Sunday, January 27, 2013


Year: 2013
Director: Andres Muschietti
Cast: Jessica Chastain, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Megan Charpentier, Isabelle Nelisse

Plot: Five years after being left abandoned in the woods following their father's death, sisters Victoria and Lilly are finally found and handed over to their uncle Lucas and his girlfriend Annabel. However, an entity that has looked after the children for those missing five years doesn't take too kindly to being replaced.

Review: This is yet another film that uses Guillermo del Toro's name as a marketing tool. While it's always good to have the creator of Pan's Labyrinth's name to back up one's film, it's even better if the film is close to being as good as that masterpiece. Mama is a nice attempt at the horror genre, but is much too inferior in comparison to Pan.

I'll start with what I like about it first. I liked the lead actors involved. Jessica Chastain, one of the best actresses in Hollywood at the moment, is solid as Annabel, the rock star girlfriend of Nikolaj Coster-Waldau's character, who clearly isn't ready to play mum to the two little girls, but tries her best anyway for her boyfriend's sake. Coster-Waldau himself is pretty good as Lucas, though he doesn't get as much screentime as Chastain, which is a pity. Credit also goes out to Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse as Victoria and Lilly respectively. They convincingly portray two children who have lived in the wild for so long that they have become feral in nature (i.e. more animalistic than human), not to mention they can act really creepy when the moment calls for it. Children in horror flicks always deliver the scares well, and these two are among the best I've seen so far.

Director Andres Muschietti also deserves some credit for successfully generating some solid scares. There are a lot of them (some don't really work, I'll get to them in a bit), the ones that work are pretty neat actually. There are a couple of nightmare sequences that really stand out. One of these was done in a blurry, black-and-white manner which is really accurate in depicting how we view our dreams when it comes. I loved that.

Now for the bad. While it's good to have scary moments in a horror film (isn't that what it's supposed to do?), it needs to make sense as well. Most of these moments are done in a jump scare, cheap shock manner which gets tiresome after a while. Instead of building tension, Muschietti throws one shock after another and misses half the time. This kinda stagnates the story flow instead of supporting it, and I felt like it was there just to give us another jolt instead of being relevant to what they're really going for. Then there's the lackluster CGI that makes the Mama entity look rather lame. Then there are the subplots featuring an aunt fighting for custody of the kids and a psychologist investigating the entity's origins which are quite poorly developed and predictable. And why do some of these characters do their fact finding after dark? Sigh.

But thanks to some really good performances, Mama just manages to rise above the level of "run-of-the-mill" horror films. It's a pity it doesn't get any higher than that, despite its unconventional finish. (3/5) 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

The Last Stand

Year: 2013
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Cast: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Forest Whitaker, Johnny Knoxville, Rodrigo Santoro, Peter Stormare, Eduardo Noriega, Jaimie Alexander, Luis Guzman

Plot: With the help of a group of heavily armed mercenaries and a souped up sports car that can go 197 mph, a drug lord escapes custody and heads for the Mexican border. The FBI are unable to stop him, so they call upon the sheriff of Sommerton Junction, the last stop before the border, to block his path. The sheriff is understaffed and weaker in firepower, but he's played by Arnold Schwarzenegger, so how can he lose?

Review: Yeah, Arnie is back. Sure, he's done a couple of Expendables flicks, but this would be his first lead role in a long while. While he may not be the Terminator anymore, his undeniable screen presence is still there.

The Last Stand is what I would call an old school action film, where plot takes a backseat somewhat, and violence and humour go hand in hand. In the age of Bourne and Bond, having one of these types of actioners is a refreshing change. No plot twists, no complex histrionics. We have a good guy, a whole army of bad guys, and they go to war. The simplicity of it is perfect.

Arnie also acknowledges the fact that he's old (heck he even says it in one scene) and not the invincible tough guy he usually is when he was younger. He can still kick ass and take names of course, and seeing him play down his larger than life badassness is a nice bonus.

Director Kim Jee-Woon paces the film well, without a dull moment in sight. And I don't know how he did it, but he got a whole bunch of great actors to fill this film behind Arnie and they all deliver. The action sequences are pretty good too. Like I said above, it's old school, which means no ridiculous stunts or bombastic explosions, just straightforward violence and blood.

Arnie is still Arnie, heroic but old, and still good with the one liners like "I'm the sheriff". No one does it like him. Forest Whitaker provides some solid support as FBI head Bannister, though a lot of other guys could have done it just as well. Jaimie Alexander, Luis Guzman and Rodrigo Santoro make a good team as Arnie's deputies, while Johnny Knoxville recycles his usual crazy schtick as Lewis Dinkum, owner of a gun museum who provides artillery and comic relief. Eduardo Noriega and Peter Stormare play the baddies, and surprisingly it's the former who scores in his role, while the latter, who has spent nearly his whole career playing villains, puts on a lousy southern accent and just comes off as annoying.

Now, I did say it's an old fashioned action film, which means there are plenty of cliches to be had here, like certain good people whom you know will bite the dust later based on their character, and many plot elements are very predictable. But that's okay, because having fun during films like this doesn't require surprises anyway.

On the whole I had a lot of fun with The Last Stand. Schwarzenegger still has some fight left in him, and I want to see what he's got next for us. (3.5/5)

Sunday, January 13, 2013

End Of Watch

Year: 2012
Director: David Ayer
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Pena, Anna Kendrick, Natalie Martinez, Frank Grillo, America Ferrera

Plot: The film centers on two cops and their daily challenges keeping the peace in the tough neighborhood in south Los Angeles.

Review: After making two cop films about bad policemen, David Ayer finally decided to make one about good cops instead.

It's to his credit that he finds a way to minimise the cliches that come with making a cop movie, and that way is using the found footage gimmick, though to be fair, not all of it is filmed like that, just mostly. This method allows Ayer to ground his story and give it a solid sense of realism which really helps in making this film as good as it is.

End Of Watch stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as officers Brian Taylor and Mike Zavala respectively, best friends and partners who do their daily duty of policing the area of south L.A.. Throughout the film, Brian records their activities as part of his personal film project, through cameras installed in their car and on their uniforms too. We watch them deal with the many challenges in executing their duties, from solving domestic disturbances to saving kids from a fire, and arresting perps of course. In between, we also get to see their personal lives being told, family stuff, stuff about the job and some pretty funny anecdotes too.

For all of this to work, Gyllenhaal and Pena had to train together for months so that their relationship would be convincing, and thankfully it paid off. Thanks to them, Brian and Mike are presented convincingly as brothers in arms, who would watch each other's backs at all times, who would go through hell and back together. It is this relationship that holds the film together so well.

The plot pits the two against a drug dealing gang who want to get even after their stash of drugs gets confiscated, which all comes to a head in the film's climax. I must say, it was well done as far as this is concerned.

As for other cast members, Anna Kendrick plays Brian's other half, and I don't know if it's right to say that she's miscast, because she still looks like she just got out of high school and thus too young to marry him. Natalie Martinez fares slightly better as Mike's wife, and Frank Grillo gets one dramatic moment as the duo's sergeant, when he relates an old story to a couple of rookies.

On the flipside, the film does drag at times, and the profanity level here is ridiculously high. It kinda makes The Departed seem meek in comparison.

Overall, End Of Watch is a great cop film, which would look real familiar to you if you've seen many of those documentaries on the Crime Investigation network. Not that it's a bad thing, on the contrary actually. (3.5/5)

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Life Of Pi

Year: 2012
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Suraj Sharma, Irrfan Khan, Rafe Spall

Plot: After a massive shipwreck, a young boy embarks on an adventure to return to civilisation with only a Bengal tiger for company.

Review: Based on the book by Yann Martel, Life Of Pi isn't just a physical journey, but a spiritual one as well. The story is told by an adult Pi to a writer, about how he was shipwrecked in the Pacific, and subsequently forced to survive on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger on board.

The spiritual part of this story relates to Pi's upbringing, as he takes plenty of interest in different religions instead of embracing just one. After the shipwreck, he will encounter something that is spiritual in nature, which gives him the hope to carry on.

Director Ang Lee does a good job in establishing the character of Pi, making him likable yet hard to understand at times. Lee's biggest challenge is setting up and presenting Pi's adventure on the open sea, facing multiple challenges of survival, like hunger, loss of hope and keeping the tiger from attacking him. To that end, Lee succeeds immensely.

But the film, as mentioned, isn't just about survival. Pi's relationship with his family, a girl he left behind, and with the tiger (called Richard Parker) are also explored. This isn't just during the flashbacks, but even as the older Pi relates his story to the writer, you can see how he truly feels about everything he says, which strikes a nerve with the audience. For that, we should thank Irrfan Khan for a solid performance.

But as good as he is, it is Suraj Sharma who deserves more credit as the younger Pi. His performance is not unlike Tom Hanks in Cast Away, as he has to act against nothing (the tiger is CGI, and very good CGI at that, because it looked so real). Suraj is excellent in portraying every emotion Pi endures throughout his ordeal. He's gonna be big someday.

However, as good as this film is, it does suffer from a few things. Lee, like he has done in many of his previous films, tends to overdo certain elements, up to the point that the film drags in specific areas. The opening credit sequence is a fine example of this. Then there's Pi's time in India before he had to move away, which can be shortened somewhat. In fact, the first 20 minutes or so almost felt like a religious heavy movie, which thankfully got back on track.

Nevertheless, Life Of Pi is a solid film overall. Even if you're not a religious person, there's something you can take away from it, which is to never give up. It's an inspiring piece, and everyone should see it. (3.5/5)

Tuesday, January 01, 2013

Wreck-It Ralph

Year: 2012
Director: Rich Moore
Voice cast: John C. Reilly, Sarah Silverman, Jane Lynch, Jack McBrayer

Plot: Ralph has been the bad guy in the game Fix It Felix Jr for 30 years, but he feels under-appreciated by his fellow game characters. So he ventures out to another video game to get a medal which he believes will make him a hero, and in the process endangers the lives of the other video games and their characters in the arcade.

Review: If you're like me, a person who spent his childhood visiting the arcade and put in tons of coins in the machines for some video game excitement, then you're bound to have loads of fun watching Wreck-It Ralph.

I had a ball of a time seeing the filmmakers pay tribute to some video games that have stood the test of time till now, like Street Fighter, Sonic The Hedgehog, Pac Man and even Tapper (remember the bartender guy who had to serve beer down the counter over and over?). Even the Fix It Felix Jr video game is based on Donkey Kong, where Felix has to repair whatever damage Ralph causes to an apartment building.

So as the story goes, Ralph is a video game villain who is tired of being the outcast in his own game, simply because he's the bad guy. The last straw comes when Felix and the other characters throw an anniversary party without inviting him, so he sets out to find a gold medal, which he believes will turn him into a hero. Naturally, things go wrong and he ends up in Sugar Rush, a go-karting game where he meets Vanellope, a character who isn't allowed to become a playable avatar in her own game because she's considered a 'glitch', i.e. isn't supposed to exist. Ralph and Vanellope become unlikely friends, and it's their friendship that becomes the centre of the story.

But then you might wonder, how do the video games connect to each other? Well, there is a place called Grand Central Station, where video game characters can meet each other after the arcade closes (on the outside, this place is the portable plug sockets arcade owners use to power the games). There are rules though, like certain times where the characters have to return to their games when the arcade opens, and they cannot die in any other game besides their own, or they die for real. Characters have to be in their games as long as they're operational, or the game won't work and the arcade owner unplugs the game, thereby leaving the characters without a home. So guess what happens when Ralph walks out of his own game?

Director and writer Rich Moore does a tremendous job in creating this video game world so convincingly and makes every character stand out. He pays a lot of attention to detail, the best example being the Fix It Felix Jr game, which is an old fashioned 8 bit game. Even in this game itself, when the characters mingle, and are animated in the usual three dimensional style, they move like 8 bit characters, with the glitchy stop and go motions. It's amazing really. Then there's the Hero's Duty game, where a first person shooter game is presented really well for the audience. Inside the game, the player is essentially a computer screen with arms, legs and a gun, controlled by the kid on the outside. I can go on, but I think you get the picture.

Anyway, the story itself is as heartwarming as Disney can get. Ralph and Vanellope are basically outcasts who are struggling to find their place in their respective games, and attempt to help each other achieve that. I can totally relate to Ralph, a misunderstood guy who just wants to be the hero for once. Vanellope may seem annoying at first but she slowly grows on you as the story progresses. Calhoun, the tough as nails chick from Hero's Duty (voiced by Jane Lynch no less) is pretty amazing too. And it's a hoot seeing Ralph attend a Bad Guys Group meeting with Street Fighter's Zangief & M.Bison, Pac Man's Clyde and a whole bunch of others.

The only thing I didn't like was the subplot featuring a romance between Felix and Calhoun, which I thought was just weird. Other than that, I can't think of anything else I disagreed with.

All I can say is, if you've played even one video game when you grew up, you can't go wrong with this film. Heck, if you love great stories about friendship and heroism, and you've never played video games before, you'll love this too. Recommended. (4/5)


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