacecraft!

The friends, made up of Jarrod, his girlfriend Elaine, his best friend Terry, Terry's girlfriend Candice and his assistant Denise attempt to escape the building. But time and time again they are thwarted by the aliens, who come in different shapes and sizes. And the body count or body vanishing acts rise.

Colin and Greg Strause, who directed the abysmal Alien vs Predator: Requiem funded this film all by themselves. They even used Greg's apartment for filming most of the scenes. Now, as far as visual effects go, it is pretty impressive. The scale of the invasion is a lot like what you've seen in Independence Day i.e. huge ships, big explosions, big lights, the works. They also have giant aliens walking around, which reminds me of Godzilla (hmm lots of Roland Emmerich tributes here) and flying aliens with tentacles that look like The Matrix sentinels. Doesn't sound particularly original, but quite awesome anyway.

Unfortunately, Skyline is far from cool overall. I should have known actually, since it's the AVPR directors we're talking about. Their first mistake was giving us a bunch of characters not worth rooting for. The second was writing a really bad script for the actors to read, and the fact that they aren't very good actors to begin with only made things worse. And why would they restrict the story to just around the apartment building for the majority of the screentime? This caused the middle third of the film to stall and feel like they had run out of ideas to push the story forward.

And then there's the ending, which firstly, leads to an obvious sequel, but more importantly makes me go "you gotta be kidding me!" It's quite ridiculous, and really not necessary.

It certainly pales in comparison to Independence Day or War Of The Worlds, where in the former, despite it being a cheesy salute to patriotism, gave us plenty of funny moments and characters to cheer for; as for the latter, it focuses on a father's efforts to keep his family safe, even if he has to cross the line, which provides good drama. In Skyline, we have none of these, at least not in convincing fashion.

It's a great visual feast, but not much else. Which is unfortunate, because it certainly had potential. (2.5/5)

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Let Me In

Year: 2010
Director: Matt Reeves
Cast: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Chloe Grace Moretz, Elias Koteas, Richard Jenkins


Let Me In was one of four films I have been looking forward to in this last quarter of 2010, the other three being Machete, Devil and The Town. One got banned, one got delayed and Devil was just so-so, if you've read my review on it. So now let's talk about Let Me In.

The film is set in 1983, where we are introduced to Owen, a 12 year old boy living with his mother in a small apartment building. He hardly connects with his mum as she is going through a bitter divorce with his dad. He gets bullied by the mean kid at school, which causes him to act out fantasies of retaliating against them when he's by himself.

Then he sees an old man and a young girl his age move in next door. The girl is Abby, whom Owen finds to be quite peculiar when they first meet. Even though they get off on the wrong foot at first, they eventually connect and become friends.

However, Abby has a secret: she's a vampire, and like all vampires we've known, she needs blood. The old man, presumably her father, has to find people in the neighborhood to kill and drain them of their blood to feed her. Things get out of hand when a policeman investigates the deaths and Owen eventually learns the truth about Abby.

Matt Reeves, the director of Cloverfield, adapts the original Swedish film Let The Right One In for his work here. And I have not seen the original, but as for this version, I can tell you that it is a wonderful and intriguing movie. The setting is a snowy little town, where most of the scenes takes place at night, creating an eerie and cold atmosphere which suits the subject matter perfectly. Reeves also succeeds in the photography department with a lot of nice shots of the goings on, especially in the scene of a car accident by putting the camera inside the car. Very ingenious.

The best part of Let Me In is the cast. Reeves is blessed to have two phenomenal child actors for his film. Kodi Smit-McPhee, last seen in The Road (I'm still looking for this film btw), is awesome as Owen, the troubled young boy who has no friends, and finally finds one in his mysterious neighbor. Owen sees in Abby a lot of similarities with himself, and in her he finds a kindred spirit that helps him forget and sometimes overcome his own problems. Chloe Grace Moretz, who was Hit Girl in Kick-Ass, matches Kodi well as Abby. Chloe is quite the opposite of Hit Girl here, but she is really effective. As Abby, she is so fascinating to observe, even when she says little or does not do much. It's like you can feel that there's something unusual about her. And when Abby turns to monster mode, Chloe can be equally intimidating. As a result, Owen and Abby's relationship is fleshed out tremendously well on screen, and it becomes the focus of the story.

Richard Jenkins makes good with his supporting role as Abby's guardian while Elias Koteas rounds up the cast as the detective, and is effective as well. I do have an issue about Owen's mother not in the focus at all throughout the movie, but it is a small one.

This film does suffer a little from its slow pace, so if you're watching this at a late hour, it can be taxing. However, don't let that deter you at all. Let Me In is a fine piece of work that features an unusual relationship between two young children, and it will warm your heart even as it is tragic and dark at times.

This is officially in the running for my top 10 of the year. Recommended. (4/5)

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Red

Year: 2010
Director: Robert Schwentke
Cast: Bruce Willis, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Mary Louise Parker, Brian Cox, Karl Urban, Richard Dreyfuss


Red is an action comedy based on the graphic novel of the same name. The title is an acronym for 'Retired, extremely dangerous'.

The story begins with Frank Moses (Bruce Willis), a retired CIA agent who now leads a dull existence by himself in a suburban neighborhood. His only pastime is having phone conversations with Sarah (Mary Louise Parker), a pension handler at the CIA office whom Frank takes a liking to.

Then one night, six armed men come knocking on his door and try to kill him. Frank easily disposes of them and proceeds to find out who would want him dead. Knowing that Sarah's life is in danger too due to their connection, Frank kidnaps her and forces her to tag along. He meets up with his old CIA friends, Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), Victoria (Helen Mirren) and former Russian agent Ivan (Brian Cox) and together, they follow up one lead after another to find the mastermind while being pursued by CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), who has orders to kill Frank.

Many movie reviewers have compared Red to The Expendables due to the similar storyline of ageing heroes going back in action. The difference is, Red doesn't take itself too seriously, which works well in its favour. Director Robert Schwentke keeps viewers interested by letting his A-list cast play their parts equally. The witty dialogue and banter between them helps lighten the proceedings when things threaten to slow down. The action sequences are also well executed. Willis is of course an old hand at stuff like this, so it's no surprise. What is fun to watch is Mirren wielding a machine gun or a sniper rifle taking out the bad guys. What is even more fun is watching Malkovich hamming it up as the slightly insane Marvin. He had me in stitches the whole time.

However, Freeman sadly doesn't have much to do, though his screen presence is still there. Parker is a mere distraction at times and lacks chemistry with Willis. Urban plays it straight here and is probably the only character that has no funny line to read. The legendary Ernest Borgnine makes a welcome cameo as the CIA records keeper.

So basically, other than Parker, the cast work well together and successfully make it look like they have been friends for years. I have to say it again: Malkovich is awesome. He's paranoid with a capital P, but he's smart, capable and hilarious here.

It's a good action film that manages to entertain despite not having The Expendables' level of budget. (3.5/5)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Buried

Year: 2010
Director: Rodrigo Cortes
Cast: Ryan Reynolds


This film is by far one of the most unique pieces of work I've ever seen.

Buried begins in the dark confines of a coffin, where we find Paul Conroy, a truck driver working in Iraq who wakes up and finds himself in a box and several feet under the ground.

Naturally, he panics at first, but then slowly gathers his wits and frees himself. He has with him a lighter and a cellphone, which he uses to call for help. His attempts prove rather futile at first, and then things get worse when his kidnapper calls him and threatens to leave him in there unless a ransom is paid. But there is of course, the very obvious threat at hand, which is being stuck in a box with no way out.

Buried is without a doubt, a splendid attempt at visualising what it would be like if you woke up to what probably would be your worst nightmare: being buried alive. The darkness, the claustrophobia, the futility of being trapped where no one can hear you. In Paul Conroy's case, it is just twisted and edgy to watch. Paul is a very determined man, who tries time and time again to get himself out of the predicament he's in, and his biggest obstacle is actually bureaucracy. His several attempts to call for help on the cellphone are usually met with sceptical responses, or busy lines, or answering machines or being put on hold. Try picturing what that's like when you're desperate to get out of that box before your air runs out.

All this is possible thanks to director Rodrigo Cortes and his one man star, Ryan Reynolds. Cortes and cameraman Eduard Grau do a fantastic job in showing us the many angles they can get in a six by three box, yet never losing the feeling that it's a small compartment and Paul really can't do much in there. And Ryan Reynolds....he is just awesome in this. You'd think that Reynolds is more well known for being a pretty boy, much like Brad Pitt once was. With Buried, Reynolds will surely get more respect in Hollywood, and he will certainly go far after this. I can't wait to see him as Green Lantern next year.

Other than the glaring plothole of how Paul is able to survive in that box for quite a long time when air is limited, Buried is a knockout thriller that never lets up on the tension. Thankfully, Cortes manages to keep the film going and not let anything stall the goings on for more than a minute, so we never lose sight of Paul's situation and viewers will be compelled to stay every step of the way.

This is a must watch, take it from me. And mind you, for a film that manages to entertain while being in that box from start to finish (no kidding), is saying something. (4/5)

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Other Guys

Year: 2010
Director: Adam McKay
Cast: Will Ferrell, Mark Wahlberg, Eva Mendes, Steve Coogan, Michael Keaton, Ray Stevenson


After making fun of car racing, ice skating, soccer, basketball, step-brothers and newscasters, Will Ferrell now takes aim at the buddy cop genre.

Ferrell and longtime SNL collaborator Adam McKay team up to bring us The Other Guys, a parody on the buddy cop movies we have all grown to love over the years. In this story, there are two great cops, Danson and Highsmith, who always get their man and are hailed as heroes by their peers and the city.

But these guys aren't our protagonists. Nope. Our leads are two guys who don't have a decent shot at being heroes, at least when we begin. Allen Gamble is a forensic accountant who loves being a cop behind a desk typing away at his computer, away from danger. His partner Terry Hoitz has been ostracized by the force because he accidentally shot Derek Jeter, the baseball player. These two don't get along long enough to call themselves partners, so how will they work together?

Well, their chance finally arrives when Danson and Highsmith somehow get themselves killed in the line of duty (how it happens is hilarious actually), and Terry tries to get Allen to step up and take their place. Allen's investigation on a minor accounting misdemeanor leads them to David Ershon, a man who is trying to scam a company out of their money to cover the losses of his own company. Terry and Allen's attempts to get to the bottom of things keeps getting thwarted by a man named Wesley, whose job is to ensure Ershon's plan is finalised. The duo have to stop Ershon and Wesley, while putting up with each other, which is no easy task.

You know all those buddy cop films like Rush Hour, Lethal Weapon and 48 Hrs pair up two guys who are total opposites that end up becoming best friends by the time it's over? The Other Guys doesn't stray from that too much, except for the fact that they focus more on the comedy than the action. Despite the fact that Mark Wahlberg can clearly do action films well, he's not much of an action hero here. As Terry Hoitz, Wahlberg is totally over the top as a cop with huge mood swings. One minute he's yelling at Ferrell, the next he's being emotional. It works only half the time though, but it's a good attempt nonetheless at being funny.

Ferrell on the other hand plays Allen Gamble nearly the same way he plays most of his roles in the past, as in being clueless. Allen is basically a nerd of a cop, who has a very fascinating past (not to mention really funny). He also has a gorgeous wife played by Eva Mendes, and throughout the film, we see Terry being constantly surprised as to how a nerd like Allen gets such hot women chasing him. Ferrell and Wahlberg have great chemistry together thankfully, which is one of the best things of the film.

The supporting cast do their part well, but my favourite among them is Michael Keaton, who appears as the police chief Mauch. Keaton's age is showing, but he has great screen presence and great comic timing, and unlike the two leads, he can play it straight without sounding too corny. Also fun to watch are Dwayne Johnson and Samuel L. Jackson in cameos as Danson and Highsmith, who totally ham up the supercop characters.

I do have a couple of gripes here, like the uneven pace and the way Ferrell's relationship with Wahlberg progresses is similar to Ferrell's relationships with his co-stars in other films like Step-Brothers and Blades Of Glory. But I have no doubt that Ferrell is hilarious to watch here, and that alone should be a reason to go check this out.

Verdict: another Will Ferrell comedy that is more hit than miss. (3.5/5)

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The American

Year: 2010
Director: Anton Corbijn
Cast: George Clooney, Violante Placido, Thekla Reuten, Paolo Bonacelli, Johan Leysen


I was looking forward to watching Ben Affleck's The Town this week, when the film people over here decided to push it to December. Bummer! So I needed something to satisfy my movie fix this week, and I picked this film. It was either this or a Zac Efron tearjerker, or the Wall Street sequel, neither of which this reviewer is interested in.

The American stars George Clooney as Jack, a hitman who is both weary and paranoid over his job. At the beginning, we see him kill two men who try to kill him, and he also kills his female companion, who prior to this had no idea what he does for a living.

His employer sends him to a small town in Italy and tells him to lay low until his next assignment. Once there, he befriends two people: Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli), a friendly priest who is rather observant of Jack's past despite his attempts to hide it, and Clara (Violante Placido), a hooker whom Jack gets involved with.

Eventually, Jack's employer Pavel (Johan Leysen) hands him his assignment: to construct an assault rifle for a woman named Mathilde (Thekla Reuten). Using his skill with weapons and some parts that he is able to procure, he goes to the job at hand. But he soon notices that some people are shadowing him, the same kind of people who tried to kill him before, and it affects his judgment and emotions concerning the people around him.

I had not seen any of Anton Corbijn's work before, as I am not well educated on European arthouse flicks. But The American is without a doubt, a unique piece of work. As with most European films, this one is a quiet movie, where a lot of time is spent on wide cinematography and contemplative moments. Unlike most thrillers like the Bourne trilogy and the recent Salt, or even The Replacement Killers, The American takes its time in telling its story, which really isn't about slam bang action, but a character study. I have to say that this film is one of the quietest films I've ever seen. It almost has no music score, apart from some piano solos sparsely inserted here and there, and some obligatory music during the credits. So watching this in a cinema where there are plenty of fidgety kids or patrons who would rather converse with each other than seeing the movie might be a tad tough to do.

Clooney is incredible here, I must say. I think I can sum up his total dialogue in 2 pages. He doesn't have much to say here, so whatever acting he does is focused on his actions, like watching, observing, building the aforementioned weapon, working out etc. And he pulls it off well. His character Jack is a private man, hiding many secrets, who may be a violent person and yet is able to appreciate nicer things like butterflies. If you are the kind of viewer who has the patience to watch a character evolve, you'll be able to follow this.

Of the supporting cast, it's Bonacelli who stands out as the priest. His conversations with Jack, though simple and reserved for the most part, carry a lot of weight in itself. Where Clara is Jack's key to a potentially better life, Father Benedetto is Jack's anchor to being a good person. I enjoyed Bonacelli's performance here.

It's a pity that the local censors removed the juicy parts of the picture, or I would have enjoyed this a bit more. But all in all, I ended up liking The American more than I thought I would. It has gathered mixed reviews so far, but only because some people expected something else when they walked into the theatre.

My advice is this: if you're looking for an action film, don't watch this. If you like seeing George Clooney act in silence, go for this. (3.5/5)

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Piranha

Year: 2010
Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Elisabeth Shue, Adam Scott, Ving Rhames, Jerry O'Connell, Steven R. McQueen, Jessica Szohr, Christopher Lloyd, Richard Dreyfuss


Piranha is kinda like the extreme version of films like Bats and Anaconda. The plot isn't really important, there must always be pretty people involved and the body count has to be high. Piranha is extreme because it takes everything up a notch and has no shame in being what it is.

Basically, the plot is simple here: it's spring break and all the young ones are partying hard at Lake Victoria, having fun in the sun, wearing very little to nothing at all and throwing caution to the wind. A small earthquake opens up the lake bed and releases thousands of deadly piranhas supposedly trapped in the earth for 2 million years. And they're hungry.

It's up to a tough female sheriff, her deputy and a seismic scientist to save as many lives as they can when the fishes start chomping on the hapless partygoers, which unfortunately includes the sheriff's kids.

Director Alexandre Aja is no stranger to violence, as evidenced in films like Mirrors and The Hills Have Eyes. In Piranha, he pulls no punches and shows all the blood and flesh flying about when the piranhas hit, and boy is it fun to watch. Now don't take me for a sadist here, because it's all so over the top, there's no way you can look at it and say it's real. Even if you do, it'll give you a good scare for a while, which is still fun.

I had a blast watching victims lose their flesh, face, limbs, appendages, everything. It's too bad we didn't get this in 3D here, I heard audiences in the US had a ball seeing all this unfold in 3D, it must have been awesome. My other gripe is the censorship board removing all the nude scenes, but I get that.

Elisabeth Shue and Ving Rhames stand out as the sheriff and the deputy here, while Jerry O'Connell plays the token asshole required in films like this. The legendary Steve McQueen's grandson Steven also puts in a solid performance as the sheriff's eldest son, Jake. Christopher Lloyd gets to channel Doc Brown as the marine biologist while Richard Dreyfuss gets a cameo appearance as a homage to his Jaws character.

If there's one thing Aja did which I didn't like, it was ending the film abruptly, just so he can make a sequel. I totally understand that, I just wish it didn't end like THAT. But hey, I'm game for Piranha 2. Bring it on! (3.5/5)

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Devil

Year: 2010
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Cast: Chris Messina, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O'Hara, Bojana Novakovic, Bokeem Woodbine, Geoffrey Arend, Jacob Vargas, Matt Craven


M Night Shyamalan's name doesn't quite have the same impact like it used to. When The Sixth Sense came out, he was hailed a sensation. But ever since then, his work has slowly dropped in quality. Unbreakable and Signs were good, but The Village and The Happening were severe letdowns. Most people didn't appreciate Lady In The Water either, and despite the recent success at the box office for The Last Airbender, critics totally hated it. And I have to admit, Airbender doesn't seem all great, and I can tell you that even without seeing it.

So now when you attach M Night's name to a film, how would the impact be like? Well, for this new film Devil, he's just a producer and came up with the original idea for the story.

Devil begins with narration, on stories about the devil roaming the earth. On this particular day, five strangers will encounter him. At a high rise office building, five people: a guy in a jacket, a guy in a suit, a young woman, an old lady and a security guard take the elevator up, only for it to malfunction halfway and stop.

The building security tries to get them out, but to no avail. Then, strange things start to happen. Lights going off and on. People getting hurt both inside the elevator, and the ones outside trying to fix things. The five people start to get paranoid, anxious and all their worst traits come to the surface.

At the same time, a detective named Bowden comes into the picture. He works together with the security guards to get the passengers out while learning more about the situation. He's dealing with some personal demons too, which come forth as the film runs along.

My first complement goes to the camerawork. The film begins with the city skyline shown upside down as the opening credits roll and it goes straight into the building elevator. The footage shot inside the elevator itself is well done. It isn't a big space at all, yet everything is shown magnificently. Kudos to the cinematographer for a job well done.

The mostly unknown cast are also quite splendid in their roles. They all play their parts well, from the asshole of a guy in the suit, to the short tempered guy in the jacket, to the claustrophobic security guard etc. All typical characters of course, but still well acted out. Chris Messina, who plays Detective Bowden also deserves a mention for giving a convincing portrayal of the cop.

Now for what doesn't work. I think thrillers like this work better when the audience knows less about what's going on. And here we are told way too much. The narration on the devil through old tales, the superstitious security guard played by Jacob Vargas telling Bowden his knowledge on the subject. Was all this necessary? Vargas even gets a chance to go on one knee and recite a prayer in Spanish for the passengers! Man, that was weird.

Then there's the stuff that happens in the lift. When something bad happens, the lights go off, we hear struggling, the lights come on and someone's hurt or dead. If you watch WWE wrestling, this is very similar to how the wrestler called The Undertaker operates. It's kinda funny when I think about it, but I suppose this was the only way for them to keep things unexplained until the climax. And that brings me to my next point.

The twist is on which one of them is the devil. It's no real surprise actually. Chances are you can make three guesses on who it is and you'll get it right. If you've seen enough films with surprise endings, you'll know how this one ends. Speaking of endings, Devil ends on a rather whimpering note rather than one that chills. And it's not because of the predictable twist, it's more because of what M Night wanted the film to essentially be, which isn't what I wanted, of course.

Overall, it's a fascinating premise for a film that had an average execution. Mildly entertaining, but it won't scare you off taking elevators. (3.5/5)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Resident Evil: Afterlife

Year: 2010
Director: Paul W.S. Anderson
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Ali Larter, Wentworth Miller, Kim Coates, Shawn Roberts, Boris Kodjoe


As far as film franchises go, Resident Evil is kinda like Saw. It's critic proof. No matter how many films they make about the same thing, it always sells. In this case, film fans never get tired of seeing Milla Jovovich kill hordes of the undead over and over again.

In this 4th instalment of the franchise based on the popular video game, Jovovich reprises her role as Alice, the former agent of the Umbrella Corporation who does her best killing thousands of dead people infected by the T-virus as she makes her way up Umbrella's powers that be. In the opening sequence, Alice and several of her clones taken from the 3rd film storm Umbrella's headquarters in Tokyo. Its chairman, Wesker manages to escape, but not before removing Alice's powers during a fight.

Six months later, Alice continues her search for Arcadia, the last place on earth rumored to be infection free. She heads to Alaska where she thinks Arcadia is located, but she finds it deserted. This is where she runs into her old ally, Claire Redfield, who has no memory of who she is. They then head for San Fransisco, where they meet up with a small band of survivors taking refuge in a building surrounded by the undead. With their help, Alice figures out where Arcadia is, and tries to help them get there.

Let's get one thing out of the way first. Why do you watch Resident Evil and all its sequels? If you say it's because you love having a good time seeing Milla kicking ass and spilling lots and lots of blood of the undead, then this is the film for you. Let's face it: you're not seeing this to watch a big Inception type plot unfold or James Bond type theatrics. You're here to see violent, stylish action. In that sense, Paul W.S. Anderson delivers just that. I don't know about all that talk about this film being super special because it used the James Cameron type Avatar 3D special effects, but I can say that it's pretty cool to see in 2D as well.

My minor gripe about it is the fact that Afterlife borrows a lot from The Matrix. You'll see plenty of slow mo action sequences, designed to make Alice and Claire look like superheroines, no doubt. The villain Wesker even looks like Agent Smith, complete with a similar voice and shades. However, if you try not to take it too seriously, you'll enjoy it every step of the way. I must also give credit to the awesome soundtrack for this film, it's just perfect.

Jovovich and Larter make a good team as the leading ladies of Afterlife, though it's seriously still Jovovich's show. Shawn Roberts, as stated above, channels Agent Smith as the villain. Prison Break's Wentworth Miller still sounds like Michael Scofield as Claire's brother Chris, except now he has guns and no tattoos.

Overall, despite Afterlife being very familiar and recycled, it still works because it doesn't pretend to be anything else but a fun ride from start to finish. The ending hints heavily for a sequel, so Mr Anderson, bring it on. (4/5)

Sunday, September 05, 2010

Repo Men

Year: 2010
Director: Miguel Sapochnik
Cast: Jude Law, Forest Whitaker, Liev Schreiber, Alice Braga


It took a while for this film to make it to my shores, so I'm rather grateful that it did, and even happier that it wasn't badly butchered by the local censors.

Repo Men takes place in the near future, where technology has become advanced enough that artificial organs of any kind can be manufactured. A company called The Union is one such manufacturer, and they are well known in producing these organs and selling them to needy patients for a price.

However, like most expensive things you own, like a car or a house, these organs can be repossessed by The Union if their clients don't pay up on time. They send people called repo men to find the client, stun them, cut them up and take the organ back. Pretty mean, eh?

Two such repo men are Remy and Jake, best friends since fourth grade and now always in friendly competition on who's the better repossessor. Although he enjoys doing his job, Remy is being pressured by his wife to give it up and transfer to the sales department so he may spend more time with her and his son. Jake on the other hand loves his job and loves doing it with Remy even more.

Then one day, during an attempt to repossess a client's artificial heart, a mishap occurs and Remy lands in a coma. When he wakes up, his boss Frank tells him that an artificial heart has been fitted into him, which makes Remy a client of the company now.

Sure, all Remy has to do is do his job well and he'll be able to pay for the organ. However, he realises that he can no longer be a repo man like before, his heart is no longer in it, so to speak. He meets Beth, a woman filled with artificial organs and on the run, and together they become fugitives as they seek a way out of their predicament.

Miguel Sapochnik, a relatively new director, takes the helm of Repo Men. For someone new to the job, he isn't half bad. He paces the film quite well, there are very few dull moments here as he fills the time with some well choreographed action scenes. And unlike Stallone in The Expendables, Sapochnik gets a good cinematographer that successfully captures all the action perfectly. Every bloody spurt, blow and slash is glorified for the audience.

Can Jude Law be an action hero? Sure he can, if you've seen Sherlock Holmes. Here, he plays Remy with the right balance of intelligence and brawn, with a good sense of dramatic awareness. Forest Whitaker provides great support as his best friend turned nemesis Jake. Liev Screiber is excellent as Frank, the corporate manager who is pretty entertaining to watch as he reads the same customer friendly lines to everyone without missing a beat. He is a perfect representation of the big company exec who couldn't care less about customer welfare. Alice Braga rounds up the cast as Beth, Remy's romantic interest and partner in crime.

It's fascinating to note that most reviews on this film have been negative. I think it's because they were all expecting something more cerebral. If you're thinking that Repo Men is a social commentary on failing health care, corporate viciousness or the impact of technology on our way of life, think again. This movie is quite a gorefest, it's violent and unflinching, but it's also very fun to watch. There's nothing wrong in seeing some glorified carnage every now and then, and Repo Men brings it all, and manages to surprise with a twist ending too.

If you want some balls out fun, give Repo Men a try. I'd never thought I'd say it, but this is more watchable than The Expendables. (4/5)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Expendables

Year: 2010
Director: Sylvester Stallone
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Jason Statham, Jet Li, Dolph Lundgren, Eric Roberts, Steve Austin, Mickey Rourke, Terry Crews, Randy Couture, David Zayas


What do you get when you put together the most well-known action stars in the last 20 years in the same film? You get The Expendables.

The hype surrounding Sylvester Stallone's huge action epic starring some of the biggest names in action flicks has been building for quite some time now, and I have been curious to see if it can deliver.

The story: a group of mercenaries called The Expendables, led by Barney Ross (Stallone) are hired to do a job, which involves overthrowing a dictator in the fictional island of Vilena. Ross and his right hand man Lee Christmas (Statham) fly over there to recon the island. But as soon as they land, they get themselves into a load of trouble and barely manage to escape.

They learn that the dictator, General Garza (Zayas) is merely a puppet whose strings are being pulled by James Monroe (Roberts), a rogue CIA agent. Initially, Ross decides against risking his life to save a woman he had left behind on that island, but eventually changes his mind. Christmas and the other team members (played by Li, Crews and Couture)follow suit.

First off, let's talk about what's good. The cast for starters. We get Stallone, Jason 'The Transporter' Statham, Asian kung fu star Jet Li, iconic villain and sometimes hero Dolph Lundgren, former WWE wrestler Stone Cold Steve Austin, regular bad guy Eric Roberts, tough but aging macho man Mickey Rourke, MMA fighter Randy Couture and NFL star turned actor Terry Crews. Putting all these guys together is a feat in itself, so Stallone deserves plenty of credit for making it happen. Word is that Wesley Snipes, Jean Claude Van Damme and Steven Seagal would have made it too, but they backed out. How unfortunate. Ah, but that loss is made up by having Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger make cameo appearances! Now, for me, seeing those two and Stallone in the same scene was truly epic. Even Arnie's entrance was awesomely done. Too bad they didn't have bigger roles to play here.

It's an action film, so you can expect plenty of that. Like Rambo, Stallone pulls no punches and delivers numerous action sequences that are violent and bloody. Things get blown up, bullets and knives are flying all over the place and the fisticuffs hit hard. But I have to gripe about the camerawork here, especially in the physical fight sequences. Stallone's cinematographer made a mistake in filming them too close, so we can barely see who's punching who or where, and some of the lighting needs improvement, especially in the climax.

And then there's the editing. Despite it being a good move for Stallone to show some heart and drama behind his characters, in order to explain their motives, it drags on for too long at times. Rourke gets a scene where he reminisces his past, which is probably similar to his role in The Wrestler, and I think that although it was nicely done, it carried on a bit too long. Then there are too many pointless exchanges between the General and Monroe, and lots of other scenes that could have been cut out.

In the end, this film is mainly Stallone and Statham's show. Stallone is the star, and Statham becomes his best friend who gives him plenty of support. Their bro-mance is quite entertaining to watch. Li on the other hand becomes the comic relief, as does Crews. But seriously, Li should stick to being serious, he's better at that. Austin pretty much rehashes his Stone Cold persona here as Monroe's right hand man, while Rourke succeeds as The Expendables' mentor. Lundgren surprisingly delivers as Gunnar Jensen, a former team member with issues. I hope he comes back for the sequel.

Verdict: as an action film, it delivers. But with some tighter editing and better camerawork, it would have been phenomenal. (3.5/5)

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Salt

Year: 2010
Director: Phillip Noyce
Cast: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Daniel Olbrychski


Other than being a Hollywood star, Angelina Jolie is known for many things, like being Brad Pitt's other half, her large brood of children, daughter to Jon Voight, and her global charity work. Finally now, she's going back to one of her great roles: the action heroine.

In Salt, Jolie plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA agent who gets a visit from a Russian defector at her office. The defector, Orlov claims that a Russian sleeper agent, one of many who have been planted in the U.S. since the 70s, is going to kill the President of Russia, who will be in New York the following day.

The clincher is, Orlov names Salt as that very sleeper agent!

Salt promptly proclaims her innocence to her superiors, who are seeking the truth behind her identity. When the defector escapes custody, Salt does the same, trying her best to evade capture, while attempting to save her husband, whom she fears has become a target. Hot on her tail is her boss, Winter (Schreiber) and agent from CIA headquarters Peabody (Ejiofor).

Phillip Noyce, who has given us thrillers like Clear And Present Danger and The Bone Collector, keeps the pace taut and fast here. The action keeps piling up one after another as we watch Jolie jump, run, ride, shoot and basically kick ass all the way. Which is fine of course, since Jolie does all this so well.

But the problem is the plot. Noyce just keeps moving from one action sequence to another without giving much explanation as to why things are happening. Salt works on her own for the most part, much to the audience's disadvantage, because she doesn't have anyone to confide in and thus no one to explain to on her motivations or her next step. So we are forced to watch one jaw dropping action scene after another, some of which make no sense, like how she can walk away from a car crash in broad daylight right in the city without anyone noticing.

However, to her credit, Jolie successfully carries the film mostly by herself. She is the star of the show, and I think had it been anyone else in the role, it would not have worked. I still feel the film deserves a bit more runtime, as some characters aren't fully explored, or they ought to get more attention but may have ended up on the editing room floor. And the supposed surprise in the climax isn't a shock at all, it's quite predictable.

It's a good action film, reminiscent of Knight And Day, except Salt takes itself more seriously and is better executed. Overall, a so-so effort. (3.5/5)

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Shanghai

Year: 2010
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Cast: John Cusack, Gong Li, Chow Yun Fat, Ken Watanabe, David Morse, Franka Potente, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Rinko Kikuchi


With all the big names being in this film, how could I possibly say no to seeing this? Currently Shanghai hasn't been released in the U.S., so we Asians have the honor of seeing John Cusack's latest film first.

It is the year 1941, just before the Pearl Harbor attack. Cusack plays Paul Soames, an American spy arriving in Shanghai to meet his best friend Connor (Morgan). At this time, Shanghai is the only Chinese city that hasn't been taken by the Japanese, and the guerrilla type wars between Chinese rebels and Japanese soldiers run rampant.

Unfortunately for Soames, Connor turns up dead before he could meet him. Connor's superior, Captain Astor (Morse) assigns Soames to find out who killed him. To do so, Soames goes undercover as a journalist for a British newspaper and follows up a lead on Anthony Lan Ting (Chow), the big triad boss in Shanghai. Soames finds himself drawn to Anthony's wife Anna (Gong), and learns she is hiding a secret, a secret so big that she has to hide it from her husband. Through Anthony, Soames meets with Captain Tanaka (Watanabe), a Japanese high ranking officer who has his own motives.

Soames peels off one layer after another to get to the truth behind Connor's death, and as a result he becomes deeply embroiled in something that may not be his concern.

Mikael Hafstrom, who also directed Cusack in the horror film 1408, does a splendid job in making the film look and feel authentic. He tried filming this in China, but permission was revoked by their government at the last second, so he had to rebuild Shanghai in London and Bangkok. And despite that, the film looks amazing. The sets, from indoors to outdoors look very realistic indeed. Hafstrom also succeeds in keeping the pace even and allowing things to unfold as they should. The story is narrated by Cusack, and a majority of the film is seen from Soames' point of view, thereby keeping things focused and grounded.

I've always liked Cusack, because he puts in good performances every time, even if the film isn't executed well. Here, he has a great responsibility of leading the film from start to finish, and he pulls it off. Gong Li provides strong support as Anna while Watanabe brings his familiar screen presence as Tanaka. Sadly, Chow Yun Fat doesn't have that much to do here, though he nearly redeems himself in the film's climax. Too bad, I was hoping for more of him, considering Chow is a legend of Hong Kong cinema for the last 20 years.

The plot gets a tad complicated halfway through when more characters are introduced, so it is a bit hard to keep track of it all. But overall, Shanghai is a fine example of a successful merger between eastern and western cinema. Worth a watch. (3.5/5)

Saturday, July 31, 2010

Despicable Me

Year: 2010
Directors: Pierre Coffin & Chris Renaud
Voice cast: Steve Carell, Jason Segel, Russell Brand, Julie Andrews, Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier, Elsie Fisher


After How To Train Your Dragon and Toy Story 3, we have yet another animated film to hit the big screen.

Despicable Me centres on Gru, a supervillain who lives in a large old house with a huge underground base filled with his loyal minions, little yellow men shaped like pills. His pride is wounded one day when someone steals the pyramids of Giza, and he vows to do better, by stealing the moon.

To do so, he requires a shrink ray, which he successfully steals but the ray is taken from him by his rival Vector, the one who stole the pyramids. When Gru is unable to get into Vector's fortress to take the ray back, he hatches a plan to use three orphan girls; Margo, Edith and Agnes to break into Vector's place and help him get it instead.

Upon adopting the three girls however, Gru slowly becomes less of the supervillain he was before.

To the writers and directors' credit, Despicable Me is highly entertaining. Gru is presented as a bad guy, but a very funny one at that. He, as one reviewer puts it, looks like a cross between The Penguin and Uncle Fester. Steve Carell gives Gru an Eastern European accent, and the result is truly hilarious. Jason Segel does a decent job voicing Vector, the villain who comes up with occasionally silly weapons like the squid gun while Russell Brand and Julie Andrews are memorably different as Dr Nefario, Gru's sidekick inventor and Gru's mother, respectively. Miranda Cosgrove, Dana Gaier and Elsie Fisher voice the three girls and successfully make them sound childish, loving and sweet at the same time. But the real stars of the film are the minions, who are quite adorable and fun to watch.

The part about Gru not really being a bad guy is quite predictable considering that he's the protagonist here, but the film is no less fun. There is nary a dull moment as directors Coffin and Renaud throw lots of fast paced action and slapstick comedy to keep you entertained. It also has plenty of heartwarming moments in the third act, which wouldn't rival a Toy Story film, but nevertheless enough to make you go awww.

If you have 95 minutes to spare, go check this out. (3.5/5)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Inception

Year: 2010
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Ken Watanabe, Tom Hardy, Marion Cotillard, Dileep Rao, Cillian Murphy, Tom Berenger, Michael Caine


You know, if Christopher Nolan wasn't such a great filmmaker, I'd hate the guy for being so consistently meticulous.

That being said, his latest project, Inception is a thriller unlike anything you've ever seen. Perhaps The Matrix is the closest comparison I can make to this, but even The Matrix was more accessible to audiences thanks to the far out action sequences it had.

Inception takes place in a world where corporate espionage is possible by someone entering someone else's dreams and stealing their secrets. One such person is Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio), a man who is known for being the best mind thief there is out there.

After Cobb fails to extract information from his target, Saito (Ken Watanabe), Saito offers him a job. A unique job that isn't about extracting information, but planting an idea in a target. Cobb initially refuses to take it, but Saito offers him a chance to return to the U.S., where he is a wanted man, to reunite with his kids again and all charges against him dropped. Cobb accepts, and learns that the job involves putting an idea in the mind of Saito's business rival's son, Robert Fischer (Cillian Murphy). The idea: to dissolve his dying father's business.

To perform the job, called 'inception', Cobb and his associate Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) recruit a team of individuals: Ariadne (Ellen Page) as the architect to design the dream, Eames (Tom Hardy) as the forger to assume identities in the dream, and Yusuff (Dileep Rao) as the chemist to provide the required substances to put Fischer in the deep sleep necessary for it to work. The job is very complex and risky, and Arthur and Ariadne make their concerns obvious, but Cobb is driven to make it work. Ariadne in particular, knows that Cobb has issues in his past in relation to his late wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) and tries to help him along the way.

And as expected in a heist film, even one as unique as this, things go wrong and the fun begins.

Was all that too much information for you? Oh don't worry, you can know all of this and still enjoy it, trust me. I was very annoyed by statements made by movie fans prior to the film's release saying that they didn't want to know anything about the film for fear of ruining their enjoyment. Even some movie reviews steered clear from plot details. Well I say, screw that! You know what ruins movie enjoyment? HYPE! If you go in anticipating a classic, you risk yourself getting less than what you expected and that's when disappointment really sets in. That's not to say I did the opposite and tried to gather as much information as I could, but I certainly didn't drool over Inception and got so worked up about it.

Anyway, with all that said, Inception really is good. It's tricky, clever, complex and fascinating indeed. Plenty of credit goes out to Nolan for writing and directing such an intelligent piece of work. It's like The Italian Job meets The Matrix, with a lot more cerebral elements involved. I particularly loved the special effects used to create the dreamworlds, like the city 'folding' onto itself and buildings getting destroyed when the dream collapses. There's a scene where Arthur fights someone in a hotel corridor in zero gravity in a dream, and it is pretty neat to watch. Kudos also goes out to Nolan's favourite cameraman, Wally Pfister who does an excellent job shooting the film.

Almost everyone gives their best performance on screen here. Cotillard is a bit wasted with her one note performance, probably due to the way her character was written, but everyone else is splendid in their roles. DiCaprio leads the way as Cobb, a flawed and vulnerable man, yet brilliant enough to pull off what seems impossible. He is very believable as the man driven to do whatever it takes to return home to his kids. Gordon-Levitt and Page also stand out as Arthur and Ariadne respectively. Gordon-Levitt is funny, steadfast and reliable as Arthur while as Ariadne, Page becomes the heart of the team.

So are there any flaws? Well, when I think about it, Inception isn't nearly as accessible to audiences as I'd hope it would be. Sure, the film made a nice box office triumph in its opening week and film critics are still singing praises about it. But will it cater to everyone who sees it? All that mumbo jumbo about how a dream works and how to step inside it and be in control may confuse many people. Inception will no doubt be a hit amongst sci-fi fans, but for a person that goes to see this simply by word of mouth, he/she may end up being let down if they expected something easier to fathom.

But I am impressed with this film nonetheless. It may not be as amazing as The Prestige or Nolan's Batman films, but it is a fine piece of quality cinema. Recommended. (4/5)

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Eclipse

Year: 2010
Director: David Slade
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Bryce Dallas Howard, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Xavier Samuel, Dakota Fanning


The amount of attention, both good and bad, that the Twilight saga has received over the years really amuses me. At the recent MTV Movie Awards, New Moon swept pretty much all the awards it was nominated for. When Anna Kendrick won Best Newcomer for Up In The Air, most pundits claimed that the fans who voted for her never saw that film, they just voted because she was in Twilight. Haha. And ultimately, the awards show became the Twilight show.

The fact is, the story of Twilight really isn't all bad. It's just that serious moviegoers i.e. people who prefer intellectually challenging films that win Oscars over summer popcorn flicks, love scoffing at the supposedly shallow love story between a lovesick teenage girl and a sparkling vampire. Fortunately I'm the kind of guy that can sit on the fence long enough to give it a fair trial. But to be honest, Twilight was way better than the emotionally bloated New Moon.

Anyways, let me recap. In New Moon, we learn that Jacob Black, Bella Swan's best friend is a werewolf who is in love with her. But she loves Edward the vampire, and she wants to be turned into a bloodsucker like him. Edward won't have it, but thanks to the Volturi, the royal vampire rulers who now know about Bella and her knowledge of their kind, the decision of changing her or not looms closer.

Now in Eclipse, the love triangle between Bella and her two suitors continues. Jacob desperately wants Bella to be with him instead so that she won't have to be a vampire. Edward himself doesn't want her to do it either, but she is insistent.

And then there's Victoria, the vampire who is still vengeful over her lover James' death at the hands of Edward and his family. She attacks and turns Riley, a young man into a vampire and uses him to turn others into vampires, thereby creating an army of newborns, all to assist her in taking revenge. The Cullens now have to team up with Jacob's pack to fight back and protect Bella at all costs.

David Slade, the man who gave us the dark and violent vampire flick 30 Days Of Night, directs this instalment. Since this is the Twilight films we're talking about, you can't expect him to put lots of gore here, but at the very least he gives us some nice action sequences that were sorely missing in New Moon. We get to see the Cullens train with each other in preparation for the newborns, which is fun to watch. The battle between the newborns and the Cullens and wolves at the end was also well shot, though in my opinion the fight was quite one-sided. I particularly liked the opening scene of the movie, which made it look like you were watching a horror film. Nicely done.

But still, we have to put up with the emotional drivel from the love triangle since it is the essence of the entire story, and that's when it gets dull. Stewart, Pattinson and Lautner have to bounce all that sappy love hate lines that make you cringe yet again, but thankfully it isn't as much as the last film. Pattinson actually finally gets to stretch his acting a bit in the scene where he confronts Victoria, even for just a moment. Other than that he's always brooding and moody. Stewart is still Stewart while Lautner gets to show some more of his emotional range, which I know a lot of people still can't appreciate.

The supporting cast again manages to lift the film more than the leads. Billy Burke gets to put in some humorous touches as Bella's dad, while Jackson Rathbone and Nikki Reed manage to get some sympathy for their characters as they explain how Jasper and Rosalie became vampires in the first place. Rathbone in particular gets more screen time as he trains the Cullens and wolves on how to handle the newborns. Unfortunately Bryce Dallas Howard isn't quite the right choice to step into Victoria's shoes. Unlike Rachel Lefevre from the first two films, Howard is a bit too polished and neat to play the wild eyed Victoria. Dakota Fanning returns as the Volturi member Jane, and manages to make her five minute screen time memorable.

On the whole, this instalment is better than the previous one. It's got some fascinating elements in the story this time, like a history lesson on Jacob's ancestors' first encounter with vampires, Edward and Jacob facing off, the aforementioned Jasper and Rosalie backstory and a poignant scene between Bella and her mother, which I think is a hundred times better than any of the Bella and Edward scenes in the film.

Not as good as Twilight, but better than New Moon. (4/5)

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Predators

Year: 2010
Director: Nimrod Antal
Cast: Adrien Brody, Topher Grace, Alice Braga, Walton Goggins, Oleg Taktarov, Laurence Fishburne


"If it bleeds, we can kill it."


That line is one of my all time favourites from the movie Predator, spoken by Arnold Schwarzenegger, who played a soldier that encounters a deadly alien warrior in the jungles of Guatemala. The alien killed and made trophies out of Arnie's men before he finally defeated it. It is still one of the best sci-fi action films ever.

Now enter Robert Rodriguez, the director best known for the Grindhouse films, Spy Kids and From Dusk Till Dawn. He had been working on a screenplay for a sequel to Predator in the early 90s, but was never able to make it into a film. Now he finally gets his chance, but he's in the producer's chair this time around, letting Nimrod Antal take the helm.

In this sequel, a group of men and one woman are abducted from Earth and literally dropped onto another planet. They find themselves in a never ending jungle that they don't recognize. We have Royce, a mercenary; Isabelle, a sniper for the Israel Defence Force; Stans, a Death Row convict; Nikolai, from Russian Special Forces; Mombasa, RUF death squad member from Sierra Leone; Chuchillo, enforcer for a Mexican drug cartel; Hanzo, a Yakuza assassin and Edwin, who claims to be a doctor but is really hiding something.

Due to the fact that they are dangerous individuals, they have a hard time agreeing with one another, much less decide what to do next. Eventually, they learn to survive together once the Predators and their hunting dogs start attacking them. Then they meet Noland, a man who has survived on this planet for a long time after being a prey just like them.

And like in the first film, the fun is in watching who gets killed next and who is left standing in the end.

Rodriguez and Antal have basically done a great job here with Predators. In keeping to the true spirit of the original, the two of them have made plenty of homages to the first film, and I mean plenty. The jungle setting, the music score, even the song that plays in the closing credits is taken from the first film. There are also a few scenes in Predators that are inspired from Arnie's original. Rather than looking like a total ripoff, Rodriguez and Antal successfully fuse these elements with their own ideas to make a truly violent and interesting sci-fi film of their own.

The casting is also spot on. Adrien Brody, who would probably never be caught dead in a film like this, buffs up and makes for a convincing action hero. As Royce, Brody makes him a self serving man at first, but does the right thing in the end. Alice Braga and Topher Grace also shine as Isabelle and Edwin respectively. Isabelle is no damsel here, but even a tough girl like her shows fear towards the Predators, and Braga does it well. Grace is also memorable as the supposedly normal guy that no one would give a second look, until his true colours shine through in the climax. Walton Goggins from TV's The Shield provides some much needed humour as the Death Row convict Stans. He's the one that gets the best lines.

But as good as this sequel is, it still doesn't quite match up to the original. It is better than the messy Predator 2 though. The one thing working against Predators is the fact that it's a sequel, thus the originality of a mysterious, invisible terror picking off a bunch of tough men is no longer there. Arnie's Predator will always be the benchmark for its successors to live up to. Predators makes a good sequel, and a memorable one at that, but it doesn't quite outshine the original. Also, Laurence Fishburne is a bit wasted here. His role, though limited, will be quite memorable thanks to Fishburne's performance, but he deserves better.

In conclusion, I'll say that this film lived up to my expectations. It's bloody, kick-ass and fun. What more can a guy ask for? (4/5)

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Knight And Day

Year: 2010
Director: James Mangold
Cast: Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz, Peter Sarsgaard, Paul Dano


You know, the marketing campaign for this film is very disappointing. There isn't a single decent poster available, one that spells out 'Must See Movie'. The filmmakers were probably thinking that having Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz's names on the poster would be enough. And it would be, if the film can live up to its star billing. But does it?

In Knight And Day, Diaz plays June Havens, a woman with a knack of repairing cars, who's on the way to her sister's wedding when she bumps into a handsome stranger, Roy Miller (Cruise). She is denied permission to board a plane back home but Roy makes it. Then later, the airline allows her on board, and June discovers that the plane is mostly empty. Odd, right?

In mid air, June and Roy hit it off, then she goes to powder her nose, and then THIS is where we find out that Roy isn't just an ordinary stranger. He's a spy, and the plane is a trap set for him! Roy kills everyone else on board, including the pilots, and subsequently reveals his identity to June. And now the chaos starts.

Despite Roy's efforts to keep June out of trouble, by drugging her, tipping her off on what to do when bad guys turn up etc, she somehow ends up in the middle of it with him every time. It turns out that Roy is wanted by the government for something that he may or may not have done. And like it or not, June has to go along for the ride.

Director James Mangold, who helmed memorable films like Girl, Interrupted, Walk The Line and Identity, does a decent enough job with the action sequences. Of course, seeing Cruise in this role isn't difficult, it's not new to us. It's interesting that at 48 years old, he can still kick ass. Diaz is the necessary romantic interest/comedic distraction, and just like Cruise, this role is very familiar to her too.

But the question is, does it work? Well, yes and no. Cruise and Diaz work well together, but not consistently. Sometimes the chemistry is there, and sometimes it isn't. The two of them are supposed to be romantically involved, but the script doesn't give them any room to let their relationship blossom. I felt like the only reason Roy keeps saving June is because he's the good guy who always has to save the day, and not because he cares about her. Whatever spark that occurs between them fizzles out before it even becomes anything.

To make matters worse, the supporting cast is mostly wasted. Peter Sarsgaard looks bored half the time and Paul Dano is underused as a genius kid whom Roy must protect. Also, the subplot on Roy's past is only skimmed over instead of being explored as it should be. It would have given his character more depth.

But for what it's worth, it is enjoyable if you don't think too much and just go with the flow. I'm just disappointed because both Cruise and Diaz have been better in similar roles before. And Mangold has certainly done better than this. (3.5/5)

LinkWithin

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...