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A hit-and-miss historical curiosity

Posted : 9 months, 2 weeks ago on 1 November 2017 06:22 (A review of Air America (1990))

Adapted from the 1978 non-fiction novel of the same name by journalist Christopher Robbins, Air America strives to be both an anti-war political drama as well as an action-comedy, but it never quite comes together in any meaningful way. The film was helmed by director Roger Spottiswoode, who cut his teeth editing Sam Peckinpah movies (including Straw Dogs) and went on to direct the James Bond adventure Tomorrow Never Dies. Unfortunately, the director struggles with tone throughout Air America - Spottiswoode and co. visibly strived to recreate the success of other military comedies like 1987's Good Morning, Vietnam, but the film lacks the spark of wittiness and personality to achieve this, even though it's certainly a handsomely-mounted action-adventure.

After losing his pilot license as a result of a low-flying stunt, Billy (Robert Downey Jr.) finds a chance to redeem himself by joining the "Air America" team in Laos during the Vietnam War. A covert operation overseen by the CIA, Air America pilots are tasked with delivering supplies, weapons and drugs to the area, while the American government denies any involvement with such endeavours. Taking to the bumpy skies, Billy is paired up with ace pilot Gene Ryack (Mel Gibson), who has a plan for his retirement: buy a cache of illegal weaponry from his brother-in-law, and sell it to the highest bidder. However, Billy grows weary of the criminal activities with which he is now involved, subsequently clashing with Gene. Meanwhile, United States Senator Davenport (Lane Smith) arrives in Laos for a "fact-finding" mission to investigate drug-running rumours. The CIA leaders of Air America rendezvous with the Senator, aiming to deceive him and hide Air America's illegal activities.

Since Air America was produced by Carolco Pictures and carried a hefty $35 million price-tag, it's certainly pretty to look at, making great use of the marvellous Thai locations and featuring competent photography courtesy of master cinematographer Roger Deakins. It's refreshing to see practical effects and real planes being used on-screen as well, and the action beats and aerial gymnastics do manage to temporarily raise the pulse. You certainly cannot fault the production values, as Air America looks professionally-produced right across the board. Nevertheless, it does run too long at about 110 minutes, and though the story is clear enough, the movie meanders as there's not much life between the plot points. There is a pleasant plot detour in which Billy meets Gene's family and gets to see his humble home, but there simply isn't enough personality on-screen, and Spottiswoode is incapable of creating genuine narrative momentum. With the story playing out robotically, and with Spottiswoode's hit-and-miss pacing, there's not much replay value and the whole thing is both forgettable and humdrum.

It's evident that screenwriters John Eskow and Richard Rush, as well as director Spottiswoode took their cues from M*A*S*H, as there are satirical jabs and goofy jokes throughout, including a Buddhist monk blessing the airplanes and someone offering Juicy Fruit to Billy after a plane crash. However, many of the jokes either fall flat or fail to register due to the lack of actual wit - not even Bill Murray or Robin Williams could have done much with the material. On the upside, the soundtrack is littered with an array of classic songs, including "Gimme Shelter" by The Rolling Stones which is apparently contractually obligated to appear in every Vietnam War-era motion picture ever produced. In addition, Gibson still manages to emanate plenty of charisma, and he plays his role with an agreeable masculine swagger. Downey, meanwhile, was in his early days here, and he certainly tries his hardest whilst playing opposite such a big star, doing what he can with the mediocre material. Even when the movie is at its most stilted, Downey and Gibson are still watchable at least.

Air America is not overly memorable, and despite its attempt to convey a weighty anti-war message as it tells this true-life story, it's too disposable to make enough of an impact. Still, it is able to come to life in fits and starts thanks to the inherent charm of its two leads and the agreeable soundtrack. Plus, it's hard not to be impressed with the technical construction of the picture, especially with Deakins' cinematography. As a minor chronicle of the CIA's clandestine weapon and drug trafficking in the Vietnam War, it's at least worth a watch, but otherwise it will only be perceived as something of a historical curiosity since it features Martin Riggs and the future Iron Man. Perhaps a superior movie about the same topic will materialise sometime in the future.


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Bona fide science fiction classic

Posted : 10 months ago on 15 October 2017 07:00 (A review of Blade Runner)

Ridley Scott's Blade Runner is for a very specific type of film-watcher, which is to say that it is definitely not for all tastes. Despite the presence of a few thrilling action beats, this adaptation of Philip K. Dick's Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is more concerned with audio-visual immersion, esoteric cerebral expression and thematic density. Even though it flopped at the box office upon its theatrical release in 1982, Blade Runner developed into one of the most influential sci-fi movies in history, and has amassed an enormous cult following. Its reputation speaks for itself, really. Scott's vision for this universe is wholly unique, crafting a neo-noir detective story with a lot on its mind. Blade Runner outright rejects mainstream sensibilities, playing out more like an art-house film than a blockbuster, and radically diverging from the likes of Star Wars or Flash Gordon. As a result, this is very much a "love it or hate it" affair - in fact, it took this reviewer multiple viewings over several years to warm up to it, but the determination paid off; now it just keeps getting better and better.

In a dystopic future, the Tyrell Corporation have developed synthetic human beings known as replicants to be used on off-world colonies for slave labour. Replicants can be dangerous, however, and after an attempted revolt, they are declared illegal on Earth. To combat the threat, special police squads known as Blade Runner Units were formed; specialised officers who are expressly assigned to "retire" (i.e. kill) replicants on sight. In the year 2019, four renegade replicants illegally travel to Earth hoping to blend into society and potentially extend their four-year lifespan. A retired LAPD Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is called back to duty by his former supervisor, Bryant (M. Emmett Walsh), for the sole purpose of killing the four replicants in question: Roy (Rutger Hauer), Pris (Daryl Hannah), Leon (Brion James), and Zhora (Joanna Cassidy). However, the mission is complicated when Deckard meets Rachael (Sean Young), an experimental replicant working alongside Dr. Eldon Tyrell (Joe Turkel) with implanted memories who believes she is human. Deckard finds himself falling for Rachael, compelling him to question the mission, especially when Bryant orders him to kill her as well.

With a script credited to Hampton Fancher and David Webb Peoples, Blade Runner may seem deceptively simple on the surface, but it's imbued with philosophical underpinnings, existential questions about humanity, commentary on overpopulation and environmental degradation, as well as religious and animal motifs. For the most part, too, such material is built into the fabric of the narrative rather than relying on extensive dialogue to get its point across, and as a result it doesn't feel as preachy or as pretentious as it might have been in lesser hands. Even though the movie does threaten to crush under the weight of its own self-importance during the late "tears in the rain" monologue, it's nevertheless a powerful scene. There is violence, and the visuals are stunning to observe of course, but each element exists to serve the narrative, never coming across gratuitous or empty. Blade Runner is also a feature which demands your fullest attention, lest you get hopelessly lost.

Scott exudes undeniable authority over every frame, never letting the movie out of his control, allowing the proceedings to play out at a deliberate pace which may alienate viewers without the patience required to see it through. However, this is not to say that haters are uncultured swine - if you dislike Blade Runner, the movie is simply not for you, and that's a reasonable reaction. To be fair, the pacing can be sluggish and slow-moving, and Scott keeps you at arm's length as the movie comes up short in terms of dramatic resonance. Indeed, the characters are superficial, with Deckard particularly lacking in significant development. Excised scenes and voiceovers do provide more insight into the blade runner's background, but it's evident that Scott ultimately chose to eschew character development whilst finding the movie in post-production, and as a result your mileage will vary. In addition, the storyline is admittedly threadbare; though Deckard's assignment is complicated due to a variety of factors, the trajectory itself is a tad meandering, in need of a bit more drive. I do not doubt that these intrinsic flaws are all part of Scott's vision, as Blade Runner is more about the pure experience than character exploration or dense plotting, but it nevertheless lessens the movie to a certain extent in the eyes of this reviewer.

Los Angeles is depicted here as a dark, dense metropolis filled with advertisements and bathed in perpetual rainfall, painting a scarily believable image of the future. Even though there is paid product placement, the advertisements function as a form of societal satire and reflection - after all, advertisement oversaturation already occurs. From top to bottom, the visual design of Blade Runner is awe-inspiring; Scott and his team of collaborators worked to create their own unique futuristic vision bursting with aesthetic beauty, flawlessly brought to life through old-school model shots, matte paintings and extensive set work. The world is intricately designed, with so much detail in every nook and cranny to absorb, and it feels lived-in to boot. It's not just impressive for its time - it's still impressive today. Indeed, the grand illusion throughout Blade Runner still stands up to contemporary scrutiny, allowing the movie to remain timeless. Admittedly, certain shots look a bit rough around the edges due to the technology of the era, but the use of practical effects arguably stand up better than obvious-looking computer-generated imagery. The meticulous sound design also further serves to bring vivid life to this retro-futuristic world.

Director of photography Jordan Cronenweth (who was actually suffering from ill health during the shoot) bathes Blade Runner in mystique and neon beauty, creating a masterful visual palette bolstered by exquisite lighting, doing justice to the incredible production design and ensuring that the film still looks impressive decades later. The crowning touch is the achingly beautiful, ethereal original synth score by Greek composer Vangelis. The soundtrack is iconic, further separating the movie from many if its sci-fi contemporaries, and giving it a distinct sound that perfectly complements the striking visual design.

Ford is at the top of his game here, bringing his trademark charm to the material, and carving out a distinct role that's noticeably different to his work in Star Wars. Ford was actually quite unhappy during the production, as he had issues with both Scott and his co-star Sean Young, but none of this comes across on screen - the thespian still submits a nuanced, engaging performance, and you can believe it when Deckard starts wrestling with his conscious as he falls for Rachael. Although much fuss has been made over the years about whether or not Deckard is a replicant, this aspect ultimately feels like an afterthought that was added on the fly, and it's doubtful this was even Scott's intention from the very outset. Nevertheless, it is a fascinating talking point, and the ambiguity (intentional or not) recontextualises the narrative at large. Luckily, Ford is surrounded by an able ensemble, with the likes of Edward James Olmos making a strong impression as another blade runner, and Walsh who's note-perfect as Deckard's no-nonsense supervisor. Young is effectively understated, while Hauer oozes menace and comes across as a genuine threat. This isn't exactly an actor's movie, but the ensemble cast all hit their intended marks, and there isn't a weak link among them.

As of 2017, five different cuts of Blade Runner exist. The studio executives did not approve of Scott's original vision in 1982, leading to a compromised theatrical cut with a "happy" ending, humdrum voiceover, and other alterations not condoned by the director. Some fans may prefer the theatrical cut, but the voiceover never works as Ford's delivery is lifeless (a direct result of the actor disagreeing with the narration in the first place) and it takes the audience for fools, over-explaining too much. Other editions of the film include the workprint, an international cut, and a 1992 director's cut which Scott was still not entirely happy with, since he was short on time and a team of editors just worked from his notes. The only version for which Scott held total artistic and editorial control over was the 2007 Final Cut, which stands as the definitive representation of the filmmaker's vision. Scott even chose to tidy up several visual effects shots, and filmed new footage with actress Joanna Cassidy to replace an obvious stunt-woman in a pivotal scene. Indeed, the Final Cut is arguably the best edition available, though fans and connoisseurs are welcome to disagree. Luckily, unlike the original Star Wars trilogy, all five cuts of the movie are freely available to view in high quality, allowing you to pick your preference.

It's not hard to find viewers who either feel lukewarm towards Blade Runner or actively dislike it, especially those who studied it in school, but it's impossible to deny the movie's impact on cinema and on popular culture at large. Visually enthralling and permeated with haunting lyricism, this is so much more than just another simple science fiction or action-adventure flick, and there are more layers to the movie to unravel with each new viewing. Considering the endless issues which legendarily plagued the production, and all the squabbling between Scott and the studio execs, it's a miracle that the movie turned out to be this great - and it's even more miraculous that we were granted Scott's final cut twenty-five years later. Blade Runner is a bona fide genre classic which will still be revered in another few decades. Once you see it, you will never forget it.


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Fun, old-school action-comedy

Posted : 10 months, 1 week ago on 10 October 2017 06:57 (A review of The Hitman's Bodyguard)

The Hitman's Bodyguard capably delivers on its promise to provide a slick, fun action-comedy featuring two talented performers doing what they do best - nothing more, nothing less. It might not be especially great from a discerning critical standpoint, but the laughs hit hard for the most part and the action scenes are genuinely thrilling, which has to count for something. Produced for a rather modest $30 million, it's competently-constructed and moves at an agreeable pace, but don't expect much in the way of creativity or originality. Nevertheless, for those of you who enjoy a good old-fashioned, old-school actioner, The Hitman's Bodyguard should scratch that itch.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) was the top bodyguard in his industry for a brief moment in time, but the assassination of a high-profile client instantly dethrones him, and, in the aftermath, he also loses his girlfriend, an Interpol agent named Amelia (Elodie Young). With his reputation in tatters, Michael is left accepting lousy jobs as he endeavours to build himself back up. Meanwhile, Amelia finds herself in a grim situation when she becomes stuck with notorious assassin Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), who is due to testify at the International Criminal Court in The Hague against ruthless Russian leader Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman). With a string of enforcers and corrupt law enforcement officials seeking to kill Darius, Amelia tasks Michael with safely transporting the hitman across the Netherlands, and ensure that he gets to court on time. Despite deep-seated feelings of hostility towards each other based on previous encounters, Darius and Michael are forced to put aside their differences to complete the mission as a horde of hired guns aggressively come after them.

Written by Tom O'Connor, The Hitman's Bodyguard is a standard-order mishmash of the likes of 48 Hrs. and Midnight Run, with a dash of Rush Hour for good measure. There is lots of fun to be had as Michael tries his hardest to be a proper bodyguard, adhering to his rulebook by the letter, while Darius uses his various tricks to escape custody and consequently put the mission in jeopardy. The movie certainly runs too long at nearly two hours, but at least the runtime means that no plot elements or character relationships feel short-changed. Nevertheless, more energy would have benefitted the flick, as it does feel its length from time to time. Admittedly, too, The Hitman's Bodyguard doesn't contain much in the way of innovation; it lacks a spin to distinguish it from similar endeavours. Considering the talents of Jackson and Reynolds, there was certainly room to satirise and subvert the mismatched buddy action-comedy subgenre (especially given the brilliant official poster which sends up 1992's The Bodyguard), but The Hitman's Bodyguard is content to be just another generic outing teeming with shootouts and chases. Whether or not that's good enough is entirely up to you.

At the helm of The Hitman's Bodyguard is Australian filmmaker Patrick Hughes, late of the outstanding Red Hill and 2014's less impressive The Expendables 3. Say what you will about his limp Expendables instalment, but the director did at least show promise in the creation of the action sequences, and he does much better here. Action is frequent throughout, and Hughes acquits himself well, staging brutal, bloody mayhem with welcome verve, showing what he's capable of with the freedom of an R rating. Although the set-pieces are frenetically shot and edited, this amplifies the sense of excitement, and it's still easy to make out what's happening. The standout has to be a chase through the streets and canals of Amsterdam involving cars, a boat, and a motorbike - the stunt-work is a treat, and the set-piece itself is worthy of a James Bond film. To be sure, there's not much of a feeling that the (anti)heroes are in real danger, but it's still fun to watch Michael and Darius dispatching masses of nameless goons as they battle their way through the Netherlands. On that note, it's fortunate that The Hitman's Bodyguard is not set in nondescript Eastern European locations like many of Millennium Films' recent output (Boyka: Undisputed IV) - with its Netherlands setting, there's lots of eye-catching scenery and the flick is endowed with a unique flavour. If there are any shortcomings in the movie's glossy technical presentation, it's the occasional moments of shonky green screening and CGI backgrounds, but that's par for the course with this studio.

It's apparent that a fair few of the laughs were likely improvised by the actors, but what matters is that The Hitman's Bodyguard is frequently amusing, and left this reviewer in fits of laughter. Even though Reynolds is tasked to play the straight man to Jackson's more frenzied Darius, the Deadpool actor does get the chance to flex his comedic muscles on several occasions, and he has this particular shtick down to a fine art. However, unsurprisingly, it's Jackson who walks away with the movie. Given the freedom to swear up a storm as per his usual modus operandi, Jackson is firmly in his element here, clearly having a fun time playing this skilful, incredibly arrogant assassin. Hayek is also put to good use as Darius's hot-headed bride, scoring plenty of laughs and stealing every scene in which she features (even in a sequence entirely bereft of dialogue that makes brilliant use of Lionel Ritchie's "Hello"). Meanwhile, Oldman can do this type of villain role in his sleep (Air Force One), and the seasoned actor appears to be one of the only cast members to take the material seriously. He's a fine villain as always, adding a touch of gravitas to the proceedings.

If The Hitman's Bodyguard was produced sometime in the 1990s (starring Jackson and, say, Bruce Willis), it would probably be considered a minor cult action title and might have even been better-received by critics. In 2017, it's not exactly relevant, but for the right audience it's a pleasant alternative within a summer season full of expensive studio blockbusters. If The Hitman's Bodyguard carried a safer PG-13 rating, it would likely have felt too painfully generic and vanilla, but with an R rating allowing for punchier one-liners, colourful bantering and blood sprays, the movie does its job better than perhaps it should. Be warned, though, that it is quite violent at times, and some critics have even complained that it's too bloody for a comedy, so a strong stomach is recommended and it's not for everyone. Nevertheless, I cannot deny that the movie worked for me. It's a fun time. Note that there is an outtake at the end of the credits - and it's funny, so stick around for it.


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Amazing sequel, and a breathtaking original sci-fi

Posted : 10 months, 1 week ago on 9 October 2017 03:09 (A review of Blade Runner 2049)

It took thirty-five years, but Ridley Scott's highly-acclaimed 1982 box office flop Blade Runner has finally spawned a sequel. At once, Blade Runner 2049 is the follow-up that Scott's science fiction classic deserved, and it's also better than it had any right to be, standing alongside the likes of Aliens, Mad Max: Fury Road and The Godfather: Part II as one of cinema's all-time greatest sequels. Bolstered by outstanding technical specs, smart writing and immaculate acting right across the board, 2049 is a breathtaking extension of Blade Runner, overseen by visionary French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve who proves to be an ideal successor to Scott. Written by Michael Green (Logan) and Hampton Fancher, the story of 2049 is intrinsically tied to Scott's movie in ways that cannot be spoiled, but it also confidently stands alone. Be warned, however, that this is not an action-heavy mainstream sci-fi film, à la Star Wars - in keeping with its predecessor, Blade Runner 2049 is for a specific type of filmgoer, demanding patience as it plays out at its own pace. It's essentially the most expensive art-house movie ever made. And if you dislike Blade Runner, it's probably best that you sit this one out.

Set three decades after the events of the first movie, Officer K (Ryan Gosling) works as a blade runner for the LAPD, tasked with tracking down and "retiring" the artificial beings known as replicants that have grown out of control or obsolete. Led to a farm overseen by rogue replicant Sapper Morton (Dave Bautista), K discovers skeletal remains pointing to a thought-impossible anomaly. K's superior, Lieutenant Joshi (Robin Wright), sends him to investigate, hoping to clear up the situation as quickly as possible. But the discovery attracts the attention of Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), who is responsible for the new generation of replicants after the Tyrell Corporation went out of business. Hoping that the discovery can benefit his company, Wallace sends his enforcer, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks), to follow K, making the blade runner's investigation all the more perilous. In addition, K finds himself searching for former blade runner Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who disappeared many years prior.

Like Scott's film, Blade Runner 2049 is a noir-ish detective story first and foremost, deepening the details of this vivid futuristic world as K pursues leads and clues, grappling with the gravity of his shocking discovery. Built upon a core of intriguing ideas and themes, the story - hatched by original Blade Runner scribe Fancher - avoids simply rehashing its predecessor and creates a more pronounced narrative trajectory, ensuring that it never meanders despite a meaty running time. Clocking in at a staggering 163 minutes, 2049 is packed with story and subplots, but not a single piece feels inessential. Even a cameo appearance featuring Edward James Olmos reprising his role as Gaff might seem like simple fan service, but it serves to make the movie feel more complete. Furthermore, unlike the original film, 2049 is imbued with emotion to supplement the spectacle - in particular, the final scene is heart-wrenching. K feels like a fully-realised character despite the coldness of this world, and shares an intimate relationship with his responsive holographic companion Joi (Ana de Armas), whose presence is announced with notes from "Peter and the Wolf." Even though both are merely artificial intelligence, this aspect of the story is unexpectedly poignant, highlighting that Joi can only satisfy K on a superficial level since nothing can quite replicate the raw intensity of human interaction despite insane technological advancements.

With movies such as Sicario and last year's Arrival under his belt, only Villeneuve could have successfully pulled off a Blade Runner sequel, as he's one of the only modern-day filmmakers able to handle the complexity and density required for such an endeavour. In fact, it's seriously doubtful that even Scott himself would be able to so much as match Villeneuve's directorial brilliance or confident sense of pacing. It would have been easy enough to create a more action-oriented sequel for easier mainstream consumption, and to an extent that might have been enjoyable, but Villeneuve is more interested in a purer form of cinematic poetry, providing the perfect alternative in an overcrowded cinematic marketplace dominated by superhero movies. Blade Runner 2049 does its best to replicate the viewing experience of Scott's original movie, with patient pacing and a proclivity for scenes filled with silent, lingering study, but this isn't just an unnecessary homage - Villeneuve deepens and develops this hellish world, revealing that San Diego has become a trash dump and there is more to learn about replicants. Luckily, too, the minor bursts of action are brutal and enormously effective. In particular, a climactic battle is one of the most nail-biting sequences of the year, and it exists without cheapening the material in any way.

From a visual standpoint, Blade Runner 2049 is unequivocally flawless, emerging as one of the most aesthetically unique and distinctive science fiction movies of the 21st Century. From top to bottom, the set design represents an organic extension of the original movie, preserving the futuristic, Tokyo-esque vision of Los Angeles filled with industrial-looking buildings, flying cars and gigantic advertisements, while the metropolis is bathed in perpetual darkness and rain. 2049 was lensed by cinematographer Roger Deakins, who has been nominated for many Oscars and previously collaborated with Villeneuve on Prisoners and Sicario. Deakins is the best cinematographer in the business bar none, and with Blade Runner 2049, he again demonstrates his astonishing talents for composition and lighting. It's doubtful that anybody else could have made this follow-up look so thoroughly eye-catching in every single shot. Perhaps shooting on 35mm (and 65mm) film stock could have brought the visual aesthetic even closer to the original movie, but this is just nitpicking.

Blade Runner 2049's special effects deserve the highest of praises; Villeneuve's vision is flawlessly brought to life, making astute use of the monstrous budget. There is no obvious CGI to speak of - every visual element looks tangible and real, ensuring that nothing will look dated a few decades down the track. There is a brief cameo by a character from the original film who is made to look precisely the same as they did in 1982, and the illusion is seamless. Digital de-aging is nothing new thanks to Marvel, but this is next level - it's overwhelmingly convincing. Composers Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch were actually brought onto the project at the last minute, but the resulting original score is a huge asset, reminiscent of Vangelis's iconic synth-based music from the original movie, perfectly complementing the breathtaking visuals. The soundtrack also contains songs by Elvis Presley and Frank Sinatra, which enhances the picture's flavour. However, at times, the score does lack the distinctive presence of Vangelis's work, particularly during sweeping shots of the city, but that presumably comes down to the style that Villeneuve was aiming for. Again, this is nitpicking.

Gosling may not seem like an obvious choice for this sort of motion picture, but it seems we've been underestimating the actor, who truly brings his A game and then some. The actor doesn't say a great deal, but subtle facial expressions convey a lot; Gosling is perpetually committed to the role and not a single moment feels contrived. Just as impressive is Ford, reprising his role as Rick Deckard. Ford's presence is certainly minimised compared to what the marketing implies, but the story itself is so spellbinding on its own merits that you're never left yearning for his arrival during the first two-thirds of the movie. When he does show up, Ford delivers the performance of his career, bringing honest-to-goodness emotion and plenty of attitude to the role that he played thirty-five years ago. The good news doesn't stop there - Villeneuve also coaxes top-flight performances from the likes of Sylvia Hoeks, Jared Leto, Robin Wright and, particularly, Ana de Armas. Blade Runner 2049 may be a stunning visual feast, but thespian achievements are equally impressive.

Perhaps Blade Runner didn't need a sequel due to the nature of its narrative and the ambiguity that Scott was aiming for, but Blade Runner 2049 continues the story in a logical way without diminishing the impact of the motion picture which started it all. In addition, Villeneuve builds upon the original movie's thought-provoking themes, with existential questions about humanity and the power of memories. And even though it's a longer movie, 2049 arguably surpasses its revered predecessor due to its understated emotional and dramatic resonance, and more sure-handed pacing. To be sure, not everyone will take to 2049, just as certain viewers did not take to Blade Runner back in 1982, but the movie works like gangbusters if you have the patience to appreciate it. This is not just an amazing sequel; it's also an outstanding original sci-fi and another winning directorial effort for Villeneuve. Blade Runner 2049 is the purest and most rewarding cinematic experience of the year.


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Goofy, insanely fun spy satire

Posted : 10 months, 2 weeks ago on 29 September 2017 10:06 (A review of Kingsman: The Golden Circle)

Disclaimer: It's tough to review Kingsman: The Golden Circle without divulging what some may consider to be spoilers. Even though the details in question were spoiled in the trailers, a spoiler warning is nevertheless in place.

Even though sequels have materialised for two of Matthew Vaughn's previous motion pictures, 2017's Kingsman: The Golden Circle denotes the first time that the filmmaker has returned to personally direct a follow-up to one of his own movies. A bold but distinctly organic-feeling sequel to 2015's Kingsman: The Secret Service, The Golden Circle is a goofy, enjoyable return to this world of post-modernist spy movie satire masterminded by comic-book writer Mark Millar. It's filled with flashy gadgets, bawdy humour, energetic ultraviolence, and an array of Oscar-winning actors in supporting roles - and Vaughn's directorial confidence undeniably bolsters the material. In short, fans of the first movie are sure to find some worth in this insanely fun follow-up, but it won't change your mind if you disliked the original surprise hit.

Now comfortable in his role as a world-saving secret agent, Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) also endeavours to have a private life outside of his work, maintaining a relationship with Princess Tilde (Hanna Alström). But when the Kingsman are mysteriously destroyed in a coordinated attack, only Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) are left alive. Following their doomsday protocol, the pair are led to America where they meet with their U.S. counterpart, the Statesman. Run by Champagne (Jeff Bridges), the Statesman offer much-needed assistance to Eggsy and Merlin, with agents Whiskey (Pedro Pascal), Ginger Ale (Halle Berry) and Tequila (Channing Tatum) reporting for duty. In addition, Eggsy is reunited with his presumed-dead mentor, Harry (Colin Firth), who now suffers from amnesia. Evidence behind the Kingsman's destruction points to Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore), the deranged leader of a major drug cartel who grows tired of hiding in the jungles of Cambodia to oversee her operation. Lacing her products with a highly lethal toxin for which only she holds the antidote, Poppy holds the whole world hostage, seeking to force the immediate legalisation of all drugs.

The Golden Circle is a full meal, dealing with the destruction of the Kingsman, settling in with the Statesman, Harry's ostensibly hopeless amnesia, Poppy's intricate scheme, and many other plot machinations, earning its beefy 140-minute runtime which is certainly excessive for a spy film. Its predecessor was long enough at 129 minutes, but this is even longer. Indeed, The Golden Circle is plotted much like a Roger Moore James Bond film - that is, it gets caught up in tangents that ultimately feel superfluous, taking too long to get to the story's final destination. In particular, there is a mildly amusing but definitely overlong subplot that only serves to satirise the clichéd old spy trope in which the hero must seduce the villain's girlfriend - it's dead weight despite a few funny moments. Nevertheless, the movie benefits from a goofy sense of humour, and Elton John is even included, playing himself. John may not be much of an actor, but he's a total hoot here, and the singer gets in on the action.

There was a palpable father/son bond between Eggsy and Harry in the original film, and this is furthered in The Golden Circle - the film initially deals with how Eggsy deals with the loss of a father figure, but with Harry's amnesia, the script visibly evokes dealing with dementia and Alzheimer's. It's surprisingly poignant, adding an emotional undercurrent to the mayhem, even if the movie can't really find anything new to do with Eggsy or the other characters. Still, The Golden Circle does enough to advance the franchise at large to prevent it from feeling too meaningless in the grand scheme of things. In addition, Vaughn and co-writer Jane Goldman again manage to find time for acerbic socio-political satire between the broader gags. Hell, the President of the United States (Bruce Greenwood) actually sees Poppy's scheme as an ideal way to win the war on drugs once and for all. Plus, Poppy's Cambodian headquarters - an ancient temple remodelled into a nostalgia-tribute to 1950s America - represents a sly visual commentary on American-style colonialism that really deserves more credit.

Nobody can stage action quite like Vaughn, and he has a ball here, going absolutely bonkers in the major action sequences which easily surpass anything seen in the last 007 movie, the limp Spectre. The action starts early, opening with a dazzling fight scene inside a car set to Prince's "Let's Go Crazy," and the sense of creativity scarcely wanes. Whereas the original movie hit a high bar with the astonishing church shootout at the end of its second act, The Golden Circle saves the best for last. The extended assault on Poppy's jungle HQ is a total gas, combining thrilling fisticuffs with ultraviolent gunplay, backed by a selection of Elton John hits which really tops it all off. There are a fair few catchy tunes throughout, even making terrific use of "Word Up" by The BossHoss, amplifying the sense of goofy fun. And best of all, the set-pieces aren't cut to ribbons - Vaughn uses his trademark swirling tracking shots, allowing you to see and enjoy every frame of the mayhem without struggling to figure out what's going on. Vaughn retains his proclivity for enhancing the action with obvious CGI, but this is part of his comic-book style, and it distinguishes the film from many of its contemporaries. What matters is that The Golden Circle is genuinely thrilling throughout its action set-pieces, serving up more of what you loved about the first movie.

Moore is hugely appealing and eminently watchable as Poppy, projecting a buoyant, optimistic attitude while something more sinister bubbles underneath. She's a treat. Egerton can do this type of material in his sleep now, and he remains a charismatic hero, while Strong provides excellent support. Firth was the surprise standout of the original movie, reinventing himself as an agile action hero despite being in his 50s, and his return here is very welcome. Although some may feel that his survival comes across as cheap and unrealistic, can you really complain too much when Firth is this much fun? Besides, the movie is one big cartoon, who really cares about realism? In spite of what the marketing would have you believe, Tatum and Bridges have very little presence in the movie, amounting to extended cameos which will presumably lead into another sequel or even a spin-off. Pascal gets the lion's share of the screen-time here, effortlessly pulling off a wonderfully cartoonish American cowboy archetype, and sharing more than a passing resemblance to Burt Reynolds with his moustache, while the movie makes good use of Berry as well. Also keep a look out for Bruce Greenwood and Emily Watson as the President and his Chief of Staff, respectively.

Although Kingsman: The Golden Circle falls short of its gleefully left-field predecessor, it is a worthy follow-up in spite of its overlong runtime and scripting shortcomings. The movie plays smoother on repeat viewings and doesn't fall apart in hindsight, as silly as it may be. There is still enough inspiration in the action and comedy to ensure that another instalment remains an exciting prospect.


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An Ozploitation classic

Posted : 10 months, 3 weeks ago on 25 September 2017 12:55 (A review of Dark Age)

Before Greg McLean's 2007 crocodile picture Rogue - and even before the likes of Lake Placid and Killer Crocodile - there was 1987's Dark Age, which is more or less Australia's answer to Jaws since it's a monster movie featuring a giant saltwater crocodile as opposed to a great white shark. An “Ozploitation” classic, this is a fun B-movie in the same vein as 1984's Razorback, and it certainly works well enough on its own terms to earn a recommendation, especially for Ozploitation fans or horror enthusiasts who enjoy these sorts of productions.

When a large saltwater crocodile begins attacking the inhabitants of the Northern Territory town of Malparinga, wildlife ranger Steve Harris (John Jarratt) is ordered to take care of the problem, despite seeking to protect the endangered crocodile population. The primary concern of local government official Rex Garret (Ray Meagher; known more commonly as Alf Stewart in Home & Away) is the tourism aspect, with Japanese investors in town who may be scared away by the recent attacks. However, local Aboriginal elder Oonabund (Burnam Burnam) explains that the crocodile - known as Numunwari - is a sacred dreaming croc, and it will be impossible for white men to kill it. Harris and his girlfriend Cathy (Nikki Coghill) find themselves siding with the Aboriginals, hoping to simply move Numunwari to a sanctuary out of harm's way, and prevent a crew of shotgun-toting hunters led by Besser (Max Phipps) from destroying the ancient reptile.

Dark Age is based on the novel "Numunwari" by Grahame Webb, with the screenplay credited to Sonia Borg (Storm Boy). Comparisons with Jaws are obvious in a number of areas, but only go so far - despite a few similarities, the movie plots its own path and is uniquely Australian in terms of the on-screen culture. Indeed, it's particularly refreshing that Steve does not simply seek to kill the croc, and actually does his best to protect it. In addition, Aboriginal culture is deeply engrained in the narrative, and Dark Age carries a subtle but evident anti-colonial subtext - after all, town officials are more concerned with modernisation and money, showing little regard for the Aboriginal culture and history to which Numunwari is connected. Indeed, it's the mythological aspect of the crocodile which is most fascinating, and the killing isn't mindless - he mostly devours hunters, and Oonabund rationalises that a small child eaten by the croc was simply put out of his misery due to crippling health problems. This sort of thematic density distinguishes the movie from more run-of-the-mill monster offerings, and it's utterly refreshing in a world of less imaginative Z-grade productions like Sharknado or fucking 3-Headed Shark Attack.

Produced for a rather considerable (at the time) sum of AUD $4.8 million (which is still more than most contemporary Australian films, even before adjusting for inflation), Dark Age is not as cheap or nasty as some might expect, though it does look dated in some aspects. The croc itself is for the most part convincing enough, though more cynical viewers will probably be less impressed. Certainly, it does look rubbery at times, but the camera never lingers on the mechanical croc for too long. Attack scenes are tautly-edited and violent, not to mention quite unnerving, benefitting from terrific editing courtesy of Adrian Carr, who also makes use of real crocodile footage in certain scenes (much like Jaws) to heighten the realism. Late director Arch Nicholson cut his teeth on a number of Australian productions, and actually carried out second unit duties on the aforementioned Razorback. Dark Age was lensed by late great cinematographer Andrew Lesnie (The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit), and the movie makes great use of the outback locations and bodies of water. However, pacing can be a bit slow from time to time and Nicholson's style is overly basic, not to mention the synth score is often distractingly dated and doesn't come close to the intensity of John William' work on Jaws. Acting is on the wooden side as well, and Meagher is cartoonish in his outright villainy, but these are minor shortcomings on the whole.

The Australian distributor for Dark Age went broke during the movie's post-production, and it subsequently remained unreleased in Australia for a staggering twenty-four years before at long last debuting on DVD in 2011. Filmmaker Quentin Tarantino is a self-professed fan of the film, and possesses his own 35mm print which was actually supplied for the long-delayed Australian premiere. Dark Age is silly and a bit dated, but it's nevertheless an eminently charming and rewatchable Australian horror movie that stands up much better than its obscurity might imply. Indeed, it's a real shame that it wasn't released here back in 1987 as planned, but with the movie now available on both DVD and Blu-ray, it deserves to find a second life.


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A lacklustre DTV cheapie

Posted : 11 months, 3 weeks ago on 24 August 2017 06:07 (A review of USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016))

The real-life story of the USS Indianapolis, a warship that sank during World War II in shark-infested waters after a top-secret mission, is a no-brainer for a movie adaptation, particularly in the shadow of WWII movies like Fury and Hacksaw Ridge. It was actually given the telemovie treatment all the way back in 1991 with Mission of the Shark, but 2016's USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage endeavours to tell the story with the aid of contemporary special effects. Alas, in the hands of director Mario Van Peebles, the end result is nothing but a direct-to-video cheapie which looks downright pathetic alongside other recent war movies. Men of Courage wants to be a profound historical document, but Peebles and his team lack the talent to tell this haunting true story with any real weight - instead, it feels closer to another Sharknado sequel.

In 1945, the United States Government hopes to end the ongoing World War II with a powerful statement by creating an atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima. Captain McVay (Nicolas Cage) is tasked with transporting certain classified materials into Japanese territory aboard his ship, the USS Indianapolis. After completing the mission, the Indianapolis is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and rapidly sinks beneath the waves, stranding the surviving crewmembers in the middle of the ocean. With no rescue on the way on account of the mission's top-secret status, the sailors are left to suffer from exposure, while ferocious sharks also prey on the terrified men.

Written by Richard Rionda Del Castro and Cam Cannon, the screenplay hilariously simplifies history and eschews any sort of narrative sophistication, dutifully following the clichéd WWII playbook. Men of Courage opens with an action sequence intended to establish McVay's competency in battle, before showing the plan for the Indianapolis' mission being hatched in a dark room full of military and political figures. There's also some obvious foreshadowing, with several seamen talking about sharks before the ship sinks. Worse, the flick tries to transcend its genre by introducing a love triangle, as two sailors have feelings for the beautiful Clara (Emily Tennant). It was visibly designed to add some humanity to the movie, but it's difficult to care - the subplot only serves to murder the pacing and make the movie feel more like a meandering, overlong mess. The authority figures, of course, are painted in broad strokes of black and white, contrivedly turned into antagonists which feels truly unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Most of the narrative tangents are unnecessary, really, only beefing up the runtime to an unreasonable 131 minutes.

To Peebles' credit, the first half of the movie is at least somewhat engaging, as the mission is carried out and there's the looming threat of Japanese submarines. But once the ship inevitably sinks and the seamen are left stranded in the ocean, Men of Courage turns into a survival tale as the men try to survive the elements and the constant threat of sharks. This type of thing requires a deft hand, but Peebles and editor Robert A. Ferretti (Code of Honor, Give 'em Hell Malone) were not the right men for this particular job - the second half is a chore to get through. Even more lacklustre is the courtroom drama that follows the men being rescued, which sees the picture outstay its welcome by a considerable margin. The movie's intentions are honourable, especially with the Japanese perspective being offered, but Men of Courage simply cannot come to life in the hands of these filmmakers, and it's impossible to develop any sort of emotional connection to either the story or the characters.

The reported budget for Men of Courage is $40 million, which must be some kind of exaggeration to trick viewers into thinking the movie might be worth watching. Peebles leans heavily on shonky CGI, most of which honestly wouldn't pass muster in a PlayStation 2 video game cut-scene. Hell, even the cannon muzzle flashes look absurdly fake - amateur YouTube filmmakers are capable of achieving more convincing-looking effects on a zero-dollar budget. It's genuinely difficult to believe that the director or any of the producers viewed the "finished" digital effects shots and actually accepted them, rather than demanding better. The producers did pay for a practical PBY plane, but it sank and fell apart during filming, leaving them to resort back to cheap CGI. To the movie's credit, the photography does look nice for the most part - Men of Courage was shot by cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction, American Psycho) - but it's spoiled by the cut-rate, bargain-basement CGI. The sharks alternate between convincing and phoney - the animatronic sharks actually look quite good, but the digital sharks are glimpsed far too often, and they look terrible. Especially considering the budget, the shark attacks should not be this lacklustre or incompetent. The score, too, is incredibly intrusive and kitschy. $40 million is no small sum of money, but this is the best they could come up with?

Acting from top to bottom is hammy at best. Cage is his usual campy self as McVay, ostensibly trolling his way through to another unfulfilling paycheque. It's laughable when the movie tries to make itself appear deep and meaningful by adding voiceover narration, delivered by Cage in a dreary monotone voice. Tom Sizemore (Pearl Harbor) also appears in a supporting role as Petty Officer McWhorter, but he's too overwrought to be taken seriously. And despite prominent billing in an attempt to sell the movie, both Thomas Jane and James Remar show up in glorified cameos, and look utterly disinterested. The sailors, meanwhile, are nondescript, and character names never stick. During scenes of the Indianapolis' sinking, the extras appear to be trying way too hard in the absence of proper special effects. As Quint so eloquently informed us during his standout monologue in Steven Spielberg's Jaws, eleven hundred men went into the water after the Indianapolis went down, but at any given time here, no more than thirty extras are seen in the water, and that's a generous estimate. The running tally of how many hundreds of sailors are still alive each day is comical.

Similar to other true-life dramas, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage closes with photographs of the real men from the titular ship, and even provides interviews with some of the survivors. It should be a poignant footnote, but it only serves to show how ineffective the movie itself actually is. This should be a respectful, harrowing account of a story that's crying out for the big-budget treatment, but instead it's a ham-fisted attempt at a war epic that's only worth watching as a curiosity. Honestly, though, if anybody is legitimately disappointed in this movie, it's their own fault for expecting anything good in the first place. You're better off just reading a book, or listening to Quint's haunting monologue in Jaws once again. Also, am I the only reviewer who finds it amusing that an actor from the indefensible Jaws: The Revenge was given the directorial reigns for a movie about shark attacks?


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The best possible filmic depiction of Spider-Man

Posted : 12 months ago on 20 August 2017 01:10 (A review of Spider-Man: Homecoming)

2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming represents the second reboot of the titular Marvel character in just a decade, which may seem excessive and even unnecessary a mere three years following the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But Sony have done it right this time, collaborating with the good folks over at Marvel Studios to create the best possible cinematic rendering of the popular web-slinging superhero, at last. Although this introductory picture is less than perfect, Homecoming nails both the characters and the world that they inhabit, which is what matters the most going forward into the inevitable sequels. Of course, for more involved film-goers, the title does ostensibly hold dual meaning - the story takes place in the lead-up to the school homecoming dance, but the movie also sees the character finally joining the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe after his introduction in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. And what a homecoming this truly is, with director Jon Watts (Cop Car) paying attention to both colourful action sequences as well as the high school drama. And perhaps best of all, unlike the dire Amazing Spider-Man pictures, it feels like you're watching an actual self-contained story here, rather than an extended trailer for future movies.

Picking up a few months following the events of Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) spends his afternoons prowling the streets of New York City as Spider-Man, desperately waiting for a phone call from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about his next mission. However, the 15-year-old must still tend to his high school studies, hanging around with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and harbouring a crush on sweet senior student Liz (Laura Harrier). Peter keeps his crime-fighting activities a secret from Aunt May (Maria Tomei), who believes that he's taking part in a Stark Industries internship program. Peter's patrols are typically unexciting, until he spots and thwarts an ATM robbery being carried out by criminals using powerful weapons. Further investigating the matter, Peter discovers that Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is using alien tech recovered from the New York Chitauri invasion to manufacture weaponry to sell on the black market, and turn himself into airborne threat The Vulture. Anxious to prove himself, Peter takes it upon himself to foil Toomes' plans, despite outside pressure and his own inexperience.

Thankfully, Spider-Man: Homecoming eschews rehashing the well-worn origin story of Spider-Man yet again, catching up with Peter who has already been bitten by a radioactive spider, and who's already using his Stark-manufactured suit to keep the streets of NYC safe. The approach pays off, particularly since origin stories generally aren't as fun and the formula is now stale. It's certainly what we needed right now, though it might not make full sense to newcomers in a few decades - there is a brief aside in which Peter mentions the radioactive spider, but perhaps something more concrete would have more staying power. With a script credited to six writers, Homecoming is as much about adolescence and high school life as it is about saving the world. This is the first time a Spider-Man movie actually feels authentic in its depiction of high school life. All previous attempts felt too Hollywood, but the characters look their age here, and Peter isn't so much a social outcast but just a regular teen who seems well-liked enough, if not exactly popular due to his intelligence and meekness. Little touches help to solidify the sense of authenticity, such as his fondness for building Star Wars LEGO with Ned.

Homecoming allows Peter to use his intellect as much as his strength - this is a detective story in some respects, and he calls upon Ned to provide some technological support along the way. What's also refreshing is that Homecoming provides a different perspective to the MCU, since it's set outside Avengers HQ and shows high school life within this universe. One especially amusing touch is that, even though Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is now considered a criminal, school teachers are still obligated to play fluffy educational videos featuring Captain America. Homecoming is frequently amusing, adding levity to the proceedings and making it feel closer to a John Hughes teen comedy rather than just another blockbuster. This is slyly solidified in a sequence that pays homage to Ferris Bueller's Day Off (complete with people actually watching the scene being referenced). Whereas the Amazing Spider-Man films were sullen and dark, Homecoming is enjoyable and bubbly. It helps that comedy writers were involved in the screenwriting process, including Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Horrible Bosses, Vacation). Homecoming should play fine for the uninitiated as it isn't burdened by extensive world-building, though there are subtle references to the MCU that long-time fans will pick up. The script even makes a shrewd reference to the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie, and there appears to be a very cheeky underlying metaphor about Peter begging to be part of the Avengers.

This is Watts' first time overseeing a big-budget blockbuster, and even though he seems like an odd choice considering his previous credits, he handles the responsibility with assuredness and grace. It's certainly refreshing to watch a more grounded and smaller-scale superhero movie, as Peter does for the most part function as the "friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man," stopping mundane crimes as he craves tackling something bigger. The climax set in and around a large cargo plane up in the air is certainly vast in scale, but Watts keeps the film on a tight leash. In fact, all of the action set-pieces are armrest-clenching, thanks to taut direction and enormously convincing visual effects. Watts also proves to be adept at cinematic tension - when a twist of sorts is revealed, the subsequent couple of scenes dealing with said twist are almost too intense to bear. In fact, one particular scene set in a car could be the most nail-biting, gripping moment in the entire MCU canon. Homecoming is backed by an enjoyable selection of vintage songs, including tunes from the Ramones and The Rolling Stones, while Michael Giacchino's original score is superb, opening with a brilliant rendition of the classic Spider-Man theme song to set the scene.

After making such a positive impression in Civil War, Holland continues to delight as the titular hero, emerging as arguably the best cinematic Peter Parker/Spider-Man to date. The young Brit offers a real take on the character, making him feel lived-in and real, and giving him an authentic-sounding Queens accent. Holland is a believable smartarse, but you can also believe him as an intelligent student and a young man in love. Downey, meanwhile, is a valuable presence as Stark, scoring a few laughs and providing some meaty moments of drama. Added to this, he still shares magical chemistry with Holland. Surprisingly, Downey really shows up to play here - this is far more than just a "phoned in" cameo. It's also a treat to see the return of Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and there's an excellent scene towards the end of the movie that makes Homecoming well worth seeing for fans of the Iron Man trilogy.

Another huge win is Toomes, played to perfection by Keaton. Toomes is not a monster who's simply determined to kill innocents, but rather a blue-collar worker who's screwed over by the system, and who just wants to make a living to protect his family and his workers. Keaton (who was, of course, seen in 2014's Birdman, making him a fun pick for The Vulture) ensures the character remains human, but he's also sinister when he wants to be. Another aspect that really works is Peter's suit A.I., voiced by Jennifer Connolly. (Who's married to Paul Bettany, otherwise known as Jarvis/Vision, which is just a fucking adorable touch.) Zendaya is a downright treat as one of Peter's classmates, delivering some of the biggest laughs in the movie, while you can truly believe that Batalon's Ned is best friends with Peter, and Tomei proves to once again be an endearing Aunt May.

The only thing that's lacking in Homecoming is the emotional resonance we usually see in the MCU (and which made Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 such a standout). The whole Uncle Ben storyline has been thoroughly played out, and while it's wise that the movie avoids rehashing it a third time, there's no emotional reference point to replace the function it has previously served in Spider-Man movies. Nevertheless, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a delightfully fun, eminently rewatchable superhero blockbuster, and it seems that this modern reimagining of the web-slinger is thankfully here to stay this time, leaving the previous reboot dead in the water. This one ranks behind Raimi's Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (both of which still hold up), but it's superior to Spider-Man 3 and the two (less-than)Amazing movies. In typical Marvel fashion, there are two additional scenes after the movie - one midway through the credits, and another at the end of the credits. Stick around for both.


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An engaging, harrowing disaster pic

Posted : 12 months ago on 17 August 2017 03:54 (A review of Deepwater Horizon)

Deepwater Horizon sees director Peter Berg follow up his 2013 hit Lone Survivor with another dramatisation of a harrowing true story, tackling the worst oil disaster in American history for the first of his two cinematic endeavours of 2016 (the excellent Patriots Day being the second). Deepwater Horizon certainly plays out like a disaster movie in some respects, but it's grounded by Berg's realistic touch, and remains as respectful as possible to those involved in the tragedy. It's also far more fearsome and haunting than just another run-of-the-mill Hollywood disaster yarn. This is Berg's first based-on-a-true story thriller to be given a sizable blockbuster budget, but unfortunately the gamble didn't pay off at the box office; Deepwater underperformed and reportedly lost a considerable amount of money. Nevertheless, much like Berg's Patriots Day, we should appreciate that the movie was produced in the first place with a proper budget to do the material justice, and it deserves a second life on home video.

A chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is also a devoted family man, husband to wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and father to the young Sydney (Stella Allen). But Mike is compelled to leave his family for three weeks while he works aboard the Deepwater Horizon, an oil drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana. The rig is unfortunately burdened by equipment that's in dire need of repair, but BP managers Donald (John Malkovich) and Robert (Brad Leland) try to downplay the issues as they push the crew to get the job done and make up for lost time. The rig's installation manager, Jimmy (Kurt Russell), challenges the demands of the executives, but corporate interests prevail and work continues. Tragedy inevitably strikes, however, when a massive blowout leaves several workers dead and the vessel in flames, prompting an evacuation in order to save as many men as possible.

The screenplay - credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand - is based on a New York Times article from 2010 entitled "Deepwater Horizon's Final Hours." Wisely, the script for the most part remains focused on the disaster, with little in the way of extraneous subplots to distract from the primary story. Before the chaos erupts, Berg juggles character introductions with expository information to ensure the uninitiated will be able to grasp the basics of deep sea oil exploration and the fundamental physics involved, though it's not exactly an in-depth school lesson. Berg has an affinity for character work, as well - even though names don't always stick when it comes to the background characters, they are imbued with little individual quirks to distinguish each of them from one another. Clocking in at a modest 105 minutes, Deepwater Horizon is a mercifully lean experience, never lingering anywhere for too long, but it doesn't feel underdone either.

Berg exhibits his reliably adept cinematic craftsmanship when the disaster begins to unfold, and the resulting scenes of fiery destruction and peril are genuinely harrowing. Berg reportedly had a $156 million budget to work with, and it shows - the combination of elaborate sets, dangerous stunt-work and exceptional digital effects creates a scarily thrilling demise for the Deepwater Horizon, never looking anything less than entirely believable. You can almost feel the heat of the flames. Berg manages to get away with so much within the confines of a PG-13 rating - the movie is not gory, but it's definitely disturbing. And astonishingly, despite the rating, it doesn't seem as if the movie was constructed with commercial prospects in mind. However, the deaths of the crew don't always carry the weight that they should, though a roll call after the fact will give you chills. Berg also makes use of multiple perspectives to create a complete picture of the disaster - the U.S. Coast Guard is called upon for a rescue and nearby vessels witness the chaos from afar, all the while Mike's wife Felicia is at home crippled with worry, determined to learn anything she can about the unfolding situation.

One aspect of Deepwater Horizon which never quite gels is the presence of Donald, who's not exactly treated with any subtlety. Played with a thick Cajun accent by Malkovich, the BP executive is portrayed as an out-and-out cartoonish antagonist, giving audiences somebody to despise when the real villain here is nature. One supposes it was a creative choice on the part of Berg rather than Malkovich, but Donald is much too broad in an otherwise realistic and sobering motion picture. Elsewhere, acting right across the board is exceptional, lead by Wahlberg who seems to be Berg's go-to leading man for these sorts of projects. Whereas Wahlberg played a fictional composite character in Patriots Day, Mike Williams was a real electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon - in fact, there are no fictitious characters in the mix here. Russell, always a reliable performer, brings real gravitas to his role of Mr. Jimmy, and Gina Rodriguez acquits herself confidently as Andrea, the rig's sole female worker. Kate Hudson doesn't get a great deal to work with, but she is convincing as Mike's wife.

Although Deepwater Horizon does fall short of perfection, and it's not as great as Patriots Day, it's nevertheless a characteristically strong effort from Berg, who has found his niche doing these types of realistic thrillers. Berg also reminds us that the movie is not mere exploitation by including real footage of the incident and of the people involved right as the credits begin to roll (much like both Lone Survivor and Patriots Day), which closes the door on a touching note. Deepwater Horizon manages to be an important chronicle of a contemporary disaster, and even though it's not exactly escapism, it's an engaging watch.


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Enormously successful Marvel sequel

Posted : 12 months ago on 16 August 2017 02:13 (A review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017))

2014's Guardians of the Galaxy was something of a curveball from the folks at Marvel Studios, with its irreverent nature, space setting and lack of any actual superheroes in its alien ensemble. But it worked like gangbusters and movie-goers fell in love with the motley team of Guardians, propelling the endeavour to unexpected box office success. For 2017's inevitable sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, indie filmmaker James Gunn returns to write and direct (this time penning the script solo), showing once again that he has an innate understanding of what makes this property work. To date, Marvel has not had much luck with second instalments - Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron arguably underwhelmed, though Captain America: The Winter Soldier was admittedly excellent - but luckily, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn't fall victim to this apparent curse. While Vol. 2 has a lot on its mind and introduces added complexity to this world, it also retains the charms of the original picture, making for an enormously successful sequel that will almost certainly please established fans.

Picking up not long after the events of the original movie, the self-proclaimed Guardians of the Galaxy have embraced their reputation as skilled guns-for-hire, accepting a mission from the gold-skinned Sovereign people to protect valuable batteries from an inter-dimensional monster. In exchange, the team - Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) - only ask for custody of Gamora's estranged sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), to transport her to Xander. However, Rocket steals some of the batteries, and in retaliation the Sovereign leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sends a fleet of remote drones to attack the Guardians ship. Crash landing on a nearby planet following the attack, the Guardians are confronted with all-powerful Celestial being Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter's biological father. Despite Ego's ostensible abandonment, Peter accepts his father's invitation to visit his Eden-like planet, whose only other resident is his assistant, a kind-hearted empathy named Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Meanwhile, the Ravagers - led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) - are hired by Ayesha to pursue the Guardians.

Whereas Iron Man 2 and Thor 2 were both marred by the obligation for "world-building" work, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wisely avoids this pitfall - Gunn uses the sequel to delve deeper into the principal characters with their respective personal demons and perpetual hang-ups. In turn, the scale is cut back - the majority of Vol. 2 takes place either on Ego's planet or the Ravager ship, making for a more intimate and rewarding experience. Luckily, the plot's ultimate trajectory was kept hidden in the trailers, allowing for some genuine surprises - particularly in regards to the primary villain and his motivation. Despite the intimacy of this tale, however, the stakes are still high, once again concerning the fate of the galaxy itself, which leaves the Guardians of the Galaxy striving to live up to their title a second time. Nevertheless, Vol. 2 does lack the snap of the original movie - it's fine for this follow-up to delve into denser territory, but pacing is not as sure-footed and the writing is not as witty. Indeed, the humour is hit-and-miss - although there are a lot of laughs, the script tries too hard to be funny at times.

The original Guardians of the Galaxy was characterised by its soundtrack of classic tunes, and naturally this characteristic is carried over into Vol. 2. Once again, songs provide the backdrop for amusing, memorable set-pieces, giving this sequel genuine life and energy. The opening sequence depicts an intense battle between the Guardians and a tentacled monster, but the focus is predominantly kept on Baby Groot, who merrily moves around the platform dancing to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" while the carnage unfolds around him. It's a delightful way to reacquaint audiences with this unique and colourful world, kicking off the sequel on a real high note. Equally bravura is a set-piece which depicts the full-blown massacre of well over a hundred aliens, set to the tune of "Come a Little Bit Closer." In Gunn's hands, the sequence is simultaneously funny and even heart-warming, which is quite a feat. Gunn also makes use of the Looking Glass song "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" which is tied into the narrative, while "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens backs an enormously touching final scene. Much like the original 2014 movie, it's wonderful to see so many vintage songs being reintroduced in contemporary pop culture.

As to be expected from a $200 million blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 both looks and sounds superb, emerging as one of the most colourful motion pictures of the 2017 summer season. The first movie to be shot at 8K resolution with Red Weapon Dragon rigs, it's visually resplendent from top to bottom, bolstered by imaginative production design, dynamic cinematography and vivid CGI. Of particular note is Ego's planet, a miraculous computer-generated fantasyland which seems to be truly alive. As with similar blockbusters, while the digital effects are insanely detailed, the results do tend to look artificial rather than tangible, but it's believable enough to sell the illusion, and both Rocket and Groot are once again miracles of motion capture. On the big screen, Vol. 2 is one hell of an experience. Composer Tyler Bates (a regular Gunn collaborator) also makes his return here, and his compositions are layered and flavoursome, even bringing back the Guardians theme established in the original movie. There is such a thing as too much money, however - the enormous, prolonged climax does get a bit much, at times losing sight of the intimacy of this story. Although there are some excellent character moments and the ultimate dénouement is touching as hell, the sequence does feel excessive and may test your patience.

The astute character work of the original feature is thankfully carried over to Vol. 2 - Peter still has thinly-veiled crush on Gamora, and Drax is still hilariously incapable of actually thinking before he speaks. Bautista continues to score laughs with each unfiltered thing he says, working to keep the flick feeling bubbly and fun even when it dabbles in darker subject matter. Pratt, meanwhile, remains note-perfect as Star-Lord, emanating charm and effortlessly handling the weightier material within this particular story. Interesting to note, Marvel Studios do not own the movie rights to the character of Ego - they actually reside over at Fox with the X-Men rights. Gunn was initially unaware of this when he started penning the screenplay for Vol. 2, but luckily Fox ultimately permitted his presence in the movie, which is fortunate because the story heavily hinges on Ego. Russell is a total gem in the role, handling the multiple layers with ease, and he shares terrific chemistry with Pratt. The movie's opening scene set in 1980 uncannily de-ages Russell through a combination of make-up and CGI, making him look the same as he did in movies like Escape from New York and The Thing. Elsewhere in the cast, Rooker is still an utter gift as Yondu, while Sylvester Stallone also manages to make a positive impression despite his minor role as a Ravager. Another newcomer is Klementieff, a terrific find as Mantis. Marvel legend Stan Lee also drops in for his trademark cameo, and in doing so Gunn finds a way to ostensibly link all of his prior cameos and apparently confirm a longstanding fan theory that he always plays the same character. Who expected that?!

Although I do admit that I had more raw fun with the original Guardians of the Galaxy, there is much to appreciate about this sequel, with its luscious eye-candy and thrilling action sequences. It goes to deeper and weirder places, the chemistry between the ensemble cast is still brilliantly palpable, and the superb soundtrack further contributes to the infectiously fun vibe. Above all that, however, Vol. 2's emotionally resonant conclusion will stick with you after the end credits expire, and you will once again be left wanting to see another instalment. Gunn is currently set to return for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which would denote the first time in Marvel history that a director has seen a trilogy through. As ever, there is a post-credits scene...which follows four other additional scenes during the credits.


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