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Saved by the ensemble cast

Posted : 1 day, 10 hours ago on 24 May 2015 05:21 (A review of Spy)

"I'm the person that's gonna cut your dick off and glue it to your forehead so you look like a limp-dick unicorn, that's who the fuck I am!"

Even though 2013's The Heat was a word-of-mouth success that earned an inexplicable amount of praise, this reviewer found it tedious - an unfocused action-comedy in need of tighter editing, sharper scripting, and a more competent craftsman at the helm. There was not much hope, then, for director Paul Feig's follow-up effort, 2015's Spy. Miraculously, though, the resultant movie is a marked improvement over The Heat, even if it falls short of perfection. To be sure, Spy is definitely overlong and crass, not to mention it panders to a handful of "girl power" tropes (it's more of a feminist action movie than the phenomenal Mad Max: Fury Road). Nevertheless, it is handsomely produced and benefits from the presence of an amicable cast, most notably the always-reliable Jason Statham, the charming Jude Law, and the underrated Peter Serafinowicz.



Despite being a star pupil in training, CIA analyst Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy) is stuck in an office all day everyday, yearning for the chance to become a field agent. She's a resourceful asset to the team, dedicated to helping the suave Bradley Fine (Law) in every aspect of his life, from helping him through dangerous situations to doing his laundry. During an operation to investigate Bulgarian arms dealer Raina Boyanov (Rose Byrne), it is revealed that the names and faces of all active field agents have been compromised, leaving the CIA unsure of how to proceed. Cooper, however, puts her hand up, volunteering to travel to Rome to provide surveillance on Boyanov. It's not as easy as anticipated, though, especially with the overzealous Rick Ford (Statham) not taking kindly to being excluded from the assignment.

As with The Heat, Spy's narrative is definitely too convoluted, as it meanders around searching for direction before settling on a climax. This episodic structure in itself is not a bad thing, as classic films like The Blues Brothers utilise it, but Feig is not quite talented enough to sustain the movie through to the finish line. It is funny, especially whenever Statham is around, but it's nothing overly memorable. As evidenced in Bridesmaids and The Heat, Feig's comedy is derived from the shock value of crass humour and vulgar language to compensate for the lack of actual wit. While an R-rated comedy is to be cherished in this day and age, Feig fails to fulfil the project's potential. The director also has a tendency to hold onto punch-lines and scenes of improvisation for far too long, displaying too much trust in the ensemble. Consequently, pacing is often fairly sedate, and the issue is exacerbated by the undeniable fact that the movie is over-plotted.



It's palpable from the outset that Feig has placed his parody crosshairs on the James Bond franchise, even kicking off with a 007-style opening credits sequence, and establishing an unmistakable spy thriller vibe. Perhaps the king of action-comedy was 2007's Hot Fuzz, a British romp which managed to be both a kick-ass actioner and a side-splitting comedy. Spy lacks the sparkle of wit that elevated Hot Fuzz, on top of coming up short in the action department. Astonishingly, Spy appears to be the first major motion picture to employ digital muzzle flashes as opposed to actual blank-firing weapons, a baffling choice that's incredibly distracting, not to mention the CGI blood is some of the very worst ever seen in cinema (The Expendables included). A few brief shots of digital blood puffs would be acceptable, but Feig lingers, using slow motion for no good reason, allowing us to observe the computer-generated viscera in all its phoney non-glory. Admittedly, though, the movie is elevated to an extent by the fight choreography, with McCarthy given the chance to show off some impressive moves. It's ridiculous of course, but all part of the joke.

McCarthy's track record as a lead actress has been shonky, to say the least; she's insufferable in The Heat, Identity Thief and Tammy. Although Spy makes use of McCarthy's typical persona, she doesn't get on the nerves as much here, and she does score a few laughs. But ultimately, Spy works as an ensemble piece, and it helps that McCarthy is surrounded by plenty of talented thespians. This is Statham's first comedy since Guy Ritchie's Snatch. fifteen years ago, yet he displays top-notch comedic timing, not to mention he's completely willing to play an utter cartoon, merrily parodying his own action star image. It's particularly amusing to see the tough guy trying to disguise himself in various get-ups. He thoroughly upstages McCarthy, and though it's a shame the movie didn't centre on him, it's the element of surprise that makes Statham's appearances so hilarious. Also of note is British funny-man Serafinowicz, who's over-the-top in all the right ways, scoring more laughs than McCarthy despite limited screen-time. Australian actress Byrne makes a positive impression as well, shining with her deadpan line delivery and amusing accent. Meanwhile, Law plays a Bond-style secret agent with ample finesse.



Hidden somewhere within Spy's bloated two-hour runtime is an adequate ninety-minute action-comedy, and one cannot help but wonder what the film would have looked like if Feig's script was revised by a more refined comedy writer. And ultimately, the outlook for Feig's impending all-female Ghostbusters reboot looks all the shakier, as the helmer exhibits none of the comic timing, wit or innovation of the 1984 original, not to mention it remains to be see if Feig can even handle a PG-13 comedy since his humour almost exclusively relies on profanity.

6.1/10



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No intelligence, substance, suspense or humanity

Posted : 2 days, 13 hours ago on 23 May 2015 02:12 (A review of Jurassic Park III)

"Great, just great. We're in the worst place in the world and we're not even being paid."

The law of diminishing returns always catches up with popular franchises at some point. While some may contend that Jurassic Park's first sequel, The Lost World, was a subpar follow-up, it remains a robust continuation that deserves more love in this reviewer's opinion. But a similar defence cannot be mounted against 2001's Jurassic Park III, which is nothing more than a big-budget B-movie lacking the scientific underpinnings of its predecessors. With Steven Spielberg relinquishing the director's chair to blockbuster purveyor Joe Johnston, this is a Jurassic Park adventure with many hungry dinosaurs but very little in the way of substance, intelligence or suspense. It's entertaining to a point, but too episodic and clichéd, not to mention it features dumb characters doing silly things, and it suffers from a contrived narrative. There is a reason why this franchise remained dormant for a subsequent fourteen years.



Following the events of the first movie, palaeontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) still lives in the shadow of the experience, being consistently badgered for information about Jurassic Park. Approached by wealthy married couple Paul (William H. Macy) and Amanda (Tea Leoni), he's given a proposition: they will pay him handsomely if he accompanies them on a plane trip over Isla Sorna and acts as their dinosaur expert. Alan reluctantly agrees, bringing along his young, wide-eyed assistant Billy (Alessandro Nivola) for company. As it turns out, however, Paul and Amanda are separated, and have travelled to Isla Sorna to search for their son, Eric (Trevor Morgan), who is stranded on the island. Gee, do you think their plane might be destroyed, leaving them to deal with rampaging dinosaurs for an hour?

Michael Crichton only published two Jurassic Park novels, meaning that the trio of credited writers here had to develop an original story, and the result lacks any sort of intelligent backbone. One has to wonder, though, why Crichton's The Lost World wasn't used as a basis for this sequel, since Spielberg's motion picture of the same name bears a minimal resemblance to its literary namesake. Crichton himself actually helped the writers come up with ideas, but quit when he failed to conceive of something satisfying. Go figure. Jurassic Park III progresses like a bog-standard B-movie, with mostly flat dialogue and a poor structure. Indeed, it lacks a legitimate climax, fizzling out with an odd deus ex machina that cannot hold a candle to the iconic sequences that closed the prior features. Furthermore, it lacks a solid beginning and end, which gives credence to the rumour that there was no finished script in place when filming began.



Johnston and his team seem to have forgotten that 1993’s Jurassic Park only featured fourteen minutes of dinosaur screen-time - and of that, only four minutes was comprised of computer-generated beasts. Jurassic Park III neglects the build-up and the masterful sense of tension that Spielberg was renowned for, with the dinosaurs here starting their rampaging barely twenty minutes into the movie. The less is more approach of the original picture remains far more effective - after all, in that movie, several nail-biting minutes are spent observing the characters in utter terror as they hear the T-Rex approaching. Even The Lost World managed to continue the franchise in an admirable fashion. But none of that deft sleight-of-hand is present here - Jurassic Park III is all about the money shots. It would not be too much of an issue if this was a proper, cheesy B-movie with R-rated violence like Deep Blue Sea, but it's not. Instead, we're stuck with goofy sequences like a talking fucking raptor in Alan's dream. Plus, John Williams did not return to compose the soundtrack, and the resultant score sounds like a limp imitation.

If nothing else, Jurassic Park III does offer brisk entertainment and a handful of action scenes that are admittedly enjoyable. It certainly looks good, with sturdy production values and solid cinematography that masterfully captures the dinosaur action. The animatronic dinos are terrific for the most part, though some sequences look a tad shonky. Surprisingly, the computer-generated beasts are actually a step down in quality compared to its predecessors - they often look surprisingly phoney. This is probably attributable to the fact that the dinosaurs are on-screen so much, making it a case of quantity over quality. Also, the movie commits a cardinal sin by showing the new Spinosaurus battling everyone's favourite dinosaur, the Tyrannosaurus Rex, and coming out on top. It's an attempt to up the stakes and announce the Spinosaurus as the new king, but the sequence doesn't sit right.



Performances are standard across the board, with Neill doing what he can while the other actors are simply there. Jurassic Park III is also predictable with its ensemble; no major characters are allowed to die off, with the unimportant side roles becoming dino fodder. It just detracts a lot of tension from the action set-pieces, which are in need of a more nuanced craftsman like Spielberg. At the end of the day, Jurassic Park III is watchable, but generic and forgettable. And the end result is a crime compared to the majestic motion picture that spawned it.

5.1/10



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Mightily engaging western

Posted : 1 week, 2 days ago on 16 May 2015 01:30 (A review of The Salvation)

"I learned something from war... never start a fight you can't win."

Westerns, it would seem, have suffered an unfortunate decline in the 21st Century, with sporadic gems like 3:10 to Yuma and The Proposition occasionally surfacing to remind us that life still endures in this longstanding genre. Luckily, The Salvation can now be confidently added to the list of great contemporary westerns - it's an instant classic. Rather than breaking considerable new ground, The Salvation is content to be a fairly formulaic tale set in the Wild West, as it's a motion picture more concerned with execution than reinvention. Despite its Danish origins, this is a very American tale of revenge and tragedy, essentially a Hollywood movie with a distinctly foreign verve. By forgoing pretentions, it's a stripped-down, taut action offering that's low on narrative flab, harkening back to the western genre's golden days from decades ago.



After many years of battle as a soldier, Denmark native Jon (Mads Mikkelsen) and his brother Peter (Mikael Persbrandt) move away from their homeland to forge a new life in the American west. Jon is soon joined by his wife and child, but their domestic happiness is not to last: during the trip home, they are brutally attacked by drunken scoundrel Paul (Michael Raymond-James) and his friend, leaving only Jon alive. In a fit of rage, Jon kills the murderous pair, but word of Paul's death soon spreads to his brother Delarue (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), a ruthless gang leader who promises to kill innocent civilians every day until Jon is captured. Jon and Peter attempt to skip town, but Delarue's wrath is soon brought upon them, leaving Jon anxious to hunt down the outlaw himself, or die trying.

Rather than a sprawling western epic or a profound historical document, The Salvation is a lean little revenge picture which predominantly takes place in the town of Black Creek. It's more or less a Death Wish knockoff set in the American West, and while that may sound unspectacular, it's unusually refreshing. Director/co-writer Kristian Levring doesn't succumb to a lot of pratfalls associated with modern action films, imbuing the production with genuine gravitas. Dialogue is sparse and effective, and storytelling is focused, with Levring doing a terrific job of maintaining interest all the way through to the end. Do not mistake this gem for some trashy, B-grade junk that might as well have gone straight-to-video, as there's class and restraint here, and it doesn't feel cheap or nasty. It's B-grade material brought to life through A-grade execution. It's not a guilty pleasure - it's just a pleasure.



Levring makes brilliant use of the South African locations, assembling one of the most visually arresting westerns since Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained. The Salvation may have been lensed digitally (this is more of a celluloid genre), but the cinematography is eye-catching, with Levring and director of photography Jens Schlosser showing a breathtaking eye for composition and colour, with a push towards browns and yellows. The meagre budget is never a drawback, as production values are gorgeous; it looks and sounds like North America in the 19th Century, especially with the astute sound design and the effective, low-key score topping it all off. Levring stages a handful of exciting set-pieces during which he utilises sturdy camera angles, and there's a sense of authority which pervades the movie's entire 90-minute runtime. Admittedly, The Salvation doesn't do everything right, with a few sequences of CGI flames that look atrocious, but this is a minor quibble.

As Jon, Mikkelsen is expectedly brilliant, demonstrating yet again that he's one of the finest thespians working in film and TV today. He's intoxicating to watch, a riveting and charismatic screen presence, and he's ideal in the lead role, portraying grief with laser accuracy and refusing to overplay anything. The rest of the performances are immaculate, with Eva Green deserving a special mention for doing something outstanding without the benefit of any dialogue. Indeed, Green is mute all the way through, but her facial expressions and body language tell her story effectively. Equally impressive is Morgan, playing the most brutal villain in recent memory. Delarue has no time for dilly-dallying around; he pulls the trigger without any hesitation, and kills without any compunction. He's a sinister threat, and Morgan absolutely nails it, establishing a subtle sense of danger and menace through understated dialogue delivery.



Viewers seeking genre reinvention are sure to be disappointed, as The Salvation is not that kind of movie. Rather, it's a western which shows tremendous respect to the old spaghetti westerns and Hollywood cowboy films, recapturing the same kind of spirit, and it fulfills its duty admirably. Without any pretentions, The Salvation is an intense, lean and mightily engaging actioner, one of the manliest productions of the year.

8.6/10



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A one-of-a-kind summer treat

Posted : 1 week, 3 days ago on 15 May 2015 12:26 (A review of Mad Max: Fury Road)

"My world is reduced to a single instinct: Survive. As the world fell it was hard to know who was more crazy. Me... Or everyone else."

In the three decades since the release of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, franchise mastermind George Miller has participated in a number of questionable projects, helming the likes of Babe: Pig in the City and the two animated Happy Feet features. But 2015's long-gestating Mad Max: Fury Road suggests that the Australian filmmaker has found his mojo again, creating an insane post-apocalyptic action movie beset with the franchise's idiosyncrasies; it retains a feral and at times darkly comic edge, and this wasteland is inhabited with perverted supporting characters. Studio involvement is what ultimately led to the misfire of Beyond Thunderdome, and it would seem that everybody learnt their lesson - Fury Road is all Miller, with the crazy filmmaker using a $150 million budget to visualise a genuinely gonzo future. Blockbusters these days are so concerned with the patented Christopher Nolan approach of dour self-seriousness and faux gravitas, which makes it all the more refreshing to witness a purely fun spectacle like this. It's a large-scale, R-rated Mad Max movie, and the best action blockbuster in decades. It's a genuine gift.



With the world now reduced to a stark desert wasteland, former law enforcer Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) traverses the wilderness in search for food and water to sustain his existence. But following a chase, Max is imprisoned by maniac Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne), who rules a fortress known as the Citadel, farming water from the ground and giving precious little to the thousands of starving denizens. On a mission to collect gas for Joe, driver Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) decides to go rogue, smuggling Joe's five wives (Zoe Kravitz, Riley Keough, Abbey Lee, Rosie Huntington-Whitely, Courtney Eaton) out of hell in search of a fresh start. In hot pursuit are Joe and his War Boys, with Max brought along for blood transfusion purposes. Freeing himself after a struggle, Max uneasily forms an alliance with the women, while a War Boy named Nux (Nicholas Hoult) is also keen to help out as Immortan Joe and his marauding army rapidly close in.

Although Fury Road may be perceived by some as a reboot, that's not entirely accurate. These days, reboots feel the need to start with an origin story, in the process negating all the preceding flicks, but Miller wisely avoids this increasingly frustrating trend: Fury Road is more or less Mad Max 4, and although it arrives with a brand new cast, it can easily be considered a sequel to the Mel Gibson films since it doesn't ignore or contradict them. Rather, it simply feels like another movie set in this post-apocalyptic future, which is fitting since the previous Mad Max movies were never inherently tied to one another in the first place. The result is incredibly refreshing; a film that plays equally well for fans as well as the uninitiated. It even opens with a voiceover reminiscent of Mad Max 2 which sets the tone for what ensues.



Pacing is one of Fury Road's strongest suits, as this picture really moves. The first half-hour or so simply flies by, boasting an efficient opening segment that leads into a breathless vehicular chase that's genuinely gripping. Although the picture fundamentally amounts to one long chase, it does feature some downtime to develop the characters, even introducing a hint of pathos as Nux is shown to have retained some semblance of humanity in this crazy world. There is not a great deal of story or character development, but there is enough to ensure that the finished product isn't an incoherent special effects demo reel. Besides, when a film is this exhilarating, who honestly wants more plot? It would spoil the beautiful simplicity. Admittedly, with Furiosa doing a lot of heavy-lifting, Max does seem almost like a secondary character, but that's always been the case with the sequels - Max simply finds himself in a crises of good vs. evil, and chooses a side. What matters is that Max actually has things to do and has a bearing on the ultimate outcome of the narrative, two boxes that Fury Road ticks.

Miller recaptures the spirit of the earlier movies by relying on grittiness and practical effects, an incredible feat for a blockbuster in the 21st Century. The lunacy is executed using stuntmen and real vehicles, with tastefully-utilised digital effects reserved for removing wires and safety harnesses. In fact, beyond a brief sandstorm sequence, there appears to be no CGI at all beyond a few tiny touch-ups, which generates the type of raw thrills that we haven't seen since the '90s. One has to wonder just how Miller managed to stage and shoot some of the action beats, as they are genuinely off the hook. Miller and cinematographer John Seale sustain the chase sequences exquisitely, building and maintaining a sense of honest-to-goodness tension by refusing to show any degree of sentimentality towards the characters. Beyond Thunderdome's kiddie ensemble were 100% safe from harm, but characters here are constantly killed off. It's sensational, and the mayhem is scored to perfection by Junkie XL, whose thunderous compositions add extra oomph to this phenomenal movie. Fury Road is brutal to boot, and features a few delightfully gory killings. Miller's penchant for realistic injuries (he used to work in a hospital) again surfaces here, though the R rating is not pushed to its boundaries.



The Mad Max series has always featured gaudy production design, and thankfully this aspect is retained for Fury Road. It's a fever dream of details, with Miller obviously having a ball for his return to the Mad Max sandbox. With the biggest budget of the series so far, Miller brings his insane vision to vivid life. Vehicle designs are ridiculously awesome - there's even a car/tank hybrid that looks beautiful - while another crazy character spends his time handling a flame-thrower guitar. And then there's the character names, with awesome monikers such as Rictus Erectus, Immortan Joe, The Bullet Farmer, The People Eater, and The Doof Warrior, to name a few. Fury Road is 100% off-the-rails insane in all the right ways, turning what is essentially one long chase into a showcase of unique screen artistry alive with textures and details. You seldom see this type of innovation in modern cinema. Furthermore, although lensed digitally, Fury Road looks gorgeous, carrying a celluloid aesthetic of scorched oranges, reds and yellows, making this a colourful antithesis to the typical post-apocalyptic look of bleak, desaturated colours. Miller shot the movie in real desert locations, and the result is something that cannot be replicated by computers or sets.

A lot has been made of the ostensible feminist propaganda within Fury Road, as Miller enlisted the help of feminist Eve Ensler to create strong female characters, but such complaints are rubbish. For starters, using female warriors represents a fresh angle for the series, and Furiosa is the only strong woman here outside of a group of elderly warriors who have lost their humanity, just like the men in this harsh world. Miller does not pander to cheap "girl power" tropes, nor does he depict the females as being stronger than the men. If anything, the movie promotes gender equality; both sides suffer casualties, and no gender is given any special treatment. Besides, Ensler was reportedly used to merely enhance the characters, specifically the rape victims, helping Miller to handle sensitive issues with utmost care and attention to detail. The whole "feminist propaganda" argument is being blown way out of proportion.



Arguably, Gibson could still have reprised his iconic role of Max for this go-round, especially since the aging actor is still participating in action films, but Hardy is nonetheless a worthwhile replacement. Hardy does wisely by not mimicking Gibson - he essays his own version of Max. Although the star's British accent does occasionally slip through, for the most part he's top-notch, and more instalments featuring Hardy as Max would be most welcome. Meanwhile, Theron is the most notable newcomer, playing the female lead with real gusto. Hoult is also worth mentioning, as he's very good at playing crazy. Hugh Keays-Byrne played the villainous Toecutter in the original Mad Max back in 1979, and returns here as new villain Immortan Joe. Decked out in an elaborate costume, Keays-Byrne is superb, exuding menace and emerging as a tremendous physical threat.

Despite the extraordinarily assured finished product, the outlook for Mad Max: Fury Road was not always positive. Principal photography was carried out and completed in late 2012, with the production undergoing extensive reshoots almost a year later. Release dates were cancelled and shifted on a constant basis. The budget kept soaring, making a PG-13 rating an almost certainty. Not to mention, it was always going to be hard for anybody to replace the eminently badass Mel Gibson in the titular role. But lo and behold, Fury Road delivers and then some, representing a one-of-a-kind summer treat that will make you bemoan the lack of similar endeavours. If there's anything to complain about, it's the abrupt ending. Both Mad Max 2 and Beyond Thunderdome closed with narration to further solidify the mythological figure of Max, but such a touch is absent here, and the flick feels somewhat incomplete without it. Nevertheless, the very few missteps do not diminish the experience of this deliriously entertaining action flick, which demands to be seen on the biggest possible screen.

9.5/10



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A dismal misfire

Posted : 1 week, 4 days ago on 14 May 2015 06:52 (A review of Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome)

"I ain't Captain Walker. I'm the guy who carries Mr. Dead in his pocket."

Released four years after the superlative Mad Max 2, 1985's Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome should have been a home run which closed the Mel Gibson-starring Mad Max trilogy on a high. But alas, it simply was not to be. Although Mad Max 2 received a sizable budget boost, Beyond Thunderdome is the first entry in the series with Hollywood backing, making it a studio effort rather than the vision of an auteur like the previous features. Evidence of studio involvement is present from the outset, lingering throughout the movie and oftentimes slapping you in the face. Beyond Thunderdome loses sight of why the original films worked, swapping out R-rated ultra-violence for a freaking PG-13 rating, and adding too much gloss. PG-13 alone is an automatic fail, but the awfulness of this stinker goes much further than that.



Fifteen years after the events of the previous movie, Max Rockatansky (Gibson) is stripped of all his belongings, left to wander the desolate Australian wasteland on foot. By chance, Max happens upon a crude village dubbed "Bartertown," a place that's overseen by matriarch leader Aunty Entity (Tina Turner). As Max arrives, Entity is locked in a political dispute with Master Blaster; a being comprised of small engineer Master (Angelo Rossitto) and hulking behemoth Blaster (Paul Larsson) who refine methane gas from pig faeces. Aunty Entity offers Max a deal: she will provide him with a full compliment of supplies if he enters the Thunderdome and engages in a fight to the death with Blaster. Max breaks the deal, however, and as a consequence is cast out into the desert. On the verge of death, Max is saved by a group of kids who perceive him as their saviour who has featured in stories and hearsay for generations.

In essence, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome is an attempt at reimagining the story of Peter Pan in a post-apocalyptic setting, adding a dash of Lord of the Flies for good measure. Although it may seem like an interesting idea in theory, execution is slipshod. There are two stories jammed into this one picture, but they are so awkwardly merged that the sudden change in narrative focus may cause whiplash. Beyond Thunderdome should have been all about Bartertown, with Max determined to overthrow Aunty Entity without enlisting the help a bunch of whiny infants. The movie's initial gladiatorial and political underpinnings show promise, as such ideas provide a new area for this post-apocalyptic series to explore, but the movie does fuck all with them.



Chief among the sins of Beyond Thunderdome is that it betrays its predecessors, both of which were hardcore "Ozploitation" flicks that were screened at seedy grindhouse cinemas. This third film, on the other hand, is a PG-13 sell-out of a once-brilliant franchise, retaining the proclivity for colourful production design but toning down the violence and adding a bunch of children, taking the edge off the material. Beyond Thunderdome starts out well enough, but the kids are a deal-breaker, with the Lord of the Flies stuff feeling totally out of place in a Mad Max film. It's humiliating to see the rugged titular antihero as a nanny. If there really had to be children in this tale, they should have all been mute and feral, reminiscent of the Feral Kid from Mad Max 2. Furthermore, the movie features a handful of Tina Turner songs, the most obvious instance of studio tampering. Turner is not a bad singer, but her musical stylings in no way fit the post-apocalyptic landscape of this universe. It doesn't work. Beyond Thunderdome is Mad Max in name only, an outrage on the same pitiful level as RoboCop 3 and Die Hard 4.0.

It would not be fair to blame Miller for the awfulness of Beyond Thunderdome. Following the death of his long-time collaborator Byron Kennedy, Miller began to lose interest in the project, and although he had a hand in the screenplay, he only directed the action sequences. Indeed, the blame for Beyond Thunderdome belongs elsewhere. In all likelihood, co-director George Ogilvie (who went on to direct... absolutely nothing) is the one who fucked it up, though this being a studio film probably didn't help matters. Focus is one of the main things that this sequel lacks - it's longer than its predecessors by about ten minutes, yet it feels twice as long. It meanders all over the place, wandering from one incident to the next before trying to tie everything together with a climactic chase that feels like a case of "been there, done that" after Mad Max 2. And it's nowhere near as thrilling or heart-stopping - in fact, it ultimately grows monotonous. Added to this, composer Brian May was replaced with Maurice Jarre, and the resultant score is just not the same. It's not Mad Max. Especially when the kids are introduced, the music becomes too saccharine, and the soundtrack can never reach the pulse-pounding heights of May's superb work on Mad Max 2. It's closer to The Goonies, for fuck's sake.



The one constant which remains top-notch in Beyond Thunderdome is Gibson as the titular Max. He has the character down to a tee, with minimalist dialogue and his rugged demeanour making him an eminently interesting antihero. It's awkward to watch Max softening up whilst in the company of the children, but Gibson does what he can with the material. It's not his fault. Also starring in the movie is Turner herself... Let's just say it's understandable that she has only had a starring role in one other major motion picture since this movie. None of the other thespians are worth talking about, especially not the irritating kids who ruin the film.

To the credit of Miller, Beyond Thunderdome does feature a few entertaining action beats, and there are scenes and ideas which shine from time to time, but on the whole, this third Mad Max instalment is a dismal misfire. Worse, its narrative eventually comes to an abrupt conclusion that will leave you feeling empty and unsatisfied. It would be interesting to see what the movie could've been with Miller being the sole driver of the ship, and without all of the annoying little brats. Even though the movie was surprisingly well-received back in 1985, it has not dated well at all.

4.2/10



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Seminal '80s post-apocalyptic actioner

Posted : 1 week, 4 days ago on 14 May 2015 06:44 (A review of The Road Warrior)

"The warrior Max... In the roar of an engine, he lost everything... and became a shell of a man... a burnt-out, desolate man, a man haunted by the demons of his past, a man who wandered out into the wasteland. And it was here, in this blighted place, that he learned to live again."

It is indeed rare to behold a sequel which surpasses its predecessor, but Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior is a textbook illustration of such a case. Furthermore, this follow-up to the low-budget 1979 Australian grindhouse gem stands as a phenomenal achievement as a standalone motion picture, a gonzo post-apocalyptic action-adventure that remains one of this reviewer's personal all-time favourites. With a bigger budget, Mad Max 2 takes full advantage of its premise, yielding an organic continuation of the original movie as well as an amazing Ozploitation actioner on its own merits. The scope is bigger, the production values are sublime, the filmmaking is more proficient, and plenty of vehicles are wrecked - Mad Max 2 stays true to its B-movie roots whilst adding a bit of polish, and the result is pure dynamite.



Several years have elapsed since Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) lost his wife and child, and in the interim, civilisation has deteriorated completely. World War III broke out, and its effects on society were irreversible. No cities remain, law enforcement services have vanished, and petrol has become the world's most valuable commodity. Danger and uncertainty have become part of Max's daily routine, with every day a struggle to find sufficient food and fuel to survive just a little bit longer. Traversing the desolate landscape in his V8 Interceptor, Max happens upon a fortified oil refinery with plenty of precious "juice," but a gang of vicious murderers are determined to get their hands on it, threatening to kill everyone if their demands are not met. The colony wishes to take their gas and leave, thus Max strikes a deal with them: he will secure a big rig truck to haul the fuel in exchange for as much petrol as he can carry. However, the marauders - who have set up a camp nearby - are not willing to let anyone escape.

One does not need to have watched the original movie in order to "get" this sequel. Mad Max 2 actually begins with a skilful black-and-white montage of images set to voiceover narration that outlines the events leading up the collapse of society, and effectively re-introduces us to Max by recapping the first film. What's particularly notable about Mad Max 2 is its concise storytelling and breakneck pace, both of which are achieved without neglecting crucial character or story development. It's a model of efficiency, and it's so fast-paced and deliriously enjoyable that its ninety-minute duration simply flies by. It's over before you realise it, and you're left begging for more, a sign that this is one fucking badass movie.



The real star of Mad Max 2 is, of course, the stunt work. Returning director George Miller uses all the extra funds at his disposal (the budget was over $2 million whereas the first movie was produced for barely $200,000) to create a joyously crazy action picture peppered with multiple car chases. There is not a single bit of CGI to be seen here; Mad Max 2 is the result of stuntmen putting their lives on the line for a sake of a shot. It's hard to believe that nobody involved in the production wasn't severely maimed or killed, given how bonkers many of the stunts look to be. (Only one stuntman was injured.) Naturally, it's the twenty-minute climactic chase which closes the picture that really shines, with at least twenty-five vehicles barrelling down a desert highway at insane speeds. Although it's a lengthy sequence, Miller and cinematographer Dean Semlar sustain the chase, continually upping the ante and maintaining an edge-of-your-seat level of tension. There are a few shots which were obviously sped up, but such moments are all part of the feature's goofy charm. It's all topped off by a pounding soundtrack courtesy of Brian May, who also scored the 1979 movie.

Luckily, production design remains as colourful as ever, with imaginative vehicles and awesomely inventive costumes. Max's V8 Interceptor is one of the most iconic vehicles in cinema history, and its inclusion here is most welcome. The Interceptor which was used for the first film was actually salvaged and re-used here, a small detail that's nevertheless appreciated. Mad Max 2 continues the strong western theme of this series, finding Max as the archetypical, morally ambiguous antihero in the same vein as Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name. Max is even more of an antihero here than ever before, as he is no longer bound by his duty as a police officer. Unsurprisingly, Gibson nails the role yet again, relying more on stern facial expressions and restrained dialogue delivery. The cast is jam-packed full of colourful faces, from Bruce Spence as Max's new ally, to Vernon Wells (Bennett from Commando!) as one of the campy bad guys.



The original Mad Max was a niche release in the United States, hence this sequel was renamed The Road Warrior by its North American distributor to avoid any confusion. Miller has actually said that he has always considered Mad Max 2 as a chance to re-do Mad Max properly, with the benefit of a bigger budget and more directorial experience. The first film remains a classic, but Mad Max 2 is definitely superior, an infinitely enjoyable guy flick that's literally never boring. This may be an action movie built on a thin premise, but movies of this ilk are all about the execution, and they do not come much more thrilling or exhilarating than this.

10/10



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It's aca-awesome

Posted : 2 weeks, 3 days ago on 8 May 2015 03:24 (A review of Pitch Perfect 2)

"What an inspiration to girls all over the country who are too ugly to be cheerleaders!"

Back in 2012, Pitch Perfect defied all rational expectations, turning a can't-win proposition of a Glee-inspired college comedy-cum-musical into pure gold. Fortunately, 2015's Pitch Perfect 2 pulls off a comparable miracle, overcoming the law of diminishing returns for a riotously funny follow-up that stands as a wonderful companion piece to its sleeper hit of a predecessor. Once again penned by Kay Cannon, though this time directed by Elizabeth Banks, Pitch Perfect 2 has a firm grasp on what worked for the original movie: quirky characters spouting witty dialogue, intercut with catchy, well-rehearsed a cappella musical performances. This is actually the funniest movie of 2015 so far, serving up several belly-laughs in the first five minutes alone. From the very beginning, it's clear Pitch Perfect 2 is a winner.



Following a performance in front of President Obama that goes haywire, the Barden Bellas are in disgrace, banned from domestic a cappella competitions. However, the girls are given a shot at redemption; they will be reinstated if they can win the World Championships in Copenhagen, a feat that has never been pulled off by an American team in history. In order to win, the Bellas face stiff competition in the form of Das Sound Machine, a leather-clad, supremely confident German a cappella troupe with a refined sound. As the Bellas work to improve themselves, Beca (Anna Kendrick) begins to pursue other interests, scoring an internship at a local record company that could help her fulfil her dream of being a music producer.

Pitch Perfect 2 takes the series to its next logical step, finding Beca and other girls approaching graduation while long-time Bella member Chloe (Brittany Snow) admits that she has purposely failed her exams multiple times to stay at the University and remain in the group. Beca's personal life is also probed further, as she maintains a relationship with Jesse (Skylar Astin) and feels out her record company internship. To be sure, the storytelling is all standard-order stuff, with a predictable narrative outcome from the outset, but it all works - it's so much fun that you barely notice the clichéd broad strokes, much less be bothered by them. Besides, there is some genuine pathos here, not to mention a strong sense of sisterhood that's achieved not through obvious "girl power" tropes but rather from developing distinct characters who feel like real friends. In fact, barely any time is spent observing the rehearsal process - Pitch Perfect 2 is mostly comprised of vignettes that develop the characters and provide a tonne of belly-laughs. Admittedly, the flick is a bit long in the tooth, running at a rather gargantuan 115 minutes, but this isn't a major issue.



Zippy and slick, Pitch Perfect 2 is actually funnier than the first movie, which might be attributable to having a woman at the helm. For a first-time director, Banks (who produced and had a supporting role in the 2012 film) is astonishingly assured, showing an amazing grasp of comic timing and pacing. Whereas a lot of American comedies like The Heat are notoriously undisciplined and full of overdone improvisation, Pitch Perfect 2 keeps the actors on a tight leash. This is a long movie, yeah, but only because there's a lot of story material to work through, not because performers spend five minutes on one joke. As for the soundtrack, Pitch Perfect 2 does a great job of upholding its predecessor's reputation - covers of songs like Miley Cyrus' "Wrecking Ball" are hugely enjoyable, while the finale features an original track entitled "Flashlight" that's guaranteed to rack up millions of hits on YouTube. One of the big highlights is a five-way a cappella showdown that manages to be both catchy and riotously funny, while the climax is a genuine show-stopper, topping the previous movie with seemingly little effort.

A lot of laughs are provided by the extremely non-PC John Michael Higgins and director Banks herself as a pair of broadcasters who deliver wry commentary on the a cappella performances. And, of course, Australian comedy heavyweight Rebel Wilson is enormously funny as Fat Amy - she delivers at least a dozen one-liners that are destined to be quoted non-stop by fans. Luckily, Wilson is not overused; Banks clearly realises that she's much funnier when utilised sporadically, as opposed to featuring in every scene. Meanwhile, Kendrick remains eminently disarming and occasionally funny, making for a strong dramatic anchor. The newcomers shine as well, with young Oscar nominee Hailee Steinfeld making a positive impression as a new addition to the Bellas. Comedy dynamite is also added in the form of Chrissie Fit as a beleaguered Mexican student who constantly reminds her Bella sisters of the (hilariously) hard life she's had. Further laughs, meanwhile, are provided by Keegan-Michael Key as Beca's new boss. And as the big-hitters in Das Sound Machine, Birgitte Hjort Sørensen and Flula Borg happily embrace the caricatures that they are.



Comedy is subjective, but I laughed my ass off during Pitch Perfect 2, with tears streaming from my eyes, which is a big deal. It's a hilarious, enjoyable, skilfully-assembled joke-delivery system, beset with playful songs and plenty of goofy non-sequiturs and good-spirited gags. And it's aca-awesome.

8.2/10



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Endures as an Ozploitation classic

Posted : 3 weeks, 1 day ago on 3 May 2015 02:36 (A review of Mad Max)

"They say people don't believe in heroes anymore. Well, damn them! You and me, Max, we're gonna give 'em back their heroes!"

Assembled and released at the height of the "Ozploitation" craze of the '70s and '80s, Mad Max was a genuine diamond in the rough, a low-budget dark horse of a movie which developed into a box office smash. Here is a vehemently manly, violent post-apocalyptic action movie notable for the sheer creativity of its construction. The brainchild of George Miller and Byron Kennedy, Mad Max's future world is not full of lavish technology like Blade Runner, instead presenting a bleak, horrifyingly plausible vision of a post-apocalyptic world where the law and order is fading amid pure chaos. It's a movie of eccentric characters, imaginative camerawork, insane action scenes and unique production design, yet it also feels like there's nary a wasted moment - every scene and moment builds to a cohesive whole.



The titular Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is a highway patrolman in the future. Although law enforcement still exists in some capacity, civilisation has essentially deteriorated, giving rise to vicious gangs who run rampant, killing and murdering on a whim. After a high-speed car chase ends with the death of a gang member known as Nightrider (Vincent Neil), his comrades take it upon themselves to track down Max and his buddies in the Main Force Patrol (MFP). Led by a thug who calls himself the Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne), the gang eventually set their sights on Max's family, wife Jessie (Joanne Samuel) and infant son Sprog (Brendan Heath), which ignites a vendetta of vengeance for the MFP officer.

For what is essentially an exploitative action flick, Mad Max is not all about car chases, instead spending a fair amount of time with Max and his family to give the antihero a sympathetic edge before he goes, well, mad. Miller, who co-wrote and directed the picture, develops a tender relationship between Max and Jessie, which gives a spark of genuine intensity to the final third when Max looks to exact revenge on the Toecutter's gang. Miller also imbues the feature with a streak of laconic, dark humour to offset how disturbing this future truly is. Additionally, the often unusual character names (Sprog, Goose, etc.) and the quirky costumes add further texture to this highly peculiar world.



An Australian native, Miller is and always has been a complete lunatic of a moviemaker in the best possible way, consistently pushing the boundaries of what's possible on a budget through dangerous camera gymnastics and insane, high-risk stunts. Without much financing, Miller and director of photography David Eggsby get major plaudits for the sheer ingenuity of the picture - Miller himself even rode on the back of a motorcycle for one shot, and cameras were attached to cars in the most budget-friendly fashion possible. The result is pure dynamite, a feature with an understandably limited scope that still has the power to generate a rare kind of thrill all these years on. In an age of glossy, high-budget blockbusters, Mad Max is exhilarating because everything had to be achieved practically - the thrilling car mayhem was executed by real stuntman putting their lives on the line, not CGI.

As the film was created without major studio backing, post-production for Mad Max took place in a small lounge room, with Miller and his collaborators employing a DIY editing machine. It's a genuinely impressive feat, rendered all the better by the truly superb editing - the dramatic scenes may not be the greatest, but the action sequences are fast and furious. Mad Max was a controversial movie upon release, banned in some territories and heavily cut in others. Yet, in comparison to more recent productions, there is not a great deal of graphic violence here. This is a testament to Miller's skill as a cinematic craftsman; he generates a sense of disturbing brutality through creative editing, aided by the overly melodramatic but nevertheless effective score by Brian May.



Mad Max is notable for introducing the world to a then-unknown actor named Mel Gibson. He looks extremely young here, with a smooth face and bright eyes - he was a mere 21 years of age during principal photography. While Gibson's performance is not as robust here as his work on future projects like Lethal Weapon or Braveheart, he's still a charismatic, masculine presence, and there are emotional underpinnings to his work that makes the story somewhat affecting. Max is the very definition of an antihero, as he needs to jettison every vestige of his humanity and become just as cold and depraved as the Toecutter's gang to bring down the monsters. And speaking of the Toecutter, he's a very colourful villain, played perfectly by Keays-Byrne (who will also be playing the baddie role in 2015's Mad Max: Fury Road). The whole ensemble of bad guys steal the show, from Gill's manic Nightrider to Tim Burns' dim-witted Johnny the Boy. The performance are menacing and animalistic yet also amusing, a rare achievement indeed. Mad Max was notoriously dubbed for the American market, as the distributors were concerned about the Australian accents. Of course, the result of such preposterous efforts remains more of a historical curiosity; the best way to experience this Aussie gem is with its original soundtrack.

Years on, Mad Max endures as an Ozploitation classic elevated by insane car chases and stunts, yet the build-up never quite pays off properly. The climax is badass, to be sure, but you can be forgiven for wanting more. Ultimately, the movie feels like a set up for the superior sequel, Mad Max 2 a.k.a. The Road Warrior, though this doesn't diminish this first instalment's merits.

7.9/10



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Solid enough continuation of the MCU

Posted : 1 month 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).

6.9/10



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Wholesome, entertaining, action-packed B-movie

Posted : 1 month 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.

7.2/10



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