Friday, January 28, 2011

The Way Back

Year: 2010
Director: Peter Weir
Cast: Jim Sturgess, Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Saoirse Ronan

I knew very little about The Way Back when it suddenly popped up at cinemas here. I read one online review that gave it a lot of credit, so I knew I had to give it a shot.

The Way Back is set during World War II, where Poland has been invaded by Hitler on the west side and Stalin on the east side. We are introduced to a man named Janusz (Jim Sturgess), who is imprisoned by the Russians after refusing to sign a statement that confesses he was a spy.

He is sent to Siberia, an unforgiving prison where the guards and barbed fences aren't the real enemy, but the cold weather and endless forests beyond it are. Once there, he meets a few prisoners of interest: Mr Smith (Ed Harris), an American and Valka (Colin Farrell), a Russian who is in prison for murder.

With the encouragement of fellow prisoner Khabarov (Mark Strong), Janusz makes a plan to escape. He takes Smith, Valka and four other men past the perimeter and through the unforgiving blizzard. They plan on heading to a country that isn't rife with communism, so they decide to go south. Along the way, they meet Irena (Saoirse Ronan), a young Polish girl also running from the Russians.

This story, which is supposedly based on real events, depicts their escape and eventual long and arduous walk from Siberia, across the Gobi desert, through the Himalayas and finally arriving in India. And yes, it is a long journey, but well worth it even for us viewers.

Peter Weir is known for making critically acclaimed films like Dead Poets Society, Witness and Master & Commander, and here he does it again. The Way Back takes a realistic look at the harrowing journey of these survivors across the worst of terrains, with very little food and water and the most extreme of weather conditions. It makes your heart break watching them suffer, and Weir deserves plenty of credit for his direction. Credit must also be given to Russell Boyd for his great camerawork. The shots of the vast landscape that appears to have no end, the scorching desert, the wide Lake Baikal that they have to walk past and the forests they tread through...all excellently done.

Jim Sturgess, who hasn't been in a real hit film since he began, does splendidly as Janusz here. He is very believable as the unlikely guide to lead the survivors to freedom, even as he himself suffered so much. Ed Harris lends his screen presence effectively too as the hardened Smith. Colin Farrell does a good job as the ruthless Valka, and though I can't quite accept him as a Russian (probably because I've seen him play normal English speaking characters too many times), he can do no wrong here. Saoirse Ronan is also effective as Irena, and though she may seem precocious at times, her character will grow on you. Not to be forgotten are Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean and Gustaf Skarsgard who play three of the other survivors, Zoran, Tomasz and Voss.

Overall, this film is truly fascinating and at the same time emotionally draining, but worth the journey. It may seem a bit too long for my taste at times, but the fine performances and great execution by Weir makes this a winner. (3.5/5)

Saturday, January 22, 2011


Year: 2010
Director: George Tillman Jr
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood

As some of you might know, Dwayne Johnson a.k.a. The Rock is my favourite wrestler. When he first started his Hollywood career, he starred in some decent action films like The Scorpion King and The Rundown. But then he had to go do those below average kiddie comedies like Race To Witch Mountain and The Tooth Fairy.

So I was rather excited that he was finally going back to do something serious with Faster. No more little cute kids, just more ass-kicking.

Now, on the poster it may look like a film starring Dwayne Johnson, but Faster is actually a film that focuses on three men: Driver (Johnson), Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) and Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Notice how the protagonists are named by description instead of an actual name?

Anyway, we begin with Driver, who is released from prison after serving ten years. Before he was jailed, he was part of a bank heist with his brother. Unfortunately another gang ambushed them, killed his brother and left Driver for dead. Now he wants some payback, and he starts gunning the gang members down one by one.

The first attack by Driver gets the attention of Cop, who investigates the case with his partner Cicero (Carla Gugino). Cop happens to be a drug addict who has marital problems, but is determined to make things right with his wife and son.

Then we are introduced to Killer, a guy who takes a lot of pride in what he does, and at the same time seeks to settle down with his girlfriend Lily (Maggie Grace). He gets a call from a client who wants Driver dead, so he decides to take one last job before retiring.

Director George Tillman Jr has made a film that I would say is unique. It's not necessarily great, but unique. It's unique because first of all, as mentioned earlier, the three main characters are referred to by description and not by name. All three of them are given equal time, and it's not until you get to the last third of the film when you realise that they're connected in some way. This connection is the twist in this story, which isn't too surprising, but to some extent it works.

Tillman hasn't quite got the pace of the film to my taste, but the one thing I did like is the music. Throughout the film we are given a nice dose of blues and rock numbers, which suit the tone of the film well. This is a revenge flick after all, and blues and rock is the right way to go here.

Johnson is a somewhat perfect fit for Driver, though I must say his character is a tad two dimensional. He doesn't deviate from his quest for vengeance from start to finish, other than one minor detour he takes to see his former girlfriend played by Jennifer Carpenter. That being said, Driver isn't much of a stretch for Johnson, but at least he's starting to take serious roles again, so that's a good sign.

Thornton certainly looks the part of Cop, except he has messier hair instead of none. The script's attempt to gain the audience's sympathy for him by revealing his sob story doesn't really work, especially when they try a bit too hard at times. But Thornton always has great screen presence, so it's always good to have him around.

Jackson-Cohen, on the other hand, gets the rather hilarious role as Killer. I say hilarious because, well....he isn't like most killers I've seen on film. Sure, he has the good looks, the precision, the pride, he even has the cold blooded look in his eyes down pat. But the way his character was written is rather strange. For a man who takes tremendous pride in his work, it's odd to note that he is more human than most of his peers that I've watched over the years. Most killers who yearn for a normal life usually take no joy in what they do, even if they're very good at it. But Killer? He has an ego, which suffers from some serious bruising after his first encounter with Driver, and the more the script tries to humanise him, the less believable it gets. I like him, but he's still an odd element in this film.

Gugino provides some nice support here as Cop's partner while Maggie Grace looks impossibly gorgeous here, even if she doesn't have a heck of a lot to do.

As for drawbacks, I have to mention that there are major plotholes involving logic, like why the cops can't catch Driver when he shoots people in broad daylight and there are witnesses around. As an action film, it kinda works. It's not The Rock's best film obviously, but it's a start, and I'm keen to see what he does next.

Verdict: a decent way to spend two hours if you like revenge tales. (3.5/5)

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Season Of The Witch

Year: 2011
Director: Dominic Sena
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Graham, Ulrich Thomsen, Christopher Lee

Nicolas Cage has had a colourful career, with as many good films as there are bad ones. He was brilliant in Face/Off, Con Air and 8MM, but there also have been major stinkers in his resume like The Wicker Man, Next and Bangkok Dangerous. Then there are also the middle ground films like Ghost Rider, Windtalkers and Knowing.

It's safe to say that Cage has tried all kinds of roles. But this time, as a 14th century knight? How does that turn out?

Season Of The Witch begins in the 13th century, with the execution of three women believed to be witches by the church. As a priest reads an incantation from his book, one of the corpses attacks and kills him.

A century later, we are introduced to two men, Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman), knights who are part of the Crusade. After years of warfare, they grow tired of the killing, especially when innocent women and children end up on the receiving end. Behmen and Felson desert the army and return home to England, where they discover that a pestilence known as The Black Plague has fallen upon the land, causing thousands to die.

The local cardinal (Christopher Lee) believes that the plague was caused by a witch, and wishes to send her to another town to be executed. Behmen and Felson are revealed as deserters and sentenced to prison unless they agree to escort the witch there. Behmen agrees reluctantly, on the condition that she is given a fair trial after they send her.

So the two men gather the witch (Claire Foy) and bring along four other men; Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), a priest who believes the witch is guilty, Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen), a knight who lost his family to the plague, Hagamar (Stephen Graham), a con man who knows the way to the town and Kay (Robert Sheehan), an aspiring knight. The journey is wrought with one disaster after another, and one by one the men fall as Behmen begins to question the witch's guilt or innocence.

Dominic Sena, who directed Cage in Gone In 60 Seconds, takes the helm here. Sena's work has been rather inconsistent, like he was good in making Kalifornia and Swordfish, but didn't do so well with Whiteout. Overall, I wouldn't say that Season Of The Witch is a return to form for either Sena or Cage, but it's actually better than I expected. Considering the fact that the release date was pushed back, and landing in January (which most critics would call the dumping ground for bad films), you'd think it would suck. But guess what? It doesn't.

Cage is actually slightly more than decent here, even if he forgoes an English accent to play Behmen. Ron Perlman also ditched the accent in his role as Felson, and to their credit, Behmen and Felson's camaraderie successfully glue the film together. Cage and Perlman definitely have good chemistry here, and they ought to work together again someday. Special mention must also be made for Claire Foy, who plays the witch. On the surface, she seems innocent enough, but a slight smile or glint in her eye, and she can suddenly turn completely around and seem so evil. Foy is perfect for the role.

Basically, the film is like an episode of Supernatural combined with an LOTR like journey set in medieval times. The action sequences are decent and the horror elements are well shot, although there's a bit of bad CGI at the end, but I'm not complaining. Overall it's not one of Cage's best work, but it's fun for what it is.

Verdict: good enough to watch if nothing else is showing, and if you like action combined with horror, this is for you. (3.5/5)

Friday, January 14, 2011

TRON: Legacy

Year: 2010
Director: Joseph Kosinski
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Garrett Hedlund, Olivia Wilde, Bruce Boxleitner, Michael Sheen, James Frain

I am one of the unfortunate people who hadn't watched the original TRON released in 1982. That groundbreaking film starred Jeff Bridges as Kevin Flynn, a hacker who gets zapped into a computer and forced to participate in gladiatorial games in order to escape. 28 years later, we have a sequel, and the question is, will non-TRON fans be able to embrace this?

TRON: Legacy begins with Kevin telling his son Sam about the world of TRON, and promising to take him to the arcade the next day. He never came home after that.

Twenty years later, Sam is now the largest shareholder of his father's company. But he isn't interested in running the business, preferring to pull pranks on the company's directors instead.

Alan Bradley, Kevin's old friend, meets up with Sam and tells him he was paged by his father, from a number that had been disconnected for 20 years. Sam goes to the source, which is his father's old arcade, and finds a basement with a unique computer in there. After some tinkering, Sam himself gets zapped into the same computer world his father talked about.

Once there, he is captured by other programs and forced to fight gladiator style using a disc attached to his back. He subsequently learns that Clu, a program created by his father and resembles him as well, has taken over this world and plans to enter Sam's own. With a bit of help from a program called Quorra, Sam escapes and reunites with his father, who has been trapped in this world all this time. But the reunion isn't a happy one for long, as both father and son must find a way to stop Clu from entering the real world.

You know, I wish I could tell you more about TRON and the entire epic story that revolves around the world of The Grid, but as it stands, I did not watch the original. I would if I could. Now, as a standalone story, Legacy may work to a certain extent. But I still felt that there were too many things that only fans of the original would be able to fathom. Disney ought to have made DVDs of the original available prior to the release of Legacy, but I heard they did not want to do so in fear of the sequel getting less attention that they had hoped for. Too bad for us.

Anyway, first time director Joseph Kosinski doesn't do too bad of a job here. He makes sure all the bases are covered, from visual effects to camerawork to hiring Daft Punk for the music score. Despite some slow moments in the second half of the film, overall Legacy is quite entertaining indeed. And speaking of the visual effects, they are truly awesome to behold. I especially loved the lightcycle races and the air battle at the film's climax. However their attempt to create a younger Kevin Flynn and Clu didn't quite score points with me. He just looked strange, like a slightly better version of Robert Zemeckis' 3D images.

Jeff Bridges brings his undeniable screen presence here, though it is clearly Garrett Hedlund's show throughout as Sam Flynn. Hedlund isn't totally convincing in the role, but I think he isn't entirely to blame for that. Some of his lines just sounded weird. Olivia Wilde is fascinating as the brave but slightly kid-like Quorra, and Bruce Boxleitner makes good of his little screen time as Alan Bradley. I also liked Michael Sheen's performance as Zuse, a virtual world club owner who looks like David Bowie.

Some people have compared this to Avatar, and I can see why. The only real difference is the scale, but they share similar qualities aplenty. Legacy is good entertainment, but not necessarily for everyone. If possible, I recommend that you try watching the original TRON first, just so you know what you're getting yourself into. But if you don't, it's okay to watch this anyway. (3.5/5)

Sunday, January 09, 2011

Fair Game

Year: 2010
Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Naomi Watts, Sean Penn, Michael Kelly, Bruce McGill, Noah Emmerich, David Andrews

Not to be confused with a similarly named film from 1995 starring Cindy Crawford and William Baldwin, Fair Game is based on a true story about Valerie Plame, a CIA operative who worked during the Bush administration.

Valerie is an agent with many contacts worldwide, who carries out assignments to expose terrorist cells, which has become more prominent since 9/11. She is married to Joe Wilson, a former ambassador who now runs his own business. They have two children.

One day, Valerie's superiors seek her help to 'send' Joe on an assignment to Africa, where it is suspected that Saddam Hussein is attempting to purchase materials to make nuclear weapons. Joe was chosen because he has experience and knowledge of the country Niger, where the supposed transaction is taking place. Once there, Joe does not discover any conclusive evidence that such a transaction took place.

However, the Vice President's staff, led by Scooter Libby, is not entirely convinced. By pulling some strings and manipulating statements, Libby makes it seem that Saddam truly is acquiring the materials, thus giving President Bush the excuse he needs to invade Iraq.

Joe is downright unhappy that the truth had been twisted, and proceeds to write an article for the media, stating that he had found no such evidence and that the White House had been misled. This sets off major repercussions as Libby leaks Valerie's identity as a CIA agent to the press. As a result, her employers suspend her and all her assignments, thus preventing her from keeping her word to anyone she had promised to help. The Wilsons' friends question them on Valerie's double life while the media follow them everywhere looking to either dig for more dirt or publicly scathe them. The entire fiasco puts a major toll on Valerie and Joe's marriage.

Doug Liman, who directed The Bourne Identity, once again brings his gritty style to the fore. There are no action sequences here, but his camerawork successfully makes the film look very real. The lack of bright colours throughout the movie also helped. I couldn't help but notice that Liman had filmed in Kuala Lumpur, so it was pretty cool seeing the Twin Towers at the start of the film.

Naomi Watts and Sean Penn, whom I last saw together in the phenomenal 21 Grams, have a great chemistry as Valerie and Joe respectively. Watts shows her toughness and vulnerability at the same time, despite not doing anything most CIA agents featured in Hollywood films do i.e. kicking ass. Penn compliments her perfectly as the man who fights for the truth, even if it costs him everything he loves.

Overall, Fair Game does not have the great storytelling skills it ought to have, for the first half of the film at least. But its two main leads do a great job in fleshing out their characters, thereby making it a fascinating view on the machinations of the White House. (3.5/5)


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