Thursday, January 26, 2012

Underworld: Awakening

Year: 2012
Directors: Mans Marlind & Bjorn Stein
Cast: Kate Beckinsale, Stephen Rea, India Eisley, Michael Ealy, Theo James, Charles Dance

Plot: Humans discover the existence of vampires and lycans, and proceed to purge them from the planet. Selene is captured and cryogenically frozen. When she awakens 12 years later, she discovers that she has a daughter, who is being experimented on by a corporation. Selene must now protect her at all costs.

Review: I got two words for this film: Hell Yeah!

Kate Beckinsale is finally back doing what she does best in the Underworld films: kick ass and take names. And from the looks of it, she hasn't lost her touch one bit.

Initially everything about this film sounded like a disaster. Len Wiseman stepping down as director, most of the cast not returning for this round, the uninspiring trailer etc. But I'm happy to report that this fourth instalment of the franchise is exciting and just awesome to behold.

Wiseman chooses to become screenwriter and producer this time around and lets Swedish directors Mans Marlind and Bjorn Stein to take over, and they do one hell of a job here. As usual, the film is mostly in a blue shade, but the duo add a few more things, like excellent cinematography from the long shots to the fight scenes that are not too close so we can see who's moving where. They also borrow the first person camera view used in REC at the start of the film, and utilise it very well here.

But the film wouldn't be astounding as it is if it didn't retain the thing that made the franchise so successful, and I'm not just talking about Beckinsale. I'm referring to the violence. We get beheadings, impalings, throat rippings, point blank gunshots to the head, explosions, you name it. It's brutal, unflinching, in-your-face action, and I loved every bit of it.

As for Beckinsale, well she just owns the film. She's hot and deadly, and arguably one of the best vampire characters ever created. Without her, Awakening wouldn't be awesome. Stephen Rea gets a nice turn as the scientist with a secret, and India Eisley plays Selene's hybrid daughter Eve perfectly, who is vulnerable in human form, but most dangerous when she transforms into something else.

Sure, this film would be regarded by most as equivalent to junk food, but heck, I had a ball of a time with it. At 88 minutes, it doesn't overstay its welcome. Perhaps the only complaint I have is the absence of Scott Speedman as Michael, who is played by a double and shown vaguely here. But as long as Beckinsale is around, with her husband Len Wiseman coming up with ideas, the franchise can survive. From the looks of it, we'll definitely have part 5. I can't wait. (4/5)

Sunday, January 22, 2012


Year: 2012
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Kate Beckinsale, Ben Foster, Giovanni Ribisi, Caleb Landry Jones, J.K. Simmons

Plot: An ex-smuggler is forced to do one more job smuggling counterfeit bills to help his brother in-law pay off a gangster.

Review: Contraband is actually a remake of the Icelandic film Reykjavik-Rotterdam, and directed by Reykjavik's lead actor Baltasar Kormakur. I had never seen the original, but I can say that on the surface, Contraband is kinda like Gone In 60 Seconds, except that instead of seeing Nicolas Cage stealing cars to save his brother, we have Mark Wahlberg smuggling counterfeit money to save his brother in-law. In comparison, Contraband is a bit more dramatic and grittier in its execution, unlike the flashier Cage vehicle.

I have to hand it to Kormakur for doing a great job on nearly every aspect of Contraband. The film takes place in New Orleans, which is from what I can tell, a city full of blue collar workers trying to make a living. Kormakur is wise to focus his camera on the things that make the film stand out, like the shipyard, rundown neighborhoods, construction sites and nightlife at the bars, to capture the grittiness of the city. For music, he uses blues and jazz, which fits the city in question. He also paces the film well, it rarely drags as the story moves along, except for the final stretch, where I felt he took a bit too long to resolve things.

For the cast, we have Mark Wahlberg, who is a shoo-in for portraying blue collar type characters. His Chris Farraday is like combining The Italian Job's Charlie Croker and The Departed's Dignam: smart, capable and tough, and not afraid to cuss. He shares good rapport with Kate Beckinsale, who plays his wife Kate. Beckinsale plays the damsel in distress for the most part here, so no Underworld theatrics unfortunately. Ben Foster is Wahlberg's best friend Sebastian, and unlike his previous roles, he plays it more subtly this time around. Giovanni Ribisi plays the gangster Tim Briggs, and I liked his performance here. It's not a role he usually gets to play, so it was fun seeing him being the antagonist in this film.

Contraband does suffer from predictability however. There is a plot twist halfway through the film, which I saw coming long before it was revealed. The fate of one of the characters at the end was also predictable, but I suppose I can overlook that. These things, and the aforementioned draggy bit at the climax is all I have to complain about.

On the whole, Contraband is entertaining for the most part. It's not sublime or perfect, but it's worth at least one watch. (3.5/5)

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Darkest Hour

Year: 2011
Director: Chris Gorak
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Olivia Thirlby, Max Minghella, Rachael Taylor

Plot: A group of Americans in Moscow are caught in the middle of an alien invasion.

Review: The most obvious thing that separates The Darkest Hour from other alien invasion stories is the location. We're not in New York, Washington or any place in the U.S. where these things usually happen. This time it's Moscow, which is a refreshing change.

Unfortunately, the film is terribly mediocre. Alien invasion films ought to be either action packed or suspenseful, or both if possible. The Darkest Hour is neither.

The film starts off fairly quickly with the invasion happening within the first 15 minutes. The initial attack was pretty good actually, seeing people getting vaporised into dust was cool. But then director Chris Gorak makes the mistake of not spending time on his characters, choosing instead to move them along from one alien encounter to the next. He shifts from one scene to another using a fade to black style, which makes it feel like you're watching a made for TV movie, and that's bad.

And because Gorak doesn't give his characters a chance to develop, we don't feel anything when they get killed. The cast try hard to make the film work, but they're let down half the time by the script's corny lines. Hirsch and Thirlby have some chemistry together, but they're not memorable here. The Russians on the other hand are far more interesting, like the weird science guy played by Dato Bakhtadze (he's The Butcher from Wanted, note: director Timur Bekmambetov is the producer here), the Russian teenage girl Vika (Veronika Ozerova) and the futuristic punk army dressed up in metal and foil with car doors as shields and AK47s as weapons. They add a fascinating dimension to the proceedings, but they can only do so much.

The visual effects are fairly good, especially when the aliens, who are invisible, vaporise any human that touches them. The effects take a dive however when the aliens become visible, then they start to look like characters from a cheap video game.

On the whole, The Darkest Hour feels like a half attempt at making an alien invasion movie. It feels uninspired and unexciting. It's by no means bad, it's just not good enough. (2.5/5)

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Beaver

Year: 2011
Director: Jodie Foster
Cast: Mel Gibson, Jodie Foster, Anton Yelchin, Jennifer Lawrence

Plot: A man suffering from depression uses a puppet beaver to communicate with people.

Review: On the surface, the premise of The Beaver might be a hard sell. One would wonder, just how long can a story about someone talking through his hand be interesting?

Thankfully, Jodie Foster, who directs and acts, manages to keep the film going without a dull moment in sight. It's funny when it needs to be and sad when it calls for it. The idea of depression isn't an easy one to handle, but due to Foster's direction and Mel Gibson's solid performance, this film works well if you let it.

Gibson is Walter Black, the boss of a toy company who has somewhat died inside and is lost on how to handle it. This puts him at odds with his wife and two sons, particularly the older one, Porter (Yelchin) who is trying his best not to be like him. Everything changes when Walter finds the beaver and talks through him with a Ray Winstone like voice complete with an accent. It works at first, as he was rarely able to speak to anyone with enthusiasm before this. But just how long does this last?

Gibson does a good job being the guy who practically needs a puppet to relate to people. It's kinda like having two personalities, except Walter is in beaver mode the majority of the time. Gibson for one portrays a depressed man very convincingly. Foster, who is good friends with Gibson in real life, has no problems playing his spouse, who wants Walter to go back to normal again. Yelchin is also solid as the rebellious son who refuses to acknowledge the beaver. There is a subplot concerning Yelchin and Jennifer Lawrence's character Norah, about him being hired by Norah to write her graduation speech, which leads to personal revelations for each other. This actually takes up a lot of the film, but in a way, it's meant to elaborate Porter's motivations towards the end.

However, Foster does not quite explain how Walter came to be depressed in the first place, or how Walter suddenly became inspired to put on the puppet and talk to it. I mean, to find it is one thing, but why put it on?

It's a solid drama overall, though I wish Foster spent a bit more time on the backstory. (3.5/5)

Monday, January 02, 2012

Sherlock Holmes: A Game Of Shadows

Year: 2011
Director: Guy Ritchie
Cast: Robert Downey Jr, Jude Law, Noomi Rapace, Jared Harris, Stephen Fry, Rachel McAdams

Plot: Sherlock Holmes and his trusty best friend Dr Watson team up to stop Professor Moriarty from starting a war in Europe.

Review: Guy Ritchie successfully updated Sherlock Holmes for the new generation two years back. What he lacked in a good plot, he made up for in great action sequences and a believable bromance between Downey Jr and Law.

For this sequel, it's pretty much the same thing. Holmes' great adversary, Professor Moriarty plans to start a war in Europe for his own benefit, so the great detective and his partner, the long suffering but loyal Watson have to do all they can to stop him.

Ritchie knows what worked in the last film and uses it again here: the pre-fight calculation of moves before Holmes beats his opponents, the quick flashback sequences to explain current sequences, slow mo action sequences etc. All here and accounted for. It may seem like repetition, but these are the things that actually make the film entertaining.

Of course, we also have the great chemistry between Downey Jr and Law, who are still as fun as ever to watch. Downey is still incorrigible and Law is still reluctantly supportive of his best friend's manic behavior, even as it threatens their personal lives. Noomi Rapace plays the gypsy Simza, who is pertinent to the central plot, but overall does not get to do much. Rapace is mostly overshadowed by her two leading men, which is a pity. Jared Harris looks devious enough as the villain Moriarty, but isn't quite intimidating enough to be a real threat. Stephen Fry adds some much needed colour as Holmes' eccentric brother Mycroft and provides a measure of humour whenever he appears. Thank goodness Rachel McAdams gets limited screentime here, as I didn't think she ever added any value to the first film to begin with.

As fun as this sequel is, like I said before, it lacks a strong plot, and the execution of it is poor. In the midst of all the action unfolding, don't be surprised if you suddenly forget why the characters are doing what they're doing. I felt that Ritchie is stringing all the action together just to move from one set piece to the next, without any clear reason as to how it relates to the plot.

It's an entertaining 2 hours and 9 minutes, but I'm not sure if I'm interested enough to go back and see this again. (3.5/5)


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