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


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


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)


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