Tuesday, October 28, 2014


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)


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