Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Battle: Los Angeles

Year: 2011
Director: Jonathan Liebesman
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Michelle Rodriguez, Bridget Moynahan, Ramon Rodriguez, Michael Pena, Ne-Yo

Plot: Aliens have invaded the earth, and cities worldwide fall one by one. In Los Angeles, soon-to-be-retired Marine Staff Sgt Nantz leads his men into a suicide mission to rescue civilians as the aliens attack.

Review: One reviewer said that Battle: Los Angeles is Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day. I think he hit the nail right on the head. Battle L.A. is essentially a combination of the best things you remember about those two films i.e. nonstop chaos and wanton destruction. Along with it, you also get the cliched characters and familiar American gung ho-ism that were very obvious in those two films as well.

But if you think for one second that this movie isn't worth a watch, think again. There are times when one just wants to have balls out fun and not think too much about plot, subplots and logic, and in that regard, Battle L.A. serves it straight up. If you're looking for something intelligent like District 9, you won't get it here. But Jonathan Liebesman is smart enough to focus on the human characters instead, and how their determination to survive is imperative in this situation.

Character wise, they're all too familiar. Marine with a wife and a child on the way. Marine with a dead brother he wants to live up to. Marine with the jokes. Marine with the bravado etc. You already know they'll perish later on, so none of them really stand out. Except of course, Aaron Eckhart's Staff Sgt Nantz. He is basically the glue that holds the film together. Eckhart proved himself in The Dark Knight and he does it again here. Nantz is a leader who led his men to their deaths in his last tour, and the guilt weighs heavily on him. Now he is entrusted with a new group of men, some who knew of his last tour, and are torn between trusting him, or not. Eckhart successfully brings out the best and worst of Nantz's emotions throughout the film.

Michelle Rodriguez is well.....Michelle Rodriguez. Ramon Rodriguez, the annoying guy from Transformers 2 gets to be serious this time around, and he's not too shabby here. Moynahan and Pena are quite wasted as the civilians the Marines rescue, not getting enough screen time.

The CGI on display leans more towards District 9 than Independence Day, and is reminiscent of the climax of the former, where lots of explosions and gun battles take place. But overall, it bloody works. Liebesman keeps the film at a quick pace, not allowing the film to stall too long, giving the audience sequence after sequence of destruction, which thankfully isn't as mind-numbing as Black Hawk Down, and a lot more fun to watch.

As far as alien invasion films go, this isn't the best one out there. But after the awful Skyline, Battle: L.A. is just what we need to satiate our appetite for alien movies. At least till Super 8 comes out later. (4/5)

Sunday, March 27, 2011


Year: 2011
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Liam Neeson, Diane Kruger, January Jones, Bruno Ganz, Aidan Quinn, Frank Langella

Plot: Dr Martin Harris and his wife Liz arrive in Berlin where the former will be attending a biotechnology summit. He gets into a car accident and wakes up in the hospital four days later, with no memory of where his wife is. When he finally finds her, she seems to not recognize him, and another man has assumed his identity. With the help of Gina, the cab driver whose cab Martin was in during the accident, and Jurgen, a private investigator, Martin sets out to find the truth.

Review: Liam Neeson is one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood right now, appearing in so many films in the last one year, and this despite the death of his wife Natasha Richardson during that time. Neeson is a wonderful actor, that is without doubt. Unknown is reminiscent of his last action film Taken, where he totally kicked ass as a CIA agent tearing down Paris to rescue his daughter from human traffickers.

However, Unknown is a bit different. Taken is very straightforward, Unknown takes many twists and turns to get to the finish line. It's an action thriller with a mystery thrown in, and for the most part it works. Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed the underrated Orphan, smoothly makes the transition to the action genre, giving us a film that isn't boring or pedestrian at all. He gives the audience one question after another, keeping us guessing as to whom Martin Harris can trust, and the reason all this is happening to him. I also noticed that the credits featured many crew members from Germany, indicating that Collet-Serra filmed this on location, which is a splendid idea, as Berlin seems like a perfectly cold and grey city to reflect a thriller like this.

However, Collet-Serra makes the mistake that many directors make in filming fight sequences: filming them up close. This makes it difficult for the audience to register what is happening on screen, and before you know it, we have one dead body on the ground. Directors need to know that backing the camera up a bit will do wonders for their picture.

Neeson is, needless to say, awesome to watch. He plays a desperate, vulnerable hero here, and it's very believable indeed. Diane Kruger gets the token good samaritan role as Gina, but successfully makes her character likeable enough to have the audience root for her just as much as they root for Neeson. January Jones looks stunning as Liz, but not only is she given too little to do, her acting is just too wooden. Bruno Ganz is impressive as the investigator Jurgen, managing to ellicit a laugh or two in some of his scenes. Aidan Quinn and Frank Langella are a bit wasted in their roles though.

Now, naturally for a thriller like this, there is a revelation in the third act, and like Orphan, it is plausible enough. But still, Unknown is predictable in certain parts, which luckily enough, doesn't quite ruin the enjoyment. It's a solid action thriller, which makes for good entertainment despite not being in the same league as Taken.

A worthy addition to Taken, and other flicks of the same genre. (4/5)

Friday, March 25, 2011

127 Hours

Year: 2010
Director: Danny Boyle
Cast: James Franco, Kate Mara, Amber Tamblyn

Four out of the ten Best Picture candidates for this year's Oscars are either true stories or loosely based on a true story. 127 Hours is one of them.

This film tells the story of real life mountain climber Aron Ralston who went to Utah to explore the many canyons and narrow valleys there. He sets out in the wee hours of the morning without telling anyone about his destination.

While climbing down a narrow crevice at the canyon, he slips and falls down 65 feet and subsequently a boulder falls along and traps his right arm against the wall. From this moment on, Aron's harrowing ordeal begins.

He tries at first to dislodge the boulder, but to no avail. All he has with him are a cheap knife, a small flashlight, a camera, some food, rope and a small flask of water. With every failed attempt Aron makes to free himself, almost every ounce of hope of him surviving this disaster dissipates. In the end, he has to make a difficult decision: cut the trapped limb.

Don't worry if that sounded like a spoiler to you. The fact is, if you've heard about this film or read Aron's book regarding the experience, you'd already know what happened. And the film isn't really about what he does to escape, it's about the entire process of being trapped, how it feels and how the will to live is so important. To this end, director Danny Boyle does a splendid job in portraying Aron's 5 day ordeal being stuck in the canyon, with nowhere to go and no one to call for help. Cinematographers Anthony Dod Mantle, who worked with Boyle on Slumdog Millionaire and 28 Days Later, and Enrique Chediak (28 Weeks Later, Repo Men) also deserve praise for their wonderful work. They beautifully capture the vast canyon with aerial shots and more importantly, give us an up close view of Aron as he is stuck down there, thereby giving viewers the same feeling of being right there with him.

But all this wouldn't have worked so well if not for the awesome performance of James Franco, who as Aron, gives a career defining effort here. Through Franco, we see Aron's physical torture, as well as his emotional state and the occasional hallucinations he experiences while being pinned in the hole. Among others, he thinks of his parents, his ex girlfriend, his friends, the two hikers he met prior to the accident, played by Kate Mara and Amber Tamblyn, and imagines a young boy watching him. A couple of times he imagines escaping the boulder as well. From time to time, Aron makes video logs of himself, chronicling the entire episode. All this is done by Franco in a very realistic manner, and as you feel for him, you will root for him to finally succeed in escaping. Franco rightfully earns his Oscar nomination for the role.

Boyle got A.R. Rahman (Slumdog) to provide the music score, and he does so brilliantly, using upbeat music and alternating with quieter tunes to suit the scene. Boyle himself was smart enough to keep the film at a lean 94 minutes, thus making sure it didn't overstay its welcome, and it does justice to the true story that inspired it.

An inspiring real life event that will scare you as much as it will make you cheer. (But be warned, if you're queasy around blood, you may not want to see the cutting scene.) (4/5)

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Fighter

Year: 2010
Director: David O.Russell
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Christian Bale, Amy Adams, Melissa Leo, Jack McGee

Boxing films, more often than not, have received critical acclaim and award recognitions over the years. Films like Raging Bull, Rocky, Million Dollar Baby and Cinderella Man are usually champs at awards season and favourite picks of movie critics. After all, everyone loves a story about a man overcoming the odds (in Million's case, a woman) to become a world champion inside the squared circle.

So now we add The Fighter to that esteemed list.

The Fighter is a true story set in the 90s and focuses on 'Irish' Micky Ward (Mark Wahlberg), a struggling boxer who hasn't had a win for a while now, and is mainly used as a stepping stone for other boxers. Micky is trained by his half brother Dicky Eklund (Christian Bale) and managed by their mother Alice (Melissa Leo).

Though Dicky and Alice care a lot about Micky's career, they don't seem to know the right way to help him. Dicky, a former boxer himself, is a cocaine addict who can't seem to keep himself out of trouble. Alice on the other hand is stubborn and too proud to see her own flaws. When Micky loses another fight thanks to Dicky and Alice's bad advice, Micky decides to listen to his new girlfriend Charlene (Amy Adams) and find a new trainer.

This move results in Micky finally picking up some victories in the ring. But as the old saying goes, blood is thicker than water, and Dicky, who has always been Micky's best friend, in and out of the ring, eventually re-enters the picture. And sparks fly.

I have to give credit to director David O.Russell and Wahlberg who also produces the film, for coming up with a story that is a bit different from the usual boxing movie. Yes, we still have the same tale of a boxer working from the bottom and eventually becoming champion, but The Fighter focuses on his family's influence, how it shapes him and damn nearly destroys him. The drama isn't in the road to the top, it's in the many situations Micky's family get themselves into. The family is severely flawed, everyone except Micky thinks they know what is best for him, but they don't. And when you add Charlene the bartender girlfriend into the mix, it just gets better and better.

Wahlberg successfully grounds the film by being the humble hero Micky Ward. But it's Bale that steals the show as Dicky. I gotta tell ya, Bale has finally been given the recognition he deserves with the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. He's always been a great actor, but here he's phenomenal. For probably the third time, Bale loses considerable weight to play a junkie, but that's not what's great about him. Bale puts in an excellent performance to convincingly play Dicky, a washed out boxer who cares a lot for his brother, but has trouble turning over a new leaf for his sake. Bale really disappears into the role, and it's just awesome.

Amy Adams also puts in great effort as Charlene, which is a total about turn from her previous roles. The princess in Enchanted? The nun in Doubt? Gone. What we have here is an expletive slinging bartender who isn't afraid to take on her boyfriend's family head on. Her Oscar nomination is well earned. Melissa Leo is the actress that wins the Best Supporting Actress Oscar over Adams, and I must say she is just as good with her role as Alice, the matriarch of the family. For the better part of the story, Alice seems kinda cruel, but once you get to the end, you'll realise she's just a tad misguided, and she just doesn't know what's best for her son. Special mention goes out to Jack McGee as George Ward, the long suffering patriarch of the family.

Credit must be given to the production design for the very authentic look of 90s Lowell, Massachusetts, a small town with blue collar type society. The cinematography also has its moments of genius, with the fight scenes being filmed with a grainy look matching an old TV set transmission.

Overall I really enjoyed The Fighter. It has chockful of great performances and the script is brilliant. I'm not a boxing fan, yet I liked it very much. Recommended. (4/5)

Saturday, March 19, 2011

I Am Number Four

Year: 2011
Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Alex Pettyfer, Timothy Olyphant, Dianna Agron, Teresa Palmer, Callan McAuliffe, Kevin Durand

On paper, I Am Number Four seemed pretty interesting. So even when the mixed reviews started pouring in, I wanted to know for myself if it was any good.

The film tells the story of nine children from the planet Lorien, who are sent to earth after their race had been decimated by another alien race called Mogadorians. Each child is given a guardian during their time on earth. The Mogadorians come to earth and as we begin, we see them successfully terminate the third of these children. They have to be killed in sequence apparently.

And now, Number Four (Alex Pettyfer) is next. He and his guardian Henri (Timothy Olyphant) have been moving from town to town, keeping a low profile. They arrive in Paradise, Ohio where Number Four assumes the name John Smith and enrols himself at the local high school.

At the school he meets Sarah (Dianna Agron), a young girl who enjoys photography and is a loner just like him. They become close before long and mutually fall in love. However John gets into trouble with the school bully, who not only resents him for dating his ex, but also for hanging out with Sam (Callan McAuliffe), a kid the bully loves picking on.

But all this pales in comparison to the trouble that the Mogadorians bring when they finally track John and Henri down in Paradise.

More than one critic has compared this to the Twilight films, and after seeing this, I can concur. It's obviously catered to young adults, featuring good looking tweens and they all spout corny lines. But thankfully, unlike Twilight, the corny lines aren't so prevalent here. D.J. Caruso directs I Am Number Four, and I ought to be grateful he didn't use Shia LaBeouf for this film because it would have been a severe miscast. To his credit, he manages to make this action fantasy movie quite believable, even when it is rather flawed.

Pettyfer, who's probably known for being in Operation Stormbreaker and not much else, doesn't do too badly as the hero. As Number Four aka John, he's not only required to show tenacity and strength in the fight scenes, but also be able to act in the film's quieter, dramatic moments. He won't win an award, but he's believable enough. Olyphant provides some nice support as Henri, and he gets the lion's share of the funny dialogue. Agron, well known for playing Quinn Fabray on Glee, sadly seems more comfortable in that role than being Sarah here. She has very little chemistry with Pettyfer, which is odd considering that the both of them are dating off screen.

The first half of the film is a bit pedestrian as they spend some time establishing John's character. The fun only really kicks in when Teresa Palmer arrives to save the day in the film's final battle scene as Number Six. Palmer gets to keep her Australian accent intact for her character, who seems more dangerous than John. But her screen time is much too little unfortunately.

I Am Number Four unfortunately suffers from a few things that I feel could have been avoided. Like, for instance, the stereotypical school kids you see in stories like this. Then there's the aforementioned corny dialogue. A few scenes didn't make sense when they played out too. But the one that disappointed me the most was the way the Mogadorians are depicted on screen. Did Pittacus Lore, the writer of the book that this film is based on, describe them like that? Bald men with tattoos on their scalps, wearing trenchcoats, having gills on their faces and fish like eyes? Really? Come on. And their commander, played by Kevin Durand, speaks like he has an I.Q. of a low rate cartoon villain. I find the Mogadorians too laughable to take seriously.

In the end, I Am Number Four fell short of being memorable. It's by no means a bad film, but there's a good chance you can find something better to watch than this. (3/5)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

True Grit

Year: 2010
Directors: Ethan Coen & Joel Coen
Cast: Jeff Bridges, Matt Damon, Hailee Steinfeld, Josh Brolin, Barry Pepper

Finally, I have found a Coen brothers film that I can actually understand.

It's not that I hated No Country For Old Men, but for me, it had one of the weakest endings ever. And then there was Burn After Reading, which I couldn't take anything away from, except Brad Pitt's hilarious performance. I hadn't watched their earlier films, so I really wasn't a fan of theirs. But True Grit seemed good on paper, and it's been a while since I saw a western, so I had to see this.

True Grit begins with 14 year old Mattie Ross (Hailee Steinfeld) getting her recently murdered father's body being delivered back home. Mattie's father was killed by a small time crook called Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and Mattie wants to find him so that justice may be served.

To facilitate this, she hires Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges), a US Marshal who's slightly drunk, old and not to mention cranky, but someone who is tough and resilient enough to get the job done. Hiring Cogburn took a bit of effort, but eventually the old man agrees, even though he dislikes the idea of Mattie coming along for the hunt. They are joined by LaBoeuf (Matt Damon), a Texas ranger who has a bounty on Chaney for a murder in Texas.

Cogburn and LaBoeuf constantly get into arguments because of their pride, and at many instances, it almost seems Mattie will never get the justice she seeks. That is until, she stumbles on Chaney along the way, and the true grit of the two men and Mattie are put to the test.

This film is actually a remake of the 1969 film starring John Wayne, which won Wayne his only acting Oscar. But now as you already know, it didn't do the same for Bridges. However, that's not to say that he didn't do a great job. Bridges has tremendous screen presence, and what's best about playing Rooster Cogburn is the fact that the Coens' script gives plenty of room for Bridges to exercise some comedy chops, which augments his performance as the drunk but determined lawman. Damon successfully supports Bridges as LaBoeuf, who initially seems like someone who doesn't walk the walk, but redeems himself in the end.

But the best thing about True Grit is 14 year old Hailee Steinfeld, who puts in an awesome performance as the spunky Mattie Ross. She gives Mattie the much needed charm and streetwise attitude required to stand up to the two men she follows on the hunt for Chaney. Her Oscar nomination is truly deserved. Brolin is severely underused as Chaney, and is somewhat outshined by Barry Pepper, who is almost unrecognisable as Lucky Ned Pepper, Chaney's gang leader.

I have to give credit to the Coens for finally coming up with a film that is not only NOT boring and overstaying its welcome, but also one that is truly entertaining. The western genre is hard to create a hit film from, because if not done right, it can turn out to be quite dull and uneventful. True Grit garnered 10 Oscar nominations, but unfortunately took home none. I think it ought to have won a few, instead of letting films like Inception and The King's Speech take one or two that they didn't quite deserve. But that's just me.

My verdict is, you should watch True Grit, even if you're not a fan of westerns. (4/5)

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Drive Angry

Year: 2011
Director: Patrick Lussier
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Amber Heard, William Fichtner, Billy Burke, David Morse

Every now and then, along comes a film that is totally insane, violent and filled with cheesy dialogue. Drive Angry is one such film.

Nicolas Cage stars as Milton, a man who escapes from Hell with a purpose: to hunt down Jonah King (Billy Burke). King is a satanic cult leader who had murdered Milton's daughter and kidnapped her baby girl, and plans to sacrifice her in a couple of days. Milton has to find King and save his granddaughter before it's too late.

Along the way, he meets Piper (Amber Heard), a gorgeous waitress and subsequently rescues her from her no good boyfriend. Together they pursue King, but the mission isn't easy at all when King is constantly surrounded by his supporters. To top it all off, a bounty hunter from Hell called The Accountant (William Fichtner) is on earth and very determined to bring Milton back.

Patrick Lussier, who directed the similarly bloody My Bloody Valentine, and also shot it in 3D, directs Drive Angry, except this time he trades horror for action. And unlike the former, the latter has a much better cast. Drive Angry is filled with lots of R rated elements like sex, nudity, coarse language and over the top violence, most of which were censored by the local board here. Sigh. It seems only Americans have all the fun.

Cage, who seems to be in almost every film nowadays, plays Milton as the unforgiving badass he should be, with the same Cage drawl we're all accustomed to. But at least it works, and he is never boring to watch. Heard, whom I'm not a fan of, but looks good in all of her scenes, overacts a bit as Piper, but still manages to bring a lot of energy to her role which could have been forgettable. Billy Burke, whom everyone knows as Bella Swan's father in the Twilight films, successfully plays against type here as the villain King, and he is just awesome to watch. Gone are the squeaky clean police uniform, boring moustache and unenthusiastic tone, now it's long hair, sideburns and a Southern accent. Ha. But the real show stealer is Fichtner as The Accountant, who is reminiscent of the detective role he had in What's The Worst That Could Happen? except not as flamboyant. But he's still a riot to watch, oozing with charisma and an equal dose of deadliness.

The fact is, Drive Angry could have been a very fun film, but I felt that even if it had not been censored so badly, it would still have had continuity problems. Certain characters pop in and out for no reason, others are there for the sake of being there only. Plus some of the lines uttered are downright corny and quite laughable, but I suppose if you can suspend your disbelief long enough, you might like that.

Overall, it's a semi-fun way to spend 2 hours, but don't expect anything meaty. If you like Grindhouse type flicks, this is right up your alley. (3.5/5)

Thursday, March 10, 2011

The King's Speech

Year: 2010
Director: Tom Hooper
Cast: Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush, Helena Bonham Carter, Guy Pearce

As you know by now, The King's Speech was a big winner at the recent Academy Awards, winning Best Picture, Director and Actor for Colin Firth. I had a chance to catch this film last week.

The movie follows how the Duke of York, who is essentially the second son of the royal family, became King of England. Our protagonist happens to suffer from a serious case of stammering, which makes him incapable of partaking in public speaking.

The Duke has met with many speech therapists, but none have been successful in curing him. His wife Elizabeth then finds a man named Lionel Logue, an Australian living in a tiny loft, who has unorthodox methods in curing speech impediments and asks for his help.

Lionel chooses to treat the Duke as an equal rather than as royalty, for example by calling him 'Bertie' and insisting that he follow Lionel's rules in his office. This doesn't sit well with the Duke at first, but as time passes they learn more about each other and Lionel even becomes a confidante of the Duke. When the Duke's older brother, Prince Edward chooses to give away the throne so that he may marry someone that the church disapproves of, the Duke suddenly finds himself the next in line for the crown. Thus begins the Duke's immense preparation to ascend the throne and overcome his condition.

I'm pretty sure that this film is a champion for people who have speech disorders, or anyone who had suffered a disease that they were embarrassed about, for it certainly helps them find a way to overcome it. More importantly, this film isn't just about overcoming adversity, it's also about friendship, and a meaningful one at that. Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush have great chemistry together as the Duke and Lionel respectively, as two men who are at first, patient and specialist who slowly become friends and equals. Their friendship brings about plenty of touching scenes as well as hilarious moments.

Helena Bonham Carter finally gets to play herself after being the screeching Bellatrix in Harry Potter for too long, and lends good support as the Duchess of York, while Guy Pearce plays Prince Edward with just the right amount of nonchalance.

Director Tom Hooper has done a good job in bringing out the best from his cast, though I wouldn't have given him the Best Director Oscar (it should go to David Fincher). And similarly I wouldn't give The King's Speech the Best Picture Oscar. But that certainly doesn't mean this isn't a great film. It is, it does take a bit of time to warm up to, but it is ultimately inspiring to all. Go see it. (3.5/5)


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