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A worthy follow-up and companion piece to Sicario

Posted : 2 days, 10 hours ago on 9 December 2018 02:44 (A review of Sicario: Day of the Soldado)

2018's Sicario: Day of the Soldado ran the risk of appearing to be another unnecessary, cheesy cash-in sequel to a serious drama, similar to the direct-to-video follow-ups to Jarhead or Green Street Hooligans. However, with Sicario scribe Taylor Sheridan (Hell or High Water) returning to the fold, this sequel confidently justifies its existence, resulting in another engaging fictitious action-drama within a relevant real-world setting. To be sure, the morally ambiguous narrative is polarising, while the movie's central conceit and themes may not sit right with everybody, hence the mixed reaction from professional critics. Admittedly, perfection does elude Sicario: Day of the Soldado due to a rocky third act and some lethargic pacing, and it inevitably falls short of its predecessor, but this follow-up is nevertheless an ideal instance of mature counterprogramming in a crowded summer season dominated by colourful blockbusters.

When a suicide bombing in a Kansas supermarket kills over a dozen people, the American government suspects that Islamic radicals are entering the United States through the Mexican border among migrant workers. In response, the U.S. government authorises CIA agent Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) to engage in covert black ops tactics to combat Mexican drug cartels, who control the border and are deemed responsible for smuggling terrorists into the country. Coordinating with U.S. Secretary of Defense James Riley (Matthew Modine), Graver hatches a plan to instigate a war between the cartels to destabilise border crossing operations and halt ISIS interests. To achieve this, Graver recruits black ops killing machine Alejandro Gillick (Benicio Del Toro) to kidnap 16-year-old Isabel Reyes (Isabela Moner), the daughter of a major cartel kingpin who ordered the murder of Gillick's family several years prior. Complications arise during the operation, with Gillick left on his own to protect Isabel as he travels to the border, while Graver deals with the nervous U.S. government bureaucrats as they get cold feet.

Although a Sicario sequel might seem unnecessary, a trilogy was planned from the outset, and while a follow-up was not explicitly set up, the 2015 feature subtly left room for further stories to occur involving these characters. Drugs are less of a concern in Day of the Soldado, and the plot involving terrorism represents an interesting shift, particularly given its plausibility. (There are genuine real-world concerns about terrorists entering the U.S. through the Mexican border.) Sheridan's screenplay adheres to the same narrative structure as the first Sicario; the government machinations and CIA activities intersect with an ostensibly unrelated story concerning Mexicans on the other side of the law, in this case young Mexican-American coyote Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) who is being indoctrinated into the cartel system. Just as Sheridan's 2017 movie Wind River delivered a message pertaining to the appalling treatment of Native Americans, Day of the Soldado's parallel narratives explore the toll that terrorism, war and drug trafficking has on children, providing some thoughtful thematic content amid the chaos. Miraculously, the child characters are not as grating as they might have been, thanks to the smart casting of Moner and Rodriguez in their respective roles.

In spite of its narrative intricacies, Sicario: Day of the Soldado feels closer to a straightforward action movie compared to its predecessor, though that is not necessarily a negative. Stepping into the director's chair is Italian filmmaker Stefano Sollima, late of acclaimed television series Gomorrah and the 2015 Italian mobster picture Suburra. Day of the Soldado is therefore a good fit for Sollima's stylistic sensibilities, steeping the material in grit and ensuring this sequel feels wholly legitimate. However, with a runtime exceeding two hours, the ride is not as smooth as Sicario; perhaps due to Sollima's television roots, portions of this sequel progress with languid, TV-style pacing. Nevertheless, Sollima proves an able craftsman during the set-pieces, from the gripping shootouts to the horrific supermarket bombing that will churn stomachs. Unfolding in a bravura single shot, the bombing is visceral and unnerving, setting the tone for the picture and showing the harsh consequences of terrorism while still maintaining a sense of tact. Sollima smartly uses practical effects and sets as much as possible to create a realistic aesthetic, with minor digital accompaniments to subtly enhance the visuals. Furthermore, Dariusz Wolski's gritty cinematography evinces a pronounced sense of style, creating an ominous atmosphere and giving convincing life to the material. Wolski thankfully keeps the photography sufficiently steady during the intermittent scenes of mayhem, allowing us to take in and appreciate the set-pieces. Sicario: Day of the Soldado is also helped immeasurably by Hildur Guðnadóttir's brooding and effective score, reminiscent of the late Jóhann Jóhannsson's compositions for the original Sicario.

The morality behind Day of the Soldado is a bit of a mess by design; the moral implications behind the staged kidnapping are shaky in the first place, even though such underhanded black ops tactics are combatting domestic terrorism to thwart further attacks. This provokes questions regarding the lengths that are acceptable in order to save lives. Much of the movie's second half explores the fallout from Gillick refusing to murder Isabel to cover the government's tracks, further complicating the screenplay's moral foundation. With Gillick allotted a bigger role here, he's inherently less interesting and badass, as he is given more backstory and moral dimension. Your mileage will vary on this front, but Gillick was a more menacing screen presence in the original Sicario, though he certainly has his moments here and Del Toro still makes a positive impression. Brolin is equally impressive, remaining captivating and tough-as-nails, while Catherine Keener represents a welcome addition to the cast as a CIA boss, playing well against Brolin.

Sicario: Day of the Soldado visibly struggles as it approaches the finishing line, with a few incredulous moments that strain credibility and took this reviewer out of the action. Although Day of the Soldado is not exactly entertaining in the stereotypical popcorn-munching sense, and the absence of Denis Villeneuve and cinematographer Roger Deakins is felt, this is nevertheless compelling adult filmmaking which is more gratifying than any number of brainless action movies released during 2018. It also represents a fine companion piece for Sicario, and leaves the door open for the proposed third instalment.


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A masculine ugly-cry movie for the ages

Posted : 2 months, 3 weeks ago on 20 September 2018 05:14 (A review of Only the Brave (2017))

One of the most underrated and overlooked motion pictures of 2017, Only the Brave provides a group-biopic account of the Granite Mountain Hotshots, whose story is ideal fodder for the big screen. Only the Brave's plot is admittedly Hallmark movie-of-the-week boilerplate and, in the hands of less sophisticated filmmakers, could have been packed with melodrama as well as forced tear-wringing. However, director Joseph Kosinski fortunately avoids the temptation, shaping an achingly poignant tribute to firefighters and real-life heroism, paying attention to character complexity as opposed to pure spectacle. Some aspects of the narrative are admittedly familiar, but performances are excellent, dialogue is engaging, and the technical presentation is top-flight, which is what matters the most in a production of this ilk. Not knowing the outcome of the story does result in a more devastating emotional kick, though it will almost certainly still work for those with full knowledge of the events that befell the Granite Mountain Hotshots at Yarnell Hill. The furthest thing from a simple, corny Hollywood action movie, Only the Brave is a compelling, powerful feature which must be seen and is impossible to forget.

A Fire and Rescue superintendent, Eric Marsh (Josh Brolin) seeks to earn a hotshot certification for his firefighting crew of Prescott, Arizona, and become the first municipal hotshot unit in the country. Frustrated with only observing wildfires from afar and being ignored, Eric turns to city fire chief Duane (Jeff Bridges) and the Mayor (Forrest Fyre) to support his certification aspirations. Needing to expand his crew to make this dream a reality, Eric takes on new recruits, including ex-junkie Brendan (Miles Teller) who recently became a father, was kicked out of home, and is trying to straighten up his problematic life. Through the efforts of Eric's crew, including Brendan, Jesse (James Badge Dale) and Chris (Taylor Kitsch), the unit achieves certification status, rechristening themselves as the Granite Mountain Hotshots. However, hotshot status means the responsibility of frequently fighting fires around the state, which takes the men away from their families - Eric's wife Amanda (Jennifer Connolly) wants to have a child but finds his priorities misplaced, while Brendan spends too much time away from his baby daughter.

With a screenplay credited to Ken Nolan and Eric Warren Singer, adapted from the 2013 GQ article "No Exit" by Sean Flynn, Only the Brave does take liberties with history to generate a more dramatically satisfying motion picture. Most notably, the movie shows the same team working together for years, but the Granite Mountain Hotshots saw a frequent turnover as people came and left. But other elements of the narrative are factual, particularly the story of Brendan, whose true-to-life arc is so perfect for a motion picture that it feels manufactured. A bulk of the narrative is framed through Brendan's eyes, observing him on the job and revealing his struggles as he adapts to fatherhood. Furthermore, since Brendan is a new recruit, we meet the other team members through him, generating an effective team dynamite and an outstanding camaraderie with Chris. Only the Brave is structured like an old-fashioned biographical movie, running a beefy 130 minutes as it takes care of necessary character and story development, not to mention it allows us to adequately understand what the Hotshots actually do and how they operate. Miraculously, although the movie is long, nothing feels superfluous.

Only the Brave was helmed by Joseph Kosinski, late of sci-fi/fantasy pictures Tron: Legacy and Oblivion, yet he wisely dials down his garish directorial tendencies to construct a distinctly earthbound story closer that feels closer to a Peter Berg movie. Instead of presenting the fire-fighting sequences as overblown digital effects spectacles, the set-pieces are effectively realistic and matter-of-fact, befitting the source material. Kosinski demonstrates incredible range as he navigates dramatic and emotional scenes, imbuing the material with genuine substance. Furthermore, Only the Brave progresses at such a patient, measured pace that we are left unprepared for the climactic events, rendering them all the more devastating. Backed by a modest $38 million budget, the picture looks spectacular from top to bottom, with gorgeous cinematography and an almost seamless mix of practical and digital effects to sell the illusion of raging wildfires, accentuated with a hypnotic yet understated score by Joseph Trapanese (Straight Outta Compton). Kosinski is no stranger to visual effects, but he never loses sight of the characters here, making the sequences intense, visceral and above all tasteful. The foregone conclusion is still incredibly distressing to behold, thanks to the patient character development and the real danger that the fire presents. In addition, at no point does Kosinski feel the need to linger on gory content, keeping within the confines of a PG-13 rating without the movie feeling needlessly neutered. Perhaps Peter Berg could have brought a tad more immediacy to the material, but this is not to impugn Kosinski's efforts in any significant way.

Brolin is tailor-made for roles such as this, and he is note-perfect as Marsh. Instead of mugging for potential Oscar glory, the actor finds a way to underplay the heroic character, coming across as completely authentic in the process. It's a superb, perfectly judged performance imbued with humanity and emotion, ably carrying the movie. Furthermore, whereas most productions would settle for a one-dimensional wife character, Amanda Marsh has depth and plays a considerable role in the story, not to mention Connolly delivers a powerhouse performance. Just as terrific is Bridges, while it's fascinating to see Taylor Kitsch in something genuinely good for a change. (Remember when Kitsch was meant to be Hollywood's next big thing? The consecutive flops of John Carter and Battleship put the kibosh on that.) Teller, meanwhile, is only intermittently tolerable in movies (his highest point being 2014's Whiplash), and it seems appropriate to cast him as a loser who gets his arse kicked throughout the second act in order to earn the right to be perceived as likeable and worth caring about once the climax arrives. Impressively, Teller convincingly pulls off the transformation from low-life dope-head into a hard-working, respectful tough guy. James Badge Dale is also here playing Marsh's second-in-command, because he is ostensibly required by Hollywood law to feature in all movies like this.

First and foremost, Only the Brave is a story about the men who fight fires, rather than the flames themselves. Admittedly, the narrative does feel slightly erratic due to its episodic nature - the fateful Yarnell Hill Fire is not introduced until the third act, and the movie does not build up to it throughout; rather, the event feels like just another fire. This story is episodic, observing the crew as they train, ply their trade, and deal with their personal lives, with amusing banter and humour to make the characters more relatable and human. Like Peter Berg's Deepwater Horizon, Only the Brave did not receive a fair shake at the box office, unable to even earn back its modest budget, but it will stand the test of time and it's fortunate that the movie exists. Hard-hitting and visceral, Only the Brave is a masculine ugly-cry movie for the ages.


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Eye-wateringly funny from start to finish

Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks ago on 14 September 2018 03:19 (A review of Not Another Teen Movie (2001))

A parody of virtually every teen comedy from She's All That to The Breakfast Club, 2001's Not Another Teen Movie adheres to the same formula popularised by Scary Movie and Airplane!, and the result is easily one of the most successful spoof movies of the noughties. Far better than bottom-of-the-barrel, brain-dead drivel like Disaster Movie or Vampires Suck, Not Another Teen Movie succeeds because it's genuinely side-splitting and clever, showing a reverence for the genre whilst gleefully taking the piss out of well-worn tropes and clichés. Teen movies are ripe for parodying, as the genre has well-defined narrative parameters and familiar conventions (not to mention iconic scenes), and Not Another Teen Movie is confidently up to the task. Although critics savaged the film upon its theatrical release in 2001, it has developed into a minor cult classic, and for good reason. In 2018, the film more than holds up, particularly given the dire state of the parody subgenre.

At John Hughes High School in Southern California, "popular jock" Jake Wyler (Chris Evans) is dumped by cheerleader Priscilla (Jaime Pressly) in favour of "beautiful weirdo" Les (Riley Smith). With prom approaching, Jake makes a bet with his friends that he can turn the frumpy "uniquely rebellious pretty ugly girl," Janey Briggs (Chyler Leigh), into prom queen. Along the way, the relationship that Jake builds with Janey transcends the bet as they start to fall in love. Meanwhile, desperate virgins Mitch (Cody McMains), Ox (Sam Huntington) and Bruce (Samm Levine) make a pact to lose their virginity by graduation, even though they're only freshmen.

Narratively, Not Another Teen Movie takes its cues from She's All That, mixing in a dash of 10 Things I Hate About You, Cruel Intentions, American Pie, Never Been Kissed, and many more. Not Another Teen Movie primarily succeeds because it actually feels like an authentic motion picture - it was shot on 35mm film stock, accurately replicating the cinematic look of the features it merrily sends up. This aspect separates it from more recent parodies, which just look astonishingly cheap. However, Not Another Teen Movie is at its weakest when focusing on Jake's football misadventures. One can understand the necessity to parody such a prominent staple of American high school movies, but the resulting sequences are not as fast-moving or as focused, nor are the plot machinations as interesting. Still, there are some laughs to mine from said scenes, and this is a minor knock against an otherwise eye-wateringly funny movie. The fun culminates with a riotous ending (the result of a reshoot) complete with a Molly Ringwald cameo to show further reverence for the genre that the filmmakers gleefully skewer. And just to make the scene funnier, Ringwald's character hates teenagers and turns her nose up at the romantic dialogue. ("Fucking teenagers," she bemoans.)

At the helm of the movie is veteran MTV spoofer Joel Gallen, who now spends a bulk of his time overseeing Comedy Central Roasts. Gallen keeps the pacing quick, never lingering on gags or set-pieces, with the film clocking in at an economical 89 minutes. Subtle gags abound, from the school cafeteria being called "Anthony Michael Dining Hall," to the football team playing in "Harry Dean Stadium." With the benefit of an R rating, Gallen and the five credited screenwriters go for broke, incorporating vulgar dialogue and uproarious gross-out moments. The spoofing is consistently on-target, and appreciable extra touches serve to legitimise the production; the late Paul Gleason reprises his Breakfast Club role to merrily take the piss out of himself, while another moment lampooning She's All That uses the song from the original scene. Other hilarious gags takes aim at the fact that teen movies include precisely one token black guy. The soundtrack, too, boasts multiple gems, while Good Charlotte actually appear as the live band at the prom. Comedy is subjective, of course, and it's impossible to predict any individual's reaction to the movie, but I cannot deny that Not Another Teen Movie worked like gangbusters for me. An extended director's cut was later released on home video, which adds approximately eleven minutes of footage to bring the runtime to a tidy 100 minutes. Naturally, not every added joke lands, but the director's cut is still the superior edition; the theatrical version feels gutted in comparison.

Not Another Teen Movie is fearless, even including a musical number that references incest and ejaculating into French toast, while characters highlight that attractive girls always receive slow-motion entrances. Film buffs will probably get the most out of Not Another Teen Movie, as it's jam-packed with countless nods and references to a vast array of youth movies from the '80s and '90s, and certain gags are so obscure that it may take multiple viewings to notice. Of course, not every joke soars, but that's par for the course; what matters is that there are enough successful gags to make sure the movie is worthwhile. The sizeable cast is game for everything the script demands, with Leigh (now a regular on Supergirl) and Evans a fun central pairing. The future Captain America is a fresh-faced teenager here, and his comic performance is ideal, scoring laughs aplenty. Pressly, meanwhile, gets plenty of mileage as the attractive but bitchy cheerleader, while the supporting cast features the likes of Eric Christian Olsen, Mia Kirshner, Sam Huntington, Samm Levine, Lacey Chabert, and even Randy Quaid, who seems to simply reprise his role from the Vacation movies. Future How I Met Your Mother star Josh Radnor is also present as a tour guide who intermittently pops up to make snide remarks about teen movie clichés ("You would never suspect that everyone at this school is a professional dancer").

Not Another Teen Movie makes use of the very same parody formula which has beget dirge like Date Movie and Disaster Movie; pictures that effectively killed the parody subgenre. But films such as this demonstrate just how funny the formula can be when in the hands of a creative team capable of actual humour. Without reaching the dizzying heights of Airplane! or The Naked Gun!, Not Another Teen Movie is hugely entertaining and full of belly-laughs, standing the test of time and looking all the better after the dreadful spoofs which followed in its wake. And it was not followed by endless sequels to sully its reputation, which is frankly astonishing. Additionally, be sure to stick around until the end of the credits for one more laugh.


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An instant manly classic

Posted : 2 months, 4 weeks ago on 13 September 2018 05:32 (A review of Brawl in Cell Block 99)

Following up a directorial debut like 2015's sleeper surprise Bone Tomahawk is a tall order, but prodigy writer-director S. Craig Zahler defies the odds (and his own relative inexperience) with seemingly little effort. Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a fucking masterpiece from top to bottom; a brutal, completely mesmerising showcase of extreme violence, hyper-masculine behaviour and dark humour, buoyed by superb direction and a remarkable, career-defining performance by Vince Vaughn. An ode to old-fashioned prison films and grindhouse cinema, Zahler's sophomore effort further demonstrates his unique filmmaking voice, with deliberate but enthralling pacing, and a screenplay that crackles with unforced wit. There is genuine artistry throughout Brawl in Cell Block 99 to boot; this is practically an art-house movie, but it's also more accessible than that label implies.

A recovered addict and former boxer, Bradley Thomas (Vaughn) loses his job as a tow truck driver and discovers that his wife, Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter), is seeing another man. Determined to put his life and marriage back together, Bradley becomes a successful drug runner for old friend Gil (Marc Blucas), while Lauren falls pregnant; their second attempt to have a child. Bradley is cautious and proficient in his line of work, but things go south when Gil gets into business with Eleazar (Dion Mucciacito). When Bradley works alongside a pair of Eleazar's enforcers to pick up a shipment of crystal meth, the police get involved, compromising the job and putting Bradley behind bars. Unwilling to give up Gil to the police, Bradley is sentenced to seven years in a medium-security prison, which separates him from Lauren in the latter stages of her tough pregnancy. However, Eleazar is not willing to let Bradley off the hook, demanding that he gets himself moved to Redleaf, a maximum security facility housing a special target whom Bradley must assassinate to pay off his outstanding debt. With Eleazar's men holding Lauren hostage, Bradley has little choice but to comply.

Chief among Brawl in Cell Block 99's strengths is that Zahler is unafraid of length. Although the narrative is largely uncomplicated and the movie could have probably run a proverbial 89 minutes, Zahler lets the story breathe with a running time exceeding two hours, creating an intoxicating atmosphere and keeping us under his spell until the end. For its first two acts, Brawl in Cell Block 99 concentrates on procedural minutiae. Prior to Bradley's incarceration, Zahler lets us watch the drug trafficker engage in his routine as he travels around delivering product, exercising caution at every turn and concealing his car with a camouflage net when it is not in use. When Bradley transfers to prison, Zahler lingers on mundane details such as surrendering personal belongings, initial checks, and orientations, letting us authentically feel his frustrations. Visceral highlights pepper the movie, but Brawl in Cell Block 99 takes off once it reaches the titular Cell Block 99 in Redleaf, populated with the worst types of criminals and overseen by ruthless, immoral guards.

In spite of a limited budget, Brawl in Cell Block 99 never feels like a direct-to-video cheapie, as the technical presentation from top to bottom is outstanding. Zahler's style is defiantly stripped-down and old-fashioned; music is minimalist, pauses are allowed, and shots run for longer than a second each. Furthermore, Zahler achieves practically everything in-camera, making use of squibs and prosthetics, on top of blank-firing weapons and real explosions. This may seem like a minor victory, but in an age of digitally-enhanced action movies, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a breath of fresh air. Even though the brawls take place in dim corridors and subterranean rooms, they are a masterclass of choreography, shooting, and editing. The vicious prison fight scenes are welcomely steady, often occurring in extended wide angles to do justice to the unpolished but satisfying choreography. In addition, a badass, low-key score complements Benji Bakshi's (Bone Tomahawk) stylish, atmospheric cinematography, making this one to watch on a large screen with surround sound. Meanwhile, the deliberately retro-style prosthetics and practical gore effects are effective, allowing us to watch faces get ripped off, arms being brutally broken, and skulls being shattered. This is the type of violence that makes you cringe and turn away (awesome though it certainly is), which is so rare in contemporary cinema. 

As Bradley (do not ever call him Brad), Vaughn is the movie's secret weapon; he is one of the key reasons why Brawl in Cell Block 99 works as well as it does. Perhaps owing to his many years of awful comedies, Vaughn's comedic timing and delivery is ace; Bradley is a complete wise-arse, and his one-liners crackle with the sort of wit that Quentin Tarantino was once capable of. Additionally, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is one of Vaughn's only movies to use his imposing height to make him appear intimidating and scary. Vaughn worked to get himself into shape to convincingly portray this physically tough former boxer with a fiery temper, and it really is a sight to behold when Bradley is unleashed. Vaughn is well matched against a sensational Don Johnson as the sadistic Warden Tuggs, who runs Redleaf with a no-nonsense attitude. Johnson exudes masculinity and badassery from every pore, and he is a captivating on-screen presence. The supporting cast is effectively filled out with the likes of Jennifer Carpenter (The Exorcism of Emily Rose), Udo Kier playing one of Eleazar's associates (of course he's a villain), as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer's Marc Blucas, among others.

Brawl in Cell Block 99 is a manly classic for the ages; the work of a genuine auteur committed to a vision, regardless of political correctness or commercial-friendly ratings. Every frame and dialogue exchange throughout the movie is entrancing, and it's hard to foresee precisely what will happen next because Bradley is so unpredictably brutal. With a focused narrative that is free of unnecessary tangents, the two-hour duration of Brawl in Cell Block 99 flies past in what seems like half that time. It never feels like a chore, nor does it lose momentum, which is a testament to Zahler's command of the screen. The extended climax, meanwhile, is heart-stopping and riveting, and the movie manages to end with a bit of unforced emotion. Although certainly not for all tastes, Brawl in Cell Block 99 is essential viewing that's impossible to forget.


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Perfectly enjoyable "big dumb" monster movie

Posted : 3 months ago on 10 September 2018 05:03 (A review of Rampage)

Not to be confused with the 2009 Uwe Boll film of the same name, 2018's Rampage represents another big-screen video game adaptation, released in the shadow of the Tomb Raider reboot. However, Rampage's source material is not an expansive open-world game or a popular first-person shooter, but instead an obscure, virtually plotless arcade quarter-muncher from 1986 wherein a players' objective is to cause as much destruction as possible while battling military and police forces. It is not exactly fertile ground for a pre-summer event film, but the adaptation nevertheless translates to a perfectly enjoyable "big dumb" monster movie, presented in the same pure, unpretentious spirit as a Roland Emmerich blockbuster from the 1990s. Directed by San Andreas helmer Brad Peyton, Rampage is essentially an old-fashioned B-movie brought to life with A-grade production values. (And it's more sophisticated than the usual SyFy pap.) It's also one of the best video game films to date, clearing one of the lowest bars in cinema history.

A former U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier, Davis Okoye (Dwayne Johnson) now dedicates his life to working as a primatologist at the San Diego Wildlife Sanctuary. Davis shares a special friendship with rare albino gorilla George, who was saved from poachers as an infant, and can communicate through sign language. However, George is exposed a pathogen originating from a destroyed space station, which causes him to rapidly grow in both size and aggression. The space station debris also lands in other parts of the United States, exposing the pathogen to a wolf and a crocodile, who respectively become known as Ralph and Lizzie. With the mutated giants rampaging across the country, Davis receives support from genetic engineer Dr. Kate Caldwell (Naomie Harris), who was partly responsible for the creation of the pathogen. Kate once worked for a biotech firm run by Claire (Malin Åkerman) and her idiot brother Brett (Jake Lacy), who are now trying to recover the assets by sending out a secret radio signal to lure the monsters to Chicago. Davis, meanwhile, refuses to give up on his friend, teaming up with Kate to follow George to Chicago and save the city.

Rampage may not resemble a family movie on the surface due to the violence and destruction on display throughout, but the story does ultimately boil down to an animal conservationist and his tender relationship with a gorilla. George is a surprisingly likeable character, performed through motion capture by actor Jason Liles (Netflix's Death Note), and there is palpable chemistry between the primate and Davis, which provides some semblance of heart and stakes amid the cartoonish, thoroughly absurd climactic spectacle. In addition, it's almost possible to forgive the blatant, silly contrivances which allow for Davis to team up and fight alongside the giant-sized George to take down Ralph and Lizzie during the Chicago battle. However, the screenplay (credited to four writers) overthinks the material and tries to take things too seriously, leading to a first half that's jam-packed with laborious exposition, spending too much time with Claire and Brett. Ultimately, pacing is affected by a villainous corporate subplot in which motivations are ludicrously foolhardy and unclear, resulting in a narrative in need of streamlining. Dialogue, meanwhile, usually amounts to clichéd action movie chatter. (Can characters in movies please stop saying "Go to hell"?)

Lots of money was thrown at Rampage, making it look more expensive than its comparatively modest reported $140 million budget. For the most part, production values impress, with state-of-the-art digital effects giving convincing life to the trio of giant monsters. The film's third act transforms into the most expensive recreation of a cheap 1980s arcade game in history, filled with the type of things that players did in the "Rampage" game: destroying buildings, climbing buildings, squashing people, eating people, taking down planes, demolishing tanks, and so on. However, as with any major blockbuster, the quality of the CGI varies from shot to shot; some moments are phoney, including some obvious green screen work, while others look borderline photorealistic. The score by Peyton regular Andrew Lockington (San Andreas, Journey 2: The Mysterious Island) gets the job done by ramping up the sense of excitement during the big set-pieces, but it sounds utterly generic on the whole. Furthermore, Rampage is surprisingly violent within the confines of a PG-13 rating, but it simultaneously pulls punches as well. See, in keeping with the game, the monsters are mean-spirited - they flatten, eat and dismember people - but such sequences feel vanilla; some over-the-top bloodshed would add some campy comedic qualities to the enterprise. The rating also forbids Davis from saying "motherfucker" in its entirety during the Chicago battle.

At this point, Johnson can play a charismatic tough guy in his sleep, and he is predictably ideal as the hero here. He "gets" the type of film he's in, and takes the material seriously despite the screenplay's innate campiness, carving out a surprisingly believable relationship between Davis and George. Johnson never pushes his abilities here, but the flick plays to his strengths and he's perpetually easy to watch. As the token good-looking smart female scientist, Harris (Moonlight) holds her own, convincingly swallowing her native British accent and doing her utmost to make the scientific nonsense sound believable. Meanwhile, The Walking Dead regular Jeffrey Dean Morgan gets the chance to espouse a goofy cowboy accent and strut around playing the token Government Agent who winds up backing the heroes. As the token corporate bad guy, Åkerman commits to the movie's goofy tone and delivers an effective performance that is both hammy and amusing. Joe Manganiello (Magic Mike) is even on-board as the cartoonish token military tough guy, in a surprisingly minor role. You could certainly do much worse than this on the casting front.

It is surprising that Rampage never really took off at the box office, considering the presence of The Rock and the abundance of over-the-top destruction which usually gets bums in seats. Still, it's not perfect, with a few tonal issues, uneven pacing and all the rampant stupidity on display. Loose ends are also left hanging, with Davis's friends (including an ostensible love interest) from the opening of the film suddenly disappearing without a trace and never being spoken of again. Nevertheless, as giant monster movies go, Rampage is effective and enjoyable; on the same level as last year's Kong: Skull Island.


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Joyous, visually superb celebration of pop culture

Posted : 5 months ago on 11 July 2018 04:43 (A review of Ready Player One)

Steven Spielberg's first major action blockbuster in some time, Ready Player One reaffirms the filmmaker's status as one of modern cinema's most reliable creators of big-screen spectacles. With Spielberg dedicating much of the last few years to historical dramas (Bridge of Spies, The Post), it's encouraging to see him switch gears to adapt Ernest Cline's best-selling 2011 novel of the same name. Imaginative and hugely entertaining, Ready Player One is a perfect for Spielberg's sensibilities, playing out like an homage to the maestro's old works (both as a producer and a director). It's an exquisitely mounted action-adventure which joyously celebrates nostalgia and pop culture, peppered with a dizzying array of movie references and blockbuster iconography. Cline's novel took direct inspiration from Spielberg (even mentioning his name), which makes it all the more exciting to see the man direct this adaptation himself.

The world is a dreary, poor place in the year 2045, which leads citizens to immerse themselves in the freeware virtual reality universe known as the OASIS, where people can do anything, be anyone, and go anywhere. Prior to the death of OASIS co-founder James Halliday (Mark Rylance) in 2040, he masterminded an Easter egg hunt for total control over the game and his vast fortune, hiding three keys within the enormous digital fantasyland that are won through various challenges. In Ohio, orphaned teenager Wade (Tye Sheridan) lives with his aunt (Susan Lynch) in a makeshift tower of mobile homes known as the stacks, logging into the OASIS under the gamertag Parzival. Wade dreams of winning Halliday's challenge, researching everything there is to know about the man and pouring through hundreds of hours of archival recordings for clues. Wade receives support in the game from pals Aech (Lena Waithe), Daito (Win Morisaki) and Sho (Philip Zhao), while the gang are soon joined by well-known player Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), who's drawn to Wade's enthusiasm and candour. However, their sudden success brings them to the attention of nefarious mega-corporation Innovative Online Industries (IOI), headed by Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn) who seeks to acquire the OASIS in order to turn it into a moneymaking, pay-for-play advertising machine, relying on a team of researchers as well as an army of gamers/slaves known as "Sixers" to solve the Easter egg hunt.

With a screenplay credited to Zak Penn (The Avengers) as well as Cline himself, Ready Player One takes substantial liberties with the source novel, representing a loose adaptation rather than a slavish page-to-screen translation. However, the film retains the novel's dark dystopian vision of the future, which draws incisive parallels with our world in 2018, adding power to the story. Little hyperbole is needed in the depiction of IOI, with Sorrento seeking to destroy something that's precious to so many but he cannot appreciate - his team even calculates how many junk advertisements can fill a user's screen without triggering seizures. Indeed, such subtext makes Wade's rebellion more relatable and potent. In addition, beyond the visual fireworks and head-turning cameos, Spielberg finds an emotional core in Halliday during the last act, with a simple but effective sequence which explores his backstory and reveals why he created the OASIS.

Furthermore, aside from a few expository lines that feel too on the nose, there is an appreciable spark of wit to the dialogue for the most part, making Ready Player One feel like more than just another witless blockbuster. Admittedly, the screenplay does make a big deal about the fact that Sorrento is a corporate scumbag without an appreciation for pop culture, and one might assume that his obedient army of Sixers will be defeated by Wade and his crew because they are real fanboys/fangirls who know a key secret that eludes IOI... But the movie simply climaxes with a run-of-the-mill big battle sequence, the outcome of which is dependant on fighting abilities and weapons. However, Wade's pop culture knowledge does give him an edge during Halliday's challenges, so this is not a huge deal. Nevertheless, it's not clear how apparently every player around the world seems to know advanced martial arts, or how they can control how high or long they wish to jump at any given time.

Cline's novel was well-known for its litany of pop culture references, and this trait carries over into Spielberg's big-screen adaptation. The team behind Ready Player One must have spent time and money aplenty to clear intellectual property rights, as there are pop culture references galore throughout the picture - on top of mining from the extensive selection of IPs owned by Warner Bros., Ready Player One also references Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension, Star Wars, Alien, Child's Play, John Hughes films, Japanese iconography, plus many more films, TV shows and even video games. A portion of the novel took place inside the film WarGames, but reportedly due to rights issues, this is changed for the big screen - instead, the characters venture into a 1980s horror film in a brilliant sequence that cannot be spoiled. Ultimately, the viewing experience of Ready Player One amounts to a vast visual treasure hunt for famous characters and vehicles - it may take years to unpack all the movie’s hidden Easter eggs.

With Spielberg at the helm, Ready Player One is a sumptuous visual treat, making astute use of the reported $175 million budget. (A somewhat low figure given the quality of the production values). The world here feels lived-in and authentic, thanks to the superb production design and elaborate sets. Spielberg previously experimented with motion capture for 2011's The Adventures of Tintin, which serves him well for the imaginative digital scenes set inside the OASIS. The tone is set relatively early with a mind-blowing vehicular race through the virtual streets of Manhattan, beset with obstacles ranging from wrecking balls to a Tyrannosaurus Rex, and even King Kong. The set-piece emanates a giddy sense of excitement and exhilaration, finding Spielberg taking full advantage of the possibilities of both a digital fantasyland and a virtual camera. Spielberg's touch throughout Ready Player One is valuable, with the filmmaker ensuring that the action sequences are fully comprehensible no matter the environment or scale. Meanwhile, the real-world sequences were shot by Spielberg's regular cinematographer Janusz Kamiński on 35mm film stock, creating a distinct aesthetic to separate it from the scenes inside the OASIS. Although an ostensibly small touch, it's appreciated to underscore the dreariness of the real world, while making everything look tangible - indeed, with a fine layer of film grain, digital effects often seamlessly integrate into the live-action footage. Moreover, despite a beefy 140-minute runtime, Spielberg keeps the picture light on its feet, maintaining a snappy pace as he works through the intricate narrative, creating an experience that's ceaselessly entertaining.

Without regular composer John Williams, Ready Player One's flavoursome original score was engineered by the reliable Alan Silvestri (Avengers: Infinity War), and it's first-rate. Silvestri's compositions never seem generic, as the music constantly adds flavour and majesty. One beat even incorporates Max Steiner's recognisable theme from 1933's King Kong. In addition, the movie is backed by a selection of retro tunes to further the vibe, from New Order to Van Halen and even a bit of Duran Duran. The thespian achievements of Ready Player One are not quite as noteworthy as the technical wizardry or the filmmaking acumen, but the acting is still effective right down the line. Mendelsohn (Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) makes a positive impression as Sorrento, capably pulling off the Big Bad Guy routine as well as can be expected. Relative newcomers Sheridan and Cooke are both convincing in every frame, which adds necessary credibility to the central romantic pairing. Even T.J. Miller shows up here as an OASIS bounty hunter who tries his hardest to be a badass. Simon Pegg is also a total pleasure as the co-creator of the OASIS, while Rylance - Spielberg's new secret weapon - brings humanity, heart and gravitas to the role of Halliday. Spielberg originally sought Gene Wilder for the role of Halliday, which would have held great significance given the story's deliberate similarities to Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. However, Rylance is still superb.

Ready Player One culminates with a tremendous battle sequence which pits virtually every user in the OASIS against Sorrento's army of Sixers, and the subsequent visual buffet of characters is truly something to behold. Luckily, Spielberg never loses control of the movie, and although there are some dark themes about the possibilities of our future, the resulting experience is fun as hell. Ultimately, while this is an undeniably terrific Spielbergian blockbuster, just how much you respond to Ready Player One may depend on your fondness for all things pop culture - for my money, it hits all the right geeky notes.


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Aggressively flat and generic

Posted : 5 months, 1 week ago on 4 July 2018 03:49 (A review of Father Figures)

Helmed by veteran cinematographer but first-time director Lawrence Sher, Father Figures was actually filmed in 2015, but it took two years to finally see the light of day after test screenings and reshoots. Sher worked on several notable comedies as a director of photography, including the Hangover trilogy and The Dictator, and should therefore know a thing or two about comic tomfoolery, but Father Figures is not the right vehicle for his directorial debut. Despite an impressive ensemble cast and a polished technical presentation, there are virtually no laughs to glean throughout - even at its best, the flick is still barely chuckle-worthy. Moreover, it's difficult to shake the feeling that we have seen all of this before, and done better.

Fraternal twins Peter (Ed Helms) and Kyle (Owen Wilson) were raised by their mother, Helen (Glenn Close), to believe that their father died before they were born. When the pair reunite for Helen's wedding, Peter is a miserable divorcé with a teenage son who resents him, while Kyle is enjoying an affluent lifestyle as a BBQ sauce model. While watching an episode of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, Peter spots whom he believes to be his dad, based on an old photo. However, Helen reveals that she lied to the brothers about their father all their lives - due to her promiscuous past, she is unsure about who their father is, and only lied to protect them. Struck by the possibility that their father is alive, Peter and Kyle set out across the country to find their real dad, leading them to football legend Terry Bradshaw (playing himself) and shady criminal Roland Hunt (J.K. Simmons). While the brothers struggle to solve the issue of their paternity, they also (predictably) seek to repair their strained relationship.

The screenplay for Father Figures (originally titled Bastards) is credited to Justin Malen, and it is only his second feature film credit after the likewise underwhelming Office Christmas Party. It's clear that Sher and Malen aspired to create a vulgar R-rated comedy as well as a dramatic story about Peter and Kyle, who bond throughout the narrative and learn valuable lessons along the way. Creating this brand of dramedy is possible, but it requires a deft touch - see Last Vegas or 50/50. Alas, Father Figures lacks the talent to fulfil its ambitions, and the end result is an uneven, formulaic dramedy which is perpetually stuck in first gear. In addition, the apparent slut-shaming in regards to Helen's promiscuity is uncomfortable and unnecessary, lacking in tact. Admittedly, the reshot ending is probably the most successful portion of the movie, as it borders on poignancy and effectively ties the story together, but it's a case of too little too late. The rest of Father Figures is still too aggressively flat, emerging as a real missed opportunity.

As a director, Sher is no better or worse than most purveyors of these sorts of generic American comedies; although his sense of comedic timing is slipshod, Father Figures is still an attractive, adequately-assembled studio comedy, with a jaunty score by Rob Simonsen (Going in Style) to boot. It should come as no surprise given Sher's past experience, but the movie's visual style is above-average, standing in stark contrast against other modern comedies which often resemble sitcoms. However, Father Figures is much too long and flabby at nearly two hours, noticeably dragging during a subplot involving a hitchhiker (Katt Williams) that has no significant bearing on the narrative beyond some Peter/Kyle bonding time that could have been explored more economically. Furthermore, it was actually surprising for this reviewer to learn that the movie was rated R, as the material feels safe, lacking the profane punch that the rating can facilitate. It appears that Father Figures was originally designed as a PG-13 comedy.

Helms and Wilson rely on their usual shtick here, to the surprise of absolutely nobody. Helms is the straight man who plays life by the rules, while Wilson is a free spirit who encourages Peter to come out of his shell. It's an all-too-familiar behavioural polarity situation, though at least the actors commit to the material adequately enough. In the supporting cast, Close appears to sleepwalk through her infrequent scenes, though J.K. Simmons and Ving Rhames manage to score a couple of minor laughs each. Christopher Walken also appears as a family friend, while Katt Williams can only do so much to liven the stale material. At the end of the day, it's hard to bring oneself to truly hate Father Figures since it's not offensive or aggressively terrible, but it's not an especially good movie either, and it's not essential viewing. This is one of those comedies that you might enjoy late at night whilst browsing Netflix in a non-discerning mood, though you will forget about it merely a few days later.


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An easily watchable drama, worth seeing

Posted : 5 months, 1 week ago on 1 July 2018 06:31 (A review of The 15:17 to Paris)

2018's The 15:17 to Paris is perhaps the first outright critical bomb for veteran filmmaker Clint Eastwood. Although the movie earned passable if unspectacular box office numbers, critics and audiences were unkind to Eastwood's latest directorial undertaking, despite its good intentions. Like the top-notch Sully, Eastwood's The 15:17 to Paris involves seemingly ordinary American citizens stepping up at a crucial moment. Based on the novel of the same name by Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos, Anthony Sadler and journalist Jeffrey E. Stern, the subject matter here is the foiled 2015 Thalys train attack, and the movie's main gimmick is that the three heroes play themselves. Even though the flick falls short of its potential due to problematic scripting and performances, it is arguably undeserving of the overzealous slating it received. In Eastwood's capable hands, The 15:17 to Paris is an easily watchable drama, eschewing unnecessary darkness and grittiness, which is rare in modern cinema.

In 2015, Islamic extremist Ayoub El Khazzani (Ray Corasani) tried to open fire on a crowded passenger train with an assault rifle, a pistol, and over 300 rounds of ammunition. However, the attempted mass shooting was thwarted by childhood friends Spencer, Alek, and Anthony, who bravely subdued Ayoub and saved hundreds of lives in the process. Spencer, Alek, and Anthony were friends since childhood, when they met in Catholic school and bonded over a mutual fondness for war games and all things military. Although the boys are separated as a result of behavioural issues, they maintain their friendship into adulthood, with both Spencer and Alek pursuing their childhood dream of serving in the American Military. After years spent apart, the three men decide upon a long overdue European vacation, during which they encounter Ayoub on a train bound for Paris from Amsterdam.

Eastwood's previous picture, Sully, was likewise concerned with a single event, but its runtime was used to explore the aftermath and ramifications, while replaying the incident from different perspectives. The 15:17 to Paris, on the other hand, spends its runtime delving into the lives of the three men leading up to the terrorist act, wrapping up right after the events on the train. It's a bizarre angle to adopt, painting the men are out-and-out heroes, refusing to explore any legal ramifications or even how their lives changed. As a result, the script by first-time screenwriter Dorothy Blyskal spends the majority of its time exploring the lives of these three individuals, intercut with minor snippets of the train attack throughout. The biographical narrative might be true-to-life, but their lives are distinctly ordinary, making for a completely unremarkable first half devoid of compelling drama. Admittedly, this is likely the point since Eastwood is showing that these heroes lived regular lives leading up until the critical event, but this material is not a strong enough basis for a feature film.

Easily the weakest segment of the movie is the European trip itself, observing Spencer, Alek and Anthony indulge in tourist activities in Italy, Germany and Amsterdam. The attempt to further the sense of camaraderie is justifiable given that it denotes the reunion of these three men, but their interactions ultimately come off as repetitive, and the proceedings seriously drag because the trio do nothing of interest. Particularly egregious moments include ordering gelato, arguing with a German tour guide, and playing with selfie sticks. Added to this, dialogue is never a strong suit of Blyskal's screenplay - on-the-nose lines, such as Spencer asking Anthony if he feels as if life is catapulting them towards a greater purpose, feel obvious and awkward. In addition, the movie bafflingly begins with pointless, awkward voiceover narration delivered by Anthony, which commences the proceedings on a peculiar note. Nevertheless, despite the picture's copious shortcomings, Eastwood just manages to keep the material afloat, which is a testament to the veteran director's talent. The recreation of the thwarted train attack represents the movie's centrepiece, and it is noticeably good. Shot on a moving train (reportedly the actual train on which the events took place), the set-piece is taut and nail-biting, with smooth mise-en-scène and a slick technical presentation. Additionally, the low-key piano score throughout the movie by Sully composer Christian Jacob (replicating Eastwood's trademark scores) is effective and pleasant enough.

Try as they might, the central trio are not exactly actors, and their performances are unpolished as a consequence. Eastwood is renowned for his single-take approach to directing, which would explain the occasional moments of outright awful acting that should not have made it into the final cut. Certain scenes and moments fare better than others, but line readings are frequently stilted and the men often seem aware of the camera. To Eastwood's credit, using the real-life people at least allowed editor Blu Murray (Sully) to insert authentic archival footage of the formal ceremony honouring the three men in Paris, furthering the sense of verisimilitude. But this is not worth sacrificing the inclusion of actual trained actors, who could have elevated the drama. In addition to Spencer, Alek and Anthony, train survivors Mark Moogalian and Isabelle Risacher Moogalian also play themselves. Meanwhile, the supporting cast is noticeably peculiar, with likewise unrefined performances from more recognisable actors like Judy Greer (Ant-Man), Jenna Fischer (The Office) and even Thomas Lennon (Santa Clarita Diet). Surely there is no shortage of able dramatic actors at Eastwood's disposal?

All things considered, The 15:17 to Paris is a lower-tier Eastwood movie, in the same class as films like J. Edgar and Hereafter. It's certainly no Mystic River or Gran Torino. One can understand what attracted Eastwood to the story, and the movie is enjoyable enough once the director gets into an agreeable groove, but it's hard to overlook the erroneously-framed narrative. Perhaps a docudrama with Spencer, Alek and Anthony playing themselves (intercut with interviews and narration) would have been more successful, but The 15:17 to Paris is an adequate curiosity nevertheless, and Eastwood completists should seek it out. For those interested, additional archival footage is included during the end credits.


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A superb throwback sci-fi action-thriller

Posted : 5 months, 2 weeks ago on 30 June 2018 05:45 (A review of Upgrade)

Ostensibly emerging out of nowhere, 2018's Upgrade is one of the biggest film-going surprises of the year; an old-school, dark, noir-ish sci-fi action-thriller reminiscent of The Terminator and RoboCop. Upgrade was written and directed by Australian filmmaker Leigh Whannell, who knows a thing or two about genre pieces after scripting both Saw and Insidious, among other titles. Flying solo without frequent collaborator James Wan as a producer, Whannell acquits himself admirably here, elevating what is essentially a B-movie into A-grade territory. More or less an Australian movie with Blumhouse backing, this is precisely the type of inventive, smart, brutally violent, darkly humorous and high-concept picture that John Carpenter would have created in the 1980s - in fact, it feels like a movie you would discover on a well-worn VHS cassette hiding at the back of a video rental store back in the day. (If somebody spearheads a VHS release, I want it.)

Set in an unspecified near-future, Grey (Logan Marshall-Green) is a stay-at-home mechanic who fixes classic cars to sell to rich collectors, and prefers a more hands-on, old-school lifestyle in the face of advanced, ubiquitous technology. After visiting eccentric, tech-savvy client Eron (Harrison Gilbertson) one night, Grey and his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) are ambushed and attacked by a group of cybernetically-enhanced criminals, which leaves Asha dead and Grey paralysed from the neck down. Faced with a life relying on computers and technology, with no ability to use his hands, Grey falls into a heavy depression. However, Eron presents him with the opportunity to gain back full use of his body via an illegal experimental operation to attach an artificial implant known as STEM (voiced by Simon Maiden) to his spine. Cured of his paralysis but sworn to secrecy, Grey begins his own investigation into the men responsible for his condition, using his AI-augmented body to kill them one by one.

For the majority of its runtime, Upgrade plays out like a high-concept Death Wish reimagining, but Whannell has a few tricks up his sleeve. Twists and turns emerge out of the chaos, leading to a daring, jaw-dropping climax which recontextualises the narrative, catapulting Upgrade above the ordinary. Admittedly, the narrative ingredients are standard-order, including a police detective (Betty Gabriel) who suspects that Grey knows more about the sudden murders than he lets on, but that's ostensibly the point; Upgrade is a postmodern subversion of the hackneyed revenge fantasy formula, permeated with a relevant message relating to the dangers of automation. In addition, the meticulous world-building further bolsters the material, with Whannell painting a plausible picture of our future. The world of Upgrade is undeniably our own, but peppered with unobtrusive instances of speculative future technology. Lower socioeconomic areas exist in this vision of the future, while characters still use simpler items like tape recorders. Rather than feeling artificial or deliberately designed, this world feels lived-in and believable, and all on a tiny budget.

Produced in Australia for a reported cost of under $5 million, Upgrade's technical specs are far better than expected, shrewdly using every last cent out of the budget to create a flick that looks at least four or five times more expensive. This is only Whannell's second directorial outing, but he displays the confidence of a seasoned veteran. Who would have thought that the director of 2015's paint-by-numbers Insidious: Chapter 3 would be capable of such a pronounced sense of cinematic style and personality? No matter the scene or environment, Whannell maintains a confident pace and his mise-en-scène is frequently smooth, while discreet digital effects serve to enhance the practical sets. Additionally, Marshall-Green nails the role of Grey, perfectly portraying the script's intense dramatics as well as handling the intricate physicality the part requires. STEM's movements look subtly mechanical, from the smallest hand gestures to the precise fight choreography, easily selling the illusion with seemingly little effort. He even convincingly pulls off the scenes during which he talks to STEM, moments that were at risk of looking ridiculous. An adept supporting cast surrounds Marshall-Green, with Maiden making a particularly positive impression as the voice of STEM. Elsewhere, the likes of Gilbertson (Need for Speed), Gabriel (Get Out) and Benedict Hardie (Hacksaw Ridge) hit their marks effectively. Even Clayton Jacobson (director of Kenny) shows up in a minor role.

Upgrade packs a punch during its visceral action beats, miraculously able to create a fresh look through specific fight choreography and inventive camera techniques, evoking the type of sheer elation that the first John Wick inspired back in 2014. This flick is a hard R, exhibiting a level of violence usually reserved for "torture porn" movies, but there is also wise tact to the gory money shots, which is a testament to Whannell's well-judged direction. Furthermore, Stefan Duscio's digital cinematography is slick and assured, astutely using neon lighting to emphasise the retro vibe, making Upgrade look closer to a European art-house flick helmed by Nicolas Winding Refn. (It is a bit of a shame that Upgrade was not shot on film stock considering the pedigree, but that's neither here nor there.) Accompanying the visuals is a throwback synth score by Jed Palmer which adds mood and atmosphere, in addition to subtly accentuating the feeling of excitement during the adrenaline-pumping action sequences. A few short moments of obvious CGI blood do appear, but the special effects throughout the feature otherwise impress, particularly the convincing futuristic cityscapes. It's mind-blowing to consider that Upgrade was created for less money than so many nasty, straight-to-video cheapies that flood the bargain bin on a seemingly weekly basis.

Upgrade is superlative masculine entertainment, a throwback action-thriller which exceeds all reasonable expectations to become one of 2018's best and most essential movies. Aside from the palpable Death Wish influence, the feature is essentially Alex Garland (think Ex Machina) meets Nicolas Winding Refn with a hint of Black Mirror, and it will appeal to those who enjoy '80s and '90s genre pictures. In the face of so many expensive summer blockbuster spectacles, it's refreshing to witness this type of counterprogramming that's committed to delivering more with less. It's just a nasty good time.


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A tremendous, elegantly-mounted biopic

Posted : 6 months, 1 week ago on 7 June 2018 07:20 (A review of Chaplin (1992))

Directed by the late Richard Attenborough (Gandhi, A Bridge Too Far), 1992's Chaplin traces the life and career of Charles Chaplin, from his glum childhood all the way through to his final years in the 1970s. With a screenplay credited to William Boyd, Bryan Forbes and William Goldman, the film is based on two literary sources: Chaplin’s own autobiography, and "Chaplin: His Life and Art" by film critic David Robinson. On top of recounting the life of its titular subject, Chaplin also delves into Hollywood's early days, the politics of filmmaking, and the scandals that defined many careers. The resultant movie is not especially cohesive given the nature of its narrative structure and the breadth of the material in question, but the production has far more strengths than weaknesses. Engrossing from the first frame, Attenborough mounts an outstanding old-fashioned biopic, perhaps not quite definitive but nevertheless informative and sublimely acted. Even though it was panned by critics and failed at the box office, Chaplin deserves to be seen, particularly by those who admire Chaplin's body of work.

Growing up in extreme poverty with a mentally ill mother (Geraldine Chaplin), Charlie Chaplin (Robert Downey Jr.) starts performing physical comedy from an early age in London, to escape his otherwise bleak life. Hoping to further a career in show business, Charlie moves to America where he's hired by Mack Sennett (Dan Aykroyd), a famous filmmaker known as "The King of Comedy." Working under Sennett, Chaplin develops his iconic Tramp persona and eventually begins directing his movies. Moving his way up the ladder and establishing his own film studio, Chaplin carves out a successful motion picture career, beset with a number of failed love affairs as well as an unfortunate run-in with J. Edgar Hoover (Kevin Dunn) which ultimately leads to him becoming exiled from America.

To facilitate what amounts to a "greatest hits" compilation of moments from Chaplin's life, the narrative is framed around an elderly Chaplin - living out his last years in Switzerland - talking to (fictional) writer George Hayden (Anthony Hopkins), who's finalising the comedian's autobiography and wishes to fill in certain blanks. It's a familiar gimmick which allows Attenborough to explore stories and pieces of information from throughout Chaplin's life, centring in on the most important events. The veracity of Chaplin's autobiography is also brought into question, with Hayden even calling out the veteran performer on certain things that he lies about - at one stage, Chaplin retorts "But the truth was so boring, George!"

Running at over 140 minutes including credits, Chaplin delves into the man's perfectionism as a director, demanding dozens of takes to get the best possible shot, while he also had an affinity for underage girls. However, some of Chaplin's most famous films only receive a passing mention, while many of his leading ladies feel short-changed. For instance, Edna Purviance (Penelope Ann Miller) was one of Chaplin's most frequent co-stars, but is given barely a couple of scenes in the movie. Numerous other things are left out, too, like the death of Chaplin's first son, as well as the inspiration behind, and filming of, 1921's The Kid. Reportedly, the original cut of Chaplin clocked in at a staggering four hours, and Attenborough's preferred edit was twelve minutes longer than the theatrical version, but it was further trimmed at the behest of the studio. According to Attenborough himself, the cuts damaged the movie, leaving us to speculate about the merit of an extended cut.

As to be expected from a Richard Attenborough movie produced for a sizeable $31 million sum (no small chunk of change in 1992), Chaplin boasts strong production values, with elegant sets, elaborate costuming and spot-on period details. 19th Century London is convincing recreated, while Sven Nykvist's cinematography is careful and smooth, competently capturing the action. Admittedly, some of the optical effects are obvious and dated, and not all of the make-up stands up to contemporary scrutiny (the elderly Chaplin make-up looks especially phoney), but these are minor knocks against an otherwise finely mounted biopic. Attenborough is certainly no stranger to movies of this length and scale, and he manages to maintain an effective if slightly leisurely pace - this is not a tedious movie due to its elegant construction, but it does require patience to sit through.

Downey undeniably carries the film, representing Chaplin's biggest asset. The American actor swallows his native accent to espouse a convincing British dialect, and he perfectly embodies Chaplin to boot. Downey bears a close enough resemblance to Chaplin, and further sells the illusion by nailing his recognisable physical mannerisms. It's a treat to behold Downey engage in physical comedy, impressively recreating The Tramp persona. Furthermore, Downey's performance amplifies the power of several scenes, including a heart-wrenching moment in which Chaplin learns about the passing of his first love. The sheer breadth of the ensemble cast surrounding Downey is staggering - recognisable names fill almost every role, no matter how minor. Chaplin's daughter Geraldine is even on hand to play her own grandmother in an inspired piece of casting, while the likes of Hopkins and Kevin Dunn are reliably brilliant. Dan Aykroyd is a genuine treat as Mack Sennett; he's amusing, but he provides enough gravitas to sell the drama. Kline, meanwhile, makes for a superb Douglas Fairbanks, bringing plenty of energy and charm whenever he appears on-screen. Performing double duty, the beautiful Moira Kelly is most appealing as both Hetty Kelly (Chaplin's first love) and Oona O’Neill (Chaplin's final wife), managing to create two distinctive characters. Digging further into the supporting cast, Chaplin also features the likes of Marisa Tomei, Penelope Ann Miller, Milla Jovovich (a teenager here), Diane Lane, James Woods, Maria Pitillo, and even future X-Files lead David Duchovny, all of whom hit their marks with confidence.

Chaplin attains effective poignancy as it approaches the finishing line, observing Chaplin as he is granted permission to return to American in order to receive a special Lifetime Achievement award at the 1972 Academy Awards. It's a fitting ending to a tremendous biopic, underscoring the great actor's indispensable contributions to motion pictures throughout his career. Despite Chaplin's flaws and shortcomings, it's an insightful film, and a must-see for Chaplin fans.


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