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It still sucks...

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 27 April 2014 04:10 (A review of Transformers: Dark of the Moon)

There will be days when we lose faith, days when our allies turn against us. But the day will never come, that we forsake this planet and its people.

It's completely foolish at this point to expect a Transformers picture to be genuinely good from a serious critical standpoint, but even dumb summer blockbusters require a deft touch to make them work. Michael Bay's first Transformers remains one of the worst big-budget blockbusters of its decade, while its sequel, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, was the worst big-budget blockbuster of its decade, with the latter so wrong-headed that even Bay and star Shia LaBeouf have publically admitted that they screwed up. 2011's Transformers: Dark of the Moon was intended to be atonement, with Bay promising to dial down the humorous excess and produce a grittier instalment. But if this is really the result of Bay and co. trying their hardest, all hope is lost for this series (and Bay's career). An obnoxiously loud, repugnant, overlong blockbuster, Dark of the Moon is an absolute chore to get through, and though some of the mayhem is halfway entertaining, you have to wade through 90 minutes of utter tripe to get to it.

Dark of the Moon contains some revisionist history, positing that the Apollo 11 moon landing of 1969 was spearheaded with an ulterior motive: to investigate an alien spaceship which crash-landed on the moon's surface a decade earlier. Within the craft is robot Sentinel Prime (voiced by Leonard Nimoy), former Autobot leader and the elder to Optimus Prime (Peter Cullen). Fast forward to the 21st Century, and the Decepticons are determined to resume their war with the Autobots, seeking to acquire a teleportation device which has the potential to strip Earth of all life in order to rebuild the Transformers' home world of Cybertron. But this plot is a secondary concern, with the mostly movie concentrating on Sam Witwicky (Shia LaDouche) and his hot girlfriend Carly (Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Now an adult, Sam is struggling to find a job in spite of having saved the world on two occasions, and becomes drawn into the Autobot/Decepticon conflict which also involves the American military.

It's clear that Bay was shooting for a more sophisticated instalment here, opening with a rather intriguing segment to convey the revisionist history. Bay attempts to heighten verisimilitude by mixing genuine archive footage with faux archive footage and staged scenes, but the result feels too frenetic, jumping between the various sources as if the editor was afflicted with ADHD. Unfortunately, Dark of the Moon fails to improve much from this point onward, returning to business as usual for the series: idiotic human characters and their clichéd problems. This is the third Transformers movie, yet the titular robots are still given supporting roles, even though the Transformer-centric plotline could sustain an entire feature. Moreover, while the humour is dialled-down and Bay attempts to get serious, there are still mini-robots lurking around who say and do thoroughly ludicrous things. Sam's parents also show up for more unfunny monkey business, while the supporting cast espouse exaggerated accents (including Ken Jeong and Alan Tudyk) to inject even more superfluous failed humour into the enterprise.

Dark of the Moon treats its mythology and back-story as homework, with the script deploying as much exposition as possible in a perfunctory way, leading to pure boredom between all the 'sposions. And for a major studio production, Dark of the Moon is an exceedingly ugly movie, with Bay's aggressive “orange and teal” colour scheme making for visual diarrhoea, while the pedestrian cinematography is thoroughly uninvolving. Although it's pleasant to report that Bay dialled down his obnoxious shaky-cam tendencies for this endeavour, the results aren't anything to write home about, with strictly pedestrian action scenes that aren't overly thrilling. There's simply no rhythm or sense of pacing to Bay's work; the movie amounts to a jarring mishmash of over-edited scenes, and the dissonance caused by the various tones could cause whiplash. One minute we're meant to get emotional over the 9/11-esque destruction perpetrated by the Decepticons, and the next we're meant to be excited about an impending battle. There's insufficient connective tissue, making it feel as if chunks of the movie are missing. Even more bewildering is the ending - in the course of twenty seconds, there's romantic talk between Sam and Carly, followed by a rushed montage set to a quick Optimus Prime voiceover, after which the credits suddenly appear. It all feels fucking awkward and random.

Bafflingly, the digital effects are borderline terrible. It would seem that the animators were on autopilot for the majority of the movie, as Dark of the Moon's CGI is woefully obvious and incredibly phoney. CGI is meant to be utilised to maintain an illusion and make audiences wonder how various moments were pulled off, but the Transformers here look every bit like the digital creations that they are, and it's never possible to accept them as tangible beings. There's also a CGI recreation of John F. Kennedy which looks worse than the average video game. An actor in make-up, or even a vague lookalike, would be far more effective. There are a few fun moments here and there, but Bay's focus during the climax is all wrong, with the humans again taking the foreground and doing most of the heroic stuff. Just, why?

The departure of Megan Fox was a golden opportunity for Bay to recruit an actress with actual talent, but he squanders the chance by recruiting Huntington-Whiteley, a model chosen strictly for her looks who makes her acting debut here. Her first scene features the actress in underwear, and Bay's camera leeringly observes her, only very rarely shooting above her waistline. One must wonder what an actress like Zooey Deschanel or Ellen Page could have brought to a love interest role, though Bay would probably have a tough time attracting someone so classy to this picture due to the director's perverted visual instincts. It goes without saying that the acting is awful here, with LaDouche again making no palpable effort, while the military jarheads are completely forgettable. Even though Bay concentrates on the humans so much, none of them are in any way memorable.

Exactly the kind of soulless CGI demo reel that people frown on Hollywood for producing, this third Transformers picture ultimately amounts to a numbing sensory assault best enjoyed by masochists wanting their eardrums to be permanently damaged. Despite a few enjoyable scenes here and there, momentum is too often halted by dumb humour, and Bay stretches out various set-pieces to the point that they become repetitive and pointless. This series needs to end and be rebooted with a filmmaker who might do something worthwhile.


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Bruising action-thriller

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 27 April 2014 04:03 (A review of Sabotage )

"Some of us are getting paid, the rest of us are just getting dead."

David Ayer has established himself as a purveyor of gritty crime films over the years, with the likes of End of Watch, Street Kings and Harsh Times under his belt. Co-written by Skip Woods, 2014's Sabotage is not exactly fresh territory for the filmmaker, who dreams up a twisty action-thriller that's dark, repugnant, and viciously violent. The movie also features the acting talents of Arnold Schwarzenegger, making a wise decision to star in what's essentially an auteur effort. Sabotage is not a typical Schwarzenegger vehicle, but rather a David Ayer film through-and-through, with the Austrian Oak playing a much darker role than usual. Although the end result is uneven and was clearly the victim of studio interference, it's definitely a fun enough watch, even if it's not the genuine keeper it could've been.

In Georgia, a team of fierce DEA agents led by the towering Breacher (Schwarzenegger) storm the compound of a feared drug lord, using the raid to steal $10 million from the cartel to split amongst them for their own means. However, the stash of money mysteriously disappears, and the Feds begin to suspect Breacher's team. After being investigated and scrutinised for six months, though, the guys are cleared to return to duty, only to find that their skills are rusty and they've grown distrustful of each other. The situation deteriorates further when members of the task force begin getting murdered in vicious ways, prompting Investigator Caroline Brentwood (Olivia Williams) to look into the killings.

Arnie has fans young and old, but Sabotage is definitely geared towards the adult demographic. Ayer's movie wears its R-rating on its sleeve, with scores of blood and viscera, not to mention the graphic image of a dead body nailed to the ceiling. It's commendable for Ayer to retain his tendency towards authenticity, though it might not appeal to those wanting something more in line with Commando. What's interesting is that Breacher and his team are actually villainous and highly unpleasant, with fuzzy morals making them true antiheroes. Indeed, we watch these guys stealing from a cartel in the first ten minutes and endeavouring to cover it up, and events only grow more extreme from there. It would be unwise to spoil the surprises within, but rest assured that the story heads off in unexpected directions, leading to a conclusion that one would never expect to see in an Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle.

One of the movie's strengths is its dialogue, which is full of snarky exchanges and macho bantering, reflecting the type of people that Breacher's team are. It's often quite hilarious, and the joking around helps to give the picture a sense of humanity. Unfortunately, though, the task force generally has little dimension - there are a handful of great scenes of team bonding, but there should have been more, and at times it's hard to figure out who's been killed. Storytelling is a bit all over the shop as well, with some choppy editing and a strange narrative flow suggesting that the movie was indeed extensively trimmed by the studio in favour of a more action-oriented finished product. Flat characters are to be expected in B-movies, but Sabotage aspires to be more than a dumb actioner, with Ayer shooting for something closer to Sylvester Stallone's Cop Land. Thus, it insists on a realistic tone but it needed more dimensionality to make it work.

In terms of bruising action, Ayer definitely delivers, orchestrating scene upon scene of insanely violent shootouts and other chaos. Ayer is a filmmaker who prefers practical effects over CGI, hence you feel the impact of every bullet, and the destruction feels real. These are some of the best action set-pieces of Arnie's career, and that's saying something. It's also notable that Ayer predominantly relied on blood squibs as opposed to digital gore, a choice that gives the movie a beautifully lived-in aesthetic. The performances are a little bit flat across the board, but the ensemble are generally good enough. Schwarzenegger is well-suited to the role of Breacher, looking convincing as he uses big guns and chomps on cigars. The hulking star is visibly getting older, but he looks credible in combat here, and he can still deliver one-liners and use firearms with confidence. Also strong here is Sam Worthington as Monster, one of the members of Breacher's squad. It's a refreshing change of pace for the actor, and he's actually a believable badass. Joe Manganiello, meanwhile, is likewise convincing as Grinder, while the likes of Terence Howard and Josh Holloway give further flavour to the Breacher's task force. But it's Mireille Enos who steals the show as the insane, coked-up Lizzy, spouting endless profanity and killing with little compunction.

In the end, it's hard to warm up to Sabotage or really love it, but it's easy to enjoy the various set-pieces staged with a sure hand, and it's fascinating to see Arnie playing a dark antihero. Still, one can't help but wonder what the rumoured original three-hour cut is like, and wonder if the various flaws in storytelling and character development could be rectified in a future home video release.


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Good, but could've been great

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 27 April 2014 12:08 (A review of Justice League: War)

"We might be staring down the barrel of a full-scale invasion..."

Although Warner Brothers have been producing DC Universe Animated Original Movies since 2007, the resultant productions have not exactly abided by a shared continuity, instead telling standalone stories without a real through-line. This all changes with 2014's Justice League: War, as it's intended to be the beginning of a linked franchise of animated superhero movies, not unlike what Marvel has achieved with their live-action blockbuster franchise. Starting afresh, War is an origins story for the titular superhero gang, designed to follow the DC Comics "New 52" reboot which kicked off in 2011. An adaptation of the six-issue Justice League: Origins series, War is a blast on its own merits; a fun, action-packed superhero outing with all the bluster and bombast that comic book fans will be anticipating. However, greatness lies just out of its reach, and the fact that it falls so short of becoming a masterpiece is frustrating indeed.

War chronicles the beginnings of the Justice League of America, consisting of Batman (Jason O'Mara), Superman (Alan Tudyk), Green Lantern (Justin Kirk), Flash (Christopher Gorham), Wonder Woman (Michelle Monaghan), Cyborg (Shemar Moore) and Shazam (Sean Astin). Mysterious explosive devices begin appearing in major cities, planted by alien creatures, which compels the various heroes to stop bickering, put aside their egos, and work together to stop an alien invasion led by merciless planet terraformer Darkseid (Steve Blum).

Running at a mere 79 minutes, there's unfortunately not enough breathing room here to do the narrative justice, as the movie takes a number of shortcuts in order to introduce the main heroes and the villains, and develop the storyline pertaining to Earth's destruction. It's disappointing that the movie was not split into two features (a la The Dark Knight Returns), but Heath Corson's script does about the best job possible in the limited timeframe, giving the ensemble proper introductions and bringing them together in a natural-feeling way. Nevertheless, there isn't a lot of depth to the heroes, a flaw felt most glaringly in Wonder Woman, who's too comical. Furthermore, the dialogue is often sophomoric and pedestrian, with the characters given snarky, jokey banter to disperse which doesn't always work. It's clear that the movie was deliberately designed to compete with The Avengers, but it's only marginally effective. The Avengers had the benefit of a 150-minute running time, far more money, and Joss Whedon's witty screenwriting tongue - there's simply no comparison between the two.

Justice League: War was directed by DCU mainstay Jay Oliva, who also oversaw The Dark Knight Returns and Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox. Oliva has a flair for colourful action scenes, and War delivers in spades, creatively allowing the superheroes to utilise their various abilities in combat without going too over-the-top. The production's centrepiece is the extended city-wide scuffle with Darkseid and various aliens, which takes up the entirety of the third act. It's interesting to see the various heroes putting aside their differences and bonding for the greater good, and the movie seriously delivers when we get to watch these guys working together. Admittedly, the animation remains strictly average, with shortcuts clearly having been taken for various sequences. It does look like an animated television show at times, but it nevertheless does its job well enough considering the budgetary limitations. Plus, the movie's opening titles are hugely impressive; a stylised succession of comic book panels which set the tone beautifully.

The design of each of the superheroes have been updated for DC's New 52 series, with Batman now donning a gorgeous suit of rock-solid armour, while Superman wears darker colours, and so on. While the "classic" outfits of prior animated features were acceptable, it's nice to see the franchise get a visual makeover, especially since Batman's fabric costume has always looked a bit silly. Fortunately, the voice actors are fairly solid across the board. O'Mara is an underrated actor who's never really gotten his due recognition, and he's a robust Batman, with a gruff voice that also has a degree of charm to it. In the absence of fan favourite Kevin Conroy, this is about the best we can rightly expect. The wonderful Michelle Monaghan is also on hand to voice Wonder Woman, and she gives the role plenty of spunk and spirit despite the character's one-dimensional disposition. Meanwhile, Alan Tudyk is a bit nondescript as Superman, and Justin Kirk overdoes the jokey demeanour of Green Lantern. Faring better is Sean Astin as Shazam, while the rest of the cast hit their marks respectably.

Justice League: War is merely a good animated superhero movie as opposed to a great one. It's definitely enjoyable, but it falls short of its potential - there's no getting around the fact that the story is all over the shop and a 79-minute runtime is hopelessly insufficient. It's worth noting that while these movies are often for kids, the violence here is perhaps a tad too excessive for more sensitive viewers, though it's not too bad. There's also a mid-credits scene to potentially set up a future title in the DCU canon, once again highlighting that this new series is taking its cues from the Marvel handbook of superhero franchises.


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Beautifully retro superhero feature

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 23 April 2014 08:57 (A review of The Rocketeer)

"Peevy, you'd pay to see a man fly, wouldn't you?"

Before comic book adaptations became a dime a dozen in the 21st Century, such ventures were risky gambles for studios. Although 1978's Superman and Tim Burton's Batman were massive money-makers, other endeavours were less successful at the box office. One such financial flop was 1991's The Rocketeer, a Disney-produced adaptation of the series of graphic novels by Dave Stevens. Best described as Iron Man meets Captain America by way of Indiana Jones, it's easy to fall in love with this gem, as its sense of sincerity and spirit remains completely enchanting all these years on. With director Joe Johnston embracing the serial tone of the source material, The Rocketeer is a delightfully-assembled superhero feature, a robust demonstration of how to properly adapt a comic for the big screen.

Set in 1938, ambitious pilot Cliff Secord (Billy Campbell) and his loyal mechanic Peevy (Alan Arkin) seek to make it big in aerial racing, but their prized plane is destroyed. In the aftermath, the boys discover a stolen jetpack designed by Howard Hughes (Terry O'Quinn), and decide to use it for personal gain rather than returning it to the government. Before long, Secord straps on the jetpack, becoming a high-flying superhero known to the public as The Rocketeer. However, there are others who want the rocket - not only the government, but also a group of mobsters working for dashing Hollywood movie star Neville Sinclair (Timothy Dalton). Secord's actress girlfriend Jenny (Jennifer Connelly) also becomes unwittingly involved.

Luckily, the years have been extremely kind to The Rocketeer - it has lost none of its appeal over the past few decades. The movie's detractors often claim that nostalgia plays a large part in anyone's enjoyment of it, but I watched the movie for the first time as a 23-year-old, and found it enrapturing. The Rocketeer works because it's not an idiotic special effects demo reel, but rather a proper movie, with a fully-fleshed narrative which permits room for dramatic growth and character development. Sure, there's not much depth at play here or anything, but it excels in the areas which matter the most.

Johnston worked behind the scenes on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and was visibly aiming for an Indiana Jones vibe here. He also doesn't baulk from firearms or shootouts, and such sequences have genuine punch (as opposed to the PG-13 shite of today). Some of the grisly deaths are a bit unexpected since this is a Disney movie, but The Rocketeer was produced in the 1990s, back before the studio's over-the-top political correctness resulted in live-action movies like John Carter and Old Dogs. But although it's hard-edged, The Rocketeer knows how to have fun, and a "dark and gritty" take on the source material would be utterly boring. Johnston maintains a sugary matinee vibe that's thoroughly infectious, and there's a smattering of intentional cheese which helps to make the movie so damn entertaining. Johnston also embraces several staples of old-school Hollywood - there are gangsters, Tommy guns, moustache-twirling villains, feds, and even Nazis.

Disney wound up spending more money than expected on the flick, and every cent appears on-screen, with lavish production values and stylish visuals, not to mention competent filmmaking right down the line. When Cliff straps on the jetpack, The Rocketeer undeniably roars to life - the solid direction coupled with James Horner's hugely flavoursome score provokes goosebumps with seemingly little effort. These are the types of action sequences which make you stand up and cheer with a big dumb grin on your face, and they're every bit as entertaining today as they were over twenty years ago. Although ILM's special effects look a tad dated at times, it hardly matters. And besides, the old-school effects contribute to the film's retro charm. However, the lack of action is a bit disappointing. There's a lot of build-up as Cliff gets accustomed to his flaming backpack, but the heroic payoff is rather minuscule. The picture does work on its own terms, but more scenes of confident rocketeeting would've made for a more satisfying experience.

As Cliff, the little-known Billy Campbell was always an odd choice, but he nails it, showing he had the chops to become an A-list star. Campbell comes across as a sweet guy, but he also has a rougher side to him, and looks believable as he throws punches and flies around with the jetpack. As the token love interest, Connelly is drool-worthy eye candy. She was only 20 years old at the time of filming, and looks absolutely gorgeous, not to mention she has talent to boot. Added to this, Connelly looks every bit like a '30s-era starlet, making her an ideal pick for the role. Also great is former 007 Timothy Dalton, who's pitch-perfect as the arrogant Errol Flynn-esque star, while also succeeding as a moustache-twirling bad guy. It's a hammy performance and his German accent is questionable, but Dalton fits in with the tone of the enterprise beautifully. In the supporting cast, Arkin is terrific, while the likes of Terry O'Quinn and Paul Sorvino make a great impression.

Disney wanted The Rocketeer to become a franchise, but it barely recouped its production costs at the box office and sequel plans were killed, much to the disappointment of many. Ultimately, severe mismarketing is to blame for The Rocketeer's humiliating box office death, as the House of Mouse portrayed the picture as too much of a kiddie fare. The widely used one-sheet poster was beautifully retro but niche, and even the Blu-ray cover art makes the movie out to be far softer than it is. Indeed, Disney's marketing needed to emphasise the material's harder edge to make it an easier sell for the adults. Since the lack of jetpack action is perhaps the movie's only disappointment, it's a true cinematic crime that the planned trilogy never came to pass. It's particularly deflating since the movie would lead directly into a sequel, and you walk away wanting to spend more time with these characters. Nevertheless, it's at least comforting to know that we'll always have this 1991 gem in our video libraries for many years to come.


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Plodding, overlong sci-fi effort

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 21 April 2014 10:33 (A review of Divergent)

"You're different. You don't fit into a category. They can't control you. They call it Divergent. You can't let them find out about you."

Based on the novel by Veronica Roth, 2014's Divergent is yet another attempt to adapt a young adult novel series for the big screen, following in the shadow of Twilight and The Hunger Games. But rather than a promising opening instalment in a potential franchise, Divergent is a total misfire, crippled by an air of utter blandness all the way through to its core. It's perhaps marginally more watchable than the apocalyptic disaster that this reviewer had anticipated, but that's hardly a ringing endorsement. Although the seeds of an interesting story are here, director Neil Burger fails to give adequate life to the material, resulting in a lethally dull, plodding, agonisingly overlong sci-fi effort featuring a cast of wooden underwear models.

In the aftermath of a devastating nuclear war which crippled the world, humanity is reborn into a tightly-ordered society split into five factions: Abnegation, Amity, Candor, Dauntless, and Erudite. As children reach adulthood, they are compelled to choose their faction, undergoing a test which recommends their destiny. An Abnegation native, Beatrice (Shailene Woodley) is tested and deemed to be Divergent, meaning her personal drive goes beyond the factions, and she cannot be controlled. Covering up the truth in fear of lethal repercussions, Beatrice chooses Dauntless as her new faction, rechristening herself under the name of Tris as she commences a gruelling training regiment designed to weed out the weak. Immediately, Beatrice stands out to leader Four (Theo Games), who offers warmth as she struggles to find her place and keep her secret hidden. Added to this, Erudite's ultimate plan for Dauntless is gradually revealed, which compels Beatrice to take action.

Out of all the Y.A. adaptations from the past few years, Divergent is the most formulaic, right down to its structure and messages. Comparisons will immediately be drawn between The Hunger Games and Divergent, as both are sci-fi stories set in a dystopian society featuring a strong female protagonist determined to lead a rebellion against corrupt government force, and there's romance in the air to boot. The story also adheres to the well-worn formula of using a conventional fantasy/sci-fi setting as a metaphor for the American high school system, and the fact that Beatrice/Tris is different is just an obvious allegory for adolescent problems. After all, Tris doesn't feel that she can fulfil the adult world's expectations of her, and she abhors the society of crushing conformity in which she cannot fit in. So, basically, Tris' experience is what's known as being a teenager, allowing the target demographic to believe that all of their weird personality traits and self-centred angst actually makes them The Chosen One. See how easy and trite all this hogwash truly is? Wasn't this stuff already covered well enough in Twilight? Harry Potter? The Hunger Games? Sure, originality is borderline impossible in this day and age, but would a bit of innovation be too much to ask, especially since these stories are always about standing out from the norm and not conforming?

Divergent is in dire need of a more judicious editor, as it drags on and on for the better part of 140 minutes. While the runtime might seem necessary to flesh out the characters and the story, a lot of flab could easily be trimmed, as the movie feels punishing rather than rewarding as the finish line approaches. Indeed, there are at least four or five climaxes when the movie seems to be on the verge of ending, only for another complication to arise. There's no sense of tension to the build-up, with a large chunk of the runtime dedicated to humdrum training sequences ripped from the likes of Starship Troopers and Ender's Game, while Tris forges relationships with thankless supporting characters who won't matter until the sequel. Scene after scene falls flat, in need of zippier pacing and a sense of momentum that should accompany this dystopian panic.

Despite decent production values, Divergent feels more like a television show pilot as opposed to a big-screen epic. Hell, some sci-fi shows like Almost Human actually have more grandeur than what's glimpsed here. Perhaps one of the film's biggest issues is that this futuristic vision is not engaging or exciting in the least - it's painfully generic, and there's not enough flair to Burger's direction to compensate for the monotonous visual scheme. The Hunger Games at least bothered to green-screen the cast into some type of vision of the future; here, Tris and her pals run around cheap sets and bland ruined city locales. Admittedly, the enterprise does grow more interesting as the action-oriented climax approaches, and Burger handles the shootouts with some competency, but the experience up until this point is too numbing and ponderous that it doesn't matter much in the grand scheme of things.

Although Woodley has proven talent, she's an unremarkable protagonist here, paling in comparison to Jennifer Lawrence. It's unclear whether the blame falls with Burger or Woodley, but Beatrice/Tris is shockingly one-note from start to finish, showing no palpable growth as she develops from meek girl to determined revolutionary. Not to mention, the completely contrived love story between Beatrice and Four gains precisely no traction - rather than a relationship which grows organically, the subplot feels awkwardly shoehorned in for the sake of formula. The rest of the actors are utterly personality-free, and there isn't a bad-looking specimen in sight - the casting call must have explicitly stated "abs required." Theo James is simply one of those Channing Tatum types who's destined to become confused with ten other actors, while Woodley's The Spectacular Now co-star Miles Teller displays the acting prowess of a fire hydrant. Tragically, the proven actors of the cast are mostly relegated to thankless supporting roles. Maggie Q has maybe ten minutes of screen-time with no action moments, while Ray Stevenson achieves precisely nothing and Kate Winslet sleep-walks through a flat villain role. Meanwhile, Ashley Judd does what she can with the material, but watching her run around playing action hero only provokes unintentional hilarity.

The Hunger Games truly found its footing and soared for its 2013 sequel, Catching Fire, and it would be a satisfying surprise to see the planned Divergent sequels attain similar success. As it is, this opening entry is a stillborn, and it's difficult to become at all involved or interested in all the on-screen malarkey. It might work for unfussy viewers as it's watchable from time to time, but there's so much wasted potential here.


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Still not amazing. It's barely decent.

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 19 April 2014 05:11 (A review of The Amazing Spider-Man 2)

"Everyday I wake up knowing that no matter how many lives I protect, no matter how many people call me a hero, someone even more powerful could change everything."

Although 2012's The Amazing Spider-Man earned a healthy $750 million at the worldwide box office, it was a missed opportunity all-round, a careless reboot that fell short of the Sam Raimi-directed trilogy which preceded it. Hoping to persist with a sprawling Spider-Man franchise to compete with Marvel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 manages to correct several of the issues of its predecessor, as it's a smoother ride that benefits from superior technical execution. Unfortunately, this follow-up is still burdened by a tremendously messy script - it's overstuffed and tries to do far too much throughout its agonisingly prolonged 140-minute runtime. The cameras did begin rolling for this sequel barely six months following the release of the 2012 film, which is not exactly a sign that the writing process was deemed to be overly important in the grand scheme of things. The result may be mildly watchable as a summer blockbuster, but it's not a keeper by any means - it's a forgettable, half-baked mishmash of the comic book's greatest hits, without much in the way of emotional heft.

Now a high school graduate, Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) is struggling to maintain his relationship with girlfriend Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). Still haunted by the death of her father, Peter finds himself conflicted, realising it might be better for Gwen's wellbeing if he simply left her alone. Meanwhile, geeky, socially-awkward Spider-Man fanatic Max Dillon (Jamie Foxx) is involved in an after-hours workplace incident at Oscorp, turning him into Electro and giving him the ability to manipulate electricity. Peter also attempts to reconnect with old friend Harry Osborn (Dane DeHaan), who's reeling from the death of his father Norman (Chris Cooper). Learning that he will ultimately die from his father's disease, Harry begins seeking a cure, and hopes that Spider-Man's blood might bestow him with the ability to self-heal. But the unstable Harry is thrown over the edge when he's fired from his father's company, leading him to enlist the help of Electro in order to get what he wants.

While bits and pieces of The Amazing Spider-Man 2 do work, the narrative as a whole is a huge mess; a collection of scenes and set-pieces without a proper through-line. The plot is ostensibly about Peter working to defeat Electro while dealing with his relationship complications, but the majority of the narrative tracks Peter playing Sherlock Holmes as he endeavours to figure out what happened to his parents. As a consequence, Electro feels like a real wasted opportunity, as he develops into too much of a fringe threat when he should be the primary focus. Worse, the mystery of Peter's parents still leaves questions to be answered in future instalments, and the arc feels utterly incomplete. But perhaps the biggest insult is the ending - the film continues beyond its logical closure point, ultimately cutting to black in the middle of a skirmish that will lead directly into Film 3. It's the equivalent of tagging the first ten minutes of The Dark Knight onto the end of Batman Begins. The Amazing Spider-Man 2 basically feels like a trailer for The Amazing Spider-Man 3, rather than a compelling standalone story.

Unfortunately, villainous motivations are entirely lacking here. Max's transformation into the Big Bad Guy™ is half-baked and slipshod - he's established as a stereotypical loner who opts to use his powers simply to get himself noticed by his peers, but Max's decision to attack the city and kill Spider-Man has no motivation behind it. Harry's characterisation is similarly slipshod - he becomes the villainous Green Goblin simply because the script demands it. Raimi's films might get flack in hindsight, but each of the villains in his trilogy were given sufficiently believable reasons to turn to villainy, and some even saw the error of their ways. It would seem that the script here relies on the flimsy comic logic of "super powers = villain," but this rocky justification clashes with the serious tone. The Twilight influence is still very much in evidence here, too - the on and off relationship between Peter and Gwen is ripped directly from New Moon, with the characters wanting to be together but Peter realising he's putting his girlfriend in jeopardy.

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also continues to distance itself from the Raimi trilogy by changing up aspects of the mythology, but again most of the alterations are outright wrong-headed. As it turns out, Peter was more or less destined to become Spider-Man, a moronic decision which completely erodes Peter's status as an accidental hero. Added to this, Oscorp is basically behind everything that happens throughout the film - the creation of Electro, Harry's transformation to the Green Goblin, and even the construction of all the tech which will be utilised by future villains. And just for good measure, pretty much everything else is linked to Oscorp - Gwen and Max are both employees, Peter's father also worked for Oscorp and was killed whilst on the run from them, and so on. It's far too convenient, and, like I said in my review of the previous movie, it makes a sprawling universe of possibilities feel small and riddled with coincidence. Worse, it feels as if various cosmetic changes were made simply to distance this film from the Raimi trilogy, rather than feeling organic to this new franchise.

To his credit, Webb is beginning to find his feet as a blockbuster filmmaker - The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a livelier flick than its predecessor, adopting a more colourful look as opposed to the desaturated visuals of the 2012 movie. The action beats are more competent for this go-round as well, and anyone seeking conventionally "cool" summertime entertainment will likely walk away satisfied. Unfortunately, though, Webb leans on the slow motion stuff way too much, and the overly digital look of such moments completely takes you out of the experience. There's a bold occurrence late into the climax which almost manages to generate emotion, but Webb mostly mucks it up by using gratuitous slo-mo, excessive CGI, and plenty of distractions to make it look "awesome," reminding us that this is a blockbuster engineered to appeal to ADHD-inflicted teenagers. On a more positive note, the dramatic moments do work much better, and the pacing is more sure-footed. The script gives Peter some amusing moments of smarminess amid the action, which do work more often than not. The 3-D is an improvement over the last movie, though it's still mostly underwhelming and disposable.

Garfield's confused Peter Parker interpretation returns for this instalment. It's an inconsistent performance, and the script still can't figure out who this character is beyond a generic Edward Cullen clone. It's once again Stone who runs away with the entire film, showing that she's both a perfect Gwen Stacy and an ideal female lead. It's just a shame that the material is far below Stone's immense talents. Meanwhile, in the role of Max/Electro, Foxx is almost a total bust. As Max, his verbal bluster is over-the-top and the character is too exaggerated to be believable, while as Electro he doesn't own the screen like a primary villain should. Furthermore, there's no continuity between Max and Electro, as he turns into an entirely different person after the accident for no good reason. Paul Giamatti also shows up as a criminal who will presumably take centre stage in the next sequel, but it's hard to take the character seriously - he's a cartoon through-and-through, clashing with Webb's insistence on a realistic tone. It doesn't work. Likewise betrayed by the material is DeHaan, who pretty much replicates his performance from the superior Chronicle, only without the depth and consistency. The movie also wastes the chance for a Stan Lee cameo, squandering him for a completely forgettable one-scene role.

Ultimately, much like its predecessor, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is more concerned with looking towards future films than it is with providing a cohesive, satisfying standalone motion picture. It keeps shuffling forward, deploying more characters who won't mean much until the next one (Mary-Jane Watson was in the movie initially, played by Shailene Woodley, but her scenes were cut in post-production) and hinting at what's going to happen in further sequels. While this type of set-up might be acceptable in a television series with a new episode each week, such content is completely unsatisfying in major motion pictures, as they're a far scarcer commodity. Marvel Studios tease future instalments in their movies, sure, but said features have their own individual stories to tell, mostly saving the teases for post-credits scenes. Iron Man 2 was the only Marvel movie which blatantly existed to set up The Avengers, and it's widely regarded as one of the studio's weakest efforts. Look, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is an enjoyable mess, but it's a mess nevertheless. Peter doesn't undergo much of an arc throughout the story, and the movie isn't really about anything - it plays out as an expensive toy commercial without any thematic relevance, humanity, or depth. We deserve better.


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Delivers on expectations

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 12 April 2014 05:04 (A review of The Raid 2: Berandal)

"It will be a few months. You can't know where I am. And I can't be seen anywhere near you."

Sequels to hit motion pictures are always a dubious proposition, especially action sequels which very rarely live up to their predecessors, let alone surpass them. 2014's The Raid 2: Berandal is one of the rare exceptions to the rule, however. Written and directed yet again by Gareth Evans, this sequel to 2012's The Raid: Redemption confidently raises the bar for contemporary action movies, with astonishing scenes of martial arts that most likely will never be topped. Whereas its predecessor was a small-scale action fiesta, Berandal is closer to The Departed (or Infernal Affairs, the Hong Kong film which spawned it) as it's imbued with a denser story and it's much bigger in scale. Nevertheless, it feels like an organic continuation, and it delivers the type of bone-crunching fights and breathtaking action beats that the niche audience expect to see.

Picking up mere hours after the events of the previous flick, police officer Rama (Iko Uwais) is recruited to take part in a covert undercover operation which hopes to expose the city's corrupt police. Sent deep undercover as a prison inmate, Rama wins the trust of Uco (Arifin Putra), a pretty-boy gangster whose father heads a powerful crime family. Rama serves two years behind bars, after which he's accepted into the Bangun crime family alongside Uco. Rama's incredible fighting skills render him a valuable asset, and, before long, he's at the centre of the family's criminal machinations, struggling to maintain his integrity along the way. As a war burgeons, Uco becomes increasingly unstable and unpredictable.

Berandal actually started life as an original film, intended to be produced not long after Evans' 2009 feature Merantau. However, after funding fell through, Evans opted for a smaller project which became The Raid. Subsequently, Evans possessed the clout that he needed to finally produce Berandal, retooling the screenplay to follow on from The Raid, therefore justifying the movie's existence beyond mindless cash grab. It's a massive credit to Evans that Berandal is as smooth as it is. There's a dense narrative at play here, with plenty of story to work through over the gargantuan two-and-a-half hour runtime, yet the film at no point feels like homework. Evans perpetually maintains a glorious pace, deploying action sequences when necessary to give viewers a jump-start before boredom can set it. Even more laudable is that it's surprisingly easy to keep tabs on the sizeable ensemble, ensuring that you'll never mistake one character for another. It is a bloated effort, and at least one or two subplots feel indulgent (especially one minor character who's given his own subplot for no compelling reason), but the movie nevertheless comes together and works well enough.

Despite the bigger scale, Berandal is permeated with the same tone and style as its predecessor, with similar digital photography and grimy locales. Without the constraints of a single building, the action feels unconfined, allowing for plenty of hand-to-hand combat in a variety of settings, and there's even a stunning car chase for good measure. Production for this follow-up was ongoing for the better part of eight months, with the final fight scene alone reportedly taking up to six weeks to choreograph and shoot. As a result, Berandal contains arguably the greatest scenes of martial artistry in cinematic history, stylishly photographed by cinematographers Matt Flannery and Dimas Imam Subhono. To be sure, the camera movements are a bit on the jittery side as fists, blades and feet fly, but it's easy to discern what's going on, and the style results in heightened intensity. Evans employed dozens of talented fighters, and puts every single one of them to good use. There is not a single punch or kick which looks faked, and there are so many painful falls and brutal deaths that one must wonder if any of the stunt guys landed in hospital as a result.

Berandal is a vicious movie, convincingly earning its R-rating before the five-minute mark with the image of a shotgun blast obliterating a human head. Also outstanding is a lengthy kitchen brawl in which Rama goes toe-to-toe with a fighter of almost equal ability, resulting in violence so visceral and merciless that you'll be on the edge of your seat the entire time. Evans likely used minor digital effects to depict various wounds as he did with the original movie, but once again it's more or less seamless. Berandal also benefits from a stellar cast, with Uwais showing himself to be both an awesome fighter and a solid leading man. However, its Putra as Uco who dominates the movie, coming across as a suave, psychopathic villain. Other outstanding new additions include Julie Estelle and Very Tri Yulisman, who play a brother and sister duo with incredible fighting abilities. Estelle wields dual hammers in ways that make Oldboy look tame, while Yulisman uses an aluminium baseball bat to hugely painful effect. It's spectacular.

Although there's no denying the jaw-dropping competence of the fight scenes, a number of the conflicts do grow repetitive, and more variety to the action could've catapulted the movie into the stratosphere. Sure, there is a breathtaking car chase, but shootouts are all too rare, which is completely baffling considering that these gangsters should have an arsenal of guns, and it'd be a lot easier for them to just shoot Rama when he engages in fisticuffs with them. This aside, The Raid 2: Berandal is a home run which doesn't fall victim to usual sequel pratfalls. It may be bigger and better, but it doesn't lose sight of what made The Raid a cult success in the first place.


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Everything is indeed awesome

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 11 April 2014 01:49 (A review of The Lego Movie)

"The prophecy is made up, but it's also true. It's about all of us. Right now, it's about you. And you... still... can change everything."

The Lego Movie is a blast of pure awesomeness, an infinitely enjoyable animated feature which lives up to and surpasses its hype. Masterminded by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller (21 Jump Street, Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), it's a strikingly original piece of cinema, on top of being perhaps the boldest motion picture of 2014 so far. Here is a computer-animated movie with deliberately rocky animation to emulate the look of a YouTube stop-motion effort, and it's so infectiously funny and creative that it frequently feels like a devilishly goofy fan film. With an immense sense of energy and plenty of imagination, The Lego Movie is snappy and amusing, and it's difficult to wipe the smile off your face as you watch it.

In the land of Bricksburg, Emmet (Chris Pratt) is a completely nondescript construction worker, with no distinguishing characteristics to make him stand out to his colleagues. Running the city is President Business (Will Ferrell), who brainwashes the public into a carefree life of routine, encouraging them to watch cell-deadening TV shows like Where Are My Pants? and buy overpriced coffee. When Emmet stumbles upon a centuries-old red brick known as the "Piece of Resistance," he's identified by the mysterious Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks) as the "Special" - the chosen one expected to fulfil a prophecy maintained by blind wizard Vitruvius (Morgan Freeman). With President Business and his minion, Good Cop/Bad Cop (Liam Neeson), determined to reclaim the Piece of Resistance, Emmet sets out with Wyldstyle and Batman (Will Arnett), seeking to evade capture and prevent Business' nefarious plans.

The Lego Movie's opening moments are utter perfection, establishing the world inhabited by Emmet while effectively displaying the movie's snowballing tone. The tour of Bricksburg is a joy, with sly visual touches and even a sequence of Emmet's colleagues motivating themselves throughout the workday by perpetually singing Everything is Awesome, a song so insanely catchy that it's destined to become a pop culture staple.

For the majority of its runtime, The Lego Movie is an absolute hoot, providing nonstop laughs and quirkiness as it lurches from one uproarious, creative set-piece to the next at a breathless pace. It feels like the type of narrative that many of us would concoct as kids while playing with toys, before we were restrained by annoying notions of reality. Although an entire feature consisting of such sequences would be fun enough, Lord and Miller go above and beyond the call of duty, dabbling in Pixar levels of maturity for the final act. The story takes an unexpected left turn, leading to a jaw-dropping reveal about the true nature of the existence of this universe. From there, the movie provides a poignant rumination on the wonders of childhood and the importance of playtime which may move some to tears. The Lego Movie not only features Lego prominently, but it's also an affectionate love letter to the toy brand, and it ponders Lego's place in the modern pop culture canon. Who on Earth expected that?

Practically everything in The Lego Movie is made of Lego. The people, the buildings, the fires, the landscapes, the explosions, the water - there is not a single frame of animation that's not comprised of Lego pieces. The movie never tries to hide this fact, constantly calling attention to its artifice in a playful fashion, wanting us to buy this as some homemade stop-motion film. There are plenty of wonderfully quirky touches for the nerds in the audience, from the various uproarious piss-takes and movie references, to the variety of Lego-built kingdoms that the characters tour through. Also impressive are the various cameos, giving the flick an enchanting sense of spontaneity and surprise. Suffice it to say, it would be borderline criminal to spoil any of the pleasures to unearth here, but rest assured it maintains attention almost effortlessly.

The Lego Movie could almost be watched without sound due to the lush visual presentation, but to do so would be to miss out on all the wonderful jokes that are sold with top-flight comedic timing. The goofy dialogue rarely lets up, and the script is peppered with side-splitting wordplay. Not to mention, the vocal performances all-round are spectacular, particularly Liam Neeson who has a ball as Good Cop/Bad Cop. It's also wonderful to hear Morgan Freeman's distinctive voice amid the chaos, while the likes of Pratt and Banks hit their marks beautifully. But surprisingly, one of the movie's biggest assets is Arnett as Batman. The portrayal of the Caped Crusader here is magnificent, with Lord and Miller gleefully skewering the dark, brooding, gravelly-voiced portrayal of Bats that we've been subjected to over the past decade.

If The Lego Movie wasn't masterminded by Lord or Miller, it would have been exactly the type of bland, safe, paint-by-numbers distraction that the project sounded like in the first place. Even though the movie is basically a 100-minute commercial for the world-famous building bricks, it's marketing pulled off in an inspired and satisfying manner. From start to finish, the picture is a through-and-through hoot, a genuine masterpiece which will likely wind up in the year's top 10. And even better is that it has arrived so early in 2014 after a disappointing year of animated movies, setting the bar extremely high. Kids will be in heaven, while adults will appreciate it on various levels. You will also be left wondering just how Lord and Miller were able to smuggle this borderline perfect gem into cinemas.


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A genuine game-changer

Posted : 1 year, 5 months ago on 4 April 2014 05:59 (A review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier )

"Captain, in order to build a better world, sometimes means turning the old one down... And that makes enemies."

Marvel doesn't have the best track record with second instalments, with Iron Man 2 and 2013's Thor: The Dark World both paling in comparison to their respective predecessors. But whatever curse once existed has now faded with the release of 2014's Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a sequel which not only improves upon its satisfying predecessor but also emerges as perhaps the best Marvel feature to date. Whereas 2011's Captain America: The First Avenger was an old-fashioned WWII thriller, this follow-up is a modern spy potboiler with a fresh identity, taking the franchise in new and exciting directions. Helmed by Anthony and Joe Russo, The Winter Soldier is intricate in its plotting, character development and political satire, yet also boasts some of the best action sequences in the Marvel canon to date, making this a hugely enjoyable sit which doesn't require a temporary lobotomy prior to viewing.

While on a dangerous assignment to foil the pirate takeover of a mysterious ship, Steve Rogers, a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), develops suspicions that S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and colleague Natasha Romanoff/Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) are keeping him uninformed on potentially important matters. He's disillusioned by the possibility, but he's forced back into duty with the arrival of the fearless, powerful assassin known as The Winter Soldier. When one of Rogers' friends is gunned down by the formidable foe, it becomes clear that S.H.I.E.L.D. has been compromised and nobody can be trusted. With high-ranking S.H.I.E.L.D. official Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford) wanting Rogers captured, the Captain goes on the run with Romanoff seeking to get to the bottom of the conspiracy. Also lending a hand is war veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie), who's experienced in using a special wing-controlled jetpack.

Written by Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, The Winter Soldier benefits from a crackling story which allows room for action, pathos, and the opportunity to comment on America's current political affairs. Added to this, the screenplay further develops Rogers as a character - The Avengers barely scratched the surface of Cap's assimilation into modern society, but The Winter Soldier shows the WWII veteran endeavouring to get a handle on the 21st Century and catch up on what he's missed. But it doesn't take long for the rug to be pulled out from underneath him, leaving Rogers to come to grips with the bleak reality of contemporary warfare full of high-tech surveillance and complex tactics, rather than good old-fashioned derring-do. Added to this, there are hefty twists at play throughout the story with huge repercussions, reintroducing unexpected characters and making a huge impact on the Marvel Cinematic Universe at large. Indeed, the ramifications of the proceedings here will reverberate throughout Marvel's other properties forever. The Winter Soldier is a bold movie, and it feels like the work of an auteur with a vision (or, in this case, two auteurs with a shared vision) rather than a committee of soulless studio executives.

The Russos were perhaps not the most logical pair for a Marvel blockbuster - their last film was the lackadaisical Owen Wilson comedy You, Me and Dupree, and they have a long track record in television. Yet, they prove their worth from the first very frame, forging a distinct cinematic aesthetic that's gritty without being dour. Similar to Shane Black's Iron Man 3, the Russos infuse The Winter Soldier with a unique identity, approaching the material not as a standard comic book affair but as a twisty, intense, character-centric espionage thriller. The directors endeavoured to achieve as much of the movie as possible with practical effects, and it shows, with grounded action sequences and suspenseful gun battles which are far more involving than the overly digital set-pieces that have become the norm in comic book flicks. The tone is more restrained, as well, harkening back to '70s thrillers as opposed to its superhero brethren. There are also some amusing little touches here and there, including Cap's list of cultural touchstones he wants to investigate, and a sly Easter Egg on a tombstone towards the film's end.

The action sequences of Marvel productions are mostly built around ray guns, monster punches and magic hammers, but the set-pieces in The Winter Soldier almost exclusively involve blades, bullets, fists and bombs. This is easily Marvel's most violent screen outing, with a gargantuan body count and plenty of shootouts. It retains its coveted PG-13 certificate by keeping blood and viscera out of frame, but it's nevertheless brutal. The Russos also foreground hand-to-hand combat, staging hugely impressive fight scenes boasting superb choreography. Most pulse-pounding is a sequence featuring Rogers battling an entire security team in a crowded elevator, taking them out with astonishing speed and skill. It's all photographed gorgeously by cinematographer Trent Opaloch, while Henry Jackman's accompanying soundtrack is perfection. As with all Marvel movies, The Winter Soldier eventually climaxes with a large action sequence ladled in CGI, but it feels almost obligatory and clashes with the movie's tone. Still, it's not enough to ruin the effort, as the Russos make the battle hugely exciting and even find time for emotion amid the pyrotechnics.

This is Evans' third screen outing as the noble, kind-hearted, muscular Captain America, and he remains absolutely spot-on, infusing his performance with a lived-in quality and coming across as a believable boy-scout type. This particular story asks for Evans to display more pathos than usual, and he confidently rises to the task - he conveys his guilt over the loss of his best friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), effectively emotes over the difficulty of seeing his beloved Peggy (Hayley Atwell) as an old woman, and even looks uncomfortable about the Captain America legacy when he visits his very own exhibition at the Smithsonian museum. And on top of being a confident hero, Evans charmingly interacts with Johansson and Jackson, with the former being allotted a larger role in the proceedings. Suffice it to say, Johansson is an utter delight, dispersing an array of snappy one-liners and handling the athletic action scenes like a champion.

As Alexander Pearce, Redford is a magnificent addition, providing weight and gravitas to help sell the movie as the '70s political thriller that it is. Redford absolutely kills it, and also makes us believe his power and authority from the very first scene in which he appears. Another welcome newcomer is Mackie, who plays a Rocketeer-type with plenty of charm and appeal. And it almost goes without saying that Jackson remains an effortless badass as Nick Fury. Furthermore, the Winter Soldier himself is a remarkable villain - he's strong, fast and physically intimidating, not to mention the story behind him (which will likely extend into the next movie) is one of the most interesting things in the Marvel franchise so far.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a genuine game changer, both in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and the superhero genre in general. It may clock in at over two hours, yet not a single scene feels unnecessary. It will almost undoubtedly stand as the finest constituent of Phase Two of Marvel's cinematic world-building effort, and it manages to build anticipation for both the next Avengers and the third instalment in the standalone Captain America series. As always, be sure to hang around until the end of the credits for two additional scenes; one in the middle of the credits, and one after the credits. Let's just say that fans are destined to leave the cinema salivating.


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Funny, good-natured and full of great songs

Posted : 1 year, 5 months ago on 31 March 2014 10:26 (A review of Muppets Most Wanted )

"Not one single person noticed I'd been replaced by an evil criminal mastermind?"

Despite its shortcomings in terms of pacing and character focus, 2011's The Muppets was a delightful revivification of the ailing Muppets franchise, making Jim Henson's iconic creations feel relevant once again. Striking while the iron's hot, 2014's Muppets Most Wanted retains director James Bobin and co-writer Nicholas Stoller, who actually improve upon their last endeavour, providing more laughs and plenty of inspired silliness, not to mention a superb selection of original songs. Whereas its 2011 predecessor was fundamentally the ultimate fan film, Muppets Most Wanted aims to get back to Muppet basics as if the gang never left. Thus, this new outing follows the template set by the original Henson-era trilogy, introducing a flimsy plot which blatantly exists as an excuse for gags, antics and songs.

The Muppets was imbued with a very meta narrative, chronicling the Muppet gang getting back together and setting out to reclaim their popularity. Muppets Most Wanted is just as meta, with the little furry guys wondering what they should do for a sequel. Kermit (Steve Whitmire) and his friends are soon approached by manager Dominic Badguy (Ricky Gervais), who talks the gang into embarking on a tour of Europe. Meanwhile, evil Russian frog Constantine (Matt Vogel) escapes from a Siberian prison run by Nadya (Tina Fey), promptly swapping identities with Kermit to send the famous amphibian behind bars while he takes control of the Muppets. Using the tour as cover, Dominic and Constantine begin pulling off heists across Europe, stealing artwork and artefacts which will lead them to a larger fortune. In prison, Kermit tries to adapt to his new lifestyle, eventually collaborating with his intimidating inmates (including Ray Liotta, Jemaine Clement, and Danny Trejo) to stage a talent show. Added to this, a bumbling Interpol inspector (Ty Burrell) teams up with C.I.A. Agent Sam the Eagle (Eric Jacobson) to investigate Constantine's burglaries.

There's quite a lot of story to work through in Muppets Most Wanted, but Bobin manages to juggle the ensemble quite effectively. All the Muppet characters are given a proper look-in - including Fozzie (Jacobson), Miss Piggy (also Jacobson), Animal (Jacobson again) and Gonzo (Dave Goelz), not to mention Walter (Peter Linz), the protagonist of the last film who's part of the gang this time around. And, of course, the inimitable Statler and Waldorf also show up on a few occasions to wittily heckle yet again. Although the flick is overlong at almost 110 minutes, it has a snappy pace and ample momentum, deploying plenty of amusing moments and uproarious set-pieces. Added to this, there is heart, mainly in Kermit's character arc - the subplot involving Kermit feeling underappreciated by his friends and rediscovering his mojo by staging the prison talent show is utter gold.

It would be easier create the Muppet characters digitally, but thankfully the makers of Muppets Most Wanted avoided the temptation, relying on old-school puppetry while only using CGI to erase rods and puppeteers. Hence, the spirit of the Muppets is retained, and it helps that the movie recaptures the meta disposition of earlier endeavours. Just like 1979's The Muppet Movie, the Muppets are all perfectly aware that they're in a motion picture, to the extent that the flick even opens with the troupe singing a song called We're Doing a Sequel in which they acknowledge the difficulties of attempting a follow-up. More than that, Muppets Most Wanted literally begins where 2011's The Muppets left off, showing the crew wrapping their work on the previous endeavour and discussing where to go next. The movie is playful and fun from the very first frame - there's even reference to fan criticism of the last film.

As with all Muppet features, Muppets Most Wanted is one step away from being a full-blown musical. Fortunately, the selection of toe-tapping tunes are of a high standard here. Only a few songs from the last picture were memorable (including the Oscar-winning Man or Muppet), but every musical number here is a winner. Written by Bret McKenzie (who was also involved with the 2011 film), the song list is absolutely fantastic, with a number of instant classics that'll prompt you to rush out and buy the soundtrack. On top of the insanely catchy original ditties, there's also a new rendition of Together Again (from The Muppets Take Manhattan). Plus, Muppets Most Wanted continues the great Muppet tradition of celebrity cameos. It would be unwise to spoil the surprises within, but rest assured there are plenty of recognisable faces, amplifying the sense of fun.

Luckily, Muppets Most Wanted returns Kermit and Miss Piggy to the fore where they belong. Both Jason Segel and Amy Adams stepped away for this instalment, but you honestly won't miss them. All of the Muppet performers give it their all here, and still have wonderful singing voices. Of course, one still misses the vocal talents of Frank Oz and Jim Henson, and some of the roles never sound quite right, but it's easy to overlook this aspect and enjoy the ride. The human factor is also solid here, with the likes of Gervais clearly having a ball playing alongside the ironic felt creatures. But Fey is the standout, espousing a cartoonish Russian accent and filling her performance with enthusiasm. Meanwhile, Burrell is amusing as the Clouseau-esque Interpol agent, making for a perfect companion for Sam the Eagle. Amusingly, Sam is actually the straight man here to Burrell's bumbling Frenchman, whose behaviour frustrates the American bird to no end.

Purists may continue to complain about Frank Oz's exclusion, as well as the fact that Muppets Most Wanted has a few trivial similarities to The Great Muppet Caper and even climaxes with a wedding between Kermit and Miss Piggy even though they ostensibly married in The Muppets Take Manhattan. Yet, Oz's exclusion was his choice alone and it's no fault of the filmmakers. Plus, the story isn't anything like The Great Muppet Caper at all, and the wedding in Manhattan was just part of a show. Besides, since when was continuity ever a big deal in this franchise? Kermit and Fozzie were identical twin brothers in The Great Muppet Caper, after all.

Muppets Most Wanted is small-scale, good-natured and light, which is good enough. It's funny and the songs work, which is what matters the most in a Muppet movie. Best of all, it's a family film suitable for the kids which also works for adults and franchise fans. Bobin and Stoller have truly found their groove for this instalment, creating plenty of madcap antics for the Muppets while sustaining love and respect for the long-standing entertainers.


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