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Post-modernist love letter to spy movies

Posted : 2 weeks, 1 day ago on 20 August 2015 01:34 (A review of Kingsman: The Secret Service )

""Manners maketh man." Do you know what that means? "

2015's Kingsman: The Secret Service represents a reunion for filmmaker Matthew Vaughn and graphic novel writer Mark Millar, whose previous collaboration resulted in the instant classic that was Kick-Ass. Much like that 2010 cult gem, Kingsman is a deliriously over-the-top action-comedy about a wayward young man who finds his direction in life by assimilating a real-life version of mythic heroism from popular culture. But whereas Kick-Ass set its knowing, satirical sights on American superhero movies, Kingsman is a defiantly British pastiche of old-school, gentleman spy movies like the long-running James Bond franchise. It fundamentally plays out like a crude, ultraviolent 007 adventure with a tinge of Men in Black in its narrative DNA, and, thanks to the deft directorial hand of Vaughn, the resulting flick is an absolute blast.

An intelligent but misguided young adult, Londoner Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) lost his dad under mysterious circumstances, which has haunted him for years. After being arrested, Eggsy is approached by the enigmatic Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who seeks to recruit Eggsy to become a Kingsman agent. The Kingsman is highly a classified secret service organisation invisible to the public eye, and, as it turns out, Eggsy's father died as a recruit on Harry's watch. Given the opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps, Eggsy is put through the training process, where he's given a punishing introduction to the service by Merlin (Mark Strong). But Eggsy and Harry soon face a formidable adversary in the form of lisping billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who looks to implement a secret weapon that could kill billions of people.

Whereas most brainless action blockbusters fail to pay much mind to storytelling, Kingsman is surprisingly sedate for its first two thirds, with the occasional violent scene but mostly focusing on Eggsy's training and Harry's investigation of Valentine's shady business. It's rare for a spy movie to actually focus on the schooling aspect, which allows Kingsman to stand out as unique. Written by Vaughn and frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, the picture is essentially an origins tale, but Vaughn does wise by splitting focus between Eggsy and Harry, in turn maintaining sufficient momentum and shaking up the archetypal formula. Vaughn capably brings us up to speed on the Kingsman and how they operate, on top of securing relationships and establishing the central villainous plot. As Vaughn has himself stated, all the best villains in spy movies are grounded in a sense of reality, and Richmond Valentine ticks this box, with the character being based off the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. It is scaringly plausible for a big tech company to act like a classic James Bond villain. Better, Valentine's theory behind his sinister machinations actually does make sense, and he's not in it for money.

All the build-up leads into an action-heavy final third that's well worth the wait. Vaughn further confirms his talents when it comes to staging frenetic action sequences, whipping up a frenzy of insane, off-the-hook and exceedingly violent confrontations peppered with wonderfully creative touches. Kick-Ass had the young Chloe Moretz killing a room of goons to the theme tune from The Banana Splits, and here we have heads exploding like colourful fireworks, and images of the general public slaughtering each other to the gleeful tune of "Give It Up." But the picture's centrepiece is the irresistibly un-PC church scene in which Valentine tests his mind control ray, compelling Harry to slaughter a good fifty Westborough Baptist Church-style caricatures in an awesome display of cartoonish ultraviolence. The sequence is an utter contrivance, nothing but an excuse for Harry to show off his incredible skills in battle without him being held in any way accountable for his actions. And yet, it's so competently staged and deliriously enjoyable that it undeniably works. 007 adventures are mostly suitable for kids, but Kingsman is an R-rated actioner, with Vaughn permitting blood spurts and some insane moments of violence. The camerawork is a bit on the frenetic side, though, and the movie might have been superior with smoother cinematography.

Just as Kick-Ass took the piss out of superhero iconography, Kingsman is a post-modernist love letter to spy movies, merrily finding its own weirdly quirky and at times pitch-black voice. Valentine, for instance, may be a stereotypical bad guy, but speaks with a lisp and has an aversion to blood - he projectile vomits if he sees so much as one drop of blood. The finale, meanwhile, contains a rather left-field anal sex joke that had this reviewer in stitches (but others might find a bit beyond the pale).

Kingsman is undeniably bolstered by smart casting, with Firth in particular doing a superb job as Harry Hart. Firth is the furthest thing from an action hero type, yet he nails the role - his posh sensibility serves him well as a gentleman spy, and his physical prowess is surprisingly outstanding. It's obvious that the veteran actor did a lot of training to prepare for the movie, and it pays off. Equally excellent is newcomer Taron Egerton, who's a real catch as Eggsy. His transformation from punk hooligan to sophisticated spy is surprisingly nuanced, and he's easy to get behind. As the token villain of the enterprise, Samuel L. Jackson is completely cartoonish in all the right ways, clearly enjoying himself in the role which goes against his Marvel hero persona. Other veteran actors pop in as well, with Strong placing forth fine work while the reliable Michael Caine is spot-on as the head of Kingsman. Also keep an eye out for Mark Hamill, who's fun to watch in an extended cameo.

Vaughn has carved out a career in comic book movies, and Kingsman is another solid addition to his filmography, an energetic action-comedy lark which provides big laughs and a number of adrenaline-pumping action scenes. The characters here actually discuss contemporary spy films, bemoaning that they have become too serious, but Kingsman is flat-out fun. Admittedly, pacing is not always spot-on, but the movie undeniably improves upon repeat viewings. For viewers who have grown tired of the sanitised PG-13 action movie scene, Kingsman is a wonderful reprieve, and its almost defiantly politically incorrect stance makes it a real winner.


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Solid little genre movie

Posted : 2 weeks, 2 days ago on 19 August 2015 01:43 (A review of Run All Night)

"I'm the only one ever cared about you. And all of that ended an hour ago when you killed my son. I'm comin' after your boy with everything I got."

Liam Neeson's third collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra, Run All Night is precisely the type of redemptive blockbuster that Neeson needed after the horrendous misfire of Taken 3. Although Neeson and Collet-Serra's previous films, Unknown and Non-Stop, did possess action elements, Run All Night is a full-blown action movie which feels like a proper, unofficial Taken sequel. Anchored by strong performances right down the line, competent technical specs, and an array of bruising action sequences, this is a solid little genre movie which makes terrific use of Neeson's trademark gruff screen persona.

A former assassin for feared New York mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) has fallen on hard times, becoming a sad-sack alcoholic with minimal money to his name. During a moment of drug-fuelled aggression, Shawn's son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) murders a couple of Albanian drug dealers, and Jimmy's estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) bears witness to the killings. Mike soon becomes a target to avoid loose ends, but Jimmy kills Danny to protect his son, which enrages Shawn. Despite their long history, Shawn decides that Jimmy and Mike must be killed to avenge his son. As Shawn begins recruiting his goons to hunt down the pair and dismantle their lives, Jimmy urges Mike to leave New York City with him, compelling the young man to trust his despicable father for just one night. Meanwhile, Shawn calls upon a professional hit-man (Common) to ensure that the pair are dead by morning.

One of the big issues with Run All Night unfortunately rears its ugly head from the outset, with an unnecessary flash-forward which detracts a certain degree of suspense from the proceedings, as we are immediately shown that Jimmy and Mike have escaped NYC. Such a narrative device is usually used as a hook, but it simply comes across as needless in this case. Furthermore, the actions of Common's assassin character are often illogical; he's supposed to be doing clean, neat work, but he has no qualms with killing any number of policemen or innocent bystanders. Silliness can be forgiven in action movies, but Collet-Serra insists on a solemn, gritty tone throughout - Run All Night would have probably worked better if pitched at a more fun tone akin to the first Taken, or if the screenplay was tidied up to be more sophisticated. It's not a deal-breaker, but it does detract from the movie to some degree.

Rather than a sanitary PG-13 effort like Taken 3 or Non-Stop, Run All Night is an R-rated action film, and it's a creative decision which elevates the enterprise. This is a thoroughly adult effort, with a tone and demeanour that simply would not fly in a PG-13, not to mention there's visceral impact to the gunshot wounds which makes the action scenes more satisfying. Collet-Serra is a competent visual craftsman, thus Run All Night benefits from his directorial touch, imbuing the picture with authority and gravitas. Junkie XL's score is often a tad generic but it's nevertheless effective, amplifying the intensity of the movie's various set-pieces.

The picture also benefits from a proficient selection of performers, who actually make some of the quieter character moments as compelling as the action scenes. Neeson and Harris are both seasoned professionals who can do this type of stuff in their sleep, and the movie's best scenes stem from their interactions, most notably a Heat-esque meet in a diner that really should have been longer. Run All Night is a competent showcase for Neeson's newfound action hero cool, and Harris is likewise solid, showing yet again that he's one of the best in the business. Their gravitas is a huge benefit to the movie. In the supporting cast, Kinnaman - who was woefully ineffective in the bomb that was 2014's RoboCop remake - submits a solid performance, with a father/son dynamic that feels real enough. Meanwhile, Vincent D'Onofrio and Common do their respective jobs well enough, while Nick Nolte also shows up out of nowhere for a one-scene cameo. Reportedly, Nolte was supposed to have a more sizeable role, but wound up being almost cut out of the finished film. What a shame.

Run All Night's reception was lukewarm, to say the least, and it certainly underperformed at the box office. Unfortunately, this probably came as a result of Taken 3; the two-month gap wasn't enough time for people to recover from that limp franchise trilogy-capper. Judged on its own merits, Run All Night is a robust little gem which deserves more attention. And it's a definite improvement over the forgettable Unknown and the stale Non-Stop. It's worth a rental at the very least, especially for action fans.


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It has its moments

Posted : 2 weeks, 2 days ago on 19 August 2015 01:35 (A review of Get Hard)

"This ain't no longer your house, man! We in San Quentin now!"

A lot of criticisms have been levelled against 2015’s Get Hard, with most critics and audiences calling it offensive and dumb. However, despite its clichéd, slipshod plotting and a lack of truly witty writing, it is arguably entertaining if you enjoy this type of crass, un-PC humour, though it must be stressed that it’s not a movie for everybody. This is a pitch-black, vehemently R-rated comedy, with improvisation, overacting and profanities aplenty in place of clever comedy. And while the resultant feature has its moments, it is rather disappointing considering the talent here.

An LA-based investment fund manager, James King (Will Ferrell) is living the dream, blessed with a gorgeous fiancée, Alissa (Allison Brie), and a large, luxurious home that’s tended to by groundskeepers and maids. Soon after being made partner in his firm by Alissa’s father, Martin (Craig T. Nelson), James is arrested for fraud and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin. Trying to maintain his innocence, James is given thirty days to sort out his affairs before serving time. James dreads the prospect of prison life, ultimately calling upon a car washer named Darnell (Kevin Hart) for help. Even though the squeaky-clean Darnell has never been in the slammer, James assumes that he has a cell block record simply because he’s black. Realising that he has the chance to make some easy cash, Darnell goes along with it, pretending to be an ex-con and creating a prison survival boot camp to toughen James up.

Like most comedies of this ilk, Get Hard is essentially a string of comedic vignettes with a very tenuous through-line to justify the madness. It’s somewhat surprising that Etan Cohen directed the picture since he also scripted Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy, both of which possessed some degree of intelligence, providing clever satire to supplement and enhance the laughs. Get Hard, on the other hand, is purely superficial, and you’ll struggle to find any meaty satire or satirical subtext amid all the rape jokes and crude dialogue. Perhaps the movie’s biggest issue is the lack of a character arc for James, who’s a stuffy, racist rich guy - and the movie asks us to empathise with him. Additionally, the story’s machinations are so perfunctory and half-hearted, not to mention predictable, that the premise might have been better-served as a series of short comedy skits on YouTube.

With its shoddy script and plotting, Get Hard would have been borderline unwatchable if it was an inoffensive PG-13 comedy. However, the production is given a boost by its R rating, which Ferrell lobbied relentlessly to maintain, allowing for salty language and humour which pushes the boundaries of good taste. Performances all-round are fairly workmanlike, with Ferrell again leaning on his trademark oblivious man-child idiot persona. Ferrell knows his strengths, and he plays to him, with the role never removing the actor from his comfort zone. Then again, nobody really expected anything more. Hart, meanwhile, is pretty much just Kevin Hart.

There is not much more which can be said about Get Hard. Humour is subjective, and if there’s not much to analyse beneath a comedy’s shiny exterior, it doesn’t exactly provide strong fodder for an in-depth treatise. As someone who predominantly likes Will Ferrell and enjoys R-rated comedies, I found myself laughing quite a lot throughout the movie’s 100-minute duration in spite of its inherent flaws and hit-and-miss comedy. Those who enjoy the likes of Step Brothers might enjoy it with beer and pizza, but others are advised to tread lightly.


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Gripping spy yarn

Posted : 3 weeks, 2 days ago on 12 August 2015 03:40 (A review of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation)

"The Syndicate is real. A rogue nation, trained to do what we do."

It's rare for a Hollywood movie franchise to maintain quality through to its fifth instalment, and yet 2015's Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation accomplishes that seemingly impossible mission, emerging as one of the summer's strongest, most satisfying blockbusters. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who was last seen at the helm of the 2012 Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, Rogue Nation represents another high point for this now nineteen-year-old franchise, which has flirted with greatness since 2006's Mission: Impossible III (which is still arguably the best). The decision to move the film's release date up by a whopping five months was cause for concern, but the finished picture remains astonishingly assured and above all cohesive, pulling together a gripping spy yarn anchored by solid performances and sublime visuals. In short, it's everything you want from a summer flick, and more.

After CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) works to shut down the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), Ethan Hunt (Cruise) goes rogue, living off the grid as he works to bring down a shadow organisation known as The Syndicate. The likes of Agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and tech guru Benji (Simon Pegg) are drafted into CIA service, forced to assist as the agency seeks to find and apprehend Hunt at all costs. As Hunt ventures around the globe determined to prevent further deaths at the hands of The Syndicate, he finds assistance in Benji, Brandt, and old pal Luther (Ving Rhames), while also frequently encountering a British Intelligence agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) whose loyalties remain unclear.

The well-publicised stunt involving Cruise dangling from a plane is actually part of the opening sequence, which kicks off the movie on an exhilarating high note. The set-piece is a real treat, a thoroughly armrest-clenching, hugely competent opener scored with the iconic M:I theme that left this reviewer giddy with excitement. It was a sublime creative decision to include this stunt at the start of the film - it amplifies the exhilaration factor for the ensuing action scenes, as it's never entirely clear what's real and what has been tinkered with through digital effects. And that's the highest compliment one can award a blockbuster of this ilk. Additionally, while all previous entries in the series have aped the show's title sequence, Rogue Nation takes it one step further, with clips to introduce each respective main player. Indeed, the feature wears its television origins on its sleeve, and it feels closer to the original TV show than all four of its predecessors. As a matter of fact, The Syndicate was a recurring antagonist on the show.

There's an air of class to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation that's unexpected considering its summer blockbuster pedigree, with McQuarrie taking cues from Alfred Hitchcock in particular, as well as paying homage to other classics. Part of the story takes place in Casablanca, which in itself will conjure up memories of the classic 1942 film Casablanca, but the name Ilsa will also be familiar to any cinema aficionados. Additionally, one of the standout set-pieces takes place at an opera in Vienna, which appears to be a callback to Hitchcock's 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Such touches would be foolhardy in a less skilful production, but Rogue Nation is executed with a deft hand, and it's smartly-written to boot.

McQuarrie's proficient directorial talents are aided considerably by the exotic global locations, the vibrant cinematography courtesy of the Oscar-winning Robert Elswit, and Joe Kraemer's pulse-pounding score which makes great use of Lalo Schifrin's iconic theme music. For the most part, Rogue Nation is a surprisingly grounded blockbuster, generating excitement through stretches of intense, cloak-and-dagger espionage rather than outright mayhem. McQuarrie gets plenty of mileage out of suspenseful, mostly wordless sequences, reminiscent of Brian De Palma's work on the original Mission: Impossible film. Even the climax has been dialled back, leaving the trailers to mostly foreground the extended vehicular chase through the streets of Morocco which closes the second act. However, the movie does have its fair share of silly moments, including an over-the-top car roll that looks too digital and is too unrealistic.

The M:I franchise has had its share of witty one-liners, but Rogue Nation is probably the most humorous to date. It's full of amusing bantering and clever scripting, which keeps the enterprise feeling fun and light. And it's a testament to McQuarrie's direction that he is able to juggle the varying tones so well. Naturally, performances right across the board are hugely effective. The decision to induct Pegg into the franchise's ensemble remains superb. He's a great asset, and it's fantastic that the British funny-man returns here in a larger capacity. Meanwhile, Rhames, who has appeared in every instalment thus far, is terrific as always, handling the comedy with a deft hand. Renner also makes his return here, and he's yet again on fine form. Then there's Cruise, who remains a consummate pro and a true movie star despite being in his fifties. Cruise did his own driving and stunts, and he's perpetually focused from start to finish. As for the newcomers, Baldwin makes a positive impression, while Sean Harris excels as the villain. If the last movie, Ghost Protocol, had a flaw, it would've been the lack of a memorable bad guy, but Harris fulfils his duties admirably here. And finally, Swedish actress Ferguson really impresses as Ilsa, and she shares great chemistry with Cruise. However, the absence of Michelle Monaghan is a tad disappointing - this series still needs to provide closure on the relationship between Ethan and Monaghan's Julia.

Rogue Nation is a long movie, ultimately clocking in at over two hours, and at times it does feel its length. After two incredible opening acts, the flick slows down for its final third, which does affect narrative rhythm and pacing. With that said, however, Rogue Nation does improve upon repeat viewings, which solidifies this as another joy for 2015's summer movie derby and an ideal way to cap off the season. At this point, the prospect of a sixth Mission: Impossible movie is extremely enticing indeed, which is more than can be said for other, less skilful long-running franchises, like Fast & Furious.


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Competent Aussie miniseries

Posted : 1 month, 1 week ago on 29 July 2015 04:38 (A review of Catching Milat)

A two-part miniseries produced for Network Seven, 2015's Catching Milat shines a light on the prolonged police investigation which led to the arrest and incarceration of notorious serial killer Ivan Milat (Malcolm Kennard), who murdered seven backpackers in the early 1990s. Catching Milat is not a docudrama which concentrates solely on Milat - in fact, there are no on-screen killings - but rather a dramatisation, primarily splitting its focus between Milat's day-to-day life and the drawn-out investigation. Milat caught the attention of police early into the game, as his family harbours a fascination with firearms and his demeanour is generally unpleasant and unnerving.

Catching Milat is a full meal, with its combined runtime of three hours dedicated to covering as much material as possible from the 2007 novel Sins of the Brother by investigative journalists Mark Whittaker and the late Les Kennedy. Penned by Justin Monjo, the teleplay is thoroughly bathed in stereotypical Aussie vernacular, with the Milat family in particular speaking like uneducated bogans. The show completely encapsulates our home-grown culture, which may turn off potential international viewers, but is overall fairly true to life.

Despite being a ratings smash, Catching Milat was slammed quite openly in the press by Clive Small, who served as superintendent on the case. Small took issue with the show's depiction of Detective Paul Gordon (Richard Cawthorne), who is shown working on the case for two years here and being instrumental in Milat's capture, when in reality he played a much smaller role in the investigation. However, beefing up Gordon's role makes sense from a dramatic standpoint. After all, this is a dramatisation rather than a documentary; it needed a protagonist to guide us through the story, making all the major discoveries and remaining a constant from start to finish. Running through the lengthy roster of policemen involved in the case would simply be tedious. What matters is that the script's broad narrative strokes are accurate, particularly in relation to the various suspects and discoveries, not to mention the inclusion of English backpacker Paul Onions (Alex Williams), who escaped Milat's clutches and whose testimony was vital in court.

It's undeniable that television has reached its zenith in terms of production value, with shows like Game of Thrones, Daredevil and Sherlock looking utterly cinematic. Luckily, Catching Milat is immensely competent from a technical perspective, maintaining a fluid pace across its two ninety-minute episodes. With the story occurring in the early '90s, the miniseries employs oodles of period detail to recreate the era, from the technology to the fashion to general household decor. It's all achieved convincingly, and it's topped off with stylish cinematography courtesy of Australian TV luminary Joseph Pickering (Underbelly) which belies the modest budget. Luckily, too, the acting is uniformly strong right down the line. Leading the pack is Kennard, who's thoroughly convincing as the titular Milat. Sporting facial hair, Kennard is the splitting image of his real-life counterpart, and delivers a menacing performance. He's a great asset to the production.

As perhaps to be expected, Catching Milat does not get everything right. This is a dense story, with plenty of content to be covered across the show's two episodes, and it's undeniable that some aspects do feel short-changed in the grand scheme of things. The court case in particular is given little-to-no airtime, serving as a perfunctory footnote as opposed to something more substantial. If executed competently, an entire episode could have been devoted to the court case. Nevertheless, Catching Milat is well worth checking out; it's an often absorbing look at a hugely controversial, well-publicised and horrific moment in Australian history.


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Limp, safe Marvel movie

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 19 July 2015 02:35 (A review of Ant-Man)

"Second chances don't come around all that often. I suggest you take a really close look at it. This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter's eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are."

Initially planned to be one of Marvel Studio's smaller-scale, modestly-budgeted Phase One trial run movies, Ant-Man has at long last become a reality after a long, troubled production history. It serves as the conclusion to the studio's Phase Two of film production, entering multiplexes just months after the gargantuan Avengers: Age of Ultron to induct a new superhero into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. British cult director Edgar Wright was originally slated to direct Ant-Man, but creative differences prompted his departure just weeks before shooting, leaving Marvel scrambling to get the movie ready in time for its already-scheduled release date. Unfortunately, the studio recruited Peyton Reed to direct. With Reed having previously helmed the likes of Bring It On and Yes Man, he's not exactly a name one would think of to oversee a tent-pole comic book action extravaganza. And alas, the finished movie is even weaker than the underwhelming Age of Ultron, a mostly monotonous effort that perpetually seems to be stuck in first gear.

A professional cat burglar, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is fresh out of prison, seeking to turn his life around and do right by his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Desperate to land a job but finding employment impossible with his criminal record, Scott begrudgingly lets his ex-cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) talk him into breaking into a mansion for a big score. Scott works his magic to get through various levels of security, but instead of money, he only finds a unique suit with the ability to shrink and strengthen whomever wears it. The suit was designed by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant physicist who created the groundbreaking formula to allow the shrinking process and vowed he would never allow it to fall into the wrong hands. But Pym's former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has taken control of Pym Industries, is close to replicating the code and weaponising the Ant-Man tech. To disrupt Cross' plan, Pym chooses Scott to don the Ant-Man suit, much to the frustration of his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly).

The screenplay for Ant-Man was punched up by Adam McKay, presumably reconciling Wright and Joe Cornish's original narrative structure with whatever demands from Disney/Marvel that compelled Wright to exit the project. Ultimately, the broad strokes of the narrative do work, even if they are derivative of the archetypical "origin story" format. Rather than the grandiose scale of The Avengers, Ant-Man is more character-focused like 2008's Iron Man, with a fairly basic story to make room for the laughs and drama. There are emotional stakes here, with a nice father-daughter redemption arc, but, unfortunately, none of it makes the impact that it probably should. The subplot involving Scott, his daughter, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife's new lover in particular comes off as a clichéd distraction, and the resolution is vague and head-scratching.

Worse, while the actors are consummate professionals who definitely suit their respective roles, the likes of Rudd and Douglas are often left struggling to make various scenes work, burdened with heavy exposition that does them no favours. McKay was brought in for his experience in comedy, but his previous films (Anchorman, Step Brothers) rely heavily on the improvisational talents of the actors rather than witty screenwriting. Thus, there's no life or spark to the often painfully perfunctory dialogue. There's the niggling feeling throughout Ant-Man that the movie should have been better and braver - it's all rather safe, manufactured to pander to the younger demographic. Furthermore, a number of Marvel Cinematic Universe references do sneak their way into the script, but they feel blatantly shoehorned in for the sake of it. This is most notably felt in a tangent involving a certain Avenger that amounts to nothing, clearly included for the sake of an MCU tie-in, and could've easily been excised for stronger storytelling. It's clear that standalone superhero movies are no longer possible in the MCU.

There are some hugely creative ideas here - Luis' long-winded storytelling raised a few guffaws from this reviewer, and it's especially brilliant that the destructive climactic battle between Scott and the villainous Yellowjacket occurs atop a table of children's toys - but the material is mostly limp in the hands of Reed, who exhibits little in the way of style and personality. There's nothing invigorating about the movie, which often feels more like a television pilot due to flat cinematography, humdrum direction, workmanlike action scenes and simplistic humour. It's full of digital effects, of course, which bring some of the more creative scenes to vivid life. But while the CGI is competent, it's by no means spectacular; it still looks too digital, in need of the tangible aesthetic of bygone superhero adventures. As always, the picture arrives with a 3D option, and though the conversion is competent, it does nothing to enhance the movie, which is a shame considering the possibilities. Reed just isn't a visionary filmmaker.

Although enjoyable at times, Ant-Man falls towards the lower spectrum of Marvel productions, down there with The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World. It ultimately feels like a producer's vision, without much in the way of personality or energy. Guardians of the Galaxy was bolstered by the quirky disposition afforded by indie filmmaker James Gunn, while the Russo Brothers turned Captain America: The Winter Soldier into an exhilarating espionage thriller. Peyton Reed, on the other hand, was ostensibly hired to be a yes man to Marvel's demands, and that's a shame. Superhero fatigue is beginning to set in for this reviewer, making a production like Ant-Man even more disappointing. Potential sequels will need to up their game - hopefully, Ant-Man 2 will be overseen by a more competent action craftsman who will do the character justice. As ever, be sure to stick around during the end credits, as there are two additional scenes.


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Underrated spy actioner

Posted : 1 month, 2 weeks ago on 18 July 2015 03:47 (A review of Mission: Impossible 2)

"Mr. Hunt, this isn't mission difficult, it's mission impossible. "Difficult" should be a walk in the park for you."

With Hong Kong action filmmaker extraordinaire John Woo at the helm, Mission: Impossible II is a radical change of pace from its 1996 predecessor. Rather than a densely-plotted spy thriller, M:I-2 is a bit more straightforward, retaining the espionage business whilst letting Woo engage in his favourite past-time: staging elaborate bullet ballets. M:I-2 is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Mission: Impossible series, yet it's nowhere near as awful or unwatchable as its harshest critics contend. Certainly, it is subpar if perceived as an adaptation of the 1960s TV show, but as a standalone action movie, it does have its merits, hollow though it may be.

The Biocyte Pharmaceutical Corporation has developed a deadly new virus known as Chimera, which has the ability to kill infected hosts twenty hours after exposure. Russian bio-chemical expert Dr. Vladimir Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija) wishes to deliver the lethal pathogen to the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), but the package is intercepted in transit by rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who hopes to unleash the virus on the public and make a fortune by manufacturing the antidote. The IMF assigns Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to uncover the extent of Ambrose's scheme and prevent him from achieving his goals. For assistance, Hunt calls upon old friend Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Australian pilot Billy Baird (John Polson). Added to this, Hunt is forced to recruit Ambrose's ex-girlfriend Nyah (Thandie Newton) to spy and provide intelligence back to the IMF.

Woo's original cut of M:I-2 reportedly clocked in at a mammoth three-and-a-half hours, but the studio balked at such a length. Extensive editing was therefore conducted to reduce the runtime to a more serviceable two hours, and the final product does bear the earmarks of a longer film that was truncated in the editing room, as various transitions do feel rushed and awkward. The screenplay, penned by Robert Towne (Chinatown), does bear several narrative similarities to Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, though there isn't a great deal of complexity or intelligence here. Surprisingly, the first hour or so of M:I-2 is dedicated to setup, espionage and exposition; there is practically no action until about the seventy-minute mark, when Woo is finally permitted to cut loose and orchestrate plenty of pulse-pounding action sequences. It's undeniable that the movie is less successful in its early stages, with so-so pacing and storytelling, but the effort to do something more than pure action is appreciated nevertheless.

Whereas most movie franchises maintain a similar tone and aesthetic throughout each entry, the Mission: Impossible series is a different beast, recruiting a new director for each instalment, and wildly changing up the formula. M:I-2 is a John Woo action movie first and foremost, with the foreign filmmaker being called upon to put his indelible cinematic stamp on the material. There are plenty of firearms here, on top of slow-motion shots, doves taking flight, a pulse-pounding, rock-oriented soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, and even some impressively-choreographed fisticuffs. It's all standard-order stuff with extended shootouts and some vehicular mayhem, but Woo's style does elevates the material above the ordinary. As long as you can excuse the silliness of the entire enterprise, M:I-2 is an enormously entertaining sit. A number of action beats do feel neutered, however - the picture was originally rated R, but the violence was reportedly trimmed considerably. The action sequences in Brian De Palma's original movie were fine within the constraints of a PG-13 rating, but it's undeniable that Woo's bullet ballets would have been more enjoyable and coherent with the freedom of an R rating.

The portrayal of Hunt here is vastly different compared to the first film. For this second instalment, Cruise plays a charismatic, highly-capable killing machine; a cartoon with an itchy trigger finger. In short, he's a stock action hero. There isn't much emotional or dramatic depth to the role, with the trademark love tangent failing to take flight in any significant way. Still, Cruise definitely puts his best foot forward here, coming across as believable in the role. Cruise is surrounded by a decent supporting cast, with Scott doing fine as the villain, while Newton doesn't make much of an impact as Nyah. More successful are Hunt's under-utilised colleagues; Rhames is an amusing treat reprising his role of Luther, while Polson adds plenty of colour to the proceedings. Anthony Hopkins is even present here, giving a bit of gravitas to his small, uncredited role as Hunt's mission commander.

Mission: Impossible II lacks the smarts of the first movie, and it is definitely the weakest of the M:I movies to date, but one cannot help but be thrilled by the chutzpah of Woo's action scenes; they definitely ensure that the feature is worth a look. Indeed, once the movie kicks into high gear and that iconic theme kicks in, it's a total gas.


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Densely-plotted action blockbuster

Posted : 1 month, 3 weeks ago on 15 July 2015 02:28 (A review of Mission: Impossible)

"If you're dealing with a man who has crushed, shot, stabbed, and detonated five members of his own IMF team, how devastated do you think you're gonna make him by hauling Mom and Uncle Donald down to the county courthouse?"

More than merely a Tom Cruise action vehicle, Mission: Impossible was born out of the Hollywood craze during the 1990s to adapt as many cult television shows into big-budget motion pictures as possible, and it remains one of the period's more successful endeavours. It's worth noting that this adaptation bears very little resemblance to the 1960s TV series of the same name, only retaining the unforgettable theme song and the character of Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), though Phelps doesn't play a significant role in the proceedings. Indeed, M:I is its own entity, with writer David Koepp (Jurassic Park) using the idea of an agency-based spy thriller as a springboard for an original action blockbuster. And with veteran filmmaker Brian De Palma (Carrie, The Untouchables) at the helm, this is a densely-plotted potboiler which pays more mind to espionage and complex plot machinations than nonstop thrills.

In Prague, a team of Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agents are assigned to prevent the theft of a highly classified list known as the NOC list, which details the identities of all agents in the field. Led by Phelps, the mission is a failure, resulting in the deaths of several team-members. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is framed for the killing, forcing him to go rogue as he sets out to expose the mole within his organisation. For assistance, Hunt enlists the help of two disavowed IMF agents, computer hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and all-around tough guy Franz Krieger (Jean Reno). All the while, Hunt also sets out to ensure that the list does not fall into the hands of international terrorists.

To be sure, Mission: Impossible is almost impossibly serpentine, with an immensely convoluted narrative that's difficult to wrap your head around. It is nice to witness an $80 million summer movie that's more cerebral than the average action flick, but the effort is not entirely successful; it's a confusing movie, and definitely could've been better-constructed for maximum clarity. It doesn't help that the screenplay relies on heavy dialogue to keep us up to speed, and the lags in pacing are noticeable. Nevertheless, Mission: Impossible does make for engaging viewing more often than not - it's a paranoid, edge-of-your-seat spy thriller, with Hunt struggling to figure out who to trust in this situation. There's sufficient intrigue and tension to see the narrative through to the end, with a dash of romance for good measure.

The production was in sturdy hands with Brian De Palma at the helm; the director imprints the feature with his indelible cinematic stamp. Notable for his ability to construct intense, wordless sequences, De Palma's greatest contribution here is the iconic scene involving Hunt and his team breaking into CIA headquarters to steal the NOC list. It's a complex plan which involves Hunt being lowered from the ceiling on wires into a secure room which possesses a dizzying array of security precautions. The set-piece reflects De Palma's visual and tonal filmmaking voice, and it's tautly-edited to boot, making it far more gripping than the movie's ridiculous action scenes. Indeed, M:I needed big money shots to draw in mainstream viewers, and this box is ticked, with the climactic set-piece involving a high-speed train and a helicopter that's utterly preposterous but nevertheless entertaining. And, of course, the iconic Mission: Impossible theme is an absolute joy to hear.

Mission: Impossible was the first motion picture to bear Cruise's name as both a producer and as a star, and it would seem the involvement of his new production company motivated Cruise to place forth a focused, skilful performance. The actor's portrayal of Ethan Hunt is first-rate – he's physically capable and smart, not to mention the character is for the most part a grounded hero. Although Cruise's fan base has ostensibly shrunk in recent years, you cannot deny that he is committed to his art. A very appealing supporting cast also chips in, with veteran actor Voight giving the film a degree of gravitas. Meanwhile, Rhames is amusing, and Reno again shows why he's reliable when it comes to the action genre.

Years on, M:I endures as somewhat of a minor action classic due to its strengths, even though it has been bettered by its sequels, most notably Mission: Impossible III in 2006. Fans of the TV show may scoff if they are expecting something closer to the series, but the movie is something to be admired if taken on its own merits; a precursor to the smart spy action film subgenre that has become so prevalent in recent years.


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Hilarious sequel with some dramatic heft

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 29 June 2015 03:35 (A review of Ted 2)

"We'll get a lawyer, and we'll sue the fucking government for your civil rights!"

Even the most optimistic movie-goers could not have predicted the success of 2012's Ted, and although opinions on Seth MacFarlane's live-action directorial debut do vary, its $500 million worldwide box office take exceeded all expectations. With the feature having desensitised us to the idea of a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking teddy bear, it's business-as-usual for 2015's Ted 2, a follow-up which retains the proclivity for infantile humour and pop culture shout-outs within a narrative that provides a degree of dramatic heft. Although not as instantly iconic as its forerunner, Ted 2 is a worthwhile companion piece, and it's enormously funny and enjoyable as long as you're not easily offended. MacFarlane and his co-writers haven't exactly grown up, but that's fine.

The story picks up a couple of years after the first movie, with Ted (performed by MacFarlane) and his girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) tying the knot, while Ted's best buddy John (Mark Wahlberg) is still recovering from his recent divorce. Twelve months on, and Ted's marriage is on the fritz, as the pair constantly argue and can barely tolerate each other. Deciding that a baby may help to repair their union, the duo begin exploring their options, but Ted's civil rights are soon called into question by the government. Officially branded as "property," Ted is forced to leave his job and his marriage is nullified. Deciding to fight the ruling, Ted and John call upon junior attorney Samantha Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) to prove that Ted is a person in the eyes of the law.

Although MacFarlane's last movie, A Million Ways to Die in the West, did satisfy this reviewer, it was undeniably long and self-indulgent, not to mention there wasn't much substance beneath the movie's surface. Ted was grounded due to the relationship of John and his beloved teddy bear which was easy to relate to, and Ted 2 traverses new thematic territory, with Tami-Lynn unable to have a child and with Ted receiving harsh treatment from the government. Moreover, Ted 2 actually provides a balanced discussion of race and gender issues which is somewhat thought-provoking despite all of the crude humour and profane language. A subplot involving the eternally creepy Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) - who's now a janitor at Hasbro - does threaten to spoil the fun, but thankfully it's handled briskly and tactfully. Likewise, the courtroom scenes could have been tedious, but the furious pacing never falters, and the gags keep on coming.

As to be expected from MacFarlane, Ted 2's humour is mostly derived from obscure pop culture references, creative uses of the word "fuck," prolonged comedic set-pieces (a battle royal at New York Comic Con is an instant classic), and hilarious non-sequiturs, including a completely random scene involving the leads tossing apples at joggers. A scene involving Ted and a surprise celebrity guest discussing Trix is side-splitting, and there's a pitch-black scene at an improv comedy club that probably shouldn't be as funny as it is. MacFarlane even plays around with cinematography for extra laughs - a heated argument between Ted and his wife is lensed using hilariously exaggerated vérité-style photography for heightened effect. There are other fun ideas here as well, including references to John Hughes movies (most notably Planes, Trains & Automobiles) and a brief parody of Jurassic Park that had this reviewer sobbing with laughter. While there are a lot of dumb jokes, Ted 2 lands more than it misses, with MacFarlane maintaining a constant stream of woofers and never dwelling on one punch-line for too long.

The original Ted was bolstered by superb digital effects, and the CGI is actually improved here - the titular teddy bear looks photorealistic. It's possible to forget we are looking at a computer-generated character, which is a huge plus since neither the comedy nor the story would resonate if Ted didn't look convincing. Ted 2 is a fantasy, of course, yet we can believe that this toy is a living, breathing character...who does drugs and is a deviant in the bedroom. MacFarlane again does well in the role, displaying spot-on comedic timing and selling the one-liners with gusto. Beside him, Wahlberg again performs admirably, scoring ample laughs whilst somehow remaining fairly restrained. Mila Kunis was unable to return here due to her pregnancy, and it's definitely hard to swallow that John and Lori broke up, especially since it makes the events of the original movie feel utterly pointless in the long run. Nevertheless, in her place, Seyfried is a worthy love interest. They have great chemistry, and it's a credit to MacFarlane for choosing an actress who works well with Wahlberg. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is filled out with other great names - even Morgan Freeman plays a small but critical role. Sam Jones plays himself yet again, and Ribisi's minor appearance as Donny is mightily amusing.

The internet community sharpened their knives for Ted 2, ostensibly due to the underwhelming nature of A Million Ways to Die in the West, the mysterious dislike for Family Guy, and the fact that it has become hip to retroactively hate on the surprise hit that was the original Ted. Yet, the sequel worked for this reviewer - even though it runs a bit long at close to two hours, I enjoyed every minute of it, as it's frequently amusing and has a solid story at its core. It's hard to imagine any fans of the first film being disappointed. And be sure to stay until the end of the credits.


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All-in-good-fun comedic romp

Posted : 2 months, 1 week ago on 25 June 2015 12:43 (A review of The Interview)

"Kim must die, it's the American way."

2014's The Interview was never going to live up to expectations. With the massive controversy, Sony hacking scandal, terrorist threats from North Korea, and the flick's temporarily cancelled release (it was going to sit in a vault forever unseen), most film-goers most likely expected too much from this all-in-good-fun comedy romp, hoping for a razor-sharp, incisive political satire that it was never meant to be. Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, The Interview is by no means high-brow or classy, nor is it The Great Dictator of the 21st Century, but it is funny. Humour is subjective and your mileage will vary depending on taste, but I cannot deny that The Interview worked for me - I laughed frequently, and the movie holds up on repeat viewings.

A high-profile talk show host, Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) have conquered the entertainment industry, consistently scoring high ratings from their interviews with various celebrities. After a thousand episodes, however, Aaron finds himself yearning to take on “real news,” and perhaps earn some respect from his peers. Learning that North Korean's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), is a fan of the show, Dave and Aaron are given the chance of a lifetime: an hour-long interview with the controversial dictator. The announcement draws attention from the C.I.A. though, with Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) requesting their help to assassinate the controversial political figure. But soon after touching down in the country, Dave finds himself bonding with Kim, prompting second thoughts about the plan. Aaron, meanwhile, gains in ally in the form of Sook (Diana Bang), a military official and propagandist working for the Supreme Leader.

Many of The Interview's detractors bemoan the lack of sophistication and political satire here, with Rogen and Goldberg content to fill the feature with dick jokes, drug trips, creative uses of profanity, and other infantile humour. But Dan Sterling's screenplay actually does more than it gets credit for - in one particularly astute exchange, Sook asks Aaron how many times the U.S. can make the same mistake, to which he replies "As many times as it takes!" The Interview also plays up several of the myths surrounding North Korea, some of which are hugely alarming. It's easy to see why Kim Jong-un and his people would find this feature offensive, though it still would've been nice to see the movie go even further - one must wonder if any material was cut from the final product in light of the tremendous controversy.

As with all comedies, not all of the laughs land, of course - it's especially grating to listen to the white actors talking like rappers. Furthermore, some scenes could have been tauter, such as the interview with Eminem which runs past its logical closure point. Nevertheless, I laughed more often than not, and the movie also makes side-splitting use of the Katy Perry song "Firework," which becomes a brilliant recurring joke. Rogen and Goldberg were aiming for a sophisticated visual style here which belies the project's comedic origins, collaborating with veteran comedy cinematographer Brandon Trost to give The Interview the look of a stylish espionage thriller. Lensed digitally, the results are to be commended, with shot compositions making brilliant use of shadows. Nobody can accuse The Interview of looking cheap. The climax here amounts to an extended action set-piece, and it's both hugely amusing and competently executed. Some of the violence is comically over-the-top, but, miraculously, it never grows too dark or mean-spirited - the madness is pitched at just the right tone.

Franco's performance is a mixed bag. He plays foolish well enough and he is amusing at times, but he's far too broad and often mugs the camera. One can only imagine what someone like Bill Murray could have done with the role, as he's capable of wonderfully dry line delivery. In fact, Murray would have been a great choice, as he has subtle, nuanced comedic chops that would've made the movie even funnier. Rogen, meanwhile, is pretty much Seth Rogen, leaning on all of his usual trademarks as a performer. More worthy of praise is Park's energetic portrayal of Kim Jong-un. Park had serious balls to play the dictator at all, but it's astonishing just how much he runs with it, turning the notorious Supreme Leader as a pothead who enjoys margaritas and Katy Perry music. Caplan is also mostly amusing, while Bang's performance as Sook is highly spirited.

High-concept R-rated comedies are becoming rarer and rarer, and while The Interview is not the home run that it might have been in defter hands, Rogen and Goldberg deserve credit for having the guts to mastermind a comedy of such brash political outrageousness. Other comedies these days like Sex Tape, Neighbors, Ride Along, Let's Be Cops, Dumb and Dumber To and The Internship mine the same old tired territory, thus The Interview has an inherent edge since it delves into more dangerous terrain. Best of all, it does so whilst remaining fun and light on its feet, rather than leaden and pretentious. It's not perfect, but I'll take it.


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