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A technical marvel without compelling characters

Posted : 1 year, 4 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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An entertaining ride, despite its many flaws

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 18 April 2017 06:43 (A review of The Fate of the Furious)

"Our paths have crossed before, Dom. You just didn't know it."

It remains baffling that a terrible movie like 2001's The Fast and the Furious could beget a few equally terrible sequels before suddenly transforming into one of the most profitable franchises of all time. As a matter of fact, it's about as baffling as the primary characters graduating from street-racing reprobates who steal DVD players to skilled mercenaries saving the world from nuclear weapons. The Fast & Furious series probably should have been retired after 2015's Furious 7, especially with star Paul Walker tragically dying halfway through production, but its $1.5 billion box office gross guaranteed further sequels. The start of a proposed new trilogy of Furious pictures, 2017's The Fate of the Furious provides what fans are after: cars go fast, there are explosions, tone-deaf rap is blasted on the soundtrack, the scale is enormous, and credulity is strained to breaking point. However, unlike the leaden Furious 7, this seventh sequel actually manages to provide exactly the type of high-octane, entertaining action ride that it promises on the tin, despite its many flaws.

While honeymooning in Cuba as he contemplates starting a family with his main squeeze Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) is visited by powerful cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who blackmails him into turning against his "family." DSS Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) recruits Toretto and his crew to retrieve an EMP in Berlin, but the now-rogue Dom betrays the team after the extraction, stealing the weapon for Cipher and promptly disappearing. The act leaves Dom's crew - including Letty, Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel) and Tej (Ludacris) - bewildered that their faithful leader has ostensibly betrayed them. Enter covert government operative Mr. Nobody (Kurt Russell) and his offsider, Little Nobody (Scott Eastwood), who enlist their help to track down Cipher and Dom, and stop a nuclear war. For extra muscle, Mr. Nobody also recruits former enemy Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) who wants revenge against Cipher.

What distinguishes Fate from prior instalments in the franchise is Dom going rogue, effectively reducing him to a supporting role (and keeping him as far away from The Rock as possible...), which provides a welcome break from the standard Fast & Furious formula. However, this aspect of the storyline is a bit of a letdown on the whole. See, it's made explicitly clear from the very beginning that Dom is being manipulated against his will, taking away any sense of intrigue or gravity that the story arc might have otherwise provided. Dom's "family" are kept in the dark about his motives the whole time, but the reveal to the audience comes far too soon into the game. This is not Captain America: Civil War. Furthermore, it seems that returning screenwriter Chris Morgan (his sixth consecutive Furious sequel) still hasn't mastered pacing or dialogue. Outside of some uproarious macho bantering (which was likely improvised), dialogue is stilted and uninteresting for the most part, and blatant exposition is lathered on. This is meant to be a fun action blockbuster, but these movies continually insist on unnecessarily exceeding the two-hour mark, becoming bogged down with flaccid dramatic subplots that are difficult to care about.

Pointing out the movie's lapses in logic, as well as its proud defiance of the laws of physics, is about as futile as writing a review of a critic-proof blockbuster. Suffice it to say, The Fate of the Furious is a huge, expensive cartoon, though new director F. Gary Gray often manages to make it look just real enough to sell the illusion. It's easy to understand why Gray was recruited for Fate, as he gained experience with car action on 2003's The Italian Job remake (starring Statham and Theron), and he directed Diesel in the underrated A Man Apart. However, there's still far too much CGI in a franchise that was previously so reliant on practical effects, and there are a few "nuke the fridge" moments which will likely have audiences roaring with laughter. Of course, the flick gets creative with its primary action sequences - Cipher even creates an army of "zombie" cars by hacking into self-driving vehicles, and the finale features a fucking submarine because why the hell not? There's enough mayhem here to please loyal fans of the franchise, though it's hard to shake the feeling that all of the big set-pieces are car-related because of pure contrivance and obligation - it would be interesting to see the franchise branch out a bit more. (Also, why continue to use beautiful multi-million dollar vehicles like Lamborghinis for dangerous jobs when they're just going to be destroyed?)

It goes without saying that Deckard's sudden switch to the "good guy" side strains all sorts of credibility, especially given that Deckard killed one of Dom's guys, and Dom left Deckard's brother almost disabled. But at this point in the franchise, and with Hobbs' allegiances having already changed, you just have to roll with the punches. It does seem that the arrival of a new, worse bad guy means that the gang's previous nemesis gets an invitation to one of the "family" cookouts. Still, Statham is so much fun here that he'll likely win you over, and his magnificent solo action sequence during the final act stands as the best set-piece in the movie, even though it doesn't involve cars in any way. It is pleasing to see Statham being given the chance to show off his insane martial arts skills as he fights his way through dozens of nameless goons.

This series is no stranger to humour, but the studiously unfunny Gibson (who's still completely useless) is usually given most of the "comedic" material. Luckily, Fate does right by letting the likes of Johnson and Statham pick up the slack. These two are, after all, highly adept at comedy but are rarely given the opportunity to flex these muscles, and it's an absolute joy to watch their riotous bantering as the pair try to hold back from pummelling one another. Diesel remains something of a dead-weight at this point, and could easily be ditched in favour of Johnson, Statham and Russell. (A spin-off with all three would be very enticing.) As a matter of fact, Diesel is the only actor who doesn't seem to understand what type of movie he's in. Even the likes of Eastwood seem to be having a good time, but Diesel delivers his dialogue (including his bizarre pronunciation of the oft-repeated word "family") as if he's appearing in an Oscar-calibre drama. At least Tokyo Drift star Lucas Black is kept away.

As perhaps is to be expected, the absence of the late Paul Walker in the group dynamic is really felt, as he functioned as the necessary glue to hold all the other personalities together as a unit. Certainly, it was wise to exclude Walker's Brian O'Conner given the circumstances, but none of the other performers can replace him, and the group is without a solid anchor. Still, efforts from most of the ensemble are acceptable, with Johnson again showing why he's become such a huge star in recent years, and Russell making a good impression as per usual. Theron could be mistaken for a James Bond villain due to her hammy performance here, even sporting dreadlocks to top off the image. However, Emmanuel's Ramsey (carried over after her intro in Furious 7) has no purpose, and only serves to beef up an already crowded ensemble. On a more positive note, Helen Mirren pops in for a brief cameo, espousing a hilariously uncivilised British accent that will remind you why we all love her so much. Mirren's scenes are some of the most charming in the whole movie.

The Fast & Furious franchise reached its peak with 2011's surprisingly solid Fast Five, and it's only been downhill from there, unable to maintain the same level of quality. Still, the fact that this eighth instalment is watchable in any way has to be some type of miracle, and it's worth watching if you're seeking a fun time without any brain power required. At this point in the franchise, however, it would be far more interesting to see a Fast & Furious sequel which doesn't abide by the "bigger is better" adage, and drastically tones down the scale in favour of intensity. After all, movies like Bullitt, The Driver and Nicolas Winding Refn's Drive didn't need $250 million budgets to provide thrilling car chases. (Plus, the original movie only carried a modest $38 million price-tag.) The Fate of the Furious may be enjoyable in fits and starts, but it's much too long and over-the-top, in need of some discipline. At least two more instalments are imminent, which is preposterous for a franchise as hit-and-miss as this.


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Masterful science fiction

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 4 April 2017 09:25 (A review of Arrival (2016))

"Despite knowing the journey... and where it leads... I embrace it... and I welcome every moment of it."

Science fiction movies about extraterrestrials have existed for decades, to the point that there's ostensibly very little in the way of originality to be mined from the well-worn "alien invasion" subgenre. Enter 2016's Arrival, a rare type of sci-fi drama which dares to realistically explore what might occur if otherworldly beings visited Earth, without resorting to battles or large-scale destruction. More than just another action blockbuster involving aliens, Arrival is endowed with a maturity in both its storytelling and cinematic technique that's rarely glimpsed, bolstered by an Oscar-nominated screenplay by Eric Heisserer (based on Ted Chiang's short story "Story of Your Life") and shrewd direction by the ever-talented Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario). Arrival is breathtaking from start to finish, necessitating deep thought and introspection to properly digest everything that's going on below the surface, making this a must-see for those who appreciate cerebral sci-fi. Much like 2015's equally magnificent Ex Machina, this is the type of movie which both benefits from, and stands up to repeat viewings.

Twelve mysterious alien vessels arrive on Earth, positioning themselves in countries around the planet, which naturally incites a global panic. With their intentions unclear, U.S. Army Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker) recruits linguistics expert Louise Banks (Amy Adams), giving her the daunting task of understanding and communicating with the alien beings. Joined by theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner), Louise is taken to a ship hovering just above rural Montana where she is able to communicate directly with the giant squid-like "Heptapods" every 18 hours, when the vessel opens for a brief period. Dubbing the two aliens Abbott and Costello, Louise and Ian set about deciphering the advanced, circular symbol-based language of the Heptapods, seeking to establish a sufficient communicative basis to find out their purpose on Earth. But the pressure rapidly mounts, with world leaders fearing that the Heptapods aim to wipe out humanity, prepared to unleash military firepower on the visitors before they strike first.

Arrival is the first major motion picture to acknowledge that otherworldly beings may not make full sense to us, or conform to our ideas of scientific logic. It's a refreshing new perspective and a welcome change from the norm, and this sophistication feeds into the screenplay at large. The presence of aliens is almost inconsequential to the narrative - this is ultimately a story about the importance of communication and the nature of language, not to mention it's also about time, memory and tolerance, with thought-provoking philosophical undercurrents that nobody really expected (save, perhaps, for those familiar with the source material). Furthermore, Arrival doesn't lean on high school-grade science, instead providing genuinely interesting insight into complicated scientific and linguistics concepts, and the movie manages to convey this material without talking down to the audience. To be sure, there are more questions than answers, a fact that's basically acknowledged by the protagonists, but such uncertainty would likely plague a real-life alien visitation, and it doesn't ruin the experience to any degree.

Despite running a hair under two hours, Arrival is the very model of efficiency, with nothing in the way of dead weight. Initial encounters may be slow-going, but such sequences are nevertheless subtly enthralling on Villeneuve's watch, and the movie knows when it needs to start picking up the pace. It's superlative work from scribe Heisserer, whose previous efforts are predominantly horrors (including Lights Out, Final Destination 5 and 2011's The Thing), confidently forgoing expectations of spectacle and flippant excitement in favour of depth and thematic resonance. There is a twist of sorts once Arrival approaches its climax, but it's not a cheap gimmick by any means, as it feeds into everything that has taken place so far. It compels us to reassess and recontextualize much of the movie, and the powerful ending represents an emotionally stirring reminder of the sanctity of human life. Miraculously, in spite of its weighty undercurrents, Arrival is not preachy, pretentious or sanctimonious, and it breezes by at such an agreeable pace (thanks to Joe Kelly's judicious editing) that it never feels like a meandering mess.

Villeneuve continues his astounding winning streak here, showing yet again that he's one of the finest filmmakers of this generation. Take, for instance, Louise's first session with Abbott and Costello; the suspense is almost unbearable, with Villeneuve capturing every tense step as the team ascend into the alien vessel, and the first reveal of the Heptapods is incredibly effective. It's all beautifully shot by cinematographer Bradford Young, who uses light, shadows, fog and silhouettes to astounding effect, creating an aura of otherworldliness. The visual effects are just as impressive, though Villeneuve uses practical effects and sets as much as possible, creating a tangible aesthetic which greatly enhances the cinematic illusion. Furthermore, the visuals feel utterly inseparable from Jóhann Jóhannsson's hypnotic score, which is brilliantly ethereal and yet subdued, further cementing the sense of awe and otherworldliness throughout, whilst also accentuating the story's emotional components. Performances across the board are excellent, led by Adams who carves out a relatable, charming protagonist, while Renner gets the rare chance to show his acting chops outside of a blockbuster setting.

Arrival is a superbly-woven piece of cinematic craftsmanship, and its box office success shows that not every movie needs to be dumbed-down for mass mainstream appeal. There is nothing inherently wrong with action-packed sci-fi productions - hell, Neill Blomkamp's District 9 managed to be both intelligent and exhilarating, while Independence Day is the definition of Big Dumb Fun™ - but Arrival is more gratifying in its approach, though it's definitely for a specific type of niche film-going audience and it's not for everybody. With this in mind, it's downright miraculous that a mainstream sci-fi drama as utterly bold as this was permitted a $47 million budget in a cinematic climate where summer blockbusters flourish. Haunting and difficult to forget, Arrival will be rightfully remembered in the grand pantheon of great science fiction movies, standing proudly alongside the likes of Blade Runner, Alien, and The Terminator


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Thrilling action film with genuine humanity

Posted : 1 year, 9 months ago on 16 March 2017 05:12 (A review of Blood Father (2016))

"I got no idea how you piss guys like that off..."

Mel Gibson's first star vehicle since the insanely underrated Get the Gringo all the way back in 2012, Blood Father is far more than just another subpar straight-to-video action flick. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Peter Craig (who co-wrote the screenplay with Andrea Berloff), this is a hard-edged thriller more concerned with characters than action, finding a solid emotional core which elevates the material far above more disposable B-grade trash starring the likes of Steven Seagal. It's a shame that some will most likely either underrate or simply ignore Blood Father on account of Gibson's presence, as such punters will be missing out on one hell of a gratifying movie, one of 2016's best. It's certainly better than most other aging-star action flicks like The Gunman, 3 Days to Kill and the Taken trilogy.

Out of prison on parole, John Link (Gibson) maintains a tattoo business out of his dingy trailer in remote California as he works through his addictions in a twelve-step program, supported by sponsor Kirby (William H. Macy). Out of the blue, Link's 17-year-old runaway daughter Lydia (Erin Moriarty) contacts him for help after she shoots her drug-dealing boyfriend Jonah (Diego Luna) during a botched armed heist. Lydia is desperate for money to allow her to disappear, but Link demands that she stay with him at least for a little while, as he hopes to reconnect with his estranged child and eliminate her drug habit. Before long, the Mexican drug cartels catch up with Lydia, but Link is not about to give his daughter over to them. Breaking parole, Link goes on the run with his child, determined to protect Lydia at any cost as armed thugs relentlessly pursue them.

The father-daughter dynamic between Link and his daughter is unexpectedly respectful and free of hoary genre clichés. Lydia does not hate her father even despite his criminal history, and the film refuses to adopt the predictable "you sucked as a father" trope that's been done to death, which is certainly refreshing. Lydia is also wholly aware of the trouble that she's bringing to the broken, desperate Link, and she only wants to leave as soon as possible to avoid dragging him into the whole affair. However, Link is willing to take a bullet for Lydia, finding a renewed will to live when his daughter re-enters his life. Blood Father finds time for intimate character moments throughout, infusing Link and Lydia's relationship with an unexpected authenticity. If there's an issue with the movie, it's that some scenes are edited too quickly, which is most noticeably felt as the movie approaches the finish line, slightly hampering some of the more tender moments. Blood Father needed more room to breathe, and an extended edition would be enticing, especially since excised material reportedly exists (scenes featuring Lydia's mother were excised from the final cut). But this isn't nearly enough to undo the strengths of Blood Father, of which there are countless.

Even though it was shot in 2014 and spent over two years waiting to be released, Blood Father does not exhibit the recognisable hallmarks of a troubled post-production. On the contrary, it's astonishingly competent, thanks in large part to French director Jean-François Richet, here making his first English-language feature since the surprisingly decent 2005 remake of Assault on Precinct 13. Richet infuses Blood Father with his European sensibilities, elevating it above more standard-order American action films, making the most of the reported $15 million budget. Shot on location in New Mexico, the desert vistas are consistently stunning, while the action scenes are of a uniformly high quality. The shootouts are more realistic than the likes of Taken or John Wick, with an aesthetic closer to something like Sicario. The action sequences are loud, raw and edge-of-your-seat intense, once again showing that Gibson still has the moves for these sorts of productions. Best of all, the mayhem is smooth and easy to follow, without any shaky-cam or rapid-fire cutting. The blood is all gloriously practical, too, with squibs as opposed to phoney digital bloodshed, in keeping with the tangible aesthetic. (It appears there are also some references to Mad Max 2, which is a nice touch.)

Remarkably, Richet manages to create two fully three-dimensional characters who are easy to latch onto and empathise with, and the movie is further bolstered by fine performances across the board. This is one of the best roles for Gibson at this point in his career. He looks insanely ripped and rugged, and you can certainly believe him to be a legitimate threat. He capably sells the drama and emotion during the quieter character moments, but he's equally compelling when chaos begins to reign down. John Link is boldly introduced at an AA meeting, during which he discusses the guilt he feels about past transgressions, as well as his desire to remain on the straight and narrow, and the material is remarkably poignant coming from Gibson. It's been great to see Gibson play villainous roles in Machete Kills and The Expendables 3, but here he proves that he's still a captivating leading man who's able to carry a film. Moriarty impresses as well, never coming across as grating or irritating. And in the supporting cast, Macy is reliably charismatic as Link's best friends/sponsor, and his interactions with Gibson are just fucking magical. Also making a positive impression is Luna, recently seen in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, while Michael Parks almost steals the show as neo-Nazi psychopath who was once Link's mentor. It's a small but effective cast, and there isn't a single dud performance in sight.

Blood Father plays out like a contemporary western which substitutes horses with motorcycles, and cowboys with bikers/thugs. Perhaps the movie's greatest achievement is the fact that it manages to deliver ample character beats to add a genuine touch of humanity without skimping on the fierce action sequences, and all within a taut 85-minute running time. The very antithesis of both Hollywood blockbusters and B-grade action movies, this feels like the type of movie we used to see in the '80s and '90s, but with a coat of contemporary polish. In a way, Blood Father also feels like a fitting swansong to Gibson's career as an action star. It's a real keeper, folks.


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Cheaper, not as stylish, less involving

Posted : 1 year, 10 months ago on 21 January 2017 10:05 (A review of Mechanic: Resurrection (2016))

"You have 36 hours to eliminate all the targets on this list. Or they will eliminate me."

Returning to business-as-usual after supporting performances in Spy and Furious 7, Mechanic: Resurrection is an out-and-out Jason Statham action movie, an undemanding popcorn flick that bears absolutely no resemblance to its 2011 predecessor. (Or the 1972 Charles Bronson film of the same name that it was based on, for that matter.) Indeed, whereas the Simon West-directed first film was more of a 1970s-style thriller, Mechanic: Resurrection takes inspiration from the formula actioners of the 1980s, spotlighting Statham as he kills countless henchmen in a video-game-style fashion. Sloppily scripted and often cartoonish, it's indistinguishable from the likes of Crank and The Transporter, and unfortunately comes up dangerously short in terms of genuine thrills.

Now retired from the contract killing profession, Arthur Bishop (Statham) endeavours to stay off the grid, consistently moving around whenever his location becomes compromised. Fleeing to a remote Thai island overseen by old friend Mae (Michelle Yeoh), trouble enters Bishop's life with the arrival of abused damsel Gina (Jessica Alba), who strikes up a relationship with the assassin. However, Bishop soon learns that he is being watched by international arms dealer Crain (Sam Hazeldine), who kidnaps Gina to force Bishop into completing three assassinations in remote locations around the world. Pulled back into the business of killing, Bishop has only a matter of days to pull off the near-impossible murders and make them look like accidents. It's a tough assignment, but the assassin cannot deny his feelings for Gina, and is prepared to do whatever it takes to rescue her from Crain.

The whole enterprise is about as preposterous as it sounds, spotlighting Bishop as he manages to hopscotch across the globe in a matter of hours, calling upon his seemingly unlimited arsenal and impossibly vast knowledge of computer hacking, chemistry and engineering to get the jobs done. Each hit honestly feels like a level in a video game like Hitman or Splinter Cell, as each assassination presents its own series of increasingly difficult obstacles for Bishop to overcome, and a single mistake would spell disaster. It's in these sequences when the movie feels most in line with the original Mechanic, as Bishop must rely on intellect rather than pure brawn, but the execution by director Dennis Gansel (We Are the Night) leaves a lot to be desired. The assassinations should be nail-bitingly intense and intricate (think Brian De Palma), but for the most part play out like throwaway action beats. Unusually, the movie endeavours to give real dimension to Bishop and Gina, as the first half is concerned with character drama and romance. However, it doesn't work; it's all very ham-fisted, badly-paced and dull. It feels like homework before we can get into the action stuff that we actually came here to see. When Alba is finally kidnapped, it comes as a relief.

A huge issue with Mechanic: Resurrection is that it's undeniably cheap-looking, but not "endearing low-budget 1980s" cheap - rather, it's “contemporary digital” cheap, which just makes the flick look lazy. Green-screening is uniformly terrible, while digital explosions look phoney and there is far too much obvious computer-generated blood. Hell, the movie even shamelessly moves to cheap, indistinguishable Eastern European locations for its final act. Even though the production budget is reported to be $40 million, this figure is surely an exaggeration - but then again, Statham probably took home a nice paycheque, and there are nineteen credited producers sticking their fingers into the pie. (Yes, fucking nineteen!) Mechanic: Resurrection lacks the flair that Simon West brought to the 2011 movie, but there is admittedly some enjoyment to gain from the action sequences when they do finally arrive. Statham remains a capable man of action (even though he's nearly 50), and here he punches, kicks and shoots his way through an endless succession of faceless enemies. When Mechanic: Resurrection works, it's cheesy fun, especially for fans of Statham or the action genre in general, but your mileage may vary of course.

As previously stated, Statham does well throughout the athletic action scenes, and his grizzled face makes him ideal for these sorts of roles. The Brit is one of the last old-school action stars, and it's fortunate that he's so watchable here, even if his dramatic chops are still merely so-so. As the token female of the piece, Alba serves her purpose as eye candy. She even rocks a bikini in a few scenes, and is given the chance to fight. As ever, though, Alba is not an especially good actress, and the other supporting performances are just as unimpressive - nobody is unable to give much spark to the hackneyed, lifeless dialogue. However, despite his appallingly limited screen-time, Jones manages to make a positive impression as Bishop's final mark. Decked out like a hippy in colourful clothes and sunglasses, he's hammy enough to make his scenes enjoyable, but don't expect anything in the way of gravitas, as this is strictly a paycheque effort for the veteran actor. Oh, and you are going to be incredibly disappointed if you're expecting Yeoh to show off her impressive fight moves here - she is utterly wasted in a non-physical role. Who the hell casts Yeoh just for her acting?

It has a few entertaining action beats here and there, but overall Mechanic: Resurrection is cheaper, not as stylish, and less involving than its predecessor. The 2011 Mechanic was endowed with edge and grit, but here Bishop is turned into an invincible superhero, able to accomplish impossible physical feats without breaking a sweat. Statham deserves better than this. The Mechanic underperformed at the worldwide box office back in 2011, but earned enough in the home video market to spawn this sequel. Mechanic: Resurrection wound up grossing over $100 million worldwide with a bulk of the money coming from China, and that's before home media sales, so we can most likely expect to see a third movie in a few years.


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A genuinely terrifying fright flick

Posted : 1 year, 11 months ago on 10 January 2017 03:29 (A review of Lights Out)

"Well, if she's not a ghost then what is she?"

Another low-budget fright film from Australian producer James Wan, 2016's Lights Out is one of the superior horror offerings of the year, and that's not simply by default. This feature debut for filmmaker David F. Sandberg is a slick, taut, well-made thriller featuring likeable characters who don't act like complete idiots, and it doesn't insult audience intelligence, which is a minor miracle. Whereas Wan's recent The Conjuring 2 clocked in at over two hours, Lights Out runs a refreshingly lean 75 minutes, with very little in the way of narrative flab. It's a taut succession of genuinely frightening set-pieces bolstered by strong performances and focused direction, and the dramatics of the story are more effective than expected. For a minor $5 million production, it does its job extraordinarily well.

A twentysomething woman with severe intimacy issues, Rebecca (Teresa Palmer) has distanced herself from troubled mother Sophie (Maria Bello), who has long battled mental illness. Off her meds, Sophie gets worse after the mysterious death of her second husband Paul (Billy Burke), staying up all night and communicating with a malevolent entity she calls Diana (Alicia Vela-Bailey), who can only materialise in darkness. Rebecca's brother Martin (Gabriel Bateman) develops insomnia due to his fear of Diana and starts falling asleep at school, which forces Rebecca to get involved, taking her sibling back to her apartment to protect him. But simply going across town is not enough to deter the sharp-clawed wraith, and Rebecca becomes determined to uncover the mystery surrounding Diana.

A feature-length adaptation of Sandberg's 2013 short movie of the same name, Lights Out uses a unique premise which cleverly exploits humankind's innate fear of the darkness. Since Diana cannot attack whenever a functioning light source is available, many of the movie's most nail-biting moments involve characters struggling to turn on any sort of light to save their lives - not just lamps or overhead lights, but smart phones and car headlights are used as well. To Sandberg's credit, he establishes the rules surrounding Diana and strictly adheres to them, finding intense moments in exploring the often shallow border between light and dark. As with any horror film of this ilk, the protagonists set out to uncover the mystery surrounding Diana, but thankfully the reveal of her backstory in no way undermines her effectiveness as a monster. Furthermore, the familial dramatics serve to enhance the story, making this more than just a more run-of-the-mill horror offering.

Prior to making his directorial debut here, Sandberg had only helmed shorts, and repeatedly found himself unable to secure funding from the Swedish Film Institute. Yet, his inexperience with features is never evident at any point throughout Lights Out, which is endowed with staggering assurance and authority, especially with the layered, eye-catching cinematography by Marc Spicer (Furious 7). Sandberg may indulge in certain genre clichés and tropes, but such aspects are sold with genuine vigour to make them work. Take, for instance, Diana's first appearance in the opening sequence: an office worker turns off the lights for the night, only to see an intimidating figure silhouetted against the dim light of the next room. When the lights are flipped back on, Diana is gone. But with the lights off, the silhouette returns. The worker begins turning the lights on and off, until Diana is suddenly closer. It's a predictable moment, but on Sandberg's watch, it's terrifying nevertheless.

Lights Out doesn't muck around, working through a fast-paced routine of scary scenes intercut with character drama and investigation before spending its third act holed up inside Sophie's home, leading to a consistently riveting extended sequence as the characters find whatever they can to remain in some degree of light as Diana comes after them. More importantly, the tautly-edited climax is a immense fun, with scares and tension aplenty. Don't let the PG-13 rating fool you - Lights Out may not be bloody or gory, but Sandberg manages to frighten using unnerving sounds and images.

Performances are strong right down the line, led by Australian actress Palmer, who manages to sell fear and dread without breaking a sweat. It's a small cast, and thankfully all the actors help to maintain Sandberg's vivid illusion. The only real issue with Lights Out is its abrupt ending, which makes the resolution of the story almost feel too easy. It's not a deal-breaker, thankfully, and again the movie's tautness is a gift in an age of overcomplicated horrors, but the ending is a tad jarring nevertheless. Lights Out is a real keeper in spite of its shortcomings, signifying the exciting arrival of a new filmmaking talent, though it remains to be seen if it winds up sullied by endless sequels like most horror movies these days.


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Pushes the boundaries of what Star Wars can be

Posted : 1 year, 11 months ago on 25 December 2016 07:09 (A review of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story)

"The world is coming undone. Imperial flags reign across the galaxy."

A lot was riding on 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens since it restarted the live-action Star Wars saga, which is now controlled by the Walt Disney Corporation. But 2016's Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is equally important, as it kicks off Disney's master plan for endless Star Wars spinoffs which focus on more minor side stories. It's not the first franchise detour (the animated Clone Wars movie landed in 2008, and there were Ewok telemovies in the 1980s), but it is the most significant, enjoying an enormous scope and bolstered by first-rate technical specs. This is a wholly different Star Wars, retaining the same sights, sounds and general iconography of the universe but achieving a much grittier tone than ever before. Rogue One is an out-and-out war movie, and thankfully the approach pays off, though pacing issues do emerge as a result of the overly intricate story.

An Imperial scientist, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen), tries to escape the clutches of the Empire by living a peaceful farming life, but Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) eventually catches up to him, demanding that he return to work. Although Krennic takes Galen hostage and kills his wife, Galen's daughter Jyn (Felicity Jones) manages to avoid capture, and is adopted by rogue extremist Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker). Growing up, Jyn hides her true identity from the Empire as she spends time in Imperial captivity until she's broken free by Rebellion spies, led by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), who intend to track down Galen. Jyn's father was instrumental in designing the Galactic Empire's new heavily-armed space station, the Death Star, and may hold the key to its destruction. Learning that the Death Star plans are stored at an Imperial outpost, Jyn and Cassian are joined by a rogue squadron of Rebels for their risky mission to steal the schematics, including android K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), Imperial defector Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), blind monk Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), and warrior Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang).

Instead of an opening crawl in the tradition of the series, Rogue One begins with a taut prologue which sets up the story more effectively than a block of text ever could. Co-written by Chris Weitz (2015's Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (Michael Clayton), this is a talky picture, running at over two hours and packing more than its fair share of exposition. Although director Gareth Edwards (2014's Godzilla) is able to maintain interest for the most part, the movie does hit its sluggish patches, lacking a thrilling sense of escalation. Put simply, the narrative should be brisker, as it's bogged down by subplots that don't seem necessary in the grand scheme of things. However, what's particularly laudable about Rogue One is the fact that this is a story about the minor cogs in the machine, as opposed to the big heroes who normally take centre stage in the Star Wars saga. Furthermore, Edwards touches upon the less glamorous aspects of the Rebel Alliance, as many of the soldiers are haunted by things they've done in the service of the Rebellion. This is one of several refreshing angles that Edwards manages to explore. Added to this, Rogue One perfectly ties into A New Hope, providing welcome new context for the events of the 1977 movie's iconic opening sequence. Fans can argue about the necessity of telling this story, but the deepening of the Star Wars mythology is fascinating nevertheless, making this feel like Episode III½.

Much like Edwards' Godzilla, there is a lot of build-up here, but it all pays off for an awe-inspiring finale that seriously delivers. Changing up the standard Star Wars backdrop to incorporate a tropical beach setting, the third act skirmish on the planet Scarif is gargantuan, involving shootouts as well as aerial combat, with loads of Stormtroopers, TIE Fighters and AT-ATs threatening the band of Rebels. The war scenes in the final act are far removed from what we've come to expect from a Star Wars movie (which is ironic, considering that "Wars" is in the title). Edwards draws upon Saving Private Ryan and a bit of Apocalypse Now to stage the hard-hitting battle scenes, which may be too brutal for young children. The outcome of the mission may be a foregone conclusion, but the specifics are not, and that's precisely why the climax is so engaging. The well-publicised reshoots did provoke concerns that Disney might dilute the movie, but the seams are never visible - Rogue One doesn't feel like a compromised vision. Instead, it's astonishingly cohesive throughout, sticking with a notably bleak tone all the way through to its powerful ending. It's certainly not as "safe" as some had feared.

As to be expected, Disney spared no expense bringing Rogue One to life, with the film carrying a rumoured $200 million price tag. The special effects are predictably impressive, and it helps that Edwards shoots for a heightened sense of immediacy. Commendably, Rogue One eschews the regular Star Wars aesthetics - it doesn't feature the standard transitions or an opening crawl, and it only makes infrequent use of recognisable soundtrack beats. Cinematography is darker than before, and it's mostly handheld, though this is not to the detriment of the movie since you can always comprehend what's happening during the action sequences. Furthermore, there is an impressive sense of tangibility to the fighter ships and Star Destroyers - it looks as if practical models were used as opposed to outright CGI, creating a more convincing illusion than digital effects ever could. However, the production does lack something in the way of visual panache, which comes from the decision to shoot the picture digitally, making it look less majestic than the celluloid photography of The Force Awakens. Interestingly, rumour has it that the original score was rejected for being too far removed from John Williams' iconic compositions, and composer Michael Giacchino had mere weeks to compose a new soundtrack. To his credit, the music is quite good on the whole, effectively accentuating the experience.

There is fan service throughout, with the movie even giving us a glimpse of Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones) on-screen for the first time since 1983's Return of the Jedi, leading to arguably the movie's best scene. Unused pilot footage from the Death Star assault in A New Hope is even employed, while the frame is often packed with recognisable droids hiding in the background that you may not notice on first viewing. However, less successful is the use of shonky digital effects to resurrect one deceased actor and de-age another. The intentions are noble, but often the result looks like something from a Pixar movie, instantly taking you out of the movie. It's 2016, surely they can do better than this.

Unfortunately, Rogue One falls short in terms of characterisation, as there's not enough depth or humanity to the ensemble. Jones manages to impress despite her one-dimensional role which feels like a plot device, but Luna is less successful as Cassian; he's one of the most disposable heroes in recent memory. Faring far better is Krennic, an inspired creation played to perfection by Australian actor Mendelsohn. Krennic is far more engaging than the typical villain, and he's actually given more dimension than the heroes of the story. Mendelsohn undoubtedly delivers the finest performance in the film, surpassing his co-stars with ease. With that said, though, Tudyk is an utter scene-stealer playing the droid K-2SO through motion-capture. A reprogrammed Imperial droid who speaks his mind, K-2SO is a constant source of amusement, delivering an armada of one-liners and a string of uproarious comments. Droids are a staple of the Star Wars universe, making it all the more exciting that this new creation is arguably the saga's finest to date. Meanwhile, Whitaker almost suffocates the movie with his ludicrous overacting, though Yen manages to carve out a memorable character despite his limited screen-time.

Flaws notwithstanding, Rogue One pushes the boundaries of what a Star Wars film can be, and that's seriously exciting for a long-running franchise like this. (The subtitle A Star Wars Story is actually absent from the film proper.) It succeeds in trying something different, never falling victim to the bland writing or poor direction which ultimately sunk the prequel trilogy. Due to its unique aesthetic and narrative approach, Rogue One is certainly more intriguing than The Force Awakens, but it's not necessarily better - J.J. Abrams' film was zippier and featured better, more fleshed-out characters. The bleakness of this first spinoff does mean that its replay value might be less than the norm for Star Wars, but that's precisely why it lingers in one's memory after it's all over. It also makes for a perfect companion piece to A New Hope. There are fears that Disney is going to run Star Wars into the ground, but if all future movies are on the same level as Rogue One or The Force Awakens, the House of Mouse can keep them coming.


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Above-average horror sequel

Posted : 1 year, 12 months ago on 12 December 2016 06:06 (A review of The Conjuring 2 (2016))

"Ed, this is as close to hell as I ever want to get."

After his ill-advised detour into blockbuster action with 2015's farcically cartoonish Furious 7, filmmaker James Wan returns to his usual stomping ground for The Conjuring 2, demonstrating yet again that his deft touch with contemporary horror is unparalleled. The follow-up to Wan's 2013 hit The Conjuring, which was one of the best horrors in some time, here we have another intricately-produced scary movie which is just as interested in character development as it is in concocting scares. Even though it's perhaps a bit too overblown for its own good (it does clock in at a hefty 130 minutes), The Conjuring 2 succeeds where it counts: it's a frightening, engaging horror backed by top-flight production values. And considering the usual standard for horror sequels, the mere fact that this follow-up isn't awful is a big deal.

Just as the first film was based on a (supposedly) real-life case, The Conjuring 2 sets its sights on the more well-known Enfield Poltergeist haunting in London, which has already been the subject of documentaries and dramatisations. In London, pre-teen girl Janet Hodgson (Madison Wolfe) is being terrorised by the spirit of elderly man Bill Wilkins (Bob Adrian), who died in the council house some years ago and declares ownership from beyond the grave. The haunting terrifies the family, leaving single mother Peggy (Frances O'Connor) and her four children desperately seeking help. Meanwhile, paranormal investigators Ed (Patrick Wilson) and Lorraine Warren (Vera Farmiga) opt to take a sabbatical from their work after Lorraine is plagued by visions of a malevolent demon nun, and of Ed's violent death. However, the church implores the Warrens to take a look at the Enfield case for them, to determine whether or not it's a hoax.

Although The Conjuring 2 is tagged as being based on a true story, one should always take such statements with a grain of salt; the screenplay (by returning scribes Carey and Chad Hayes) is heavily fictionalised for cinematic purposes, not to mention it introduces a Catholic nun demon that's personally tied to the Warrens. For window dressing, The Conjuring 2 concerns itself with the infamous Amityville haunting in its opening moments, as Lorraine conducts a séance inside the house where Ronald DeFeo Jr. mass-murdered his family. The Amityville case has, of course, served as the basis for multiple feature films, so the sequence here is short and sweet, intended only to reintroduce the Warrens and deepen their backstory. While a full-length Wan-directed treatment of the Amityville horror would certainly be enticing, this truncated approach was perhaps the wisest in the grand scheme of things. (Another long-delayed Amityville movie is set to land in 2017.)

Whereas the original Conjuring was designed as a PG-13 horror movie but received an R rating from the MPAA simply because it was deemed too scary, The Conjuring 2 was built from the ground upwards as an R-rated horror, though this doesn't mean Wan revels in gory indulgence. On the contrary, the Australian horror luminary still relies on suspense and tension, but he has more freedom when creating disturbing images and loud set-pieces. Wan and cinematographer Don Burgess have their craft down to a tee - timing and camerawork are magnificent here, and the big scary sequences are genuinely unsettling, backed by a tremendously creepy score by Joseph Bishara. One particularly hair-raising scene sees Lorraine being stalked in her home by a demonic nun whose painted likeness hangs on the wall, and there's a recurring motif involving a gangly-limbed nursery rhyme figure known as The Crooked Man. Although Wan doesn't create anything comparable to the unbearably tense game of hide and seek in the first Conjuring, his efforts are consistently focused here, and it's clear he didn't simply operate on autopilot. However, the climax is undeniably overkill, with a digital demon and a fair bit of destruction that's simply not necessary in the grand scheme of things. It's not a total bust, but it's not overly scary either; it's just too big and not tight enough.

The Conjuring 2 is certainly longer than the usual horror fare at over two hours, incorporating a number of scenes that have drawn criticism, including a bizarre moment involving Ed singing Elvis Presley's "Can't Help Falling In Love." Be that as it may, Wan wisely uses the runtime to carve out identifiable characters, performed by a strong ensemble. Wilson and Farmiga pick up where they left off as the Warrens, coming across as warm and likeable. More notable here is young Madison Wolfe, who's a superb find. Espousing a convincing British accent (Wolfe is an American), she manages to convey fear and vulnerability without ever coming across as forced or unconvincing. It would be a tricky role even for seasoned adult actors, but Wolfe makes it look easy. Strong support is also provided by Frances O'Connor, while Simon McBurney makes a positive impression as Maurice, another paranormal investigator who's interested in the case.

With The Conjuring 2, Wan is now responsible for three horror franchises, not counting those he simply produced (Lights Out and Annabelle are getting sequels). Further Conjuring sequels are reportedly in development (beyond the spinoffs), and this is not a necessarily unwelcome prospect. Considering the quality of other modern horror franchises, we could certainly use more scary movies of this calibre. Fingers crossed, though, that Wan sticks around to direct the next one. All things considered, The Conjuring 2 is effective and entertaining enough to avoid becoming just another disposable sequel.


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Still Bad, still hilarious!

Posted : 2 years ago on 9 December 2016 04:44 (A review of Bad Santa 2 (2016))

"Spare some change. Think about somebody besides your fucking self."

2003's Bad Santa was bona fide lightning in a bottle; a superior black comedy that managed to be roll-on-the-ground hilarious and even touching, not to mention it was the ideal antithesis of the usual Hollywood Christmas movie. It was a minor hit that developed a solid cult following, so now thirteen years later, we finally have a sequel, albeit one with a wholly different creative team at the helm. Bad Santa 2 may not be as quirky or as clever as its predecessor, but it still delivers in the laughs department in a big bad way. Frequently side-splitting, it's a sequel which thankfully retains the uncompromisingly dark spirit of its predecessor. Nevertheless, this is the type of motion picture which will divide viewers depending on their expectations, especially since the world has grown more politically-correct and averse to this brand of dark comedy.

Picking up over a decade after the original movie, Willie (Billy Bob Thornton) still hasn't made anything of his life. A depressed, raging alcoholic, Willie is left only working menial jobs, none of which he can actually hang onto for very long, and his only friend is the staggeringly naïve, goofy Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly). But Willie is thrown a lifeline when he's contacted by his old partner Marcus (Tony Cox) with a proposition. Marcus plans to rob a Chicago-based charity to the tune of $2 million, and needs Willie's deft safecracking touch to get the job done. The money is too tempting for Willie to pass up, though he becomes even more reluctant to go through with the job after being confronted with his unsavoury mother Sunny (Kathy Bates), who's also in on the heist. It's a precarious trio, as Willie finds it impossible to trust his associates, and he gets easily distracted by the charity's attractive co-founder, Diana (Christina Hendricks).

The ending of the original Bad Santa did not leave many logical directions for a sequel to take. Indeed, Thornton stated that finding the right story was one of the reasons why it took so long for Bad Santa 2 to come to fruition (talks started as early as 2010). The plot is admittedly on the contrived side, but it works well enough to reunite the characters and provide an excuse for a barrage of gags and one-liners. A number of recent comedy sequels have suffered from overly dense plotting, making the more simplistic narrative of Bad Santa 2 rather refreshing - and it's agreeably brisk at 90 minutes. The screenplay (credited to newcomers Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross) runs with the same shtick which characterised the first movie. Thus, some might say that it's more of the same, but what else would you want from Bad Santa 2? Although not especially witty, there are more hits than misses in the laughs department here. The movie goes for broke; it's offensive, crude and vulgar, and almost every line is peppered with profanity. Luckily, the movie doesn't take the easy way out with a copout ending; rather, the conclusion is reminiscent of the original movie in terms of tone. Don't expect to see everybody hugging each other or learning about the real meaning of Christmas.

Steering the ship this time is director Mark Waters (Mean Girls), who acquits himself with the material quite admirably, displaying a firm grasp of comedic timing and always maintaining a rapid-fire pace. Not to mention the whole enterprise is, of course, backed by an array of seasonal songs. Bad Santa 2 is an excessively dark movie, even mean-spirited at times, which will prove to be polarising, and not all of the tonal changes are negotiated successfully. Produced for an understandably scant $26 million, the movie unfortunately carries the look of a Netflix production or a direct-to-video flick, rather than a big screen feature film. Whereas the original Bad Santa was shot on 35mm film stock and carried some honest-to-goodness cinematic style, this follow-up was lensed digitally, and looks exceedingly basic from a visual standpoint. (Let's not forget that the Coen Brothers were executive producers on the first movie.) On top of this, there's a fair bit of obvious, egregious product placement throughout.

Despite looking a bit gaunt and frail, Thornton slips back into the role of Willie as if no time has passed. This is one of the characters that Thornton was born to play, and he's fearless in his delivery of the profane material, reaching to offend as many people as possible. Also returning is Cox who's equally enthusiastic, while Kelly is all grown up as Thurman Merman. But Bates is the movie's secret weapon, and she absolutely goes for broke playing such a foul-mouthed character. As Willie's mother, it's clear the apple didn't fall far from the tree - Bates is always seen drinking, smoking, swearing, and even exclaims, "I don't speak politically correct!" Also new to the cast is Hendricks, whose interactions with Thornton are a frequent source of amusement.

At the end of the day, I simply cannot deny that Bad Santa 2 worked for me, because it did. I laughed until I cried. It's a rapid-fire succession of vulgar one-liners, swearing, colourful insults, and trashy sex scenes, and it's laudable that the filmmakers had the guts to create something so flagrantly offensive. Plus, for all of its base sensibilities, there are some scenes here that attempt to tug at the heartstrings and continue Willie's redemptive arc established in the original movie. The fact that Bad Santa 2 is actually funny is a big deal, especially after the tedious Zoolander 2 and the studiously mediocre Anchorman 2. Everybody else can watch It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street on Christmas Eve - I'll be over here doing a Bad Santa double feature with a bottle of bourbon.


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Gripping, emotive war film

Posted : 2 years, 1 month ago on 10 November 2016 11:26 (A review of Hacksaw Ridge (2016))

"With the world so set on tearing itself apart, don't seem like such a bad thing to me to want to put a little bit of it back together."

With Braveheart, The Passion of the Christ and Apocalypto under his directorial belt, Mel Gibson's track record as a filmmaker is second to none, and thankfully his staggering winning streak is confidently maintained with 2016's Hacksaw Ridge. Even though a decade has elapsed since Gibson's Apocalypto, he makes his return behind the camera without missing a beat, showing yet again why he seriously needs the opportunity to direct more movies. A stunningly vivid World War II picture, Hacksaw Ridge dramatises the heroic story of conscientious objector Desmond Doss (Andrew Garfield), who determinedly set out to serve his country without ever picking up a weapon. Almost impossibly, Gibson transforms what could have been a preachy religious fable into a frequently gripping and emotive war film.

As a young boy, Desmond learned a valuable lesson about the true impact of violence when he nearly killed his brother, and, as a consequence, grows up to be a deeply religious, God-fearing man. Managing to court endearing nurse Dorothy (Teresa Palmer), Desmond chooses to enlist in the United States Army with his brother Harold (Nathaniel Buzolic), much to the dismay of their alcoholic father Tom (Hugo Weaving), who lost all of his friends in battle during WWI. Sent to basic training, Desmond proves to be an excellent recruit, but refuses to participate in rifle training as he sticks to his religious and moral beliefs, aspiring to serve only as a combat medic. This frustrates his platoon staff, with Sergeant Howell (Vince Vaughn) and Captain Glover (Sam Worthington) hoping to break Desmond, while fellow recruits perceive him as a liability who might get them all killed. But Desmond's resolve cannot be broken, and after his training he's sent to battle in the Pacific theatre with the rest of his company. Desmond is really put to the test during the vicious battle of Hacksaw Ridge, where he remains determined to save as many men as he possibly can.

The screenplay, which was originally penned by Braveheart scribe Randall Wallace, has ample backstory to work through, and it's critical to note that this is more of a biography of Desmond as opposed to a more simplistic war movie. Despite a hefty 130-minute runtime, not a single frame feels superfluous here - if anything, the movie could've been longer. Every scene serves a purpose, developing Desmond's character, his romance with Dorothy and his home life, on top of depicting his experiences in the military. And miraculously, thanks to smart pacing and focused filmmaking, none of the build-up feels like homework. Additionally, whereas most dramas these days are grim and dour, Hacksaw Ridge is imbued with glorious gallows humour which feels entirely organic to the story and characters. Real-life soldiers do constantly crack jokes due to the nature of their job, after all, and Gibson recognises this. To be sure, not much dimension is given to the Japanese side, but such an angle is simply not necessary - it would have added too much narrative flab, and above all taken away from the story's central focus. The movie does observe Desmond being kind to the wounded Japanese, which is sufficient in this aspect.

Gibson is no stranger to war movies, but this is the filmmaker's first time tackling more modern warfare, with guns and canons rather than the swords and sandals of Braveheart. Frankly, it's a match made in cinematic heaven, leaving us to wonder why the hell it took so long for him to tackle this sort of thing. The combat sequences are a perfect fit for Gibson's ultraviolent tendencies, and he absolutely goes for broke here. Working with the freedom of an R rating, the notoriously bloody Battle of Okinawa is done justice on-screen, with the viscerally exciting bloodshed even topping the genre's granddaddy, 1998's Saving Private Ryan, in terms of sheer realism. Gibson underscores the fragility of human life on the battlefield, showing bodies being obliterated by explosions and bullets, yet it's executed with enough tact to prevent the movie from feeling like tasteless gore porn. Gibson does play up aspects of the fighting for dramatic effect, and there is some use of slow motion to underscore the gore and brutality, but it all works in the context of this story, and above all makes for thoroughly riveting viewing. Gibson thankfully relies more on practical effects, which creates a tangible aesthetic. It's apparent that some digital effects were used for blood, but it's never distracting or phoney. Hacksaw Ridge looks like a big-budget, $100 million blockbuster with its rich period detail and slick technical presentation, yet it was achieved for a scant $40 million.

Even though shooting on celluloid usually generates a richer cinematic texture for period films of this ilk, Simon Duggan's digital photography here is stunning nevertheless, and impeccably complemented by the exceptional original score by Rupert Gregson-Williams. The battle sequences are captured with gorgeous finesse and steady camerawork, demonstrating that shaky-cam is not always needed in flicks like this, and allowing us to take in what's happening on-screen without getting a migraine. Contrary to what some of the foolish critics have decried, the graphic bloodshed is wholly necessary here, solidifying the story's core anti-war message, and above all emphasising Doss' sheer bravery on the battlefield. Indeed, watering down the violence would only dilute the movie's impact. Hacksaw Ridge is an unforgettable experience, inspecting Desmond's faith and love for God through his actions in battle, with nothing in the way of tedious sermonising.

Garfield was an awful Spider-Man, but he's superb as Desmond Doss, showing that his capable performances in 99 Homes and The Social Network were not just flukes. Espousing a thick but nevertheless convincing Southern accent, Garfield fully encompasses the role and never loses focus. Alongside him, Australian actress Palmer is endearing as Desmond's love interest, and it really works in the film's favour that the central romance is both believable and easy to become invested in. Meanwhile, Worthington makes for a believable military captain despite his inconsistent accent, and Vaughn steals his every scene as a dedicated sergeant. Vaughn has never had much luck in dramatic roles (True Detective, Psycho), but his character here is gifted with an arsenal of one-liners, and his towering figure lends him further credibility. Also worth mentioning is Weaving, who turns in a remarkable performance as Thomas Doss, essaying a pained alcoholic with impressive assurance. There's nary a weak link on the acting front, despite the distinct shortage of American thespians.

Affecting and powerful, Hacksaw Ridge is the movie of the year. It may be early into Oscar season, but there's no chance it will not be beaten - it's the greatest motion picture of 2016, and one of the best movies of the decade. The story of Desmond Doss absolutely needed to be told, and it's satisfying to behold such a phenomenal motion picture after many decades of attempts to get it made. Hacksaw Ridge may be corny at times, but Gibson commits to the material with utmost sincerity. The movie even closes with archival footage and interviews of the real people of this story, which serves as an effective footnote. Hacksaw Ridge is Gibson's best movie to date, and that's a big call.


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