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It cannot be missed. Bravo!

Posted : 9 months ago on 26 February 2015 10:52 (A review of When Trumpets Fade)

"You don't think about it, you don't hesitate, you just do it, you understand? Otherwise, you're gonna go home to your mama in a box, alright?"

When Trumpets Fade is a far better motion picture than most will be expecting. A forgotten TV movie produced by HBO in 1998, it shines a light on one of the most overlooked WWII battles in history; the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, which occurred in the latter months of 1944. The conflict was brought to an end mere days before the commencement of the Battle of the Bulge, hence Hürtgen Forest is not as well-known today, but there were a staggering 33,000 American casualties throughout the exceedingly horrific battle. Directed by John Irvin (Hamburger Hill), When Trumpets Fade explores the fierce nature of the combat within Hürtgen Forest, and underscores the dark nature of this overlooked battle. And it's amazing. Ironically, the release of Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan in the same year overshadowed this skilful telemovie, rendering it just as forgotten as the fragment of history that it covers.

Following a particularly vicious engagement with German troops, Pvt. Manning (Ron Eldard) emerges as the sole survivor of his platoon, returning to the command outpost utterly shaken. Hastily promoted to sergeant by company commander Captain Roy Pritchett (Martin Donovan), Manning is put in an awkward position, saddled with additional power that he does not appreciate and did not desire. Struggling to maintain his humanity, Manning is ordered to lead troops on suicidal missions, with the body count piling up and good men devolving into insanity in the fierce war zone.

In a nod to Hollywood’s golden era of war movies, When Trumpets Fade opens with upbeat newsreel propaganda footage of American troops set to jolly old-fashioned war music. While this may seem like a peculiar way to commence a modern war movie, it’s a stroke of brilliance, as it both tips its hat to the classic war movies of yesteryear and serves as a chilling contrast against the horrific carnage that is to come.

A war movie like When Trumpets Fade could never be produced within the Hollywood system. In fact, writer W.W. Vought probably never even imagined that his script would actually be produced. Although big-budget war epics such as Saving Private Ryan and Black Hawk Down have emphasised the gory horrors of combat, When Trumpets Fade goes one step further; there are no real heroes here, as the story is populated with characters who've lost sight of their humanity. In the very first scene, Manning is forced to kill a wounded soldier who can go no further, and a few scenes later he's seen stealing boots from a corpse to replace his battle-worn footwear. On top of this, the hopelessness of the situation is underscored; there are so many casualties that Manning is promoted from private to sergeant to lieutenant in a matter of days. Soldiers lose their minds due to the carnage surrounding them - one soldier with a flamethrower goes off the rails in the middle of combat, prompting Manning to kill him. It's heavy stuff, but it's also fascinating to see a film concerned with the traumatic effects of war.

One 90-minute motion picture would be utterly incapable of properly conveying the breadth of this months-long conflict; this stuff would be better suited for a miniseries in the same format as Band of Brothers. Nevertheless, When Trumpets Fade does a superb job considering the limitations of the format - it conveys the massive body count and encapsulates the sense of hopelessness that one imagines the actual campaign might have felt like. I definitely wish that this was a longer movie, but the finished product is nevertheless fantastic. If the only real criticism that can be levelled at a flick is that there's not enough of it, that usually means it's a pretty badass motion picture.

For a television movie, When Trumpets Fade flaunts some impressive production values, with convincing period-specific sets and costumes. Considering that Irvin was most likely working on an extremely tight budget, it's hard not to be impressed with the results here. The action scenes are often spectacular and insanely violent, pulling no punches and coming close to Saving Private Ryan levels of gore. There's barely a dull moment in When Trumpets Fade, as the dialogue scenes are well-paced and lead into the beautifully-staged combat sequences, of which there are multiple. Irvin cut his teeth with the '80s Vietnam gem Hamburger Hill, which demonstrated the director's ability to create excellence with a meagre budget, and this talent is omnipresent here. Admittedly, the cinematography and general look of the production is fairly workmanlike, which can be attributed to the limited funds, but it's not a deal-breaker.

When Trumpets Fade received a few minor awards and nominations upon its initial release, but awareness of this little gem is astoundingly low. It might fall a bit short of Saving Private Ryan, but it confidently surpasses 1998's other war film: the overrated snoozer known as The Thin Red Line. The flag-waving of most war movies is absent here, replaced by the beliefs and observations of frightened, cynical soldiers. When Trumpets Fade is an edifying chronicle of a largely forgotten battle, on top of being a sublime combat-based action film and a top-flight war movie which refuses to gloss over the consequences of war. It cannot be missed.


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Superb Australian miniseries

Posted : 9 months, 1 week ago on 17 February 2015 04:04 (A review of Gallipoli)

"Men who landed on the beach went up into the gullies and ravines of Gallipoli... And were never seen again."

The extensive eight-month Gallipoli campaign of 1915 has never been properly covered in film or television. It's such obvious fodder for a miniseries that it's frankly surprising it took so long for such a project to be brought to fruition. Arriving in time for the campaign's centenary, Gallipoli (a collaboration of the Nine Network and Screen Australia) should please anyone seeking to learn more about this segment of World War I history. A powerful miniseries, it was adapted from Les Carlyon's highly-acclaimed book of the same name, which is often perceived as the definitive resource on Gallipoli. Thank goodness that the resultant miniseries is not just good but genuinely great, and one of the best things to hit Australian TV in recent years.

With The Great War in full swing overseas, seventeen-year-old Tolly Johnson (Kodi Smit-McPhee) lies about his age to enlist in the Australian Army, following in the footsteps of his older brother Bevan (Harry Greenwood). Landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula on April 25, 1915, Tolly is immediately tossed into the deep end, ordered to kill Turkish soldiers despite a lifetime of being told that killing is wrong. Ultimately, the Gallipoli campaign runs for far longer than anyone had anticipated, with death becoming a daily occurrence on the peninsula.

It would be unfair to compare this series to Peter Weir's highly acclaimed 1981 motion picture of the same name, which was a smaller story that only covered basic training in Egypt and the battle of The Nek with any detail. 2015's Gallipoli is a different beast, determined to cover as much of the extensive campaign as possible, concentrating on soldiers' actions on the frontline, the journalistic perspective, and the bureaucratic side of things, with officers often seen conversing about offensives and tactics. Tolly is the primary focus, though, of course, with the series highlighting how the teenager is changed due to the war. There are flashbacks at various points to Tolly's life before Gallipoli, which is a fairly obvious and trite chestnut, but it nevertheless works to some extent.

Taking plenty of detail from Carlyon's tremendous literary achievement, Gallipoli is a hugely authentic watch, portraying the minor everyday skirmishes as well as the more well-known battles. The horrors of war are not glossed over; trench walls are stained with blood and viscera, and there are hundreds of dead bodies laying around in various stages of decay. Gallipoli is violent but it's not exploitative, displaying tact during the combat scenes whilst still showing the requisite blood of a typical bullet hit. Other aspects documented in Carlyon's book are portrayed as well; it was impossible to have a feed without attracting flies, sleep deprivation ran rampant, and there was plenty of tedium throughout the eight months. Indeed, the miniseries covers the daily drudgery of army life, with constant sentry duty and the less-glamorous jobs doled out on a day-to-day basis (fetching ammunition, unloading supplies, and digging...oh so much digging).

Written by Christopher Lee (no, not that Christopher Lee), the series' depiction of Australian soldiers is truly spot-on, with their pitch-black humour, cheekiness, and rebellious attitudes towards authority (one none-the-wiser soldier addresses a general as "cobber"). Added to this, the production is not quick to demonise the Turks, a move which gives the series some added dimension. In the second episode, an armistice is established to bury corpses, and several of the Australians actually converse with their Turk enemies, highlighting that the soldiers could even be mates if it weren't for their respective governments. Another great scene shows the Aussies and Turks in their trenches playing games with each other out of sheer boredom. Admittedly, however, the script could've incorporated other facets of Carlyon's book to enhance the production - some written passages could have been used for Tolly's voiceovers, and some of the book's most notable moments of dark humour would've been superb to see here.

Directed by Glendyn Ivin (Beaconsfield), combat scenes throughout the series are staged with real finesse and style, making this one of the most impressive depictions of WWI to date. The ANZAC landing in the first episode definitely merits a mention, with its scattered battles and general sense of utter disorder permeating the first day that's absolutely accurate. A great number of officers were killed by Turk snipers in the first few hours on the peninsula, leaving many soldiers without leaders or orders. And since the Australians landed in the wrong spot, negotiating the rough landscape populated with armed Turks was treacherous indeed. Other well-known battles are handled skilfully as well, including the conflicts at Lone Pine and The Nek which are given their own episode. However, The Nek probably could have carried a bit more weight if more time was allotted to it (you certainly will not feel the impact of Weir's picture).

Gallipoli deserves plaudits for its superb production values and staggering attention to detail. It is clear that military advisors were used, as military tactics are very true-to-life, and the series contains even the tiniest details of army drudgery to contribute to an authenticity that will go unnoticed by many. The uniforms are particularly accurate, with Rising Sun badges and even regiment patches on sleeves. Filmed in Victoria, the sense of place in Gallipoli is truly astounding. The peninsula indeed resembles photographs of the real-life campaign, and none-the-wiser viewers may be tricked into thinking that the series was actually lensed in Turkey. (To heighten the verisimilitude, the final episode actually closes with recently-filmed imagery of the Gallipoli peninsula.) Gallipoli was shot digitally, and although shooting on film stock might have yielded an overall superior image, the visuals are nevertheless gorgeous. Many sequences were of course enhanced with digital effects to show the various ships anchored just offshore, but the CGI is quite effective and competent, rather than the bargain-basement variety. The score composed by Stephen Rae is hugely affecting as well.

Most Hollywood movies try to pass thirty-year-olds off as teenagers, but the producers here opted for an old trick known as casting an actual seventeen-year-old to play a seventeen-year-old character. Smit-McPhee is a real catch - a child actor who has appeared in films like The Road, Let Me In, and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, he's ideal for the role of Tolly, with a youthful look and innocent demeanour that simply cannot be achieved by an adult performer. He's convincing from top to bottom, and fortunately, he's backed by a sublime supporting cast.

As someone who has read Carlyon's amazing book and served in the Australian Army, I was very happy with 2015's Gallipoli, which functions as a marvellous spiritual follow-up to the equally excellent 1985 miniseries ANZACS. It's not quite the definitive chronicle of the campaign, but such a production would be impossible to achieve without at least fifteen or twenty hour-long episodes. Considering the circumstances, I'll take it.


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An epically manly action classic

Posted : 9 months, 2 weeks ago on 9 February 2015 03:42 (A review of Fortress)

"Crime does not pay."

Fortress is an epically manly classic from the golden age of cinematic mandom. A prison break action-thriller, it possesses all the right ingredients for an entertaining slice of escapism, with an imaginative vision of a dystopic future, a superb cast containing a few action genre luminaries, and an R rating in place allowing for plenty of satisfying violence and salty language. Fortress started life as a generously-budgeted vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger, but the Austrian Oak instead opted to star in Last Action Hero, provoking budget cuts. Nevertheless, the ensuing feature is more than adequate, and although it's not exactly thought-provoking or deep, it's a perfectly sufficient beer and pizza extravaganza.

In 2017, overpopulation has led to drastic population control measures. It is illegal for couples to have more than one child, and the harsh police state enforce this rule with an iron fist. John Brennick (Christopher Lambert) and his pregnant wife Karen (Loryn Locklin) are on the run, with Karen carrying an illegal second child after the tragic loss of their first. Apprehended at the border, the pair are given cruel sentences at an inescapable maximum security prison known as the Fortress, which is run by the sinister MenTel Corporation. Highly advanced technology litters the prison, with a computer known as Zed-10 that can monitor dreams and peak into the thought processes of prisoners. It's impossible for inmates to escape, too, as they are all implanted with a device in their intestines which gives them severe pain if they act up, and can easily kill them if needs be. Overseeing the prison is Poe (Kurtwood Smith), a megalomaniacal warden who immediately notices John. With John separated from Karen, he begins to formulate a plan to escape the appalling hellhole with assistance from his cellmates.

Director Stuart Gordon (late of Re-Animator) embraces the B-grade pedigree of the production, creating a trashy action-thriller with some fascinating ideas at its core. Dreaming is forbidden and even fantasising is grounds for pain, not to mention the heroes have to contend with some genetic engineering run amok. Granted, Fortress is a bit slow-going to start with, but once it settles into its groove, the movie really soars with scenes of fighting, gunplay and over-the-top gore, the likes of which we rarely see in the 21st Century. Even the scores of prison movie clichés do not hinder the experience much, though there are a lot of them, including standard-issue stock characters and some pretty clichéd moments. It comes with the territory.

Filmed entirely at Warner Brothers Studios in Australia, the production design remains solid all these years on, with interesting ideas relating to the picture's vision of the future. Zed-10 is a particularly magnificent creation, and the situation with the characters seems so hopeless that you wonder if it's even possible for them to break out. The titular Fortress indeed seems like pure hell, and it makes for a terrific stage for the inevitable escape which serves as the climax. The action-heavy final third is definitely worth all the build-up; it's loud, fun, and above all violent, ticking all the requisite boxes for action fans. Fortunately, the acting is for the most part agreeable, with Highlander star Christopher Lambert doing an admirable job as the hero here. It's Smith who steals the show though, again demonstrating his terrific acting chops when it comes to playing villains. Vernon Wells (of Commando and Mad Max 2 fame) is also present here, and his throwdown with Lambert represents one of the best scenes in the picture.

Today, Fortress remains an exceedingly niche title with a limited cult following, which is a shame. At the time, it was actually a surprise hit, grossing a reported $40 million at the global box office, a decent haul for the early '90s considering its $12 million budget. Perhaps Fortress might've been more fulfilling if it had explored its themes and ideas with more depth, but the brevity of the enterprise is what makes it such a fun watch. It's a fairly silly, old-school sci-fi action-thriller from a bygone era, and it absolutely deserves to be seen if you enjoy the likes of Total Recall and The Running Man.


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It's shit.

Posted : 9 months, 3 weeks ago on 6 February 2015 02:18 (A review of Blood of Redemption)

"This is the story of a dead man..."

Blood of Redemption is another in a long line of shitty straight-to-video action titles that are sold purely on cast. Directed by Giorgio Serafini and Shawn Sourgose, this bargain basement guff flaunts Dolph Lundgren, Billy Zane, Robert Davi and Vinnie Jones, enough names to raise the eyebrow of any action fan. And with a title like Blood of Redemption, you're guaranteed to sell a few discs. Alas, the finished product is a putrid pile of shit, a cheapo distraction which was manufactured without any thought towards coherent screenwriting, stylish photography, or exciting action scenes. It's a woeful slog.

Although Blood of Redemption tries to rise above the ordinary with its convoluted plotline involving all manner of double crosses and shady loyalties, it's hard to make heads or tails of anything that is happening. Lundgren plays a gun-for-hire named Axel, who's hired by Quinn Forte (Zane) to systematically wipe out the men who landed him in prison. But of course, there are twists, and the movie seems to reject intelligible storytelling. For crying out loud, the flick opens by showing the climactic action scene before flashing back a couple of weeks, to Axel chatting to a girl in his apartment about various people...and from there, the movie flashes back even more. Wait, what's happening in this movie? It doesn't help that the dialogue is so fucking lousy, with dreadful narration from Mr. Lundgren that's meant to be profound and badass, but instead comes off as obvious and amateurish.

The screenplay rejects logic, as well. This is one of those productions which feels to need to zoom in on every actor and freeze-frame while big, bold computer graphics spell out their character's name. It's a movie where FBI files are in paper format, and can disappear without a trace by simply burning said files. Apparently the FBI is not advanced enough for a computer database just yet. Oh, and Axel has a bulletin board featuring images of suspects and pieces of information, with push pins and red string to figure out the case...but his laptop remains unused. And when the action scenes do arrive, slow motion is often used for brief periods, because reasons. It's clear the directors wanted to establish some sense of style, but the movie is not stylish at all - it just looks dumb and incompetent.

Even worse, it's clear that nobody ever fired a single blank round throughout any of the film's numerous action sequences, and it's doubtful any practical fake blood was actually used on set. Every muzzle flash, puff of smoke and bullet hit is purely digital, and blood splashes are so fucking phoney and obvious - clearly the result of a few minutes' work in Adobe After Effects. Even amateur filmmakers with access to After Effects are capable of more impressive CGI composition. One hole in somebody's head looks like it was drawn using Microsoft Paint, for crying out loud. Holy shit. Although the R rating is appreciated, there's no visceral impact to any of the action scenes. You can literally watch superior shootouts for free on YouTube.

With film stock now too expensive for straight-to-video moviemakers, Blood of Redemption was lensed digitally, and the results look undeniably cheap. While the cinematography is crisp and detailed enough, it lacks the professional "pop" of more generously-budgeted productions; as a result, it comes off like a low-grade student movie. At least low-budget actioners from the '80s and '90s were shot on celluloid, and featured performers who fired actual blank rounds as well as stuntmen who put their lives on the line for the sake of a shot. There's something endearing about old-school effects as opposed to phoney digital shit. Now, any talentless amateur can put together a nasty video distraction for a few bucks, and clog the already oversized market with such shit.

The Dolphster gives it his all here, and he's probably the movie's sole bright spot. Even despite his age, he remains a charismatic screen presence and a joy to watch in action movies, which is why it's such a shame that the material fails to serve him. Zane and Jones, meanwhile, are both pretty terrible - Zane puts in zero effort, and Jones leans on his British tough guy shtick that's growing old. And it's actually depressing to see Davi here, who's visibly bored and humiliated about featuring in this garbage. Davi was a sublime action villain back in the '80s (Licence to Kill), yet he's horrible here, apparently aiming for a British accent for whatever reason that comes and goes.

Blood of Redemption might run a brisk 85 minutes, but it feels a lot longer; I actually felt myself aging while watching it. I can easily sit back and view a movie like Saving Private Ryan without glancing at my watch once, but Blood of Redemption feels like an eternity despite running for half the length of Saving Private Ryan. The last line of the movie is "Next time, I'll choose my clients more carefully." Here's hoping that Dolph and his pals choose their projects more carefully from now on...


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Truly superb cinema

Posted : 9 months, 4 weeks ago on 30 January 2015 12:50 (A review of Cold in July)

"All right, boys, it's Howdy Doody time."

Cold in July is a far superior motion picture than its humble pedigree suggests. An independent production, it only received a limited theatrical release in America, and went straight-to-video in most other territories around the world. Yet, this intricate crime thriller stands as one of 2014's most nail-biting and riveting features, far more deserving of a wide audience than a lot of the garbage which polluted multiplexes throughout the year. Directed by Jim Mickle (Stake Land), Cold in July is a screen adaptation of Joe R. Lansdale's 1989 novel of the same name, telling a bleak tale set in the American South. Mickle makes the most of whatever resources he had at his disposal - Cold in July is teeming with atmosphere and tension, benefitting from the director's deft filmmaking sleight of hand. It's superb cinema.

In small-town Texas in 1989, Richard (Michael C. Hall) works as a picture framer, making his unremarkable living to support wife Ann (Vinessa Shaw) and young son Jordan (Brogan Hall). In the early hours of the morning one night, Richard hears commotion in the living room, which leads to him shooting and killing an intruder. With the burglar identified as a wanted felon, Richard is hailed as a hero by the locals, but he's shaken by the incident, disturbed that he has taken a life. Soon, the dead man's father, Ben (Sam Shepard), shows up out of nowhere, lurking around and making vague threats, which puts Richard on edge. Although the police set out to protect him and his family, some question marks in the police work begin to trouble Richard. Things are further complicated with the arrival of private detective Jim Bob (Don Johnson), who helps to shed a light on the mysteries that trouble Richard.

At first, Cold in July shapes up to be a revenge movie of sorts, with Ben ostensibly determined to harm Richard and his family in response to the death of his son. Mickle dabbles in outright horror in the opening act, and the results are gripping to watch. But with the arrival of Jim Bob, the movie evolves into something entirely different seemingly out of nowhere, and it's a huge credit to Mickle and co-writer Nick Damici (who also plays a detective) that the transition is so seamless. Although the set-up is not exactly groundbreaking at first glace, the twists and turns bestow Cold in July with more originality than lazier forays into the thriller genre. Besides, it's the sense of atmosphere which makes the picture so memorable and mesmerising.

Retaining the novel's time period, Cold in July is set in 1989, and it actually feels like a product of the '80s. Period costuming and sets (not to mention odd hairstyles) populate the frame, the colour scheme is reminiscent of '80s movies, and the flick is complemented by a beautifully retro, synch-driven score by Jeff Grace which was visibly inspired by the works of John Carpenter. The illusion would perhaps have been better served if Mickle shot the movie on film stock rather than with digital cameras, but this barely matters in the grand scheme of things. Cold in July is one of 2014's manliest movies; it's vehemently R-rated, with violence that pulls no punches and men who talk like real men. The finale is especially stunning, as the picture climaxes with a brutal, white-knuckle shootout which brings the story to a haunting end.

Hall began work on Cold in July soon after wrapping up the TV show Dexter, perceiving the movie as an opportunity to try something different, expand his range, and avoid being typecast. Frankly, it's difficult to imagine any other actor playing this role as successfully as Hall, who's highly convincing every step of the way. He sells Richard's fear and anxiety, on top of coming off as a believable father and husband. Yet, it's also understated work, and Hall is perfectly supported by both Johnson and Shepard, who submit truly brilliant performances. They're both manly as fuck.

It's difficult to pigeonhole Cold in July into any one genre. Mickle mixes in elements of film noir, thrillers, detective stories, police procedurals, revenge flicks with a smidge of horror, but it cannot be strictly classified as any of the above. The movie is its own unique creation, a distinctive feature which deserves to be seen for its top-notch cinematic technique and a host of sublimely focused performances from some of the finest thespians working in motion pictures today. It's truly saddening that it will probably remain an obscure cult curiosity despite the tremendous critical acclaim it rightfully received.


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Not a keeper, but decent enough

Posted : 10 months ago on 27 January 2015 01:25 (A review of 12 Days Of Terror)

In a nutshell, 12 Days of Terror is pretty much in line with what you would expect from a TV movie that premiered on Animal Planet. Far from the brilliance of Steven Spielberg's Jaws, it's a budget feature with halfway convincing production values, and it looks and feels as if it was produced on the cheap. Nevertheless, there is some value to this particular endeavour, as it's an edifying chronicle of the true-life shark attacks of 1916, and it retains a degree of entertainment value. It's by no means worthy of widespread acclaim, but those who enjoy shark movies may find it to be a decent watch.

A docudrama, the movie is a fairly accurate recount of the Jersey Shore shark attacks of 1916, wherein four people were killed and another was injured over the course of twelve nightmarish days. Local lifeguard Alex (Colin Egglesfield) immediately suspects a shark attack following the first fatality, but the locals are sceptical to believe his statement, especially in light of the hot summer weather and the sudden tourist interest in ocean bathing. However, a second attack renders the situation hard to ignore, sparking action from the politicians, with a bounty placed on the killer shark's head. Amid the madness, Alex confides in a grizzled sea captain (John Rhys-Davies) who seems to be the only local with a head on his shoulders.

Despite the cheesy title, 12 Days of Terror is meant to be taken more seriously than the average straight-to-video schlock, with a minuscule body count compared to the likes of Sharktopus and Shark Attack. What's interesting about the movie is the way it accurately portrays the thinking of the period; shark attacks were unheard of in the early 20th Century and scientists were ignorant in terms of shark behaviour, scoffing at the notion of a vicious shark swimming so close to shore to attack without provocation. Of course, many of the narrative machinations are reminiscent of those witnessed in Jaws, but Peter Benchley's original novel was inspired by these events, so it cannot be judged too harshly in this respect. What can be judged harshly, however, is the so-so pacing; the movie is fairly dull in places.

For Jaws, Spielberg concentrated on the now widespread technique of "less is more" that was necessitated by the malfunctioning mechanical sharks. For 12 Days of Terror, director Jack Sholder adopts a similar approach, which was likely necessitated by budget. The shark attacks are oftentimes quite effective, with shrewd editing and a fair sense of tension. Mechanical sharks are mostly glimpsed here which are good enough for this sort of production, with shots ranging from obvious to convincing. On the other hand, the CGI beasties look expectedly phoney, though at least they aren't used too often. To heighten the realism, real shark footage is also integrated into the production, and, to the credit of the filmmakers, such sequences were executed smoothly. Less successful is the acting, however, which ranges from acceptable to downright awful. John Rhys-Davis is the standout, as he embraces his hammy side to play a very Quint-like role. Is this really the only work that the Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings actor can find these days?

12 Days of Terror does take some liberties with history, and there are fictitious characters of course, but it nevertheless gels in a sufficiently satisfying manner. With a bigger budget, though, it could have been a keeper. Shark buffs will probably have the most fun with it, and it may satisfy you if you're channel surfing in the early hours of the morning, but temper your expectations.


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One fucking badass movie

Posted : 10 months ago on 21 January 2015 10:47 (A review of John Wick)

"In a bar, I once saw him kill three men... with a pencil."

Let's not mince words here: John Wick is the best action movie of 2014. Confidently belying its modest budget, the movie easily surpasses the year's CGI-infested blockbusters and superhero offerings, and even tops more old-school actioners like The Equalizer and Fury. Here is a lean, adrenaline-charged 100-minute thrill ride which understands economical storytelling, disposing of superfluous narrative tangents to focus on what matters. John Wick is a B-movie at heart, and on the surface may look like an unremarkable straight-to-video endeavour, but the execution is flawless, with miraculously choreographed action scenes and exceptional stunt-work elevating this brutal revenge flick into the stratosphere. Add to this a spot-on performance from Keanu Reeves, an R-rating and a well-judged screenplay, and this is a fucking badass movie. It's pure ecstasy that action fans will go gaga over.

A retired underworld assassin for the Russian mafia, John Wick (Reeves) tragically loses his wife to cancer, but she leaves him one last gift: a puppy for companionship. As John struggles to work through the grieving process, his life is thrown into turmoil again when his classic car is stolen and his pup is killed by Iosef (Alfie Allen), the son of powerful Russian kingpin Viggo (Michael Nyqvist). Learning of his idiot son's actions, Viggo immediately realises that his entire operation is now under threat of being obliterated by the most dangerous man alive, and tries to come to a peaceful arrangement with John. However, John is focused on retribution, prompting Viggo to call in as many heavily armed men as he can to take down the killing machine as quickly as possible.

John Wick is one of the purest action flicks of recent years, but its taut disposition doesn't mean that plot is neglected. On the contrary, the action-free opening act is a masterpiece of economy, establishing Wick's character and situation mostly through images rather than words. But once Wick is wronged and the beast is unleashed, the flick roars to life, and the result is something to behold. Too many action movies are bogged down by humdrum love stories or other attempts to humanise the central hero, slowing the pace to a drag and denying us the pure testosterone boost we seek. But John Wick has no need for this brand of malarkey, which is another reason why it's such a breath of fresh air. With his wife dead, the titular assassin doesn't get involved with any other women, and he's so skilled that he only rarely finds himself out of his depth.

Some may decry that John is too unstoppable, but I'm personally sick of seeing "badass" heroes being captured or beaten within an inch of their life. John does receive a few injuries here and there, but for the most part he's supremely confident - and I found this quality both refreshing and satisfying. Above all, it's executed in a believable fashion. Furthermore, John meets an array of friends throughout the movie who are wholly aware of his abilities and reputation. Fellow killers and even police officers are wary to engage Wick, respectfully leaving him alone as he conducts his business. Such touches give the production a gorgeous flavour, provoking a few welcome moments of dark comedy to lighten up the violent affair.

The sheer excellence of the action sequences cannot be overstated; they are orgasmic. John Wick denotes the directorial debut of David Leitch and Chad Stahelski, two stuntman who have evidently learned from the best during their respective careers. The shootouts here are mostly devoid of shaky-cam and rapid-fire editing, with the directors instead adopting a wonderful arrangement of smooth camera movements and some astonishingly artistic tracking shots. John Wick wears its R-rating on its sleeve, as well; it's a beautiful antithesis to all of the politically-correct PG-13 action flicks that continually inundate today's cinematic marketplace. Loud, savagely violent and hugely satisfying, all of the movie's action scenes absolutely shit on the likes of Live Free or Die Hard, The Expendables 3, Terminator Salvation, and the RoboCop remake. Admittedly, there are a few evident instances of digital bloodshed, but the CGI doesn't look overly phoney and it's not distracting. Rather than looking like a post-production paint job, the blood is effectively integrated into the various environments.

Reeves has had his ups and downs as a thespian; despite a strong performance in The Matrix, he's bloody awful in motion pictures like Dracula and Johnny Mnemonic, and he's known for being wooden. John Wick, however, plays to Reeves' strengths, showing that he has more skill than his detractors are probably willing to admit. Reeves is cut from the same mould as Jason Statham, with minimalistic dialogue and a focus on physical action scenes, and the star absolutely nails it. He needs more roles like this. Fortunately, the supporting cast is just as impressive, with the likes of Willem Dafoe, John Leguizamo and Ian McShane all hitting their marks with confidence. Nyqvist is also effective as the leader of the Russian gang, while Game of Thrones luminary Alfie Allen convinces as the daft, overconfident young man who awakens the beast within Wick.

John Wick plays out with the same verve as the "one man army" action movies from the 1980s, but with a contemporary polish. If you enjoyed the likes of Taken, Punisher: War Zone or Safe, you will definitely enjoy this deliriously entertaining slice of big screen escapism.


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An extraordinary achievement

Posted : 10 months, 1 week ago on 18 January 2015 08:31 (A review of Birdman: Or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance))

"People, they love blood. They love action. Not this talky, depressing, philosophical bullshit."

It's frankly miraculous that a motion picture like Birdman can sneak its way into theatres in this day and age. Subtitled The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance, this audacious, modestly-budgeted indie could never have been produced within the Hollywood system without major changes that would have relinquished the feature's integrity. It may essentially be an "art house" flick, but Birdman is incredibly compelling, and possesses the guts to explore big ideas relating to the Hollywood process, actors who are passed their prime, and, most impressively, the critiquing of film and theatre. Directed and co-written by Alejandro González Iñárritu (late of 21 Grams and Babel), this is easily the filmmaker's most accessible work, though it's unclear just how well it will play with more mainstream viewers.

Decades ago, actor Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton) was popular and rich, riding high on his success of playing the superhero 'Birdman' in the first three movies of a lucrative Hollywood franchise. Still struggling to escape from the shadow of Birdman, Riggan puts everything on the line to produce a Broadway production, adapting Raymond Carver's short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love for the stage, with co-stars Lesley (Naomi Watts) and Laura (Andrea Riseborough) on hand to support the undertaking. However, the show - which is perceived as something of a vanity project - is waist-deep in problems, with actor Mike Shiner (Ed Norton) proving extremely difficult to work with, and with technical issues galore. Adding to the pressure is some mounting legal troubles, a lack of money, and the presence of Riggan's daughter Sam (Emma Stone) who's struggling with post-rehab life. All Riggan can do is attempt to hold himself together as he's haunted by voices in his head and deals with those around him who pose a threat to the show's success.

Birdman's central hook is that it's edited to give the illusion that it was captured in one single, unbroken tracking shot, though it does not unfold in real time - hours and days pass seamlessly as the camera moves from one place to another. Happily, it works, and it's a magnificent feat on the part of Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity).

An anonymous quote is taped to the mirror in Riggan's dressing room which reads: "A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing." It's an interesting quote which invites rumination, and, indeed, one of the movie's most pivotal scenes observes Riggan speaking his mind to a cynical theatre critic, slamming a review she's penning by pointing out that her writing is nothing but a chain of labels backed up by her own potentially meritless opinion, arguing against the need for reviewers and, by extension, negating the need for this review. Nevertheless, as the quote says, a thing is a thing, and calling reviews futile is just a label for these particular things, isn't it? Phew. Still with me? Some will label Birdman as pretentious due to the subtext at play here, but is it really fair to call a movie pretentious when it satirises and mocks pretentiousness? Sure, the movie may be a bit on the pretentious side, but it is fun.

It's challenging to pigeonhole Birdman into a single genre, as it almost defies explanation. It's perhaps best described as a philosophical dramedy with fantastical elements and meta overtones (Riggin has a number of fantasies throughout). The movie also feels very much in line with the works of Iñárritu, as some of the more dramatic moments do hit hard, and you get the chance to feel every ounce of pain experienced by the troubled ensemble. However, Birdman is not as dour as 21 Grams or the borderline intolerable Babel - it often plays out with dark comedy elements. The story eventually comes to a head for a rather unexpected ending that's not entirely satisfying since it's open for interpretation (like any art house feature...), but it is fascinating, and could have been a lot worse.

After viewing Birdman, I did wonder what the feature would have been like if the single-take approach was jettisoned. However, it's difficult to imagine the film being as remarkable, fast-paced or as technologically extraordinary if it was produced more conventionally. Furthermore, restricting the scope and being unable to move outside the theatre often renders Birdman more intimate, heightening the effectiveness of this story. After all, Riggan is the central focus, and the camera never drifts from him very far, allowing this examination of Riggan's breakdown to really take flight. Added to this, plays on Broadway are performed live, hence the appearance of the bulk of the movie being one take ties in with the nature of a live Broadway show, even if there are hidden cuts and scenes that would have taken many, many takes to perfect. It's fortunate that the execution is so seamless; we never see any crew members, lighting rigs or dolly tracks, nor do we see palpable reflections of any camera equipment even though scenes frequently take place in front of mirrors.

Naturally, the parallels between Keaton and his character are readily apparent, as Keaton was a big star after having appeared in Batman and Batman Returns as the titular superhero, and since then has never been quite as successful. This is the thespian's first leading man role in a while, and it's possibly the best performance of his whole career. It's a multi-tiered part, and Keaton handles the various aspects with utmost confidence; he's a wonderful on-screen presence and a joy to watch. Fortunately, the supporting cast are just as solid, particularly Zach Galifianakis as Riggin's lawyer, putting the Hangover-style monkey business behind him to play a dramatic role, and pulling it off remarkably well. Who knew he could play anything besides a buffoon? Also of note are Naomi Watts and the lovely Emma Stone, the latter of whom again proves that she's both gorgeous and talented. Meanwhile, Norton is an absolute hoot playing the conceited, much-loved theatre actor who's recruited to fill a sudden vacancy, and immediately begins trying to exert control over the entire production. Norton's character is extremely volatile as well, and it's amusing to watch the former Hulk here since he has such a reputation for being difficult to work with.

The intense character study at the centre of Birdman draws you in, while you also marvel at the extraordinary technical achievements. Iñárritu really had his work cut out for him, and the quality of the finished product speaks volumes about this talented filmmaker. Of course, it will not work for everybody - anyone expecting Keaton to recreate Batman or engage in action or stunt-work will need to maintain an open mind here, and let Iñárritu plot his own unique, breathtakingly unconventional path. For this reviewer, it definitely works.


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"It Ends Here"? I hope so!

Posted : 10 months, 2 weeks ago on 8 January 2015 05:40 (A review of Taken 3)

"If you go down this road, the LAPD, the FBI, the CIA... they're all gonna come for you. They'll find you. And they'll stop you."

Despite sharing the same writers as the original Taken, 2014's Taken 3 feels as if it was created by filmmakers who were oblivious to what made the 2008 gem such a breakout success. Years on, Taken still stands as a superior action offering; a bruising, fast-paced slice of primo entertainment elevated by top-notch technical specs and the presence of seasoned thespian Liam Neeson. Taken 2 hopelessly missed its mark, and Taken 3 is even worse, ill-advisedly trying to reinvent the franchise by becoming a mystery-thriller which rips off The Fugitive, as opposed to being the balls-to-the-wall actioner that we all wanted. Written by Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen, it's not cerebral enough to succeed on its own terms, and it utterly fails as over-the-top fun. It doesn't help that Taken 2 director Olivier Megaton returned for this instalment, further demonstrating his incompetence when it comes to pacing, storytelling, and, most heartbreakingly, action.

Following the events of the first two movies, Bryan Mills (Neeson) is living a comfortable life, and now maintains stable relationships with those that matter the most to him: beloved daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) and his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen). However, Lenore is murdered in Bryan's apartment and the former government operative is framed for the crime. Pursued by Inspector Franck Dotzler (Forest Whitaker), Bryan goes on the run to prove his innocence, seeking help from his old CIA buddies Sam (Leland Orser), Casey (Jon Gries) and Bernie (David Warshofsky).

Megaton has a poor track record with Besson's EuropaCorp company - he killed the Jason Statham-starring Transporter series with the subpar third instalment (a reboot is coming, with a different actor), and he mucked up Taken 2. Added to this, while doing the promotional rounds for the second film, Megaton admitted that he's not a fan of sequels or action films. So, why the fuck does this preposterously-named hack still get directorial work?

Taken 3 feels closer to A Walk Among the Tombstones than the first Taken, as the movie spends most of its time focusing on exposition and story. Tombstones was actually good, however, as it was R-rated, legitimately interesting and sophisticated. Taken 3, on the other hand, is contrived and dull as dishwater. There's no verve or style here, nor is there any sophistication or smarts. Worse, the justification for Lenore's murder and for Bryan being framed is mind-numbingly stupid and convoluted. The reveal is not even shocking; it carries no weight and makes no impact. Instead, you sit back and wonder if they're actually serious. Admittedly, it's interesting to see Bryan working with his trio of resourceful friends that were introduced in the first movie, and it's a bonus to have Whitaker as an intelligent cop. Too bad the movie does fuck all with these characters.

Action fans seeking a fix should look elsewhere - Taken 3 has nothing to satisfy you. There is almost no action here. There's a tiny smattering of fisticuffs, a couple of foot-chases, and a grand total of two shootouts, one of which is so brief that it barely qualifies as an action scene. This stuff will barely keep you awake. The climactic gunfight in particular is lacklustre and vanilla, with not a drop of blood to be seen. Most embarrassing is witnessing one of Bryan's victims being shot while his shirt is open; his gut wounds should be spewing with blood, but instead he refuses to bleed as he, um, “bleeds out” and dies with mere ink stains on his stomach. Taken 3 doesn't even feel PG-13... it feels G-rated! Neeson seems to be love-slapping policemen to knock them out, and Lenore's slashed neck looks like a hickey. Making matters worse, when Bryan unleashes his trademark skills, the editing and camerawork is flat-out awful - most of the fights are incomprehensible. When an action movie cannot deliver so much as a modicum of good quality action, there's a huge problem.

As to be expected, Neeson remains a solid leading man. His endless charisma is about the only thing saving the production from total inertia. Neeson is badass as always, which is why it's a huge shame that the material fails to serve him. Whitaker, too, is solid, bringing some degree of gravitas to the proceedings. The rest of the cast fails to make much of an impact, though, with Maggie Grace looking fairly uninterested. Lenore's husband Stuart is re-cast here, with Dougray Scott replacing the older, more placid Xander Berkeley from the first film. It's a jarring change, and though Scott is a decent actor, his presence is ultimately a bit of a spoiler. After all, Scott plays shady characters and is renowned for villains. Go figure.

With its flimsy narrative and utterly generic construction, it feels as if the screenplay for Taken 3 was initially written as some cheap straight-to-video distraction, but was ultimately retooled to include Bryan Mills. Ironically, the end product might have been superior if it did remain in the straight-to-video realm starring somebody like Scott Adkins, as it would most likely have been R-rated and included some decent action. Unfortunately, we're left with this incredible dud; a painfully leaden, cynical cash-in which ends the Taken series with a resounding whimper and feels a lot longer than its 109-minute running time. Taken did deserve sequels and it really wouldn't have been too difficult to make a successful follow-up. The formula is simple: a badass Liam Neeson killing hordes of nameless extras in a dumb fun actioner. But, apparently, Besson and co. wanted to make something classier by toning down the action, resulting in a movie that's still powerfully dumb but no fun at all.


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Utterly interminable

Posted : 10 months, 3 weeks ago on 1 January 2015 05:16 (A review of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1)

"I have a message for President Snow: You can torture or bombed us, blasted our district to the grounds. But do you see that ? Fire Is Catching... If we burn, you burn with us!"

2014's The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1 is the first instalment in the Hunger Games series that can rightfully be labelled as a bad movie... and that's disappointing. 2012's The Hunger Games was deeply flawed but retained some merit, whereas its follow-up, Catching Fire, was a borderline masterpiece, turning the so-so franchise into something special. Alas, all the goodwill instilled by Catching Fire is drained for part three, a painfully leaden experience which stretches maybe twenty minutes of narrative material into an interminable two-hour motion picture. Despite the return of competent action director Francis Lawrence, and despite the generous budget, there's not much here of any value. Plus, this is the first Hunger Games feature without an actual games.

Awakening in a subterranean hospital, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is inducted into the underground realm of District 13, which has survived in secret for decades under the control of President Alma (Julianne Moore) and propagandist Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), amassing weaponry and soldiers in preparation for the inevitable conflict with The Capitol for control of Panem. With the uprising taking shape, Katniss is asked to become the face of the rebellion that seeks to unite the districts. However, her would-be boyfriend Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) has become a prisoner at The Capitol, with the sinister President Snow (Donald Sutherland) employing him in an ominous propaganda mission designed to break Katniss' spirit and extinguish the revolution.

Splitting a novel into two motion pictures can allow creative breathing room in some instances, but in the case of Mockingjay, the decision was clearly made purely for financial reasons. Like Twilight and Harry Potter, the studio heads want to milk the series for all the money that it's worth, even if such a decision comes at the expense of economical storytelling and effective pacing. In order to convert one half of the novel into a feature-length movie, director Lawrence and screenwriters Peter Craig and Danny Strong strive to more or less cover every single corner of Suzanne Collins' tome, which might please die-hard literary fans, but it leaves the rest of us bored out of our skulls. Mockingjay slows the franchise to a halt; this entire first part amounts to a repetitive succession of scenes observing the daily drudgery in an underground bunker, with the characters itching to overthrow President Snow. But instead of anything cinematically interesting, the movie is full of scenes of characters sitting, watching TV, walking around, marching down stairs, and so on. With no payoff to speak of, Mockingjay - Part 1 is a sluggish bore that only leaves you feeling resoundingly unsatisfied.

Surprisingly, there's not a great deal of visual flair to the production, which feels pretty cheap all-round even though it was more expensive than superior movies like Gravity. Mockingjay - Part 1 is the first in the series to be lensed digitally, whereas the first two instalments were blessed with 35mm photography, which gives it a less expensive look right off the bat. Couple this with Lawrence's drab direction and the meandering script, and Mockingjay is a slog, in dire need of snappier pacing, a more intense sense of anticipation, and some style. Movies like Children of Men have shown that desolation and destruction can be photographed in an artistic, visually engaging fashion, but this is lacking in Mockingjay, which greatly detracts from the production.

Jennifer Lawrence is a gifted actress by all accounts, but even she struggles with the wafer-thin material, relegated to a performance of sobs and pouts, punctuated with a minor action scene. It's no fault of Lawrence's, but there's nothing of the fiery, passionate heroine here that made the initial films so engaging. The rest of the cast is populated with fine thespians, and they all acquit themselves respectably, but none of them are able to truly captivate here, which is again a knock against the movie itself rather than the actors. With that said, though, the film does have its moments - Katniss visiting her desecrated district is a highlight, while a few late action beats do their best to bring the picture out of its cinematic coma. Outside of this, the movie does have a few interesting scenes portraying the propaganda aspect of this uprising, with Katniss a hesitant icon. But such moments would be better-utilised in a more cohesive adaptation which actually has an ending.

Perhaps the most irksome thing to note about Mockingjay - Part 1 is that it's difficult to muster up much of an opinion about it. It's so flat, boring and one-note all the way through to its core, and makes absolutely no impact at the end of the day. Giving this story so much breathing room only serves to highlight how one-dimensional the characters are, and how flat the central love triangle truly is. There isn't even much of a cliffhanger here - Catching Fire concluded with a real stringer that heightened anticipation for the next instalment, but Mockingjay - Part 1 closes with a whimper that fails to ignite interest in the forthcoming Part 2. Fingers crossed the franchise does conclude with some dignity.


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