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Cacophony of dumb

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 19 March 2014 10:28 (A review of Non-Stop)

"I'm not hijacking this plane. I'm trying to save it!"

On paper, 2014's Non-Stop sounds exceedingly promising, especially with the combined talents of star Liam Neeson and director Jaume Collet-Serra, who previously collaborated on Unknown back in 2011. But in execution, the finished product is merely adequate, with slipshod scripting and an overwhelming amount of stupidity squandering the crackerjack premise. Instead of a taut mystery, Non-Stop is a meandering thriller which forgoes sophistication in favour of dumb action moments. If you're looking for a good plane movie, try the much more entertaining Air Force One or the suspenseful Wes Craven chiller Red Eye. Hell, even Flightplan and Snakes on a Plane have more worth.

A raging alcoholic, Bill Marks (Neeson) is a federal air marshal who boards a plane to London to fulfil his duties. Meeting kindly stranger Jen (Julianne Moore) on-board the flight, it's business as usual for Bill, but he soon becomes bombarded with text messages from an unknown source, who threatens to kill somebody every twenty minutes until $150 million is wired to an account of their choosing. Although Bill suspects a hoax, he soon realises that the threat is very real. Not sure who to trust, he enlists the help of Jen and kindly flight attendant Nancy (Michelle Dockery) to assist in locating the culprit without attracting attention from the rest of the passengers. However, as time goes by, Bill learns that he's being framed, with the passengers perceiving him as a hijacker. Out to stop a potential disaster, Bill is pitted against not only those responsible for his framing, but also the passengers and crew of the flight who utterly refuse to trust him.

Collet-Serra gets plenty of mileage out of the pressure-cooker environment of the plane, taking full advantage of the claustrophobic atmosphere. Plane thrillers are often effective, as the ensemble are stuck high in the air with no escape, limited resources and restricted space. The script (credited to three writers) is also effective in the way that it makes Bill fallible, delving into his flaws as a human being whilst also portraying him as a stand-up guy who helps a little girl deal with her fear of flying. Unfortunately, Non-Stop's ensemble is pure cliché; on top of the aforementioned little girl who's flying alone for the first time, there's an elderly couple, an NYPD officer, a few black people, and even a Muslim for some racial tension. It's all very predictable. Worse, the passengers are led to firmly believe that Bill has hijacked the plane, but he manages to bring them all to his side with a cringe-worthy speech admitting his shortcomings. Suddenly, they believe Bill is a good guy, follow his every command and apologise for being douchebags. Seriously?

Non-Stop keeps us in the dark for the majority of its running time, unspooling methodically as we are left to guess who the culprit is. However, pacing is not a strong suit for Collet-Serra. There is a great deal of tension at times, but at other moments the movie is utterly monotonous, in need of more snap and momentum. And without divulging too many spoilers, it must be said that the script is a cacophony of dumb. For the nefarious plot to play out as planned would require absolutely spot-on forethought regarding the psychology of a few hundred people, while it also depends on sheer dumb luck to succeed. There are many loose ends as well, including unexplained villainous insight into the secrets of Bill and others. Plus, those framing him could have easily disposed of Bill and revealed themselves much earlier in the game. I mean, after the media portrays Marks as a terrorist to the world, why the hell do they need him anymore? The answer, of course, is that the script simply demands it in order to pave the way for the big climax.

Rather than relying on sophistication for the finale, Non-Stop dabbles in over-the-top James Bond theatrics, forcing an action climax that's simply unnecessary, revealing the film to be the bone-headed mainstream thriller that it is. There's no class, bite or plausibility to the ending - Collet-Serra goes for cheap matinee thrills, leaving a bitter aftertaste. Added to this, the motivation behind this villainous plot is heavy-handed and preachy, attempting a mature message but coming off as forced instead.

To the credit of Collet-Serra, Non-Stop is fairly accomplished from a technical standpoint. As dumb as the action beats are, the choreography is solid, especially considering the tight spaces in which the hand-to-hand combat occurs. Neeson can still kick ass with the best of them, and the fights here are brutal and sharp. Neeson also remains an agreeable protagonist, continuing his quest to become one of the most unlikely action heroes of recent years. He's a reliable, muscular performer, and he commands attention with his authoritative line delivery. Neeson is easily Non-Stop's biggest asset, and it's hard to imagine any other actor nailing the balance between Everyman and badass so perfectly. The supporting cast fares adequately, with Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery both delivering amiable performances, while Linus Roache is effective as the plane's captain. The rest of the ensemble are suspicious enough to make them suspects, yet have a few redeeming qualities to make you second-guess.

In the hands of a more sophisticated filmmaking team, Non-Stop might have attained greatness, but instead it's a nasty mainstream distraction which will be all but forgotten by year's end. It's riddled with Swiss cheese-like holes and has absolutely no sense of plausibility, though it does admittedly deliver some nice mystery elements and a few agreeably adrenaline-charged action beats. There's no getting over the myriad of flaws, but at least it's marginally better than Taken 2.


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Powerful Aussie apocalypse flick

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 18 March 2014 12:16 (A review of These Final Hours)

"It's happened. Approximate location of impact: the North Atlantic. As I speak to you right now, it's making its way towards our fair nation."

The horror genre has practically become synonymous with paranormal overtones, with 2013 alone begetting titles like The Conjuring and Evil Dead which involve chilling supernatural occurrences to generate scares. But 2014's These Final Hours is a different type of genre movie. It's definitely a horror flick, but its scares are not derived from ghosts or demons, but rather from its depiction of the ugly side of human nature in the face of a societal collapse. It's an apocalypse film on a dime, eschewing images of large-scale global destruction to present a focused depiction of suburban meltdown on the eve of the world's end. These Final Hours works because it's not about the apocalypse per se - rather, it's a tale about people dealing with the knowledge of the impending disaster. The result is powerful and not easily forgotten, and may compel you to mull over what you would do on Earth's final day.

Set at an unspecified time presumably not far into the future, the end of the world has arrived, with the planet being gradually "peeled like an orange" following a devastating meteorite strike. The film is set in Western Australia, where mere hours remain until the end is upon them. Society has crumbled, giving rise to anarchy on the streets, with suicides, looting and murder everywhere in sight. Leaving his mistress to attend a party, James (Nathan Phillips) encounters utter chaos everywhere he goes, and happens upon a group of thugs who've kidnapped innocuous young girl Rose (Angourie Rice). In a stroke of guilt, James rescues Rose, and seeks to return the frightened child to her family. It's not an easy task, however, and James finds himself conflicted about how to spend his final hours of life.

By eschewing a stereotypical Roland Emmerich approach, These Final Hours isn't a spectacle but rather a gripping, wholly plausible portrait of the end of the world, reflecting what is more likely to occur in the event of an apocalypse. Writer-director Zak Hilditch ladles on the horrific elements, observing the effects of looting and pillaging in a world without order, and even finding armed criminals relishing the opportunity to lay down their own laws. Suicides are rampant as well, with Hilditch staging scenes that may give people nightmares. These Final Hours is not for the faint of heart, with heavy thematic undercurrents and disturbing imagery, but it's also surprisingly touching as well. Hilditch filters the story through the point of view of James and Rose, grounding the story in humanity as we tour the apocalyptic atrocities. James initially wants to spend his final hours drinking and partying, but comes to appreciate what means the most to him in life, and such a character arc is incredibly affecting. These Final Hours does not introduce any false hope - this is not a story about trying to prevent the apocalypse, but rather an intimate story of redemption in times of chaos. It's a clichéd notion, sure, but it doesn't diminish the movie's impact.

Not all of These Final Hours is entirely successful, though; an early vignette spotlighting a crazed maniac with a machete may provoke unintentional laughter, as it's played a bit too broadly. Plus, once the finish line is in sight, Hilditch introduces an additional complication that feels utterly forced, and not all of the dialogue works. (As destructive forces descends upon the Western Australia coast, one character exclaims "It's beautiful!") Nevertheless, These Final Hours is often compelling thanks to the technical sleight of hand. By limiting the story's sense of scope, Hilditch never lets the picture out of his control, crafting smaller scenes of murderous turmoil and rampant immorality with incredible flair. There is much to admire about Hilditch's construction of the picture, compensating for lack of budget with sheer inventiveness. These Final Hours carries an orange hue in its visuals to convey the intense heat and the encroaching wall of fire, and the sound design is both effective and atmospheric. The movie doesn't feel cheap at all.

To Australian audiences, Nathan Phillips is perhaps best known for his turn in Wolf Creek back in 2005, though he has since appeared in movies like Snakes on a Plane and Balibo. His performance here is incredibly robust, communicating a wide swatch of emotions with seemingly little effort. Phillips sells his character's conflicted nature throughout, not to mention his fear, and it's to his credit that he's so likeable and sympathetic as well. But even better is young Angourie Rice, who's a revelation as Rose. She retains her childhood innocence, yet she's also a nuanced actor, submitting a performance beyond her years.

Do not watch These Final Hours expecting a pleasant viewing experience, as it's uncompromising in its brutal violence and ugly behaviour. There's not a lot of replay value as a consequence, and the experience is a bit rough around the edges, but it still deserves to be seen. Recalling the likes of The Road and 28 Days Later... with a hint of Mad Max, it's one of the most riveting Aussie movies in years, showing that a sizeable budget is not always necessary to tell a powerful story or create sheer, visceral terror.


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Essential, though not 2013's best

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 17 March 2014 02:31 (A review of 12 Years a Slave)

"I don't want to survive. I want to live."

12 Years a Slave carries the Oscar-friendly "based on a true story" label, as it tells the devastating real tale of Solomon Northup, a free African American who was kidnapped and sold into slavery during the 19th Century. Later penning a memoir following the tragedy, Northup's dreadful ordeal has only been previously dramatised in a forgotten 1980s telemovie, but now it has been immortalised by filmmaker Steve McQueen (no, not that Steve McQueen). The resultant motion picture is unsettling, harrowing and heartbreaking, yet 12 Years a Slave is also a gratifying sit, beset with powerful imagery and artful moviemaking, devoid of the eye-rolling sentimentality of Lee Daniels' The Butler. While not the greatest motion picture of 2013, it is most certainly an essential document of one of the most tragic periods of American history.

In 1841, Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is living peacefully with his wife and two children. A free coloured man, Northup is educated and respected, but he is unceremoniously abducted after a night of heavy drinking, waking up one morning in shackles. Against his will, Northup is renamed Platt and shipped to Louisiana to work on a plantation owned by Master Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch). Thus begins a twelve-year odyssey for Northup, who is utterly broken by the demoralising slavery system. Eventually winding up on a cotton farm run by the brutal, slave-breaking Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender), Northup also meets young slave girl Patsey (Lupita Nyong'o) as his hope gradually dwindles that he will ever win back his freedom or see his family again.

McQueen reportedly wanted to pen an original motion picture about a free black man who's forced into slavery, but could not quite crack it. Until, that is, his wife introduced him to Northup's 1853 memoir, paving the way for 12 Years a Slave. (There are clashes over who was responsible for the screenplay, but it seems that both McQueen and the credited John Ridley both contributed.) One of the script's biggest successes is the poetic dialogue - rather than modern-sounding chatter, the dialogue throughout 12 Years a Slave feels organic to the era, while also being engaging and naturalistic to boot, and that's no small achievement. Additionally, McQueen ensures that we grow to care about Northup in the movie's opening stages, and we are left to ponder how we would react if we found ourselves in similar circumstances. There are some superb thematic undercurrents at play here as well, as McQueen delves into the ethics of Northup's odyssey to great effect. However, a few of the slave drivers are borderline cartoons, particularly Paul Dano's character. In fact, Dano is introduced singing an offensive song over a montage of slave labour. Some may say such wickedness is accurate to the period, but there isn't much depth to these roles, with the film seemingly intent on demonising those "evil white folk" who took advantage of the slave trade.

As demonstrated in motion pictures like Hunger, McQueen has a flair for creating visual and aural masterpieces, with every frame evidently subject to a great deal of deliberation. His filmmaking spell is amazing throughout 12 Years a Slave, convincingly recreating America's South in the 19th Century on a modest $20 million budget. One can literally feel the sweltering heat of Louisiana, with the astonishing sound design that's incredibly layered yet also understated and realistic. The film's set design is equally breathtaking, with a textured sense of authenticity that feels unforced, bestowing a sense of vividness to Solomon's ordeal. 12 Years a Slave was also shot on 35mm film stock (a rarity these days), giving the visuals a gorgeous texture and a real sense of scope. The colour palette is rich and vibrant, with McQueen refusing to lean on the cheap desaturation gimmick that's become too widespread. However, McQueen holds onto some moments and shots for a bit too long. McQueen would have been wise to trim a few of the more uneventful shots, and he occasionally lingers on the torture too much when a more minimal approach might have amplified the film's power.

The Oscar-nominated Chiwetel Ejiofor is nothing short of mesmerising as Northup, who tries his hardest to maintain self-worth in the face of appalling oppression, yet must come across that he is not. It's sold so well by Ejiofor, an actor who's bounced around the sidelines of movies for years without making much of an impression, but who shows here that we've been underestimating his worth. Comparisons to Sidney Poitier are not unearned; Ejiofor's performance is one of dignity and honest-to-goodness gravitas, creating such a fully-rounded character that not a single moment feels in any way contrived. Meanwhile, Lupita Nyong'o won an Oscar for her supporting role as Patsey, and for good reason.

12 Years a Slave also features a cavalcade of recognisable performers in minor roles. The always-reliable Paul Giamatti plays a ruthless slave peddler, while Cumberbatch is rock-solid as a plantation owner. McQueen favourite Fassbender appears as well, and he's absolutely terrifying as the callous slave driver. And finally, Brad Pitt gets a minor cameo role as a Canadian carpenter who's disillusioned by the American slavery system. Unfortunately, Pitt's inclusion feels hoary; he acquits himself well, but it's hard to shake off the feeling that we're looking at Pitt. A lesser-known performer might have made a bigger impact.

It's easy to see why the Academy awarded 12 Years a Slave with the coveted Best Picture Oscar, as it's a grim, powerful historical tale about racial issues that will probably be used in high school history classes in the future. But is it the best movie of 2013? In my humble opinion, it is not. It's a compelling experience, to be sure, but lacking in replay value, and it's something you appreciate more than you actually enjoy. It's not a motion picture that you will want to watch again too often. Nevertheless, it is a worthwhile history lesson, and the sense of time and place is astonishing. McQueen's technical accomplishments alone make 12 Years a Slave worth watching, even if the experience is flawed.


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It does its job well enough

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 13 March 2014 07:37 (A review of The Jungle)

"The tracker believes there's a forest demon, a sorcerer, up in the mountains."

The third feature-length endeavour for Australian writer-director Andrew Traucki, The Jungle caps off the filmmaker's self-proclaimed "Traucki Trilogy of Terror," following Black Water and The Reef. Whereas his prior motion pictures were water-based creature features, The Jungle is a different beast entirely, with Traucki mounting a "found footage" production set entirely on land. It's a tricky subgenre to handle, with the novelty having worn off long ago thanks to sheer overpopulation. Fortunately, Traucki was up to the task, utilising an effective "less is more" approach to create a spine-tingling exercise in terror.

A big cat conservationist, Larry Black (Rupert Reid) spearheads an expedition to Indonesia where he hopes to find evidence of the rare and endangered Javan Leopard. Tagging along is Rupert's brother Ben, taking with him an array of filming equipment in order to thoroughly document the potentially groundbreaking mission. Travelling overseas, Larry meets locals Budi (Agoes Widjaya Soedjarwo) and Adi (Igusti Budianthika), heading into the wilderness despite warnings that an evil spirit may be looming in the jungle. As the days pass, the team begin to encounter frightening things, and it gradually becomes clear that there may be more than just leopards stomping around.

The Jungle benefits from impressive craftsmanship. Found footage productions are oftentimes too unrealistically shaky, but the photography is crisp and smooth here while still possessing the sense of rawness that's required to help us believe that this is genuine found footage. The Jungle was lensed in New South Wales, Australia, with Byron Bay standing in for the dense forests of Indonesia. To enhance the sense of place, Traucki flew to Indonesia to shoot second unit footage which is intercut with images of the actors. The illusion is seamless, and it genuinely feels as if we're stuck in the Indonesian wilderness with the protagonists. And when the shit hits the fan, it's the bone-chilling sense of isolation which keeps us interested. The sound design warrants a mention, as well. Due to the found footage angle, there is no music at all, hence a skikful sound mix was necessary to maintain interest. Fortunately, it works. The atmosphere is spot-on, and the roars which emerge from the darkness will give you goosebumps.

Traucki manages to avoid many of the usual found footage pitfalls, most notably in relation to the characters. Even the protagonists in The Blair Witch Project are idiotic and hard to latch onto, but The Jungle features a strong selection of characters played by some terrific actors. Reid is a charismatic presence, and his performance as Larry is suitably naturalistic. Larry seems to act like a real human being - when things get intense, we can understand Larry not wanting to turn back, as they've spent so much time on the expedition, and leaving the wilderness will effectively render the whole exercise pointless. If there's a fault with The Jungle, it's that the characters at times seem to be a little too aware of their surroundings in the pitch black darkness. The cameraman can see due to the night vision, but other characters seem to navigate too freely at times. On top of this, Larry's wife begins getting overly emotional in an early interview, explaining that Larry is away too long for too often. The notion is a little too clichéd, and the emotion feels too sudden and out of place.

It's clear at this point that Traucki is a talent to keep your eye on, as he has come a long way since his feature-length debut in 2007. Although it's difficult to rank his films from best to worst as they all have their respective pros and cons, The Jungle is the director's most technically accomplished effort, blessed with slick production values easily as impressive as any multi-million dollar picture. It doesn't reinvent the subgenre by any stretch, but it does its job well enough, and the finale closes the door with a very well-staged shit-your-pants moment.


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Pure, unpretentious big-screen entertainment

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 12 March 2014 05:38 (A review of The Phantom)

"Join the club. Many of us have killed him over the years. But he keeps coming back."

1996's The Phantom is another comic book adaptation which has never quite gotten a fair shake. It was produced for a rather extravagant $45 million, yet opened to poor reviews and apocalyptic box office, killing Paramount's plans for a franchise. Although the flick has performed respectably on the home video market and has amassed something of a cult following, it nevertheless deserves more attention and respect. The Phantom is pure, unpretentious matinee fun, retaining the spirit of its source to produce an old-fashioned, Indiana Jones-esque action-adventure suitable for kids and adults alike. It's not high art, but its light-hearted disposition makes it a perfectly enjoyable B-movie extravaganza. The Phantom is actually part of a trifecta of '30s-set comic book adventure movies from the 1990s which flopped, following The Rocketeer and The Shadow. They make for a smart triple feature.

For centuries, the titular Phantom has haunted the Bengalla woods, and is known to the natives as "the ghost who walks" since he never seems to die. However, he is not immortal; a new Phantom steps in to take up the mantle when their predecessor is too old or too dead to carry on. Kit Walker (Billy Zane) is the latest incarnation of the Phantom, inheriting the responsibilities from his late father. In New York, shady businessman Xander Drax (Treat Williams) is determined to obtain the fabled Skulls of Touganda, a trio of ancient artefacts that, when brought together, will give great power to those that possess them. Upon learning of Drax's intentions, Kit springs into action, and in his travels meets beautiful former flame Diana Palmer (Kristy Swanson). Kit also realises that Drax is working with the evil Sengh brotherhood, an age-old enemy of the Phantom who were responsible for the murder of Kit's father.

As with Tim Burton's Batman, The Phantom eschews an in-depth origins tale, instead only briskly revealing the hero's genesis before finding Kit firmly set in his ways. The screenplay by Jeffrey Boam (who also wrote Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade) instead drip-feeds anecdotes about the history of The Phantom, which is all that's necessary in the grand scheme of things. Reportedly, the film was initially intended to be a parody of the popular The Phantom comic strip, but this idea was abandoned with the departure of original director Joe Dante. When new director Simon Wincer came on-board, he decided to retain Boam's original script, but play it straight, and it's this approach which gives the movie its charm. See, whereas the whole enterprise is humorous and goofy, Wincer creates a grounded old-fashioned adventure with cool stunts and action scenes. Thus, The Phantom never takes itself too seriously, but it also never devolves into some moronic mockery of the source. It's a silly but sincere endeavour, and it works.

Roger Ebert described The Phantom as one of the best-looking movies he has ever seen, and this is indeed a valid observation, as the picture is visually fantastic. In an age of heavy digital tampering, it's refreshing to see a flick like this which looks real rather than hyper-real, and carries a gorgeous cinematic texture that is rarely seen anymore. Relying on stunt-work and big sets, The Phantom is a wonderful relic of yesteryear, and its special effects still stand up today (some rocky green screen work notwithstanding). The director was Simon Wincer, an Australian who also oversaw the likes of The Lighthorsemen. There's an obvious affection for Steven Spielberg in Wincer's direction, and, especially with the period setting, various scenes could be mistaken for an Indiana Jones film. Wincer nails the pulp adventure serial vibe, and the movie is filled out with a number of action set-pieces which are clichéd but stylish and engaging.

Two actors were in serious negotiations to play Kit Walker/The Phantom for this movie: Zane, and Evil Dead star Bruce Campbell. Although it might have been fun to see Campbell in the role, Zane was ultimately the right choice, showing that he had what it takes to be a fun action hero. Zane was a huge fan of the character and embraced the chance to play him, working extremely hard to buff himself up. A suit was actually made with rubber muscles in pre-production, but Zane did not need it when the cameras began to roll. Sure, the material is hammy and the costume looks ridiculous, but Zane is spot-on, emerging as one of the film's biggest assets. (Zane's performance won him a role in James Cameron's Titanic, which has to count for something.) As the token love interest, Swanson shows plenty of spunk, while Catherine Zeta-Jones is an agreeable pick for the exotic bad girl. Also excellent is Treat Williams (Deep Rising), clearly relishing the opportunity to play a cartoonish bad guy. Rather than sinister and evil, Williams' Drax seems genuinely giddy about his master plan, and looks to be having a blast as he carries out his villainous machinations. Williams has always been an underrated performer, and his talents are visible all over the screen here.

In the 21st Century, The Phantom is note-worthy due to how fun it is - today's superhero movies are often dour affairs concerned with "gritty realism," but this movie is bright and colourful, with a tongue-in-cheek disposition. Indeed, the enterprise is not meant to be taken too seriously, as it's a pure cheese sandwich which moves at a rollicking pace. You call it kitsch, I call it entertainment. And the fact that the planned franchise never materialised is another grave injustice which makes this reviewer quite glum indeed.


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A worthy sequel

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 11 March 2014 09:17 (A review of Wayne's World 2)

"What I'd really like to do is something extraordinary. Something big. Something mega. Something copious. Something capacious. Something cajunga! But I'll probably end up working at Great America, mopping up hurl and lung butter."

A feature-length expansion of a series of Saturday Night Live skits, 1992's Wayne's World struck it big at the box office upon its release, unexpectedly becoming one of the top 10 money makers of the year. Thus, Wayne's World 2 was hastily thrown together and released only a year later, but the finished product is not as slapdash or as lazy as most follow-ups of this ilk, which is a miracle in the realm of comedy sequels. The first Wayne's World was nothing but a succession of silly skits attached to a flimsy narrative framework, and Wayne's World 2 follows the same type of formula, targeting a new array of pop culture items to gleefully skewer in a clever, witty fashion. It's not high art, but it's certainly funny, which is the single most important characteristic when it comes to sketch movies. Although Wayne's World 2 is hit-and-miss, it hits hard when it works, and maintains enough charm to see it through to the finish line.

Picking up a year after the original movie, Wayne (Mike Myers) and Garth (Dana Carvey) are still hosting their Wayne's World show on public access television. The two have seldom changed, as they're still middle-aged man-children, though they have both moved out of their parents' houses and into an abandoned doll factory. Aspiring to do something worthwhile with his life, Wayne has a vivid dream in which the late Jim Morrison (Michael A. Nickles) informs him that his destiny lies in staging one of the greatest rock concerts in history in his hometown of Aurora, Illinois. Calling the event "Waynestock," Wayne and Garth set out to make it happen, hoping to book big names and sell thousands of tickets. Helping them is legendary roadie Del Preston (Ralph Brown), who also receives messages from Jim Morrison in his sleep. Meanwhile, Wayne's girlfriend Cassandra (Tia Carrere) is being courted by an incredibly shady record producer named Bobby (Christopher Walken), leading Wayne to suspect that the two are having an affair.

As with any good sequel, Wayne's World 2 feels like a natural extension of its forerunner, with the script retaining the type of comedy which defined the first movie: taking the piss out of as many targets as possible with stinging wit. Thus, the flick satirises product placement and has a field day poking fun at all the storytelling conventions of Hollywood motion pictures. There's even a spoof of foreign chop-sokey martial arts pictures, complete with obvious dubbing and overzealous sound effects. Wayne's World 2 is exceedingly meta, too - one actor is even replaced mid-scene, and there are several different endings. Sure, such material is derivative of the original Wayne's World, as is the broad strokes of the plot, but this seems to essentially be the point, though more could've been done in a satirical sense. Luckily, the movie works well enough - and delivers enough big laughs - to compensate for any scripting shortcomings.

Produced on a rather sizeable $40 million budget, Wayne's World 2 is a more polished endeavour, with new director Stephen Surjik handling the comic mayhem with sufficient panache. (The director of the first film, Penelope Spheeris, passed on the sequel as she found the egotistical Myers impossible to work with.) Like its predecessor, although it features antiquated clothing, technology and music, Wayne's World 2 has not dated too much, as its satire and pop culture piss-takes remain relevant over two decades on. It carries a '90s cinematic aura, to be sure, but its sharp writing still stands up today. Admittedly, this sequel doesn't do a great deal to branch out from the first film in any substantial way, but this is Wayne's World 2, not Citizen Kane 2, so one needs to keep things in perspective. It's almost refreshing to watch a comedy like this which delivers exactly what the built-in fanbase wants to see, without attempts to be profound.

It's hard to believe now, but Myers used to be a serious comedic talent back in the 1990s, and this is another demonstration of how good the actor used to be. Slipping back into the role of Wayne with ease, Myers' comedic timing and delivery is spot-on, scoring plenty of laughs. Carvey is just as good, and he's given more to do for this instalment. It's especially amusing to watch Garth find himself in the clutches of a potentially dangerous femme fatale named Honey Horneé, played with scene-stealing elegance by Kim Basinger at the height of her hotness. The Double Indemnity spoofing which stems from this is very amusing indeed. But perhaps the best thing about Wayne's World 2 is Christopher Walken, who always reliable as the creepy, off-kilter weirdo. It's a great role for Walken, who plays the role completely straight - there's a good chance he didn't even realise he was in a comedy. There are plenty of other random cameos throughout, as well - the likes of Drew Barrymore, Heather Locklear, Charlton Heston, Kevin Pollack, Jay Leno, Rip Taylor, all members of Aerosmith, and others get a look-in to nice effect.

To be sure, Wayne's World 2 is messy in the narrative department, with subplots that come and go with little impact (Garth's love interests don't lead anywhere), and with the film often meandering, lacking the focus of its predecessor. Added to this, the Waynestock payoff is not quite as satisfying as one might hope. These issues likely stem from the rushed writing process, but they are not enough to diminish the worth of this follow-up. Wayne's World 2 is a flawed but worthy effort, rendering it a satiating companion piece which would play great in a double feature with the original movie. It serves as nice reminder of a time when Mike Myers was actually funny, Dana Carvey was actually acting, and Saturday Night Live features were actually good. How weird all of this stuff seems in 2014.


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The most refreshing rom-com in years

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 10 March 2014 01:08 (A review of The Spectacular Now)

"The best thing about now, is that there's another one tomorrow."

The Spectacular Now was written by Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, the two scribes who were also responsible for 2009's indie smash (500) Days of Summer (let's forget about The Pink Panther 2). In a perfect world, all romantic comedies should be penned by this pair, as their scripts are full of raw honesty and tender humour, eschewing a Hollywood approach to present a realistic rom-com tale that manages to be both satisfying and entertaining. Based on the acclaimed novel by Tim Tharp, and directed by relative newcomer James Ponsoldt, The Spectacular Now is simply enchanting. Most every scene throughout the movie's 95-minute duration possesses such a natural disposition that it often feels like we're watching real people unaware that they're being filmed.

Going on an all-night drinking bender to numb the pain of a recent break-up, Sutter Keely (Miles Teller) wakes up on the front lawn of a random house in a hungover state. He unexpectedly meets young Aimee Finecky (Shailene Woodley), a somewhat unpopular girl from school who's firmly outside of Sutter's friend circle. Sutter is a raging alcoholic who cares very little his studies, but he finds Aimee endearing, joining her on a morning paper route and getting to know her along the way. Sutter is not concerned about her social status, studying with her and even inviting her to parties, which leads to the two striking up an unexpected relationship. However, Sutter's time with Aimee compels him to think about his future, wondering if he is actually worthy of her affections.

Any other rom-com filmmaker would paint Sutter and Aimee in broad strokes of black and white, but Neustadter and Weber's script is too smart for that. Although Aimee initially comes across as a bit of a do-gooder prude, she nevertheless seems adventurous during sex, and even sips alcohol from Sutter's flask. Thus, she's not exactly uptight - rather, she's simply a regular girl who's open to new things, making her far more relatable than the thousands of other rom-com females we're introduced to on an annual basis. Likewise, Sutter may seem like the type who simply drinks and parties, but he also has a deep respect for Aimee, and is wholly aware of his own shortcomings and mistakes. It's insanely relatable. The relationship they forge is so beautiful and distinctly organic - they start out as hesitant friends, but before they even realise what's happening, they're more deeply involved than perhaps either of them had ever counted on.

The Spectacular Now hits home on several occasions, as it delves into heavy thematic material that definitely struck a chord with this reviewer. Perhaps the most substantial thematic strand relates to living in the now vs. living in the future, therein justifying the title. Sutter is consistently living in the now, making him ponder his relationship's longevity since Aimee has the potential to do something special with herself in life. Aimee's mother wants to keep her on a short leash and forbids her from leaving town to attend college, but Sutter selflessly encourages her to stand up for herself and pursue her dreams, even if this may lead to a future which jeopardises their relationship. Likewise, Aimee encourages Sutter to find the whereabouts of his father (Kyle Chandler), whose location is a closely-guarded by his mother. But Sutter meeting his dad is an almost traumatic experience, as Sutter witnesses the future that he's likely travelling towards. It's a dark future, and he doesn't want to drag Aimee into it, compelling him to contemplate whether he should selfishly keep her, or push her away to protect her.

As Aimee, Shailene Woodley is not the type of super-hot goddess that we expect to see in rom-coms. Yet, we understand why Sutter falls for her, because she possesses understated beauty and a warm charm; she's a lovely soul deep down inside, making her more appealing than any characters played by the likes of Jennifer Aniston or Katherine Heigl. Teller is likewise remarkable as Sutter, which is completely unexpected considering the other dreck that he has appeared in lately (21 and Over, anyone?). Teller's frat boy persona makes him ideal for the role, yet his ability to infuse Sutter with actual depth is a testament to his talents as a performer. Teller and Woodley deservedly won the acting award at the 2013 Sundance Film Festival - they are such an appealing on-screen couple who share great chemistry. Their interactions feel so natural, and watching them share their first kiss is actually affecting. The rest of the cast are fortunately just as good, with Mary Elizabeth Winstead particularly excelling in the small part of Sutter's older sister. Chandler is also worth mentioning, as he sheds all movie-star charisma to play Sutter's pathetic father who's so much lost his way in life that he cannot even realise when he's doing something wrong.

Director Ponsoldt elects a gentle, almost raw filmmaking approach, shooting on 35mm film stock to amplify the realistic aesthetic. There's nothing intrusive or glossy about this production - it's a motion picture which trusts in the power of its script and performances, rather than flashy visuals or an intrusive musical score. Admittedly, The Spectacular Now does hit a few rough patches as it goes through its final third, struggling to find an endpoint that's satisfying without being a copout. It's not overly successful, but it's not enough to diminish the strength of the rest of the movie. The Spectacular Now may not be groundbreaking, but it is refreshing; a touching story that's well-told, full of sensitive moments and featuring two very talented young actors. It definitely deserves to be seen.


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First must-see actioner of 2014

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 9 March 2014 05:16 (A review of 300: Rise of an Empire)

"Better we show them, we chose to die on our feet, rather than live on our knees!"

A long-rumoured, long-delayed follow-up, 2014's 300: Rise of an Empire arrives seven years after Zack Snyder's breakout graphic novel adaptation grossed an absolute mint at the global box office. More a companion piece than a straight sequel, Rise tells a parallel story which takes place before, during and after the events of the 2007 flick, shedding light on the naval aspect of the war between the Greeks and the Persians. Although Snyder relinquished the director's chair this time around, he nevertheless produced and co-wrote Rise, loosely basing the screenplay on the as-yet unpublished Frank Miller graphic novel Xerxes (itself a sequel to his 300 graphic novel). The new director here is Noam Murro, tasked with mimicking Snyder's style without coming off as a cheap copycat. Thankfully, Murro fast finds his footing, resulting in an often organic-feeling second instalment that has its own voice. Thrilling and entertaining, it's an unapologetically manly movie, the first must-see actioner of 2014.

With King Leonidas (played by Gerard Butler in the original flick) preparing to battle the god-king Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro), Athenian General Themistokles (Sullivan Stapleton) prepares to defend Greece by sea. Leading the Persian navy is ruthless commander Artemisia (Eve Green), who was also responsible for Xerxes' transformation from mere mortal to super-being. Themistokles hopes for a united Greece in order to face off against the Persian invaders, but Queen Gorgo of Sparta (Lena Headey) refuses to join forces, instead trusting in Leonidas and his three hundred Spartans to defend their city. With Artemisia's army outnumbering Themistokles' men, he endeavours to rely on strategy and brutality to fight for their freedom, no matter the cost.

Written by Snyder and Kurt Johnstad (who also contributed to the original film), the storytelling of Rise is all over the place, and that's putting it mildly. It's simultaneously a prequel and a sequel to 300, while most of the narrative runs in parallel to its predecessor. It's an uneasy proposition, and unfortunately it doesn't always work, with some of the flashbacks running so long that the flow of the picture is majorly disrupted. Rise is hugely convoluted, tackling too much material considering that the appeal of 300 is boobs, blood and gore. Added to this, the majority of the male characters are completely one-dimensional, blending into one another and lacking distinctive character traits. Snyder's picture wasn't a profound drama, but the main Spartan players were distinguishable from one another, a characteristic not retained for this endeavour.

Considering Murro's only other feature film credit is 2008's uninvolving misfire Smart People, the director was an unlikely choice to orchestrate this orgy of R-rated ultra-violence and sexuality. He was also tapped to direct the fifth Die Hard movie before electing to helm Rise of an Empire instead. Who the hell saw any of that coming? Although the deck was stacked firmly against him, Murro ably proves his worth as an action filmmaker, staging a multitude of hugely entertaining set-pieces which benefit from superlative choreography and gorgeous visuals. Snyder's stylised digital recreation of Miller's comic panels was the defining aspect of 2007's 300, and Murro follows suit, using desaturated colours and slow motion to nice effect. The scope of Snyder's original feature was restricted, but Rise feels much larger with its scenes of ocean combat, and it's often hard to tell where the sets end and the CGI begins. Although this reviewer did not view the picture in 3D, it seems like a smart fit for the format.

Retaining the R-rating of its predecessor, Rise of an Empire is a monumentally violent effort, with scores of blood and viscera thrown all over the screen with reckless abandon. There are numerous tracking shots throughout the big action sequences, observing the visceral effects of sharp blades against human skin in slo-mo. Murro's work is ferocious, and his camera never baulks from capturing graphic displays of bodily harm, set to a pounding score courtesy of Junkie XL. It's very over-the-top as well, but in a fun sense; Murro even throws in a horse galloping across ships, and sea creatures swallowing fallen men in the water, retaining a healthy sense of the fantastical to ensure we never mistake this for a proper history lesson. But while the film's violence pushes NC-17 boundaries, and there is nudity and sex to boot, Rise remains orderly and often gorgeous to observe. Framing is sophisticated and the flick was clearly assembled with a sure hand, boasting top-flight technical specs across the board. If there's anything to criticise, it's the digital bloodshed. It's effective from time to time, but on other occasions it looks distractingly phoney, and not in a stylised sense like the original movie. There is still an immense visceral punch to the action, but the blood effects simply look too cheap, and superior craftsmanship in this aspect could've yielded a stronger experience.

As Themistokles, Stapleton is a decent performer who acquits himself respectably, but he lacks the presence of Gerard Butler, whose authoritative, loud performance in Snyder's movie rendered him a memorable protagonist. Picking up most of the slack is Green as Artemisia, relishing the chance to play a menacing villain. It's ultimately her who runs away with the movie; she hams it up with glee, and is given all of the best one-liners. Reprising his role of Xerxes, Santoro is fine once again, though he's given a lot less to do for this go-round. Butler reportedly chose not to feature in the sequel, though Leonidas does appear beyond archive footage from the original movie. Likely a stand-in with a digital makeover, the result is incredibly awkward, with Leonidas saying absolutely nothing. On a more positive note, David Wenham returns here, and his performance is robust, while Headey makes a strong impression as Queen Gorgo.

300: Rise of an Empire concludes in an extremely open-ended fashion, leaving plenty of room for a third instalment if the box office is as bountiful this time around. Despite its abrupt ending, the movie is nevertheless an enjoyable sit, the very definition of a big-screen spectacle. It's goofy to extremes, with cheesy one-liners and hilariously over-the-top kills, but the enterprise is played with the right amount of sincerity to prevent it from descending into a dumb self-parody. Rise is not as good as its predecessor but it's definitely a worthwhile follow-up, skilfully delivering the type of stuff that fans of the original will come looking for.


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McG ruins another movie

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 3 March 2014 01:15 (A review of 3 Days To Kill)

"I don't want to spend the rest of my life killing for you..."

Luc Besson's EuropaCorp production company are renowned for bankrolling modestly-budgeted action films featuring recognisable actors. The likes of Guy Pearce, Liam Neeson, Jason Statham and John Travolta have all gotten a look-in, and now it's time for Kevin Costner to step into the Besson-produced spotlight. However, 3 Days to Kill was helmed by McG, a talentless hack who is renowned for fucking up can't-miss projects - Terminator Salvation was crippled by the director's incompetency, while This Means War was leaden and joyless. Unsurprisingly, 3 Days to Kill is another miss for the Charlie's Angels helmer. It's a standard Luc Besson creation mixing comedy and action, but such a concoction clearly confused McG, who's absolutely clueless about how to approach the material. 3 Days to Kill is a very European movie, but McG brings his rah-rah American tendencies to the production, resulting in woeful unevenness as the filmmaker struggles to figure out how serious he wants the enterprise to be.

A veteran C.I.A. operative, Ethan Renner (Costner) is diagnosed with cancer that has spread to his lungs, leaving him with mere months to live. Hoping to tie up loose ends before he shuffles off, Ethan returns home to Paris seeking to reconnect with his teenaged daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld) and patch things up with estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen). But before long, Ethan is pulled back into duty by rogue C.I.A. agent Vivi (Amber Heard). In return for his services, she can offer him an experimental drug that may cure his cancer. Amid this, Ethan also offers to watch over Zooey for a few days when Christine leaves town. Oh, and Christine is under the impression that Ethan is out of the spy game for good.

Writing a plot synopsis for 3 Days to Kill amounts to jotting down action cliché after action cliché, but the familiarity of the enterprise - and its rampant idiocy - is actually the least of its problems. It's unclear whether the screenplay (by Besson and Adi Hassak) was underwritten or the finished cut was butchered in the editing suite, but the movie's structure is dreadful. In one scene, Zooey is yelling at her father and lecturing Ethan about how much she resents him, but in literally the very next scene Zooey is acting civil towards Ethan, who proceeds to teach her how to ride a bike. Did they patch things up off-camera? Did the editor mess up and accidentally delete a few scenes? Or maybe the problem is just McG, who probably decided to just senselessly turn up the dramatics, turning the scene of Zooey's outburst into something it was never meant to be. The characters also make no sense, with Vivi a bewildering enigma in particular. She's meant to be C.I.A. (I think?), but forces Ethan to kill and puts him in awkward situations, not to mention her actions at the end make no sense.

McG seems to be the key issue with 3 Days to Kill, utterly kneecapping what could've at least been a guilty pleasure. While he may excel with surface polish, he's tone-deaf for atmosphere, rhythm and tone. Direction is slapdash and hopelessly bland, while editing is choppy and the movie never gets into an agreeable groove. The script apparently wants us to enjoy the ride, but McG insists on a "dark" tone too often, clashing with the moments of humour that border on slapstick. One minute the tone is playful as Ethan interacts with the African squatters inside his apartment, but the next minute he's threatening them with a pistol as sinister music plays. The tonal change is jarring and uncomfortable. There is also a running gag involving Ethan's new ringtone (I Love It by Icona Pop), which would be funny if only Ethan wasn't always so mean-spirited ten seconds after answering the phone. Another running gag involves a bike that Ethan buys Zooey for her birthday that she doesn't want; again, it's funny for a while, but then Zooey throws a massive temper tantrum and says harsh things, undercutting the comedy. What the fuck was McG aiming for? Talented filmmakers can smoothly guide such tonal changes, but McG is not talented. Not in the least. Why the hell does this guy keep getting work after showing time and time again that he cannot handle action-comedy?

Basically, the screenplay tries to take on too much, and McG buckles under the pressure. 3 Days to Kill feels random and haphazard rather than detailed, rendering the experience utterly leaden. On top of Ethan's spy mission and familial dramas (not to mention the African squatters), the film also concerns itself with Zooey's French boyfriend (the movie literally has no idea who this kid is or how we should feel about him), and Ethan's dealings with an insider who helps him with his mission and provides parenting tips. Hell, the movie is so concerned with all this excess bullshit that the main baddies only bookend the story. We should be able to enjoy the action if nothing else, but the set-pieces are far too scare, and McG cannot muster up much excitement. The PG-13 rating is bothersome, too - violence feels restrictive and deaths are often bloodless, not to mention there's no nudity when Heard is clearly on hand for her good looks. Jesus Christ, this movie is a fucking mess.

This is Costner's first real starring role since 2006's The Guardian, and, if nothing else, the movie reminds us that the underrated actor still has real acting chops despite his advanced age. It's nice to see Costner going through something of a career resurgence, starring in movies like Man of Steel and Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit to bring him back into the spotlight. He hasn't lost his touch, and remains an eminently watchable, badass leading man. Likewise, Steinfeld is hugely impressive, far too good for this flimsy material. Meanwhile, Heard does her best to chew the scenery, but she is unable to overcome the lack of a consistent character. And at one point she disappears from the movie for so long that you completely forget about her existence.

With a script polish, a good (or even a half-good) director, and an R rating in place, 3 Days to Kill could have been a real keeper, but instead it's a big fat disappointment full of wasted potential. It's frustrating to watch the movie unfold on-screen, witnessing the poor craftsmanship ruin a brilliant promise for a fun guilty pleasure. It's not completely unwatchable, but there are far better action movies out there (see Taken), and Costner deserves a lot better. McG needs to retire before he ruins even more potentially fun movies.


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Almost unbearably poignant

Posted : 4 years, 1 month ago on 2 March 2014 03:52 (A review of Fruitvale Station)

"They fucking shot him! They shot him in the fucking back for no reason, man!"

On New Year's Day of 2009, 22-year-old Oscar Grant was shot by a nervous BART police officer who had apparently intended to use his taser, and the young man died in hospital soon afterwards. Fruitvale Station sets out to recount Oscar's last day, constructing a portrait of the young African-American who was working towards putting his life back together following a drug-related stint in prison. Trying to cover for losing his grocery store job due to tardiness, Oscar (played by Michael B. Jordan) spends his New Years Eve figuring out his future, hoping to land a steady job and continue providing for his girlfriend Sophina (Melonie Diaz) and young daughter Tatiana (Ariana Neal). After celebrating his mother's birthday, Oscar and a number of his friends take a train into the city to watch the NYE fireworks, unaware that this will lead to Oscar's terrible fate at Fruitvale train station...

Written and directed by newcomer Ryan Coogler, Fruitvale Station is dense in resonant messages and themes, giving the simplistic narrative a great deal of weight. Coogler is especially keen to emphasise that there's a story behind every fatality that we hear about in the media. Deaths are so common that we no longer think much of them, but Coogler reminds us that every deceased person had hopes, dreams and loved ones. Oscar Grant's story is especially potent, as he was cut down at the time he gained clarity and was determined to clean up his life. Not to mention, his death was an accident that could've been easily prevented. The main thematic through-line of Fruitvale Station is the fragility of our existence, as any one of us could be killed at any time. At one stage in the story, Oscar encounters a kindly stray dog just moments before it's struck by a car, astutely underlining life's unpredictability and also poignantly foreshadowing what is about to come.

Coogler actually opens Fruitvale Station with authentic, grainy cell phone footage of the stomach-churning moment when Oscar was shot after being detained following a fight that broke out on the metro. It establishes a chilling reality, and our enlightenment about how the story will end only serves to accentuate how beautiful, crucial and fleeting each second of the feature - and of Oscar's life - really is. Commendably, Coogler portrays Oscar as a real person: he has a big heart, but he also has a bad temper and has gone astray with the law. He flirts, lies and deals drugs, and lost his job because he continually failed to show up. Yet, despite all of his bad choices, there is tenderness to this man - he loves his family and daughter, and hopes to patch things up with his girlfriend and start a proper family life. Coogler paints a full, rich portrait of Oscar, who's imperfect but lovable, and in no way deserved to meet such a tragic end.

Even though Fruitvale Station runs a very economical 90 minutes, it's enough time for us to feel properly acquainted with Oscar, coming to know him on a profound level. It's possible to become immersed in this world, and feel familiar with all of the people in this story. The tragedy feels all the more painful and real due to this intimacy, and it's borderline impossible to remain unaffected during the final act. We know what Oscar's ultimate end is, but the moment is nevertheless horrifying, and his valiant fight for life in hospital is unbearably upsetting. You want Oscar to pull through and continue improving his life, hence his death really hits home. Fortunately, Fruitvale Station is also a beautifully crafted motion picture. This was Coogler's first feature, yet the movie is robust and competent - it was shot on 16mm film, yielding a beautifully gritty cinematic look that suits the material.

Another of Fruitvale Station's strongest assets is its cast, led by Jordan who's extraordinary in the pivotal role of Oscar Grant. Jordan utterly disappears into the character, and he's so amicable and down-to-earth that it's easy to latch onto him. The supporting cast are just as good, delivering focused and nuanced work all-round. Coogler could have taken the easy way out and portrayed the offending police officers as flat-out evil, but the performers give depth to their characters, leaving it ambiguous as to whether Oscar's death was deliberate or accidental. Considering that Coogler is so firmly on Oscar's side, this detail is commendable, making the experience far richer.

No doubt Coogler embellished and fictionalised several events in retelling Oscar Grant's final day, and a few reviewers have criticised this. But to slam the film on this basis would be foolhardy - it is prudent to judge Fruitvale Station on its own merits; as a motion picture which tells a story. After all, films like Zero Dark Thirty, Gladiator and Braveheart are famously inaccurate, yet this aspect does not diminish the worth of those endeavours at all. Fruitvale Station is a masterpiece, one of the most important movies of 2013. It teaches us that every life is an intricate tapestry of the good and the bad, and it reminds us that before every death, there was a life. It's incredibly moving, rendering Fruitvale Station absolutely unforgettable.


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