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Truly superb cinema

Posted : 5 hours, 26 minutes ago on 30 January 2015 12:50 (A review of Cold in July)

"All right, boys, it's Howdy Doody time."

Cold in July is a far superior motion picture than its humble pedigree suggests. An independent production, it only received a limited theatrical release in America, and went straight-to-video in most other territories around the world. Yet, this intricate crime thriller stands as one of 2014's most nail-biting and riveting features, far more deserving of a wide audience than a lot of the garbage which polluted multiplexes throughout the year. Directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land), Cold in July is a screen adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale's 1989 novel of the same name, telling a bleak tale set in the American South. Mickle makes the most of whatever resources he had at his disposal - Cold in July is teeming with atmosphere and tension, benefitting from the director's deft filmmaking sleight of hand. It's superb cinema.

In small-town Texas in 1989, Richard (Michael C. Hall) works as a picture framer, making his unremarkable living to support wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and young son Jordan (Brogan Hall). In the early hours of the morning one night, Richard hears commotion in the living room, which leads to him shooting and killing an intruder. With the burglar identified as a wanted felon, Richard is hailed as a hero by the locals, but he's shaken by the incident, disturbed that he has taken a life. Soon, the dead man's father, Ben (Sam Shepard), shows up out of nowhere, lurking around and making vague threats, which puts Richard on edge. Although the police set out to protect him and his family, some question marks in the police work begin to trouble Richard. Things are further complicated with the arrival of private detective Jim Bob (Don Johnson), who helps to shed a light on the mysteries that trouble Richard.

At first, Cold in July shapes up to be a revenge movie of sorts, with Ben ostensibly determined to harm Richard and his family in response to the death of his son. Mickle dabbles in outright horror in the opening act, and the results are gripping to watch. But with the arrival of Jim Bob, the movie evolves into something entirely different seemingly out of nowhere, and it's a huge credit to Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici (who also plays a detective) that the transition is so seamless. Although the set-up is not exactly groundbreaking at first glace, the twists and turns bestow Cold in July with more originality than lazier forays into the thriller genre. Besides, it's the sense of atmosphere which makes the picture so memorable and mesmerising.

Retaining the novel's time period, Cold in July is set in 1989, and it actually feels like a product of the '80s. Period costuming and sets (not to mention odd hairstyles) populate the frame, the colour scheme is reminiscent of '80s movies, and the flick is complemented by a beautifully retro, synch-driven score by Jeff Grace which was visibly inspired by the works of John Carpenter. The illusion would perhaps have been better served if Mickle shot the movie on film stock rather than with digital cameras, but this barely matters in the grand scheme of things. Cold in July is one of 2014's manliest movies; it's vehemently R-rated, with violence that pulls no punches and men who talk like real men. The finale is especially stunning, as the picture climaxes with a brutal, white-knuckle shootout which brings the story to a haunting end.

Hall began work on Cold in July soon after wrapping up the TV show Dexter, perceiving the movie as an opportunity to try something different, expand his range, and avoid being typecast. Frankly, it's difficult to imagine any other actor playing this role as successfully as Hall, who's highly convincing every step of the way. He sells Richard's fear and anxiety, on top of coming off as a believable father and husband. Yet, it's also understated work, and Hall is perfectly supported by both Johnson and Shepard, who submit truly brilliant performances. They're both manly as fuck.

It's difficult to pigeonhole Cold in July into any one genre. Mickle mixes in elements of film noir, thrillers, detective stories, police procedurals, revenge flicks with a smidge of horror, but it cannot be strictly classified as any of the above. The movie is its own unique creation, a distinctive feature which deserves to be seen for its top-notch cinematic technique and a host of sublimely focused performances from some of the finest thespians working in motion pictures today. It's truly saddening that it will probably remain an obscure cult curiosity despite the tremendous critical acclaim it rightfully received.


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Not a keeper, but decent enough

Posted : 3 days, 4 hours ago on 27 January 2015 01:25 (A review of 12 Days Of Terror)

In a nutshell, 12 Days of Terror is pretty much in line with what you would expect from a TV movie that premiered on Animal Planet. Far from the brilliance of Steven Spielberg's Jaws, it's a budget feature with halfway convincing production values, and it looks and feels as if it was produced on the cheap. Nevertheless, there is some value to this particular endeavour, as it's an edifying chronicle of the true-life shark attacks of 1916, and it retains a degree of entertainment value. It's by no means worthy of widespread acclaim, but those who enjoy shark movies may find it to be a decent watch.

A docudrama, the movie is a fairly accurate recount of the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, wherein four people were killed and another was injured over the course of twelve nightmarish days. Local lifeguard Alex (Colin Egglesfield) immediately suspects a shark attack following the first fatality, but the locals are sceptical to believe his statement, especially in light of the hot summer weather and the sudden tourist interest in ocean bathing. However, a second attack renders the situation hard to ignore, sparking action from the politicians, with a bounty placed on the killer shark's head. Amid the madness, Alex confides in a grizzled sea captain (John Rhys-Davies) who seems to be the only local with a head on his shoulders.

Despite the cheesy title, 12 Days of Terror is meant to be taken more seriously than the average straight-to-video schlock, with a minuscule body count compared to the likes of Sharktopus and Shark Attack. What's interesting about the movie is the way it accurately portrays the thinking of the period; shark attacks were unheard of in the early 20th Century and scientists were ignorant in terms of shark behaviour, scoffing at the notion of a vicious shark swimming so close to shore to attack without provocation. Of course, many of the narrative machinations are reminiscent of those witnessed in Jaws, but Peter Benchley's original novel was inspired by these events, so it cannot be judged too harshly in this respect. What can be judged harshly, however, is the so-so pacing; the movie is fairly dull in places.

For Jaws, Spielberg concentrated on the now widespread technique of "less is more" that was necessitated by the malfunctioning mechanical sharks. For 12 Days of Terror, director Jack Sholder adopts a similar approach, which was likely necessitated by budget. The shark attacks are oftentimes quite effective, with shrewd editing and a fair sense of tension. Mechanical sharks are mostly glimpsed here which are good enough for this sort of production, with shots ranging from obvious to convincing. On the other hand, the CGI beasties look expectedly phoney, though at least they aren't used too often. To heighten the realism, real shark footage is also integrated into the production, and, to the credit of the filmmakers, such sequences were executed smoothly. Less successful is the acting, however, which ranges from acceptable to downright awful. John Rhys-Davis is the standout, as he embraces his hammy side to play a very Quint-like role. Is this really the only work that the Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings actor can find these days?

12 Days of Terror does take some liberties with history, and there are fictitious characters of course, but it nevertheless gels in a sufficiently satisfying manner. With a bigger budget, though, it could have been a keeper. Shark buffs will probably have the most fun with it, and it may satisfy you if you're channel surfing in the early hours of the morning, but temper your expectations.


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One fucking badass movie

Posted : 1 week, 1 day ago on 21 January 2015 10:47 (A review of John Wick)

"In a bar, I once saw him kill three men... with a pencil."

Let's not mince words here: John Wick is the best action movie of 2014. Confidently belying its modest budget, the movie easily surpasses the year's CGI-infested blockbusters and superhero offerings, and even tops more old-school actioners like The Equalizer and Fury. Here is a lean, adrenaline-charged 100-minute thrill ride which understands economical storytelling, disposing of superfluous narrative tangents to focus on what matters. John Wick is a B-movie at heart, and on the surface may look like an unremarkable straight-to-video endeavour, but the execution is flawless, with miraculously choreographed action scenes and exceptional stunt-work elevating this brutal revenge flick into the stratosphere. Add to this a spot-on performance from Keanu Reeves, an R-rating and a well-judged screenplay, and this is a fucking badass movie. It's pure ecstasy that action fans will go gaga over.

A retired underworld assassin for the Russian mafia, John Wick (Reeves) tragically loses his wife to cancer, but she leaves him one last gift: a puppy for companionship. As John struggles to work through the grieving process, his life is thrown into turmoil again when his classic car is stolen and his pup is killed by Iosef (Alfie Allen), the son of powerful Russian kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). Learning of his idiot son's actions, Viggo immediately realises that his entire operation is now under threat of being obliterated by the most dangerous man alive, and tries to come to a peaceful arrangement with John. However, John is focused on retribution, prompting Viggo to call in as many heavily armed men as he can to take down the killing machine as quickly as possible.

John Wick is one of the purest action flicks of recent years, but its taut disposition doesn't mean that plot is neglected. On the contrary, the action-free opening act is a masterpiece of economy, establishing Wick's character and situation mostly through images rather than words. But once Wick is wronged and the beast is unleashed, the flick roars to life, and the result is something to behold. Too many action movies are bogged down by humdrum love stories or other attempts to humanise the central hero, slowing the pace to a drag and denying us the pure testosterone boost we seek. But John Wick has no need for this brand of malarkey, which is another reason why it's such a breath of fresh air. With his wife dead, the titular assassin doesn't get involved with any other women, and he's so skilled that he only rarely finds himself out of his depth.

Some may decry that John is too unstoppable, but I'm personally sick of seeing "badass" heroes being captured or beaten within an inch of their life. John does receive a few injuries here and there, but for the most part he's supremely confident - and I found this quality both refreshing and satisfying. Above all, it's executed in a believable fashion. Furthermore, John meets an array of friends throughout the movie who are wholly aware of his abilities and reputation. Fellow killers and even police officers are wary to engage Wick, respectfully leaving him alone as he conducts his business. Such touches give the production a gorgeous flavour, provoking a few welcome moments of dark comedy to lighten up the violent affair.

The sheer excellence of the action sequences cannot be overstated; they are orgasmic. John Wick denotes the directorial debut of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, two stuntman who have evidently learned from the best during their respective careers. The shootouts here are mostly devoid of shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing, with the directors instead adopting a wonderful arrangement of smooth camera movements and some astonishingly artistic tracking shots. John Wick wears its R-rating on its sleeve, as well; it's a beautiful antithesis to all of the politically-correct PG-13 action flicks that continually inundate today's cinematic marketplace. Loud, savagely violent and hugely satisfying, all of the movie's action scenes absolutely shit on the likes of Live Free or Die Hard, The Expendables 3, Terminator Salvation, and the RoboCop remake. Admittedly, there are a few evident instances of digital bloodshed, but the CGI doesn't look overly phoney and it's not distracting. Rather than looking like a post-production paint job, the blood is effectively integrated into the various environments.

Reeves has had his ups and downs as a thespian; despite a strong performance in The Matrix, he's bloody awful in motion pictures like Dracula and Johnny Mnemonic, and he's known for being wooden. John Wick, however, plays to Reeves' strengths, showing that he has more skill than his detractors are probably willing to admit. Reeves is cut from the same mould as Jason Statham, with minimalistic dialogue and a focus on physical action scenes, and the star absolutely nails it. He needs more roles like this. Fortunately, the supporting cast is just as impressive, with the likes of Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo and Ian McShane all hitting their marks with confidence. Nyqvist is also effective as the leader of the Russian gang, while Game of Thrones luminary Alfie Allen convinces as the daft, overconfident young man who awakens the beast within Wick.

John Wick plays out with the same verve as the "one man army" action movies from the 1980s, but with a contemporary polish. If you enjoyed the likes of Taken, Punisher: War Zone or Safe, you will definitely enjoy this deliriously entertaining slice of big screen escapism.


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An extraordinary achievement

Posted : 1 week, 4 days ago on 18 January 2015 08:31 (A review of Birdman)

"People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit."

It's frankly miraculous that a motion picture like Birdman can sneak its way into theatres in this day and age. Subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, this audacious, modestly-budgeted indie could never have been produced within the Hollywood system without major changes that would have relinquished the feature's integrity. It may essentially be an "art house" flick, but Birdman is incredibly compelling, and possesses the guts to explore big ideas relating to the Hollywood process, actors who are passed their prime, and, most impressively, the critiquing of film and theatre. Directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (late of 21 Grams and Babel), this is easily the filmmaker's most accessible work, though it's unclear just how well it will play with more mainstream viewers.

Decades ago, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was popular and rich, riding high on his success of playing the superhero 'Birdman' in the first three movies of a lucrative Hollywood franchise. Still struggling to escape from the shadow of Birdman, Riggan puts everything on the line to produce a Broadway production, adapting Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for the stage, with co-stars Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) on hand to support the undertaking. However, the show - which is perceived as something of a vanity project - is waist-deep in problems, with actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) proving extremely difficult to work with, and with technical issues galore. Adding to the pressure is some mounting legal troubles, a lack of money, and the presence of Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who's struggling with post-rehab life. All Riggan can do is attempt to hold himself together as he's haunted by voices in his head and deals with those around him who pose a threat to the show's success.

Birdman's central hook is that it's edited to give the illusion that it was captured in one single, unbroken tracking shot, though it does not unfold in real time - hours and days pass seamlessly as the camera moves from one place to another. Happily, it works, and it's a magnificent feat on the part of Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity).

An anonymous quote is taped to the mirror in Riggan's dressing room which reads: "A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing." It's an interesting quote which invites rumination, and, indeed, one of the movie's most pivotal scenes observes Riggan speaking his mind to a cynical theatre critic, slamming a review she's penning by pointing out that her writing is nothing but a chain of labels backed up by her own potentially meritless opinion, arguing against the need for reviewers and, by extension, negating the need for this review. Nevertheless, as the quote says, a thing is a thing, and calling reviews futile is just a label for these particular things, isn't it? Phew. Still with me? Some will label Birdman as pretentious due to the subtext at play here, but is it really fair to call a movie pretentious when it satirises and mocks pretentiousness? Sure, the movie may be a bit on the pretentious side, but it is fun.

It's challenging to pigeonhole Birdman into a single genre, as it almost defies explanation. It's perhaps best described as a philosophical dramedy with fantastical elements and meta overtones (Riggin has a number of fantasies throughout). The movie also feels very much in line with the works of Iñárritu, as some of the more dramatic moments do hit hard, and you get the chance to feel every ounce of pain experienced by the troubled ensemble. However, Birdman is not as dour as 21 Grams or the borderline intolerable Babel - it often plays out with dark comedy elements. The story eventually comes to a head for a rather unexpected ending that's not entirely satisfying since it's open for interpretation (like any art house feature...), but it is fascinating, and could have been a lot worse.

After viewing Birdman, I did wonder what the feature would have been like if the single-take approach was jettisoned. However, it's difficult to imagine the film being as remarkable, fast-paced or as technologically extraordinary if it was produced more conventionally. Furthermore, restricting the scope and being unable to move outside the theatre often renders Birdman more intimate, heightening the effectiveness of this story. After all, Riggan is the central focus, and the camera never drifts from him very far, allowing this examination of Riggan's breakdown to really take flight. Added to this, plays on Broadway are performed live, hence the appearance of the bulk of the movie being one take ties in with the nature of a live Broadway show, even if there are hidden cuts and scenes that would have taken many, many takes to perfect. It's fortunate that the execution is so seamless; we never see any crew members, lighting rigs or dolly tracks, nor do we see palpable reflections of any camera equipment even though scenes frequently take place in front of mirrors.

Naturally, the parallels between Keaton and his character are readily apparent, as Keaton was a big star after having appeared in Batman and Batman Returns as the titular superhero, and since then has never been quite as successful. This is the thespian's first leading man role in a while, and it's possibly the best performance of his whole career. It's a multi-tiered part, and Keaton handles the various aspects with utmost confidence; he's a wonderful on-screen presence and a joy to watch. Fortunately, the supporting cast are just as solid, particularly Zach Galifianakis as Riggin's lawyer, putting the Hangover-style monkey business behind him to play a dramatic role, and pulling it off remarkably well. Who knew he could play anything besides a buffoon? Also of note are Naomi Watts and the lovely Emma Stone, the latter of whom again proves that she's both gorgeous and talented. Meanwhile, Norton is an absolute hoot playing the conceited, much-loved theatre actor who's recruited to fill a sudden vacancy, and immediately begins trying to exert control over the entire production. Norton's character is extremely volatile as well, and it's amusing to watch the former Hulk here since he has such a reputation for being difficult to work with.

The intense character study at the centre of Birdman draws you in, while you also marvel at the extraordinary technical achievements. Iñárritu really had his work cut out for him, and the quality of the finished product speaks volumes about this talented filmmaker. Of course, it will not work for everybody - anyone expecting Keaton to recreate Batman or engage in action or stunt-work will need to maintain an open mind here, and let Iñárritu plot his own unique, breathtakingly unconventional path. For this reviewer, it definitely works.


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"It Ends Here"? I hope so!

Posted : 3 weeks ago on 8 January 2015 05:40 (A review of Taken 3)

"If you go down this road, the LAPD, the FBI, the CIA... they're all gonna come for you. They'll find you. And they'll stop you."

Despite sharing the same writers as the original Taken, 2014's Taken 3 feels as if it was created by filmmakers who were oblivious to what made the 2008 gem such a breakout success. Years on, Taken still stands as a superior action offering; a bruising, fast-paced slice of primo entertainment elevated by top-notch technical specs and the presence of seasoned thespian Liam Neeson. Taken 2 hopelessly missed its mark, and Taken 3 is even worse, ill-advisedly trying to reinvent the franchise by becoming a mystery-thriller which rips off The Fugitive, as opposed to being the balls-to-the-wall actioner that we all wanted. Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, it's not cerebral enough to succeed on its own terms, and it utterly fails as over-the-top fun. It doesn't help that Taken 2 director Olivier Megaton returned for this instalment, further demonstrating his incompetence when it comes to pacing, storytelling, and, most heartbreakingly, action.

Following the events of the first two movies, Bryan Mills (Neeson) is living a comfortable life, and now maintains stable relationships with those that matter the most to him: beloved daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). However, Lenore is murdered in Bryan's apartment and the former government operative is framed for the crime. Pursued by Inspector Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), Bryan goes on the run to prove his innocence, seeking help from his old CIA buddies Sam (Leland Orser), Casey (Jon Gries) and Bernie (David Warshofsky).

Megaton has a poor track record with Besson's EuropaCorp company - he killed the Jason Statham-starring Transporter series with the subpar third instalment (a reboot is coming, with a different actor), and he mucked up Taken 2. Added to this, while doing the promotional rounds for the second film, Megaton admitted that he's not a fan of sequels or action films. So, why the fuck does this preposterously-named hack still get directorial work?

Taken 3 feels closer to A Walk Among the Tombstones than the first Taken, as the movie spends most of its time focusing on exposition and story. Tombstones was actually good, however, as it was R-rated, legitimately interesting and sophisticated. Taken 3, on the other hand, is contrived and dull as dishwater. There's no verve or style here, nor is there any sophistication or smarts. Worse, the justification for Lenore's murder and for Bryan being framed is mind-numbingly stupid and convoluted. The reveal is not even shocking; it carries no weight and makes no impact. Instead, you sit back and wonder if they're actually serious. Admittedly, it's interesting to see Bryan working with his trio of resourceful friends that were introduced in the first movie, and it's a bonus to have Whitaker as an intelligent cop. Too bad the movie does fuck all with these characters.

Action fans seeking a fix should look elsewhere - Taken 3 has nothing to satisfy you. There is almost no action here. There's a tiny smattering of fisticuffs, a couple of foot-chases, and a grand total of two shootouts, one of which is so brief that it barely qualifies as an action scene. This stuff will barely keep you awake. The climactic gunfight in particular is lacklustre and vanilla, with not a drop of blood to be seen. Most embarrassing is witnessing one of Bryan's victims being shot while his shirt is open; his gut wounds should be spewing with blood, but instead he refuses to bleed as he, um, “bleeds out” and dies with mere ink stains on his stomach. Taken 3 doesn't even feel PG-13... it feels G-rated! Neeson seems to be love-slapping policemen to knock them out, and Lenore's slashed neck looks like a hickey. Making matters worse, when Bryan unleashes his trademark skills, the editing and camerawork is flat-out awful - most of the fights are incomprehensible. When an action movie cannot deliver so much as a modicum of good quality action, there's a huge problem.

As to be expected, Neeson remains a solid leading man. His endless charisma is about the only thing saving the production from total inertia. Neeson is badass as always, which is why it's a huge shame that the material fails to serve him. Whitaker, too, is solid, bringing some degree of gravitas to the proceedings. The rest of the cast fails to make much of an impact, though, with Maggie Grace looking fairly uninterested. Lenore's husband Stuart is re-cast here, with Dougray Scott replacing the older, more placid Xander Berkeley from the first film. It's a jarring change, and though Scott is a decent actor, his presence is ultimately a bit of a spoiler. After all, Scott plays shady characters and is renowned for villains. Go figure.

With its flimsy narrative and utterly generic construction, it feels as if the screenplay for Taken 3 was initially written as some cheap straight-to-video distraction, but was ultimately retooled to include Bryan Mills. Ironically, the end product might have been superior if it did remain in the straight-to-video realm starring somebody like Scott Adkins, as it would most likely have been R-rated and included some decent action. Unfortunately, we're left with this incredible dud; a painfully leaden, cynical cash-in which ends the Taken series with a resounding whimper and feels a lot longer than its 109-minute running time. Taken did deserve sequels and it really wouldn't have been too difficult to make a successful follow-up. The formula is simple: a badass Liam Neeson killing hordes of nameless extras in a dumb fun actioner. But, apparently, Besson and co. wanted to make something classier by toning down the action, resulting in a movie that's still powerfully dumb but no fun at all.


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Utterly interminable

Posted : 4 weeks, 1 day ago on 1 January 2015 05:16 (A review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1)

"I have a message for President Snow: You can torture or bombed us, blasted our district to the grounds. But do you see that ? Fire Is Catching... If we burn, you burn with us!"

2014's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 is the first instalment in the Hunger Games series that can rightfully be labelled as a bad movie... and that's disappointing. 2012's The Hunger Games was deeply flawed but retained some merit, whereas its follow-up, Catching Fire, was a borderline masterpiece, turning the so-so franchise into something special. Alas, all the goodwill instilled by Catching Fire is drained for part three, a painfully leaden experience which stretches maybe twenty minutes of narrative material into an interminable two-hour motion picture. Despite the return of competent action director Francis Lawrence, and despite the generous budget, there's not much here of any value. Plus, this is the first Hunger Games feature without an actual games.

Awakening in a subterranean hospital, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is inducted into the underground realm of District 13, which has survived in secret for decades under the control of President Alma (Julianne Moore) and propagandist Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), amassing weaponry and soldiers in preparation for the inevitable conflict with The Capitol for control of Panem. With the uprising taking shape, Katniss is asked to become the face of the rebellion that seeks to unite the districts. However, her would-be boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has become a prisoner at The Capitol, with the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) employing him in an ominous propaganda mission designed to break Katniss' spirit and extinguish the revolution.

Splitting a novel into two motion pictures can allow creative breathing room in some instances, but in the case of Mockingjay, the decision was clearly made purely for financial reasons. Like Twilight and Harry Potter, the studio heads want to milk the series for all the money that it's worth, even if such a decision comes at the expense of economical storytelling and effective pacing. In order to convert one half of the novel into a feature-length movie, director Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong strive to more or less cover every single corner of Suzanne Collins' tome, which might please die-hard literary fans, but it leaves the rest of us bored out of our skulls. Mockingjay slows the franchise to a halt; this entire first part amounts to a repetitive succession of scenes observing the daily drudgery in an underground bunker, with the characters itching to overthrow President Snow. But instead of anything cinematically interesting, the movie is full of scenes of characters sitting, watching TV, walking around, marching down stairs, and so on. With no payoff to speak of, Mockingjay - Part 1 is a sluggish bore that only leaves you feeling resoundingly unsatisfied.

Surprisingly, there's not a great deal of visual flair to the production, which feels pretty cheap all-round even though it was more expensive than superior movies like Gravity. Mockingjay - Part 1 is the first in the series to be lensed digitally, whereas the first two instalments were blessed with 35mm photography, which gives it a less expensive look right off the bat. Couple this with Lawrence's drab direction and the meandering script, and Mockingjay is a slog, in dire need of snappier pacing, a more intense sense of anticipation, and some style. Movies like Children of Men have shown that desolation and destruction can be photographed in an artistic, visually engaging fashion, but this is lacking in Mockingjay, which greatly detracts from the production.

Jennifer Lawrence is a gifted actress by all accounts, but even she struggles with the wafer-thin material, relegated to a performance of sobs and pouts, punctuated with a minor action scene. It's no fault of Lawrence's, but there's nothing of the fiery, passionate heroine here that made the initial films so engaging. The rest of the cast is populated with fine thespians, and they all acquit themselves respectably, but none of them are able to truly captivate here, which is again a knock against the movie itself rather than the actors. With that said, though, the film does have its moments - Katniss visiting her desecrated district is a highlight, while a few late action beats do their best to bring the picture out of its cinematic coma. Outside of this, the movie does have a few interesting scenes portraying the propaganda aspect of this uprising, with Katniss a hesitant icon. But such moments would be better-utilised in a more cohesive adaptation which actually has an ending.

Perhaps the most irksome thing to note about Mockingjay - Part 1 is that it's difficult to muster up much of an opinion about it. It's so flat, boring and one-note all the way through to its core, and makes absolutely no impact at the end of the day. Giving this story so much breathing room only serves to highlight how one-dimensional the characters are, and how flat the central love triangle truly is. There isn't even much of a cliffhanger here - Catching Fire concluded with a real stringer that heightened anticipation for the next instalment, but Mockingjay - Part 1 closes with a whimper that fails to ignite interest in the forthcoming Part 2. Fingers crossed the franchise does conclude with some dignity.


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A skilful blockbuster, though not without flaws

Posted : 1 month ago on 30 December 2014 06:27 (A review of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies)

"You are a very fine fellow, Mr Baggins, and I am very fond of you. But you are really just a little fellow, in a wide world."

The conclusion of a now thirteen-year odyssey, 2014's The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies not only closes the door on this polarising adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel, but also serves as the concluding chapter in director Peter Jackson's Middle-earth saga. Suffice it to say, the Hobbit trilogy is not on the same level as The Lord of the Rings - Jackson's breakout effort was denser, more mature and more sophisticated, whereas these prequels represent a fun ride as opposed to something weightier. War breaks out in The Battle of the Five Armies, which could have made for a poignant trilogy capper approaching the quality of The Return of the King, but the emotional stakes aren't as high here, and Jackson adopts a different tone, creating more of an epic, goofy action movie. Luckily, though, Armies isn't completely hollow like Transformers - it's a skilful blockbuster, with a certain degree of heart and complexity beneath its glossy exterior.

Following the defeat of Smaug the dragon (Benedict Cumberbatch), Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage) and his loyal company of dwarves are set to reclaim their kingdom inside the Lonely Mountain. However, the riches rapidly begin to corrupt Thorin, who wants to keep the masses of treasure only for his kind, refusing to honour his respective agreements with the Elves and the people of Lake-town, the latter of which are left destitute and without shelter after Smaug destroyed their homes. As Bilbo (Martin Freeman) and the dwarves desperately try to reason with Thorin, the mountain is approached by armies of Elves and men preparing to fight for what they were promised. Amid this, Bilbo finds himself torn between his friendship with the dwarves and his own survival instinct, turning to the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen) for guidance. Meanwhile, a vast Orc army led by Azog (Manu Bennett) plan to lay siege on the Lonely Mountain, seeking to wipe out the collected armies of Middle-earth.

Looking at all three Hobbit pictures now, it's still unclear whether or not this tale necessitated a trilogy. Tolkien created an amazing universe with his Middle-earth novels, and there's plenty of material for Jackson to explore, especially in the return of Sauron which is further delved into here. However, the trilogy is not entirely successful due to its rocky narrative structure which doesn't lend itself to a three-picture arc. Whereas the Lord of the Rings features were perfectly-judged in terms of where to conclude each instalment, the split between The Desolation of Smaug and The Battle of the Five Armies doesn't quite gel. Smaug, a superb antagonist and a notorious threat, accomplishes nothing substantial before his demise in this feature's opening sequence. As a result, Smaug's defeat does not quite carry the weight that it may have otherwise achieved if the siege of Laketown served as the climax of The Desolation of Smaug. The fearsome dragon has been such a significant presence up until now, after all, hence it feels wrong that his defeat is so rushed. So much for all the development, monologuing, and pervasive dread of the first two motion pictures...

Fortunately, taken on its own merits, Jackson's third Hobbit movie works extremely well in bringing this story to a satisfying end, delivering a cavalcade of action set-pieces that are narratively justified and superbly rendered. Once the titular battle arrives, The Battle of the Five Armies serves up endless skirmishes which are infused with the same finesse and glee that Jackson initially harnessed in Bad Taste and Braindead. This is, after all, a movie featuring Billy Connolly riding a pig, and with plenty of trolls stomping around to add further flavour to the battlefield. Armies is the shortest in the Hobbit trilogy and the Middle-earth saga as a whole, clocking in at 144 minutes including credits. The brevity is nice, as the movie doesn't outstay its welcome and pacing is brisk throughout. But while the more judicious length is appreciated, the movie does leave a number of loose ends that one supposes will be addressed in the inevitable extended edition. Beorn, for instance, is barely glimpsed for a few seconds, and the fates of a number of characters are left up in the air. Luckily, Battle of the Five Armies closes the door perfectly, with the end credits containing drawings of the various cast members, set to the sublime song The Last Goodbye sung by Billy Boyd, who played Pippin in The Lord of the Rings.

With the impossibly smooth digital photography, 3D effects and an abundance of CGI, the look of the Hobbit movies is a mixed bag. While the luscious visuals are glorious to witness on the big screen, oftentimes the movies do not look quite right. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was lensed on 35mm film stock, affording a natural grain structure which allowed the fantastical world to look real, not to mention the use of enormous miniatures look much better than their digital counterpart. The illusion, unfortunately, is never quite as convincing for The Hobbit, even though the digital effects look frequently magnificent. CGI Orcs remain the most egregious use of digital effects here; extras with prosthetics and make-up in The Lord of the Rings look far more effective. As with its predecessors, The Battle of the Five Armies is offered in 3D, projected in 48 frames per second. To be sure, these additions are gimmicky, but they're executed flawlessly, and they amplify the cinema experience. But, as I have stated about the other Hobbit pictures, the movie does fine in regular old 2D.

Even though the big, crazy action set-pieces are the stars of the show here, the dramatic stuff is still surprisingly strong. Thorin's descent into madness is fascinating to watch, and the drama preceding the titular battle is engaging. There is tragedy here; those who've read the book will know that not all of the main characters survive this war, and the various deaths do tug at the heartstrings. Also strong is the finale, with Bilbo saying goodbye to his dwarf companions and travelling back to Bag End. Jackson cannot resist the opportunity to tie the last scene into The Fellowship of the Ring, and it works quite well, reinforcing the strength of the relationship between Bilbo and Gandalf. However, the largely uninteresting love triangle between Tauriel, Legolas and Kili remains just as blah as ever, and is brought to its conclusion here. Ultimately, it feels precisely like the melodramatic slop that it is, a cheap ploy to bring in the teenage girl demographic. It's played in such a perfunctory manner, too, and one has to wonder if Jackson's heart was ever really in it.

Even though this series is called The Hobbit, Bilbo is not a main player for Armies. He is still our protagonist in this fantastical world, but other characters take the forefront here. Still, Freeman again shows himself to be an ideal Bilbo Baggins, making the role his own. However, this is Richard Armitage's show - he shines in the role of Thorin, given the chance to stretch his range and venture into darker territory. The Battle of the Five Armies is packed with an enormous supporting cast, and there are many returning faces here; the likes of Orlando Bloom, Ian McKellen, Hugo Weaving, Cate Blanchett and Lee Pace all hit their marks confidently. The aforementioned Billy Connolly is a real treat as well.

At the end of this journey, you can call the Hobbit trilogy any number of things: long, bloated, corny, shamelessly goofy, and even unnecessary. But I cannot deny that the movies are a lot of fun, and The Battle of the Five Armies is arguably a near-perfect way to wrap this story up, with its kitchen sink fantasy battle sequences rendering it the most giddily entertaining Middle-earth movie to date. Despite its flaws, it's wonderful that this long-gestating adaptation of Tolkien's accomplished work has finally been brought to life, and executed with far more skill than the horrendous Star Wars prequels that the Hobbit pictures are often compared to. Yes, it might be interesting to see a potentially superior adaptation of the novel by another filmmaker in coming decades, and one must continue to wonder what original director Guillermo del Toro would've made of the material (the love triangle certainly would not have existed under the Mexican's watch). In the meantime, Peter Jackson's trilogy is perfectly good, and it deepens the cinematic Middle-earth mythology and fleshes out various Lord of the Rings characters in a superb way. What a hell of a journey this has been.


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The motion picture which broke me.

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 22 November 2014 09:36 (A review of The Expendables 3)

"You were stupid enough to get yourself into this mess! And we're the only ones crazy enough to get you out of it!"

2014's The Expendables 3 is frustrating and heartbreaking to watch. For this third instalment of the action franchise, Sylvester Stallone has assembled the finest cast of the series to date, with fan favourites like Mel Gibson, Wesley Snipes and Harrison Ford joining the ensemble, which makes it all the more deflating and angering to witness the picture's limitless potential being squandered. With a fucking PG-13 rating and a distractingly digital look, The Expendables 3 feels closer to generic modern action junk than the '80s action classics it strives to emulate. Not to mention, Stallone's ego has reached critical mass, resulting in a trilogy capper that has its moments but ultimately falls short at every opportunity.

After breaking teammate Doctor Death (Snipes) out of prison, the Expendables gang - including Barney Ross (Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunner Jensen (Dolph Lundgren), Toll Road (Randy Couture) and Hale Caesar (Terry Crews) - head to Somalia to disrupt a black market arms deal. But the crew are attacked by Conrad Stonebanks (Gibson), a deadly former Expendable gone rogue, who shoots Caesar in the ass, leaving him fighting for his life in hospital. Barney doesn't want to put the rest of his guys in danger, cutting them loose and bringing in Bonaparte (Kelsey Grammer) to recruit a fresh team of mercenaries. With the assistance of Thorn (Glen Powell), Mars (Victor Ortiz), Smilee (Kellan Lutz) and Luna (Ronda Rousey), and with intelligence provided by C.I.A. Agent Drummer (Ford), Barney goes after Stonebanks. Also wanting in on the action is Galgo (Antonia Banderas), a flamboyant wannabe mercenary, while Barney also brings in extra muscle in the form of old pal Trench (Arnold Schwarzenegger). Oh, and Yin Yang (Jet Li) shows up as well, to appease the lucrative Chinese market.

There's nothing particularly wrong with the story per se, as it seems to reinforce the worth of the older Expendables by showing the younglings getting captured. But the execution is awful, with the big names being pushed aside in favour of the charmless Twilight stand-ins. (Lutz was actually in Twilight, just FYI.) The core audience who attend the Expendables movies pay to see the likes of Statham, Lundgren and Snipes, so why would we want to spend the second act with bland Calvin Klein models instead? It would have been far more effective if Statham and co. were actually given something to do, rather than disappearing entirely. For instance, Stonebanks could have sent men to eliminate them, which would both motivate their decision to re-join Barney for the finale, and lead to some potentially incredible action beats in an otherwise flabby, action-free mid-section.

The Expendables 3 is PG-13, because fuck all of the adults over the age of 17 who want to see their favourite action stars on the big screen. Apparently Stallone "owed it" to the younger generation to deliver a softer, more gentler action extravaganza this time around, as opposed to catering to the fans who made the first two Expendables pictures such a box office success (with R ratings) in the first place.

The film's major set-pieces fall hopelessly short of their potential. The action beats are staged with suitable finesse, and hundreds of dudes are killed, but the PG-13 rating robs the deaths of any brutal impact; as a result, the whole thing feels hopelessly vanilla as opposed to giddily satisfying. It's especially frustrating to watch Trench unleash the trademark AA-12 shotgun, with the powerful bullets leaving no visible wounds. Rather than puffs of blood or viscera, this war zone is very clean and sanitised, with puffs of white smoke whenever someone is shot. Despite the competent fight choreography, there are no memorable deaths here, a tremendous drawback. An extended "unrated" cut of the movie is also available, but it nevertheless remains bloodless. To be sure, the extended cut is the version of choice, as the editing is more cohesive and it reinserts a few additional badass action beats that should never have been trimmed in the first place, but the lack of true R-rated content is genuinely deflating.

Another mortal sin of The Expendables 3 is that there's no tension to any of the action scenes, which observe the protagonists killing scores of bad guys without ever being in danger themselves. It would have been far more interesting to see a few of the team-members getting killed, or at least suffering wounds. How much more badass and satisfying would it be if the Expendables barely made it out alive, and all were soaked in blood?

And what of the climactic throwdown between Stallone and Gibson, you ask? Forget about it. What should have been a duel for the ages is instead a forgettable, all-too-short brawl mostly filmed with stunt doubles, in which Barney has the upper hand the entire time. Again, Stallone's ego is completely out of control.

Speaking of Stallone's ego, it really is noticeable. Barney is the one leading the young dudes, after all, and he's utterly indestructible. He survives an RPG hit which throws him off a bridge and into rough waters below, for instance, and he manages to avoid capture while the young guys are taken hostage by Stonebanks. And at the end, everybody cheers upon seeing that Barney is alive, and Luna even comes onto him. Seriously?

Bringing Aussie director Patrick Hughes (Red Hill) on-board was a potentially terrific decision, as it represented the chance for an Expendables movie to be an auteur effort. Alas, with nearly twenty goddamn producers, The Expendables 3 is clearly a studio product, with Hughes merely a cheap puppet whose strings are pulled by the bean-counters. To be sure, The Expendables 3 is the slickest and most polished of the series thus far, owing to the bright digital photography as opposed to the more drab visuals of the earlier movies. However, digital effects are cheap and awful. Cheesy CGI has been a staple of the Expendables movies, but The Expendables 3 takes it too far - a prison exploding in the opening sequence looks like a PS1-era video game, and a helicopter skirmish during the climax is abysmal. Brian Tyler is credited for the movie's soundtrack, but he clearly did fuck all in terms of composing for this go-round. Not that Tyler is a bad composer, but literally every piece of music used in The Expendables 3 is recycled from the first two movies. It's lazy and distracting. And speaking of the soundtrack, both prior Expendables movies feature classic rock songs, but this third entry foregrounds trashy new music, and not even popular stuff (because that would be too expensive).

Gibson is easily the best catch of the series so far; he's superb as Stonebanks, a sinister villain whose tongue is as dangerous as his trigger finger. He owns the screen whenever he appears, which is the best compliment one can give a thespian considering the below-par script. One of the best scenes in the flick involves Barney and Stonebanks in a van, with Stonebanks humiliating his former colleague in front of the young Expendables. Gibson is simply too good for this material, and it reminds you of why Gibson needs to be in more movies. Another superb newcomer is Snipes. The actor is alert and energetic here, cracking jokes and killing bad guys, making this his most enjoyable screen performance in years. It's therefore a shame that Snipes isn't given much to do beyond the first act. Ford, meanwhile, is a riot as the gruff Max Drummer, making his limited screen-time count. However, Banderas is a mixed bag. He's at times amusing, but for the most part he feels like this franchise's Jar Jar Binks. It's a shame that Banderas wasn't called upon to play something closer to his iconic Mariachi role. And, unfortunately, the franchise's primary mainstays - Statham, Lundgren, Couture and Crews - are simply here, with very little to do. Meanwhile, Schwarzenegger (who was available and on-set for more than he was for the past two movies) is also wasted; he gets a few note-worthy one-liners as expected, but he doesn't do much else. Even more heartbreaking is the presence of Jet Li, who's on-screen for less than five minutes and does little else than stand around firing a weapon. Why even include Li if he can't even flex his phenomenal martial arts skills? And in the final scene, Schwarzenegger and Li act like a gay couple. What the fuck?

On top of all its other sins, The Expendables 3 also has a huge problem in its young newcomers. While it's appreciated that someone like Taylor Lautner wasn't included, the young-bloods here are simply appalling. They were clearly included for the eye candy to set up the planned spin-off including these guys, but it's just not good enough. The budget was clearly blown on all of the big names, so nothing was left to recruit worthwhile names for these roles. Actors like Dwayne Johnson or even Scott Adkins (wouldn't be the first time an actor has played two different roles in the same franchise) would have been far more interesting. Another issue with the movie is that pretty much all the big names play heroes. Gibson is the main villain here, and he's not given the support of any noteworthy henchmen. The first film had Gary Daniels and Steve Austin, while the second movie had a very badass Scott Adkins. Here, Gibson is supported by nameless extras in battle fatigues. Robert Davi also pops in for a brief cameo, achieving precisely nothing.

This reviewer has read an early draft of the screenplay credited to Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt, which is fairly similar to the finished product in a number of ways, except that it was vehemently R-rated and extremely violent. But of course, Stallone and his money-hungry producers stepped in to change the screenplay to suit their PG-13 desires. The Expendables 3 is the movie which broke me. Never again will a cast of this calibre unite for a motion picture. This was an opportunity to create both a phenomenal trilogy closer for the Expendables franchise, and a kick-ass action film to satiate fans for decades to come. Instead, it's little more than a mediocre footnote in each of the actors' careers. They blew it. It might satiate unfussy viewers as it can be entertaining, but I can only see wasted potential. If an Expendables 4 was to materialise (very doubtful considering the less-than-impressive box office returns), it would need to reinvent the series, similar to what Fast Five did for the Fast & Furious franchise. And for the love of God, make it R-rated.

Theatrical: 5.2/10
Extended: 6.0/10

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It still sucks...

Posted : 9 months, 1 week ago on 27 April 2014 04:10 (A review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon)

There will be days when we lose faith, days when our allies turn against us. But the day will never come, that we forsake this planet and its people.

It's completely foolish at this point to expect a Transformers picture to be genuinely good from a serious critical standpoint, but even dumb summer blockbusters require a deft touch to make them work. Michael Bay's first Transformers remains one of the worst big-budget blockbusters of its decade, while its sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, was the worst big-budget blockbuster of its decade, with the latter so wrong-headed that even Bay and star Shia LaBeouf have publically admitted that they screwed up. 2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon was intended to be atonement, with Bay promising to dial down the humorous excess and produce a grittier instalment. But if this is really the result of Bay and co. trying their hardest, all hope is lost for this series (and Bay's career). An obnoxiously loud, repugnant, overlong blockbuster, Dark of the Moon is an absolute chore to get through, and though some of the mayhem is halfway entertaining, you have to wade through 90 minutes of utter tripe to get to it.

Dark of the Moon contains some revisionist history, positing that the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 was spearheaded with an ulterior motive: to investigate an alien spaceship which crash-landed on the moon's surface a decade earlier. Within the craft is robot Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), former Autobot leader and the elder to Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). Fast forward to the 21st Century, and the Decepticons are determined to resume their war with the Autobots, seeking to acquire a teleportation device which has the potential to strip Earth of all life in order to rebuild the Transformers' home world of Cybertron. But this plot is a secondary concern, with the mostly movie concentrating on Sam Witwicky (Shia LaDouche) and his hot girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Now an adult, Sam is struggling to find a job in spite of having saved the world on two occasions, and becomes drawn into the Autobot/Decepticon conflict which also involves the American military.

It's clear that Bay was shooting for a more sophisticated instalment here, opening with a rather intriguing segment to convey the revisionist history. Bay attempts to heighten verisimilitude by mixing genuine archive footage with faux archive footage and staged scenes, but the result feels too frenetic, jumping between the various sources as if the editor was afflicted with ADHD. Unfortunately, Dark of the Moon fails to improve much from this point onward, returning to business as usual for the series: idiotic human characters and their clichéd problems. This is the third Transformers movie, yet the titular robots are still given supporting roles, even though the Transformer-centric plotline could sustain an entire feature. Moreover, while the humour is dialled-down and Bay attempts to get serious, there are still mini-robots lurking around who say and do thoroughly ludicrous things. Sam's parents also show up for more unfunny monkey business, while the supporting cast espouse exaggerated accents (including Ken Jeong and Alan Tudyk) to inject even more superfluous failed humour into the enterprise.

Dark of the Moon treats its mythology and back-story as homework, with the script deploying as much exposition as possible in a perfunctory way, leading to pure boredom between all the 'sposions. And for a major studio production, Dark of the Moon is an exceedingly ugly movie, with Bay's aggressive “orange and teal” colour scheme making for visual diarrhoea, while the pedestrian cinematography is thoroughly uninvolving. Although it's pleasant to report that Bay dialled down his obnoxious shaky-cam tendencies for this endeavour, the results aren't anything to write home about, with strictly pedestrian action scenes that aren't overly thrilling. There's simply no rhythm or sense of pacing to Bay's work; the movie amounts to a jarring mishmash of over-edited scenes, and the dissonance caused by the various tones could cause whiplash. One minute we're meant to get emotional over the 9/11-esque destruction perpetrated by the Decepticons, and the next we're meant to be excited about an impending battle. There's insufficient connective tissue, making it feel as if chunks of the movie are missing. Even more bewildering is the ending - in the course of twenty seconds, there's romantic talk between Sam and Carly, followed by a rushed montage set to a quick Optimus Prime voiceover, after which the credits suddenly appear. It all feels fucking awkward and random.

Bafflingly, the digital effects are borderline terrible. It would seem that the animators were on autopilot for the majority of the movie, as Dark of the Moon's CGI is woefully obvious and incredibly phoney. CGI is meant to be utilised to maintain an illusion and make audiences wonder how various moments were pulled off, but the Transformers here look every bit like the digital creations that they are, and it's never possible to accept them as tangible beings. There's also a CGI recreation of John F. Kennedy which looks worse than the average video game. An actor in make-up, or even a vague lookalike, would be far more effective. There are a few fun moments here and there, but Bay's focus during the climax is all wrong, with the humans again taking the foreground and doing most of the heroic stuff. Just, why?

The departure of Megan Fox was a golden opportunity for Bay to recruit an actress with actual talent, but he squanders the chance by recruiting Huntington-Whiteley, a model chosen strictly for her looks who makes her acting debut here. Her first scene features the actress in underwear, and Bay's camera leeringly observes her, only very rarely shooting above her waistline. One must wonder what an actress like Zooey Deschanel or Ellen Page could have brought to a love interest role, though Bay would probably have a tough time attracting someone so classy to this picture due to the director's perverted visual instincts. It goes without saying that the acting is awful here, with LaDouche again making no palpable effort, while the military jarheads are completely forgettable. Even though Bay concentrates on the humans so much, none of them are in any way memorable.

Exactly the kind of soulless CGI demo reel that people frown on Hollywood for producing, this third Transformers picture ultimately amounts to a numbing sensory assault best enjoyed by masochists wanting their eardrums to be permanently damaged. Despite a few enjoyable scenes here and there, momentum is too often halted by dumb humour, and Bay stretches out various set-pieces to the point that they become repetitive and pointless. This series needs to end and be rebooted with a filmmaker who might do something worthwhile.


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Bruising action-thriller

Posted : 9 months, 1 week ago on 27 April 2014 04:03 (A review of Sabotage )

"Some of us are getting paid, the rest of us are just getting dead."

David Ayer has established himself as a purveyor of gritty crime films over the years, with the likes of End of Watch, Street Kings and Harsh Times under his belt. Co-written by Skip Woods, 2014's Sabotage is not exactly fresh territory for the filmmaker, who dreams up a twisty action-thriller that's dark, repugnant, and viciously violent. The movie also features the acting talents of Arnold Schwarzenegger, making a wise decision to star in what's essentially an auteur effort. Sabotage is not a typical Schwarzenegger vehicle, but rather a David Ayer film through-and-through, with the Austrian Oak playing a much darker role than usual. Although the end result is uneven and was clearly the victim of studio interference, it's definitely a fun enough watch, even if it's not the genuine keeper it could've been.

In Georgia, a team of fierce DEA agents led by the towering Breacher (Schwarzenegger) storm the compound of a feared drug lord, using the raid to steal $10 million from the cartel to split amongst them for their own means. However, the stash of money mysteriously disappears, and the Feds begin to suspect Breacher's team. After being investigated and scrutinised for six months, though, the guys are cleared to return to duty, only to find that their skills are rusty and they've grown distrustful of each other. The situation deteriorates further when members of the task force begin getting murdered in vicious ways, prompting Investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) to look into the killings.

Arnie has fans young and old, but Sabotage is definitely geared towards the adult demographic. Ayer's movie wears its R-rating on its sleeve, with scores of blood and viscera, not to mention the graphic image of a dead body nailed to the ceiling. It's commendable for Ayer to retain his tendency towards authenticity, though it might not appeal to those wanting something more in line with Commando. What's interesting is that Breacher and his team are actually villainous and highly unpleasant, with fuzzy morals making them true antiheroes. Indeed, we watch these guys stealing from a cartel in the first ten minutes and endeavouring to cover it up, and events only grow more extreme from there. It would be unwise to spoil the surprises within, but rest assured that the story heads off in unexpected directions, leading to a conclusion that one would never expect to see in an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle.

One of the movie's strengths is its dialogue, which is full of snarky exchanges and macho bantering, reflecting the type of people that Breacher's team are. It's often quite hilarious, and the joking around helps to give the picture a sense of humanity. Unfortunately, though, the task force generally has little dimension - there are a handful of great scenes of team bonding, but there should have been more, and at times it's hard to figure out who's been killed. Storytelling is a bit all over the shop as well, with some choppy editing and a strange narrative flow suggesting that the movie was indeed extensively trimmed by the studio in favour of a more action-oriented finished product. Flat characters are to be expected in B-movies, but Sabotage aspires to be more than a dumb actioner, with Ayer shooting for something closer to Sylvester Stallone's Cop Land. Thus, it insists on a realistic tone but it needed more dimensionality to make it work.

In terms of bruising action, Ayer definitely delivers, orchestrating scene upon scene of insanely violent shootouts and other chaos. Ayer is a filmmaker who prefers practical effects over CGI, hence you feel the impact of every bullet, and the destruction feels real. These are some of the best action set-pieces of Arnie's career, and that's saying something. It's also notable that Ayer predominantly relied on blood squibs as opposed to digital gore, a choice that gives the movie a beautifully lived-in aesthetic. The performances are a little bit flat across the board, but the ensemble are generally good enough. Schwarzenegger is well-suited to the role of Breacher, looking convincing as he uses big guns and chomps on cigars. The hulking star is visibly getting older, but he looks credible in combat here, and he can still deliver one-liners and use firearms with confidence. Also strong here is Sam Worthington as Monster, one of the members of Breacher's squad. It's a refreshing change of pace for the actor, and he's actually a believable badass. Joe Manganiello, meanwhile, is likewise convincing as Grinder, while the likes of Terence Howard and Josh Holloway give further flavour to the Breacher's task force. But it's Mireille Enos who steals the show as the insane, coked-up Lizzy, spouting endless profanity and killing with little compunction.

In the end, it's hard to warm up to Sabotage or really love it, but it's easy to enjoy the various set-pieces staged with a sure hand, and it's fascinating to see Arnie playing a dark antihero. Still, one can't help but wonder what the rumoured original three-hour cut is like, and wonder if the various flaws in storytelling and character development could be rectified in a future home video release.


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