Sunday, December 29, 2013

12 Years A Slave

Year: 2013
Director: Steve McQueen
Cast: Chiwetel Ejiofor, Michael Fassbender, Lupita Nyong'o, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sarah Paulson, Brad Pitt

Plot: Based on the true story of Solomon Northup, a free black man from New York who was tricked, kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841.

Review: I am glad to have been able to catch this film, as films of this kind aren't easy to find on this part of the world where I'm from.

Much like Django Unchained but with much more realism and less over-the-top theatrics, 12 Years A Slave is a film about slavery, and like Django, it doesn't hold back on the brutality of the era. Director Steve McQueen takes this incredible true story and tells it like it is, which will break your heart at times, but you never lose hope for its hero, Solomon Northup.

Based on the book of the same title written by Solomon, it recounts the harrowing 12 years of Solomon's life as a slave, after he is tricked and kidnapped by slavers, and then sold to farm owners in New Orleans. He is renamed as Platt and put to work, first with a kind but indifferent plantation owner named Ford, then later sold to a slightly unhinged and cruel cotton farm owner, Edwin Epps. 

At first, Solomon defies his current situation before eventually doing what he has to do to live another day, even if it means leaving behind his former life as a carpenter and violinist back home. But through Chiwetel Ejiofor's awesome performance, we as the audience never lose sight of his hope that some day he will be liberated and he will find his way home. Ejiofor puts in every emotion required exceptionally well, whether it's standing up for himself or during quieter moments when he ponders his fate. He should receive an Oscar nomination here, he truly has earned it. 

Not to be outdone is Michael Fassbender, a frequent collaborator with McQueen, who gives Edwin Epps a menacing demeanor, making him exceptionally cruel, but not over-the-top evil. The fine balance Fassbender provides his character to keep him relatively human despite being a deceitful one is commendable. Sarah Paulson also shines as Epps' spiteful wife, who despises her husband as much as the female slave he covets. That female slave in question, Patsey, is played splendidly by newcomer Lupita Nyong'o, who may not get as many dramatic scenes as Ejiofor overall, but hits a home run whenever she gets her chance. Brad Pitt, who is also one of the film's producers, gets a minor role as a Canadian abolitionist who helps Solomon. It's a short appearance, but he's effective nonetheless.

McQueen himself, as well as the production crew deserve plenty of credit too. They've certainly gone out of their way to make this story as authentic as possible. The recreation of the era, especially the farms and land in the south is amazing. Add to that the great cinematography (most evident during silent and long lingering shots of the trees and sky), costumes and music (party music featuring fiddles and flutes or sing and clap songs of the slaves) and you have a beautiful yet haunting depiction of a time gone by.

12 Years A Slave is a truly remarkable film with equally remarkable performances from its cast. It's not an easy film to sit through (it's as violent as it gets), but it's a must watch. (4/5) 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

47 Ronin

Year: 2013
Director: Carl Rinsch
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Hiroyuki Sanada, Rinko Kikuchi, Tadanobu Asano, Ko Shibasaki, Jin Akanishi

Plot: A group of 47 masterless samurai aka ronin band together to seek vengeance against a ruthless shogun for their master's death.

Review: Multiple delayed releases usually means a film is in trouble, that it has problems that will affect its audience reception. 47 Ronin is one such film, finally seeing the light of day after being held back a few times. After seeing it, I can say that it's better than I expected.

While it is by no means a perfect film (more on that later), it is visually astounding and culturally accurate. First time director Carl Rinsch directs this Hollywood adaptation of the well known Japanese story Chushingura, and does quite a decent job overall. The technical aspects of the film, such as visual effects, cinematography, set design and costumes are all excellent. I particularly loved the vibrant colours used throughout the film, that made it easy for the audience to identify the characters from each other. Rinsch also did a good job on the action sequences, some involving CGI, some just being straight up sword fights, though my minor complaint would be most of the fights not lasting long enough.

The subject matter is solid enough. A group of samurai are dishonored after their master is sentenced to commit seppuku (honorable suicide) for a shameful act, which was caused by a rival lord's witch. Their leader Oishi vows to seek revenge for his master's wrongful death and collects his comrades for one final assault against the lord, with the help of a "half-breed" man named Kai, whom they used to look down on in the past, but now rely on because of his "special" powers.

The acting quality of the cast is more or less decent. Hiroyuki Sanada as usual scores the most points as Oishi, having played this type of role many times before. Rinko Kikuchi comes a close second as the witch, clearly relishing her role and hamming up her performance, which works somewhat even though some of her lines are kinda cheesy. Tadanobu Asano (Battleship and the Thor films) is rather miscast however as rival lord Kira, who is outshone by Kikuchi and not given much to do. Keanu Reeves is decent enough as Kai, his limited acting range and brooding personality matching his character's traits somewhat.

Although the film is visually striking and coherent overall, it could use some tighter editing here and there, as it tends to drag whenever something crucial isn't going on. Some of the dialogue needs polishing too, especially those involving Ko Shibasaki's character Mika, Kai's love interest. I would also have preferred the final action sequence being longer and more epic, but that's just me. Oh, and some of you might have an issue with everyone in this film speaking English when they're in Japan, but I didn't have a problem with it, as it's not the first time it's happened (Valkyrie, anyone?).  

47 Ronin is not as memorable as say, The Last Samurai, but it's solid entertainment overall despite its rather obvious flaws. (3.5/5) 

Monday, December 16, 2013

The Hobbit: The Desolation Of Smaug

Year: 2013
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Evangeline Lilly, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Luke Evans

Plot: Bilbo Baggins and the dwarfs continue their quest towards reclaiming Erebor, encountering many obstacles along the way, including orcs, elves, giant spiders and a huge dragon.

Review: The second instalment of The Hobbit is a step up from the previous one. Whilst An Unexpected Journey was a bit draggy at times, The Desolation Of Smaug feels much more kinetic as Peter Jackson kicks up the pace into a higher gear, while at the same time dispensing some good drama to go with it.

As with the previous film, the special effects and cinematography are excellent, so there's no need for me to elaborate further on that. I can tell you that the sense of urgency is much more obvious this time, which did the film a lot of good. The tone is definitely darker as the group faces hurdle after hurdle on their journey, from Shelob's ancestors to the fierce orcs from the last instalment, to unfriendly elves led by King Thranduil and lastly, the big bad himself, Smaug the dragon. In line with all this, the action sequences are awesome to behold. The best one has to be the barrel in the river sequence, where Bilbo and the dwarves travel down the river in empty barrels while being pursued by orcs and elves. It's a breathless sequence that hasn't been seen since the final fight in Fellowship Of The Ring.

Of the cast, Richard Armitage is still the top guy in my eyes. Even though Martin Freeman's Bilbo gets a lot of attention here, always being the guy that gives the dwarves their edge in a dire situation, it is Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield that shines the brightest. Thorin is a leader that is simply trying to do right by his people, and along the way he is forced to make a few tough decisions. Armitage's facial expressions truly fit the burden Thorin carries. Freeman on the other hand gets to have fun while showing slowly but surely, his corruption from holding that ring too long. Ian McKellen gets less screentime here as Gandalf, going off on his own on a mission at the beginning, but still commands presence whenever he comes on. 

Evangeline Lilly plays Tauriel, an elf character not created by Tolkien, who is feisty and brave. She is a lot like her character Kate from Lost. As good as she is though, Orlando Bloom outshines her as the badass Legolas, who wasn't in this book, but shows up to dispense orcs in awesome fashion. Unfortunately Bloom is unable to hide the fact that he's much older now, no matter how much makeup he puts on. Lee Pace puts in an interesting performance as Legolas' father Thranduil, who is rather eccentric compared to the Rivendell elves. Luke Evans makes his time count as Bard, a bargeman who assists the dwarves in the last third of the film, and Benedict Cumberbatch lends his voice as Smaug, though with all the echoing effects they did to it to imitate a dragon's sound, you can't even tell it's him, which is rather pointless in my opinion.

As it turns out, The Desolation Of Smaug is a fine improvement from An Unexpected Journey. The cliffhanger ending is not pleasant for sure, but it will make you anxious for the finale next year. Recommended. (4/5)

Sunday, December 08, 2013

Captain Phillips

Year: 2013
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Tom Hanks, Barkhad Abdi

Plot: Based on the true story of the hijacking of the vessel MV Maersk Alabama and its captain, Richard Phillips by Somali pirates in 2009.

Review: Most people have heard of the Somali pirates hijacking ships around the African seas, and here we have a true account of one such story. In the hands of Paul Greengrass, the result is an edge-of-your-seat thriller.

Tom Hanks stars as the titular character, who is depicted as a firm man, a man who is a stickler for procedures and not always the most likable of people, but generally fair. When a boat carrying four armed Somalians approach his ship, Captain Phillips does what he can to protect himself and his crew from danger.

Greengrass is in excellent form here, pacing the film well and making every scene with the pirates count. Heck, even the introductory scenes involving Phillips and his crew were well handled, giving us a general idea of what they're like before trouble starts. Greengrass and scriptwriter Billy ray also take the time to give a minor backstory on the Somalian pirate leader Muse, thereby making them more than just typical villains.

Hanks is of course awesome in his performance as Captain Phillips, giving him an everyman vibe, but at the same time, a resourceful and capable leader. As things get worse in the film's third act, Hanks accordingly steps us his game and gives a bravura performance that is as real as it gets. Barkhad Abdi also deserves credit as head pirate Muse, who simultaneously earns the audience's fear and sympathy. Muse is basically a man who does what he does under orders from a clan boss, even so he isn't a straight up errand boy. He is in a complicated situation like Phillips, and this makes him a worthy adversary and someone the audience can relate to at the same time. Kudos also to Faysal Ahmed, Barkhad Abdirahman and Mahat M. Ali for playing the other three pirates well. Together the four of them are truly intimidating on screen.

If there are any complaints I have here, it'd be the editing. There were some scenes that could have been shortened as they took too long without any real purpose.

Captain Phillips is a well made film on a whole. Recommended. (4/5) 

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire

Year: 2013
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Woody Harrelson, Donald Sutherland, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Elizabeth Banks, Lenny Kravitz, Jena Malone, Sam Claflin, Jeffrey Wright, Stanley Tucci

Plot: After winning the 74th Hunger Games, Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark become celebrities. However, their victory has ignited a spark that is leading to a revolution, something which President Snow can't allow. So he organises another Hunger Games, where previous victors from all 12 districts are chosen to fight to the death.

Review: I didn't like the first Hunger Games as much as most people, due to the shaky camerawork and lack of urgency once the carnage started. This time around, these two problems are somewhat addressed, and though not completely rectified, it made for a better film.

But in reality, The Hunger Games isn't about the battle, it's about the drama that leads to it. It's about Katniss' desperation to survive in a world where the odds are not in her favor, and how her decisions affect the people around her, from her family and friends to the general people. In this sense, this sequel delivers.

Despite clocking in at 146 minutes, the film doesn't feel draggy and the solid script gives the audience a chance to care about Katniss and the other characters. Director Francis Lawrence ensures nearly every character gets their time on screen, though I would appreciate it if he gave Paula Malcolmson, who plays Katniss' mother, more time as she was barely visible.

Jennifer Lawrence puts in an excellent performance as Katniss, who is torn between wanting to protect her family by putting up an act as per President Snow's orders, and trying to care about other people around her. I'd expect Katniss to be an inspiration to young girls everywhere by now. Josh Hutcherson provides strong support as Peeta, becoming more and more vital to the story as it goes along, but still playing second fiddle to Katniss. Liam Hemsworth is reliable enough as Katniss' boyfriend Gale, and thankfully we are mostly spared the love triangle that is already existent. Woody Harrelson is always in form as Katniss and Peeta's mentor Haymitch, while Donald Sutherland's calm demeanor is perfect for the diabolical President Snow.

As for the new additions, Jena Malone stands out the most as District 7 victor Johanna Mason, whose sexy and defiant personality is the perfect opposite of Katniss. Philip Seymour Hoffman puts in his usual subtle touch as new gameskeeper Plutarch Heavensbee (where do they come up with these names?) and it works. Sam Claflin and Jeffrey Wright also do quite well as former victors Finnick Odair and Beetee respectively, the former an alpha male type guy, the latter a thinker of sorts. Elizabeth Banks returns as Effie and portrays her character better than the last time, though I'm still not fond of that character, while Lenny Kravitz and Stanley Tucci get little screen time but still make an impression.

Though the shaky camerawork was reduced somewhat, the fight scenes still appear blurry thanks to Francis filming them too close (I'll say it again, call Zack Snyder). The lack of urgency was fixed by having more threats appear in between fights, but it would be better if Francis improved the lighting during those scenes. The ending was also rather abrupt, but the twist that came with it sets up the third film nicely.

Overall, it's an improvement from the first instalment, thanks to a solid script and a fine performance from Jennifer Lawrence. (4/5) 


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