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Effective low-key thriller

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 11 November 2015 08:23 (A review of Cop Car)

"Boys I know you can hear me. You are in a whole lot of trouble."

2015's Cop Car is the second feature film from director Jon Watts, whose debut endeavour, the intensely creepy Clown, began as a fake YouTube trailer that developed into a viral sensation. With Watts now tapped to oversee the next cinematic outing for Spider-Man over at Marvel, attention will no doubt be drawn to his initial low-budget indie endeavours. Cop Car is best described as a slightly simplified Coen Brothers movie in the vein of No Country for Old Men, Blood Simple and Fargo, with muted performances, plenty of atmosphere, prolonged passages of stillness, and relentless violence, examining the dire price of a mistake. For those with the patience to sit through the movie, it's enormously rewarding, especially with a finale that's both intense and difficult to forget.

Whilst hiking through the middle of nowhere one afternoon, bored young boys Travis (James Freedson-Jackson) and Harrison (Hays Wellford) happen upon a sheriff cruiser, which piques their curiosity. Unattended and with the keys still in it, the pair take advantage of the situation, taking the cop car on a joyride for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. The owner of the automobile is a certain Sheriff Kretzer (Kevin Bacon), a corrupt cop who's knee-deep in criminal activities and is determined to recover his vehicle, all the while endeavouring to keep the entire incident a secret from his colleagues.

Cop Car is grounded in a sense of reality since Watts visibly understands children. The picture briskly establishes Travis and Harrison as preteen boys without a stable home life, traversing the dusty landscapes to alleviate their boredom. They aren't juvenile delinquents or rebels, but rather regular boys with heightened imaginations, perceiving the car as a really fancy plaything. Better yet, their dialogue and actions are naturalistic and believable. With it being so easy to latch onto the pair, the narrative is nail-biting, particularly since Travis and Harrison are naïve about the grave danger and consequences of this situation that any adult would be able to recognise. There's even a scene in which they find a cache of firearms and try out a bulletproof vest - it's uncomfortable to watch because we as viewers know the potential consequences, but it's precisely what would transpire if ten-year-old boys had access to such items without adult supervision.

To an extent, Cop Car feels like a coming-of-age indie movie, with the perils of the real world corrupting the innocence of youth. Watts favours mood and visuals over excessive dialogue, which may test viewers without the patience to give the movie a chance. But with accomplished cinematography, first-rate direction and taut editing, Cop Car is easy to become invested in; the filmic spell retains a mesmerising hold. Tension also runs rampant, leading to a shootout that winds down the story on an intense note. Miraculously, the gunplay doesn't feel out of place, as this world is established as a violent and brutal place, and it helps that the technical presentation is outstanding. But while there is a bit of dark humour, one cannot help but wonder what the Coen Brothers would have made of this material - I would have preferred more black comedy.

The two child actors are a real find. Finding worthwhile preteen performers is always a challenge, yet Wellford and Freedson-Jackson are sublimely believable and never irritating. But it's Bacon who steals the show, which is no surprise. Sheriff Kretzer is a pure caricature, and Bacon sinks his teeth into the part, even sporting a moustache to amplify the sleaziness. The other notable member of the cast is Shea Whigham, giving Bacon a run for his money on the scenery-chewing front. Whigham making pitch-black threats towards the two boys is one of the greatest moments in the movie; it's so darkly comedic and must be seen to be believed.

The only issue with Cop Car is that it seems unsure of how to end, with the narrative pushing beyond its logical closure point, struggling to find a satisfying note on which to close. It doesn't entirely work, as it feels like the movie is starting to get away from Watts, but it's not enough to sour the experience as a whole.


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The ultimate guilty pleasure

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 9 November 2015 11:59 (A review of Bad Boys II)

"We ride together, we die together. Bad boys for life."

Bad Boys II is the perfect Michael Bay movie. It's overblown, self-indulgent, offensive, puerile, overlong and ridiculous, yet it's almost proud to wear the aforementioned descriptors. There's a lot of hate for this movie, and while that's an understandable viewpoint, Bad Boys II is a total gas for my money, a mammoth 150-minute action blockbuster extravaganza that genuinely delivers. Fun is fun, and I cannot deny that I was joyed by nearly every minute of this bona fide guilty pleasure, which is both exhilarating and downright hilarious. Bad Boys II is truly unique in the annals of action cinema, and with its R rating in place allowing for excessive blood-letting, relentless profanity and crude bantering (not to mention boobs...because Michael Bay), all backed by a monster budget, it's not likely that we will ever see anything comparable again.

A pair of Miami police officers, Mike Lowrey (Will Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Martin Lawrence) are partners working for the Tactical Narcotics Team, overseen by Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano). Investigating the flow of ecstasy into the United States, Mike and Marcus are lead to powerful Cuban drug lord Johnny Tapia (Jordi Mollà), who has been arrested in the past but never convicted. The DEA are interested in Tapia as well, with Marcus' younger sister Syd (Gabrielle Union) working undercover to bring him down. And, unbeknownst to Marcus, Syd and Mike have started a secretive relationship.

When people speak in negative generalisations about Hollywood, calling blockbusters big and dumb, Bad Boys II is precisely the kind of production they are referring to. Aside from the obvious overblown Hollywood theatrics throughout, the tactics of the DEA and Miami PD are thoroughly ridiculous here. Sure, firearms handling is pretty accurate owing to on-set advisors and even real policemen being used as extras, but such high-risk assaults, shootouts and car chases would never happen in real life. Also, apparently Miami cops are extraordinarily well paid since they live in luxurious mansions and drive sports cars. That's just scratching the surface of the absurdity to unearth here, but suffice it to say, nobody should ever come to Bad Boys II expecting anything remotely believable. All these flaws are entirely by design - it's not as if Bay set out to make a true-to-life cop drama.

Penned by Ron Shelton and Jerry Stahl, Bad Boys II is a lengthy flick at a bit under two-and-a-half hours, but it never drags. The easily offended may grow sick of the material fairly quickly, but I found it consistently entertaining, lurching from one big ridiculous action set-piece to the next, pausing in between the chaos for some outrageous comedic vignettes. Indeed, Bad Boys II is the funniest movie of Bay's filmmaking career (not exactly a high bar to reach), which is probably attributable to Smith and Lawrence more than anything else (this is not an especially well-written actioner). A tears-in-the-eyes comic highlight sees Mike and Marcus intimidating a young boy arriving to take Marcus' daughter on a date, while a iconic scene in an electronics store never gets old, and it's side-splitting to see the boys clash with their long-suffering captain. Comedy is subjective, so others are perfectly welcome to disagree with this viewpoint, but I cannot lie - I laughed heartily and frequently.

Bay's films are often marred by sickening shaky-cam photography which transforms every set-piece into a disjointed, headache-inducing mess, but while the camerawork here is frenetic, it's easy to follow the mayhem, which is both frequent and enjoyable. With an R rating in place here, no awkward or restrictive editing is employed - we are permitted to take in the bloodshed, in all its violent glory. Bay was working with a hefty budget here, with a generous $130 million at his disposal, thus production values are gorgeous and the photography is frequently eye-catching. Bay is a notoriously difficult director to work with since he's so demanding, but his dedication shows on-screen, with a sense of authority pervading the feature, and with the action sequences benefitting from accomplished cinematic craftsmanship. Fluid and fun, any action fan should enjoy the action on display here. And underscoring the shootouts and explosions is a memorable score courtesy of Trevor Rabin.

Smith and Lawrence are perhaps the key reason why the Bad Boys movies work as well as they do. Both men come from comedic backgrounds, and they look believable as men of action. Not to mention, they share astonishing, easy-going chemistry and there's a palpable camaraderie between them; their bantering is a frequent source of amusement. The most notable member of the supporting cast is Pantoliano, a perfect choice for Captain Howard. When Smith, Lawrence and Pantoliano feature in a scene together, it's guaranteed to be comedy gold.

Bad Boys II is a motion picture which really highlights the subjective nature of movie criticism, and the polarising nature of films in general. Respected critics trashed this movie to death, with the jaded James Berardinelli even going to far as to state that anyone who enjoys Bad Boys II should seek professional help - such pomposity! For my money, this is an insanely fun movie, the kind of big-budget actioner that can be enjoyed with beer and pizza. Bay's best movie will always be the '90s action masterpiece known as The Rock, but Bad Boys II is right up there with the director's superior filmic endeavours, far better than all of the Transformers abominations or the agonising Pain & Gain. It's difficult to respect Bay, but when he gets it right, dear lord he gets it right.


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Lazy and ineffective

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 2 November 2015 03:01 (A review of Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension)

"I've heard of spirit photography before; I've just never seen it in person."

At this point, it's clear that nobody involved in the Paranormal Activity franchise is actually trying anymore. The title alone will sell enough tickets to become profitable, so no undue effort is taken during the writing process anymore; the formula is well-established and they stick to it, logic be damned. Who cares if there's no justification for the found footage conceit? Who cares if the entire thing amounts to a lazy rehash? Who cares about answering lingering questions or being creative? Who cares if it's not actually scary? Three years have elapsed since 2012's Paranormal Activity 4, and this fifth instalment was continually delayed, which should have prompted the creative team to use their time wisely to craft a memorable franchise capper. Instead, this (apparently) final instalment closes the series on a damp squib. There are loud noises and demons, but the characters are flat and it's hard to care about anything that happens, not to mention the “scares” are both lazy and ineffective.

Christmastime is approaching, and parents Ryan (Chris J. Murray) and Emily (Brit Shaw) have moved into a spacious suburban Californian home with their seven-year-old daughter Leila (Ivy George). Visiting for the holiday season is Ryan's brother Mike (Dan Gill), while Emily's sister Skyler (Olivia Taylor Dudley) is also present. While decorating the house, Mike and Ryan find an old box containing videocassettes and a bulky '80s-era camcorder. As the pair begin to play with the still-functioning camera, they realise it's capable of seeing things invisible to the naked eye. Also, the VHS tapes contain footage of young Katie (Chloe Csengery) and Kristi (Jessica Taylor Brown) being raised by a cult. With spooky events occurring around the house, and with Leila claiming she has a friend named Toby (yes, this shit again), video cameras are setup during the night (yes, that shit again) to capture evidence of a demonic presence.

Much like Saw, the Paranormal Activity series has been tarnished with its endless sequels, and people seem to forget that Oren Peli's initial micro-budget feature was actually quite good, with a slow-burning narrative and some genuinely scary moments. Paranormal Activity: The Ghost Dimension may stick to the franchise's staples, especially with cameras being set up overnight, but it plays more like a pale aping rather than an effective sequel. Writers Jason Pagan, Andrew Deutschman, Adam Robitel and Gavin Heffernan (it took four scribes to create this muck?) care little about build-up or suspense. Digital demons are glimpsed in the first act, and there's plenty of digital supernatural action throughout, not to mention idiocy runs rampant. Unexplainable events are captured on tape, yet the protagonists remain sceptical rather than packing up and leaving. And once they do wind up leaving, a couple of characters remain determined to stick around for further investigating. Really? Worse, very little is done about Leila despite being clearly cursed - she bites a priest, for crying out loud!

The Ghost Dimension fails to colour outside the lines, with director Gregory Plotkin creating an exceedingly rote narrative that adds frustratingly little to the franchise. Also, there is a big hole that's carried over from the fourth movie: we're meant to believe that these features are comprised of legitimate found footage, yet the previous movies have ostensibly not been released in the franchise's reality. How does that work? 2013's Grave Encounters 2 was mediocre, but it did something interesting and meta by introducing characters who had seen the first Grave Encounters and accepted that it had been fabricated. But this sixth Paranormal Activity movie has no interest in anything meta or overly interesting, instead playing everything with a straight face. There's an attempt at meta humour, with Mike asking “Did they just film everything?” while watching old VHS tapes, but nothing further is done. The conventions of this series are ripe for humour, but nobody seems to realise it, with characters still running around holding cameras, filming everything despite being in mortal danger. Urgh.

Having said that, however, The Ghost Dimension does plays like an unintentional comedy at times. The 2014 spinoff The Marked Ones contained the hilarious image of witches being blasted away with shotguns, and The Ghost Dimension is similarly naff. In one scene, Ryan and Mike cower behind the fucking kitchen bench to hide from Toby, and the priest (Michael Krawic) awkwardly comes across as a paedophile. The movie cannot even raise the pulse during the final act, when it deteriorates into shaky, night-vision-lit mayhem leading to a predictable ending. After five of these freaking movies ending the exact same way, such a dénouement is no longer disturbing or interesting - it's obvious and lazy. 3D is employed for this go-around, for absolutely no reason other than to inflate ticket prices. Apparently we're meant to accept that the characters were using consumer 3D cameras, and that the old VHS camera from the '80s also shoots in pristine 3D. Also, why is it called The Ghost Dimension if Toby is a demon? See how stupid this garbage is?

Not even franchise constant Katie Featherston shows up here, and The Ghost Dimension does nothing worthwhile to tie up the loose ends of the past five movies. There's no point or purpose to this garbage, and it's not thrilling or fun. Instead, the whole thing is oppressive and draggy, with moronic characters, nonsensical plotting, and irritating characters. Let's hope this really does turn out to be the final Paranormal Activity.


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Rewarding, low-key science fiction

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 14 October 2015 12:08 (A review of Ex Machina)

"One day the AIs are going to look back on us the same way we look at fossil skeletons on the plains of Africa. An upright ape living in dust with crude language and tools, all set for extinction."

Leave it to long-time science fiction screenwriter Alex Garland (Sunshine, Dredd) to create one of the most immersive, intelligent sci-fi offerings of the year for his first directorial endeavour. Ex Machina is a uniquely involving motion picture, deliberately-paced yet never dull, which plays out like a futuristic morality play concerned with manipulation, deception, reality, fantasy and humanity, not to mention it provides a powerful study of corruption and power. Although some aspects of Ex Machina's script and narrative are predictable, this isn't a movie all about twists or reveals - rather, Garland shoots for a succession of subtle shifts which alter the mood and change character dynamics. This is a smartly-written and beautifully-assembled sci-fi, and even though the screenplay is not airtight, the strengths far outweigh the weaknesses.

Set at an indeterminate point in the future, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson) is a programmer working for the world's most powerful search engine. He unexpectedly wins a special company prize, given the chance to spend a week with reclusive tech genius and corporate CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac). Straight away, Nathan demands for Caleb to treat their time together as friends, talking amicably and drinking beer together. Caleb is soon introduced to a top-secret project that Nathan has been working on: an advanced cyborg named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Signing a non-disclosure agreement, Caleb is invited to conduct the "Turing Test" on Ava; that is, to see if she is truly aware and conscious. Over the week, Caleb and Ava converse about life, personal history and consciousness, but while Ava is synthetic, Caleb finds himself drawn to her. As the days go by, however, Caleb finds himself unsure of Nathan's endgame.

Bolstered by sublime dialogue and a taut narrative, Ex Machina is both a philosophical and an emotional journey, and it works on multiple levels - it's a futuristic cautionary tale with echoes of Frankenstein, an enthralling small-scale character drama, an unnerving adult thriller, and an intense art-house movie with the accessibility of a mainstream motion picture. An effective sense of unease lingers throughout, as Nathan monitors Caleb and Ava's conversations, with periodic power outages allowing rare moments of privacy in which Ava drip-feeds Caleb pieces of secretive information, winding him up tighter. Ex Machina concerns itself with themes of consciousness and what it means to be human, and, without giving too much away, Garland's ultimate thesis on the fundamental essence of humanity is not exactly pretty. Garland deserves a lot of credit for the ending, as Ex Machina closes in an appropriate, thrilling fashion without feeling the need for explosive pandemonium. It's the type of ending that lingers after the credits have expired.

Garland acquits himself admirably as a first-time director, with his superb screenplay serving as a solid foundation. Although Ex Machina may be a familiar tale, it's told in an original fashion, addressing the age-old question of artificial intelligence in a way befitting for this current age of Google and Apple. Garland has stated that the narrative takes place "ten minutes from now," eschewing a specific time period or year, and not going overboard with futuristic technology. It's a smart move from the filmmaker, ensuring that the production will never age. The movie also deserves plaudits for its technical credits; Garland's direction is unfussy but effective, allowing the performances and the production design speak for themselves. The creation of Ava remains the most impressive achievement from a visual standpoint. She was created through a seamless mix of live-action and digital effects, and the illusion is unbroken and consistent. Also memorable is the pulsing score by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, which perfectly complements the slick visual scheme.

Dud performances could have torpedoed Ex Machina, but luckily Garland chose wisely for his three leads. Gleeson, who sports an American accent, breathes vivid life into his role, emerging as the typical everyman, and, by extension, our entry point into the narrative. It's nuanced work from the British thespian, subtly conveying his emotions with understated dialogue delivery and cold looks. Meanwhile, as the enigmatic Ava, Vikander knocks it out of the park, which is no easy feat. Vikander's performance is deliberate and riveting, coming across as wholly realistic and genuine, skillfully supplementing the ace visual effects. Rounding out the leads is Isaac, who's equally valuable. It's an interesting role, and Isaac runs with it; there's a feeling of apprehension whenever he's on-screen, and it's difficult to figure out if he can be trusted.

Although sci-fi actioners like The Matrix or Paul Verhoeven's RoboCop are fun, Ex Machina is ultimately more rewarding, allowing us to dissect dialogue and draw our own conclusions about where this is all leading. It absolutely must be seen.


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Aggressively mediocre and disjointed

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 9 October 2015 10:10 (A review of Aloha)

"The future isn't just something that happens. It's a brutal force with a great sense of humor that will steamroll you if you're not watching."

Cameron Crowe continues his cinematic downward spiral with 2015's Aloha, a project which should have the veteran filmmaker's redemption for past misfires, but instead plays out like a poor imitator of the type of excellent pictures that Crowe used to manufacture with ostensible ease. A tone-deaf romantic dramedy, the feature is overloaded with ideas, but Crowe struggles to connect them in a coherent or substantial way, resulting in a disjointed storytelling mess of confused tonality that squanders a superb ensemble cast. Frankly, the film's failure is not a total surprise, considering the delays as well as the leaked emails from Amy Pascal (a former top executive at Sony Pictures) who stated that the movie was shaping up to be a disaster. With any hope, this will be Crowe's last movie for a while.

A former Air Force pilot now working as a private contractor, Brian Gilcrest (Bradley Cooper) travels to Hawaii to assist in the launch of a communications satellite for billionaire industrialist Carson Welch (Bill Murray). Landing on the island, Brian immediately runs into ex-girlfriend Tracy (Rachel McAdams), who's now married to airman Woody (John Krasinski) and has two children (Danielle Rose Russell, Jaeden Lieberher). Meanwhile, Air Force captain Allison Ng (Emma Stone) is assigned to monitor Brian during his five-day stay on the island, and takes an immediate liking to him. Brian finds himself drawn to Allison, but Tracy's flirtations throw things into disarray. Also complicating matters is the impending launch of Carson's satellite which may be a bit more sinister than anyone has suspected. 

Aloha cannot figure out what it is, and the end result amounts to an erratic hodgepodge of half-baked ideas, with nothing being given the breathing space required in order to fully take flight. Crowe's script contains several interesting concepts - including creepy Hawaiian urban legends and military-related issues - but does literally nothing with them. The main thrust of the plot concerns Carson being up to no good, but it has so little bearing on the narrative at large that one has to question its purpose. In fact, the subplot dealing with the satellite launch makes zero sense, eventually culminating with a hacker battle between Brian and some Chinese cyber-terrorists which winds up being every bit as ludicrous and perplexing as it sounds. It's actually hard to figure out precisely what genre Crowe was aiming for - it's not very funny, the romance never soars, and it also dips into thriller territory. It feels as it Crowe was constantly changing his mind during shooting, making it difficult to get a firm grasp on what the movie is meant to be about. It's flat as a pancake.

As perhaps to be expected, the Hawaiian locales do make for some very pretty pictures, and the island's natural beauty is an ideal backdrop for a film of this ilk. Aloha does look magical, with picturesque cinematography and eye-catching production values, not to mention the agreeable music that underscores the enterprise, but it ultimately amounts to nothing. With Crowe unable to juggle the various plotlines in a cohesive fashion, the characters make little sense, especially Brian who's about as ill-defined as the movie itself. Also problematic is Tracy, who's unusually keen to ditch her husband and get back with Brian after thirteen years apart. Meanwhile, the "romance" between Ng and Brian comes across as wholly forced. Aloha should be warm and satisfying, but instead comes across as artificial and cold to the touch, solid technical specs notwithstanding.

Aloha was shot in 2013 but spent the best part of 18 months in post-production, with rumours surfacing online about the troubled editing process. Judging from Amy Pascal's emails, one supposes that Crowe's original, much longer edit was probably a meandering mess, which prompted Sony to bring in as many people as possible to try and carve something watchable out of the available footage. One has to genuinely pity the cast at the centre of all this, with Cooper remaining quite amiable despite the poor material, while the likes of Stone and McAdams are likewise charming. But perhaps the biggest waste is Bill Murray, who's given hardly any screen-time, stuck with a one-dimensional role that squanders his immense talents. Considering how notoriously difficult it is to secure Murray for a motion picture, one has to wonder why Crowe opted to use him in such a wasteful manner. Other names pop up in supporting roles, including Alec Baldwin and Danny McBride as military men, but they have minimal purpose in the story.

Admittedly, as the movie approaches the finish line, there is a degree of sincerity that works to an extent, but it's a case of too little, too late. In fairness, Aloha does breeze by easily enough throughout its 110-minute runtime, and it's not outright terrible enough to be angering, though this is hardly a ringing endorsement. Aloha is not some kind of abomination against cinema; just an aggressively mediocre, miscalculated dramedy for which it's hard to conjure up much feeling towards. There has been controversy about the fact that the main characters are all Caucasian, whitewashing the Hawaiian culture, but honestly, that's about the least of the film's problems. Sweep this one under the rug, forget about it, and move on.


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A low-key blockbuster with smarts and humanity

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 5 October 2015 03:41 (A review of The Martian)

"I'm gonna have to science the shit out of this."

In the hands of practically any other filmmaking team, 2015's The Martian would have been an insufferably tedious, self-serious science fiction flick shamelessly manufactured for Oscars. But with a spirited screenplay by Drew Goddard (The Cabin in the WoodsWorld War Z), and with veteran director Ridley Scott at the helm, The Martian is an incredibly involving sci-fi drama endowed with a welcome sense of humanity. Based on Andy Weir's 2011 novel of the same name, this film is a godsend, a mix of Cast Away and Apollo 13 which positively comes alive in the hands of Mr. Scott. Smartly-written, technically proficient, emotionally gripping and highly entertaining, it's an unexpected late-year bright spot. There was a lot of anticipation leading up to The Martian's release, but considering Scott's recent track record, there was certainly some degree of apprehension mixed with the hope that the film would be a home run. Thankfully, it's a masterpiece.

Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is a botanist on a mission to Mars, working alongside an amiable crew consisting of Beth (Kate Mara), Chris (Sebastian Stan), Rick (Michael Peña), Alex (Aksel Hennie), and Commander Melissa Lewis (Jessica Chastain). When a violent storm hits and the team are forced to evacuate, Mark is hit by satellite debris and presumed dead, forcing Melissa to make the difficult decision to leave their fallen comrade behind. When the dust settles, Mark wakes up injured but alive, quickly realising that he's hopelessly alone and might need to wait up to four years to be rescued. Determined to stay alive, Mark begins strategising and rationing, and even begins to grow crops on the desolate planet to enhance his food supply. Back on Earth, NASA eventually discover that Mark is alive, with chief Teddy (Jeff Daniels) working with top minds to establish communication with Mark and bring their boy home.

The Martian is extraordinarily light on its feet, breezing through a brisk but effective opening segment concentrating on the storm, stranding Mark as quickly as possible in order for the film to get into its groove and focus on survival techniques. It's gripping to watch Mark employ his ingenuity to ensure his survival, with vignettes alternating between the playful and the sombre, and Scott handles the tonal changes with astonishing ease. Perhaps more depth and background to Mark's character would have been appreciated, but not a single frame of the film's 140-minute runtime goes to waste. The movie constantly shifts focus between Mark, NASA and Mark's crew who are still on their way home, yet Scott juggles the numerous subplots masterfully, maintaining momentum and a skilful pace from start to end.

Perhaps the strongest aspect of Goddard's adapted screenplay is its playful sense of humour. Most movies these days adhere to the patented Christopher Nolan approach, i.e. dour drama with serious actors standing around saying serious dialogue in a serious tone. Hell, a number of Scott's recent movies have even fallen victim to this (PrometheusThe CounselorExodus). Standing in stark contrast to this, The Martian is often very amusing, but the comedy is neither forced nor farcical; rather, the laughs emerge organically from the character interactions, heightening that all-important sense of humanity. And since the movie concerns itself with dense science that the average film-goer will struggle to comprehend, the playfulness keeps us interested.

Backed by a generous budget, The Martian is striking from a visual standpoint, with a mixture of sets, digital effects and location shooting to create the illusion of being on the surface of Mars. However, Scott's direction is also non-intrusive and honest, letting the dramatic potential of the plot speak for itself, even creating a few montage sequences (backed by terrific musical choices) to effectively convey the passage of time. The final act, meanwhile, is a masterclass of photorealistic special effects and tremendous suspense, showing that the 77-year-old director can still create nail-biting set-pieces. There are moments of theatricality scattered throughout – most noticeably towards the picture's dénouement – that stuffy critics may whinge about, but such moments work in this context. The Martian is a movie, after all, and the climax manages to be entertaining whilst simultaneously being intense and believable. It's a tricky balancing act, yet Scott pulls it off competently.

Damon deserves a lion's share of the credit for making the movie work. Especially throughout The Martian's opening act, large chunks amount to a one-man show, with Scott concentrating on Watney's day-to-day routine intercut with his constant video logs. But while Damon deserves Oscar consideration, the rest of the ensemble also contribute in a major way – there's not a dud performance in the bunch. Daniels emanates gravitas as the NASA chief, while the likes of Sean Bean and Kristen Wiig are unexpectedly brilliant in dramatic supporting roles as NASA employees. Bean in particular hasn't been so alive in years. Meanwhile, Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) positively lights up the screen with a charismatic performance as the Mars mission director. Digging further into the cast, Chastain is predictably great, while Kate Mara puts in solid work to help us forget about Fantastic Four. Also noteworthy is Donald Glover in a small but pivotal role as someone who's key to bringing Mark home safely.

Armchair critics may be able to pick The Martian apart for scientific inaccuracies, but I am not a scientist. What matters is that this movie works on its own terms, as a low-key blockbuster of sorts with intelligence, heart and personality, and it's not weighed down by pretensions or a sense of self-seriousness. 2015's Oscar season is officially off to a flying start, and The Martian is going to be a tough act to follow.


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Post-modernist love letter to spy movies

Posted : 1 year, 10 months ago on 20 August 2015 01:34 (A review of Kingsman: The Secret Service)

""Manners maketh man." Do you know what that means? "

2015's Kingsman: The Secret Service represents a reunion for filmmaker Matthew Vaughn and graphic novel writer Mark Millar, whose previous collaboration resulted in the instant classic that was Kick-Ass. Much like that 2010 cult gem, Kingsman is a deliriously over-the-top action-comedy about a wayward young man who finds his direction in life by assimilating a real-life version of mythic heroism from popular culture. But whereas Kick-Ass set its knowing, satirical sights on American superhero movies, Kingsman is a defiantly British pastiche of old-school, gentleman spy movies like the long-running James Bond franchise. It fundamentally plays out like a crude, ultraviolent 007 adventure with a tinge of Men in Black in its narrative DNA, and, thanks to the deft directorial hand of Vaughn, the resulting flick is an absolute blast.

An intelligent but misguided young adult, Londoner Eggsy Unwin (Taron Egerton) lost his dad under mysterious circumstances, which has haunted him for years. After being arrested, Eggsy is approached by the enigmatic Harry Hart (Colin Firth), who seeks to recruit Eggsy to become a Kingsman agent. The Kingsman is highly a classified secret service organisation invisible to the public eye, and, as it turns out, Eggsy's father died as a recruit on Harry's watch. Given the opportunity to follow in his father's footsteps, Eggsy is put through the training process, where he's given a punishing introduction to the service by Merlin (Mark Strong). But Eggsy and Harry soon face a formidable adversary in the form of lisping billionaire Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who looks to implement a secret weapon that could kill billions of people.

Whereas most brainless action blockbusters fail to pay much mind to storytelling, Kingsman is surprisingly sedate for its first two thirds, with the occasional violent scene but mostly focusing on Eggsy's training and Harry's investigation of Valentine's shady business. It's rare for a spy movie to actually focus on the schooling aspect, which allows Kingsman to stand out as unique. Written by Vaughn and frequent collaborator Jane Goldman, the picture is essentially an origins tale, but Vaughn does wise by splitting focus between Eggsy and Harry, in turn maintaining sufficient momentum and shaking up the archetypal formula. Vaughn capably brings us up to speed on the Kingsman and how they operate, on top of securing relationships and establishing the central villainous plot. As Vaughn has himself stated, all the best villains in spy movies are grounded in a sense of reality, and Richmond Valentine ticks this box, with the character being based off the likes of Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg. It is scaringly plausible for a big tech company to act like a classic James Bond villain. Better, Valentine's theory behind his sinister machinations actually does make sense, and he's not in it for money.

All the build-up leads into an action-heavy final third that's well worth the wait. Vaughn further confirms his talents when it comes to staging frenetic action sequences, whipping up a frenzy of insane, off-the-hook and exceedingly violent confrontations peppered with wonderfully creative touches. Kick-Ass had the young Chloe Moretz killing a room of goons to the theme tune from The Banana Splits, and here we have heads exploding like colourful fireworks, and images of the general public slaughtering each other to the gleeful tune of "Give It Up." But the picture's centrepiece is the irresistibly un-PC church scene in which Valentine tests his mind control ray, compelling Harry to slaughter a good fifty Westborough Baptist Church-style caricatures in an awesome display of cartoonish ultraviolence. The sequence is an utter contrivance, nothing but an excuse for Harry to show off his incredible skills in battle without him being held in any way accountable for his actions. And yet, it's so competently staged and deliriously enjoyable that it undeniably works. 007 adventures are mostly suitable for kids, but Kingsman is an R-rated actioner, with Vaughn permitting blood spurts and some insane moments of violence. The camerawork is a bit on the frenetic side, though, and the movie might have been superior with smoother cinematography.

Just as Kick-Ass took the piss out of superhero iconography, Kingsman is a post-modernist love letter to spy movies, merrily finding its own weirdly quirky and at times pitch-black voice. Valentine, for instance, may be a stereotypical bad guy, but speaks with a lisp and has an aversion to blood - he projectile vomits if he sees so much as one drop of blood. The finale, meanwhile, contains a rather left-field anal sex joke that had this reviewer in stitches (but others might find a bit beyond the pale).

Kingsman is undeniably bolstered by smart casting, with Firth in particular doing a superb job as Harry Hart. Firth is the furthest thing from an action hero type, yet he nails the role - his posh sensibility serves him well as a gentleman spy, and his physical prowess is surprisingly outstanding. It's obvious that the veteran actor did a lot of training to prepare for the movie, and it pays off. Equally excellent is newcomer Taron Egerton, who's a real catch as Eggsy. His transformation from punk hooligan to sophisticated spy is surprisingly nuanced, and he's easy to get behind. As the token villain of the enterprise, Samuel L. Jackson is completely cartoonish in all the right ways, clearly enjoying himself in the role which goes against his Marvel hero persona. Other veteran actors pop in as well, with Strong placing forth fine work while the reliable Michael Caine is spot-on as the head of Kingsman. Also keep an eye out for Mark Hamill, who's fun to watch in an extended cameo.

Vaughn has carved out a career in comic book movies, and Kingsman is another solid addition to his filmography, an energetic action-comedy lark which provides big laughs and a number of adrenaline-pumping action scenes. The characters here actually discuss contemporary spy films, bemoaning that they have become too serious, but Kingsman is flat-out fun. Admittedly, pacing is not always spot-on, but the movie undeniably improves upon repeat viewings. For viewers who have grown tired of the sanitised PG-13 action movie scene, Kingsman is a wonderful reprieve, and its almost defiantly politically incorrect stance makes it a real winner.


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Solid little genre movie

Posted : 1 year, 10 months ago on 19 August 2015 01:43 (A review of Run All Night)

"I'm the only one ever cared about you. And all of that ended an hour ago when you killed my son. I'm comin' after your boy with everything I got."

Liam Neeson's third collaboration with director Jaume Collet-Serra, Run All Night is precisely the type of redemptive blockbuster that Neeson needed after the horrendous misfire of Taken 3. Although Neeson and Collet-Serra's previous films, Unknown and Non-Stop, did possess action elements, Run All Night is a full-blown action movie which feels like a proper, unofficial Taken sequel. Anchored by strong performances right down the line, competent technical specs, and an array of bruising action sequences, this is a solid little genre movie which makes terrific use of Neeson's trademark gruff screen persona.

A former assassin for feared New York mob boss Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris), Jimmy Conlon (Liam Neeson) has fallen on hard times, becoming a sad-sack alcoholic with minimal money to his name. During a moment of drug-fuelled aggression, Shawn's son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) murders a couple of Albanian drug dealers, and Jimmy's estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) bears witness to the killings. Mike soon becomes a target to avoid loose ends, but Jimmy kills Danny to protect his son, which enrages Shawn. Despite their long history, Shawn decides that Jimmy and Mike must be killed to avenge his son. As Shawn begins recruiting his goons to hunt down the pair and dismantle their lives, Jimmy urges Mike to leave New York City with him, compelling the young man to trust his despicable father for just one night. Meanwhile, Shawn calls upon a professional hit-man (Common) to ensure that the pair are dead by morning.

One of the big issues with Run All Night unfortunately rears its ugly head from the outset, with an unnecessary flash-forward which detracts a certain degree of suspense from the proceedings, as we are immediately shown that Jimmy and Mike have escaped NYC. Such a narrative device is usually used as a hook, but it simply comes across as needless in this case. Furthermore, the actions of Common's assassin character are often illogical; he's supposed to be doing clean, neat work, but he has no qualms with killing any number of policemen or innocent bystanders. Silliness can be forgiven in action movies, but Collet-Serra insists on a solemn, gritty tone throughout - Run All Night would have probably worked better if pitched at a more fun tone akin to the first Taken, or if the screenplay was tidied up to be more sophisticated. It's not a deal-breaker, but it does detract from the movie to some degree.

Rather than a sanitary PG-13 effort like Taken 3 or Non-Stop, Run All Night is an R-rated action film, and it's a creative decision which elevates the enterprise. This is a thoroughly adult effort, with a tone and demeanour that simply would not fly in a PG-13, not to mention there's visceral impact to the gunshot wounds which makes the action scenes more satisfying. Collet-Serra is a competent visual craftsman, thus Run All Night benefits from his directorial touch, imbuing the picture with authority and gravitas. Junkie XL's score is often a tad generic but it's nevertheless effective, amplifying the intensity of the movie's various set-pieces.

The picture also benefits from a proficient selection of performers, who actually make some of the quieter character moments as compelling as the action scenes. Neeson and Harris are both seasoned professionals who can do this type of stuff in their sleep, and the movie's best scenes stem from their interactions, most notably a Heat-esque meet in a diner that really should have been longer. Run All Night is a competent showcase for Neeson's newfound action hero cool, and Harris is likewise solid, showing yet again that he's one of the best in the business. Their gravitas is a huge benefit to the movie. In the supporting cast, Kinnaman - who was woefully ineffective in the bomb that was 2014's RoboCop remake - submits a solid performance, with a father/son dynamic that feels real enough. Meanwhile, Vincent D'Onofrio and Common do their respective jobs well enough, while Nick Nolte also shows up out of nowhere for a one-scene cameo. Reportedly, Nolte was supposed to have a more sizeable role, but wound up being almost cut out of the finished film. What a shame.

Run All Night's reception was lukewarm, to say the least, and it certainly underperformed at the box office. Unfortunately, this probably came as a result of Taken 3; the two-month gap wasn't enough time for people to recover from that limp franchise trilogy-capper. Judged on its own merits, Run All Night is a robust little gem which deserves more attention. And it's a definite improvement over the forgettable Unknown and the stale Non-Stop. It's worth a rental at the very least, especially for action fans.


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It has its moments

Posted : 1 year, 10 months ago on 19 August 2015 01:35 (A review of Get Hard)

"This ain't no longer your house, man! We in San Quentin now!"

A lot of criticisms have been levelled against 2015’s Get Hard, with most critics and audiences calling it offensive and dumb. However, despite its clichéd, slipshod plotting and a lack of truly witty writing, it is arguably entertaining if you enjoy this type of crass, un-PC humour, though it must be stressed that it’s not a movie for everybody. This is a pitch-black, vehemently R-rated comedy, with improvisation, overacting and profanities aplenty in place of clever comedy. And while the resultant feature has its moments, it is rather disappointing considering the talent here.

An LA-based investment fund manager, James King (Will Ferrell) is living the dream, blessed with a gorgeous fiancée, Alissa (Allison Brie), and a large, luxurious home that’s tended to by groundskeepers and maids. Soon after being made partner in his firm by Alissa’s father, Martin (Craig T. Nelson), James is arrested for fraud and sentenced to ten years in San Quentin. Trying to maintain his innocence, James is given thirty days to sort out his affairs before serving time. James dreads the prospect of prison life, ultimately calling upon a car washer named Darnell (Kevin Hart) for help. Even though the squeaky-clean Darnell has never been in the slammer, James assumes that he has a cell block record simply because he’s black. Realising that he has the chance to make some easy cash, Darnell goes along with it, pretending to be an ex-con and creating a prison survival boot camp to toughen James up.

Like most comedies of this ilk, Get Hard is essentially a string of comedic vignettes with a very tenuous through-line to justify the madness. It’s somewhat surprising that Etan Cohen directed the picture since he also scripted Tropic Thunder and Idiocracy, both of which possessed some degree of intelligence, providing clever satire to supplement and enhance the laughs. Get Hard, on the other hand, is purely superficial, and you’ll struggle to find any meaty satire or satirical subtext amid all the rape jokes and crude dialogue. Perhaps the movie’s biggest issue is the lack of a character arc for James, who’s a stuffy, racist rich guy - and the movie asks us to empathise with him. Additionally, the story’s machinations are so perfunctory and half-hearted, not to mention predictable, that the premise might have been better-served as a series of short comedy skits on YouTube.

With its shoddy script and plotting, Get Hard would have been borderline unwatchable if it was an inoffensive PG-13 comedy. However, the production is given a boost by its R rating, which Ferrell lobbied relentlessly to maintain, allowing for salty language and humour which pushes the boundaries of good taste. Performances all-round are fairly workmanlike, with Ferrell again leaning on his trademark oblivious man-child idiot persona. Ferrell knows his strengths, and he plays to him, with the role never removing the actor from his comfort zone. Then again, nobody really expected anything more. Hart, meanwhile, is pretty much just Kevin Hart.

There is not much more which can be said about Get Hard. Humour is subjective, and if there’s not much to analyse beneath a comedy’s shiny exterior, it doesn’t exactly provide strong fodder for an in-depth treatise. As someone who predominantly likes Will Ferrell and enjoys R-rated comedies, I found myself laughing quite a lot throughout the movie’s 100-minute duration in spite of its inherent flaws and hit-and-miss comedy. Those who enjoy the likes of Step Brothers might enjoy it with beer and pizza, but others are advised to tread lightly.


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Gripping spy yarn

Posted : 1 year, 10 months ago on 12 August 2015 03:40 (A review of Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation)

"The Syndicate is real. A rogue nation, trained to do what we do."

It's rare for a Hollywood movie franchise to maintain quality through to its fifth instalment, and yet 2015's Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation accomplishes that seemingly impossible mission, emerging as one of the summer's strongest, most satisfying blockbusters. Written and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, who was last seen at the helm of the 2012 Tom Cruise vehicle Jack Reacher, Rogue Nation represents another high point for this now nineteen-year-old franchise, which has flirted with greatness since 2006's Mission: Impossible III (which is still arguably the best). The decision to move the film's release date up by a whopping five months was cause for concern, but the finished picture remains astonishingly assured and above all cohesive, pulling together a gripping spy yarn anchored by solid performances and sublime visuals. In short, it's everything you want from a summer flick, and more.

After CIA head Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) works to shut down the Impossible Mission Force (IMF), Ethan Hunt (Cruise) goes rogue, living off the grid as he works to bring down a shadow organisation known as The Syndicate. The likes of Agent Brandt (Jeremy Renner) and tech guru Benji (Simon Pegg) are drafted into CIA service, forced to assist as the agency seeks to find and apprehend Hunt at all costs. As Hunt ventures around the globe determined to prevent further deaths at the hands of The Syndicate, he finds assistance in Benji, Brandt, and old pal Luther (Ving Rhames), while also frequently encountering a British Intelligence agent named Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson) whose loyalties remain unclear.

The well-publicised stunt involving Cruise dangling from a plane is actually part of the opening sequence, which kicks off the movie on an exhilarating high note. The set-piece is a real treat, a thoroughly armrest-clenching, hugely competent opener scored with the iconic M:I theme that left this reviewer giddy with excitement. It was a sublime creative decision to include this stunt at the start of the film - it amplifies the exhilaration factor for the ensuing action scenes, as it's never entirely clear what's real and what has been tinkered with through digital effects. And that's the highest compliment one can award a blockbuster of this ilk. Additionally, while all previous entries in the series have aped the show's title sequence, Rogue Nation takes it one step further, with clips to introduce each respective main player. Indeed, the feature wears its television origins on its sleeve, and it feels closer to the original TV show than all four of its predecessors. As a matter of fact, The Syndicate was a recurring antagonist on the show.

There's an air of class to Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation that's unexpected considering its summer blockbuster pedigree, with McQuarrie taking cues from Alfred Hitchcock in particular, as well as paying homage to other classics. Part of the story takes place in Casablanca, which in itself will conjure up memories of the classic 1942 film Casablanca, but the name Ilsa will also be familiar to any cinema aficionados. Additionally, one of the standout set-pieces takes place at an opera in Vienna, which appears to be a callback to Hitchcock's 1956 version of The Man Who Knew Too Much. Such touches would be foolhardy in a less skilful production, but Rogue Nation is executed with a deft hand, and it's smartly-written to boot.

McQuarrie's proficient directorial talents are aided considerably by the exotic global locations, the vibrant cinematography courtesy of the Oscar-winning Robert Elswit, and Joe Kraemer's pulse-pounding score which makes great use of Lalo Schifrin's iconic theme music. For the most part, Rogue Nation is a surprisingly grounded blockbuster, generating excitement through stretches of intense, cloak-and-dagger espionage rather than outright mayhem. McQuarrie gets plenty of mileage out of suspenseful, mostly wordless sequences, reminiscent of Brian De Palma's work on the original Mission: Impossible film. Even the climax has been dialled back, leaving the trailers to mostly foreground the extended vehicular chase through the streets of Morocco which closes the second act. However, the movie does have its fair share of silly moments, including an over-the-top car roll that looks too digital and is too unrealistic.

The M:I franchise has had its share of witty one-liners, but Rogue Nation is probably the most humorous to date. It's full of amusing bantering and clever scripting, which keeps the enterprise feeling fun and light. And it's a testament to McQuarrie's direction that he is able to juggle the varying tones so well. Naturally, performances right across the board are hugely effective. The decision to induct Pegg into the franchise's ensemble remains superb. He's a great asset, and it's fantastic that the British funny-man returns here in a larger capacity. Meanwhile, Rhames, who has appeared in every instalment thus far, is terrific as always, handling the comedy with a deft hand. Renner also makes his return here, and he's yet again on fine form. Then there's Cruise, who remains a consummate pro and a true movie star despite being in his fifties. Cruise did his own driving and stunts, and he's perpetually focused from start to finish. As for the newcomers, Baldwin makes a positive impression, while Sean Harris excels as the villain. If the last movie, Ghost Protocol, had a flaw, it would've been the lack of a memorable bad guy, but Harris fulfils his duties admirably here. And finally, Swedish actress Ferguson really impresses as Ilsa, and she shares great chemistry with Cruise. However, the absence of Michelle Monaghan is a tad disappointing - this series still needs to provide closure on the relationship between Ethan and Monaghan's Julia.

Rogue Nation is a long movie, ultimately clocking in at over two hours, and at times it does feel its length. After two incredible opening acts, the flick slows down for its final third, which does affect narrative rhythm and pacing. With that said, however, Rogue Nation does improve upon repeat viewings, which solidifies this as another joy for 2015's summer movie derby and an ideal way to cap off the season. At this point, the prospect of a sixth Mission: Impossible movie is extremely enticing indeed, which is more than can be said for other, less skilful long-running franchises, like Fast & Furious.


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