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The best kind of action sequel

Posted : 11 months, 1 week ago on 14 August 2017 07:37 (A review of John Wick: Chapter Two (2017))

Ostensibly appearing out of nowhere, 2014's John Wick exceeded all reasonable expectations, belying its low-budget origins to blow film-goers away with astonishing gun-fu and outstanding cinematography, becoming one of the best movies of the year. For 2017's John Wick: Chapter 2, stuntman-turned-filmmaker Chad Stahelski returns to direct another round of adrenaline-charged carnage, crafting an organic-feeling continuation that adds further expanse to both the franchise and the intricate, intriguing world that it inhabits. Gloriously violent and inventive, Chapter 2 is the best kind of action sequel, as it goes bigger but never loses sight of the charms of its predecessor. Compared to big-budget summer blockbusters, the John Wick movies offer a refreshing dose of ferocious, old-school action that's considerably more gripping than motion pictures that cost five times as much. For action lovers, John Wick: Chapter 2 is pure heaven.

After exacting revenge against the Russian mafia and retrieving the beloved car that was stolen from, John Wick (Keanu Reeves) hopes to re-enter retirement and leave his past behind him for good this time. However, John's peace is once again broken when Italian crime figure Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) demands that he honour a Marker, forcing the former assassin to once again pick up his tools and return to work. Santino tasks John with the assassination of his sister (Claudia Gerini), which would allow him to take her seat at a top-secret organisation for crime families. John completes the job in Rome, attracting more enemies along the way, but Santino instantly betrays him, putting a substantial bounty on John's head to hopefully prevent any future problems. With hitmen of all shapes and sizes coming after him, John endeavours to keep himself alive long enough to get revenge on Santino.

John Wick was marvellous in its simplicity, using the basic premise of a one-man-army revenge tale as a jumping-off point for a slick mood piece filled with insanely-choreographed action set-pieces and efficient storytelling. Once again scripted by Derek Kolstad, Chapter 2 is beefier at two hours in length, widening the world in which these talented killers operate, and moving overseas to show the breadth of the Continental Hotel network. Admittedly, the action is slower to start compared to the original movie - Chapter 2 opens with a thrilling extended sequence of vehicular mayhem (picking up right where the 2014 film ended), but the first half is otherwise devoid of set-pieces. However, Stahelski guides the material with a sure hand, maintaining a rhythm that's unhurried but never boring, and the universe-building is fascinating to boot. It's a treat to see John in Europe as he carefully selects his weaponry (complete with a brilliant Peter Serafinowicz cameo) and gets fitted for a tactical suit, and it also helps that the movie has an endearing sense of humour about itself - in a cameo appearance, Peter Stormare can only sit in his office and listen to the carnage going on outside, terrified that John is going to come after him.

Stahelski directs solo this time (his John Wick co-director David Leitch was off making Atomic Blonde), and it's clear that his skills as a filmmaker have only grown. With double the budget of the first movie, Chapter 2 goes absolutely bananas for its action set-pieces, which are big, insanely violent, and tightly-edited. John doesn't just shoot his enemies - he also breaks bones and stabs them depending on the situation, and once again the feared assassin can't be beaten in close combat. In a fun nod to the original movie, we even get to see why everybody is so afraid to let John near a pencil. Stahelski really had his work cut out for him for the finale, with a climactic shootout taking place in a hall of mirrors that must have been a logistical nightmare, but the finished sequence is a downright stunner. It's all topped off with a throbbing, heart-pounding original score by Tyler Bates and Joel J. Richard, amplifying the excitement. Miraculously, too, Chapter 2 never feels too sadistic or mean-spirited despite the level of the sheer ultraviolence on display - it's fun to watch, sold with an agreeable sense of glee. However, the movie never comes across as campy, with Stahelski instead maintaining a hard edge throughout.

Since this is a sequel, it did need to raise to stakes, and therefore it ran the risk of ruining the established belief that John is the unstoppable "boogeyman" since this time so many trained killers come after him seeking a payday. Luckily, Reeves has a real talent for physical acting, so while he is capable of pulling off insane fight moves, Reeves makes it clear that such acts do exhaust John and each assassin can only slow him down a little - and it's only the cumulative effort that may just bring him down. Additionally, it's a real treat to see John so well-matched against Cassian (Common), who's certainly no slouch when it comes to fisticuffs. Thanks to slick cinematography courtesy of Dan Laustsen, Chapter 2 is visually identical to its predecessor; every sequence makes smart use of colourful lighting techniques, instantly making it more aesthetically pleasing than most other contemporary action flicks. Furthermore, modern actioners have grown to rely on shaky-cam, but compositions throughout John Wick: Chapter 2 are smooth and well-judged, allowing you to watch and appreciate the mayhem without suffering a migraine. And since the action choreography is so damn good, the result is far more exciting than any shaky-cam production could hope to be.

Reeves is joined by a capable supporting cast, including his Matrix trilogy co-star Laurence Fishburne who turns in a terrific performance as a prominent underground crime lord known as The Bowery King. There are returning actors, too - Ian McShane is a delight once again as the New York City Continental manager Winston, while John Leguizamo can always be counted upon for a couple of amusing comments. The chief villain this time is Scamarcio, who's slimy and spineless in all the right ways, making for a good foil. Film buffs may also recognise Italian actor Franco Nero in a minor role as the Continental Hotel manager in Rome.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is one badass action movie, and although it leaves room for an inevitable third movie, it doesn't spend the majority of its runtime setting things up to be handled in future instalments - it's thankfully focused on the story at hand. There's so much to enjoy and digest here, with John also encountering a deadly mute assassin (played by Australian model Ruby Rose), questioning the assassin code, and of course enjoying the company of his new dog. While Chapter 2 is a stronger movie than its predecessor on the whole, it's inherently unable to replicate the same feeling of discovery that the original brought with it since nobody could have predicted that it would turn out so amazing. In an age where superhero blockbusters rule the box office, it's nice to see that old-school action still has a place in our contemporary cinematic zeitgeist.


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Too by-the-numbers considering the source

Posted : 11 months, 1 week ago on 13 August 2017 12:04 (A review of Doctor Strange)

At this point in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, a certain degree of competency is expected and it seems impossible for the studio to produce an outright bad motion picture. With this in mind, although the productions can be somewhat let down by imperfections or nit-picky things, you can always rest assured that the movies are at least good and still stand above most other blockbusters in a given year. Therefore, while 2016's Doctor Strange does fall short of the brilliance of Iron Man and The Avengers, it is a competent way to establish and introduce a new comic book superhero to the ever-expanding MCU. And with its emphasis on magic and alternate dimensions, it's a refreshing change from the norm. It's just disappointing that Doctor Strange feels so...by-the-numbers. Oh sure, it's well-made from top to bottom and the actors are superb, but the narrative structure is pure cliché and it's produced like any other superhero blockbuster when an experimental style would be more suitable considering the source.

A hotshot New York-based neurosurgeon, Stephen Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) maintains a remarkable perfect record, consistently performing miracles in operating theatres. Strange has one hell of an ego to boot, too cocky and self-absorbed to have a relationship with sweet fellow surgeon Christine (Rachel McAdams). But Strange is taught a painful lesson in humility when a horrendous car accident leaves him with severe nerve damage, rendering him no longer able to use his hands to perform surgeries. Desperate for a solution, Strange is led to Nepal in pursuit of a rumoured miracle breakthrough, finding his way to the secret compound Kamar-Taj where he meets the Ancient One (Tilda Swinton). Although Strange outright rejects the possibility of other dimensions, the Ancient One opens his eyes to the powers within him far greater than the mere physical. Accepted into the compound as a student, Strange also becomes acquainted with his mentor Mordo (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and librarian Wong (Benedict Wong). As Strange hones his skills in the Mystic Arts, former student Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) goes against the Ancient One's teachings, stealing pages from a sacred text to contact Dormammu of the Dark Dimension, putting Earth in immediate peril.

Refreshingly, Doctor Strange actually feels closer to a standalone Phase One Marvel movie, as it's welcomely unburdened of obligatory MCU connections. Additional scenes in the credits do set up future Marvel movies, and there's a subtle reference to Captain America: Civil War, but that's about it, making this one ideal for more casual viewers as well as the uninitiated. Written by Jon Spaihts (Prometheus), C. Robert Cargill (Sinister), and director Scott Derrickson, Doctor Strange adopts the time-honoured "origins story" format that's unfortunately been done to death this century alone - it's hard to shake the feeling that you've seen this narrative before. As the movie works through its familiar origins routine, it feels like homework, as there isn't enough to sufficiently enliven the material. Especially in the shadow of Deadpool, this formula is all the more rote and stale. Dialogue is not exactly a strong suit either, but at least the movie is peppered with amusing moments, and the soundtrack features a couple of catchy songs.

Even though Doctor Strange was advertised as a mind-bending, surreal extravaganza, it still plays out with an action/blockbuster sensibility due to the apparently unwritten rule that every superhero movie must be action-oriented. But here's the thing - trippy, psychedelic, colourful visuals are best appreciated when you can sit back, relax, soak in it, and properly take it all in. Thus, Derrickson concentrates on delivering large-scale, kinetic action set-pieces as opposed to deliberately-paced, surrealistic immersion and esoteric cerebral exploration that might have made for a more interesting movie, especially in the context of the MCU which is already in danger of feeling too "factory made." After all, Doctor Strange was presented as "the weird Marvel movie."

With that said, however, once you can accept that it kind of had to be an action movie, there is plenty to enjoy. The set-pieces are genuinely enthralling, observing these talented characters conjuring up weapons out of thin air, manipulating gravity, and even battling it out in the astral dimension. Doctor Strange is one of the most visually intriguing and breathtaking offerings in the MCU (next to the Guardians of the Galaxy pictures), and the $165 million budget is put to good use to create stunning battlefields of folding cities and brilliant displays of light, earning the visual effects team a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Commendably, the movie builds to a satisfying climax which allows Strange to use both his physical skills as well as his intellectual prowess as he endeavours to vanquish the powerful Dormammu. Horror maestro Scott Derrickson's last blockbuster attempt was the 2008 underperformer The Day the Earth Stood Still, and luckily he shows much better command of the material here.

Espousing a convincing enough American accent, Cumberbatch is ideal in the role of Stephen Strange, suiting the character to a tee. He convincingly conveys the various aspects of Strange - from his self-inflated cockiness to his psychological breakdown and subsequent rebuilding, Cumberbatch never sets a wrong foot. Alongside him, Ejiofor is instantly likeable, while Wong is a downright standout. Swinton chose to portray the Ancient One as androgynous, and she easily impresses in the role, while McAdams is her usual appealing self. Showing up as the primary villain is Mikkelsen, an immensely talented performer who made a huge impression in the television show Hannibal, and who has also appeared in the likes of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and The Salvation. He's reliably terrific as Kaecilius, sinister whilst simultaneously displaying his trademark charm. Also keep a lookout for action star Scott Adkins in a small role which nevertheless gives him the chance to show off his insane fighting abilities.

This review may seem overly negative in some respects, but that is certainly not my intention. For all intents and purposes, Doctor Strange is a very good, often great addition to the Marvel franchise, but its rote construction does let it down to a certain degree. Happily, however, there is still much to admire - it looks amazing, the magical powers are fascinating, and it lovingly inaugurates a new Marvel franchise that promises to be something different. With the obligatory origins story out of the way, fingers crossed that Doctor Strange 2 is an improvement - it certainly left me hungry to see a sequel. It should go without saying by now, but be sure to stick around until the end of the credits.


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The best Marvel movie in some time

Posted : 11 months, 1 week ago on 11 August 2017 04:09 (A review of Captain America: Civil War)

The status quo of the Marvel Cinematic Universe was blown to smithereens in 2014 by Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a sizzling espionage thriller which reinvented its titular superhero and took the MCU to a deeper, darker place. Thankfully, this thematic density and harder edge is preserved for 2016's Captain America: Civil War, which also sees the return of directorial duo Anthony and Joe Russo. As to be expected from a superhero blockbuster, it marches across the globe to provide expanse, but the stakes are entirely personal this time around, which is a refreshing change in such a crowded subgenre. In addition, Civil War is a more fitting thematic follow-up to 2012's The Avengers than its own underwhelming sequel, as this is as strongly a movie about a team falling apart as the first Avengers was about a team coming together. While it's removed from the playful jubilance of prior Marvel entries, Civil War still delivers bruising action set-pieces as it works through an intricate narrative, and the Russo Brothers confidently maintain control of the picture from start to finish.

When a skirmish in Lagos against bioterrorists ends in innocent deaths, the Avengers suddenly find themselves under increased scrutiny by the United Nations. Enter U.S. Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt), who proposes a legal document known as the Sokovia Accords, which would require the Avengers to seek approval from a designated U.N. panel before engaging in battles that could jeopardise innocent lives. Billionaire industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself in favour of the legislation due to the guilt he feels over both creating Ultron and devastating Sokovia, while Steve Rogers/Captain America (Chris Evans) resolutely opposes it, believing that bureaucratic control will hinder their duties and ultimately cost more lives in the long run. As a result, the Avengers are split right down the middle. In the midst of this, Rogers realises that his old friend Bucky Barnes, a.k.a. The Winter Soldier (Sebastian Stan) is being used as a patsy for global unrest, held responsible for the death of Wakandan King T'Chaka (John Kani). Convinced that Bucky is innocent and something more sinister is afoot, Rogers goes rogue to hunt for the real culprit, while the manipulative, vengeance-hungry Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl) methodically lurks in the wings.

Once again written by the pair of Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely (who scripted both Captain America: The First Avenger and The Winter Soldier), Civil War is based on the seven-issue limited series of the same name by Mark Millar, and in many ways it represents the next logical step in the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. The cost of collateral damage is not normally addressed in superhero stories, and it's fertile ground for exploration, presenting a different perspective to previous battles. Of course, it ostensibly seems as if Russo Brothers chose to deliver The Avengers 2.5 at the expense of a more focused Captain America story, but we actually get both. Civil War is a Captain America story first and foremost, as it delves further into his troubled character and largely concentrates on Rogers, but because Cap resides at Avengers headquarters and his social circle is almost exclusively compromised of the other superheroes, the movie can't help but feel like an Avengers sequel. It's also a creative way to eliminate the question of "Where are the other Avengers?" which lingers throughout other solo adventures like Iron Man 3 and Thor: The Dark World. (However, the glaring absence of Chris Hemsworth as Thor is baffling, though the Hulk's absence is understandable given the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron.)

Prior to directing The Winter Soldier, the Russo Brothers had predominantly dabbled in comedy and television, but now they've become the go-to guys for superhero extravaganzas. Civil War is a full meal, spending nearly 150 minutes working through its complex themes and narrative machinations, but it never feels strained or messy. Furthermore, just as The Winter Soldier was a more serious affair, Civil War likewise dials back the humour, a wise move after the forced, inorganic comedy which plagued Avengers: Age of Ultron. Nevertheless, laughs do permeate the movie, adding plenty of unforced levity, avoiding the dismal gloominess of Batman vs. Superman: Dawn of Justice. As to be expected, fight choreography remains top-notch - the close combat throwdowns are tight and brutal, and the characters bleed and bruise. The well-publicised battle royal at the airport, meanwhile, is a standout in the grand scheme of the MCU. Much has been said about the airport showdown, and you can believe the hype - it is thoroughly awesome in every sense of the word, observing the skilled and ornate heroes unloading on each other with their unique gifts. Furthermore, thanks to smooth cinematography and astute editing, it's always easy to follow and enjoy all of the action scenes, which are coherent and thrilling. Plus, digital effects are consistently convincing, as to be expected from a movie with this price-tag. From a visual standpoint, it's hard to fault Civil War.

Commendably, after the standout airport skirmish, the Russos dial things back a touch for the climax, which is more intimate and understated, and more rewarding as a result. It's explosive and gripping, to be sure, but it's a far cry from the scope of something like the New York City showdown in The Avengers. Incredibly, once the driving force behind the superhero civil war is identified and the motivation for the action scenes has ceased, the fighting continues because the dark secrets, deep-seated character flaws and furious emotional pain involved in this story have transcended the plot mechanics which brought them to the surface in the first place. While it's a given that more cynical, smug viewers will downplay the tremendous achievements of Civil War since it's "just another Marvel/Disney movie," the picture works as well as it does largely because Marvel has spent so many movies introducing these characters and establishing the world for this narrative to inhabit. To be sure, the screenplay isn't airtight; the villain's plan does rely on accurately predicting the behaviours of the Avengers and government with little margin for error, which is certainly ridiculous in hindsight. But then again, this is the fantastical MCU, and this nit-pick may be fixed with a retcon in a future movie.

Despite being Captain America 3, this particular Marvel adventure also introduces Peter Parker/Spider-Man (Tom Holland) and T'Challa/Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman), and both are permitted more than just a cameo. Miraculously, the script manages to handle both subplots without detracting from the central narrative, in the process negating the necessity for either hero to be subjected to a generic origins movie. (Seriously, the story you would expect to see in an introductory Black Panther movie is told in the background here.) This is the third cinematic Peter Parker in just fifteen years - after the dismal failure of the Amazing Spider-Man reboot series, Sony agreed to a rights-sharing situation to allow Spider-Man to join the MCU. Holland instantly makes an enormously positive impression in the role, right down to an authentic-sounding Queens accent, making the character feel truly alive for the first time in years. It also helps that this is the first Peter Parker to actually look like a teenager.

Speaking of the heroes, a huge cast comes out to play in this instalment (and it's set to increase again in Avengers: Infinity War). Remarkably, just about everyone gets a chance to shine here, though Rogers does undeniably remain the protagonist. Evans carries a lot on his shoulders, but manages to pull it off with ease and make us still care about him. Moreover, you can understand his perspective, as well as his frustration with the bureaucrats. Rogers and Stark have always had a humorously antagonistic relationship, as Cap's patriotism and purity clashed with Iron Man's conceited vulgarity, but it's something else to see the two truly at odds with one another. Downey Jr. is oddly serious and sombre in the role this time around, due to his change in character, which may require a period of adjustment. Still, the much-loved Marvel luminary has a real talent for witty one-liners, of which he delivers a fair few, and he handles the dramatic material without missing a beat. As Bucky, Stan is given a beefier role than ever, and he's one of the movie's secret weapons. Meanwhile, the other members of the Avengers - Scarlet Johansson, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Anthony Mackie, Paul Bettany and Jeremy Renner - hit their marks as expected, and it's a treat to see Paul Rudd return to the fray again so soon as the wise-cracking Scott Lang/Ant-Man. Elsewhere in the cast, this is the first time that Hurt has appeared in the MCU since 2008's The Incredible Hulk, and it's a nice touch to bring him back. Martin Freeman (The Hobbit, Sherlock) even shows up in a minor role.

It's often said that Marvel has little in the way of memorable villains, but that changes with Brühl as Helmut Zemo. He isn't a flashy bad guy by any means, but he's possibly the best antagonist in the MCU to date directly because of how low-key he is. His motivations are wholly understandable, and he manages to do a lot of damage without the need for super powers. Brühl is quietly chilling in the role, but he's also not out-and-out evil.

All things considered, Captain America: Civil War is the best Marvel production in some time, making up for the studio's weak 2015 output. Even though it covers a daunting amount which causes it to feel a bit leaden at times, it nevertheless doesn't feel too overstuffed. Under the careful eye of the Russo Brothers, Civil War is thrilling and consistently engaging, belying its origins as a comic book superhero film. And when the dust settles, what really sticks around and satisfies is the emotion-driven character work that the action scenes ultimately exist to facilitate and underline. Plus, even though this is a gloomy tale, it ends on a note of optimism which will ultimately lead into the next Avengers. It's also encouraging that Marvel has finally nailed a trilogy. As usual, be sure to stay tuned for both a mid-credits and a post-credits scene.


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Simply a fun, well-made monster yarn

Posted : 11 months, 2 weeks ago on 7 August 2017 03:27 (A review of Kong: Skull Island)

A quasi-remake of King Kong, 2017's Kong: Skull Island is a mightily entertaining B-movie in every sense of the word, and it represents the second instalment in Legendary Entertainment's interconnected "MonsterVerse" franchise, following 2014's Godzilla. Whereas Peter Jackson's 2005 reimagining of King Kong augmented its spectacle with emotion and themes, Skull Island is all about rampaging monsters, but it's nice to see a blockbuster of this ilk made by a team of filmmakers who care about their craft and know how to create thrilling action sequences. There are no pretensions here - this is just a fun, well-made monster yarn which miraculously doesn't require a lobotomy prior to viewing.

In the waning days of the Vietnam War, senior Monarch employee Bill Randa (John Goodman) convinces the United States government to sanction an expedition to an uncharted land mass in the South Pacific known as Skull Island. For the trip, Randa and his scientist partner (Corey Hawkins) recruit British Special Air Services Captain James Conrad (Tom Hiddleston) and photojournalist Mason Weaver (Brie Larson) to join the team, which is escorted and guarded by a military envoy out of Vietnam headed by Lt. Col. Packard (Samuel L. Jackson). Taking to the skies of Skull Island to bomb the landscape in order to draw out any wildlife, Packard's team unwittingly disturbs the natural order of things, which enrages monster ape Kong. Attacking the squad of choppers, Kong makes a mess out of the soldiers, separating the survivors into groups scattered all over the island, who have just two days to make their way to the rendezvous point. But the humans quickly find that the island is populated by other creatures even more menacing than Kong, especially the carnivorous "Skullcrawlers" who consume everything in sight. Amid the chaos, they encounter Marlow (John C. Reilly), an American soldier stranded during WWII who hopes that he finally has a chance to get home.

With a script credited to three writers (from a story by John Gatins), Kong: Skull Island more or less plays out like the first two acts of any other King Kong movie, minus the capture of the titular ape and New York finale. It's a welcomely refreshing way to reintroduce the gigantic simian yet again, finding director Jordan Vogt-Roberts (The Kings of Summer) plotting out his own fresh vision which takes inspiration from Apocalypse Now and Jurassic Park, with a fun reference to Cannibal Holocaust to boot. Set-up and exposition is efficient, doing just enough to explain the mission and introduce the characters before reaching the island and giving over to a fast-paced succession of action set-pieces. Subplots do appear, but Packard's yearning for revenge against Kong is perhaps the most prominent - he takes Kong's initial attack personally, becoming very reminiscent of Captain Ahab. As previously stated, there isn't much in the way of emotion throughout Kong: Skull Island - it doesn't even try to dabble in the science-gone-wrong themes of Jurassic Park - but it all comes together well enough nonetheless. The script even serves up a smattering of gallows humour to add some levity to the sometimes unnerving violence.

It would appear that Legendary learned from 2014's Godzilla, which was criticised by fans due to its lack of action and shortage of Godzilla screen-time. Hence, Vogt-Roberts doesn't waste much time introducing the great ape - Kong is briefly glimpsed in an effective prologue establishing Marlow’s residency on the island, but he really joins the fray at the half-hour mark as he viciously takes down Packard's choppers, killing dozens of soldiers. From there, monster throwdowns are prolonged and frequent, spotlighting the titular beast as he battles the island's perilous wildlife of all shapes and sizes. Whereas Michael Bay repeatedly ruins each Transformers movie with a routine of rapid-fire cutting and shaky-cam, Vogt-Roberts and cinematographer Larry Fong ensure that the carnage is always fun to watch and easy to comprehend, relying on smooth wide shots. Vogt-Roberts endows the combat with fun little quirks, too, adding personality to what could have been just another drab, generic blockbuster in less skilful hands. However, the movie does go a bit too far with a 300-inspired slow motion shot of Conrad slicing prehistoric birds in mid-air which just comes off as hoary, unnecessary and self-indulgent.

Skull Island's unique version of Kong stands approximately 100ft tall and is more human in his movements, never hunching over on all fours like a primate. As to be expected from a generously-budgeted studio blockbuster, the digital effects consistently impress in their fluidity and detail, and Kong is insanely expressive and nuanced thanks to always-improving motion capture techniques. However, the CGI is knowingly artificial as well, which is more noticeable because the movie was shot digitally, taking away any sense of tangibility. It has to be said that there was a bit more charm to similar monster movies of yesteryear, which were shot on good old-fashioned celluloid and used men in dumpy rubber suits to play monsters on miniature sets. Still, Kong: Skull Island gets more right than wrong, and Fong makes fantastic use of the truly breathtaking locations in Vietnam, Hawaii and Australia. For a monster movie, there's genuine cinematic artistry throughout, and it's brilliantly accompanied by a soundtrack of classic rock tunes from the Vietnam era - the playlist includes tunes from Creedence Clearwater Revival, David Bowie and Jefferson Airplane (just to name a few), adding further flavour to the material.

As perhaps to be expected, the acting is effective but unremarkable for the most part, though at least nobody disgraces themselves. Hiddleston is a very good actor and he acquits himself well enough, but he's certainly not believable as a badass special forces type. Jackson, however, can do this type of hard-nosed military leader routine in his sleep, and he's a real asset, while Larson is simply lovely as the token female character who seems to intrigue Kong. But it's Reilly who really steals the show; he actually has a proper character to play, and it's easier to instantly latch onto him compared to the rest of the ensemble. Reilly is his usual goofy self, but there's a hint of poignancy here too, giving the movie its only real traces of humanity. The rest of the actors do what they can with their underwritten roles, particularly Shea Wingam who makes a good impression as a seasoned soldier, but the movie basically belongs to Kong and John C. Reilly.

Kong: Skull Island is a bit silly and it likely won't resonant with many viewers on a profound level, but it's slickly-made and it doesn't outright insult anybody's intelligence, nor does it feel overlong, which confidently places it above other contemporary blockbusters. Quite simply, it delivers the goods, and it's a total blast if you're in the mood for some well-paced big-screen escapism. Also, be sure to stay tuned for a touching additional sequence during the credits and a Marvel-style post-credits scene which sets up further connections to Godzilla and teases what's to come in the future of the MonsterVerse.


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A thrilling, edifying nail-biter

Posted : 11 months, 3 weeks ago on 30 July 2017 05:20 (A review of Patriots Day)

Patriots Day sees director Peter Berg imprint his distinctive, realistic aesthetic onto the true-life story of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombings and the subsequent manhunt for the perpetrators. Berg's second based-on-a-true-story feature of 2016 (after Deepwater Horizon), the picture is a perfect fit for the filmmaker's idiosyncrasies, allowing him to orchestrate a powerful drama with harrowing images of violence, buoyed by strong performances from a top-flight cast. The sheer power of Patriots Day cannot be understated; it's suspenseful, focused, and remarkably constructed, not to mention respectful to both the event and the people involved, rendering it Berg's best filmmaking endeavour to date. Much like Deepwater, Patriots Day unfortunately failed to gain much traction at the box office, pulling in a mere $50 million worldwide against its modest $45 million budget. Still, we should be thankful that this important motion picture exists.

Returning to active duty after a period of suspension, troubled cop Tommy Saunders (Mark Wahlberg) is dealing with an injured knee and a damaged reputation when he's assigned security duty at the finish line of the Boston Marathon on Patriots Day, 2013. When the marathon is rounding down on the day, two bombs are detonated in the crowd, killing three and critically injuring many others, sending the event into utter chaos. Among the injured are young couple Jessica Kensky (Rachel Brosnahan) and Patrick Downes (Christopher O'Shea), who are taken to separate hospitals and left to hope that they will survive and reunite. FBI Agent Richard DesLauriers (Kevin Bacon) swiftly sets up a Boston-based command centre to investigate the bombings, collaborating with Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis (John Goodman) as the specialist team comb through evidence and CCTV footage, hoping to catch the perpetrators before they are able to execute another attack. The bombings were carried out by terrorist Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze) and his timid younger brother Dzhokhar (Alex Wolff), who feel the pressure mounting as the manhunt intensifies and their images are released by law enforcement officials.

As perhaps to be expected, a certain amount of controversy greeted Patriots Day upon release, with conspiracy nuts claiming that the marathon bombings were a hoax, that the bombers were just patsies, and that the movie is inaccurate. But conspiracy theorists can (and will) argue all day about what they believe to be true - what matters is the movie itself, and it appears to be a very accurate account of the officially-reported events, only taking dramatic license when necessary to enhance the drama. (After all, Paul Greengrass' United 93 is still a masterpiece, even if 9/11 was an inside job.) The only patent inaccuracy is Wahlberg's Tommy Saunders, a fictional composite character who happens to be present at basically every major event that transpires. Giving the story a "hero" may seem unnecessary, but Saunders functions as our entry point into the narrative to make it feel more dramatically cohesive, lest the movie feel like a disjointed docudrama. It may strain credulity that Saunders shows up everywhere and has significant bearing on the investigation, but if you can accept this conceit, Patriots Day is a chilling account of a harrowing modern terrorist attack.

The screenplay (credited to Berg, Matt Cook and Joshua Zetumer) reportedly reconciles two different Boston Marathon bombing projects, in order to split its focus between the victims affected by the terror attack and the authorities involved in the manhunt. Patriots Day is a full meal, exploring the lead-up to the marathon and showing the general reaction after the bombings, with many Americans taking it personally. Berg also provides a snapshot of the other side, delving into the strange relationship between the two perpetrators, on top of showing Dzhokhar's stoner college roommates choosing to protect their pal after recognising him in the photos released to the media. Wisely, the film doesn't pretend to know the brothers' motivation for the bombing - Tamerlan is seen watching terrorist propaganda videos online, and religious rewards are briefly discussed, but no definitive answers are presented.

Berg's matter-of-fact directorial approach fits the material like a glove. There's no flag-waving or any insufferable jingoism here, but rather a compelling story that's told straight-up, backed by terrific technical specs from top to bottom. The recreation of the marathon bombings is downright unnerving, showing both the terror and confusion of the immediate aftermath. Berg also crafts a few other nerve-jangling set-pieces, including the carjacking of Chinese immigrant Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang) that will leave you clutching your armrests. Equally effective is a major shootout on the residential streets of Watertown between the bombers and the police, showing once again that Berg has a real talent for nail-biting action sequences. Berg doesn't balk at showing the stomach-churning consequences of explosives and bullets, earning the movie's R rating, but he also exhibits sufficient tact to prevent the movie from feeling like violence porn. Editors Colby Parker Jr. and Gabriel Fleming seamlessly splice archival footage throughout certain sequences to heighten the sense of verisimilitude, and the movie is further topped off with a poignant, pulsing original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (The Social Network). There are even welcome moments of levity throughout, which miraculously don't come across as cheap.

Luckily, performances are impressive from top to bottom, enhancing the story's power. Boston native Wahlberg nails it as Saunders, carving out a central character who does his best in every situation, but is not exactly a stereotypical hero. Saunders is fallible and vulnerable, nursing his debilitating knee injury, and even having a breakdown when he comes home to his wife, played superbly by Michelle Monaghan. Wahlberg never sets a foot wrong or seems contrived, and it helps that he genuinely hails from Boston. In supporting roles, both Goodman and Bacon are at the top of their game, and it's riveting to watch them work. Also worth mentioning is J.K. Simmons in a small but critical role as Watertown's police sergeant. Simmons acquits himself admirably, coming across as effortlessly real in every scene. Melissa Benoist, perhaps best known for playing the titular role on TV's Supergirl, even contributes a memorable supporting performance as Tamerlan's wife Katherine. To her credit, she's borderline unrecognisable.

Patriots Day is a welcome, edifying chronicle of a horrifying contemporary event, packing in enough of the salient facts whilst always remaining both interesting and gripping. In his previous motion pictures, Berg has celebrated masculinity to a certain extent, but Patriots Day is more a study of fragility and innocence - after all, the people who were killed and injured in the marathon bombings were innocent civilians who only wanted a fun time. Like Lone Survivor, the movie ends with further explication as well as images of the real people involved. It's a touching way to close the door, underscoring that despite the horror of the event, people stood strong together and humanity can be amazing. If Berg continues to make movies like this, I'll always be there to watch them.


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A technical marvel without compelling characters

Posted : 12 months ago on 22 July 2017 04:36 (A review of Dunkirk (2017))

The latest big-budget magnum opus from director Christopher Nolan, 2017's Dunkirk is one of the purest cinematic experiences of the year; a war epic built around visual storytelling backed by minimal dialogue. In a number of ways, Dunkirk is a masterpiece - it looks and sounds great, flaunting top-notch production values across the board, and it is a stunner to behold projected in 70mm. Backed by a generous $100 million budget, Nolan puts his audience into the thick of this pivotal World War II tale, covering land, air and sea to convey the breadth of the miraculous true-life event. However, it's also almost entirely devoid of emotional attachment, finding Nolan ostensibly unwilling to even try to carve out fully-realised characters or create any arcs, as he's too focused on the you-are-there experience of the Dunkirk evacuation. With this in mind, the extent of the film's effectiveness will remain in the eyes of the beholder, but I was left wishing I liked the movie more than I did.

The Dunkirk evacuation - also known as "The Miracle of Dunkirk" - occurred in the summer of 1940, during the early days of WWII. German forces managed to successfully advance in their planned takeover of Europe, in the process pinning 400,000 Allied troops against the English Channel, leaving them stranded due to complicated geographic accessibility and a shortage of available warships. With Hitler's armies closing in, Winston Churchill orders recreational boat captains to mobilise for the rescue while the soldiers at Dunkirk hold out as best they can. Among the soldiers on the beach, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) sticks with Alex (Harry Styles) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) as they attempt to escape on a vessel, while an overwhelmed Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) tries to coordinate the mayhem as dive bombers swoop the area. Across the channel, boat captain Dawson (Mark Rylance) answers the call to assist in the Dunkirk rescue, and encounters a shell-shocked soldier (Cillian Murphy) along the way. Up in the air, Royal Air Force fighter pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) puts his life in the line as he winds through the air with limited fuel to take out as many German bombers as possible.

Written solely by Nolan himself, Dunkirk is experimental in its narrative structure, opting for a nonlinear approach in order to create a weighty payoff when all plot threads coalesce for the climax. This nonlinear technique was seemingly also employed because the three stories occur across different periods of time - as informed by brief captions, the land-based story happens over a week, the sea-based story is a day, and events in the air happen within an hour. To be sure, the use of different perspectives is effective to convey a grander understanding of the evacuation, while also serving to keep the film feeling fresh. However, the chronology-bending antics can be confusing, and it remains questionable whether the project even needed this type of structure. Indeed, it's jarring to leap from midday to pitch-black night and then back to daylight, and it appears that we eventually start seeing the same action from another viewpoint, but it can be hard to tell if it's supposed to be a replay or a different event entirely. The palpable intent is to create the sort of confusion that soldiers feel in war, but confusion is sufficiently built by not seeing the actions of the Germans. Perhaps Dunkirk might have worked better if each segment played out individually, before cumulating for the big finish.

In a way, Dunkirk's lack of emotion feels like a conscious effort on Nolan's part to challenge his critics after Interstellar, which was drenched in forced sentiment that the helmer ostensibly struggled with. Aside from a few moments in Dawson's story and a touching closing scene, there's very little in the way of humanity here, and there’s no central character to latch onto. Characters are thinly-defined, with no backstories or personalities – hell, most aren't even given names! Again, you can understand that Nolan was aiming for an experience with minimal dialogue, but you need something more in a movie to make it feel more dramatically cohesive. With the cast mostly comprised of unknown performers, the film basically belongs to the recognisable veterans. Branagh is particularly exceptional, not to mention superbly naturalistic as a smart, dedicated officer, while Rylance again shows his terrific acting chops with an understated but flawlessly essayed portrayal of a kind-hearted civilian trying to do his bit. Poor Hardy, meanwhile, is stuck wearing a mask for most of his screen-time, making him tough to understand and severely limiting his expressivity. James D'Arcy (Agent Carter) is also on hand as a colonel who serves Commander Bolton, and he brings sufficient gravitas to the role. As for the casting of One Direction pop singer Harry Styles? The low-ranking soldiers are so generic and undefined that I couldn't even figure out where he was, and the casting decision does seem like a cheap way to boost ticket sales for the tween audience.

Nolan's dedication to shooting on celluloid and using practical effects remains a genuine breath of fresh air in today's digital effects-laden blockbuster climate, and his style is a perfect fit for a war movie of this scope and scale. One would be hard-pressed to pick out any shots containing obvious CGI, as Nolan wisely elected to use real ships, real planes and real locations as much as possible, creating an astonishingly tangible aesthetic that's impossible to fault. Furthermore, to ensure the best possible image quality, director of photography Hoyte Van Hoytema (Spectre, Interstellar) lensed Dunkirk using a combination of 65mm and 70mm film stock, and the resultant dimensionality and crispness would be impossible to achieve digitally. There are many taut, suspenseful set-pieces throughout the film which get under the skin, including frenzied dogfights in the air and warships being sunk, showing the superlative level of cinematic craftsmanship that Nolan is capable of. It's topped off by a powerful, dynamic sound design and a relentless score courtesy of Hans Zimmer which does effectively support the imagery and drive the pace, but can also be too intrusive at times.

To Nolan's credit, there are some genuinely unnerving sequences as well - such as a moment depicting soldiers getting crushed by a drifting ship, and a set-piece in which many poor souls are trapped in the belly of a sinking ship, helplessly drowning in the terrifying darkness. However, one can only dream of what Dunkirk might have been with the freedom of an R-rating. The film strictly keeps within the boundaries of a PG-13 rating (a pathetic 12A in the UK), undeniably restricting the combat sequences, making it feel unnaturally sterile when the brutality of war should not be sanitised. The lack of blood instantly takes you out of the film, reminding you this is a commercial product. Early into the movie, for instance, dive bombers attack Dunkirk beach and a soldier is directly hit with a bomb, but his body isn't blown apart and there's no blood or viscera. Plus, whenever said bombers unload their canons which are capable of tearing soldiers to pieces, there isn't a drop of blood to be seen. The bloodless attacks are admittedly scarce, but it's impossible to convey the full horror of war within the constraints of a PG-13 rating, especially in the shadow of full-blooded WWII films like Saving Private Ryan, Hacksaw Ridge and 2014's Fury.

Mercifully, this is one of Nolan's shortest motion pictures, clocking in at a mere 106 minutes including credits. It's certainly a refreshing change after the indefensibly plodding Interstellar and the bloated Dark Knight Rises. Oddly, however, the scope of the movie suddenly feels a tad restricted as it approaches the finish line. It still looks marvellous, of course, but the major turning point in the evacuation is short-changed; only a dozen or so civilian skiffs are glimpsed arriving to evacuate troops, rather than the hundreds which would be required for such a large-scale operation. The actual evacuation actually continued for eight days, but in the film, it abruptly ends not long after the boats are seen arriving - there aren't even captions to fill in the blanks. As a result, it's impossible to get the feeling that over 300,000 troops were evacuated, which is bizarre for an otherwise expensive, large-scale film. Also pertinent is that it's hard to get any sense that thousands of German soldiers surround the beach and are closing in whilst Allied forces pray for a miracle, which could have been visually conveyed in some of the many sweeping aerial shots of the beach.

Ultimately, Dunkirk feels like the latter half of a great war movie - it lacks in context, character and even story. It's the equivalent of starting a Titanic movie right as the ship begins to sink. Many are already claiming Dunkirk to be the best war movie of all time, which is an absurd statement. Its technical accomplishments are not to be underestimated, and the movie looks stunning in 70mm, but its shortcomings in terms of character and storytelling are hard to overlook. Still, Nolan does build to a touching footnote in which Winston Churchill's famous address is read aloud by one of the soldiers, though this moment does serve to highlight how emotionally bereft the rest of the film truly is. Shortcomings aside, Dunkirk is a worthwhile war movie that absolutely demands to be witnessed on the biggest possible screen.


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An entertaining ride, despite its many flaws

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 18 April 2017 06:43 (A review of The Fate of the Furious)

"Our paths have crossed before, Dom. You just didn't know it."

It remains baffling that a terrible movie like 2001's The Fast and the Furious could beget a few equally terrible sequels before suddenly transforming into one of the most profitable franchises of all time. As a matter of fact, it's about as baffling as the primary characters graduating from street-racing reprobates who steal DVD players to skilled mercenaries saving the world from nuclear weapons. The Fast & Furious series probably should have been retired after 2015's Furious 7, especially with star Paul Walker tragically dying halfway through production, but its $1.5 billion box office gross guaranteed further sequels. The start of a proposed new trilogy of Furious pictures, 2017's The Fate of the Furious provides what fans are after: cars go fast, there are explosions, tone-deaf rap is blasted on the soundtrack, the scale is enormous, and credulity is strained to breaking point. However, unlike the leaden Furious 7, this seventh sequel actually manages to provide exactly the type of high-octane, entertaining action ride that it promises on the tin, despite its many flaws.

While honeymooning in Cuba as he contemplates starting a family with his main squeeze Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is visited by powerful cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who blackmails him into turning against his "family." DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) recruits Toretto and his crew to retrieve an EMP in Berlin, but the now-rogue Dom betrays the team after the extraction, stealing the weapon for Cipher and promptly disappearing. The act leaves Dom's crew - including Letty, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Tej (Ludacris) - bewildered that their faithful leader has ostensibly betrayed them. Enter covert government operative Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his offsider, Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), who enlist their help to track down Cipher and Dom, and stop a nuclear war. For extra muscle, Mr. Nobody also recruits former enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who wants revenge against Cipher.

What distinguishes Fate from prior instalments in the franchise is Dom going rogue, effectively reducing him to a supporting role (and keeping him as far away from The Rock as possible...), which provides a welcome break from the standard Fast & Furious formula. However, this aspect of the storyline is a bit of a letdown on the whole. See, it's made explicitly clear from the very beginning that Dom is being manipulated against his will, taking away any sense of intrigue or gravity that the story arc might have otherwise provided. Dom's "family" are kept in the dark about his motives the whole time, but the reveal to the audience comes far too soon into the game. This is not Captain America: Civil War. Furthermore, it seems that returning screenwriter Chris Morgan (his sixth consecutive Furious sequel) still hasn't mastered pacing or dialogue. Outside of some uproarious macho bantering (which was likely improvised), dialogue is stilted and uninteresting for the most part, and blatant exposition is lathered on. This is meant to be a fun action blockbuster, but these movies continually insist on unnecessarily exceeding the two-hour mark, becoming bogged down with flaccid dramatic subplots that are difficult to care about.

Pointing out the movie's lapses in logic, as well as its proud defiance of the laws of physics, is about as futile as writing a review of a critic-proof blockbuster. Suffice it to say, The Fate of the Furious is a huge, expensive cartoon, though new director F. Gary Gray often manages to make it look just real enough to sell the illusion. It's easy to understand why Gray was recruited for Fate, as he gained experience with car action on 2003's The Italian Job remake (starring Statham and Theron), and he directed Diesel in the underrated A Man Apart. However, there's still far too much CGI in a franchise that was previously so reliant on practical effects, and there are a few "nuke the fridge" moments which will likely have audiences roaring with laughter. Of course, the flick gets creative with its primary action sequences - Cipher even creates an army of "zombie" cars by hacking into self-driving vehicles, and the finale features a fucking submarine because why the hell not? There's enough mayhem here to please loyal fans of the franchise, though it's hard to shake the feeling that all of the big set-pieces are car-related because of pure contrivance and obligation - it would be interesting to see the franchise branch out a bit more. (Also, why continue to use beautiful multi-million dollar vehicles like Lamborghinis for dangerous jobs when they're just going to be destroyed?)

It goes without saying that Deckard's sudden switch to the "good guy" side strains all sorts of credibility, especially given that Deckard killed one of Dom's guys, and Dom left Deckard's brother almost disabled. But at this point in the franchise, and with Hobbs' allegiances having already changed, you just have to roll with the punches. It does seem that the arrival of a new, worse bad guy means that the gang's previous nemesis gets an invitation to one of the "family" cookouts. Still, Statham is so much fun here that he'll likely win you over, and his magnificent solo action sequence during the final act stands as the best set-piece in the movie, even though it doesn't involve cars in any way. It is pleasing to see Statham being given the chance to show off his insane martial arts skills as he fights his way through dozens of nameless goons.

This series is no stranger to humour, but the studiously unfunny Gibson (who's still completely useless) is usually given most of the "comedic" material. Luckily, Fate does right by letting the likes of Johnson and Statham pick up the slack. These two are, after all, highly adept at comedy but are rarely given the opportunity to flex these muscles, and it's an absolute joy to watch their riotous bantering as the pair try to hold back from pummelling one another. Diesel remains something of a dead-weight at this point, and could easily be ditched in favour of Johnson, Statham and Russell. (A spin-off with all three would be very enticing.) As a matter of fact, Diesel is the only actor who doesn't seem to understand what type of movie he's in. Even the likes of Eastwood seem to be having a good time, but Diesel delivers his dialogue (including his bizarre pronunciation of the oft-repeated word "family") as if he's appearing in an Oscar-calibre drama. At least Tokyo Drift star Lucas Black is kept away.

As perhaps is to be expected, the absence of the late Paul Walker in the group dynamic is really felt, as he functioned as the necessary glue to hold all the other personalities together as a unit. Certainly, it was wise to exclude Walker's Brian O'Conner given the circumstances, but none of the other performers can replace him, and the group is without a solid anchor. Still, efforts from most of the ensemble are acceptable, with Johnson again showing why he's become such a huge star in recent years, and Russell making a good impression as per usual. Theron could be mistaken for a James Bond villain due to her hammy performance here, even sporting dreadlocks to top off the image. However, Emmanuel's Ramsey (carried over after her intro in Furious 7) has no purpose, and only serves to beef up an already crowded ensemble. On a more positive note, Helen Mirren pops in for a brief cameo, espousing a hilariously uncivilised British accent that will remind you why we all love her so much. Mirren's scenes are some of the most charming in the whole movie.

The Fast & Furious franchise reached its peak with 2011's surprisingly solid Fast Five, and it's only been downhill from there, unable to maintain the same level of quality. Still, the fact that this eighth instalment is watchable in any way has to be some type of miracle, and it's worth watching if you're seeking a fun time without any brain power required. At this point in the franchise, however, it would be far more interesting to see a Fast & Furious sequel which doesn't abide by the "bigger is better" adage, and drastically tones down the scale in favour of intensity. After all, movies like Bullitt, The Driver and Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive didn't need $250 million budgets to provide thrilling car chases. (Plus, the original movie only carried a modest $38 million price-tag.) The Fate of the Furious may be enjoyable in fits and starts, but it's much too long and over-the-top, in need of some discipline. At least two more instalments are imminent, which is preposterous for a franchise as hit-and-miss as this.


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Masterful science fiction

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 4 April 2017 09:25 (A review of Arrival)

"Despite knowing the journey... and where it leads... I embrace it... and I welcome every moment of it."

Science fiction movies about extraterrestrials have existed for decades, to the point that there's ostensibly very little in the way of originality to be mined from the well-worn "alien invasion" subgenre. Enter 2016's Arrival, a rare type of sci-fi drama which dares to realistically explore what might occur if otherworldly beings visited Earth, without resorting to battles or large-scale destruction. More than just another action blockbuster involving aliens, Arrival is endowed with a maturity in both its storytelling and cinematic technique that's rarely glimpsed, bolstered by an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life") and shrewd direction by the ever-talented Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario). Arrival is breathtaking from start to finish, necessitating deep thought and introspection to properly digest everything that's going on below the surface, making this a must-see for those who appreciate cerebral sci-fi. Much like 2015's equally magnificent Ex Machina, this is the type of movie which both benefits from, and stands up to repeat viewings.

Twelve mysterious alien vessels arrive on Earth, positioning themselves in countries around the planet, which naturally incites a global panic. With their intentions unclear, U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), giving her the daunting task of understanding and communicating with the alien beings. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise is taken to a ship hovering just above rural Montana where she is able to communicate directly with the giant squid-like "Heptapods" every 18 hours, when the vessel opens for a brief period. Dubbing the two aliens Abbott and Costello, Louise and Ian set about deciphering the advanced, circular symbol-based language of the Heptapods, seeking to establish a sufficient communicative basis to find out their purpose on Earth. But the pressure rapidly mounts, with world leaders fearing that the Heptapods aim to wipe out humanity, prepared to unleash military firepower on the visitors before they strike first.

Arrival is the first major motion picture to acknowledge that otherworldly beings may not make full sense to us, or conform to our ideas of scientific logic. It's a refreshing new perspective and a welcome change from the norm, and this sophistication feeds into the screenplay at large. The presence of aliens is almost inconsequential to the narrative - this is ultimately a story about the importance of communication and the nature of language, not to mention it's also about time, memory and tolerance, with thought-provoking philosophical undercurrents that nobody really expected (save, perhaps, for those familiar with the source material). Furthermore, Arrival doesn't lean on high school-grade science, instead providing genuinely interesting insight into complicated scientific and linguistics concepts, and the movie manages to convey this material without talking down to the audience. To be sure, there are more questions than answers, a fact that's basically acknowledged by the protagonists, but such uncertainty would likely plague a real-life alien visitation, and it doesn't ruin the experience to any degree.

Despite running a hair under two hours, Arrival is the very model of efficiency, with nothing in the way of dead weight. Initial encounters may be slow-going, but such sequences are nevertheless subtly enthralling on Villeneuve's watch, and the movie knows when it needs to start picking up the pace. It's superlative work from scribe Heisserer, whose previous efforts are predominantly horrors (including Lights Out, Final Destination 5 and 2011's The Thing), confidently forgoing expectations of spectacle and flippant excitement in favour of depth and thematic resonance. There is a twist of sorts once Arrival approaches its climax, but it's not a cheap gimmick by any means, as it feeds into everything that has taken place so far. It compels us to reassess and recontextualize much of the movie, and the powerful ending represents an emotionally stirring reminder of the sanctity of human life. Miraculously, in spite of its weighty undercurrents, Arrival is not preachy, pretentious or sanctimonious, and it breezes by at such an agreeable pace (thanks to Joe Kelly's judicious editing) that it never feels like a meandering mess.

Villeneuve continues his astounding winning streak here, showing yet again that he's one of the finest filmmakers of this generation. Take, for instance, Louise's first session with Abbott and Costello; the suspense is almost unbearable, with Villeneuve capturing every tense step as the team ascend into the alien vessel, and the first reveal of the Heptapods is incredibly effective. It's all beautifully shot by cinematographer Bradford Young, who uses light, shadows, fog and silhouettes to astounding effect, creating an aura of otherworldliness. The visual effects are just as impressive, though Villeneuve uses practical effects and sets as much as possible, creating a tangible aesthetic which greatly enhances the cinematic illusion. Furthermore, the visuals feel utterly inseparable from Jóhann Jóhannsson's hypnotic score, which is brilliantly ethereal and yet subdued, further cementing the sense of awe and otherworldliness throughout, whilst also accentuating the story's emotional components. Performances across the board are excellent, led by Adams who carves out a relatable, charming protagonist, while Renner gets the rare chance to show his acting chops outside of a blockbuster setting.

Arrival is a superbly-woven piece of cinematic craftsmanship, and its box office success shows that not every movie needs to be dumbed-down for mass mainstream appeal. There is nothing inherently wrong with action-packed sci-fi productions - hell, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 managed to be both intelligent and exhilarating, while Independence Day is the definition of Big Dumb Fun™ - but Arrival is more gratifying in its approach, though it's definitely for a specific type of niche film-going audience and it's not for everybody. With this in mind, it's downright miraculous that a mainstream sci-fi drama as utterly bold as this was permitted a $47 million budget in a cinematic climate where summer blockbusters flourish. Haunting and difficult to forget, Arrival will be rightfully remembered in the grand pantheon of great science fiction movies, standing proudly alongside the likes of Blade Runner, Alien, and The Terminator


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Thrilling action film with genuine humanity

Posted : 1 year, 4 months ago on 16 March 2017 05:12 (A review of Blood Father (2016))

"I got no idea how you piss guys like that off..."

Mel Gibson's first star vehicle since the insanely underrated Get the Gringo all the way back in 2012, Blood Father is far more than just another subpar straight-to-video action flick. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Peter Craig (who co-wrote the screenplay with Andrea Berloff), this is a hard-edged thriller more concerned with characters than action, finding a solid emotional core which elevates the material far above more disposable B-grade trash starring the likes of Steven Seagal. It's a shame that some will most likely either underrate or simply ignore Blood Father on account of Gibson's presence, as such punters will be missing out on one hell of a gratifying movie, one of 2016's best. It's certainly better than most other aging-star action flicks like The Gunman, 3 Days to Kill and the Taken trilogy.

Out of prison on parole, John Link (Gibson) maintains a tattoo business out of his dingy trailer in remote California as he works through his addictions in a twelve-step program, supported by sponsor Kirby (William H. Macy). Out of the blue, Link's 17-year-old runaway daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) contacts him for help after she shoots her drug-dealing boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna) during a botched armed heist. Lydia is desperate for money to allow her to disappear, but Link demands that she stay with him at least for a little while, as he hopes to reconnect with his estranged child and eliminate her drug habit. Before long, the Mexican drug cartels catch up with Lydia, but Link is not about to give his daughter over to them. Breaking parole, Link goes on the run with his child, determined to protect Lydia at any cost as armed thugs relentlessly pursue them.

The father-daughter dynamic between Link and his daughter is unexpectedly respectful and free of hoary genre clichés. Lydia does not hate her father even despite his criminal history, and the film refuses to adopt the predictable "you sucked as a father" trope that's been done to death, which is certainly refreshing. Lydia is also wholly aware of the trouble that she's bringing to the broken, desperate Link, and she only wants to leave as soon as possible to avoid dragging him into the whole affair. However, Link is willing to take a bullet for Lydia, finding a renewed will to live when his daughter re-enters his life. Blood Father finds time for intimate character moments throughout, infusing Link and Lydia's relationship with an unexpected authenticity. If there's an issue with the movie, it's that some scenes are edited too quickly, which is most noticeably felt as the movie approaches the finish line, slightly hampering some of the more tender moments. Blood Father needed more room to breathe, and an extended edition would be enticing, especially since excised material reportedly exists (scenes featuring Lydia's mother were excised from the final cut). But this isn't nearly enough to undo the strengths of Blood Father, of which there are countless.

Even though it was shot in 2014 and spent over two years waiting to be released, Blood Father does not exhibit the recognisable hallmarks of a troubled post-production. On the contrary, it's astonishingly competent, thanks in large part to French director Jean-François Richet, here making his first English-language feature since the surprisingly decent 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13. Richet infuses Blood Father with his European sensibilities, elevating it above more standard-order American action films, making the most of the reported $15 million budget. Shot on location in New Mexico, the desert vistas are consistently stunning, while the action scenes are of a uniformly high quality. The shootouts are more realistic than the likes of Taken or John Wick, with an aesthetic closer to something like Sicario. The action sequences are loud, raw and edge-of-your-seat intense, once again showing that Gibson still has the moves for these sorts of productions. Best of all, the mayhem is smooth and easy to follow, without any shaky-cam or rapid-fire cutting. The blood is all gloriously practical, too, with squibs as opposed to phoney digital bloodshed, in keeping with the tangible aesthetic. (It appears there are also some references to Mad Max 2, which is a nice touch.)

Remarkably, Richet manages to create two fully three-dimensional characters who are easy to latch onto and empathise with, and the movie is further bolstered by fine performances across the board. This is one of the best roles for Gibson at this point in his career. He looks insanely ripped and rugged, and you can certainly believe him to be a legitimate threat. He capably sells the drama and emotion during the quieter character moments, but he's equally compelling when chaos begins to reign down. John Link is boldly introduced at an AA meeting, during which he discusses the guilt he feels about past transgressions, as well as his desire to remain on the straight and narrow, and the material is remarkably poignant coming from Gibson. It's been great to see Gibson play villainous roles in Machete Kills and The Expendables 3, but here he proves that he's still a captivating leading man who's able to carry a film. Moriarty impresses as well, never coming across as grating or irritating. And in the supporting cast, Macy is reliably charismatic as Link's best friends/sponsor, and his interactions with Gibson are just fucking magical. Also making a positive impression is Luna, recently seen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, while Michael Parks almost steals the show as neo-Nazi psychopath who was once Link's mentor. It's a small but effective cast, and there isn't a single dud performance in sight.

Blood Father plays out like a contemporary western which substitutes horses with motorcycles, and cowboys with bikers/thugs. Perhaps the movie's greatest achievement is the fact that it manages to deliver ample character beats to add a genuine touch of humanity without skimping on the fierce action sequences, and all within a taut 85-minute running time. The very antithesis of both Hollywood blockbusters and B-grade action movies, this feels like the type of movie we used to see in the '80s and '90s, but with a coat of contemporary polish. In a way, Blood Father also feels like a fitting swansong to Gibson's career as an action star. It's a real keeper, folks.


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Cheaper, not as stylish, less involving

Posted : 1 year, 5 months ago on 21 January 2017 10:05 (A review of Mechanic: Resurrection (2016))

"You have 36 hours to eliminate all the targets on this list. Or they will eliminate me."

Returning to business-as-usual after supporting performances in Spy and Furious 7, Mechanic: Resurrection is an out-and-out Jason Statham action movie, an undemanding popcorn flick that bears absolutely no resemblance to its 2011 predecessor. (Or the 1972 Charles Bronson film of the same name that it was based on, for that matter.) Indeed, whereas the Simon West-directed first film was more of a 1970s-style thriller, Mechanic: Resurrection takes inspiration from the formula actioners of the 1980s, spotlighting Statham as he kills countless henchmen in a video-game-style fashion. Sloppily scripted and often cartoonish, it's indistinguishable from the likes of Crank and The Transporter, and unfortunately comes up dangerously short in terms of genuine thrills.

Now retired from the contract killing profession, Arthur Bishop (Statham) endeavours to stay off the grid, consistently moving around whenever his location becomes compromised. Fleeing to a remote Thai island overseen by old friend Mae (Michelle Yeoh), trouble enters Bishop's life with the arrival of abused damsel Gina (Jessica Alba), who strikes up a relationship with the assassin. However, Bishop soon learns that he is being watched by international arms dealer Crain (Sam Hazeldine), who kidnaps Gina to force Bishop into completing three assassinations in remote locations around the world. Pulled back into the business of killing, Bishop has only a matter of days to pull off the near-impossible murders and make them look like accidents. It's a tough assignment, but the assassin cannot deny his feelings for Gina, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to rescue her from Crain.

The whole enterprise is about as preposterous as it sounds, spotlighting Bishop as he manages to hopscotch across the globe in a matter of hours, calling upon his seemingly unlimited arsenal and impossibly vast knowledge of computer hacking, chemistry and engineering to get the jobs done. Each hit honestly feels like a level in a video game like Hitman or Splinter Cell, as each assassination presents its own series of increasingly difficult obstacles for Bishop to overcome, and a single mistake would spell disaster. It's in these sequences when the movie feels most in line with the original Mechanic, as Bishop must rely on intellect rather than pure brawn, but the execution by director Dennis Gansel (We Are the Night) leaves a lot to be desired. The assassinations should be nail-bitingly intense and intricate (think Brian De Palma), but for the most part play out like throwaway action beats. Unusually, the movie endeavours to give real dimension to Bishop and Gina, as the first half is concerned with character drama and romance. However, it doesn't work; it's all very ham-fisted, badly-paced and dull. It feels like homework before we can get into the action stuff that we actually came here to see. When Alba is finally kidnapped, it comes as a relief.

A huge issue with Mechanic: Resurrection is that it's undeniably cheap-looking, but not "endearing low-budget 1980s" cheap - rather, it's “contemporary digital” cheap, which just makes the flick look lazy. Green-screening is uniformly terrible, while digital explosions look phoney and there is far too much obvious computer-generated blood. Hell, the movie even shamelessly moves to cheap, indistinguishable Eastern European locations for its final act. Even though the production budget is reported to be $40 million, this figure is surely an exaggeration - but then again, Statham probably took home a nice paycheque, and there are nineteen credited producers sticking their fingers into the pie. (Yes, fucking nineteen!) Mechanic: Resurrection lacks the flair that Simon West brought to the 2011 movie, but there is admittedly some enjoyment to gain from the action sequences when they do finally arrive. Statham remains a capable man of action (even though he's nearly 50), and here he punches, kicks and shoots his way through an endless succession of faceless enemies. When Mechanic: Resurrection works, it's cheesy fun, especially for fans of Statham or the action genre in general, but your mileage may vary of course.

As previously stated, Statham does well throughout the athletic action scenes, and his grizzled face makes him ideal for these sorts of roles. The Brit is one of the last old-school action stars, and it's fortunate that he's so watchable here, even if his dramatic chops are still merely so-so. As the token female of the piece, Alba serves her purpose as eye candy. She even rocks a bikini in a few scenes, and is given the chance to fight. As ever, though, Alba is not an especially good actress, and the other supporting performances are just as unimpressive - nobody is unable to give much spark to the hackneyed, lifeless dialogue. However, despite his appallingly limited screen-time, Jones manages to make a positive impression as Bishop's final mark. Decked out like a hippy in colourful clothes and sunglasses, he's hammy enough to make his scenes enjoyable, but don't expect anything in the way of gravitas, as this is strictly a paycheque effort for the veteran actor. Oh, and you are going to be incredibly disappointed if you're expecting Yeoh to show off her impressive fight moves here - she is utterly wasted in a non-physical role. Who the hell casts Yeoh just for her acting?

It has a few entertaining action beats here and there, but overall Mechanic: Resurrection is cheaper, not as stylish, and less involving than its predecessor. The 2011 Mechanic was endowed with edge and grit, but here Bishop is turned into an invincible superhero, able to accomplish impossible physical feats without breaking a sweat. Statham deserves better than this. The Mechanic underperformed at the worldwide box office back in 2011, but earned enough in the home video market to spawn this sequel. Mechanic: Resurrection wound up grossing over $100 million worldwide with a bulk of the money coming from China, and that's before home media sales, so we can most likely expect to see a third movie in a few years.


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