Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle Of The Five Armies

Year: 2014
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, Orlando Bloom, Lee Pace, Evangeline Lilly, Luke Evans, Cate Blanchett


Plot: After reclaiming Erebor, Thorin Oakenshield is threatened by the same madness that drove his grandfather mad, and refuses to listen to reason as elves, men and orcs descend upon the Lonely Mountain to take its treasures.


Review: So we can finally bid goodbye to Middle Earth. Or can we? Peter Jackson has stated he wants to do more, but then again he may not.

The fact remains though, The Battle Of the Five Armies is epic as it should be, despite not running longer than the previous two Hobbit films. The battles are huge, intense and yes, even personal, as the best battles here are not the ones involving large scope and numbers, but raw one on one scraps.

As the story goes, Smaug the dragon has left Erebor and goes straight to Lake Town, where he faces off with Bard the Bowman. This leaves Thorin and his fellow dwarves to finally reclaim their home and with it, its large wealth. But with it comes a price: Thorin grows more and more paranoid that everyone around him will betray him, and outside forces will take away his home again. Meanwhile, the people of Lake Town, elven King Thranduil and a massive army of orcs come knocking at their door.

We all know Peter Jackson can do the massive epic stuff he's done five times before, so it goes without saying that as far as cinematography, visual effects, set design and other technical aspects are concerned, they all come together seamlessly to make this film as thrilling as possible. Thus, it will be the other things that matter, namely script, acting and characters that decides how well this film actually fares. In this regard, I'd say it's mostly top notch.

As in the previous trilogy, where we saw Frodo and Aragorn become the heroes they didn't think they'd become, here we see Bard, Thorin and Bilbo do the same. Luke Evans is exceptional as Bard, who becomes the reluctant hero that stands up for Lake Town against Smaug, even as we notice that he only really wants to keep his family safe and protect his fellow townsfolk. Bilbo as usual, finds the courage to do the right thing and save his friend Thorin from himself, and Martin Freeman does well in the role. However, once again it is Richard Armitage that impresses the most as Thorin, who goes from vulnerable king to determined leader of the dwarves. His final one on one fight with orc leader Azog is one to remember. Other cast members such as Ian McKellen, Cate Blanchett, Lee Pace, Orlando Bloom, Evangeline Lilly and the men who play the dwarves (especially Aidan Turner as Kili) do their parts well too.

The film has a few hiccups though, like the annoying Alfrid, deputy to Master of Lake Town, who spends every single second of his screen time being a useless jerk, or the appearance of the Eagles being too brief, since they are one of the five armies after all.

But after all's been said and done, this film is truly a fitting end to the Middle Earth saga, with a couple of nods that connect it to the LOTR trilogy before it. Jackson and company have done a great job indeed, and it does make me want to revisit LOTR all over again. (8/10)

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Gone Girl

Year: 2014
Director: David Fincher
Cast: Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick Fugit, Neil Patrick Harris


Plot: When a man's wife disappears, the resulting media reaction turns his life upside down and he suddenly becomes a suspect. But there is more to it than meets the eye.


Review: This film reminded me of a repeated line from Hugh Laurie's Dr House: Everybody lies.

But to David Fincher's credit, Gone Girl is a lot more than a mystery and more than just about people lying. Based on Gillian Flynn's novel which she also adapted for the screen here, Gone Girl shows how the power of media and public perception can play a key role in determining if someone is innocent or guilty. Basically speaking, if it looks bad, it's gonna be bad, and vice versa.

The story begins with Nick Dunne, who comes home one day and finds his wife missing, with signs of a struggle in his living room. The police check it out, and upon further investigation, they and the audience discover that Nick isn't a stand up guy that we're supposed to believe. Then halfway through, Fincher and Flynn throw a twist into the story and changes the status quo. It gets more twisted as more facts are revealed, and that's all part of the appeal.

Fincher wisely keeps the story moving and making every scene count, so that despite its 149 minute running time, you don't feel it dragging. The music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross gives an unsettling feel throughout (another wise choice by Fincher for using them again) and Donald Graham Burt's production design adds to it with its dark and mostly dim lighting in every scene. 

Ben Affleck puts in a subdued but effective performance as Nick, whom we suspect isn't as good as we'd like to believe, but eventually sympathise with. Rosamund Pike is perfect as the missing wife Amy, who seems like the perfect woman, but is holding a ton of secrets of her own. Pike isn't the best actress there is out there, but her acting style is actually perfect for the role she got here, and deserves plenty of credit for it. The supporting cast are also solid, with Carrie Coon as Nick's twin sister Margo, Neil Patrick Harris as Amy's former lover, Tyler Perry as Nick's lawyer and Kim Dickens as Detective Boney all putting in sterling work.

Now, despite its near flawless storytelling, Fincher once again moves a tad too fast at times, switching from one scene to the next quickly or not allowing a scene to stay a few seconds longer for dramatic impact. He did this before in The Social Network, Zodiac and The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, though to be fair, it's less noticeable here. And without giving anything away, I felt that the biggest lie in this whole story isn't as perfect as the filmmakers would have you believe. It can be explained if someone looked much closer.

That being said, Gone Girl is still undeniably a solid film all around. Back to what I said above: everybody lies. Here, we ask ourselves: how good are they at lying? Recommended. (8/10)

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Penguins Of Madagascar

Year: 2014
Directors: Eric Darnell & Simon J Smith
Voice cast: Tom McGrath, Chris Miller, Christopher Knights, Conrad Vernon, Benedict Cumberbatch, John Malkovich


Plot: The penguins face off against Dave the octopus, who wants revenge against them for stealing his spotlight at the zoo many years ago.


Review: The penguins from the Madagascar films finally get their own movie. Skipper, Kowalski, Rico and Private return in their very own adventure after proving they're worthy of it in pretty much every Madagascar film so far.

In this film, the penguins break into Fort Knox to celebrate Private's birthday, only to run into the tentacles of Dave, an octopus who is bitter over losing his spotlight at the zoo to them when they arrived. Now he plans to not only destroy them, but all penguins around the world as well. Then, a clandestine group of animals called the North Wind blows in, who aim to protect all animals and plan to stop Dave, preferably without the penguins' interference.

Credit should be given to directors Simon J Smith and Eric Darnell for coming up with a mostly witty and fast paced film, which is largely helped by a sharp script from writers John Aboud, Brandon Sawyer and Michael Colton. Watching the penguins get themselves repeatedly in and out of trouble, mostly by not having a plan is downright fun. The opening sequence featuring how Private was born and joins the group is cool too. The action sequences are also well thought out and executed, the best being a chase through Venice between the penguins and Dave's goons. Speaking of Dave, the writers manage to execute some solid comedy by having famous actors' names in his speech (for example: Nicolas, Cage them!). There's plenty more you can find later on. Kudos also to John Malkovich for his great voice work here (they even made the octopus look like him).

The film however starts to slow down in the final stretch as the plot gets thinner and the laughs start to slow down a bit. The North Wind animals themselves aren't that interesting to begin with, save for Agent Classified, the dog voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. The film's last third is partially saved by the drama involving Private's desire to be a more crucial member of the quartet, after being dismissed frequently by Skipper. 

At this point, I don't know if the penguins deserve a sequel, but if they can come up with a good script that can sustain itself all the way to the end next time, I'm all for it. For now, Penguins Of Madagascar is entertaining enough to spend 90 minutes on. (7/10)

Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Hunger Games - Mockingjay - Part 1

Year: 2014
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Liam Hemsworth, Julianne Moore, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Donald Sutherland, Woody Harrelson, Sam Claflin


Plot: After the destruction of District 12 courtesy of President Snow, Katniss Everdeen resides in the underground base of District 13, where its leader, President Alma Coin plans a rebellion using Katniss as their weapon. Snow on the other hand uses Peeta Mellark as his weapon to quell the rebellion across Panem.


Review: If the first two instalments of the Hunger Games films focused on survival, Katniss' in particular, this film takes an entirely different route by focusing on politics. This unfortunately makes Mockingjay Part 1 the weakest instalment so far.

This film spends three quarters of its runtime showing Katniss' preparation and eventual execution of anti-Capitol propaganda to fuel the rebels' cause, all at the behest of Alma Coin, leader of District 13. Supposedly staying true to the book, director Francis Lawrence shows Katniss recording and filming anti-government propaganda to broadcast to the other districts, in hope of getting them to stand up and fight back. As usual, Katniss needs some coercing as she is more concerned with Peeta's welfare, and she isn't used to becoming a hero for the people.

The problem is Francis spends so much time on Katniss and the propaganda stuff that the film drags, and there isn't much room for anything else. One feels that this particular book didn't need to be split into two films, and this is just a cash grab for the studios. There were many things here that could be shortened or left out, and certain minor characters like Effie Trinket could have been excised completely as well.

Cast wise, other than Jennifer Lawrence, Julianne Moore and Liam Hemsworth, the rest of the cast would be lucky if they had ten minutes of screen time, give or take. Jennifer is once again on point here as Katniss, though she has too little to offer here other than looking distraught most of the time. It's not Jennifer's fault, it's the script, so kudos to her for making the character work even in these conditions. Hemsworth gets the chance to step up here, now that Josh Hutcherson gets much less focus surprisingly, but his character Gale has always been rather bland, and that hasn't changed. The rest of them get too little to do unfortunately, despite having certain moments to shine. If you blinked, you'd miss Jena Malone. Poor girl.

Another thing that bothered me was the whole propaganda thing. In the past, using Katniss' relationship with Peeta, whether it was real or not, as a tool for their survival was something we can believe in. But here, they actually have a film crew led by Game Of Thrones' Natalie Dormer follow Katniss around to record her activities and speeches to broadcast to the people. I know this happened in the books, sure, but does this actually work on screen? After everything that happened in the first two films, is it necessary to continue fueling the people's hopes to fight back? It is as if everything Snow does is forgotten so easily, that Katniss has to remind them who the enemy is. The scene where she records a message for the first time at Plutarch Heavensbee's direction was laughable and not in a good way. Maybe they were trying to make the audience laugh but seriously, that didn't feel right at all.

The worst part is, we have to wait a full year before we can end this once and for all. Thanks to Francis, who at least gave the audience a well directed final 15 minutes of this instalment, my excitement is somewhat stoked to see this to the end next year. If only there was more to write about Part 1, in a good way I mean. (6/10)

Sunday, November 16, 2014

The Drop

Year: 2014
Director: Michael R. Roskam
Cast: Tom Hardy, James Gandolfini, Noomi Rapace, Matthias Schoenaerts


Plot: Bob Saginowski, a bartender at a drop bar i.e. a bar where criminals drop off their money for laundering, finds himself in a bad situation when the bar is robbed and the owner, a Chechen gangster, wants it back. He also faces aggravation from another thug over a dog he saved from a garbage bin.


Review: If you're expecting a crime thriller walking into The Drop, you may be a tad disappointed, like I was. Instead, it's more of a character study on one Bob Saginowski.

Bob is a bartender at a place run by his cousin Marv, which happens to be a drop bar, where criminals drop off their money for laundering. One night, the bar gets robbed, which angers the Chechen mobster who owns the place. Marv himself isn't too fond of the boss, since the place used to be his. The other subplot involves Bob's relationship with Nadia, a waitress whom he meets after rescuing a dog outside her house. Her former boyfriend Eric is a thug, who threatens Bob over the dog which he claims is his.

The marketing for this film might have you think that this is a slow burn crime thriller, but it's not. The focus is mostly on Bob, who seems like a regular guy, nice with a simpleton's personality. Director Michael R. Roskam does a good job with cinematography and sets, showing the lower side of Brooklyn during winter, through their dark alleys and cold streets. It's the kind of film small time criminals and the blue collar society can easily relate to.

Tom Hardy is the star here, playing Bob as a quiet, unassuming man that runs Cousin Marv's bar. With Hardy, you'll always notice the quiet intensity painted on his face, and he uses it well here. On the surface, Bob seems harmless, and it's clear Hardy wants you to believe that, at least until near the end. The late James Gandolfini puts in a solid final performance as Marv, the guy who still believes he's the man everyone fears, but obviously isn't anymore. Noomi Rapace plays off of Hardy quite well as Nadia, but doesn't quite convince me in being a waitress from Brooklyn. Matthias Schoenarts is impressive as Eric, being the kind of guy you would be afraid of running into on the street.

The fact that this is a character study makes The Drop a little taxing to sit through. Maybe Dennis Lehane's original story is genuinely tense on paper, but not so here. Those expecting something to happen every now and then throughout the film may find this dull. As good as it was seeing Hardy and Gandolfini on screen, I wanted more tension. It only reaches its peak in the final 15 minutes, but in retrospect I understand the long wait. Overall the film almost feels like a TV movie, and it deserves better.

The Drop may have missed its mark a little for me, but thanks to Hardy and Gandolfini, the film is worth checking out once. (7/10) 


The Best Offer

Year: 2013
Director: Giuseppe Tornatore
Cast: Geoffrey Rush, Jim Sturgess, Sylvia Hoeks, Donald Sutherland


Plot: An auctioneer becomes increasingly obsessed with a reclusive woman who has hired him to help sell her parents' valuables.


Review: I'm not a fan nor expert of Italian cinema, so I'll judge this based on how I see it. Despite the fact that the main cast is made up of non-Italian actors, the film is mostly Italian as far as the crew and settings are concerned.

Geoffrey Rush stars as Virgil Oldman, an auctioneer who runs a well-to-do auction house while occasionally acquiring valuable art during auctions with the help of his friend, Billy. One day he gets hired by Claire Ibbetson, a reclusive woman who wants to sell her parents' property at her villa. To his chagrin, she refuses to meet him in person repeatedly to do business, until he realises later that she is agoraphobic and has never met anyone beyond her room door in years. His curiosity for her turns to concern and eventually much more than that. Simultaneously, he discovers mechanical parts strewn around her villa which he turns over to Robert, a tinkerer who believes the parts are from the first automaton made centuries ago.

This film has all the elements of European cinema; simple, elegant, mostly quiet, more focus on words than actions etc. To director Giuseppe Tornatore's credit, the film runs at a brisk pace despite its 131 minute runtime. Every scene and every conversation has its purpose, so there's close to no padding here, so to speak. Tornatore also wrote the script, and he successfully makes things interesting from beginning to end, even for those who have no interest in art or auctions.

Rush is brilliant as usual, playing the obsessive-compulsive Virgil who slowly but surely softens up and allows himself to explore a possible relationship with someone who is as difficult to approach as himself. At first he seems difficult to befriend, but you will eventually root for him as the story goes along. Jim Sturgess does a fine job as Robert, who gives Virgil advice on women, but you get the feeling there's more to him than he's letting on. Sylvia Hoeks plays the awkward, agoraphobic and easily agitated Claire with the right balance of being difficult and amiable, and you'll end up liking her too. Donald Sutherland is not too shabby as well playing Billy, Virgil's partner in crime, lending the character his old timer sensibilities.

Something happens towards the final act which you won't see coming, but even if you did, you'd feel some sense of surprise. This is ultimately the film's trump card and Tornatore's great writing and direction makes the journey to this point worthwhile indeed.

All in all, The Best Offer is a great film for those who are looking for something different from the loud offerings of Hollywood. I think it has made me want to find more of Tornatore's work. (8/10)

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

John Wick

Year: 2014
Directors: David Leitch and Chad Stahelski
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Michael Nyqvist, Alfie Allen, Willem Dafoe, Adrianne Palicki, Ian McShane, Lance Reddick, John Leguizamo


Plot: A retired hitman is out for revenge after the son of his former employer steals his car and kills his dog.


Review: If you liked The Replacement Killers and Bullet To The Head, you'll surely love John Wick. This is the kind of role that Jason Statham is famous for, and it works just as well in the hands of Keanu Reeves.

Reeves plays the titular character, a retired hitman who has just lost his wife to illness, and receives a puppy from her as a final gift. Some Russian thugs then rough him up, steals his car and kills the puppy. Iosef, the leader of the thugs only realises later that John used to work for his father Viggo, and he's really good at what he does. Worse still, he's not a man to be messed with.

I simply admire the world that directors Chad Stahelski and David Leitch puts their anti-hero in. In John's world, violence is usually the best solution. Most of them dress in neat black suits, and best of all, there's actually a hotel where hitmen can stay in as long as they don't conduct business on the premises. It's almost dream like when we see it, but it's really slick so we don't care too much about how little sense it makes. The action sequences are also well executed, with some really good camera angles and aerial shots of the city to go with it. Visually, John Wick the film is a feast to behold. The action also goes side by side with a lot of thumping rock music, elevating the adrenaline rush even more.

People have said that this is Reeves' best role since Neo, and I can't disagree with that. His acting might still be inconsistent, but nobody watches him for his acting skills anyway. Reeves still knows how to kick ass and take names, which is what counts here. The supporting cast are all awesome, from Ian McShane to Willem Dafoe, to Alfie Allen and Adrianne Palicki, they all deliver in their roles. Lance Reddick cuts an interesting character as the hotel manager, and even John Leguizamo makes a welcome yet brief appearance as a chop shop owner. Michael Nyqvist chews the scenery as Viggo, the main villain of the film, and even occasionally makes fun of himself in several scenes. In fact, there are quite a few scenes that will make you chuckle, thanks to the script allowing the cast to lighten an otherwise serious revenge film.

The film could use a stronger dose of logic overall, like where are the cops when a battle goes down? The final showdown at the end was a bit over the top too. At times, John Wick the film seems a bit self indulgent, but it's too entertaining to consider it a problem.

I had a great time with John Wick, I dare say it's one of the best hitman action movies I've seen in a while. (8/10)

Saturday, November 08, 2014

Interstellar

Year: 2014
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Mackenzie Foy, Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Michael Caine, David Gyasi


Plot: In the near future, Earth is dying and mankind has regressed to an agrarian culture. A former pilot is sent with a crew to venture into a wormhole to find a new habitable planet and save mankind.


Review: As far back as seven years or so, Christopher Nolan was never really short on ambition. His films keep breaking new ground with bigger sets, effects and scale. Interstellar may just well be his best work yet.

In a story he co-wrote with his brother Jonathan, Nolan brings us to the not so distant future, where the Earth is dying slowly and mankind is now mostly made up of farmers instead of engineers. Cooper, a former pilot, is tasked by NASA to lead a small crew into a wormhole in space that will take them to a new galaxy where they hope to find new habitable planets. The mission is dangerous and time consuming, with a slim chance of making it back. This makes it very difficult for Cooper, who is leaving behind his family.

As far as the technical aspects are concerned, Interstellar scores full marks on every one of them. CGI? Excellent. The space sequences are awesome, especially those involving wormholes and black holes. And the tidal wave thing was tremendous. Set design? Incomparable. Nolan went to Iceland to film the new planets' surfaces, and it's simply breathtaking to look at. Cinematography? Wow. Nolan used the services of Hoyt Van Hoytema for this, and I'll be damned if he doesn't get an Oscar nod for his work here. Hans Zimmer also deserves an Oscar nod for his score. 

The star of this film is truly Matthew McConaughey as Cooper, playing a family man who is given the task to save the world, and has to make a huge sacrifice in the process. He brings forth all the right emotions at all the right times, and cements his leading man status here once again. Anne Hathaway is great as well playing Amelia Brand, a scientist who has her own emotional baggage to deal with. Cooper's daughter Murph is played by two people; Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain. They're both awesome. Foy plays her as the hopeful 10 year old (in real life she's 13) and Chastain as the adult, and both effectively portray the character's genius and sadness in losing their father. The rest of the supporting cast, from Michael Caine to John Lithgow and Casey Affleck, as well as a minor appearance from Matt Damon, all throw in solid work too.

Critics used to say that Nolan's films lack an emotional punch. This film seeks to remedy that, and to some extent, it succeeds. The film is about sacrifices, choices, death and love, and how these things can transcend space and time. If anything, the film has a strong message behind it and I'm down with that.

I do have a couple of minor gripes, first being Cooper's son given less attention in order to focus more on Murph's relationship with her dad, which I felt was a bit unfair, since they're both his kids and he should be more than slightly beyond an afterthought here. The other is the technical jargon, which I know is somewhat necessary, but like Inception, Nolan hasn't quite mastered the art of toning it down and making this aspect of his film more accessible to the layman.

All in all, Interstellar is ambitious in every way and scores big in nearly every way too. It's certainly a must watch for film lovers. Recommended. (9/10)

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Nightcrawler

Year: 2014
Director: Dan Gilroy
Cast: Jake Gyllenhaal, Rene Russo, Riz Ahmed, Bill Paxton


Plot: A jobless man finds his calling when he stumbles into the world of crime journalism and becomes a nightcrawler aka someone who records the aftermath of crime and accidents and sells them to TV stations.


Review: It's hard for me to describe Nightcrawler in a sentence, but if I had to, it would be something like a huge car pile-up where you stop and gawk at instead of moving on. It's a horrible thing, but you can't help looking at it.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays Lou Bloom, a jobless man who, at the start of the film, is seen stealing copper wires to sell for cash. Then he sees a man recording the aftermath of a car crash and learns that footage like this is worth money to TV stations for their breaking news segments. So Lou jumps on the bandwagon and starts doing the same thing, learning the tricks of the trade and getting more and more daring as time goes by. The question is, is there a line he won't cross?

Writer-director Dan Gilroy does a great job showing us the news world of Los Angeles, and how anyone with enough guts like Lou Bloom and company, can make a living off of other people's misfortunes. He also shows how a TV station's ratings are so crucial as it hangs on whatever graphic footage the nightcrawlers bring in to them.

Speaking of the nightcrawlers, Gilroy did research on actual nightcrawlers to get the feel of news hounds armed with cameras going around looking for dirt, and as a result, the world of LA at night is vividly presented, and Lou's movements as well as his competition are well documented. Gilroy's film excels the most when Lou is on the move with his suffering assistant Rick, and even in the slower moments, the film never stalls too long.

Other than Gilroy, the driving force in the film is certainly Gyllenhaal. He's in 99% of the film and quite literally makes the film his own. His character is an intelligent man who is skilled in getting his point across, constantly speaking as if he's in a job interview or a performance review, from either side of the desk. More importantly, Gyllenhaal plays him as a persistent man who would stoop to any level to get what he wants. As a result, Lou is a pretty deplorable guy, and Gyllenhaal is simply fantastic in the role. Rene Russo, Bill Paxton and Riz Ahmed also put in solid performances (as the TV station news director, a fellow nightcrawler and Lou's assistant respectively) but this is Gyllenhaal's show through and through. He even lost weight for the role and looks rather creepy on screen.

The only thing that bothered me was the way the film ended. I didn't quite like it, especially after seeing what came before it. I do understand how some films can't end the way we want it to, but this ending just kinda ruined it a bit for me. 

But don't get me wrong, this is a great film and one that Gyllenhaal can be really proud of. Recommended. (8/10)

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Fury

Year: 2014
Director: David Ayer
Cast: Brad Pitt, Logan Lerman, Shia LaBeouf, Michael Pena, Jon Bernthal


Plot: Nearing the end of WW2, an American tank operated by five men make their final push into Germany.


Review: I wouldn't blame you if you watched Fury and thought it resembles Saving Private Ryan. It does in several ways, being set in WW2, featuring soldiers going into enemy territory, sent on a suicide mission and outnumbered by the Germans. But while Spielberg's epic is visually striking and tragically unrelenting, Fury manages to be just as good with a healthy does of intensity and drama.

Writer-director David Ayer presents a WW2 film about the crew of a Allied Sherman tank sent into Germany in 1945 on a suicide mission. The crew, led by Sgt Collier, has just received a rookie driver who hasn't seen the inside of a tank, much less been in a real fight, to join them. The audience watches mostly through the rookie Norman's perspective as they get into one scrape after another, and just like Upham in Saving Private Ryan, Norman eventually learns how to defend himself, right up to the battle to the death in the film's climax.

Ayer, who has never shied away from violence and profanity in his films, does so again here with great aplomb, and it always works. The battle scenes are rightfully intense and brutal, as we see soldiers getting shot, burnt, blown up and run over throughout the film. It's war and war is always ugly, so kudos to Ayer for nailing that.

The five actors playing the tank crew are all awesome in their performances, hell even Shia LaBeouf, who has been notorious in either getting flak for being Sam Witwicky or getting bad press for his public behaviour recently, does well. But I have to say, unsurprisingly the best actor here is Brad Pitt as the leader of the crew. He knows just when to be intense and when to pull back when necessary, and overall gives a sterling portrayal of a tank commander who wants to protect his men and finish the mission at any cost. Logan Lerman is also great as the rookie Norman, who slowly changes from a boy who refuses to kill, to a man who becomes so angry at the enemy and is willing to put them down. Credit also goes to Michael Pena and Jon Bernthal for their performances as well, even though their characters aren't so different from what we've seen them do before.

I am bothered a bit though by a certain scene in the middle of the film when Pitt and Lerman show up at a German town and visit a couple of ladies who are initially frightened but then warm up to them. Now, I don't have a problem with Ayer trying to show us that not all Germans are bad at the time, but the way it happened was a tad too quick.

Overall, Fury is a solid war film that hits most of the right notes, thanks mostly to the cast's fine performances. (8/10)

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Book Of Life

Year: 2014
Director: Jorge R. Gutierrez
Voice cast: Diego Luna, Zoe Saldana, Channing Tatum, Ron Perlman, Hector Elizondo, Kate del Castillo


Plot: Two friends compete with each other for the love of one woman, with the keepers of the Land of The Remembered and the Forgotten making a wager on the winner.


Review: I read a review of this film somewhere stating that The Book Of Life is very similar to Tim Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas. I can certainly see why.

The Book Of Life has its roots deep in Mexican culture, particularly on The Day Of The Dead. It begins with a group of kids taking a museum tour, where the tour guide introduces them to The Book Of Life, and tells a story from the book about three friends who grew up in San Angel in Mexico: Manolo, Joaquin and Maria. Manolo and Joaquin are both in love with Maria and compete for her attention, from the time they were kids until they're all grown up. La Muerte, ruler of the Land Of The Remembered and Xibalba, ruler of the Land Of The Forgotten, strike a wager on which of the two men will win Maria's heart. Xibalba tries to cheat by giving Joaquin an edge, and even pulls a few tricks to get Manolo out of the way. Finding himself in the Land Of The Remembered, Manolo has to find a way to get back to the Land Of The Living and win Maria back.

Without a doubt, the best thing about this film is the animation. Director Jorge Gutierrez and producer Guillermo del Toro (the one and only) fill the film with lots of colours, which is immediately attractive and vibrant. The animators even go to great lengths to differentiate the various worlds the film inhabits; the museum characters look normal, the story characters in the Land Of The Living look like wooden puppets and the characters in the Land Of The Remembered look like the Day Of The Dead dolls. Best of all, each character is very detailed and distinct in appearance, so all in all it's just lovely to watch.

But the story has to matter too, and I'm glad to note that it's pretty solid. It's a love triangle obviously, but in this case, both men are essentially good guys, each with their own pros and cons. Manolo is a bullfighter who doesn't want to kill bulls and become a musician instead, but is torn between his love for music and his responsibility to his family tradition. Joaquin wants to be a hero like his late father, but doesn't quite know the finer points of being a hero. In the end, both men will find their path of course, but the journey is what makes it good.

The film is filled with loads of other things worth noting, like the Mexican culture on display, the action (which occasionally moves too fast) and some good comedy (mostly coming from a Mariachi band and Maria's pet pig). There's a lot of music too, which gives it a Disney feel, though personally I didn't dig the songs that much, even though they were written quite well.

I do have a minor complaint to add, that being Joaquin's role overall, which seemed a bit underwritten. Of course, the outcome of this love triangle is quite predictable, but even so, Joaquin deserved a bit more development. If we had that, it would make him a better challenge for Manolo and not seem like an understated character in the second half of the film.

Oh, I forgot to mention the voice talents. They're all good, even though it can get jarring when some of them don't speak in a Mexican accent, but I can overlook this one.

The Book Of Life is a pleasant surprise, and certainly deserves more attention than it's getting. Recommended. (8/10)

Monday, October 13, 2014

Kill The Messenger

Year: 2014
Director: Michael Cuesta
Cast: Jeremy Renner, Rosemarie DeWitt, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia


Plot: Based on a true story, this film is about Gary Webb, a reporter who uncovers facts on the CIA trafficking cocaine in America to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua.


Review: Kill The Messenger turned out better than I thought it would. But then again, what was I thinking? Jeremy Renner is a solid actor, so this should be great already.

This story takes place in 1996, when Gary Webb, a reporter for a small newspaper company, stumbles on a story that could make his career. He discovers that the government, specifically the CIA, has been buying cocaine from Central America and selling them to the poor and mostly black folk in the country. The money earned is used to fund the Contra rebels in Nicaragua. Although urged not to go ahead with it, Gary writes the story and gains fame, at first. Then things start to get ugly when various parties attempt to discredit or silence him, and his integrity and family are jeopardized.

Director Michael Cuesta and screenwriter Peter Landesman deserve plenty of credit for their great work here. Landesman puts in all the important facts (taken from two books, one written by the real Gary Webb) and Cuesta nicely pieces them together and makes it fascinating, thrilling and dramatic at the same time. He wisely inserts real footage of the story in between his own film scenes and keeps the pace taut, so there is not a single dull moment here, even when it's quiet.

Renner is excellent as Gary, presenting him as a man who simply wants to tell the truth, not for fame or fortune, but because he feels it's his job as a reporter to do so. This could possibly be his best role yet. Credit also goes to the supporting cast, namely Rosemarie DeWitt as his wife and Mary Elizabeth Winstead as his editor. The former is solid as the spouse who stands by him despite the many things that threaten to destroy their family, the latter also equally good as the editor who is torn between supporting Gary or the paper they both work for. Michael Sheen, OliverPlatt and Andy Garcia also make their presence felt here, and Ray Liotta even manages to impress with a small but unusually low key performance as a CIA informant.

My only gripe is that the film doesn't quite end the way I wanted it to, but I can't say I blame them, facts are facts. I can only say it's kinda sad, but on a brighter note, in a world now focused on invasion of privacy and terrorism, having this story brought to our attention so well by Cuesta and Renner is an astounding achievement.

As far as true stories being adapted to the screen go, no matter how much of this actually happened the way it unfolded here, this is one of the best I've seen. Recommended. (8/10)

Monday, October 06, 2014

Dracula Untold

Year: 2014
Director: Gary Shore
Cast: Luke Evans, Sarah Gadon, Dominic Cooper, Charles Dance


Plot: An alternate story on how Vlad The Impaler became Dracula, in this case, to protect his family and kingdom from the Turks.


Review: One can't help but be intrigued by the ideas brought forth by the filmmakers behind this piece, especially after seeing the trailer, though it still feels like a B-grade attempt at creating an action horror flick. While the end result is not too shabby, I ought to warn you that it's more like I, Frankenstein than Underworld.

In this retelling of Vlad The Impaler's legend, Luke Evans plays the titular character, who had earned his nickname after being a feared warrior among the Turks who had claimed him when he was a boy and made him who he is. Now he seeks peace with his family and kingdom, only for the Turks to show up and ask for a thousand boys to join them as their soldiers, or Transylvania perishes. Vlad then seeks help from a monster in a cave, who can give him the power to fight the Turks and save his people, but it involves becoming a monster who has an undying thirst for blood.

As far as story goes, director Gary Shore and the writers have come up with a good one, presenting us with a hero who must resist temptation to the dark side in order to do something good. It's a familiar tale but it works nonetheless. At a lean 92 minutes, Shore doesn't overstay his welcome and makes the film watchable overall, and paces it well enough so there's a fine balance of action and substance.

Evans makes a solid hero as Vlad, achieving a nice balance between desperate man and deadly monster. Sarah Gadon is both gorgeous and talented, fitting the role as Vlad's wife well. Dominic Cooper though gets too little screen time as the villain Mehmed, leader of the Turks. Game Of Thrones' Charles Dance is as menacing as ever in the role of the vampire that grants Vlad his power. His time on screen may be short, but he's excellent in every second of it.

The weakness of the film comes from the overreliance of CGI in the second half, when a more practical approach would be best. Lighting and camerawork overall also could have been improved as I found it hard at times to see what's going on. And lastly, maybe the film would benefit more from having a higher rating instead of watering it down to PG13, after all it is Dracula we're talking about.

Dracula Untold is not bad at all if you want entertainment for an hour and a half. I'll admit there have been better vampire stories made, but it's okay to indulge in this. (7/10)

Sunday, October 05, 2014

The November Man

Year: 2014
Director: Roger Donaldson
Cast: Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Will Patton, Eliza Taylor


Plot: A retired CIA operative is called back in on a mission with personal entanglements, only to find himself in a cat and mouse game with his former protege that involves high ranking CIA officials and the next Russian president.


Review: A spy thriller involving former James Bond actor Pierce Brosnan? That alone would pique anyone's interest, knowing what Brosnan is capable of as an action man. It's unfortunate however that it falls short of expectations.

Brosnan plays Peter Devereaux, an ex CIA agent called back in on a mission that involves extracting his former lover from Russia. However the mission goes south, and not only does she wind up on the wrong end of a bullet, Devereaux learns that his former apprentice, Mason is the one who pulled the trigger. Then he finds out that she has information about the next Russian president that could end his campaign, and it involves people whom Devereaux used to work for.

The last time Roger Donaldson directed a CIA type thriller, it was The Recruit, which was interesting as far as spy thrillers go. While The November Man has a lot of potential, Donaldson doesn't quite use it effectively. The action sequences are decent enough and the feel of a spy thriller movie is there, but it failed to impress me as much as I hoped. It starts off well enough but begins to lose its way at the half mark, and then races to a messy and rushed ending which doesn't quite satisfactorily wrap the film up.

Acting wise, Brosnan at least is in top form here. Aside from Liam Neeson and Denzel Washington (who both have films currently running now), you can't do better than having Brosnan in this role of a retired spy getting back in the game. The same can't be said however for Luke Bracey as Mason. Bracey resembles a younger Richard Roxburgh, only not as charming. Bracey is quite bland actually, which is a pity. Olga Kurylenko shows up as the pretty face for the film, and being a former Bond girl, she fits right in.

The film also has a couple of other problems, one being the choppy storytelling in the second half, which threw me off the story for a bit. The other problem is a scene where Brosnan and Bracey are face to face with a woman in between, and here the former almost seemed like the villain all of a sudden. The relationship between the two men was poorly explored, which robbed any opportunity for the audience to understand them better, and as to why they do what they do.

The November Man isn't a bad film, in fact it's decent. I just wish Donaldson tightened it up better, then we would have something really cool here. (6/10)

Sunday, September 28, 2014

The Equalizer

Year: 2014
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Denzel Washington, Marton Csokas, Chloe Moretz, Melissa Leo


Plot: A man who has left his checkered past behind decides to help a young prostitute escape her violent pimp, only to cross the path of the Russian mob.


Review: The Equalizer is based on the hit TV show of the same name back in the 80s starring Edward Woodward as a man who acts as a problem solver and protects the weak and innocent from bad guys. In this version, Denzel Washington plays Robert McCall, a guy who works at the hardware mart by day and reads books at the 24 hour diner by night. He comes to the aid of Alina, a young prostitute who was beaten by her pimp and hospitalised. By solving her problem, in violence, he incurs the wrath of the Russian mob, who wants payback.

Director Antoine Fuqua and screenwriter Richard Wenk go to great lengths to expand McCall's character, spending a good amount of time showing us his day to day life as an everyman at the hardware mart. They describe him as an unassuming man, quiet yet helpful, but at night he's a guy that spends time reading at the 24 hour diner, a man who hardly sleeps and is somewhat obsessive compulsive. If you're the kind of viewer who loves seeing action sequences every five minutes, you won't enjoy this film. But if you like lots of meat to go with the action Fuqua is serving, you'll like this.

Speaking of the action sequences, Fuqua and company did the right thing by giving the viewers practical stuff, not over the top, illogical crap we get from other films. McCall is a guy that can take people out using various objects around him, and with great ease. He's violent, yet quick and resourceful, reminiscent of Jason Bourne or Taken's Bryan Mills. It does take some patience to enjoy the action here, but it's well worth it. The final confrontation between McCall and the Russians is pretty cool.

Washington, as usual is in top form here, displaying the same kind of heroism we've seen in Man On Fire and The Book Of Eli, except he's more calm and collected than he's ever been, even when he starts spilling blood. This could be one of his best roles yet. Marton Csokas, no stranger to playing a villain, does a great job as well portraying Teddy, the Russian thug sent to take out McCall. Chloe Moretz is good as Alina the hooker, but gets much less screen time than I expected, which is a shame. Fuqua chose to focus the majority of his film on Washington's McCall, who not only spends time facing the Russians, but also sticks up for his co-workers who are in trouble (hence the 'equalizer' quality).

The film does suffer a bit from the lengthy runtime, made worse by the numerous endings in its final moments. While I enjoyed the efforts made by Fuqua relating to character development and background stuff, a bit of editing wouldn't hurt.

This is a sure winner from Denzel and Fuqua. Oh, and do watch out for a surprise appearance from Bill Pullman, whom I've not seen in a long time. Recommended. (8/10)


Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Purge: Anarchy

Year: 2014
Director: James DeMonaco
Cast: Frank Grillo, Carmen Ejogo, Zach Gilford, Kiele Sanchez, Zoe Soul, Michael K. Williams


Plot: Another Purge takes place; this time a young couple, a waitress and her daughter are forced to rely on a heavily armed policeman to survive the night.


Review: This is a sequel to The Purge last year, where a family of four have to defend themselves against a group of home invaders. This year, director and writer James DeMonaco takes the purge into the city, where a group of people are forced to rely on each other to survive, or to be more specific, on the heavily armed cop whom they run into.

As the New Founding Fathers' annual Purge commences, a young couple with marital problems and a waitress and her daughter find themselves stuck on the streets, running for their lives as every person wanting to exercise their right to purge start spilling blood. They run into a policeman armed to the teeth with a mission of his own, who decides to help them survive, which eventually proves to be an unwise decision as more and more purgers get in their way.

DeMonaco's idea to bring the purge out into the open right in the middle of the city turned out to be wise, as it gives him plenty of possibilities to explore. Last year we had a bunch of rich yuppies as our villains, this year we have quite a handful: paramilitary men with high tech equipment, a gang of masked bikers and a bunch of rich people who pay good money to purge the poor. In fact, they're much more interesting than our little band of good guys who just want to live till dawn tomorrow. But the fact remains is that DeMonaco's move turns this sequel to an action thriller, which is a definite step up from last year's home invasion horror flick.

The best thing about this sequel is actually Frank Grillo, a Punisher-like guy who wants revenge on the man who killed his son, and the purge is his opportunity. Like most tragic heroes, he gives in to his conscience and chooses to protect the four people he runs into, at great risk of getting himself killed. Grillo depicts the man's reluctance and grief well enough to gain the audience's sympathy, so much so that the other four don't really hold a candle to him. It's not all their fault though, it's just that their characters aren't that interesting to begin with. The young couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) are thinking of separating, so you can guess how this day is going to change their feelings. The waitress and her daughter (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) are just trying to survive a horrific experience, which I would be able to relate to, if not for the fact that Soul's character is so damn annoying, constantly asking Grillo stupid questions and saying stupid things, and trying to convince Grillo that what he's planning to do is wrong. Right, go tell the other purgers that.

The action sequences are decent enough, though some of it suffers from shaky camerawork and bad lighting. The subplot about a group of people (featuring a returning character from the first film) who are against the purge and taking up arms against it is a nice twist, which I'm sure will be explored in future instalments. However the film suffers a bit from a certain amount of predictability. There were also a couple of purgers that came off as more funny than serious, one being the lady perched on a rooftop with a megaphone and a machine gun, the other being a jealous family member (I'll leave it at that).

The Purge: Anarchy is a marked improvement from the original, despite still having some amounts of ridiculousness and familiarity. It's good fun throughout its 103 minute run time, and you can do much worse. (7/10)

A Walk Among The Tombstones

Year: 2014
Director: Scott Frank
Cast: Liam Neeson, Dan Stevens, Boyd Holbrook, Brian 'Astro' Bradley


Plot: A private investigator is hired by a drug dealer to find the men who kidnapped and murdered his wife.


Review: I'm all for a thriller featuring a hero with a dark past and a bunch of nasty killers as the villains. A Walk Among The Tombstones is one such thriller, though it's not quite as perfect as it ought to be.

Liam Neeson plays Matt Scudder, a former cop who is now an unlicensed private investigator in 1989 New York. A drug dealer named Kenny Kristo hires Scudder to find the men who kidnapped and chopped up his wife into many little pieces. With the help of a young street kid named TJ and some good old fashioned detective work, Scudder finds himself on the trail of two men who take pleasure in kidnapping young women and torturing them before killing them.

Director Scott Frank, who also penned the screenplay, is mostly a writer throughout his career, and it shows. From the looks of it, he put quite a bit of the novel the film is based on into his picture. As a result, the entire film feels oversaturated, filled with scenes that don't really need to be there. The film is supposed to be a thriller, but it's filled with more words than suspense, which unfortunately works against it.

Thankfully, the cast make the experience somewhat worthwhile. Neeson is perfect as the brooding hero Scudder, who is as flawed as they come, being a recovering alcoholic who is also recovering from a bad shooting incident eight years prior. Dan Stevens is also great as Kristo, allowing viewers to almost sympathize with his loss, but just short of fully doing so because of his profession. Credit also goes to David Harbour and Adam David Thompson as the two killers, doing a near excellent job playing a bunch of sickos here. Credit also goes to Brian 'Astro' Bradley (apparently he's from X-Factor) as the street kid TJ, who provides some humour in his conversations with Scudder.

Scott Frank does manage to get a few things right. His film looks dull in the day and rainy at night, fitting the mood of the story. The opening credit sequence is also unique, you'll have to see it for yourself to know what I mean. His use of Black Hole Sun, a song originally done by Soundgarden (remade here by Swann featuring Nouela) in the trailer and closing credits is a wise move, reflecting the darkness of the film very well. The film overall doesn't shy away from violence, which is another good thing about it. However, a better job of editing, pacing and choosing important dialogue would have made the film sharper, more suspenseful and overall more effective.

Overall, A Walk Among The Tombstones is a decent enough thriller. With Liam Neeson in the lead, I was hoping to see a gem here, but unfortunately it doesn't quite measure up. (6/10)

Sunday, September 14, 2014

The Maze Runner

Year: 2014
Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Will Poulter, Aml Ameen, Ki Hong Lee, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Blake Cooper, Patricia Clarkson


Plot: A young man named Thomas is sent to a mysterious maze, where other boys like him reside, and neither him or them remember anything other than their names. While most of them are content living like prisoners for their own safety, due to many of them getting killed attempting to escape through the maze, Thomas is curious and yearns to find a way out.


Review: Like comic book adaptations, youth adult novels are getting made into films quite rapidly, with this film coming on the heels of Divergent and The Giver this year. I'm not so much a fan of these types of stories, but decided to give The Maze Runner a shot.

The story begins with Thomas, who awakes in an elevator sending him upwards into an area called The Glade, where a group of boys await. They've been there for as long as three years, and like him, they can't remember anything other than their own names. They are divided by classes, depending on what they're good for, and Thomas quickly qualifies to becoming a runner, whose job is to run into the maze and map it out. As time passes, it becomes clear that Thomas is different from them, and the ante is upped when the elevator sends a girl to them.

Director Wes Ball should be commended for allowing sufficient screen time for his actors, including those of the minority race, even though they don't always get better character development. Ball, more often than not, keeps the pace steady, not too fast or slow, allowing the boys to wrestle with the mysteries of the maze, and each other as well, as the audience tries to piece the puzzle with them. It does take a while before we get to see some action sequences, the best of which is in the final third of the film.

Dylan O'Brien, whom I saw last in The Internship, is rather solid as Thomas, the odd one out among them, trying to fit in and yet breaking their rules at the same time. Kaya Scodelario gets too little screen time as Teresa, the first and only girl sent to the maze, but manages to more or less hold her own. Game Of Thrones' Thomas Brodie-Sangster gets more attention than her as Newt, Thomas' ally, with Will Poulter providing a nice contrast as the antagonistic Gally. Aml Ameen and Ki Hong Lee also do well in their roles, though I wished the latter got more development to his character.

The film however suffers from moments of weak dialogue, for instance they keep saying "We call it The (insert name)", or ask rather cliched or obvious questions like "What if they sent us here for a reason?" or "What's that sound?". And like most YA stories, The Maze Runner has its own veteran actor villain, this time it's Patricia Clarkson doing what Donald Sutherland, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep and Diane Kruger have already done. She does it well, but I just wish they did things differently in order to stand out.

But for what it's worth, The Maze Runner is solid entertainment with a good share of thrilling moments. A sequel is already in the works, so I am hoping this will become better than even The Hunger Games. The potential is certainly there. (7/10)

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Signal

Year: 2014
Director: William Eubank
Cast: Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke, Beau Knapp, Laurence Fishburne


Plot: Three friends on a road trip take a detour to find an elusive hacker, only to find something much more sinister.


Review: The best thing going for The Signal is its mysteriousness, and at the same time it may be its own undoing. This is clearly the case when the audience doesn't really know what's going on by the time they reach the halfway mark of this sci-fi picture.

The story focuses on three friends: Nic, Haley and Jonah, who are on a road trip to help Haley move to another college. Nic and Haley are having relationship issues due to the fact that the former is suffering from a debilitating condition in his legs, and the latter moving away isn't great either. During their trip, Nic and Jonah are trying to locate Nomad, a mysterious hacker who has been taunting them, and after tracking Nomad's location, they all go there to discover who he is. But something unexpected happens, and next thing we know, Nic is in an underground facility watched over by people in Hazmat suits, led by Dr Damon, who starts asking him strange questions.

Director William Eubank, who co-wrote the story with Carlyle Eubank and David Frigerio, does his utmost best to keep the audience in the dark on what's really going on. He manages to make us care enough about the three kids to want to see them escape the facility (which you know they eventually do) and figure out what's happening. The story drops clues every now and then to pique our interest and keep going until the final reveal at the end, which is a good one. It does come at a price to the audience, which I'll get to in a bit.

Brenton Thwaites, Olivia Cooke and Beau Knapp do great work here as Nic, Haley and Jonah respectively. They genuinely feel like close friends and display the right emotions at all the right moments. Laurence Fishburne is perfect as Damon, being the kind of guy with a calming voice supposedly to disperse your fears, yet there's a sinister tone in there as well, making us realise there's something else going on.

Now for the downsides. Despite the great story at hand, there were too many questions left unanswered at the end, which I can't mention without giving too much away. Eubank also poorly chooses to use flashes and slow motion to depict his action sequences in the film's climax, when a straight up approach would have been better. 

The Signal is truly a fascinating film, weakened only by its ambiguity and abundance of distractions in its closing moments. (3.5/5)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lucy

Year: 2014
Director: Luc Besson
Cast: Scarlett Johansson, Morgan Freeman, Choi Min-Sik, Amr Waked


Plot: A young woman named Lucy is forced to be a drug mule by a Korean mob boss. But after the drugs gets mixed into her system, she gains super enhancements in her brain capacity and with it, super powers.


Review: If you walked into Lucy expecting a standard Luc Besson action movie, you're in for a surprise. This is one of those rare moments when Besson gives us something more cerebral than stylish. I had read a review that claims this movie is very similar to The Tree Of Life. I can certainly understand that notion now. This pretty much means that there isn't as much action here as you would anticipate from Besson.

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young student in Taipei who is forced by a Korean mob boss (thanks to her shitty boyfriend) to become a drug mule. The drugs gets accidentally mixed into her system and suddenly she gains superpowers and heightened brain power, which she uses to turn the tables on her tormentors. Not knowing what to do next, she seeks out Professor Norman (Morgan Freeman), an expert in the human brain on her next step.

For his latest effort, Besson gives the audience a tour into Lucy's steady evolution, by stating the percentage of her brain power as she evolves, using stock footage to symbolise and describe the theories being used and showing what's going on in her body whenever something huge happens. It's fascinating actually to not only experience the theories Besson wants us to learn, but to also watch a different way his protagonist deals with obstacles. For example, why engage in fisticuffs when you can just stop them with your mind?

To her credit, Johansson is in great form as Lucy, especially in the first third of the film when she is at her most vulnerable. Watching her cower in fear as the Korean gangsters messed with her was different from what we'd expect (if she was the Black Widow, the result would be otherwise). She also excels in a poignant scene where she speaks to her mother on the phone, afraid on what she may become imminently. Johansson is simply superb here, even as she becomes more emotionless as she evolves. Freeman is perfect as Professor Norman, being that same guy who is excellent at narration, providing the audience with the human connection necessary to understand the goings-on. Choi Min-Sik of Oldboy fame is also solid as the antagonist Mr Jang while Amr Waked provides the comic relief (and then some) as Del Rio, the Paris police captain.

The film suffers however from massive lapses of logic and a ludicrous third act when Lucy's powers hit the max. It's not just her growing powers that defy logic, it's also many other things, like the severe lack of security at hospitals or the ineptitude of the police. The ending itself is anti-climactic, but it's not entirely unexpected.

At best, Lucy is quite entertaining and dare I say it, educational overall. At worst, you'll wonder what the heck you just watched when it's over. (3.5/5)   

Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Expendables 3

Year: 2014
Director: Patrick Hughes
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Mel Gibson, Antonio Banderas, Jason Statham, Wesley Snipes, Kelsey Grammer, Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger


Plot: Barney Ross learns that his former comrade turned enemy Conrad Stonebanks is alive despite having shot him dead years ago. Ross retires the old team and forms a new, younger team to go after him, but will his old buddies simply stay retired?


Review: The Expendables films have become not much more than showcasing veteran action heroes square off against each other and side by side. It's basically a mix of hard action and nostalgic moments, but not much else. So needless to say, this third outing isn't very different from the first two, but still quite fun to behold.

In this instalment, Barney Ross runs into Expendables co-founder Conrad Stonebanks, whom he had killed years ago, or so he thought. Stonebanks maims one of Ross' mates, prompting the latter to retire the old team so that he doesn't have to watch them die, and forms a younger team to go after his nemesis. But the old team won't stay down of course, and the young team still needs to learn a thing or two about kicking ass, so a huge collision is forthcoming, which happens in the film's climax.

Director Patrick Hughes, working on a script co-written by Stallone, does a decent enough job with the material, keeping things flowing smoothly with two big action set pieces in the first third of the film before throwing in an even bigger sequence in the final third. The middle portion consists of Stallone and old acquaintance Bonaparte (played by Kelsey Grammer) recruiting the young team, and a handful of rather hilarious moments ensue.

It's interesting to note that Stallone has given more time to the action veterans newly added here as compared to his usual co-stars, which means that Jason Statham, Dolph Lundgren, Terry Crews and Randy Couture get less time to show off here. (Sorry Jet Li fans, he gets even less here than previously, so you might want to skip this film) Wesley Snipes makes good use of his screen time as Dr Death, showing the kind of charm we haven't seen since Demolition Man (where he fought Stallone). Mel Gibson is absolutely delightful as the villain Stonebanks, making him more than a match for Stallone. But the prize for best performance goes to Antonio Banderas as Galgo, the Spaniard soldier desperate to join Ross' crew. Who would have thought Banderas was capable of comedy like this? It's almost like he's being Puss In Boots all over again, but even better.

Glen Powell, Kellan Lutz, Victor Ortiz and MMA fighter Ronda Rousey make up the young team, though only the former two make an impression. Ortiz is forgettable and Rousey has zero acting skills. Arnie gets credit for just showing up (it's what he does best) while Harrison Ford makes good on his CIA agent character, and he actually does better than Bruce Willis, who got cut for asking for more dough.

The thing is, with The Expendables, what you see is what you get. You get action, tough talk, lots of cheese and illogical situations (like why are all the bad guys terrible marksmen?). But if you don't mind all that, it's always fun to watch these guys go at it. 

Verdict: If you enjoyed the first two, you'll love this one. (3.5/5)

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