Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Iron Lady

Year: 2012
Director: Phyllida Lloyd
Cast: Meryl Streep, Jim Broadbent, Olivia Colman, Alexandra Roach

Plot: The life story of Margaret Thatcher, the former Prime Minister of Great Britain.

Review: From the moment I saw Meryl Streep in her makeup as Margaret Thatcher, I didn't think she resembled her at all. And I still don't. But to her credit, Streep is astoundingly good here.

The Iron Lady works mainly because of Streep's excellent performance as Thatcher, from her speech patterns and mannerisms to owning every scene she's in, and she's in most of them of course. I am not too familiar with the real Thatcher's character, but I can tell that Streep worked hard and did a great job on taking her role beyond just impersonating a popular figure. Streep has the charisma and screen presence to make her rendition of Thatcher truly memorable.

Lending some support is the great Jim Broadbent as Denis, Margaret's husband. Here, he is basically a part of her dementia as he's been long dead during her scenes in the present time. But his appearances, not unlike John Nash's imaginations in A Beautiful Mind, are downright hilarious and entertaining. Credit must also be given to Alexandra Roach as the younger version of Margaret.

However, despite Streep's excellent performance, The Iron Lady doesn't quite measure up as it doesn't give us the full story of the former Prime Minister. Yes, we get to see her personal life as the present day Thatcher, suffering from Alzheimer's, reflects on her upbringing as a grocer's daughter, to her meeting with Denis, to taking part in politics, fighting to make a career in a man's world, up to her resignation. However, it doesn't quite cover in extensive detail how she felt or thought during her tenure as the PM. Her many unpopular decisions, regarding the Falklands War, creating taxes the people didn't like and the riots that followed were just skimmed over. It would have been nice to get some insight as to how she came about those decisions instead of just watching her make up her mind and convincing her cabinet to follow. That being said, if you're someone who isn't familiar with history on Thatcher's rule as PM, you'd be a little lost as far as how her tenure was like back then.

Bottom line is, other than that drawback, Meryl Streep puts in yet another wonderful performance which just might earn her another Oscar. And for that, The Iron Lady is worth a looksee. (3.5/5)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Ghost Rider: Spirit Of Vengeance

Year: 2012
Directors: Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ciaran Hinds, Violante Placido, Idris Elba, Johnny Whitworth, Christopher Lambert

Plot: Johnny Blaze is sought out by a monk named Moreau to help save a boy whom the devil is planning to use to be reborn again.

Review: With such a kick-ass trailer, I had high hopes for this film. But I was let down, and I should have known because the directors are the same two guys that made Gamer. Now, Gamer was a good concept, just poorly executed. I think this Ghost Rider film is just like that too.

Neveldine & Taylor aren't your average film directors for sure. They have their own style, which includes quick cuts, strange camera angles and fast forward/slow-mo style filming techniques. For GR, they added another thing: comicbook visuals, which unfortunately comes together with a hammed up Nicolas Cage narration. It actually worked the first time, but then the duo resorted to the same technique again and again, and by then it just got weird.

The action scenes are between good and average. The initial GR attack on Carrigan and his goons was poorly handled, as GR spent a good time just standing there waiting for them to make their move, and they just look confused. Why didn't they just shoot him over and over? It doesn't make much sense if they did, but it makes more sense than just standing there. The final chase sequence was nice, but not enough to save the film, and a little too late.

Cage hams it up a lot here as Blaze aka Ghost Rider. It was mostly weird to watch him do that, but the one scene where he threatens a thug while desperately keeping the demon inside him from coming out was hilarious, which I think was the right intention from the filmmakers. Violante Placido is the token damsel here, who incidentally is good with a rifle, while Elba puts on a bad French accent as Moreau. Ciaran Hinds actually makes an interesting Devil, but doesn't have a heck of a lot to do. Johnny Whitworth is okay as bad guy Carrigan, who gets an interesting ability in the second half of the film. The legendary Christopher Lambert is wasted in a small role as a monk. Bummer.

I really wanted to like GR: SOV. I really did. With a better polished script, better action sequences and less cheesy lines, it would have been truly something. But as it stands, it's just not much better than the original. (2.5/5)

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Safe House

Year: 2012
Director: Daniel Espinosa
Cast: Denzel Washington, Ryan Reynolds, Vera Farmiga, Brendan Gleeson, Sam Shepard, Nora Arnezeder

Plot: Rogue CIA agent Tobin Frost surrenders himself to the American Embassy in Cape Town and is subsequently transferred to a safe house run by low level agent Matt Weston. When the safe house is attacked, Weston is forced to take Frost on the run, evading their attackers while trying to figure out how the house was compromised. But Frost isn't the kind that wants to play along.

Review: I like films that pulls no punches with its grittiness and violence, and Safe House is that kind of film. Director Daniel Espinosa keeps Safe House running at a smooth pace, not allowing the film to dwell too much on time wasting scenes. The grainy shades of the film also helps in reflecting the sunnier and sometimes darker scenes in the film, giving it an extra edge.

Denzel hasn't given a bad performance in my memory, and here he is just as good as the mysterious Tobin Frost. Whether he's a good guy or a bad guy, we'll only know at the end, but Denzel makes it work thanks to his great screen presence. However the film is mostly taken from Ryan Reynolds' point of view. As Weston, Reynolds plays the rookie agent who finally gets the opportunity he's been waiting for to shine, though he never expected it to be this hard. It's nice to see him playing it dead serious here, because Reynolds tends to take characters with one liner comedy chops. Depending on the next roles he takes, Reynolds is gonna be a big star someday, if he isn't yet.

The other supporting stars do their jobs well, but it's Denzel and Ryan that we focus on most of the time, as we watch them fight, shoot and take part in car chases throughout the film. Ryan in particular gets a brutal fist fight with another agent in the film's climax, which was very convincing and painful to behold.

The film is not without its flaws though. The last act becomes quite predictable for the most part. The proverbial snake in the grass is easy to guess, and the final few scenes are rather familiar, I've seen them being used in other films. But on the whole, Safe House is a lot of fun to watch, thanks to its two leads and the unflinching violence on display.

Note: Loved the Kanye-Jay Z rap song during the film's credits. It's called No Church In The Wild. (4/5)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

War Horse

Year: 2011
Director: Steven Spielberg
Cast: Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson, Peter Mullan, David Thewlis, Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, David Kross, Celine Buckens, Niels Arestrup, Toby Kebbell

Plot: A story centering on a horse named Joey, and his relationship with his owner, a young lad called Albert. Joey's adventure takes him through World War I as he is passed on to different owners, including a British captain, a young German soldier and a little French girl.

Review: It's been a while since I've seen a Spielberg film. I skipped The Adventures Of Tintin because I wasn't a fan of the material. But I am glad that I caught War Horse, as it is a return to form for Spielberg after the atrocious Indiana Jones 4.

War Horse reminds me of the animated film Spirit: Stallion Of The Cimarron, where the protagonist is a horse. But unlike that film, where Matt Damon narrates the horse's thoughts, Joey the horse here leads us through the handful of people he comes across from the time of his birth until his eventual return home, without a human voice.

The other protagonist is Albert Narracott, who watched Joey being born and eventually becomes his owner, thanks to his drunk father purchasing him out of spite for their landlord. Albert trains Joey to become useful on their farm, but the arrival of World War I forces Albert's father to sell Joey to a British captain, who leads Joey into war. And from there, death after death leads Joey from place to place, always in the middle of danger, but he remains defiant and stays alive till he can find his way home.

Spielberg directs a beautiful film which is based on a book and subsequent stage play, and it's just riveting and a sight to behold. Not only is Spielberg successful in milking the right emotions from the audience throughout the film, he also has favourite cameraman Janusz Kaminski give us some of the best cinematography I've ever seen. This is most apparent during the war scenes and the wide shots of the hills and farms, and the final sunset at the film's end is just gorgeous.

Spielberg is also blessed to have Jeremy Irvine, a brand new actor playing Albert. Irvine may be new, but he's very talented and truly convincing in the lead role. Emily Watson and Peter Mullan lend some nice support as Albert's parents. Notable also are Tom Hiddleston (Thor), David Kross (The Reader), Niels Arestrup and Celine Buckens as the British captain, the young German soldier, the old man and his granddaughter Emilie respectively, who take care of Joey throughout his journey.

Keep in mind that although War Horse is set during World War I, we won't get any Saving Private Ryan type battle scenes here, except one part where the British march across a field of barbed wire while the Germans fire on them. The most memorable scene is when a British soldier and a German soldier work together to save Joey, which provides some good humour and feelgood emotions for the audience. Not to be forgotten of course is Albert's poignant relationship with his horse, which is the glue that holds the film together.

War Horse is a fitting nominee for the Oscar's Best Picture award, for it is a truly beautiful film in every sense of the word. Recommended. (4/5)

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Man On A Ledge

Year: 2012
Director: Asger Leth
Cast: Sam Worthington, Elizabeth Banks, Jamie Bell, Genesis Rodriguez, Edward Burns, Anthony Mackie, Titus Welliver, Ed Harris, Kyra Sedgwick, William Sadler

Plot: An escaped convict steps out onto a ledge of a hotel 21 floors up. The act is merely a distraction so that a robbery can take place at an adjacent building, and not all is what it seems.

Review: The cast for this film is rather impressive. We have the dependable Sam Worthington, the talented Jamie Bell, the great Ed Harris and a handful of great supporting actors that you've seen somewhere before. However the end result is a tad below par.

Worthington plays Nick Cassidy, a cop who went to prison after being framed for a diamond heist. After he escapes from prison, he steps out of the window of a hotel 21 floors up, asking for a specific detective, Lydia Mercer, to see him. When she arrives, she quickly learns that he isn't up there to take his own life, and she has to trust him if she wants to know what's going on. Meanwhile, Nick's brother executes a robbery at a nearby building, which is all part of the plan. Then the proverbial shit hits the fan, and you know the rest. Or do you?

Director Asger Leth takes the reins of the kind of film that's meant to keep you guessing. However the execution isn't as smooth as it ought to be. We learn the details of the plot fairly quick, and basically Mercer is made to look rather weak as she tries to figure out what's going on. This situation is similar to The Negotiator, except that in that film, Kevin Spacey was on top of his game even when he didn't have all the facts. Here, Mercer pulls off a few smart moves as she progresses, but even then it's Cassidy that puts everything together in the end, and her role in this gets less and less crucial. The movie's climax also requires some suspension of disbelief, despite the fact that it's fast paced and thrilling. When it was over, the absence of logic was rather glaring.

Worthington is all right as Cassidy, but Elizabeth Banks is inconsistent as Mercer. I noticed that whenever she tries to look serious, her acting isn't convincing. Jamie Bell and Genesis Rodriguez play Cassidy's brother and girlfriend, and they make a funny couple, providing some much needed humour as they execute the robbery. Edward Burns is also funny as Mercer's colleague, while Ed Harris plays the antagonist role well (I hated his hairdo though). Not to be left out are Kyra Sedgwick and William Sadler in minor roles, I do wish they had more screentime.

To be fair, the film is entertaining for the most part, and provides a good share of thrills and smart humour when required. However it needs some tighter direction especially at the end when things get a bit messy, and a bit more work on Banks' character would help too. In short: good but not great. (3/5)

Tuesday, February 07, 2012

The Grey

Year: 2012
Director: Joe Carnahan
Cast: Liam Neeson, Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts, Dermot Mulroney, Nonso Anozie, Joe Anderson

Plot: A group of men are trapped in the Alaskan wilderness after a plane crash, and are forced to survive the extreme weather and a pack of vicious wolves.

Review: I live in a country where censorship is a must, for whatever it is that the powers that be deem too sensitive for viewing. In the case of The Grey, they edited out 23 minutes of footage, and from what I hear, the reasons are not the usual "too violent, too much profanity" type. If I'm right, these cuts have taken away a great deal of emotional impact the film would have had on me and the rest of us Malaysian viewers. I have no idea why it happened, but yeah, that sucks. (I caught a scene on Youtube that I did not get to see in my initial screening, and I still had no idea why it didn't pass the censors)

But anyway, I can tell you that The Grey is a well made survival thriller in the same vein as The Edge, except instead of a bear, we have wolves, and the plot here is far more straightforward. And yet, The Grey shines thanks to the realism that Carnahan brings to the table, from the harsh Alaskan winter to the gore and carnage the wolves cause when they attack.

Liam Neeson is brilliant as Ottway, the sniper assigned to protect these men as they carry out their duty drilling oil in Alaska, but has to improvise after the crash as he has no weapon. His survival skills and leadership sense come into play as he does his best keeping the survivors alive. Ottway isn't just a sniper, he's a man with a sad past, and it plays a part when the climax approaches. Neeson is well supported by Frank Grillo, Dallas Roberts and the unrecognisable Dermot Mulroney, among others as the rest of the survivors.

The wolves themselves are certainly scary, a far cry from the ones we saw in Frozen. You could say that the ones in The Grey are like devils in the snow, and they show no mercy once they attack. Thankfully, the censors spared most of the violence and profanity here, but the reason behind the huge cut (I'm told it was the men's backstory and personal lives) still baffles me.

And then there's the ending, which may work for some people and not for others. Personally I wished there was more to it than what Carnahan gave us, but I'm guessing he chose emotional impact over a visual one.

Overall, The Grey is a solid man vs nature thriller. If you can help it, pick up the DVD when it comes out, I know I will. Watch this outside of Malaysia if possible. (3.5/5)

P.S.: Wait till the credits finish rolling, and look closely.

Monday, February 06, 2012


Year: 2012
Director: Josh Trank
Cast: Dane DeHaan, Alex Russell, Michael B. Jordan, Ashley Hinshaw

Plot: Three high school boys obtain telekinetic abilities after venturing into a mysterious hole. Their exploits are viewed from the camera lens of Andrew, one of the boys whose problems at home and school causes him to lose control and inflict severe damage.

Review: Chronicle is a combination of two genres: superheroes and found footage. Even so, it is unlike any superhero or found footage film I've ever seen. Firstly, most superheroes take responsibility for their abilities. Secondly, found footage films have dates and statements and such. Chronicle does not have these, and it works to their advantage.

The film is made up of camera footage taken by Andrew, a boy who has a sick mother and an abusive father, and is constantly picked on by bullies at school. The other two boys are Matt and Steve, the former being Andrew's wiser cousin, and the latter being the most popular kid at school, who is running for student president. We see how the three kids climb into a dark hole in the woods, find something strange inside and are subsequently given telekinetic powers. They then begin testing their newfound gifts, first for fun, then for pranks. Then as things in Andrew's life take a turn for the worst, he starts using his powers abusively, and the proverbial shit hits the fan.

Director Josh Trank and writer Max Landis do a great job in coming up with a story that is realistic and fascinating in its execution. The two actually pulled this off with a minimal budget, so it is impressive to see the visual effects at work, as the kids move things from baseballs to cars, and eventually fly too.

Trank not only uses Andrew's camera to document the happenings, he also uses cameras from a supporting character, Casey (Matt's girlfriend) as well as security cameras in public places, which is an ingenious move as it better explains how we get to see all this footage rather than rely on just one camera as in other films of its kin.

The three boys are played by relatively unknown actors, and Dane DeHaan is excellent as the troubled Andrew. By the time he switches to Carrie mode at the film's climax, he is truly scary. Alex Russell and Michael B. Jordan are also good as Matt and Steve respectively, though to be honest, all three characters are typical kids you've seen in other films.

The last 20 minutes of the film is the best part, when Matt attempts to stop Andrew from hurting others, and the audience is put right in the middle of something that feels like a disaster flick, and it's just awesome. Perhaps my only gripe is that the film plays out just the way you'd expect it to. But overall Chronicle is a fun ride and a solid addition to found footage films. (3.5/5)

Sunday, February 05, 2012


Year: 2012
Director: Steven Soderbergh
Cast: Gina Carano, Ewan McGregor, Channing Tatum, Michael Fassbender, Bill Paxton, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas, Michael Angarano

Plot: A black ops agent seeks revenge on the people who double crossed her.

Review: Steven Soderbergh is probably the last person you'd expect to helm an action film. That being said, Haywire isn't a typical slam bang action fest, rather it is more of a quieter, less flashy version of a Jason Bourne film.

That being the case, you won't see huge stunts or explosions here. What you will get however are realistic, bone crunching fights courtesy of real life MMA fighter Gina Carano, who makes her acting debut here. Carano is a natural at physical combat, so her altercations with her much more illustrious male co-stars are the main dish here, so to speak.

Carano, whose voice has been altered for this film (no idea why), is decent enough as our heroine. Granted, her first acting gig isn't phenomenal, after all she's a better fighter, but she fills the role well enough. The rest of the male cast are believable enough in their roles, especially Bill Paxton as her father and Michael Fassbender as an agent she tussles with. Carano's fight with Fassbender in a hotel room is probably the best action sequence in the film. Ewan McGregor isn't convincing enough as her evil boss though, maybe I'm too used to seeing him as a nice guy.

The thing is, I felt like this film relied mostly on Carano's ability as an action heroine. While I have no doubt that she will be a good one as time goes by, Haywire is just too lightweight for my taste. Soderbergh doesn't have much to offer here other than Carano beating people up and lots of conversations that are pedestrian in their execution. Even the quietest of action thrillers ought to have some suspense, but there is barely any here. When he's not getting Carano to beat someone up, Soderbergh lets things play out in a dull manner. The best example of this is the ending. Pretty anti-climactic.

However, I'll give Soderbergh some credit for trying, he just needs to try harder. (3/5)


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