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Competent Aussie miniseries

Posted : 6 months, 2 weeks ago on 29 July 2015 04:38 (A review of Catching Milat)

A two-part miniseries produced for Network Seven, 2015's Catching Milat shines a light on the prolonged police investigation which led to the arrest and incarceration of notorious serial killer Ivan Milat (Malcolm Kennard), who murdered seven backpackers in the early 1990s. Catching Milat is not a docudrama which concentrates solely on Milat - in fact, there are no on-screen killings - but rather a dramatisation, primarily splitting its focus between Milat's day-to-day life and the drawn-out investigation. Milat caught the attention of police early into the game, as his family harbours a fascination with firearms and his demeanour is generally unpleasant and unnerving.

Catching Milat is a full meal, with its combined runtime of three hours dedicated to covering as much material as possible from the 2007 novel Sins of the Brother by investigative journalists Mark Whittaker and the late Les Kennedy. Penned by Justin Monjo, the teleplay is thoroughly bathed in stereotypical Aussie vernacular, with the Milat family in particular speaking like uneducated bogans. The show completely encapsulates our home-grown culture, which may turn off potential international viewers, but is overall fairly true to life.

Despite being a ratings smash, Catching Milat was slammed quite openly in the press by Clive Small, who served as superintendent on the case. Small took issue with the show's depiction of Detective Paul Gordon (Richard Cawthorne), who is shown working on the case for two years here and being instrumental in Milat's capture, when in reality he played a much smaller role in the investigation. However, beefing up Gordon's role makes sense from a dramatic standpoint. After all, this is a dramatisation rather than a documentary; it needed a protagonist to guide us through the story, making all the major discoveries and remaining a constant from start to finish. Running through the lengthy roster of policemen involved in the case would simply be tedious. What matters is that the script's broad narrative strokes are accurate, particularly in relation to the various suspects and discoveries, not to mention the inclusion of English backpacker Paul Onions (Alex Williams), who escaped Milat's clutches and whose testimony was vital in court.

It's undeniable that television has reached its zenith in terms of production value, with shows like Game of Thrones, Daredevil and Sherlock looking utterly cinematic. Luckily, Catching Milat is immensely competent from a technical perspective, maintaining a fluid pace across its two ninety-minute episodes. With the story occurring in the early '90s, the miniseries employs oodles of period detail to recreate the era, from the technology to the fashion to general household decor. It's all achieved convincingly, and it's topped off with stylish cinematography courtesy of Australian TV luminary Joseph Pickering (Underbelly) which belies the modest budget. Luckily, too, the acting is uniformly strong right down the line. Leading the pack is Kennard, who's thoroughly convincing as the titular Milat. Sporting facial hair, Kennard is the splitting image of his real-life counterpart, and delivers a menacing performance. He's a great asset to the production.

As perhaps to be expected, Catching Milat does not get everything right. This is a dense story, with plenty of content to be covered across the show's two episodes, and it's undeniable that some aspects do feel short-changed in the grand scheme of things. The court case in particular is given little-to-no airtime, serving as a perfunctory footnote as opposed to something more substantial. If executed competently, an entire episode could have been devoted to the court case. Nevertheless, Catching Milat is well worth checking out; it's an often absorbing look at a hugely controversial, well-publicised and horrific moment in Australian history.


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Limp, safe Marvel movie

Posted : 7 months ago on 19 July 2015 02:35 (A review of Ant-Man)

"Second chances don't come around all that often. I suggest you take a really close look at it. This is your chance to earn that look in your daughter's eyes, to become the hero that she already thinks you are."

Initially planned to be one of Marvel Studio's smaller-scale, modestly-budgeted Phase One trial run movies, Ant-Man has at long last become a reality after a long, troubled production history. It serves as the conclusion to the studio's Phase Two of film production, entering multiplexes just months after the gargantuan Avengers: Age of Ultron to induct a new superhero into the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe. British cult director Edgar Wright was originally slated to direct Ant-Man, but creative differences prompted his departure just weeks before shooting, leaving Marvel scrambling to get the movie ready in time for its already-scheduled release date. Unfortunately, the studio recruited Peyton Reed to direct. With Reed having previously helmed the likes of Bring It On and Yes Man, he's not exactly a name one would think of to oversee a tent-pole comic book action extravaganza. And alas, the finished movie is even weaker than the underwhelming Age of Ultron, a mostly monotonous effort that perpetually seems to be stuck in first gear.

A professional cat burglar, Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is fresh out of prison, seeking to turn his life around and do right by his young daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson). Desperate to land a job but finding employment impossible with his criminal record, Scott begrudgingly lets his ex-cellmate Luis (Michael Peña) talk him into breaking into a mansion for a big score. Scott works his magic to get through various levels of security, but instead of money, he only finds a unique suit with the ability to shrink and strengthen whomever wears it. The suit was designed by Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant physicist who created the groundbreaking formula to allow the shrinking process and vowed he would never allow it to fall into the wrong hands. But Pym's former protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), who has taken control of Pym Industries, is close to replicating the code and weaponising the Ant-Man tech. To disrupt Cross' plan, Pym chooses Scott to don the Ant-Man suit, much to the frustration of his daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly).

The screenplay for Ant-Man was punched up by Adam McKay, presumably reconciling Wright and Joe Cornish's original narrative structure with whatever demands from Disney/Marvel that compelled Wright to exit the project. Ultimately, the broad strokes of the narrative do work, even if they are derivative of the archetypical "origin story" format. Rather than the grandiose scale of The Avengers, Ant-Man is more character-focused like 2008's Iron Man, with a fairly basic story to make room for the laughs and drama. There are emotional stakes here, with a nice father-daughter redemption arc, but, unfortunately, none of it makes the impact that it probably should. The subplot involving Scott, his daughter, his ex-wife, and his ex-wife's new lover in particular comes off as a clichéd distraction, and the resolution is vague and head-scratching.

Worse, while the actors are consummate professionals who definitely suit their respective roles, the likes of Rudd and Douglas are often left struggling to make various scenes work, burdened with heavy exposition that does them no favours. McKay was brought in for his experience in comedy, but his previous films (Anchorman, Step Brothers) rely heavily on the improvisational talents of the actors rather than witty screenwriting. Thus, there's no life or spark to the often painfully perfunctory dialogue. There's the niggling feeling throughout Ant-Man that the movie should have been better and braver - it's all rather safe, manufactured to pander to the younger demographic. Furthermore, a number of Marvel Cinematic Universe references do sneak their way into the script, but they feel blatantly shoehorned in for the sake of it. This is most notably felt in a tangent involving a certain Avenger that amounts to nothing, clearly included for the sake of an MCU tie-in, and could've easily been excised for stronger storytelling. It's clear that standalone superhero movies are no longer possible in the MCU.

There are some hugely creative ideas here - Luis' long-winded storytelling raised a few guffaws from this reviewer, and it's especially brilliant that the destructive climactic battle between Scott and the villainous Yellowjacket occurs atop a table of children's toys - but the material is mostly limp in the hands of Reed, who exhibits little in the way of style and personality. There's nothing invigorating about the movie, which often feels more like a television pilot due to flat cinematography, humdrum direction, workmanlike action scenes and simplistic humour. It's full of digital effects, of course, which bring some of the more creative scenes to vivid life. But while the CGI is competent, it's by no means spectacular; it still looks too digital, in need of the tangible aesthetic of bygone superhero adventures. As always, the picture arrives with a 3D option, and though the conversion is competent, it does nothing to enhance the movie, which is a shame considering the possibilities. Reed just isn't a visionary filmmaker.

Although enjoyable at times, Ant-Man falls towards the lower spectrum of Marvel productions, down there with The Incredible Hulk and Thor: The Dark World. It ultimately feels like a producer's vision, without much in the way of personality or energy. Guardians of the Galaxy was bolstered by the quirky disposition afforded by indie filmmaker James Gunn, while the Russo Brothers turned Captain America: The Winter Soldier into an exhilarating espionage thriller. Peyton Reed, on the other hand, was ostensibly hired to be a yes man to Marvel's demands, and that's a shame. Superhero fatigue is beginning to set in for this reviewer, making a production like Ant-Man even more disappointing. Potential sequels will need to up their game - hopefully, Ant-Man 2 will be overseen by a more competent action craftsman who will do the character justice. As ever, be sure to stick around during the end credits, as there are two additional scenes.


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Underrated spy actioner

Posted : 7 months ago on 18 July 2015 03:47 (A review of Mission: Impossible 2)

"Mr. Hunt, this isn't mission difficult, it's mission impossible. "Difficult" should be a walk in the park for you."

With Hong Kong action filmmaker extraordinaire John Woo at the helm, Mission: Impossible II is a radical change of pace from its 1996 predecessor. Rather than a densely-plotted spy thriller, M:I-2 is a bit more straightforward, retaining the espionage business whilst letting Woo engage in his favourite past-time: staging elaborate bullet ballets. M:I-2 is undoubtedly the black sheep of the Mission: Impossible series, yet it's nowhere near as awful or unwatchable as its harshest critics contend. Certainly, it is subpar if perceived as an adaptation of the 1960s TV show, but as a standalone action movie, it does have its merits, hollow though it may be.

The Biocyte Pharmaceutical Corporation has developed a deadly new virus known as Chimera, which has the ability to kill infected hosts twenty hours after exposure. Russian bio-chemical expert Dr. Vladimir Nekhorvich (Rade Serbedzija) wishes to deliver the lethal pathogen to the IMF (Impossible Missions Force), but the package is intercepted in transit by rogue agent Sean Ambrose (Dougray Scott), who hopes to unleash the virus on the public and make a fortune by manufacturing the antidote. The IMF assigns Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) to uncover the extent of Ambrose's scheme and prevent him from achieving his goals. For assistance, Hunt calls upon old friend Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and Australian pilot Billy Baird (John Polson). Added to this, Hunt is forced to recruit Ambrose's ex-girlfriend Nyah (Thandie Newton) to spy and provide intelligence back to the IMF.

Woo's original cut of M:I-2 reportedly clocked in at a mammoth three-and-a-half hours, but the studio balked at such a length. Extensive editing was therefore conducted to reduce the runtime to a more serviceable two hours, and the final product does bear the earmarks of a longer film that was truncated in the editing room, as various transitions do feel rushed and awkward. The screenplay, penned by Robert Towne (Chinatown), does bear several narrative similarities to Alfred Hitchcock's Notorious, though there isn't a great deal of complexity or intelligence here. Surprisingly, the first hour or so of M:I-2 is dedicated to setup, espionage and exposition; there is practically no action until about the seventy-minute mark, when Woo is finally permitted to cut loose and orchestrate plenty of pulse-pounding action sequences. It's undeniable that the movie is less successful in its early stages, with so-so pacing and storytelling, but the effort to do something more than pure action is appreciated nevertheless.

Whereas most movie franchises maintain a similar tone and aesthetic throughout each entry, the Mission: Impossible series is a different beast, recruiting a new director for each instalment, and wildly changing up the formula. M:I-2 is a John Woo action movie first and foremost, with the foreign filmmaker being called upon to put his indelible cinematic stamp on the material. There are plenty of firearms here, on top of slow-motion shots, doves taking flight, a pulse-pounding, rock-oriented soundtrack by Hans Zimmer, and even some impressively-choreographed fisticuffs. It's all standard-order stuff with extended shootouts and some vehicular mayhem, but Woo's style does elevates the material above the ordinary. As long as you can excuse the silliness of the entire enterprise, M:I-2 is an enormously entertaining sit. A number of action beats do feel neutered, however - the picture was originally rated R, but the violence was reportedly trimmed considerably. The action sequences in Brian De Palma's original movie were fine within the constraints of a PG-13 rating, but it's undeniable that Woo's bullet ballets would have been more enjoyable and coherent with the freedom of an R rating.

The portrayal of Hunt here is vastly different compared to the first film. For this second instalment, Cruise plays a charismatic, highly-capable killing machine; a cartoon with an itchy trigger finger. In short, he's a stock action hero. There isn't much emotional or dramatic depth to the role, with the trademark love tangent failing to take flight in any significant way. Still, Cruise definitely puts his best foot forward here, coming across as believable in the role. Cruise is surrounded by a decent supporting cast, with Scott doing fine as the villain, while Newton doesn't make much of an impact as Nyah. More successful are Hunt's under-utilised colleagues; Rhames is an amusing treat reprising his role of Luther, while Polson adds plenty of colour to the proceedings. Anthony Hopkins is even present here, giving a bit of gravitas to his small, uncredited role as Hunt's mission commander.

Mission: Impossible II lacks the smarts of the first movie, and it is definitely the weakest of the M:I movies to date, but one cannot help but be thrilled by the chutzpah of Woo's action scenes; they definitely ensure that the feature is worth a look. Indeed, once the movie kicks into high gear and that iconic theme kicks in, it's a total gas.


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Densely-plotted action blockbuster

Posted : 7 months ago on 15 July 2015 02:28 (A review of Mission: Impossible)

"If you're dealing with a man who has crushed, shot, stabbed, and detonated five members of his own IMF team, how devastated do you think you're gonna make him by hauling Mom and Uncle Donald down to the county courthouse?"

More than merely a Tom Cruise action vehicle, Mission: Impossible was born out of the Hollywood craze during the 1990s to adapt as many cult television shows into big-budget motion pictures as possible, and it remains one of the period's more successful endeavours. It's worth noting that this adaptation bears very little resemblance to the 1960s TV series of the same name, only retaining the unforgettable theme song and the character of Jim Phelps (Jon Voight), though Phelps doesn't play a significant role in the proceedings. Indeed, M:I is its own entity, with writer David Koepp (Jurassic Park) using the idea of an agency-based spy thriller as a springboard for an original action blockbuster. And with veteran filmmaker Brian De Palma (Carrie, The Untouchables) at the helm, this is a densely-plotted potboiler which pays more mind to espionage and complex plot machinations than nonstop thrills.

In Prague, a team of Impossible Missions Force (IMF) agents are assigned to prevent the theft of a highly classified list known as the NOC list, which details the identities of all agents in the field. Led by Phelps, the mission is a failure, resulting in the deaths of several team-members. Ethan Hunt (Cruise) is framed for the killing, forcing him to go rogue as he sets out to expose the mole within his organisation. For assistance, Hunt enlists the help of two disavowed IMF agents, computer hacker Luther Stickell (Ving Rhames) and all-around tough guy Franz Krieger (Jean Reno). All the while, Hunt also sets out to ensure that the list does not fall into the hands of international terrorists.

To be sure, Mission: Impossible is almost impossibly serpentine, with an immensely convoluted narrative that's difficult to wrap your head around. It is nice to witness an $80 million summer movie that's more cerebral than the average action flick, but the effort is not entirely successful; it's a confusing movie, and definitely could've been better-constructed for maximum clarity. It doesn't help that the screenplay relies on heavy dialogue to keep us up to speed, and the lags in pacing are noticeable. Nevertheless, Mission: Impossible does make for engaging viewing more often than not - it's a paranoid, edge-of-your-seat spy thriller, with Hunt struggling to figure out who to trust in this situation. There's sufficient intrigue and tension to see the narrative through to the end, with a dash of romance for good measure.

The production was in sturdy hands with Brian De Palma at the helm; the director imprints the feature with his indelible cinematic stamp. Notable for his ability to construct intense, wordless sequences, De Palma's greatest contribution here is the iconic scene involving Hunt and his team breaking into CIA headquarters to steal the NOC list. It's a complex plan which involves Hunt being lowered from the ceiling on wires into a secure room which possesses a dizzying array of security precautions. The set-piece reflects De Palma's visual and tonal filmmaking voice, and it's tautly-edited to boot, making it far more gripping than the movie's ridiculous action scenes. Indeed, M:I needed big money shots to draw in mainstream viewers, and this box is ticked, with the climactic set-piece involving a high-speed train and a helicopter that's utterly preposterous but nevertheless entertaining. And, of course, the iconic Mission: Impossible theme is an absolute joy to hear.

Mission: Impossible was the first motion picture to bear Cruise's name as both a producer and as a star, and it would seem the involvement of his new production company motivated Cruise to place forth a focused, skilful performance. The actor's portrayal of Ethan Hunt is first-rate – he's physically capable and smart, not to mention the character is for the most part a grounded hero. Although Cruise's fan base has ostensibly shrunk in recent years, you cannot deny that he is committed to his art. A very appealing supporting cast also chips in, with veteran actor Voight giving the film a degree of gravitas. Meanwhile, Rhames is amusing, and Reno again shows why he's reliable when it comes to the action genre.

Years on, M:I endures as somewhat of a minor action classic due to its strengths, even though it has been bettered by its sequels, most notably Mission: Impossible III in 2006. Fans of the TV show may scoff if they are expecting something closer to the series, but the movie is something to be admired if taken on its own merits; a precursor to the smart spy action film subgenre that has become so prevalent in recent years.


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Hilarious sequel with some dramatic heft

Posted : 7 months, 2 weeks ago on 29 June 2015 03:35 (A review of Ted 2)

"We'll get a lawyer, and we'll sue the fucking government for your civil rights!"

Even the most optimistic movie-goers could not have predicted the success of 2012's Ted, and although opinions on Seth MacFarlane's live-action directorial debut do vary, its $500 million worldwide box office take exceeded all expectations. With the feature having desensitised us to the idea of a foul-mouthed, pot-smoking teddy bear, it's business-as-usual for 2015's Ted 2, a follow-up which retains the proclivity for infantile humour and pop culture shout-outs within a narrative that provides a degree of dramatic heft. Although not as instantly iconic as its forerunner, Ted 2 is a worthwhile companion piece, and it's enormously funny and enjoyable as long as you're not easily offended. MacFarlane and his co-writers haven't exactly grown up, but that's fine.

The story picks up a couple of years after the first movie, with Ted (performed by MacFarlane) and his girlfriend Tami-Lynn (Jessica Barth) tying the knot, while Ted's best buddy John (Mark Wahlberg) is still recovering from his recent divorce. Twelve months on, and Ted's marriage is on the fritz, as the pair constantly argue and can barely tolerate each other. Deciding that a baby may help to repair their union, the duo begin exploring their options, but Ted's civil rights are soon called into question by the government. Officially branded as "property," Ted is forced to leave his job and his marriage is nullified. Deciding to fight the ruling, Ted and John call upon junior attorney Samantha Jackson (Amanda Seyfried) to prove that Ted is a person in the eyes of the law.

Although MacFarlane's last movie, A Million Ways to Die in the West, did satisfy this reviewer, it was undeniably long and self-indulgent, not to mention there wasn't much substance beneath the movie's surface. Ted was grounded due to the relationship of John and his beloved teddy bear which was easy to relate to, and Ted 2 traverses new thematic territory, with Tami-Lynn unable to have a child and with Ted receiving harsh treatment from the government. Moreover, Ted 2 actually provides a balanced discussion of race and gender issues which is somewhat thought-provoking despite all of the crude humour and profane language. A subplot involving the eternally creepy Donny (Giovanni Ribisi) - who's now a janitor at Hasbro - does threaten to spoil the fun, but thankfully it's handled briskly and tactfully. Likewise, the courtroom scenes could have been tedious, but the furious pacing never falters, and the gags keep on coming.

As to be expected from MacFarlane, Ted 2's humour is mostly derived from obscure pop culture references, creative uses of the word "fuck," prolonged comedic set-pieces (a battle royal at New York Comic Con is an instant classic), and hilarious non-sequiturs, including a completely random scene involving the leads tossing apples at joggers. A scene involving Ted and a surprise celebrity guest discussing Trix is side-splitting, and there's a pitch-black scene at an improv comedy club that probably shouldn't be as funny as it is. MacFarlane even plays around with cinematography for extra laughs - a heated argument between Ted and his wife is lensed using hilariously exaggerated vérité-style photography for heightened effect. There are other fun ideas here as well, including references to John Hughes movies (most notably Planes, Trains & Automobiles) and a brief parody of Jurassic Park that had this reviewer sobbing with laughter. While there are a lot of dumb jokes, Ted 2 lands more than it misses, with MacFarlane maintaining a constant stream of woofers and never dwelling on one punch-line for too long.

The original Ted was bolstered by superb digital effects, and the CGI is actually improved here - the titular teddy bear looks photorealistic. It's possible to forget we are looking at a computer-generated character, which is a huge plus since neither the comedy nor the story would resonate if Ted didn't look convincing. Ted 2 is a fantasy, of course, yet we can believe that this toy is a living, breathing character...who does drugs and is a deviant in the bedroom. MacFarlane again does well in the role, displaying spot-on comedic timing and selling the one-liners with gusto. Beside him, Wahlberg again performs admirably, scoring ample laughs whilst somehow remaining fairly restrained. Mila Kunis was unable to return here due to her pregnancy, and it's definitely hard to swallow that John and Lori broke up, especially since it makes the events of the original movie feel utterly pointless in the long run. Nevertheless, in her place, Seyfried is a worthy love interest. They have great chemistry, and it's a credit to MacFarlane for choosing an actress who works well with Wahlberg. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is filled out with other great names - even Morgan Freeman plays a small but critical role. Sam Jones plays himself yet again, and Ribisi's minor appearance as Donny is mightily amusing.

The internet community sharpened their knives for Ted 2, ostensibly due to the underwhelming nature of A Million Ways to Die in the West, the mysterious dislike for Family Guy, and the fact that it has become hip to retroactively hate on the surprise hit that was the original Ted. Yet, the sequel worked for this reviewer - even though it runs a bit long at close to two hours, I enjoyed every minute of it, as it's frequently amusing and has a solid story at its core. It's hard to imagine any fans of the first film being disappointed. And be sure to stay until the end of the credits.


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All-in-good-fun comedic romp

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 25 June 2015 12:43 (A review of The Interview)

"Kim must die, it's the American way."

2014's The Interview was never going to live up to expectations. With the massive controversy, Sony hacking scandal, terrorist threats from North Korea, and the flick's temporarily cancelled release (it was going to sit in a vault forever unseen), most film-goers most likely expected too much from this all-in-good-fun comedy romp, hoping for a razor-sharp, incisive political satire that it was never meant to be. Directed by Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg, The Interview is by no means high-brow or classy, nor is it The Great Dictator of the 21st Century, but it is funny. Humour is subjective and your mileage will vary depending on taste, but I cannot deny that The Interview worked for me - I laughed frequently, and the movie holds up on repeat viewings.

A high-profile talk show host, Dave Skylark (James Franco) and his producer Aaron Rapaport (Rogen) have conquered the entertainment industry, consistently scoring high ratings from their interviews with various celebrities. After a thousand episodes, however, Aaron finds himself yearning to take on “real news,” and perhaps earn some respect from his peers. Learning that North Korean's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-un (Randall Park), is a fan of the show, Dave and Aaron are given the chance of a lifetime: an hour-long interview with the controversial dictator. The announcement draws attention from the C.I.A. though, with Agent Lacey (Lizzy Caplan) requesting their help to assassinate the controversial political figure. But soon after touching down in the country, Dave finds himself bonding with Kim, prompting second thoughts about the plan. Aaron, meanwhile, gains in ally in the form of Sook (Diana Bang), a military official and propagandist working for the Supreme Leader.

Many of The Interview's detractors bemoan the lack of sophistication and political satire here, with Rogen and Goldberg content to fill the feature with dick jokes, drug trips, creative uses of profanity, and other infantile humour. But Dan Sterling's screenplay actually does more than it gets credit for - in one particularly astute exchange, Sook asks Aaron how many times the U.S. can make the same mistake, to which he replies "As many times as it takes!" The Interview also plays up several of the myths surrounding North Korea, some of which are hugely alarming. It's easy to see why Kim Jong-un and his people would find this feature offensive, though it still would've been nice to see the movie go even further - one must wonder if any material was cut from the final product in light of the tremendous controversy.

As with all comedies, not all of the laughs land, of course - it's especially grating to listen to the white actors talking like rappers. Furthermore, some scenes could have been tauter, such as the interview with Eminem which runs past its logical closure point. Nevertheless, I laughed more often than not, and the movie also makes side-splitting use of the Katy Perry song "Firework," which becomes a brilliant recurring joke. Rogen and Goldberg were aiming for a sophisticated visual style here which belies the project's comedic origins, collaborating with veteran comedy cinematographer Brandon Trost to give The Interview the look of a stylish espionage thriller. Lensed digitally, the results are to be commended, with shot compositions making brilliant use of shadows. Nobody can accuse The Interview of looking cheap. The climax here amounts to an extended action set-piece, and it's both hugely amusing and competently executed. Some of the violence is comically over-the-top, but, miraculously, it never grows too dark or mean-spirited - the madness is pitched at just the right tone.

Franco's performance is a mixed bag. He plays foolish well enough and he is amusing at times, but he's far too broad and often mugs the camera. One can only imagine what someone like Bill Murray could have done with the role, as he's capable of wonderfully dry line delivery. In fact, Murray would have been a great choice, as he has subtle, nuanced comedic chops that would've made the movie even funnier. Rogen, meanwhile, is pretty much Seth Rogen, leaning on all of his usual trademarks as a performer. More worthy of praise is Park's energetic portrayal of Kim Jong-un. Park had serious balls to play the dictator at all, but it's astonishing just how much he runs with it, turning the notorious Supreme Leader as a pothead who enjoys margaritas and Katy Perry music. Caplan is also mostly amusing, while Bang's performance as Sook is highly spirited.

High-concept R-rated comedies are becoming rarer and rarer, and while The Interview is not the home run that it might have been in defter hands, Rogen and Goldberg deserve credit for having the guts to mastermind a comedy of such brash political outrageousness. Other comedies these days like Sex Tape, Neighbors, Ride Along, Let's Be Cops, Dumb and Dumber To and The Internship mine the same old tired territory, thus The Interview has an inherent edge since it delves into more dangerous terrain. Best of all, it does so whilst remaining fun and light on its feet, rather than leaden and pretentious. It's not perfect, but I'll take it.


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Better than its reputation implies

Posted : 7 months, 3 weeks ago on 24 June 2015 03:28 (A review of Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines)

"Judgment Day. The end of the world. It's today, three hours from now."

There is only one true Terminator movie in this reviewer's eyes, and it was released in 1984 as The Terminator. Although 1991's Terminator 2: Judgment Day was an entertaining follow-up, it lacked the pitch-black tone of its predecessor and created holes in the franchise's mythology. 2003's Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines is another instalment which falls short of the motion picture which spawned it, but it's noticeably better than its shonky reputation implies. Without the participation of series mastermind James Cameron, the outlook for Terminator 3 was never overwhelmingly promising, but it surprises by being a genuinely entertaining action flick which plays out like a B-movie executed with A-grade production value.

Set roughly a decade after the events of T2, John Connor (Nick Stahl) has become a reclusive drifter, living off the grid to prevent the possibility of more Terminators finding him. 1997 has come and gone, with the predestined Judgment Day never having come to fruition. However, the computer system known as SkyNet has not given up on Connor yet, sending an advanced Terminator known as the Terminatrix, or T-X (Kristanna Loken), back in time to assassinate the future leader of the human resistance, as well as several of his lieutenants, including future bride Kate Brewster (Claire Danes). Once again, though, a T-101 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) is reprogrammed and sent back in time to serve as a protector for John and Kate. The T-101 explains that Judgment Day was only postponed, and the day of the Armageddon has at long last arrived. Although it's the Terminator's job to ensure the pair reach safety before the bombs are launched, John and Kate become determined to change destiny, convincing their cyborg protector to help them stop Judgment Day for good.

Written by John D. Brancato and Michael Ferris (The Net, The Game), Terminator 3 adheres to the basic narrative structure of the previous films, with new director Jonathan Mostow (U-571) using the well-worn narrative framework to connect a series of impressive action sequences. Thinking too deeply into the mythology behind Terminator 3 would be foolish. It was enough of a stretch for Terminator 2 to involve time travel after Kyle Reese stated in the first movie that the time displacement equipment had been destroyed, and it's equally dumbfounding here. It also begs the question once again: why would SkyNet stop sending Terminators back in time to kill John Connor? Why not send back hundreds of cyborgs? Such questions about paradoxes and so on in time-travelling adventures really makes one's head hurt. Furthermore, T3 lacks heart, which is an element that Cameron introduced in the previous two movies. Thus, while Terminator 3 is exciting, it's not especially moving or powerful, and consequently the blockbuster never rises above its action roots to become something more transcendental.

Terminator 2 was softer compared to its brutally R-rated forerunner, and though T3 also carries an R rating, it does essentially feel like a glorified PG-13 (it's rated 12 in the UK). The movie is ultimately fairly sanitised, and while there are a few notably violent moments and some strong language, it lacks the visceral punch that was most notably evident in the original Terminator. Nevertheless, the technical execution of Terminator 3 is something to behold, with the reported $187 million price tag being put to good use. Surprisingly, although there is a fair amount of CGI here, Mostow and his crew do rely a lot on practical effects, with plenty of gigantic sets, some impressive make-up, and even a group of robo-tanks which were all executed practically. One of the centrepieces is an extended chase through the streets of Los Angeles (for which an entire street was constructed for shooting) that results in a lot of carnage and destruction. The action scenes are competent under Mostow's direction, which is a big plus considering the silliness of the entire enterprise. T3 also possesses a good sense of humour to prevent it from feeling like a drab remake of the previous movies. Not all of the jokes are funny (Arnie's gay pink sunnies...), but for the most part Terminator 3 gels.

Schwarzenegger reportedly received a fair chunk of change to reprise his iconic role here, and it was a wise choice to bring back the veteran actor. Despite the twelve-year gap between movies, the Austrian Oak slips back into the role flawlessly, with the role of an emotionless robot still a perfect fit for the star's abilities. Arnie worked hard to get himself back into Terminator shape, and the effort paid off; he's large and in charge. Less successful is Stahl as John Connor. He's not as grating as Edward Furlong, but he's not the badass that we have come to associate with the character. And as Kate Brewster, Danes fares respectably in her first action role. It's not an especially deep character, and she lacks the spirit of Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor, but Danes exhibits fine conviction. Meanwhile, Loken is not as memorable or as scary as Robert Patrick's T-1000 from Terminator 2, but she is moderately effective.

Even in spite of its numerous drawbacks and flaws, Terminator 3 is a fun enough blockbuster elevated by its unexpected sucker punch of a doomsday ending, which feels far more in keeping with the bleak tone of this franchise. After all, postponing Judgment Day again would simply feel forced. It is, quite simply, the ending that should have closed T2. As a Terminator movie, T3 sadly lacking in many departments, but it does deliver as a summer action thrill ride with its impressive special effects and fun action scenes, just as long as you're not expecting too much.


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Immersive dinosaur blockbuster

Posted : 8 months ago on 14 June 2015 05:48 (A review of Jurassic World)

"She will kill anything that moves. She is finding where she fits in the food chain, and I don't think you want her to figure that out!"

Fourteen years of rumours, false starts and cancelled release dates have finally culminated with 2015's Jurassic World, a grandiose blockbuster that's confidently worthy of Steven Spielberg's groundbreaking Jurassic Park. With dinosaurs now mostly relegated to cheap straight-to-video releases like The Dinosaur Project and Jurassic Attack, it's refreshing to finally behold a major motion picture with the funds to do it properly. With Spielberg again adopting a producing role, the directorial duties fell to Colin Trevorrow here, whose last moviemaking endeavour was the 2012 indie effort Safety Not Guaranteed. Trevorrow acquits himself admirably with a movie of this scope and budget, celebrating this revered cinematic universe to create an immersive dino thriller which plays out like a natural extension of the 1993 game-changer. Delicately ignoring the last two sequels, Jurassic World stays true to the elements which made Jurassic Park such a hit in the first place - honest-to-goodness tension, smarts to supplement the spectacle, terrifying dinosaurs, and a charming cast of characters.

Set over twenty years after the catastrophe at the original Jurassic Park, billionaire entrepreneur Simon Masrani (Irrfan Khan) has turned John Hammond's vision into a reality with Jurassic World, a fully-functional dinosaur theme park built on Isla Nublar. Managing the park is the career-minded Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard), who maintains a timid working relationship with former Navy serviceman Owen (Chris Pratt), a passionate dino expert who cares for the park's Velociraptors by serving as their alpha. When Claire's two young nephews Gray (Ty Simpkins) and Zach (Nick Robinson) come for a visit, the diligent operations manager has no time for her family, leaving them to be babysat by her assistant. To boost park attendance, Jurassic World's scientists have designed a genetically modified hybrid, the Indominus Rex. Owen immediately realises the danger it poses, but his warnings come too late, with the monster soon escaping its pen and beginning a park-wide rampage. Complicating matters is Vic (Vincent D'Onofrio), the head of InGen Security, who's determined to weaponise the prehistoric animals.

2001's Jurassic Park III jettisoned all semblance of intelligence; it was a straight-ahead B-movie which forgot that the original Jurassic Park was bolstered by moralistic and scientific discussions. Jurassic World finds intelligent underpinnings by introducing the idea of advanced gene splicing and providing satire regarding abuses of power and corporate excess, not to mention it plants the seed of using dinos as weapons that may be exploited in future sequels. And while the basic story is similar to the almighty blockbuster which spawned it, Trevorrow is able to introduce enough innovation to make Jurassic World feel fresh and original. Above all, however, there is an underlying sense of self-awareness: this is ultimately a more pumped-up version of the 1993 movie, and the flashy set-pieces are situated within a story concerned with the ugly business of turning miracles into marketing opportunities. Driving this point home even further is the presence of a tech support engineer (Jake Johnson) who wears a vintage "Jurassic Park" t-shirt, keeps little toy dinosaurs at his work station, and has strong opinions on how legit Hammond's original park was compared to the more oversaturated version currently in existence. For crying out loud, the I-Rex's full title is "Verizon Wireless Presents the Indominus Rex." (Also, iRex. Get it?) There are other little winks here too, including an amusing middle finger to Jurassic Park III that fans will appreciate.

Jurassic World's script - which was originally written by Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, before being revamped by Derek Connolly and director Trevorrow - appreciates the value of build-up. In the original film, it took about an hour for the dinosaur rampaging to begin, and Trevorrow elects a similar approach here, letting us get acquainted with the ensemble and become properly invested in the film before all hell breaks loose. There's a lot of plot jammed into the two-hour runtime - of particular note is the reintroduction of InGen, with Hammond's former company once again up to no good. It might not seem necessary, but InGen has been up to such tricks since The Lost World, and the first movie involved the conspiracy with Dennis Nedry who was ultimately responsible for the catastrophe. Trevorrow's Safety Not Guaranteed was character-based, and he thankfully does a fine job of juggling focus here. Although not everything works (Vic's villainy is overplayed by D'Onofrio), momentum is always maintained, and there's humour here which helps to humanise the characters.

What's surprising is how well Trevorrow handles the elements that have been the basis of internet scrutiny for months - the raptors are not tamed or friendly; rather, Owen imprinted on them at birth, and they remain extremely dangerous creatures. In lesser hands, this whole aspect would have fallen flat, but it's handled with tact and never strains credulity, plus Owen's relationship with the raptors gives the movie a bit of extra heart and introduces a fresh new angle. Furthermore, it was ultimately a sublime idea for Jurassic World to change things up by showing us a fully-functional dino theme park. It's stunningly conceived by Trevorrow and his crew, coming alive in a genuinely amazing way. The environment is immersive and detailed, not to mention it feels surprisingly plausible, with petting zoos, shops, rides, shows, hotel resorts and even an underwater observation deck, all of which are implemented through lavish production design. It really is Hammond's vision come to life, and it's admirable that the movie relies on vast sets and real locations as opposed to pure CGI. One does have to wonder why there isn't some sort of bunker in the park as a contingency plan in the event of an emergency, however.

Although scientists are now certain that dinosaurs had feathers, the Jurassic Park series has never been concerned with providing the most scientifically accurate dinos - the geneticists in this franchise have always modified dinosaur genomes to create, as Alan Grant describes them, “Genetically engineered theme park monsters.” Dr. Wu (B.D. Wong) even talks about this, pointing out that none of the dino DNA is 100% pure. The promotional materials fail to do justice to the incredible dinosaur special effects, which are insanely detailed and competent. Witnessing Jurassic World on the big screen is sensational, with the choice to shoot on good old-fashioned celluloid (both 35mm and 65mm) bestowing the production with a realistic look. Most modern blockbusters are digital all the way through to their core, with features like the Hobbit trilogy looking too smooth, which makes the CGI look like CGI. But Jurassic World carries a fine grain structure, and at times the digital effects look like practical animatronics (there are a few animatronic shots here and there, but there aren't used in the same capacity as the previous movies). The trailers foreground the big money shots, but Trevorrow does wisely by not giving into excess.

The Jurassic Park franchise has always been dark, and Trevorrow thankfully doesn't soften the edges. The Indominus Rex is established as a major threat, and characters are killed and eaten in surprisingly violent ways. There is a vast body count here, and nobody is safe, with the dinos even descending upon the park guests. Furthermore, there is genuine thought and intelligence to the dinosaur behaviour. The enterprise ultimately comes to a head for a climax that surpasses all expectations - it managed to both keep me on the edge of my seat and make me weep in utter delight at the sheer magnificence of it. Of course, the climactic showdown amounts to pure fan service, and it is pretty silly, but it's pulled off with such honest-to-goodness gusto and sincerity that it just plain works. Furthermore, Michael Giacchino's score is ideal, blending John Williams' unforgettable original themes with some rousing new music.

With Guardians of the Galaxy and now Jurassic World, Pratt has created two distinct, amiable heroes that kids are going to want to dress up and play as. Owen carries no traces of Star Lord - whereas Pratt's Guardians of the Galaxy character was a buffoon, Owen is a smart, resourceful ex-military type with boyish charm and a sense of humour. He's an old-school hero who talks a lot of sense, and Pratt nails the role beautifully. Howard is not quite as instantly lovable, though that's more by design - she's believable her role, and that's what matters. Jurassic World has heart to boot, with Simpkins and Robinson delivering sincere performance and coming off wholly believable as siblings. The relationship the boys share is different to Tim and Lex from the first movie, and anyone with a brother can relate to their interactions. The family dynamic between the boys, their aunt, and their mother (Judy Greer) is unexpectedly effective, giving the film some unexpected poignancy. The only familiar face here is Wong as Dr. Wu, Jurassic World's lead geneticist.

There are not many directions that a Jurassic Park sequel can take, as most avenues have been exhausted. Another rehash of The Lost World would feel slipshod, and anything too far removed from the franchise would feel jarring. Fortunately, director Trevorrow has knocked it out of the park, creating an enormously entertaining blockbuster full of majesty and excitement which also leaves room for further follow-ups. There's humanity underneath the spectacle, the production values are top-flight, there are plenty of competent chills and thrills, and Trevorrow is a skilled cinematic craftsman. It is silly, but it's not an insult to anyone's intelligence. For those of us who grew up with Spielberg's iconic blockbusters (this reviewer included), Jurassic World is a godsend. And it will no doubt impress a brand new generation of kids, too. It does not quite nail the balance of sophistication and blockbuster thrills that was accomplished for Spielberg's film, but nothing could.


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A really boring B-movie

Posted : 8 months, 2 weeks ago on 30 May 2015 06:02 (A review of Survivor)

"We don't assume the worst of our best people and we don't sell them out at the first sign of trouble!"

One supposes that 2015's Survivor was initially intended for bigger things. With veteran action director James McTeigue (V for Vendetta, Ninja Assassin) at the helm and a cast which features the likes of Milla Jovovich and Pierce Brosnan, one must wonder if the feature might have been originally targeted for a decently-marketed theatrical run. Seeing the finished product, though, it's obvious why it's being dumped in only a handful of theatres. Written by first-time feature film scribe Philip Shelby, Survivor clearly wants to be taken with a straight face, but cooks up far too much narrative ludicrousness to achieve this goal. Moreover, it doesn't even manage to deliver as a B-movie, with minimal action scenes and very little in the way of fun. McTeigue was apparently asleep throughout filming, as pacing is flat, action is mundane, and performances are blank. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Survivor came from the tired mills of Nu Image/Millennium Films, and was produced by the likes of Avi Lerner and Boaz Davidson. Did anyone expect quality?

At the United States Embassy in London, Kate (Jovovich) handles the distribution of visas. Upon meeting Dr. Emil Balan (Roger Rees), a few suspicious details stick out to Kate, who begins an investigation which provokes an unexpectedly hostile response from government officials. Despite support from her boss (Dylan McDermott), Kate is pushed out of the job, and is soon marked for death when an expert assassin known as The Watchmaker (Brosnan) is assigned to take her out. Kate narrowly avoids death in a bombing intended to finish her off, and becomes framed for both the bombing and the subsequent murder of her boss. With the government and her former colleagues trying to track her, and with The Watchmaker prowling around, Kate takes it upon herself to find out what Balan is actually up to.

Due to The Watchmaker's presence, Survivor could have been a smart action-thriller similar to Michael Mann's Collateral, but McTeigue and co. are not sophisticated enough. This should be a sizzling white-knuckler beset with plot twists, especially with a story as labyrinthine as this, but the film boils down to a lot of computer screens and running around whilst we observe the bad guys doing evil things. Thus, there's no mystery here - no tension or suspense to transform the picture into a heated nail-biter. And no amount of overzealous music or repetitive chase scenes can change that. It doesn't help that the screenplay is all over the shop, with verbose exposition and inconsistent characters (James D'Arcy just disappears into the final third). Plus, the fact that Kate is stymied by her boss in the first five minutes openly telegraphs the only twist there is (I think?). Speaking of Kate, she turns into action hero extraordinaire, able to outrun cops and fight trained professionals. It's such a tangible girl power trip that one cannot help but facepalm as she sets off to kill the bad guys alone as if she were Rambo's daughter.

For whatever reason, Survivor is a PG-13 endeavour when the material would be a better fit for an R-rated actioner. Firearm wounds are hilariously underplayed, people expire off-screen, and the movie can never quite find the hard-edged tone that it searches for. Since the movie debuted via on-demand services (and maybe two cinemas), the choice to go PG-13 is really bewildering. Not that excessive violence would've improved the movie much, but at least it might've been a bit more fun. Although Survivor admittedly looks a bit more cinematic than your typical DTV outing, McTeigue is unable to truly bring the material to life, which can probably be attributed to slipshod scripting and the predominantly Bulgarian locations. Indeed, the movie was shot on the cheap in dull areas around Bulgaria, and it shows - no amount of polish can compensate for this. If the reported $20 million budget is accurate, 99% of it clearly went to the actors.

Brosnan's utmost professionalism is a given at this stage, with the aging actor an ideal pick for this assassin role. He gives off a steely, cold demeanour, and you can definitely buy him as the bad guy, but The Watchmaker is the most incompetent screen hitman in recent memory. He has the chance to kill Kate on more than one occasion, but mucks it up through nothing more than contrivance. In one scene, he feels compelled to approach Kate who's lying on the ground as if to give her a chance to fight back. The climax is particularly embarrassing, as Kate manages to not only match the supposedly master assassin in close combat, but better him. Fans of Brosnan would do wise to stay away from this one, as his appearance amounts to a glorified cameo anyway. Indeed, Survivor is the Milla Jovovich show. Not even the mildly impressive supporting cast are given the chance to shine, with McDermott given almost nothing to do while Angela Bassett pushes papers and talks tough. What a waste.

Survivor closes with a title card to remind us of the heroic actions of the New York City police department in a post-9/11 world, which reinforces that the movie wanted to be a serious thriller about global terrorism. What a shame that the finished product is such a throwaway viewing experience, beset with laughable moments and terrible dialogue, eroding whatever sense of authenticity that Shelby's script apparently wanted to introduce. No wonder the movie is being silently released without any marketing push.


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The forgotten Die Hard

Posted : 8 months, 3 weeks ago on 27 May 2015 02:19 (A review of The Last Boy Scout)

"Nobody likes you. Everybody hates you. You're gonna lose. Smile, you fuck."

Despite being a standalone action movie, 1991's The Last Boy Scout walks and talks like a Die Hard sequel, as it features a foul-mouthed Bruce Willis as a burnt-out cop who finds himself in an undesirable situation. Whereas the disappointing fourth and fifth Die Hard pictures were, ultimately, Die Hard in name only, The Last Boy Scout is Die Hard in everything except name, and will no doubt prove both refreshing and satisfying to any disillusioned fans of the franchise. Penned by the always-reliable Shane Black, the film suffered a troubled production period, with director Tony Scott and producer Joel Silver sharing a tumultuous relationship, and with Stuart Baird being recruited to heavily re-edit the picture to salvage it. Yet, none of these issues are apparent in the finished product - it's an assured, fun romp with sparkling dialogue and superb action sequences.

A former secret service agent who once saved the President's life, Joe Hallenbeck (Willis) has fallen on hard times. Now a worn-out private detective, his daughter (Danielle Harris) despises him and things aren't exactly happily-ever-after with his wife Sarah (Chelsea Field). Assigned to protect a young stripper named Cory (Halle Berry), Joe's skills are tested when she is gunned down by a group of thugs. To resolve the case, Joe reluctantly teams up with Cory's boyfriend, a one-time pro quarterback named Jimmy Dix (Damon Wayans). Digging deeper, they uncover evidence of deep-seated corruption involving a crooked politician and the wealthy owner of a football team.

One of the more notable aspects of The Last Boy Scout is its sensational opening scene, which kicks things off on a high (and violent) note. Black was at the pinnacle of his Hollywood screenwriting career when he penned this movie, with Warner Bros. paying him a record-breaking $1.75 million sum for his efforts. Fresh off his success with Lethal Weapon, Black has devised a fascinating mash-up of classic film genres - this is essentially a contemporary take on the hardboiled film noir private detective story. Black's Lethal Weapon experience served him well, as The Last Boy Scout is a buddy action movie that treads similar thematic ground. To be sure, the screenplay is comprised of several archetypal action movie chestnuts, but it's the execution that shines. Indeed, the dialogue is a frequent source of amusement, with one-liners that remain side-splitting to this day. Black has a reputation for witty dialogue, and this skill is ever-present throughout the movie. Better yet, with an R-rating, profanity is permitted, which gives the bantering an extra sparkle. The final third of Black's original script was retooled and the climax was altered, a choice that irked Black, but the movie still comes together. It works.

Although formulaic on the whole, The Last Boy Scout is enormously entertaining in the hands of the late Tony Scott. In his latter years, Scott's moviemaking revolved around quick-cuts and other gimmicks, but this is an old-school effort - the action is captured through a smooth routine of steady camerawork and masterful composition, courtesy of cinematographer Ward Russell. The Last Boy Scout also shines due to its graphic violence. This is by no means a sanitised PG-13 offering, as Scott relishes the chance to go nuts with blood squibs. It's glorious, with the film emerging as both dark and thrilling. It helps that pacing is strong as well, with Baird's editorial input clearly resulting in a smooth experience. Topping everything off is the soundtrack courtesy of Michael Kamen, who also scored the first three Die Hard instalments and various other classic action movies. Kamen reportedly disliked this film and only participated out of respect to Willis and Silver, yet his contributions are nevertheless strong.

Hallenbeck is, essentially, John McClane from Die Hard, only more bitter and depressed. The role is a perfect fit for Willis' talents, finding the actor right at home with one-liners and insults. Willis cares less and less with each passing movie these days, but The Last Boy Scout finds him in fine form. It's the good old Willis we all love; the reluctant hero who survives dangerous situations by cracking wise. Not to mention, it's possible to care about Hallenbeck, as he has gotten the short end of the stick and tries to be a good dad. Wayans, meanwhile, makes for a sublime sparring partner for Willis - he's a damn sight better than Justin Long and Jai Courtney from the latter-day Die Hard sequels. Together, Willis and Wayans are hilarious and kick a lot of arse. Also notable is Taylor Negron, who's superb as one of the villains here. Negron is a threatening presence, and he's given strong support from Noble Willingham as the shady Sheldon Marcone.

Years on, The Last Boy Scout holds up as a mightily enjoyable early-'90s actioner, supported by strong performances, plenty of humour, and a generous serving of thrilling, violent action. It has real stakes and some sinister villains, yet it also doesn't take itself too seriously. It's cheesy fun with insanely quotable one-liners, Halle Berry as a stripper, and Willis unofficially playing John McClane again. Fans of macho action movies from this period owe it to themselves to watch it.


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