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)


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