Sunday, September 25, 2016

Goodnight Mommy (Ich Seh Ich Seh)

Year: 2015
Directors: Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz
Cast: Susanne Wuest, Lukas Schwarz, Elias Schwarz

Plot: A pair of twin brothers welcome home their mother after a long absence due to an accident. However her strange behavior, and the fact that her face is still bandaged due to cosmetic surgery leads the boys to suspect that she isn't their mother.

Review: This was one of the films released in the last twelve months that I had wanted to catch, and I was fortunate enough to be able to see this in a cinema hall.

Goodnight Mommy, Austria's submission to the Oscars for Best Foreign Picture (though it failed to get a nomination), focuses on Lukas and Elias, twin brothers who welcome their mother home after an accident recently. She has undergone cosmetic surgery, so her face is bandaged. She seems all right at first, but her behavior starts to turn peculiar, leading the boys to think that an impostor is wearing the bandages and pretending to be their mother.

Writers/directors Severin Fiala and Veronika Franz present what seems like a normal situation, then slowly ratchets up the tension while keeping things as mysterious as possible. It's a psychological thriller with a twist at the end, and while it was a nice twist, I saw it coming quite early. Nevertheless, Fiala and Franz deserve credit for successfully making me second guess myself a few times.

Technically, the film looks gorgeous. The cinematography is just lovely, as every shot, from the wide view of the jungle and corn fields to the confined spaces of the family home, or the light that comes through the windows when someone pulls the blinds is perfect. Kudos also to the set designers for creating a beautiful house inside and out. It looks fantastic and yet simple.

However, the film does drag every now and then, and certain scenes felt like they were inserted just to create shock horror and don't quite gel with the overall film. Even the ending seems a tad ambiguous, though if one were to decipher it the way I did, it felt tragic, and if that's what Fiala and Franz were going for, then it was well done.

Susanne Wuest and the twins Lukas and Elias Schwarz all put in stellar performances here as the mother and the twins respectively. Each of them get a chance to show how creepy and sadistic they can be, and I loved how it turned out.

Overall, other than the weak editing, Goodnight Mommy is an unsettling yet fascinating thriller, and certainly worth checking out. (7/10)

Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Magnificent Seven

Year: 2016
Director: Antoine Fuqua
Cast: Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-Hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Peter Sarsgaard

Plot: When a ruthless industrialist terrorises a small town, they hire seven men to help them defend it.

Review: I had watched the original Magnificent Seven last week, which is itself a remake of The Seven Samurai, and found it to be more dialogue driven than action driven, something that director Antoine Fuqua remedies here. There is definitely more action in this remake, and a decent amount of drama too.

The story is essentially the same. In this case, the town of Rose Creek is being terrorised by Bartholomew Bogue, a man who wants the gold mine nearby and threatens the people to sell him their land for a cheap price, or else. Emma Cullen, whose husband was killed by Bogue just for standing up to him, and her friend Teddy Q, seek help and run into Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter, who proceeds to collect other willing men to assist in their cause. This includes gambler Faraday, Chisolm's old friend Robicheaux, Robicheaux's knife-wielding friend Billy Rocks, tracker Jack Horne, Comanche warrior Red Harvest and Vasquez, an outlaw Chisolm was supposed to capture, but offers him a chance to do some good instead.

From a technical standpoint, Fuqua and company score full marks. Cinematography is beautiful, set design and costumes are spot on, and the late James Horner's score is good too, with the original's theme being used from time to time. As mentioned, Fuqua puts in much more action than the original, allowing each member of the seven to shine in their own way while trimming out the fat that filled most of the first half in the 1960 version. This works better in keeping the film flowing smoothly, but on the flipside, the seven don't spend enough time connecting with the townsfolk, except Emma and Teddy Q who get to stand out the most. As for the action, it is well shot and choreographed. The skirmish between the seven and Bogue's men in the middle third was good, and the final fight is just balls to the wall stuff.

The cast perform to expectations, with Denzel Washington being the leading man he always is. His Chisolm is a serious man with good leadership skills, contrasting Chris Pratt's charming gambler quite well. Pratt plays Faraday almost like Star-Lord, minus the personal baggage. Ethan Hawke's Robicheaux is interesting, being a little like Robert Vaughn's Lee in the original, hesitant about fighting and killing after seeing so much of it. It's a role that requires depth and Hawke pulls it off. Vincent D'Onofrio gets to chew the scenery as tracker Jack Horne while Lee Byung-Hun's Billy is obviously inspired by James Coburn's Britt in the original, but with more lines. I personally liked Manuel Garcia-Rulfo's Vasquez, being somewhat an out-of-the-box choice as a member. Same goes for Martin Sensmeier's Red Harvest, though he doesn't stand out as much as Manuel. Fuqua's Seven is definitely one that is updated for the times and not as whitewashed as the original, which is a welcome change.

Haley Bennett, last seen in Fuqua's The Equalizer, shines as Emma Cullen, who holds her own against her more famous co-stars. Peter Sarsgaard makes a good villain as Bogue, but doesn't get enough time on screen to be truly memorable, which is a pity.

Another thing worth mentioning is Fuqua making several nods to the original, borrowing certain dialogues or scenes and inserting them here. If you've seen the original you would know which and where.

Overall, the remake of The Magnificent Seven is a very fun western movie, which would be even better if Sensmeier and Sarsgaard weren't underused. I enjoyed it for what it was, and wouldn't mind seeing it again soon. (8/10)  

Saturday, September 17, 2016


Year: 2016
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Tom Hanks, Aaron Eckhart, Laura Linney

Plot: Based on the true story of Chesley Sullenberger, a pilot who landed US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson river on January 15th 2009, saving all 155 passengers on board. This incident came to be known as the 'Miracle on the Hudson'.

Review: At 96 minutes, Sully is officially Clint Eastwood's shortest film ever, and possibly the least ambitious of all the true stories/biographies he's done. Yet it is still an effective film.

Sully is based on the true story of how Chesley Sullenberger aka Sully, guided his airplane to a safe landing on the Hudson river after a flock of birds flew into its engines. Despite being hailed a hero by the media and his passengers, the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) has a different view, claiming that Sully's actions were somewhat dangerous, and that he still had time to land the plane at two nearby airports, something both Sully and his co-pilot Jeff Skiles disagree on.

Eastwood's film focuses mostly on the events that took place after the incident, i.e. the NTSB's investigation, media reaction and how Sully and Skiles deal with all the attention showered on them, something they were not prepared for or even want. In essence, Sully and Skiles are just two regular guys who were a part of a miraculous event, and simply want to get back to their regular lives once the NTSB wraps up their inquiry. For dramatic effect, the NTSB are portrayed here as the semi-antagonists, looking for evidence to pin the blame on Sully, and obviously being more interested in the fact that the plane crashed and not on Sully successfully saving his crew and passengers. This created some real controversy when the NTSB saw the film, saying they were wrongly portrayed, but we'll never really know how far.

Tom Hanks puts in a subtle performance as Sully, a man who doesn't consider himself a hero, and actually starts to doubt his own judgment on that fateful day. Hanks' restrained performance works well here. Aaron Eckhart also shines as Skiles, being one of the few people who understands and supports Sully's actions that day. Laura Linney is alright as Sully's supportive wife, but the film mostly belongs to Hanks and his struggle against his new found fame.

The film does suffer from continuity issues, as Eastwood chooses to begin his story after the crash, then throw in flashbacks, including a couple where a young Sully had flown other planes such as a jet fighter and a biplane. I personally felt a chronological approach would have been better.

The simplicity of the film means there's not much to look at here than your average Eastwood feature, but Sully is still very watchable. Worth checking out. (7/10)  

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Train To Busan

Year: 2016
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Cast: Gong Yoo, Kim Soo-an, Jeong Yu-mi, Ma Dong-seok

Plot: A group of train passengers travelling from Seoul to Busan fight to survive a zombie outbreak.

Review: Train To Busan is now officially the film one has to look up if one needs to make a zombie film. It pretty much has everything you'd look for in a zombie horror flick. Action? Check. Suspense and tension? Check. Blood and violence? Check. Heartbreaking tragedy? Check. A reflection of humanity's best and worst traits? Check that too.

Another way for me to put it is this: Train To Busan improves on World War Z's style, magnifies the claustrophobia in Quarantine and matches the bloody chaos in 28 Days Later. In short, it is one mean zombie feature.

The story begins with a fascinating intro involving a truck and a deer, and then we meet Seok-woo, a fund manager, divorced, who doesn't spend enough time with his little daughter Soo-an. She wants to see her mother in Busan, so he accompanies her on a train there. It is on the train where we meet our colorful yet familiar set of survivors: a burly man and his pregnant wife, a pair of elderly sisters, a group of high school kids and a vagrant. Oh, there's this corporate asshole too. Then an infected girl slips onto the train (strange how the platform guard missed her, but anyway), gets into a seizure, turns into a manic zombie, attacks a train attendant, and the fun begins. And from this point, it doesn't let up.

Director Yeon Sang-ho, who also wrote the script, had only directed animated features prior to this. Seems like he's got a good handle on live action stuff as well. Yeon takes a bunch of characters, all interesting in their own way, though not entirely unfamiliar, and throws them into the grinder, and we watch in shock and awe how they react to something they are totally unprepared for. What's great about the film is how he keeps the tension growing. There are a handful of confrontations between the passengers and the zombies on the train itself, and in between them, a memorable sequence at a train stop, which is just insane to behold. And to top it all off, a final sequence at a train yard. And every one of these scenes were beautifully shot. Kudos to Yeon and the cinematographer for pulling it off.

But Train To Busan isn't just about blood and violence. It's also about people and how they react in a crisis. We see good people risk their lives to save a total stranger, and how certain selfish people learn a thing or two about kindness and change for the better. We also watch how people can become total douchebags, and how some give in to fear and pay it with their lives. Audiences will learn about sacrifice, parenthood and the human condition by watching this.

The entire cast are all spot-on choices. Gong Yoo makes a great hero as Seok-woo, who starts off as a non-qualifier for father of the week, and progresses to someone who begins to care about others around him. The stealer of the show though goes to Ma Dong-seok as the burly man, who is a total badass when it comes to zombie killing. In his case, who needs baseball bats when he's got his bare hands?

The only thing I didn't like was a certain character's ridiculous involvement in the demise of a lead character towards the end. I can't say more without spoiling it, but suffice to say, this is what I would call overkill, and totally unnecessary.

All in all, Train To Busan is one of the most fun experiences I've ever had at the cinema this year. Recommended. (9/10)

Sunday, September 04, 2016


Year: 2016
Director: Luke Scott
Cast: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Rose Leslie, Toby Jones, Michelle Yeoh, Boyd Holbrook

Plot: When Morgan, an artificially created human, attacks one of the doctors in charge of her development, the corporation funding the project sends a risk consultant to assess whether she needs to be terminated or otherwise.

Review: Morgan is the feature length debut of Luke Scott, son of Ridley. While Morgan is nowhere near as ambitious as his father's work, it certainly is quite interesting.

The premise is as follows: Lee Weathers, a risk consultant, is sent by her bosses to a top secret project site, where a team of doctors are watching over Morgan, an artificially created human girl. Morgan may only be five years old, but she has grown rapidly to resemble a teenager. Recently, Morgan attacked one of the doctors, stabbing her in the eye, so Lee must now assess if Morgan will continue to be a liability, and if so, terminate her. But as the story progresses, one realises that things aren't as simple as it seems.

As I began watching this film, it felt similar to watching Deep Blue Sea, Renny Harlin's underrated shark thriller, and in this case, Morgan was the shark. But when Morgan inevitably breaks free, the film switches to action mode, and now it looks like a Jason Bourne movie. Not that any of this is the real problem though. While Scott and writer Seth Owen take their time to explore Morgan's character, they don't spend enough time exploring the other doctors, save for Rose Leslie's Amy, who becomes Morgan's closest friend. All they tell us is that the others care for Morgan and don't believe she should be terminated over one violent incident, heck even the injured doctor played by Jennifer Jason Leigh thinks so. Because of the paper thin characterisation, we don't feel much when Morgan starts taking them out one by one.

Another downside is the camerawork during the fight scenes. Like most poor action directors, Scott puts the camera too close, so it's hard to see who's punching who. Pity, since it's rare to see Kate Mara do kung fu on film. But on the upside, Scott successfully milks tension whenever Morgan is alone with any of the doctors. Even in one scene without Morgan, where the doctors dine with Lee at a table, the tension is palpable. It makes for a good buildup to the point when hell breaks loose as Morgan turns on them. 

As for Kate Mara, she gives Lee Weathers a cold exterior, making it tough for us to root for her. But it's only at the end you realise why. Anya Taylor-Joy scores the most points here as Morgan, giving the character the right balance of child like innocence and chilling demeanor. (Brownie points to the make-up department for giving Morgan pale skin and dark eyes to complete the look) Out of the supporting cast, Rose Leslie and Boyd Holbrook fare the best as Amy and Skip the cook respectively. Paul Giamatti does well in a brief appearance as a shrink, and look out for an even more brief appearance by Brian Cox at the end.

Just as I thought the film would only be slightly above average, a neat twist at the end elevates it a bit. It's rather late, and not quite enough to make Morgan a sure fire hit, but at least it will leave a small impression on you as you walk out of the theatre.

So is Morgan a good movie? Thanks to that ending, yes. Is it a great movie? Not quite. But it's a more than decent way to spend 92 minutes. (7/10)  

Saturday, September 03, 2016

Kubo And The Two Strings

Year: 2016
Director: Travis Knight
Voice cast: Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Rooney Mara, Ralph Fiennes

Plot: Kubo, a young one eyed boy who tells stories for a living, embarks on an adventure to find a magical armor to protect himself from his ruthless grandfather and aunts, with a talking monkey and giant talking beetle as his companions.

Review: Laika has done it again. For the uninitiated, Laika is the stop motion animation studio that produced hit films like Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.

Kubo And The Two Strings tells the story of Kubo, who lives in a cave by the sea with his dementia suffering mother. He has only one eye, thanks to his mother's ruthless sisters and his grandfather, who took his other eye when he was a baby. Kubo has the ability to make origami shapes come to life by playing his magical shamisen, and uses this gift to tell stories to the villagers for a living. One night, his aunts come for him, forcing his mother to send him away, leaving him with a talking monkey that becomes his protector. Along the way, the duo meet a giant talking beetle, and together they set out on a journey to find Kubo's late father's magical armor, which will protect him from his grandfather, the Moon King.

As far as animations go, Laika's work speak for themselves. It's simply incredible. From the look of the ocean and skies, to character movements and action sequences, everything is top notch. My favorite would be the origami shapes coming to life as Kubo tells his stories. There's also this huge skeleton giant in the film, which Laika had to really build, and it was reportedly 16 feet tall. A week's work would represent 4.3 seconds of film and the entire film took 5 years to complete, so one has to totally respect Laika's commitment to their craft.

The story itself is pretty good too. Following the trio of heroes on their dangerous quest is exciting and of course, magical. Rather than take the usual route most animated films do by focusing on friendship, acceptance and love, Kubo And The Two Strings simply concentrates on telling a story about a boy that tells stories, and his great adventure. There are some nifty action sequences here, like the aforementioned giant skeleton and Kubo's deadly flying aunts. The dramatic parts are also well executed by director Travis Knight and the voice cast. Game Of Thrones' Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron and Matthew McConaughey are all perfectly cast as Kubo, Monkey and Beetle respectively. Parkinson brings his youth, Theron her stoicism and McConaughey a balance of cute dumbness and heroism.

If there is a flaw here, it would be a slight lack of humor once the film hits the second half. At this point also, the film starts to be a bit more preachy, but it doesn't affect the audience's enjoyment overall.

Bottom line: If you had to watch one animated film this year, this would be it. (8/10)


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