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A lacklustre DTV cheapie

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 24 August 2017 06:07 (A review of USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage (2016))

The real-life story of the USS Indianapolis, a warship that sank during World War II in shark-infested waters after a top-secret mission, is a no-brainer for a movie adaptation, particularly in the shadow of WWII movies like Fury and Hacksaw Ridge. It was actually given the telemovie treatment all the way back in 1991 with Mission of the Shark, but 2016's USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage endeavours to tell the story with the aid of contemporary special effects. Alas, in the hands of director Mario Van Peebles, the end result is nothing but a direct-to-video cheapie which looks downright pathetic alongside other recent war movies. Men of Courage wants to be a profound historical document, but Peebles and his team lack the talent to tell this haunting true story with any real weight - instead, it feels closer to another Sharknado sequel.

In 1945, the United States Government hopes to end the ongoing World War II with a powerful statement by creating an atomic bomb to be dropped on Hiroshima. Captain McVay (Nicolas Cage) is tasked with transporting certain classified materials into Japanese territory aboard his ship, the USS Indianapolis. After completing the mission, the Indianapolis is torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and rapidly sinks beneath the waves, stranding the surviving crewmembers in the middle of the ocean. With no rescue on the way on account of the mission's top-secret status, the sailors are left to suffer from exposure, while ferocious sharks also prey on the terrified men.

Written by Richard Rionda Del Castro and Cam Cannon, the screenplay hilariously simplifies history and eschews any sort of narrative sophistication, dutifully following the clichéd WWII playbook. Men of Courage opens with an action sequence intended to establish McVay's competency in battle, before showing the plan for the Indianapolis' mission being hatched in a dark room full of military and political figures. There's also some obvious foreshadowing, with several seamen talking about sharks before the ship sinks. Worse, the flick tries to transcend its genre by introducing a love triangle, as two sailors have feelings for the beautiful Clara (Emily Tennant). It was visibly designed to add some humanity to the movie, but it's difficult to care - the subplot only serves to murder the pacing and make the movie feel more like a meandering, overlong mess. The authority figures, of course, are painted in broad strokes of black and white, contrivedly turned into antagonists which feels truly unnecessary in the grand scheme of things. Most of the narrative tangents are unnecessary, really, only beefing up the runtime to an unreasonable 131 minutes.

To Peebles' credit, the first half of the movie is at least somewhat engaging, as the mission is carried out and there's the looming threat of Japanese submarines. But once the ship inevitably sinks and the seamen are left stranded in the ocean, Men of Courage turns into a survival tale as the men try to survive the elements and the constant threat of sharks. This type of thing requires a deft hand, but Peebles and editor Robert A. Ferretti (Code of Honor, Give 'em Hell Malone) were not the right men for this particular job - the second half is a chore to get through. Even more lacklustre is the courtroom drama that follows the men being rescued, which sees the picture outstay its welcome by a considerable margin. The movie's intentions are honourable, especially with the Japanese perspective being offered, but Men of Courage simply cannot come to life in the hands of these filmmakers, and it's impossible to develop any sort of emotional connection to either the story or the characters.

The reported budget for Men of Courage is $40 million, which must be some kind of exaggeration to trick viewers into thinking the movie might be worth watching. Peebles leans heavily on shonky CGI, most of which honestly wouldn't pass muster in a PlayStation 2 video game cut-scene. Hell, even the cannon muzzle flashes look absurdly fake - amateur YouTube filmmakers are capable of achieving more convincing-looking effects on a zero-dollar budget. It's genuinely difficult to believe that the director or any of the producers viewed the "finished" digital effects shots and actually accepted them, rather than demanding better. The producers did pay for a practical PBY plane, but it sank and fell apart during filming, leaving them to resort back to cheap CGI. To the movie's credit, the photography does look nice for the most part - Men of Courage was shot by cinematographer Andrzej Sekula (Pulp Fiction, American Psycho) - but it's spoiled by the cut-rate, bargain-basement CGI. The sharks alternate between convincing and phoney - the animatronic sharks actually look quite good, but the digital sharks are glimpsed far too often, and they look terrible. Especially considering the budget, the shark attacks should not be this lacklustre or incompetent. The score, too, is incredibly intrusive and kitschy. $40 million is no small sum of money, but this is the best they could come up with?

Acting from top to bottom is hammy at best. Cage is his usual campy self as McVay, ostensibly trolling his way through to another unfulfilling paycheque. It's laughable when the movie tries to make itself appear deep and meaningful by adding voiceover narration, delivered by Cage in a dreary monotone voice. Tom Sizemore (Pearl Harbor) also appears in a supporting role as Petty Officer McWhorter, but he's too overwrought to be taken seriously. And despite prominent billing in an attempt to sell the movie, both Thomas Jane and James Remar show up in glorified cameos, and look utterly disinterested. The sailors, meanwhile, are nondescript, and character names never stick. During scenes of the Indianapolis' sinking, the extras appear to be trying way too hard in the absence of proper special effects. As Quint so eloquently informed us during his standout monologue in Steven Spielberg's Jaws, eleven hundred men went into the water after the Indianapolis went down, but at any given time here, no more than thirty extras are seen in the water, and that's a generous estimate. The running tally of how many hundreds of sailors are still alive each day is comical.

Similar to other true-life dramas, USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage closes with photographs of the real men from the titular ship, and even provides interviews with some of the survivors. It should be a poignant footnote, but it only serves to show how ineffective the movie itself actually is. This should be a respectful, harrowing account of a story that's crying out for the big-budget treatment, but instead it's a ham-fisted attempt at a war epic that's only worth watching as a curiosity. Honestly, though, if anybody is legitimately disappointed in this movie, it's their own fault for expecting anything good in the first place. You're better off just reading a book, or listening to Quint's haunting monologue in Jaws once again. Also, am I the only reviewer who finds it amusing that an actor from the indefensible Jaws: The Revenge was given the directorial reigns for a movie about shark attacks?


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The best possible filmic depiction of Spider-Man

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 20 August 2017 01:10 (A review of Spider-Man: Homecoming)

2017's Spider-Man: Homecoming represents the second reboot of the titular Marvel character in just a decade, which may seem excessive and even unnecessary a mere three years following the release of The Amazing Spider-Man 2. But Sony have done it right this time, collaborating with the good folks over at Marvel Studios to create the best possible cinematic rendering of the popular web-slinging superhero, at last. Although this introductory picture is less than perfect, Homecoming nails both the characters and the world that they inhabit, which is what matters the most going forward into the inevitable sequels. Of course, for more involved film-goers, the title does ostensibly hold dual meaning - the story takes place in the lead-up to the school homecoming dance, but the movie also sees the character finally joining the expansive Marvel Cinematic Universe after his introduction in 2016's Captain America: Civil War. And what a homecoming this truly is, with director Jon Watts (Cop Car) paying attention to both colourful action sequences as well as the high school drama. And perhaps best of all, unlike the dire Amazing Spider-Man pictures, it feels like you're watching an actual self-contained story here, rather than an extended trailer for future movies.

Picking up a few months following the events of Civil War, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) spends his afternoons prowling the streets of New York City as Spider-Man, desperately waiting for a phone call from Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) about his next mission. However, the 15-year-old must still tend to his high school studies, hanging around with his best friend Ned (Jacob Batalon) and harbouring a crush on sweet senior student Liz (Laura Harrier). Peter keeps his crime-fighting activities a secret from Aunt May (Maria Tomei), who believes that he's taking part in a Stark Industries internship program. Peter's patrols are typically unexciting, until he spots and thwarts an ATM robbery being carried out by criminals using powerful weapons. Further investigating the matter, Peter discovers that Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) is using alien tech recovered from the New York Chitauri invasion to manufacture weaponry to sell on the black market, and turn himself into airborne threat The Vulture. Anxious to prove himself, Peter takes it upon himself to foil Toomes' plans, despite outside pressure and his own inexperience.

Thankfully, Spider-Man: Homecoming eschews rehashing the well-worn origin story of Spider-Man yet again, catching up with Peter who has already been bitten by a radioactive spider, and who's already using his Stark-manufactured suit to keep the streets of NYC safe. The approach pays off, particularly since origin stories generally aren't as fun and the formula is now stale. It's certainly what we needed right now, though it might not make full sense to newcomers in a few decades - there is a brief aside in which Peter mentions the radioactive spider, but perhaps something more concrete would have more staying power. With a script credited to six writers, Homecoming is as much about adolescence and high school life as it is about saving the world. This is the first time a Spider-Man movie actually feels authentic in its depiction of high school life. All previous attempts felt too Hollywood, but the characters look their age here, and Peter isn't so much a social outcast but just a regular teen who seems well-liked enough, if not exactly popular due to his intelligence and meekness. Little touches help to solidify the sense of authenticity, such as his fondness for building Star Wars LEGO with Ned.

Homecoming allows Peter to use his intellect as much as his strength - this is a detective story in some respects, and he calls upon Ned to provide some technological support along the way. What's also refreshing is that Homecoming provides a different perspective to the MCU, since it's set outside Avengers HQ and shows high school life within this universe. One especially amusing touch is that, even though Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is now considered a criminal, school teachers are still obligated to play fluffy educational videos featuring Captain America. Homecoming is frequently amusing, adding levity to the proceedings and making it feel closer to a John Hughes teen comedy rather than just another blockbuster. This is slyly solidified in a sequence that pays homage to Ferris Bueller's Day Off (complete with people actually watching the scene being referenced). Whereas the Amazing Spider-Man films were sullen and dark, Homecoming is enjoyable and bubbly. It helps that comedy writers were involved in the screenwriting process, including Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (Horrible Bosses, Vacation). Homecoming should play fine for the uninitiated as it isn't burdened by extensive world-building, though there are subtle references to the MCU that long-time fans will pick up. The script even makes a shrewd reference to the first Sam Raimi Spider-Man movie, and there appears to be a very cheeky underlying metaphor about Peter begging to be part of the Avengers.

This is Watts' first time overseeing a big-budget blockbuster, and even though he seems like an odd choice considering his previous credits, he handles the responsibility with assuredness and grace. It's certainly refreshing to watch a more grounded and smaller-scale superhero movie, as Peter does for the most part function as the "friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man," stopping mundane crimes as he craves tackling something bigger. The climax set in and around a large cargo plane up in the air is certainly vast in scale, but Watts keeps the film on a tight leash. In fact, all of the action set-pieces are armrest-clenching, thanks to taut direction and enormously convincing visual effects. Watts also proves to be adept at cinematic tension - when a twist of sorts is revealed, the subsequent couple of scenes dealing with said twist are almost too intense to bear. In fact, one particular scene set in a car could be the most nail-biting, gripping moment in the entire MCU canon. Homecoming is backed by an enjoyable selection of vintage songs, including tunes from the Ramones and The Rolling Stones, while Michael Giacchino's original score is superb, opening with a brilliant rendition of the classic Spider-Man theme song to set the scene.

After making such a positive impression in Civil War, Holland continues to delight as the titular hero, emerging as arguably the best cinematic Peter Parker/Spider-Man to date. The young Brit offers a real take on the character, making him feel lived-in and real, and giving him an authentic-sounding Queens accent. Holland is a believable smartarse, but you can also believe him as an intelligent student and a young man in love. Downey, meanwhile, is a valuable presence as Stark, scoring a few laughs and providing some meaty moments of drama. Added to this, he still shares magical chemistry with Holland. Surprisingly, Downey really shows up to play here - this is far more than just a "phoned in" cameo. It's also a treat to see the return of Jon Favreau as Happy Hogan, and there's an excellent scene towards the end of the movie that makes Homecoming well worth seeing for fans of the Iron Man trilogy.

Another huge win is Toomes, played to perfection by Keaton. Toomes is not a monster who's simply determined to kill innocents, but rather a blue-collar worker who's screwed over by the system, and who just wants to make a living to protect his family and his workers. Keaton (who was, of course, seen in 2014's Birdman, making him a fun pick for The Vulture) ensures the character remains human, but he's also sinister when he wants to be. Another aspect that really works is Peter's suit A.I., voiced by Jennifer Connolly. (Who's married to Paul Bettany, otherwise known as Jarvis/Vision, which is just a fucking adorable touch.) Zendaya is a downright treat as one of Peter's classmates, delivering some of the biggest laughs in the movie, while you can truly believe that Batalon's Ned is best friends with Peter, and Tomei proves to once again be an endearing Aunt May.

The only thing that's lacking in Homecoming is the emotional resonance we usually see in the MCU (and which made Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 such a standout). The whole Uncle Ben storyline has been thoroughly played out, and while it's wise that the movie avoids rehashing it a third time, there's no emotional reference point to replace the function it has previously served in Spider-Man movies. Nevertheless, Spider-Man: Homecoming is a delightfully fun, eminently rewatchable superhero blockbuster, and it seems that this modern reimagining of the web-slinger is thankfully here to stay this time, leaving the previous reboot dead in the water. This one ranks behind Raimi's Spider-Man and Spider-Man 2 (both of which still hold up), but it's superior to Spider-Man 3 and the two (less-than)Amazing movies. In typical Marvel fashion, there are two additional scenes after the movie - one midway through the credits, and another at the end of the credits. Stick around for both.


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An engaging, harrowing disaster pic

Posted : 1 year, 2 months ago on 17 August 2017 03:54 (A review of Deepwater Horizon)

Deepwater Horizon sees director Peter Berg follow up his 2013 hit Lone Survivor with another dramatisation of a harrowing true story, tackling the worst oil disaster in American history for the first of his two cinematic endeavours of 2016 (the excellent Patriots Day being the second). Deepwater Horizon certainly plays out like a disaster movie in some respects, but it's grounded by Berg's realistic touch, and remains as respectful as possible to those involved in the tragedy. It's also far more fearsome and haunting than just another run-of-the-mill Hollywood disaster yarn. This is Berg's first based-on-a-true story thriller to be given a sizable blockbuster budget, but unfortunately the gamble didn't pay off at the box office; Deepwater underperformed and reportedly lost a considerable amount of money. Nevertheless, much like Berg's Patriots Day, we should appreciate that the movie was produced in the first place with a proper budget to do the material justice, and it deserves a second life on home video.

A chief electronics technician, Mike Williams (Mark Wahlberg) is also a devoted family man, husband to wife Felicia (Kate Hudson) and father to the young Sydney (Stella Allen). But Mike is compelled to leave his family for three weeks while he works aboard the Deepwater Horizon, an oil drilling rig off the coast of Louisiana. The rig is unfortunately burdened by equipment that's in dire need of repair, but BP managers Donald (John Malkovich) and Robert (Brad Leland) try to downplay the issues as they push the crew to get the job done and make up for lost time. The rig's installation manager, Jimmy (Kurt Russell), challenges the demands of the executives, but corporate interests prevail and work continues. Tragedy inevitably strikes, however, when a massive blowout leaves several workers dead and the vessel in flames, prompting an evacuation in order to save as many men as possible.

The screenplay - credited to Matthew Michael Carnahan and Matthew Sand - is based on a New York Times article from 2010 entitled "Deepwater Horizon's Final Hours." Wisely, the script for the most part remains focused on the disaster, with little in the way of extraneous subplots to distract from the primary story. Before the chaos erupts, Berg juggles character introductions with expository information to ensure the uninitiated will be able to grasp the basics of deep sea oil exploration and the fundamental physics involved, though it's not exactly an in-depth school lesson. Berg has an affinity for character work, as well - even though names don't always stick when it comes to the background characters, they are imbued with little individual quirks to distinguish each of them from one another. Clocking in at a modest 105 minutes, Deepwater Horizon is a mercifully lean experience, never lingering anywhere for too long, but it doesn't feel underdone either.

Berg exhibits his reliably adept cinematic craftsmanship when the disaster begins to unfold, and the resulting scenes of fiery destruction and peril are genuinely harrowing. Berg reportedly had a $156 million budget to work with, and it shows - the combination of elaborate sets, dangerous stunt-work and exceptional digital effects creates a scarily thrilling demise for the Deepwater Horizon, never looking anything less than entirely believable. You can almost feel the heat of the flames. Berg manages to get away with so much within the confines of a PG-13 rating - the movie is not gory, but it's definitely disturbing. And astonishingly, despite the rating, it doesn't seem as if the movie was constructed with commercial prospects in mind. However, the deaths of the crew don't always carry the weight that they should, though a roll call after the fact will give you chills. Berg also makes use of multiple perspectives to create a complete picture of the disaster - the U.S. Coast Guard is called upon for a rescue and nearby vessels witness the chaos from afar, all the while Mike's wife Felicia is at home crippled with worry, determined to learn anything she can about the unfolding situation.

One aspect of Deepwater Horizon which never quite gels is the presence of Donald, who's not exactly treated with any subtlety. Played with a thick Cajun accent by Malkovich, the BP executive is portrayed as an out-and-out cartoonish antagonist, giving audiences somebody to despise when the real villain here is nature. One supposes it was a creative choice on the part of Berg rather than Malkovich, but Donald is much too broad in an otherwise realistic and sobering motion picture. Elsewhere, acting right across the board is exceptional, lead by Wahlberg who seems to be Berg's go-to leading man for these sorts of projects. Whereas Wahlberg played a fictional composite character in Patriots Day, Mike Williams was a real electronics technician on the Deepwater Horizon - in fact, there are no fictitious characters in the mix here. Russell, always a reliable performer, brings real gravitas to his role of Mr. Jimmy, and Gina Rodriguez acquits herself confidently as Andrea, the rig's sole female worker. Kate Hudson doesn't get a great deal to work with, but she is convincing as Mike's wife.

Although Deepwater Horizon does fall short of perfection, and it's not as great as Patriots Day, it's nevertheless a characteristically strong effort from Berg, who has found his niche doing these types of realistic thrillers. Berg also reminds us that the movie is not mere exploitation by including real footage of the incident and of the people involved right as the credits begin to roll (much like both Lone Survivor and Patriots Day), which closes the door on a touching note. Deepwater Horizon manages to be an important chronicle of a contemporary disaster, and even though it's not exactly escapism, it's an engaging watch.


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Enormously successful Marvel sequel

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 16 August 2017 02:13 (A review of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017))

2014's Guardians of the Galaxy was something of a curveball from the folks at Marvel Studios, with its irreverent nature, space setting and lack of any actual superheroes in its alien ensemble. But it worked like gangbusters and movie-goers fell in love with the motley team of Guardians, propelling the endeavour to unexpected box office success. For 2017's inevitable sequel Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, indie filmmaker James Gunn returns to write and direct (this time penning the script solo), showing once again that he has an innate understanding of what makes this property work. To date, Marvel has not had much luck with second instalments - Iron Man 2, Thor: The Dark World and Avengers: Age of Ultron arguably underwhelmed, though Captain America: The Winter Soldier was admittedly excellent - but luckily, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 doesn't fall victim to this apparent curse. While Vol. 2 has a lot on its mind and introduces added complexity to this world, it also retains the charms of the original picture, making for an enormously successful sequel that will almost certainly please established fans.

Picking up not long after the events of the original movie, the self-proclaimed Guardians of the Galaxy have embraced their reputation as skilled guns-for-hire, accepting a mission from the gold-skinned Sovereign people to protect valuable batteries from an inter-dimensional monster. In exchange, the team - Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket Raccoon (Bradley Cooper), Drax (Dave Bautista), and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) - only ask for custody of Gamora's estranged sister, Nebula (Karen Gillan), to transport her to Xander. However, Rocket steals some of the batteries, and in retaliation the Sovereign leader Ayesha (Elizabeth Debicki) sends a fleet of remote drones to attack the Guardians ship. Crash landing on a nearby planet following the attack, the Guardians are confronted with all-powerful Celestial being Ego (Kurt Russell), who claims to be Peter's biological father. Despite Ego's ostensible abandonment, Peter accepts his father's invitation to visit his Eden-like planet, whose only other resident is his assistant, a kind-hearted empathy named Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Meanwhile, the Ravagers - led by Yondu (Michael Rooker) - are hired by Ayesha to pursue the Guardians.

Whereas Iron Man 2 and Thor 2 were both marred by the obligation for "world-building" work, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 wisely avoids this pitfall - Gunn uses the sequel to delve deeper into the principal characters with their respective personal demons and perpetual hang-ups. In turn, the scale is cut back - the majority of Vol. 2 takes place either on Ego's planet or the Ravager ship, making for a more intimate and rewarding experience. Luckily, the plot's ultimate trajectory was kept hidden in the trailers, allowing for some genuine surprises - particularly in regards to the primary villain and his motivation. Despite the intimacy of this tale, however, the stakes are still high, once again concerning the fate of the galaxy itself, which leaves the Guardians of the Galaxy striving to live up to their title a second time. Nevertheless, Vol. 2 does lack the snap of the original movie - it's fine for this follow-up to delve into denser territory, but pacing is not as sure-footed and the writing is not as witty. Indeed, the humour is hit-and-miss - although there are a lot of laughs, the script tries too hard to be funny at times.

The original Guardians of the Galaxy was characterised by its soundtrack of classic tunes, and naturally this characteristic is carried over into Vol. 2. Once again, songs provide the backdrop for amusing, memorable set-pieces, giving this sequel genuine life and energy. The opening sequence depicts an intense battle between the Guardians and a tentacled monster, but the focus is predominantly kept on Baby Groot, who merrily moves around the platform dancing to ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" while the carnage unfolds around him. It's a delightful way to reacquaint audiences with this unique and colourful world, kicking off the sequel on a real high note. Equally bravura is a set-piece which depicts the full-blown massacre of well over a hundred aliens, set to the tune of "Come a Little Bit Closer." In Gunn's hands, the sequence is simultaneously funny and even heart-warming, which is quite a feat. Gunn also makes use of the Looking Glass song "Brandy (You're a Fine Girl)" which is tied into the narrative, while "Father and Son" by Cat Stevens backs an enormously touching final scene. Much like the original 2014 movie, it's wonderful to see so many vintage songs being reintroduced in contemporary pop culture.

As to be expected from a $200 million blockbuster, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 both looks and sounds superb, emerging as one of the most colourful motion pictures of the 2017 summer season. The first movie to be shot at 8K resolution with Red Weapon Dragon rigs, it's visually resplendent from top to bottom, bolstered by imaginative production design, dynamic cinematography and vivid CGI. Of particular note is Ego's planet, a miraculous computer-generated fantasyland which seems to be truly alive. As with similar blockbusters, while the digital effects are insanely detailed, the results do tend to look artificial rather than tangible, but it's believable enough to sell the illusion, and both Rocket and Groot are once again miracles of motion capture. On the big screen, Vol. 2 is one hell of an experience. Composer Tyler Bates (a regular Gunn collaborator) also makes his return here, and his compositions are layered and flavoursome, even bringing back the Guardians theme established in the original movie. There is such a thing as too much money, however - the enormous, prolonged climax does get a bit much, at times losing sight of the intimacy of this story. Although there are some excellent character moments and the ultimate dénouement is touching as hell, the sequence does feel excessive and may test your patience.

The astute character work of the original feature is thankfully carried over to Vol. 2 - Peter still has thinly-veiled crush on Gamora, and Drax is still hilariously incapable of actually thinking before he speaks. Bautista continues to score laughs with each unfiltered thing he says, working to keep the flick feeling bubbly and fun even when it dabbles in darker subject matter. Pratt, meanwhile, remains note-perfect as Star-Lord, emanating charm and effortlessly handling the weightier material within this particular story. Interesting to note, Marvel Studios do not own the movie rights to the character of Ego - they actually reside over at Fox with the X-Men rights. Gunn was initially unaware of this when he started penning the screenplay for Vol. 2, but luckily Fox ultimately permitted his presence in the movie, which is fortunate because the story heavily hinges on Ego. Russell is a total gem in the role, handling the multiple layers with ease, and he shares terrific chemistry with Pratt. The movie's opening scene set in 1980 uncannily de-ages Russell through a combination of make-up and CGI, making him look the same as he did in movies like Escape from New York and The Thing. Elsewhere in the cast, Rooker is still an utter gift as Yondu, while Sylvester Stallone also manages to make a positive impression despite his minor role as a Ravager. Another newcomer is Klementieff, a terrific find as Mantis. Marvel legend Stan Lee also drops in for his trademark cameo, and in doing so Gunn finds a way to ostensibly link all of his prior cameos and apparently confirm a longstanding fan theory that he always plays the same character. Who expected that?!

Although I do admit that I had more raw fun with the original Guardians of the Galaxy, there is much to appreciate about this sequel, with its luscious eye-candy and thrilling action sequences. It goes to deeper and weirder places, the chemistry between the ensemble cast is still brilliantly palpable, and the superb soundtrack further contributes to the infectiously fun vibe. Above all that, however, Vol. 2's emotionally resonant conclusion will stick with you after the end credits expire, and you will once again be left wanting to see another instalment. Gunn is currently set to return for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, which would denote the first time in Marvel history that a director has seen a trilogy through. As ever, there is a post-credits scene...which follows four other additional scenes during the credits.


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The best kind of action sequel

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 14 August 2017 07:37 (A review of John Wick: Chapter Two (2017))

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Too by-the-numbers considering the source

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 13 August 2017 12:04 (A review of Doctor Strange)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The best Marvel movie in some time

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 11 August 2017 04:09 (A review of Captain America: Civil War)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Simply a fun, well-made monster yarn

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 7 August 2017 03:27 (A review of Kong: Skull Island)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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A thrilling, edifying nail-biter

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 30 July 2017 05:20 (A review of Patriots Day)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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A technical marvel without compelling characters

Posted : 1 year, 3 months ago on 22 July 2017 04:36 (A review of Dunkirk)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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