Sunday, September 27, 2015


Year: 2015
Director: Baltasar Kormakur
Cast: Jason Clarke, Josh Brolin, John Hawkes, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly

Plot: Based on the true story of the expedition up Mt. Everest in 1996 that killed eight people.

Review: In 1996, an expedition to climb Mt. Everest ended in disaster after a storm caused several climbers to be stranded and eventually killed by the extreme cold and lack of oxygen. This film tells that story.

The film's main character is Rob Hall, an experienced climber who runs Adventure Consultants, an outfit that guides climbers to the peak of Mt. Everest. Rob takes on the task of bringing among others; Beck Weathers, a wealthy man from Texas, Doug Hansen, a mailman who's never reached the top of Mt. Everest, Yasuko Namba, a Japanese woman who has one final peak out of the seven peaks to conquer, and Jon Krakauer, a journalist whom Rob hopes will put a good word in about him. Also going up the mountain is Rob's friendly rival Scott Fischer and his clients. They all go up there, then unexpected delays causes the group to run into weather trouble, and then casualties start to occur.

If you're looking for an action thriller like Vertical Limit, you're not going to get it here. Director Baltasar Kormakur focuses on the men and women who went up the mountain on that fateful day, their preparations, the progress of their climb and everything that went wrong that day. There's also a subplot on Rob, whose pregnant wife Jan is waiting for him to come home before their daughter is born. Basically, Kormakur's film is a historical and dramatic account of the events on May 10th 1996. To his credit, the film is perfectly paced and gorgeously shot. Every lead character gets their due time on screen, and every shot of the mountain is just beautiful. You can say that the idea of something so breathtaking can also be deadly at the same time is presented well by Kormakur.

The cast all perform splendidly, with Jason Clarke doing a fine job leading the way as Rob Hall. I also enjoyed Josh Brolin and John Hawkes' performances as Beck and Doug respectively. Emily Watson is great as usual in the role of Helen, the Everest base camp manager, while Keira Knightley and Robin Wright make do with their limited screen time as Rob and Beck's wives respectively. Jake Gyllenhaal is also quite underused here as Scott, playing him as slightly more free spirited than the serious Rob. But to be fair, every actor did their job very well, with no one person outshining the other.

I think the film's tagline of this being an "incredible true story" is a bit misleading though. The only incredible thing about this story is the mountain itself. This isn't a story about miracles or heroism, it's a story about tragedy, with no sensational angles to it. This makes Everest more in common with a film like The Impossible, instead of say, Gravity. That being said, I liked how the film turned out overall.

Everest is a solid disaster flick that centres on the drama and not the visual effects, though there's quite a lot of the latter here. It's definitely worth checking out. (8/10)

The Green Inferno

Year: 2015
Director: Eli Roth
Cast: Lorenza Izzo, Ariel Levy, Daryl Sabara, Nicolas Martinez

Plot: A group of activists travel to Peru to save indigenous tribes from being driven from their homes by illegal loggers, only for them to be captured by a cannibalistic tribe after their plane crashes in the jungle.

Review: It seems that this film had its release delayed for a couple of years and is finally seeing the light of day. It was inspired by a classic film called Cannibal Holocaust, which I have not seen, hence my curiosity for checking this out.

The Green Inferno begins with Justine, a young student who decides to join a group of activists on a trip to Peru. The objective is to stop illegal logging in the rainforest which is destroying the homes of indigenous tribes there. While the act of chaining themselves to tractors and trees and facing the guns of the loggers' security forces are downright dangerous, it pales in comparison to the threat of a tribe that captures them after their plane crashes in the jungle. As it turns out, the tribe is made up of cannibals, and they have to find a way to escape before they become the tribe's next meal.

Eli Roth has been known for making gory and bloody horror films. Therefore you can expect a high level of the sort here, though thanks to the local censors, I didn't get to see much of it. But I did get to see the horrific plane crash, as well as some of the awful things the tribe does to the group after their capture, including a scene where a tribe woman puts a sharp object into three women's genitals, which although isn't graphically shown, proves to be quite discomforting to the viewer.

If Roth had set out to make a cannibal horror flick through and through, this would have been a much better film than what I had seen. As it stands, it's not entirely that. For the first 45 minutes, we watch Justine trying to sign up to a cause she doesn't totally believe in, probably in an attempt to discover herself or figuring out how to make herself matter. On the plus side, it allows us to connect to Justine as our lead protagonist. But on the flipside, it takes the film quite a while before it gets started.

The film also lacks suspense somewhat, as Roth prefers to rely on the gore to scare the audience. There are a few suspenseful moments here and there, but not enough to keep viewers on edge. The mid credits scene hinting at a sequel is also a poor idea and rather cliched.

The good news is, Lorenza Izzo does a solid job as Justine, with Spy Kids' Daryl Sabara providing the laughs as the stoner of the group. Ariel Levy plays the asshole and leader of the group well enough, but his character is rather two dimensional. The other good news is the way Roth presents the cannibals here. Instead of being shown as violent and merciless, the tribe is presented as rather normal people that are simply different from us because of their isolation from civilization and progress, and the things that they do are regular to them, even though we may think otherwise. Being in their cage is similar to being in a wolf's den compared to a demon's lair.

Overall, The Green Inferno is just a slightly above average thriller, though this reviewer would like to see an uncensored version of this film somewhere down the line. (6/10)  

Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pawn Sacrifice

Year: 2015
Director: Edward Zwick
Cast: Tobey Maguire, Liev Schreiber, Peter Sarsgaard, Michael Stuhlbarg

Plot: The true story of Bobby Fischer, the American chess prodigy and his landmark chess match against world champion Boris Spassky in 1972.

Review: I know too little about chess other than the basic rules, so the true story of Bobby Fischer's rivalry with Russian world champion Boris Spassky is lost on me. But thanks to Pawn Sacrifice, the film that focuses on this story, I know a little more.

The key of making a story like this great is to make it appeal to a wider audience, which includes both fans and non-fans of chess. So it is to director Edward Zwick's credit that his film turned out to be quite appealing to this movie reviewer.

Pawn Sacrifice traces the life of Bobby Fischer, a poor kid from Brooklyn who became a chess master at a young age and went on to face the Russians in a chess tournament. However he became convinced that the Russian players were all cheating and threatened to quit chess for good, until a lawyer named Paul Marshall, who says he can "make things happen", convinces him to change his mind. With Paul and his old friend Father Bill Lombardy by his side, Bobby goes back to the board and earns himself a match against world champion Boris Spassky, at a time when the Cold War is raging on.

In this film, Zwick focuses on two things: Bobby's chess match with Spassky, and his life, particularly his mental problems. While Bobby is an incomparable chess genius, at the same time he was incredibly paranoid, constantly thinking he's being followed or spied on by the Russians. Zwick and writer Steven Knight imply that this is caused by the mathematical complexity of chess, showing what it does not just to Bobby's mind, but Spassky's as well, though of course the focus is more on the former. Zwick's film shows the audience how Bobby's obsession of chess takes him to great heights in the chess world, and how it eventually breaks his mind down. He and Knight deserve praise for keeping the flow of the story smooth and not wasting time with unnecessary melodrama.

Tobey Maguire is quite good here as Bobby, convincingly portraying a man who's great at what he does but is slowly being pushed towards the edge of his sanity. At his best, he's constantly playing chess games in his head, at his worst he's tearing up the room looking for listening devices that aren't there. Maguire may seem to be overdoing it when he's acting in a rage, but otherwise he's spot on. Peter Sarsgaard represents the sane friend that we need in our lives and in this case, Bobby's life. As Father Billy, Bobby's friend who knows chess almost as good as he does, Sarsgaard is solid here, being the voice of reason and probably the only person who understands what the man is going through. Michael Stuhlbarg also excels as Paul, who claims to be a patriot serving his country by having Bobby put America back on the world map after the humiliation of Vietnam, but not really understanding what he's getting Bobby into once the mental problems get worse. Liev Schreiber speaks mostly Russian in his role as Spassky, and to his credit, makes him just as interesting as Bobby, though much more in control of things. It's a pity he is overshadowed by Bobby's story, as a take on his point of view of the chess game would be very welcome.

Speaking of the chess match itself, which happens in the final third of the film, it proves to be both funny and engaging at the same time. One wonders if what Zwick presents here actually happened back then.

The main flaw of the film is the abrupt ending to the story once the match is over. It seems that Zwick and Knight were only interested in Bobby's journey up to that match, filling the rest of his life with words before the credits roll. Because of this, Bobby's biography feels incomplete, though logically, Zwick can't afford more time without making it seem too long. But just saying, it would have been nice to be able to see it.

Overall, this is a solid outing for Zwick, though not as compelling as his other films like Blood Diamond and The Last Samurai. It's worth watching for sure. (7/10)

Sunday, September 20, 2015


Year: 2015
Director: Denis Villeneuve
Cast: Emily Blunt, Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Daniel Kaluuya

Plot: An idealistic FBI agent is recruited to a task force with a mission to fight the war on drugs at the American-Mexican border. But soon she discovers that things are not exactly as it seems.

Review: I walked into Sicario thinking it would be a gritty action thriller, but it's not quite that entirely. It's gritty for sure, but not the slam bang actioner I was expecting. Perhaps that's why I'm a bit underwhelmed. My mistake nonetheless.

Sicario, which in Mexico means hitman, begins with the FBI raiding a house and discovering dozens of corpses, followed by a huge bomb going off. Agent in charge Kate Macer is then recruited by Matt Graver, who is leading a task force to find the people responsible for the incident. Kate is led to the Mexican border and meets Alejandro, a mysterious man who seems like the Mexican version of a federal agent, but then again not quite. Slowly but surely, Kate is dragged into a world of violence and lies, and she's in over her head.

Denis Villeneuve, who directed the excellent Prisoners, successfully shows us the dirty and violent world of the drug cartels here. He works once again with cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Johann Johannsson to create a dark and scary atmosphere. Deakins' lens captures in great detail and style, the brutality of the action scenes as well as the sweeping aerial shots and even the night vision sights of a soldier's gear. A particular shot of the squad walking into the darkness as the sun sets is just beautiful. And Johannsson excels in creating the right mood using huge bass sounds and violins.

Emily Blunt is great in her role as Kate here, being the audience's eyes and ears. At the start, she is as much in the dark of her role in all this as we are, and the deeper she digs, the worse it gets. Her high sense of morality though can be a bit frustrating even to the audience, but it inevitably makes her human. As good as Blunt is though, it's Benicio Del Toro that shines the brightest as Alejandro. He's just terrific as a man of few words and holds all his cards to his chest. He's Mr Cool for the most part, but the kind of guy you don't want to cross, which he effectively proves in the film's climax. Josh Brolin is also solid as Matt, the shady government agent orchestrating their mission. He's sort of the bad cop to Blunt's good cop, except he, like Alejandro, knows more than he's letting on.

The film does feel draggy in parts, particularly during scenes involving a Mexican policeman named Silvio (played by Agents of SHIELD's Maximiliano Hernandez) and his young son. Silvio has a part to play towards the film's climax, so I'm aware of why Villeneuve focused on him, but it could use some editing. The plot is also rather complicated at times, which is made clearer towards the end, but it may test one's patience.

In the end, Sicario is a story of a world that is constantly in a state of grey, and one heroine who looks at everything in black or white becomes a victim when she steps into it. To this viewer, it's less compelling than Villeneuve's masterpiece Prisoners, but it's a solid film nonetheless. (7/10)

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The Scorch Trials

Year: 2015
Director: Wes Ball
Cast: Dylan O'Brien, Kaya Scodelario, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Ki Hong Lee, Rosa Salazar, Giancarlo Esposito, Barry Pepper, Aidan Gillen, Patricia Clarkson, Jacob Lofland

Plot: Thomas and his friends have escaped the maze, and are taken in by a man named Janson who promises them protection and safety, only to realise he's quite the opposite. They run away yet again, only to face the horrors of the outside world.

Review: The Maze Runner was a nice surprise last year and a fine addition to the rising YA novel adaptation craze that began with Twilight and the tiring Hunger Games which will finally wrap up later this year. Even more surprising is how quickly they followed it up with this sequel.

In The Scorch Trials, Thomas, Teresa, Newt, Minho, Frypan and Winston arrive at a secure facility run by Janson, who promises the kids safety and a new home for them. Thomas senses something amiss, and his fears are confirmed when a fellow survivor from another maze (yes there are other mazes), Aris, leads him to the truth. The kids decide to run again, out into the open desert, where they encounter infected people that look like zombies, ruined cities and a pirate like man named Jorge.

Credit must be given to Wes Ball, who has successfully expanded and built the world around The Maze Runner. This time around he has a larger set to play with and more characters to introduce. I particularly liked the ruined city where a suspenseful chase sequence between Thomas and the infected takes place. Admittedly, a lot of scenes in this film are reminiscent of other films like The Island, World War Z, As Above, So Below and even The Lost World: Jurassic Park, but Ball uses what he has and presents them well so they don't look like complete ripoffs.

As for characters, Thomas and the newer ones get more screen time here, leaving others like Newt, Minho and Teresa with much less than before. At the very least, the entire cast perform splendidly, with Dylan O'Brien showing more confidence in the lead role of Thomas. Giancarlo Esposito is solid as Jorge, a role that I can imagine someone like Peter Stormare playing. Jorge is a guy who worships the almighty dollar or whatever passes for currency, until he realises the kids' true worth. Aidan Gillen once again plays the sneaky character type well as Janson, while Barry Pepper and Lili Taylor provide good support as the rebels that are against WICKED, though they only appear in the last third of the film. Watch out for Alan Tudyk in a minor role as a club owner. 

The film does suffer from an uneven pace, and at times it feels like Ball is trying to cram too much information into his piece, which is obvious in the climactic sequence. And there are still some moments when the dialogue suffers from cliched questions and responses. However the many twists and turns towards the end succeeds in giving the audience some answers, if not all, and promises more in the inevitable third instalment.

Bottom line is, if you had seen and enjoyed the first film, you ought to see this one. Personally I feel that this franchise is more exciting than both The Hunger Games and Divergent. But that's just me. (7/10)

Sunday, September 06, 2015

No Escape

Year: 2015
Director: John Erick Dowdle
Cast: Owen Wilson, Lake Bell, Pierce Brosnan, Sterling Jerins, Claire Geare

Plot: An American expatriate family find themselves trapped and hunted by rebels during a coup after moving into their new home.

Review: No Escape is a story about xenophobia with a dash of cultural shock, something most of us can relate to on some level or another.

After a very interesting opening sequence featuring an assassination, we are introduced to the Dwyer family, made up of Jack, Annie and their two daughters Lucy and Beeze, who have just arrived in an unnamed country in Southeast Asia (it's supposed to be Laos or Cambodia but it sorta looks like Thailand). Despite the major culture shock, they settle in with few problems, until a riot breaks out on the streets, led by rebels who are bent on killing every foreigner they can find. Jack and Annie have to take desperate measures in order to save themselves and their kids, with a bit of help from a fellow expatriate named Hammond, who isn't just a regular traveler.

John Erick Dowdle, who has made slightly flawed but solid films like Devil and As Above, So Below teams up with his brother Drew once again to create a tension filled film which is essentially a long chase sequence. Ironically, Owen Wilson had done something like this before in Behind Enemy Lines, only then he was alone and trained for combat. Here, he plays the everyman who has to protect his family at all costs. The Dowdle brothers, to their credit, do splendidly in raising the tension in the first half of the film as the family attempt to run from their hotel once the rebels bust through the lobby and start the violence. Dowdle does well in putting the audience right in the middle of it as Jack and his family run from their hotel room to the roof, followed by a daring leap to the next building. From there, more danger keeps on coming, though in lesser doses, but more on that later.

The cast all do great work here, with Wilson proving once again that he can play a serious guy. Lake Bell is also solid as Annie, the supportive wife who is naturally terrified but willing to risk her life to save her family. Pierce Brosnan, a long way removed from looking like Bond, plays Hammond as the mysterious guy who is somewhat connected to the reason the riots are happening. He may not be Bond anymore but he can still shoot pretty good. Credit also goes to Sterling Jerins and Claire Geare as Lucy and Beeze. They may be young but they're quite impressive. In fact, the actors playing the Dwyers share great chemistry and thereby making them very believable as a family.

As stated, the first half is solid stuff, and though Dowdle tries his best, the tension starts to wane as the second half progresses. Once Hammond steps in to save the Dwyers at the end of the second act, the film slows down considerably, though it is rather expected. The climax, which features Jack and Lucy in a situation with the rebel's leader, looks poorly constructed despite the two putting in a humongous effort in making it work. 

Overall, despite the flaws, No Escape is a taut little thriller that promises several hair raising moments and solid performances from its cast. (7/10)


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