Sunday, March 28, 2010

Solomon Kane

Year: 2009
Director: Michael J. Bassett
Cast: James Purefoy, Rachel Hurd-Wood, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige, Jason Flemyng, Max von Sydow

Solomon Kane is a story set in the 1600s, when evil ran rampant across the land. We begin with the titular character leading his men on a raid in North Africa against the Spanish occupiers. He gets to the throne room after losing a number of his men, but before he can get his hands on the treasure, he is attacked by the Devil's reaper. The reaper wants his soul to take to hell for all of Solomon's crimes. Solomon refuses to give in and escapes.

In order to avoid being damned to hell, Solomon repents and spends a year at a monastery. However, the Abbott sends Solomon home, believing that his destiny lies there. In the middle of his journey, he meets the Crowthorn family, who help him after he's attacked by robbers.

Solomon bonds well with the Crowthorns, but tragedy strikes when men loyal to the evil sorcerer Malachi come calling. They kidnap the daughter Meredith and kill all but Mrs Crowthorn. Solomon is now forced to break his vow of not harming another human being to rescue Meredith and defeat Malachi. Can he do it?

The character Solomon Kane is based on the magazine character created by Robert E. Howard, who also created Conan. Basically Solomon is a man who has renounced his evil ways, and now risks his soul being damned to hell in order to do good. In other words, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Director Michael J. Bassett successfully creates a world that is bleak, brutal and dark in general. There is no bright sun, no live trees and the weather is mostly cloudy or rainy, which suits the mood of the film. However, where he succeeds in set design, he fails elsewhere. The pacing is uneven and the screenplay which he adapted is filled with some rather cheesy dialogue. These lines simply make the drama it tries to create seem forced. And to make matters worse, the villains that finally reveal themselves at the end of the film are laughable, especially the big fire monster.

But I'll give credit to James Purefoy for trying his best to bring life to Solomon Kane. He may seem like a Hugh Jackman clone on the surface, but he has enough screen presence to make his character believable. Peter Pan's Rachel Hurd-Wood, Star Trek First Contact's Alice Krige and Pete Postlethwaite provide good support as part of the Crowthorn family.

What I do like about it is the fact that Solomon is portrayed as a vulnerable character. He gets beat up, crucified and tortured and manages to show some grief, instead of being a super cool character with no emotions like most Hollywood heroes these days. But the entire film needs a better plot and better villains to make it more cohesive. In the end, it just falls short of being good.

Watch it only if you have nothing better to do. (3/5)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Up In The Air

Year: 2009
Director: Jason Reitman
Cast: George Clooney, Vera Farmiga, Anna Kendrick, Jason Bateman

These days, whenever I see a George Clooney film, I go "Oh no, this may be dull, he's just gonna talk a lot". But I have heard so many good things about Up In the Air, and I needed to see it for myself.

Up In The Air focuses on one Ryan Bingham (George Clooney), who has a very unique job. He gets hired to fire employees on behalf of employers who don't have the guts to do it themselves. His job takes him all over the country, so much that he practically lives out of his suitcase.

But you see, unlike most people who would abhor being on the road for a majority of the year, Ryan embraces it. His lifestyle of spending most of his time in airplanes, airports and hotels negates any chance of him committing to anything he feels would weigh him down. Friends. Family. Home expenses. Office stress. That kind of stuff. In fact, he's so good at this, he even holds seminars every now and then about living out of a backpack. And there's also his goal of achieving a frequent flyer mile target, a target that only a handful of people have reached.

Then one day, his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) introduces him to a new concept of firing people: via teleconferencing. This brand new idea comes courtesy of a young girl named Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick). She points out that her way of letting employees go would save their company from spending on air tickets and other travel claims.

Ryan isn't happy about this one bit, for he is not going to just let one idea throw a wrench into his way of living, and subsequently proves to Craig that Natalie doesn't know the first thing about firing people. So Craig gets Ryan to show the young upstart the ropes, by taking her across the country and teach her how to look into an unlucky worker's eyes and give them the bad news. Face to face.

Thus begins the lesson. Ryan shows Natalie how to save time and money on the road, how to convey the bad news, what to say and what not to say etc. But this always works both ways, as Natalie shows him, at first subtly, on what it means to have a life, and how to connect with others. The young lass may still be naive about people, but Ryan himself learns a thing or two about the importance of acquaintances.

There is also another person that Ryan connects with: Alex Goran (Vera Farmiga), a woman who seems to live the same way Ryan does; carefree and constantly on the move. The two strike up a commitment free relationship, until the story gets to the third act, when things start to change.

Jason Reitman, who brought us Juno, directs this wonderful tale about people, life and how to connect with someone, whether they're close to you or a stranger you just met. What's interesting is that Reitman had planned this film years ago, but was only able to complete it now, and released it at a time when recession had hit America, so the film's concept on people losing their jobs was very relative to viewers. But still, the story is more on the human connection, and even in the worst of times, there may still be hope, and even for the most cynical guy like Ryan Bingham, things can change.

Which brings me to Clooney, who puts in a splendid performance as Ryan. Clooney is truly believable as a man who is so sure of himself, the way he lives and the way things should be, to the point where he has no regrets, and yet when the inevitable happens, when the right kind of people finally get through to him, he breaks routine and shows his vulnerability. Farmiga compliments him well as the love interest, Alex. On the surface she seems like the perfect match for Ryan, until her true colours come forth at the end. I particularly liked Anna Kendrick, who is perfect as Natalie. Natalie may seem inexperienced and more vulnerable than Ryan, but she isn't intimidated by him, and she too can teach him a thing or two about people. Kendrick deserved her Oscar nomination here.

All I can say is, it's good to finally find a George Clooney film that is funny, endearing and with a storyline that I can grasp. Recommended. (4/5)

Wednesday, March 17, 2010


Year: 2009
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Morgan Freeman, Matt Damon

I managed to catch Invictus, Clint Eastwood's latest directorial work this past weekend. For those of you following the Oscars, you'd know that lead actors Morgan Freeman and Matt Damon both received nominations for their performances here.

Invictus is a true story set in South Africa, which focuses on Nelson Mandela and his efforts to unite a nation after years of apartheid rule. The film begins with his release from prison and subsequently becoming South Africa's first black leader.

After taking office, he realises that his toughest task is getting the blacks and whites of his country to get along. He senses this not only amongst his staff, but also at a rugby match between his country's Springboks and the English team. Because the Springboks are mostly white, the black African fans cheer for England.

After the Springboks lose badly, the National Sports Council move to replace the team with a pro-black set of players. Mandela steps in and pleads them to not change things and let the Springboks continue. Mandela believes this move will help the white community learn to cooperate with the blacks for the sake of unity.

But how can he inspire the failing rugby team to improve their game? Mandela takes an extra interest in the sport and meets up with the team captain, Francois Pienaar. He encourages Pienaar to bring the team back to glory as the Rugby World Cup, which is being held in their country, approaches.

Eastwood's movies have always been character driven, and he uses the characters to tell the story, frame by frame, step by step. It is the same here, as Freeman and Damon drive the story about two men and their efforts to bring a fragile nation together by using a sport popularised by white folks.

Nelson Mandela himself stated that only Freeman can play him in a movie, and indeed it is true. I don't know much about Mandela's actual character, but I can tell you that Freeman is perfect for this role. Anyone who plays an icon like Mandela needs to have screen presence, and Freeman has it. Every word, every gesture is gentle yet persuasive, and by listening to Freeman speak, you'd want to hear more of what he has to say. He gives Mandela that sense of bravado and generosity, in scenes where he convinces his staff to work together despite their differences or how his decision is ultimately right even if it is unpopular.

Damon gives good support as Pienaar, who ably leads his team to victory, even when his mates are reluctant to go that extra mile. Damon had to train in rugby for his role, and it's good to note that it paid off. He may not look big enough, but he sure can play.

The title comes from the Latin word for 'invincible' and is also the title for a poem from which Mandela quotes in the film. The moral of this story is simple: nothing is impossible.

A nicely made story on Mandela and how he used rugby to lead his country to unity. (4/5)

Wednesday, March 10, 2010


Year: 2009
Director: Jim Sheridan
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Jake Gyllenhaal, Natalie Portman, Sam Shepard, Mare Winningham, Patrick Flueger

I had waited for quite a while to see this film. My anticipation had been building ever since I heard about it. I'm not such a big fan of Tobey Maguire or Jake Gyllenhaal, but I do like Natalie Portman, even though her work for the past few years have been inconsistent. The story intrigued me and it had a good trailer, so I hoped I could see it eventually, at the same time keeping in mind that not all films from Hollywood make it to my country.

And when Brothers finally reached my shores, I learned that it was a limited release. So I made sure I made time to catch it in theatres while I still could.

So let's get to it. Brothers focuses on a family, the Cahills. The two main protagonists are brothers Sam (Maguire) and Tommy (Gyllenhaal). The former is an army captain while the latter has just been released from prison for armed robbery.

While Sam is the apple of his father Hank's (Sam Shepard) eye, Tommy is the opposite. Hank despises Tommy for being the proverbial black sheep of the family. Despite that fact, Sam respects his brother and treats him better than the rest of the family does.

One day, Sam gets shipped to Afghanistan on a mission, leaving behind his wife Grace (Portman) and their two daughters. Tragedy strikes when Sam's helicopter is shot down and he's presumed dead. The Cahills, including Tommy mourn his death.

Tommy makes an effort to get close to Grace and his nieces and helps them get over their loss, though winning over his stubborn dad is a lot easier said than done. But that doesn't matter as Grace and her kids finally find good reasons to smile as a hole in their lives seem patched.

But there's a problem of course. Sam didn't die. In fact, he had been captured by the Afghan rebels, tortured and made to do something he'll never forgive himself for. Sam is eventually rescued and brought home safe to his family. But this isn't the same man who left his family behind months ago. Can Grace, Tommy and the kids reconcile with him again?

Brothers is based on the Danish film Brodre and directed by Jim Sheridan, who has made films like My Left Foot and In The Name Of The Father. Brothers isn't just a family drama, it's also about what war does to a soldier, how it changes him and how it affects the people around him when he comes home. Sheridan is driving this point home in the movie, because despite the title describing the two very different siblings, it's more about how a family faces a crisis stemming from loss, death, misunderstanding, jealousy and pent up rage.

Maguire is excellent as Sam, who transforms from loving father and husband in the beginning to paranoid and unstable towards the end of the film. He is ably supported by Gyllenhaal, who nicely portrays Tommy as the flawed hero, always eager to make amends while trying his best not to screw things up. My only complaint about these two is that Maguire, despite being 35 years old, looks too young to be a marine captain, and Gyllenhaal, despite being younger than Maguire in real life, looks older than him.

Portman on the other hand, gives an understated performance for the most part, which disappoints me a bit. But I guess her character Grace leans more towards a loyal, loving wife than an emotionally charged female. Heck, Grace wouldn't even give her daughter severe verbal abuse for humiliating her in front of a guest at the dinner table. But Portman is always nice to look at, so I'm not complaining too much. Shepard and Winningham provide some nice moments as father and stepmother respectively.

As a drama, it works generally. But I felt that it could have been so much more. I thought that the ending was rather limp, and the climax of the film fizzled out as quickly as it began. At that point, the film was like a fused powder keg just waiting to blow up, but it never gets there. So when it's over, it feels like you've just watched a TV movie. Some of the editing needs work too, as there were times I found some scenes unnecessary, and others lacked continuity.

I guess you can say all my anticipation didn't quite pay off here. But if I can give you a reason to watch Brothers, it's the lead performances. It's just too bad that wasn't enough to make it great. (3.5/5)

Sunday, March 07, 2010

From Paris With Love

Year: 2010
Director: Pierre Morel
Cast: John Travolta, Jonathan Rhys Meyers, Kasia Smutniak, Richard Durden

It's been a while since buddy cop action flicks were made. I'm guessing it's because either there have been too many of them, or they simply ran out of style. I mean, how many versions of 48 Hrs, Lethal Weapon and Rush Hour can they make?

Formula is always the same: Pair two people together. They must be absolutely different from each other. They must always start on the wrong foot, but in the end they become best friends. And witty dialogue is essential.

Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome From Paris With Love, a new action film that has all the above prerequisite qualities, but the question is, does it work?

First, the story. James Reece is the personal aide to the US ambassador in Paris, a young man who dreams of becoming a top covert operative. He keeps getting assigned to plant bugs on his superior's instructions, but what Reece really wants is some action. Some real life, in your face kind of danger.

And he gets it. An American spy called Charlie Wax flies into Paris on a mission. Reece is ordered to be his partner and driver. And before you can say merci, Reece finds himself in all sorts of trouble as Wax drags him all over Paris with guns blazing and Parisian bad guys of every ethnicity getting shot or running helter skelter.

Wax apparently is trying to stop a terrorist attack on the city, and his 'shoot first, ask questions later' approach doesn't go down well with his new rookie partner. But the unlikely duo do everything they can to stop a catastrophe in time. Will they succeed?

Ah, that question doesn't need to be asked. But you'd like to know if this is good or not, right? Pierre Morel, who brought us the surprisingly awesome actioner Taken, takes the helm again. And again in Paris. He must love this city very much. But he's French, so there. Anyway, unlike Taken, which was very serious in tone, From Paris With Love takes the time to give us a few laughs here and there. We have a bald Travolta playing the triggerhappy Wax, spouting expletives left and right while blowing things up all around his more conservative partner Reece, played by Jonathan Rhys Meyers. The fun part is watching what happens when Wax's spontaneity clashes with Reece's contemplative approach. And it almost worked.

The problem is, the story has to matter. For the first half of the film, Wax drags Reece (who's carrying a vase full of cocaine everywhere) from one underworld lair to another, shooting and killing baddies, with no real explanation why. I know he's on a terrorist hunt, but the details have to matter if the audience wants to follow. And they usually do. The film moves so quickly that there's no time to even think of why Wax is doing what he's doing.

It is only when a pertinent plot twist is revealed halfway that the film finally kicks in to a higher level, and everyone including the audience know what the stakes are. But still, some consistency in storytelling would be nice.

Another thing I'd like to gripe about is the whole buddy cop thing. It's supposed to be funny, but there are times when things take a real serious turn, and the action comedy part of the movie suddenly fades. It's as if Morel can't decide if he wants it to be an action movie, or an action comedy. The balance isn't there sometimes.

Travolta does a good job hamming it up as Wax. He's basically playing his standard charming villain character in his other films here, only this time he's on the good side. But it works of course. Meyers isn't quite convincing as the straight laced Reece though. He doesn't quite share good chemistry with Travolta, but is believable in the dramatic scenes.

Action wise, it's nothing you haven't seen. Car chase, shoot outs, fist fights...all here. The stuff I saw in Taken was far better. But I'll give Morel credit for trying to entertain us for 100 minutes, and he almost succeeded.

Verdict: an action comedy that doesn't quite take off, but wouldn't hurt taking it for a ride. (3.5/5)


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