Sunday, February 23, 2014


Year: 2013
Director: Bong Joon-Ho
Cast: Chris Evans, Song Kang-Ho, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Octavia Spencer, John Hurt, Ed Harris, Ko Ah-Sung

Plot: A global warming experiment fails and freezes the entire planet, forcing the remaining survivors to take refuge in the Snowpiercer, a huge train that continuously circles the globe. Over time, a class system takes shape on board, where the rich and privileged stay in front of the train while the poor remain in the tail end under horrible living conditions. The tail end passengers have finally had enough and hatch a plan to take over the train.

Review: I don't think this film has had a wide release yet, except maybe in Korea, since it's a Korean production, which is a pity, because Snowpiercer is an awesome piece of work. Based on the French graphic novel Le Transperceneige, which was discovered apparently by director Bong Joon-Ho (who finished reading it while standing at the bookshelf where he found it), the film is a sci-fi story that focuses on class inequality and survival of the fittest, or in this case at times, of the richest.

We're introduced to the poor folk at the back of the train, who live in cramped and dark cabins, squeezed together like homeless people on a refugee ship. The main protagonist is Curtis, who's planning a revolt in an effort to get to the front of the train, where the engine is. He believes if they control the engine, they can win. However, the path is far from easy, and there be plenty of surprises in store, as Curtis and company soon discover what's really going on beyond the carriage doors.

Bong succeeds in making this story a compelling and engaging experience. This could have taken place in any part of the world, but in this film, it's on a huge train, and despite the closed compartments and lack of external views (till later on anyway), Bong makes it believable overall. The division between the two classes, and how the powerful ones maintain order throughout, are well depicted. What's most interesting though, are the things that Curtis and his people find as they make their way forward, like what's in the protein blocks they've been fed with, what the people in front do to maintain a balanced world inside the train, and what threats lie ahead, of course. (There's a scene with a kindergarten which is funny and creepy at the same time, I'll let you see it for yourself)

Action wise, there are a handful of violent hand to hand fights and a cool shootout scene between Curtis and a brute enforcer that takes place between two separate carriages during the train's long turn around a bend. These prove to be more compelling and tragic rather than exciting, as tragedy becomes more prevalent the further Curtis and his friends move towards the front.

The international cast is made up of a variety of great actors, though the standout performer would have to be Chris Evans as Curtis. This film is where Evans proves that he's one of the most underrated actors out there. We know him as Steve Rogers and Johnny Storm, but he can definitely do heavier stuff as well, I've known it since watching him in Sunshine. He plays a reluctant leader here, with a backstory that's tragic enough to make you root for him long before he's even mentioned it. Song Kang-Ho is quite good as Nam, the former security expert of the train that helps them move forward, in exchange for some drugs. Jamie Bell, Octavia Spencer, Ewen Bremner and John Hurt are also solid in their supporting roles as Curtis' comrades, with Spencer being quite commendable as she tones down her comedic talents considerably to play a more serious person. Tilda Swinton puts on thick glasses and dentures to be the slimy upper class officer that metes out punishment to the rebels, and does a pretty good job at making herself a vile villain. Ed Harris rounds out the cast as Wilford, the train owner, which is a relatively minor role, but he's effective in it.   

If there are any areas for improvement, it would be the action scenes as Bong filmed them shaky cam style. The climax of the film was also a bit too long, though the final revelation was quite cool. It reminded me of another sci-fi action film with a similar revelation, but I won't mention it so as not to spoil it.

I'm real glad I had a chance to catch this, and I sincerely hope more people get to see it. Highly recommended. (4/5)

Sunday, February 16, 2014

The Book Thief

Year: 2014
Director: Brian Percival
Cast: Sophie Nelisse, Geoffrey Rush, Emily Watson, Nico Liersch, Ben Schnetzer, Barbara Auer

Plot: In Germany during WW2, Liesel Meminger is sent for adoption by her mother to an elderly couple. The story traces her life during this era as she develops her passion for reading and writing with help from her foster father and the Jewish man he hides in the basement.

Review: There have been many films on the horrors of World War II, a lot of them focusing on the war itself, while some shed light on the people who suffer during that period. The Book Thief falls in the latter category, and thankfully it isn't as bleak as say, The Pianist.

But don't be fooled, just because this film features a young girl as the lead character, doesn't mean it downplays the horrors of that time. Nazism isn't something we're allowed to take lightly, and The Book Thief does feature scenes where people become victims of Hitler's movement, so the audience is constantly aware of what it was like back then. But what I like about this film is that despite all of that, it manages to keep itself hopeful and positive.

The story begins in 1938, as narrated by Death of all things, when young Liesel Meminger is sent for adoption by her mother to an elderly couple. They're poor but they agree to look after Liesel, even though they were expecting her brother as well, who died on the way. Liesel is at first quiet and scared with her new surroundings, with only a book she picked up at her brother's funeral as company (despite her being unable to read or write). But slowly, thanks to her kind foster father and the boy next door, who becomes her best friend, she becomes a braver and stronger person, and eventually learns how to read. Later she makes another friend, a young Jewish man named Max, whom Liesel's foster parents give refuge to. Max teaches her how to imagine, describe and write, and gives her encouragement to survive during those harsh times.

Director Brain Percival deserves credit for making a solid film that scores on nearly every level, from storytelling to production design, music and casting. The colourful script is excellent, giving great balance to both drama and comedy and allowing each character to shine at the right moments, especially Liesel, who carries the weight of the film.

Newcomer Sophie Nelisse is awesome as Liesel, being capable of hitting all the right notes and showing the right emotions at the right moments. She's only a 12 year old Canadian actress with only a handful of acting credits, but she's so good. I foresee a great future for her. Geoffrey Rush is perfect as the kind and gentle Hans, Liesel's foster father, who protects, encourages and entertains Liesel with his accordion. Emily Watson plays Rosa, Liesel's cranky foster mother, who comes off as being constantly difficult and fierce, but actually has a good heart. She is solid in her role too. Rounding up the cast are Nico Liersch as Rudy, Liesel's best friend, Ben Schnetzer as Max, the Jewish youth who hides in the basement and Barbara Auer as the mayor's wife, who has a large collection of books from which Liesel "borrows" secretly (hence being a book thief).

If the film has any weaknesses, it would be the way it ended. Not that it was a big issue, just that instead of a simpler ending, Percival let Death narrate a bit too much in its final moments. And I have to admit, it was rather strange having the narration, as I felt the film would have worked even without it.

But the film is a very solid piece on the World War II era, and a great choice for people who love stories about hope in the darkest of times. Recommended. (4/5)  

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


Year: 2014
Director: Jose Padilha
Cast: Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Samuel L Jackson, Abbie Cornish

Plot: A multinational corporation takes the opportunity to create a cyborg cop when police officer Alex Murphy is seriously wounded in an explosion.

Review: I am a huge fan of the original, so I was very skeptical when I saw the trailer to this remake of the 1987 action sci-fi directed by Paul Verhoeven. I didn't think this remake would be as good as the original, and I was right.

To be fair, Jose Padilha does make a conscious attempt to make his version as different from the original as possible. For starters, he and scriptwriter Joshua Zetumer inflate the roles of the scientist that creates Robocop as well as Murphy's wife, and deflate the role of the crime boss that kills Murphy. His approach to Murphy's struggle in regaining his humanity is also different, as well as the world the film is set in, though the timeline of being in the near future is almost similar.

But even with all this, it's pretty clear to me that while Padilha went to great effort to stand out differently, his take is, for lack of a better term, boring.

Padilha spends too much time explaining to the audience how Murphy is to get used to being in a robot body, training to be a more efficient crimefighter, or whether he can go back to being the way he was before etc. He spends a good half of the film doing this, in such an obvious manner that it almost feels like he's selling something he desperately wants the audience to buy. Then , when he finally gets to the action sequences, Padilha drops the ball again by orchestrating really fancy shootout sequences that look like it came straight from a video game. We watch Robocop turn, shoot, shoot, turn, shoot some more, all in bullet fashion, so quick that the excitement leaves as soon as it arrives, like we're supposed to breeze through this stuff quickly because it doesn't matter.

In the acting department, the cast isn't too bad, the quality ranges from decent to good. Gary Oldman stands out the most as the doctor that creates Robocop, trying to balance right from wrong as he struggles with the idea of taking away a man's humanity for profit. Samuel L Jackson is also good as a talk show host supporting the idea of robot law enforcement. Joel Kinnaman is all right as Murphy/Robocop, his best scene being how he reacts when Oldman shows him how he looks like when the armor is removed. Michael Keaton downplays his role as the corporation owner wanting to make money out of his latest toy, but really, a guy like Keaton could have done better. A slightly more bombastic, scenery chewing level of acting would have made him more memorable. Abbie Cornish isn't too bad as Murphy's wife, but really doesn't have much else to do. Jackie Earle Haley, Jennifer Ehle and Jay Baruchel have even less to do in their roles, which is a great shame.

To sum it up, this remake just doesn't work for me. It's by no means a bad film, for I have seen much worse. But if you really want to be entertained, watch the 1987 version. I wouldn't buy this remake for a dollar. (2.5/5)

Monday, February 03, 2014

I, Frankenstein

Year: 2014
Director: Stuart Beattie
Cast: Aaron Eckhart, Yvonne Strahovski, Bill Nighy, Miranda Otto, Jai Courtney

Plot: Frankenstein's monster, after living for 200 years, finds himself caught in a war between the immortal gargoyles and evil demons.

Review: I had already read all the bad reviews that came with this film, and decided to give it a shot anyway. As it turns out, it's not as bad as I feared.

This vastly different take on the Frankenstein story, just like Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is a different tale of the great president, sees the famous monster wandering the earth after his creator's death. Because he's essentially a dead corpse brought to life, he is of great interest to demons who seek to use him in finding a way to take over the world. The demons are opposed by the gargoyle order (descendants of the archangel Michael), who offer him protection and even name him Adam. Adam however wants no part of their struggle and chooses to be on his own, until we get to the modern era, where the demons are finally close to achieving their goal, and Adam is the last thing they need.

What I like about this film is that it doesn't pretend to be anything more than a CGI filled supernatural action fantasy piece. It doesn't try to be cerebral, it just wants to have some fun, though I do admit the film is almost absent of humour. The script and dialogue is about as corny as a fantasy comic book would be, but the cast makes it work. Stuart Beattie paces the film decently and doesn't stretch it beyond 90 minutes, which is a plus point as it doesn't feel like it overstayed its welcome. The action sequences are quite good, though the ones not affected by CGI are the best, of which sadly is the minority, like the stick fight between Adam and a demon.

Aaron Eckhart should be commended for portraying Adam very convincingly, as in he gives the character believability and soul, even when his lines sound very cliched. It's rather obvious he's given a lot of time and training for the role, so he deserves the credit. Bill Nighy, once again playing the villain he's done a dozen times before, gives demon prince Naberius the presence it needs. Yvonne Strahovski from TV's Chuck gets the damsel role unfortunately. Pity, since we all know from that show that she can kick ass. Miranda Otto and Jai Courtney round out the cast as the gargoyle queen Leonore and her enforcer Gideon respectively, both looking rather confrontational most of the time. Basically the cast is made up of people having trouble getting the top roles in the top movies as of late (and I don't mean that as an insult, rather as a sad matter of fact), but they do make it work.

The film isn't meant to be perfect, it is a fantasy film, I get it. But still, some logic could have been put into the script, like how is it there are no humans around when the two sides go to war? And did the whole story take place in one day? Because I don't recall seeing daylight at all here. And yes, some of the CGI looked shabby, and the dialogue was as I mentioned: corny.

Thing is, this is the kind of film the audience can digest for 90 minutes and forget it later. It's what I expected, and it's what I got. I, Frankenstein could have been much worse, but it's decent entertainment, and I can't fault it for that. If you liked the Underworld films (same producers, and Kevin Grevioux, who acted in those films wrote the graphic novel of this film), you'll like this one too. (3/5)

Saturday, February 01, 2014

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit

Year: 2014
Director: Kenneth Branagh
Cast: Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Kenneth Branagh, Keira Knightley

Plot: Jack Ryan, a young analyst working for the CIA, discovers a Russian plot to cause a second Great Depression in the States.

Review: Jack Ryan is a well known literary hero created by Tom Clancy who has enjoyed various incarnations in Hollywood over the years. For those not in the know, he's a CIA guy who always has to stop some terrorist plot or get involved in something related to the Cold War, which was the era when he was created.

This particular Jack Ryan film is a bit of both, as it features Russians and a terrorist attack. The story begins with a brief backstory on Ryan, as he joins the CIA after recovering from a near fatal helicopter crash in Afghanistan. He's recruited to take a cover job in Wall Street monitoring monetary activities while keeping his double life a secret from his doctor girlfriend Cathy. He subsequently discovers a plot by the Russians to launch an attack that if successful, will severely devalue the dollar and send the US into another Great Depression.

The plot itself isn't too shabby, but the execution of the film is somewhat tame. Kenneth Branagh, who also plays Russian antagonist Viktor Cherevin, directs the film well enough, except when it comes to making it stand out. The script by Adam Cozad and David Koepp would have been more effective if they actually gave the film some genuine suspense. Most of the stuff that happens is rather predictable, worse still the bad guys don't seem to be very efficient as Ryan figures them out without trying too hard. The audience is also expected to suspend their disbelief a few times, especially when Cathy willingly volunteers to help Jack on a mission. In other aspects, Branagh paces the film briskly but unlike Thor (which he also directed), the fight scenes looked too shaky.

Performance wise, Chris Pine is believable enough as Ryan, he's always had the perfect look of a young action hero in the making, and he pulls it off here. Branagh chews the scenery as Cherevin, but rarely gets to do anything intimidating which makes his role somewhat tame. Kevin Costner plays Ryan's superior Harper the same way you would expect him to, it's predictable but it works. Keira Knightley loses her British accent nearly effectively to play Cathy, but her role is rather dull, not that it's her fault really.

As an action thriller, it could have been worse, for sure. But in the world of Bourne and Mission: Impossible movies (which this film seems to borrow a lot from), it needed something extra to be special, and overall it was just mediocre.

Verdict: it's decent but very forgettable. (3/5)


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