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Solid enough continuation of the MCU

Posted : 2 days, 2 hours ago on 23 April 2015 04:52 (A review of Avengers: Age of Ultron)

"I know you're good people. I know you mean well. But you just didn't think it through. There is only one path to peace... your extermination."

The culmination of Marvel's Phase Two, and of the Marvel Cinematic Universe in general thus far, 2015's Avengers: Age of Ultron is definitely a bigger movie than 2012's The Avengers, but not necessarily better. Returning as writer-director for this go-round is God of Geekdom Joss Whedon, who crafts an intriguing twist on the Frankenstein story with shades of Pinocchio. Although Age of Ultron delivers all the requisite large-scale action sequences that we've come to expect from a $250 million blockbuster, it's a bit on the dull side, and not nearly as much fun as the 2012 mega-hit which preceded it.

To lighten the load for the Earth's Mightiest Heroes, Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), with the input of Bruce Banner/The Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), develops an intricate A.I. program named Ultron (James Spader) intended to form the basis for a peacekeeping initiative. However, Ultron is born with a distorted view of humans, ignoring his creator in favour of pursuing his own mission to bring about mankind's extinction. Thus, Stark, Banner and their assorted pals - including Thor (Chris Hemsworth), Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans), Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), and Clint Barton/Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) - assemble for a seemingly unwinnable fight against Ultron and his two gifted henchmen, twins Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen).

As with the original Avengers, Whedon came to the picture with plenty of baggage to deal with after the unexpectedly crazy events of Phase Two. After all, S.H.I.E.L.D. has dissolved, Stark's future at the end of Iron Man 3 seemed uncertain, and Thor has a lot on his plate, to say nothing of the other Avengers. There's almost an entire motion picture's worth of baggage, but Whedon wisely opts to skip the aftermath of Phase Two and dive directly into the meat and potatoes of this story. Age of Ultron finds the superheroes working cooperatively as a team, proudly calling themselves The Avengers and living in their own HQ bankrolled by Stark. Naturally, this status quo is not destined to last, and the ending paves the way for the impending Phase Three, with Thor's next solo effort directly set-up, and with more characters being inducted into the team.

There are plenty of colourful action sequences throughout, but Whedon again aims to produce a more substantial experience than something like Transformers. At about the midway point, the proceedings slow down as the heroes gather themselves following a particularly harrowing engagement. With Stark, Rogers and Thor all headlining their own solo films, Age of Ultron is mostly concerned with Barton, Banner and Romanoff. Jeremy Renner publically expressed his dissatisfaction with the handling of Hawkeye in The Avengers, and Whedon visibly took notice, hence this second instalment delves into Barton's personal life and relationships. However, Age of Ultron lacks the emotional heft that elevated its predecessor - there is a fatality here like Agent Coulson's temporary death, but it's not as affecting. Moreover, it's inherently jarring to witness the Avengers taking on Ultron when he is Stark's creation. Thus, while the Avengers are necessary to eliminate the maniacal A.I. program, they are cleaning up a mess that's wholly their fault. At the very least, Whedon could have done something interesting with this, perhaps setting up more conflict between the teammates that will lead into Captain America: Civil War, but such moralistic debates are eschewed.

2012's The Avengers was a joyous victory lap for the folks at Marvel, with Whedon infusing the original picture with a sense of pure ecstasy. Age of Ultron, on the other hand, is a grimmer beast, with a dark tone closer to Man of Steel than the first Avengers. Ultron's lack of remorse and humanity in his bid to bring about mankind's extinction makes this an inherently darker story, but it's a bit drab and leaden as a consequence, in need of the spark of danger and urgency which characterised Captain America: The Winter Soldier. Tension is mostly lacking in the big action set-pieces too, which are enjoyable but never thoroughly involving or edge-of-your-seat. Perhaps the biggest issue with the climax is that there's no nail-biting urgency or ticking clock. Too much time is spent watching civilians being evacuated that's frankly too on-the-nose, as if Whedon was conscious to avoid the same criticisms surrounding Man of Steel. It just feels like Ultron is actually letting the Avengers evacuate everyone and foil his plot to wipe out mankind, when he should be upping the ante and making it far more difficult for the mighty superhero team to save the world.

Whedon's defining trait, of course, is witty bantering, and he delivers again with Age of Ultron, serving up plenty of laughs amid the spectacle. Stark remains a one-liner machine, and there's a particularly fun party sequence not long into the movie which spotlights the Avengers mingling with other supporting players from the MCU (though Natalie Portman's Jane and Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper are noticeably and awkwardly absent). There is a tremendous ensemble of characters here, but Whedon manages to give them all a proper place in the story and action scenes. Leading the ensemble is the perpetually-reliable Downey Jr., who's growing older but nevertheless remains a flamboyant, amusing, charismatic Tony Stark, and one cannot help but ponder how drab the MCU will be when he inevitably departs. The likes of Evans, Hemsworth, and Renner are fine, but it's Ruffalo who shines here, given more to do and more depth to his character. As Banner's love interest of sorts, Johansson also takes advantage of her larger place in the story. As for the newcomers, Taylor-Johnson and Olsen (yes, they played husband/wife in Godzilla and play brother/sister here) both excel, but it's Spader who will have everyone talking. Ultron is an insanely sinister villain, voiced to perfection by the veteran actor. Whereas Loki was charming and conniving, Ultron is an outright menace, a mechanical madman with no sense of humanity or remorse. He's a relentless Terminator-like cyborg who can transfer his consciousness to another body at the drop of a hat, and has access to the internet and all of Stark's files.

Age of Ultron remains a tour de force of blockbuster filmmaking from a technical perspective, with Whedon gripping us from the outset - the movie opens with a masterful tracking shot that re-introduces us to the main players, travelling from one Avenger to the next in the middle of combat. The dreaded shaky-cam syndrome does not rear its ugly head; Whedon relies on skilful choreography and precise framing, letting us watch and enjoy the action on display. On top of this, digital effects remain top-notch - the motion capture Hulk is especially astounding. This is easily the most real, lifelike Incredible Hulk we have ever seen on-screen, with detailed skin texture and movement that makes him seem alive and tangible. Age of Ultron carries a different aesthetic to its predecessor, mostly staying out of the United States for scenes in South Africa, Korea and other countries, not to mention the cinematography is darker in comparison to the vibrant, colourful look of its forerunner. The production's digital photography never looks quite right, however - fantasy and comic book films of old were lensed on celluloid, which afforded a beautiful cinematic texture. Digital photography, on the other hand, looks too glossy, which in turn makes it look less real.

Alan Silvestri's memorable Avengers theme does pop up once or twice, but for the most part, Brian Tyler's original compositions are insanely generic and forgettable; they do not amplify the visuals in any considerable way, nor do they even entirely suit the picture at times, which is disappointing considering Tyler's superlative contributions to Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World.

Age of Ultron is not as exhilarating or as involving as this reviewer had hoped for, and there are a few nitpicky things here and there that may have biased armchair critics chattering, but on the whole it's an entertaining blockbuster and a solid enough continuation of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It has big action scenes that unfussy viewers will enjoy, and this is a review-proof movie anyway. As per usual, be sure to stick around for a mid-credits teaser of things to come (nothing at the end of the credits), which will probably make you feel depressed that the next Avengers film is three years away (and you'll need to wait an additional year on top of that for Part Two).


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Wholesome, entertaining, action-packed B-movie

Posted : 6 days, 2 hours ago on 19 April 2015 05:31 (A review of Skin Trade)

"We're gonna make sure that coming to America was the worst decision Viktor Dragovic ever made!"

Skin Trade delivers on expectations. It does not exactly exceed them, but it does not disappoint, which is a big deal considering what's at stake here. After all, it is a direct-to-video affair with one hell of a cast, including Expendables luminary Dolph Lundgren, Thai superstar Tony Jaa, former RoboCop Peter Weller, Hellboy star Ron Perlman, and the perpetually reliable Michael Jai White. Luckily, instead of a schlocky waste of time like Blood of Redemption or Ambushed, Skin Trade has the skill and know-how to deliver as a bruising B-movie actioner. It also functions as something of a public service announcement about the hideous human trafficking industry, with the movie giving us something to chew on as we enjoy the carnage, violence, and explosions.

Seeking to take down sinister Siberian human trafficker Viktor Dragovic (Perlman), New York Cop Nick Cassidy (Lundgren) kills Dragovic's beloved son in a tense shootout. After Dragovic weasels his way out of police custody, he comes after Cassidy, destroying his house and attacking his family. The assault leaves Cassidy shaken and determined to exact revenge, going outside the law in his mission for retribution. Travelling to Cambodia, Cassidy crosses paths with young Thai detective Tony Vitayakul (Jaa), but the pair are reluctant to trust one another.

It's clear that Skin Trade genuinely is a case of "If you want something done right, do it yourself." Lundgren initially penned the screenplay all the way back in 2007, and when the film finally came together, the actor maintained plenty of responsibility, serving as a producer on his pet project, though he left directorial duties to Thai filmmaker Ekachai Uekrongtham. Skin Trade unfolds pretty much as you would anticipate, fulfilling perfunctory story and character development before getting into the relentless action sequences. There are a few twists and turns throughout the narrative, but it thankfully never devolves into convoluted nonsense. At 90 minutes, this is a beautifully lean movie, and, surprisingly, the ending is not an outright happy one; it's open-ended, which both reinforces how many souls are lost due to human trafficking, and leaves room for a sequel if one is ever ordered (which would be an enticing prospect).

Today's action movies are digital all over, with movies like Battle of the Damned and Blood of Redemption even stooping to the offensive level of digital muzzle flashes (no blank rounds are fired anymore), and with CGI blood rearing its ugly head in most every recent action movie. Thankfully, Skin Trade is more old-school; performers are visibly shooting blanks, and bullet hits are practical. It's such a small thing, but it's rarely done correctly, hence the effort is very much appreciated. Moreover, while there may be digital touch-ups here and there, nothing looks phoney or outright CGI. Hell, there's even a helicopter crash during the finale which looks like the result of practical effects! Most of the explosions and flames look real, too. Skin Trade is very much an '80s movie in spirit, though its tone is perhaps more dour than most productions from that era. While the dialogue doesn't sparkle as brightly as something like Lethal Weapon, there are a few nice one-liners peppered throughout.

The action as a whole in Skin Trade is satisfying, with shootouts, chases, and some hand-to-hand fights, all of which were pulled off with sufficient panache by director Uekrongtham. We can actually see what's happening, and the body count is pretty considerable. Unlike the PG-13 family-friendly flicks we see so often, Skin Trade is a hard R, almost effortlessly so, pulling no punches in its depiction of graphic violence or the bleak realities of the human trafficking industry. There are even a few gory deaths that left this reviewer giddy with joy. Furthermore, production values are strong considering the production's reported $9 million budget, with slick visuals courtesy of cinematographer Ben Nott (Predestination, Daybreakers). Skin Trade is a theatrical quality actioner, and it certainly deserves a wide cinema release more than some guff that has polluted multiplexes recently.

Tony Jaa was grossly misused for his English-language debut in Furious 7, lost amid a congested ensemble cast where he was unable to do much. But Jaa's second billing here is appropriate, as he is indeed allotted a major role in the proceedings. His acting is admittedly a bit stilted and lacking in confidence like most Asian performers making their English debut, but he compensates for these shortcomings with his insane fighting skills. The Ong-bak sequels and The Protector 2 were unforgivable, with the latter actually featuring some piss-poor fights, but the throwdowns in Skin Trade are awesome. A brawl with Lundgren is admittedly a bit over-edited, but it's brutal and viscerally exciting nevertheless. But the jewel in the movie's crown is Jaa's one-on-one with Michael Jai White - both men are proficient real-life fighters, and their battle is incredible, with smooth camerawork properly showcasing the respective abilities of the two men. It's certainly better than anything from last year's The Expendables 3.

Dolph often puts more effort into his performances if he directs the picture as well. Although he only produced Skin Trade, the project was very close to his heart, resulting in a very focused performance here that ranks among his best in the last couple of decades. It's a suitable role for the Dolphster, and he runs with it. His pain is very evident when he loses his family, and he seems visibly affected as he looks upon the women and children locked up in cages (Dolph has said that, to get into character, he thought about how he would feel if his young daughters were in there). Dolph interacts well with Jaa, and the rest of the actors submit solid contributions across the board. Perlman is a borderline cartoon, but in a good way, and he's a terrific villain. Rounding out the cast are Weller and White, who are a bit underused but nevertheless hit their marks confidently.

With a bigger budget and an extra hand in the scripting department, Skin Trade could have been a profound action-thriller akin to Blood Diamond. As Dolph himself admits, though, the finished product is vehemently a violent action fiesta, albeit one with a bit more on its mind than your typical B-movie. It fulfils its modest ambitions, and does so without the usual pitfalls associated with modern DTV productions. It's clichéd and silly, and some moments are a tad awkward, but on the whole it's a wholesome, entertaining action movie, and that's exactly what I wanted.


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A big swing & miss

Posted : 2 weeks, 5 days ago on 6 April 2015 12:51 (A review of Tusk)

"It's good to cry. It separates us from the animals. Shows you have a soul."

There was once a time when a new Kevin Smith project was cause for genuine excitement and curiosity, with the indie filmmaker churning out a steady stream of clever comedies in the '90s, beginning with his breakout effort Clerks. But starting with the 2010 turkey Cop Out, Smith's flicks have become less and less impressive, and his downward spiral continues with 2014's Tusk, a movie based on a random conversation from one of Smith's many podcasts. Smith evidently wanted to craft an earnest, Cronenbergian body horror movie in the vein of The Human Centipede about a guy transforming into a walrus, but he does not quite have the skill to get there. Rather than an earnest, honest-to-goodness, bad yet incredible find of a gem, Tusk is a slickly-produced, highly calculated attempt at factory-building an artificial version of what amounts to found art. Amusing schlocky horrors need to happen by accident - fake versions like this simply do not work. At the beginning of his career, Smith compensated for lack of budget and style by writing sparkling dialogue and engaging comedic vignettes, but now he creates polished, crisp visuals supplemented by shoddy writing.

A podcaster, Wallace (Justin Long) and partner Teddy (Haley Joel Osment) run the Not-See Podcast, which celebrates and mocks viral videos and eccentric people. Seeking to interview a peculiar young man who recently became internet famous, Wallace travels to Canada, but finds that he's too late. Scrambling to make something of the expensive trip, Wallace spies an ad in a men's room which piques his interest, and travels to the middle of nowhere to meet enigmatic raconteur Howard (Michael Parks). Before long, Howard drugs Wallace, handicapping him to prevent him from escaping the estate. As it turns out, Howard has plans to turn his victim into a kind walrus from his past. But Wallace's disappearance soon attracts the attention of Teddy and Wallace's girlfriend, Allison (Genesis Rodriguez), who travel to Canada and enlist the help of a private detective (Johnny Depp) to find their friend.

Like Red State, Tusk is more effective in its early stages. The story's set-up works to some extent, and there are notable scenes bolstered by the stylish photography which makes terrific use of shadows. It would seem that Smith was endeavouring to prove that he can be a legitimate filmmaker, taking the patently ludicrous concept with a straight face...for a little while. Smith eventually shift gears to settle into a more comedic, screwball tone, and this is a big problem - the comedy falls completely flat (which is hugely alarming in a Kevin Smith movie), and it does not successfully coalesce with the dour, gritty horror tone. It's all over the shop. And even though the photography is incredibly slick throughout the first two acts, the entire enterprise is still rather bland overall. Smith's attempt at generating chilling horror amounts to a lot of indulgent chatter and plenty of grimness - but it's not especially scary, nail-biting or even chilling. Rather, it's just pretty fucking dour.

Impossibly, the biggest problem here is Depp, who sneaks his way into the project to place forth his most insufferably grating performance to date. Quirky characters is Depp's modus operandi, but he's way out of his depth here, with a faux French(?) accent and exaggerated mannerisms growing incredibly annoying, as if he were the retarded brother of Inspector Clouseau. (A scene of Depp interacting with Parks, who disguises his voice, goes on too long and made me want to hit the mute button.) Oddly, Smith's entire filmmaking style suddenly changes with Depp's introduction, giving over to campy, oddball theatrics (scored to Fleetwood Mac, of all things) rather than the patient, quietly sinister atmosphere that Smith was apparently aiming for in the first half. Worse, the final scene tries to add some profundity to the proceedings, but it's enormously ineffective.

When Smith finds a thespian that he likes, he hangs onto them for dear life, with Parks leaning on exactly the same style of acting which characterised his Red State appearance. But just like Red State, Smith is so enamoured with Parks' monologues that he simply must let the man talk and talk to no end. Tusk runs 100 minutes, but it could have easily been trimmed to 80 minutes if only Smith was more disciplined towards Parks (and Depp, for that matter, whose introductory scene also drags on past its natural closure point).

Credit is due, though, to the astounding make-up effects, with Long convincingly turned into a sea creature as a result of some gruesome surgery. Long sells the hell out of the material, with his incredible ego showing through in the early stages as a podcaster with legions of fans before becoming outright terrified as he falls into Howard's hands. And as a walrus? Long does well. The rest of the cast hit their marks effectively enough, with a now grown-up Osment borderline unrecognisable as Wallace's partner in crime. Ultimately, however, Tusk is a big swing and miss. Smith had announced that he was going to produce Clerks 3 before retiring from the filmmaking business because he does not feel he has any talent, but Tusk reignited something, and now he seems determined to further tarnish his reputation. Tusk is the beginning of a "Canada Trilogy" for Smith, with other entries set to land over the next few years. Whatever Smith is trying to get out of his system, I just hope he does it quickly.


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Never gripping, but it has cars and 'splosions

Posted : 3 weeks, 2 days ago on 2 April 2015 01:30 (A review of Furious Seven)

"This time it ain't just about being fast."

Franchise fatigue is beginning to set in with 2015's Fast & Furious 7 (or Furious 7, continuing the tradition of confusing and inconsistent titles), the latest entry in this long-running series of car-based blockbusters. After the franchise received a fresh boost of life with the unbelievably great fifth instalment in 2011, the cookie-cutter formula is becoming stale once again, even though there's fresh blood in the form of Australian horror luminary James Wan replacing series mainstay Justin Lin. It's impossible to review Furious 7 without discussing its troubled production - originally set for release in 2014, less than a year after Furious 6 hit multiplexes, the team lost star Paul Walker to a fatal car crash before filming wrapped, leaving Wan and returning screenwriter Chris Morgan to figure out how to complete the picture without its long-time lead. Furious 7 is fundamentally review-proof since it fulfils all that's required of it, but at this point in the series, a little more effort would be appreciated.

After his brother was paralysed and left in hospital following the last adventure, master black ops assassin Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) is determined to exact revenge on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his crew. Shaw makes his presence known with a bang, putting Agent Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) in critical condition and sending Han (Sung Kang) to the morgue, before setting off a bomb in L.A. that almost kills Dominic, his sister Mia (Jordana Brewster), and his old pal Brian (Walker). Into the fray soon steps Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell), an enigmatic government agent who enlists the help of Dominic and co. to retrieve the powerful God's Eye program designed by a hacker named Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel). If they help out Mr. Nobody, they can use the God's Eye to find Shaw. Thus, Dominic and the usual suspects - including Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), and Tej (Ludacris) - head overseas, but they are unable to escape the shadow of Shaw, who enlists the help of terrorist Jakande (Djimon Hounsou) and his team of gunmen.

Statham is a tremendous villain who represents a major threat to the cast, and his abilities are showcased in a vicious early brawl against the behemoth Hobbs. But Morgan's screenplay doesn't trust in the standard revenge formula, concocting an overly convoluted storyline involving a high-tech device and a team of terrorists led by the vaguely-defined Jakande, who's naturally out to kill Dominic's crew and obtain the God's Eye. Such secondary content was evidently included to allow for high-speed heist sequences and other sorts of car mayhem that we have come to expect from the series, but it feels too forced and leaden as a result, in need of snappier pacing and a stronger sense of urgency. (And seriously, the car stuff may be this franchise's bread and butter, but it is starting to get old.) Plus, the crew are only out to retrieve the God's Eye to make it easier to track down Shaw, which seems superfluous since he's perpetually showing up wherever they go.

Furious 7 is the longest entry in the franchise so far, clocking in at a colossal 140 minutes, and it certainly feels its length. Morgan, who has written all instalments since Tokyo Drift, sticks by all the proverbial franchise chestnuts, giving the cast ample time to grunt atrocious dialogue at each other (every second word is still "family") in between all the big action sequences. Diesel takes the lead here and does most of the heavy lifting, which may have been out of necessity after Walker's death, paving the way for the actor to take over the franchise.

The major selling point of this saga has always been its reliance on practical effects and real car stunts. If anyone was to continue this tradition, it would be Wan, a man from the school of low-budget filmmaking whose previous action outing, Death Sentence, was vehemently old-fashioned. Unfortunately, Furious 7 is more reliant on CGI, which detracts from the sense of excitement. Sure, there are still impressive car stunts here, and people are still risking their lives for various shots, but there are also digital effects here, and they are obvious.

Thankfully, there are nevertheless some entertaining action sequences to behold, most notably when Wan leaves the cars and allows for the characters to engage in fisticuffs and shootouts. Statham is a gifted fighter, and he's well-matched with both Johnson and Diesel. To Wan's credit, the fights are not one-sided - Statham is not some untalented patsy, but a genuine threat who matches his opponents every step of the way. To spice up the action, Thai martial artist Tony Jaa shows up as an enforcer for Jakande who mostly brawls with Walker. It's a bit of a throwaway role, and Wan doesn't take full advantage of Jaa's immense talents as a fighter, often burying the action in edits and frenetic camerawork. It defeats the purpose of casting Jaa, really. MMA star Rousey shares a similar fate, and to make matters worse, she is a truly terrible actress, showing once again after The Expendables 3 that she cannot cut it as a thespian.

The big question on everyone's lips is how Walker is treated, with scenes filmed following his death featuring body doubles (most notably Walker's brothers) sporting a digital face. To the credit of the filmmakers, it is seamless and it's never entirely clear when we're seeing a CGI Paul, but his presence is definitely dialled down; he's mostly in the background, or shrouded by low lighting or restrictive camera angles. Luckily, Wan and Morgan have devised a fitting, respectful exit for Walker's Brian, with a loving tribute to the actor which closes the feature that may leave some with damp eyes. Some have decried that it's impossible to watch Walker in precarious scenarios driving real fast due to the circumstances of his tragic death, but Walker would likely be insulted by such haters - this is what he loved doing, and it's an appropriate end for his career.

Furious 7's cast is genuinely tremendous, with a lot of big names to stir up interest. Beyond the usual crew, there's Statham, Russell, Hounsou, and the aforementioned Jaa and Rousey. Say what you will about Statham's acting abilities, but he excels as an action star and has a strong screen presence. As the villain here, Statham is perfect, with a steely, cold demeanour making him spot-on as a ruthless military-trained killer. The Stath is so perfect, in fact, that you could be forgiven for rooting for him. Russell, meanwhile, is ideal here, showing that he still has what it takes to be a badass despite his advanced age. As for the returning cast, the likes of Walker, Rodriguez and Brewster are just fine. Tyrese Gibson, however, once again shows up as the try-hard comic relief, and he's awful. Surely there's sufficient funds in the budget for an actual comedian? Meanwhile, despite being such a major presence in the past couple of instalments, Dwayne Johnson is side-lined for most of the proceedings here, leaving us to suffer through scene after scene of Diesel, who is not an overly interesting or competent actor. Since the movie's events are tied into Tokyo Drift, Lucas Black returns as Sean Boswell, but his presence is mercifully short, amounting to a mere cameo. Black was intolerable in Tokyo Drift with his exaggerated American drawl, so it's a relief that he doesn't join the team or become a lead here.

Cars go real fast, explosions are big, and action is, well, furious, but Furious 7 is never hugely involving at any point due to its complicated, leaden storytelling. It's a typical Hollywood big-budget blockbuster, though at least it's not as abominable as Michael Bay's regular output. It would seem that Fast Five, in the long run, is more of a lucky fluke than genuine franchise revivification.


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Hugely satisfying

Posted : 3 weeks, 4 days ago on 31 March 2015 01:14 (A review of Cinderella)

"Just because it's what's done doesn't mean it's what should be done!"

Cinderella represents the next step in Disney's master plan to create live-action motion pictures from their vast catalogue of animated classics, following in the shadow of Alice in Wonderland and last year's Maleficent. Directed by Kenneth Branagh (Thor, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit), this Cinderella is easily the strongest upgrade so far, a dazzling fairytale with charm, heart, and intimacy to supplement the mandatory spectacle. Giving the reigns to Branagh certainly seems like a head-scratcher at first glance, yet he's the perfect man for the job, resulting in one of the most convincing fantasy films in years. Often low-key, the movie is not smeared in a disgusting amount of digital effects, and it manages to be child-friendly without directly pandering to the younger demographic. In fact, without the Disney branding or the aggressive marketing campaign, 2015's Cinderella could almost be an arthouse release. Sure, it has anthropomorphised mice and other fantastical touches, but Branagh doesn't overdo it, nor does he slather the movie in excess - effective drama and genuine feeling are the order of the day here.

The narrative remains virtually untouched, with scribe Chris Weitz creating a fairly traditional updating of Disney's animated film from 1950. Ella (Lily James) becomes an orphan following the death of her beloved parents (Hayley Atwell, Ben Chaplin), left in the care of her not-too-kindly stepmother Lady Tremaine (Cate Blanchett). Under Tremaine's regime, Ella is forced into hard labour, becoming a lowly maid for her stepmother and two grotesque step-sisters, Anastasia (Holiday Grainger) and Drizella (Sophie McShera). During a chance meeting with handsome royal prince Kit (Richard Madden), they form an instant connection, with the pair longing to see one another again. When the king (Derek Jacobi) encourages Kit to marry, a ball is arranged, with every woman in the kingdom invited to attend in order for the prince to choose a future queen. With Tremaine forbidding Ella from attending the ball, and undermining her confidence, Ella's Fairy Godmother (Helena Bonham Carter) is called upon to help the girl reunite with the charming young man she wishes to marry.

Essentially, Branagh and Weitz have merely set out to tell a familiar story in a competent manner, and by all accounts, the end result is a resounding success. Anyone who’s intimately acquainted with the source material will not find many surprises here, but this is about the best live-action retelling of the fairytale that anyone could realistically expect. The most impressive aspect of the screenplay is that it gives unexpected depth to the characters; Kit and Ella do not fall in love out of Disney formula, but rather out of mutual attraction that develops organically. Moreover, Ella is not even aware that Kit is a prince during their first meeting; her heart aches for him not due to his royalty, but due to his personality. The romance is surprisingly poignant under Branagh's careful eye, and that climactic glass slipper moment is a joy to witness. Additionally, Weitz's script expounds upon a few aspects of the Cinderella story that we do not always see - including how Ella gets her Cinderella nickname - and there is an unexpected twist of conspiracy at the heart of the search for the prince's bride-to-be. Thus, while there are small alterations to the source, Branagh's treatment remains respectful and traditional.

Rather than the punishing grimness of Snow White and the Huntsman or the glossy, plastic look of Maleficent, Cinderella is more like a Shakespearean drama, reminiscent of Branagh's earlier features. As a matter of fact, the film is less successful when the trademark Disney touches pop-up, most notably in a scene featuring the Fairy Godmother that's much too broad. For the most part, however, Cinderella works. Beautifully-lensed with 35mm film, the movie is endowed with a convincing look that serves the production well. Maleficent's digital look was a massive problem, as it was impossible to buy the fantastical world as real. But with a fine grain structure and a reliance on sets and costumes, Cinderella's fantasy world looks and feels real. It's rare to label any $95 million motion picture as modest, but this truly applies to Branagh's film; the budget certainly isn't as high as Maleficent ($180 million), Alice in Wonderland ($200 million) or Oz the Great and Powerful ($215 million). There is not a great deal of CGI here which is a massive advantage, as the small digital touches subtly enhance the visuals without calling attention to themselves.

Although there has been a lot of press about Lily James' impossibly thin figure, her grounded depiction of Cinderella is a huge asset to the film. There's superb humanity to her performance, as she comes across as a strong female trying to make the most of a bad situation while trying as hard as she can to retain her personal integrity and show kindness. Most of all, James possesses the beauty, grace and radiance to be a believable Cinderella. Alongside her, Madden is a terrific love interest, with a down-to-earth quality that makes him instantly sympathetic. He has no interest in the wealth or prestige of royalty, which is why he tries to hide his status from Cinderella when they first meet. Meanwhile, Blanchett's turn as the wicked stepmother is absolutely spot-on. At face value, her villainy is pure black-and-white, but there is some actual depth to the character, with justification for her rotten behaviour. Jacobi also deserves a special mention; he has little screen-time as the king and it feels like a throwaway role, but it's hard to imagine the movie being so spectacular without him.

As a little bonus for those venturing to cinemas, the movie is preceded by Frozen Fever, a short movie featuring the characters from Disney's 2013 hit Frozen. It's a sweet, charming short sure to please fans of the animated gem, featuring a new song that kids may be humming for days. It's fortunate that the short was attached to a movie as utterly satisfying as Cinderella, which should please the kids and not leave adults constantly staring at their watches. Other recent fairytale adaptations have been revisionist, but Cinderella is staunchly not revisionist, which is quite refreshing. It may seem paint-by-numbers, but Branagh infuses the story with emotion, which makes for rewarding viewing. With its gorgeous production design and ornate costuming, Cinderella is a joy, and its brisk ninety-minute runtime and competent pacing ensure that there's no narrative flab here. Indeed, the time simply flies by.


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Playful, jubilant, emotionally satisfying ride

Posted : 3 weeks, 6 days ago on 29 March 2015 12:32 (A review of Guardians of the Galaxy)

"I have lived most of my life surrounded by my enemies. I will be grateful to die among my friends."

It's undeniable that 2014's Guardians of the Galaxy represents Marvel Studio's most left-field production to date. Adapted from a mostly obscure Marvel series that has existed in various incarnations since the 1970s, this is not so much a superhero movie but rather a science fiction space opera closer to Star Wars than Iron Man. In truth, nobody expected much from Guardians of the Galaxy, and yet it's easily one of the best pictures in the Marvel canon, a riotously irreverent action-comedy set in a richly-textured, fully-realised world teeming with memorable characters and witty, humorous dialogue - the type of playful, jubilant and emotionally satisfying ride that once defined summer blockbusters before punishing grimness and bloated runtimes became so prevalent. Furthermore, it will be easy for non-Marvel fans and even non-comic book fans to engage in this quirky gem.

Abducted from Earth as an child right after the death of his beloved mother, Peter Quill (Chris Pratt) now roams the galaxy as a self-styled outlaw calling himself Star-Lord. Working for the Ravagers, led by the brutal Yondu (Michael Rooker), Quill happens upon an orb that's worth a mint and contains a source of devastating power. Also determined to retrieve the orb is green alien Gamora (Zoe Saldana), the adopted daughter of mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) who's in league with the incredibly dangerous Ronan (Lee Pace), another party interested in the orb. Meanwhile, goofy bounty hunters Rocket (Bradley Cooper) - a genetically-engineered raccoon - and Groot (Vin Diesel) - a tree-like humanoid with a limited vocabulary - are out to score big by capturing Quill. Amid the chaos, Quill forms an unlikely alliance with Gamora, Rocket and Groot, who are soon joined by the brute Drax (Dave Bautista). With so many evil forces out to use the orb to rule the galaxy, the reluctant team take it upon themselves to see that it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.

Guardians of the Galaxy was in good hands with writer-director James Gunn (who retooled the original script by Nicole Perlman), an underrated indie helmer from the Troma school of filmmaking. Most indie or foreign directors relinquish artistic integrity in their move to Hollywood, but Gunn's quirky fingerprints are all over Guardians, with shrewd humour and delightfully oddball characters within a cleverly-designed narrative which finds time for world-building and character development without ever becoming drab. It all expectedly builds to a trademark Big Noisy Climax that doesn't feel entirely essential to this story, but Gunn never lets the picture out of his control; although the digital effects are often obvious, it's easy to get invested in the battle due to the hugely charismatic cast that we ultimately grow to care about, and because of how intense this final showdown truly is.

There's plenty of information floating around the margins that fans will recognise as having been set up before or set to pay off later, but it's possible to actually care about it all in this context. While Guardians of the Galaxy is highly amusing, the movie at no point devolves into an utter joke, as there are genuine stakes here. Threats are real, drama feels genuine, and there is emotional depth to the crew - Rocket is distressed about being perceived as an animal, Gamora is desperate to escape the shadows of Ronan and Thanos, Drax is haunted by the death of his family at the hands of Ronan, and Quill will risk his life for his beloved Walkman, which represents his last connection to his time on Earth. There's vivid realism at play here, and Gunn never gives into excess; he maintains a furious pace, and infuses the production with plenty of awe and excitement. It's an ideal way to kick off a fantasy franchise, and it puts the horrendous Star Wars prequels to shame.

Backed by a customarily generous budget, Guardians of the Galaxy looks and sounds superb, with top-flight digital effects and equally extraordinary make-up work and sets which give this fantasy wonderland a semi-realistic look. Gamora was originally intended to be pulled off with motion capture, but Saldana was instead given an elaborate make-up job. Likewise, Bautista was covered in practical make-up effects to portray Drax. It's a great move in the long run, bestowing the characters with a tangible quality that CGI simply cannot achieve. And while Rocket and Groot were digital, they are miracles of motion capture and voice work; it's simply amazing how much dramatic range Gunn manages to get out of them. And as the cherry on top, the picture is scored with a tastefully-selected buffet of songs from the '70s and '80s, amplifying the production’s unique and quirky flavour. Guardians of the Galaxy has achieved something rare by providing a hugely effective soundtrack of old tunes, bringing them back into the limelight for a new generation accustomed to autotuning and dubstep. It further underscores the production's old-school sensibility, and it helps that each song is so perfectly integrated into the proceedings. Tyler Bates’ original compositions aren’t nearly as memorable, but they are effective.

Emotion eventually sneaks into the proceedings, but it's not distracting or contrived. Rather, it flows organically from this story. Therefore, even the most ostensibly clichéd story beats do not come off as cliché in the slightest; they work. And ultimately, that’s what matters in a motion picture of this ilk. You can be forgiven for shedding a few tears as the movie approaches its finish line; personally, I left the cinema with a smile on my face and damp eyes. Who the hell can complain about that?

The actors are the real high point of the entire enterprise, with absolutely no weak spots in the ensemble to speak of. Chris Pratt is an ideal Star-Lord, mixing equal parts Sterling Archer and Philip J. Fry to play this outlaw. It's amusing to watch Pratt as Quill, who tries so comically hard after his capture to embody a grade-schooler's idea of a badass space hero even when he's hopelessly out of his depth. Saldana is just as good, and Gunn manages to pull a remarkable performance out of wrestler Bautista, who’s a comedic instrument of blunt force to be reckoned with. Diesel is about as good as can be expected for a character who says the same few words over and over again, while Cooper gives real spark and spunk to Rocket.

Ronan has been branded as an unmemorable villain by some, but he's easily one of the more successful bad guys we've seen in the Marvel canon (certainly better than Jeff Bridges in Iron Man or the notoriously vanilla antagonists in Thor: The Dark World). As Ronan, Lee Pace is authoritative and menacing. We are also given our first glimpse of Josh Brolin as Thanos, and it is awesome. Filling out the supporting cast, there's the underrated Michael Rooker who's an absolute riot as Yondu, while John C. Reilly, Benicio del Toro, and even Glenn Close make appearances.

Guardians of the Galaxy is not only hugely entertaining viewing - it's also incredibly rewarding. Its combination of well-judged classic tunes, a perfect cast and unforced emotion just comes together amazingly well, and its replay value is through the roof. In fact, if anything, the flick improves with repeat viewings. It's a fun, hearty afternoon at the movies for all ages, and it is highly recommended.


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It cannot be missed. Bravo!

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 26 February 2015 10:52 (A review of When Trumpets Fade)

"You don't think about it, you don't hesitate, you just do it, you understand? Otherwise, you're gonna go home to your mama in a box, alright?"

When Trumpets Fade is a far better motion picture than most will be expecting. A forgotten TV movie produced by HBO in 1998, it shines a light on one of the most overlooked WWII battles in history; the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which occurred in the latter months of 1944. The conflict was brought to an end mere days before the commencement of the Battle of the Bulge, hence Hürtgen Forest is not as well-known today, but there were a staggering 33,000 American casualties throughout the exceedingly horrific battle. Directed by John Irvin (Hamburger Hill), When Trumpets Fade explores the fierce nature of the combat within Hürtgen Forest, and underscores the dark nature of this overlooked battle. And it's amazing. Ironically, the release of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan in the same year overshadowed this skilful telemovie, rendering it just as forgotten as the fragment of history that it covers.

Following a particularly vicious engagement with German troops, Pvt. Manning (Ron Eldard) emerges as the sole survivor of his platoon, returning to the command outpost utterly shaken. Hastily promoted to sergeant by company commander Captain Roy Pritchett (Martin Donovan), Manning is put in an awkward position, saddled with additional power that he does not appreciate and did not desire. Struggling to maintain his humanity, Manning is ordered to lead troops on suicidal missions, with the body count piling up and good men devolving into insanity in the fierce war zone.

In a nod to Hollywood’s golden era of war movies, When Trumpets Fade opens with upbeat newsreel propaganda footage of American troops set to jolly old-fashioned war music. While this may seem like a peculiar way to commence a modern war movie, it’s a stroke of brilliance, as it both tips its hat to the classic war movies of yesteryear and serves as a chilling contrast against the horrific carnage that is to come.

A war movie like When Trumpets Fade could never be produced within the Hollywood system. In fact, writer W.W. Vought probably never even imagined that his script would actually be produced. Although big-budget war epics such as Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down have emphasised the gory horrors of combat, When Trumpets Fade goes one step further; there are no real heroes here, as the story is populated with characters who've lost sight of their humanity. In the very first scene, Manning is forced to kill a wounded soldier who can go no further, and a few scenes later he's seen stealing boots from a corpse to replace his battle-worn footwear. On top of this, the hopelessness of the situation is underscored; there are so many casualties that Manning is promoted from private to sergeant to lieutenant in a matter of days. Soldiers lose their minds due to the carnage surrounding them - one soldier with a flamethrower goes off the rails in the middle of combat, prompting Manning to kill him. It's heavy stuff, but it's also fascinating to see a film concerned with the traumatic effects of war.

One 90-minute motion picture would be utterly incapable of properly conveying the breadth of this months-long conflict; this stuff would be better suited for a miniseries in the same format as Band of Brothers. Nevertheless, When Trumpets Fade does a superb job considering the limitations of the format - it conveys the massive body count and encapsulates the sense of hopelessness that one imagines the actual campaign might have felt like. I definitely wish that this was a longer movie, but the finished product is nevertheless fantastic. If the only real criticism that can be levelled at a flick is that there's not enough of it, that usually means it's a pretty badass motion picture.

For a television movie, When Trumpets Fade flaunts some impressive production values, with convincing period-specific sets and costumes. Considering that Irvin was most likely working on an extremely tight budget, it's hard not to be impressed with the results here. The action scenes are often spectacular and insanely violent, pulling no punches and coming close to Saving Private Ryan levels of gore. There's barely a dull moment in When Trumpets Fade, as the dialogue scenes are well-paced and lead into the beautifully-staged combat sequences, of which there are multiple. Irvin cut his teeth with the '80s Vietnam gem Hamburger Hill, which demonstrated the director's ability to create excellence with a meagre budget, and this talent is omnipresent here. Admittedly, the cinematography and general look of the production is fairly workmanlike, which can be attributed to the limited funds, but it's not a deal-breaker.

When Trumpets Fade received a few minor awards and nominations upon its initial release, but awareness of this little gem is astoundingly low. It might fall a bit short of Saving Private Ryan, but it confidently surpasses 1998's other war film: the overrated snoozer known as The Thin Red Line. The flag-waving of most war movies is absent here, replaced by the beliefs and observations of frightened, cynical soldiers. When Trumpets Fade is an edifying chronicle of a largely forgotten battle, on top of being a sublime combat-based action film and a top-flight war movie which refuses to gloss over the consequences of war. It cannot be missed.


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Superb Australian miniseries

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 17 February 2015 04:04 (A review of Gallipoli)

"Men who landed on the beach went up into the gullies and ravines of Gallipoli... And were never seen again."

The extensive eight-month Gallipoli campaign of 1915 has never been properly covered in film or television. It's such obvious fodder for a miniseries that it's frankly surprising it took so long for such a project to be brought to fruition. Arriving in time for the campaign's centenary, Gallipoli (a collaboration of the Nine Network and Screen Australia) should please anyone seeking to learn more about this segment of World War I history. A powerful miniseries, it was adapted from Les Carlyon's highly-acclaimed book of the same name, which is often perceived as the definitive resource on Gallipoli. Thank goodness that the resultant miniseries is not just good but genuinely great, and one of the best things to hit Australian TV in recent years.

With The Great War in full swing overseas, seventeen-year-old Tolly Johnson (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lies about his age to enlist in the Australian Army, following in the footsteps of his older brother Bevan (Harry Greenwood). Landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25, 1915, Tolly is immediately tossed into the deep end, ordered to kill Turkish soldiers despite a lifetime of being told that killing is wrong. Ultimately, the Gallipoli campaign runs for far longer than anyone had anticipated, with death becoming a daily occurrence on the peninsula.

It would be unfair to compare this series to Peter Weir's highly acclaimed 1981 motion picture of the same name, which was a smaller story that only covered basic training in Egypt and the battle of The Nek with any detail. 2015's Gallipoli is a different beast, determined to cover as much of the extensive campaign as possible, concentrating on soldiers' actions on the frontline, the journalistic perspective, and the bureaucratic side of things, with officers often seen conversing about offensives and tactics. Tolly is the primary focus, though, of course, with the series highlighting how the teenager is changed due to the war. There are flashbacks at various points to Tolly's life before Gallipoli, which is a fairly obvious and trite chestnut, but it nevertheless works to some extent.

Taking plenty of detail from Carlyon's tremendous literary achievement, Gallipoli is a hugely authentic watch, portraying the minor everyday skirmishes as well as the more well-known battles. The horrors of war are not glossed over; trench walls are stained with blood and viscera, and there are hundreds of dead bodies laying around in various stages of decay. Gallipoli is violent but it's not exploitative, displaying tact during the combat scenes whilst still showing the requisite blood of a typical bullet hit. Other aspects documented in Carlyon's book are portrayed as well; it was impossible to have a feed without attracting flies, sleep deprivation ran rampant, and there was plenty of tedium throughout the eight months. Indeed, the miniseries covers the daily drudgery of army life, with constant sentry duty and the less-glamorous jobs doled out on a day-to-day basis (fetching ammunition, unloading supplies, and digging...oh so much digging).

Written by Christopher Lee (no, not that Christopher Lee), the series' depiction of Australian soldiers is truly spot-on, with their pitch-black humour, cheekiness, and rebellious attitudes towards authority (one none-the-wiser soldier addresses a general as "cobber"). Added to this, the production is not quick to demonise the Turks, a move which gives the series some added dimension. In the second episode, an armistice is established to bury corpses, and several of the Australians actually converse with their Turk enemies, highlighting that the soldiers could even be mates if it weren't for their respective governments. Another great scene shows the Aussies and Turks in their trenches playing games with each other out of sheer boredom. Admittedly, however, the script could've incorporated other facets of Carlyon's book to enhance the production - some written passages could have been used for Tolly's voiceovers, and some of the book's most notable moments of dark humour would've been superb to see here.

Directed by Glendyn Ivin (Beaconsfield), combat scenes throughout the series are staged with real finesse and style, making this one of the most impressive depictions of WWI to date. The ANZAC landing in the first episode definitely merits a mention, with its scattered battles and general sense of utter disorder permeating the first day that's absolutely accurate. A great number of officers were killed by Turk snipers in the first few hours on the peninsula, leaving many soldiers without leaders or orders. And since the Australians landed in the wrong spot, negotiating the rough landscape populated with armed Turks was treacherous indeed. Other well-known battles are handled skilfully as well, including the conflicts at Lone Pine and The Nek which are given their own episode. However, The Nek probably could have carried a bit more weight if more time was allotted to it (you certainly will not feel the impact of Weir's picture).

Gallipoli deserves plaudits for its superb production values and staggering attention to detail. It is clear that military advisors were used, as military tactics are very true-to-life, and the series contains even the tiniest details of army drudgery to contribute to an authenticity that will go unnoticed by many. The uniforms are particularly accurate, with Rising Sun badges and even regiment patches on sleeves. Filmed in Victoria, the sense of place in Gallipoli is truly astounding. The peninsula indeed resembles photographs of the real-life campaign, and none-the-wiser viewers may be tricked into thinking that the series was actually lensed in Turkey. (To heighten the verisimilitude, the final episode actually closes with recently-filmed imagery of the Gallipoli peninsula.) Gallipoli was shot digitally, and although shooting on film stock might have yielded an overall superior image, the visuals are nevertheless gorgeous. Many sequences were of course enhanced with digital effects to show the various ships anchored just offshore, but the CGI is quite effective and competent, rather than the bargain-basement variety. The score composed by Stephen Rae is hugely affecting as well.

Most Hollywood movies try to pass thirty-year-olds off as teenagers, but the producers here opted for an old trick known as casting an actual seventeen-year-old to play a seventeen-year-old character. Smit-McPhee is a real catch - a child actor who has appeared in films like The Road, Let Me In, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he's ideal for the role of Tolly, with a youthful look and innocent demeanour that simply cannot be achieved by an adult performer. He's convincing from top to bottom, and fortunately, he's backed by a sublime supporting cast.

As someone who has read Carlyon's amazing book and served in the Australian Army, I was very happy with 2015's Gallipoli, which functions as a marvellous spiritual follow-up to the equally excellent 1985 miniseries ANZACS. It's not quite the definitive chronicle of the campaign, but such a production would be impossible to achieve without at least fifteen or twenty hour-long episodes. Considering the circumstances, I'll take it.


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An epically manly action classic

Posted : 2 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 February 2015 03:42 (A review of Fortress)

"Crime does not pay."

Fortress is an epically manly classic from the golden age of cinematic mandom. A prison break action-thriller, it possesses all the right ingredients for an entertaining slice of escapism, with an imaginative vision of a dystopic future, a superb cast containing a few action genre luminaries, and an R rating in place allowing for plenty of satisfying violence and salty language. Fortress started life as a generously-budgeted vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the Austrian Oak instead opted to star in Last Action Hero, provoking budget cuts. Nevertheless, the ensuing feature is more than adequate, and although it's not exactly thought-provoking or deep, it's a perfectly sufficient beer and pizza extravaganza.

In 2017, overpopulation has led to drastic population control measures. It is illegal for couples to have more than one child, and the harsh police state enforce this rule with an iron fist. John Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his pregnant wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) are on the run, with Karen carrying an illegal second child after the tragic loss of their first. Apprehended at the border, the pair are given cruel sentences at an inescapable maximum security prison known as the Fortress, which is run by the sinister MenTel Corporation. Highly advanced technology litters the prison, with a computer known as Zed-10 that can monitor dreams and peak into the thought processes of prisoners. It's impossible for inmates to escape, too, as they are all implanted with a device in their intestines which gives them severe pain if they act up, and can easily kill them if needs be. Overseeing the prison is Poe (Kurtwood Smith), a megalomaniacal warden who immediately notices John. With John separated from Karen, he begins to formulate a plan to escape the appalling hellhole with assistance from his cellmates.

Director Stuart Gordon (late of Re-Animator) embraces the B-grade pedigree of the production, creating a trashy action-thriller with some fascinating ideas at its core. Dreaming is forbidden and even fantasising is grounds for pain, not to mention the heroes have to contend with some genetic engineering run amok. Granted, Fortress is a bit slow-going to start with, but once it settles into its groove, the movie really soars with scenes of fighting, gunplay and over-the-top gore, the likes of which we rarely see in the 21st Century. Even the scores of prison movie clichés do not hinder the experience much, though there are a lot of them, including standard-issue stock characters and some pretty clichéd moments. It comes with the territory.

Filmed entirely at Warner Brothers Studios in Australia, the production design remains solid all these years on, with interesting ideas relating to the picture's vision of the future. Zed-10 is a particularly magnificent creation, and the situation with the characters seems so hopeless that you wonder if it's even possible for them to break out. The titular Fortress indeed seems like pure hell, and it makes for a terrific stage for the inevitable escape which serves as the climax. The action-heavy final third is definitely worth all the build-up; it's loud, fun, and above all violent, ticking all the requisite boxes for action fans. Fortunately, the acting is for the most part agreeable, with Highlander star Christopher Lambert doing an admirable job as the hero here. It's Smith who steals the show though, again demonstrating his terrific acting chops when it comes to playing villains. Vernon Wells (of Commando and Mad Max 2 fame) is also present here, and his throwdown with Lambert represents one of the best scenes in the picture.

Today, Fortress remains an exceedingly niche title with a limited cult following, which is a shame. At the time, it was actually a surprise hit, grossing a reported $40 million at the global box office, a decent haul for the early '90s considering its $12 million budget. Perhaps Fortress might've been more fulfilling if it had explored its themes and ideas with more depth, but the brevity of the enterprise is what makes it such a fun watch. It's a fairly silly, old-school sci-fi action-thriller from a bygone era, and it absolutely deserves to be seen if you enjoy the likes of Total Recall and The Running Man.


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It's shit.

Posted : 2 months, 2 weeks ago on 6 February 2015 02:18 (A review of Blood of Redemption)

"This is the story of a dead man..."

Blood of Redemption is another in a long line of shitty straight-to-video action titles that are sold purely on cast. Directed by Giorgio Serafini and Shawn Sourgose, this bargain basement guff flaunts Dolph Lundgren, Billy Zane, Robert Davi and Vinnie Jones, enough names to raise the eyebrow of any action fan. And with a title like Blood of Redemption, you're guaranteed to sell a few discs. Alas, the finished product is a putrid pile of shit, a cheapo distraction which was manufactured without any thought towards coherent screenwriting, stylish photography, or exciting action scenes. It's a woeful slog.

Although Blood of Redemption tries to rise above the ordinary with its convoluted plotline involving all manner of double crosses and shady loyalties, it's hard to make heads or tails of anything that is happening. Lundgren plays a gun-for-hire named Axel, who's hired by Quinn Forte (Zane) to systematically wipe out the men who landed him in prison. But of course, there are twists, and the movie seems to reject intelligible storytelling. For crying out loud, the flick opens by showing the climactic action scene before flashing back a couple of weeks, to Axel chatting to a girl in his apartment about various people...and from there, the movie flashes back even more. Wait, what's happening in this movie? It doesn't help that the dialogue is so fucking lousy, with dreadful narration from Mr. Lundgren that's meant to be profound and badass, but instead comes off as obvious and amateurish.

The screenplay rejects logic, as well. This is one of those productions which feels to need to zoom in on every actor and freeze-frame while big, bold computer graphics spell out their character's name. It's a movie where FBI files are in paper format, and can disappear without a trace by simply burning said files. Apparently the FBI is not advanced enough for a computer database just yet. Oh, and Axel has a bulletin board featuring images of suspects and pieces of information, with push pins and red string to figure out the case...but his laptop remains unused. And when the action scenes do arrive, slow motion is often used for brief periods, because reasons. It's clear the directors wanted to establish some sense of style, but the movie is not stylish at all - it just looks dumb and incompetent.

Even worse, it's clear that nobody ever fired a single blank round throughout any of the film's numerous action sequences, and it's doubtful any practical fake blood was actually used on set. Every muzzle flash, puff of smoke and bullet hit is purely digital, and blood splashes are so fucking phoney and obvious - clearly the result of a few minutes' work in Adobe After Effects. Even amateur filmmakers with access to After Effects are capable of more impressive CGI composition. One hole in somebody's head looks like it was drawn using Microsoft Paint, for crying out loud. Holy shit. Although the R rating is appreciated, there's no visceral impact to any of the action scenes. You can literally watch superior shootouts for free on YouTube.

With film stock now too expensive for straight-to-video moviemakers, Blood of Redemption was lensed digitally, and the results look undeniably cheap. While the cinematography is crisp and detailed enough, it lacks the professional "pop" of more generously-budgeted productions; as a result, it comes off like a low-grade student movie. At least low-budget actioners from the '80s and '90s were shot on celluloid, and featured performers who fired actual blank rounds as well as stuntmen who put their lives on the line for the sake of a shot. There's something endearing about old-school effects as opposed to phoney digital shit. Now, any talentless amateur can put together a nasty video distraction for a few bucks, and clog the already oversized market with such shit.

The Dolphster gives it his all here, and he's probably the movie's sole bright spot. Even despite his age, he remains a charismatic screen presence and a joy to watch in action movies, which is why it's such a shame that the material fails to serve him. Zane and Jones, meanwhile, are both pretty terrible - Zane puts in zero effort, and Jones leans on his British tough guy shtick that's growing old. And it's actually depressing to see Davi here, who's visibly bored and humiliated about featuring in this garbage. Davi was a sublime action villain back in the '80s (Licence to Kill), yet he's horrible here, apparently aiming for a British accent for whatever reason that comes and goes.

Blood of Redemption might run a brisk 85 minutes, but it feels a lot longer; I actually felt myself aging while watching it. I can easily sit back and view a movie like Saving Private Ryan without glancing at my watch once, but Blood of Redemption feels like an eternity despite running for half the length of Saving Private Ryan. The last line of the movie is "Next time, I'll choose my clients more carefully." Here's hoping that Dolph and his pals choose their projects more carefully from now on...


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