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A response to ronbraverman from Toronto
Apparently, ronbraverman thinks all movie critics are big bullies out to destroy movies for the masses in order to make up for their own lack of filmmaking skills by using other popcorn films as punching bags. He is so infuriated that he has apparently created a new account out of the blue just to call critics out on this apprehensive behavior.
He is right - for those who do look forward to these movies just to lambast them. There are other critics though, who do not seek to hate them for the sake of hating them, as you implied. These people may not be born filmmakers, but it's their duty to call out the nonsense that's being spoonfed to them, usually (but not always) made by the Hollywood template-generating factory. Hence, the frustration.
See, the best critics are the ones who champion the underdog films, the one which suffered from under-marketing or getting misunderstood by other critics. The late Roger Ebert, who mostly judged movies based on their genre conventions and filmmaking skill, and not by an overall spectrum, championed then-unknown films like "Better Luck Tomorrow", giving director Justin Lin a Hollywood career in the "Fast and Furious" franchise. That's not to say he was right all the time - he hated films like "Death Wish 3" and massively missed the point of "The Hitcher" (1986), both of which I greatly enjoyed. It's also a matter of personal preference at the end of the day.
I'm not a Bay defender nor hater, in fact I think he is a notable action filmmaker, and for the most part his non-Transformers outings have been pretty darn good of late, with the massively under- appreciated black comedy "Pain and Gain" and last year's intense "13 Hours" more than proving that he is a capable filmmaker with a weird, wonky but undeniable auteur style of his own. I didn't even hate the last four "Transformers" movies.
I hated this one.
Not because I was vindictive, no, but like the masses, just wanted a brainless, fun time at the cineplex with some buddies. Even in Bay's earlier action stuff, there's always something to be appreciated, whether at the audacity of the "tasteless" humor, or the sheer energy of seeing a Hong Kong ferry being airlifted before crashing onto Kowloon in high-destructive style.
Here, Bay is going through the motions, and this will be boring even to the common moviegoer. The jokes are lazy, the action sequences are repetitive, the twists are predictable and can be seen from a mile away. How many times can you see giant robots clanging and banging against each other? How many times can you hear the cliché machine spewing out lines such as "No one gets left behind!" or "I'm not gonna leave you!" It was a boring, $200 million cartoon episode (a bad one) with no heart, no soul, and at 2 and a half hours with about $20 spent on a ticket and popcorn, it is unforgivable. It was all sound and fury, signifying nothing. I owe an apology to John Moore for "A Good Day to Die Hard" after watching this boring, poorly edited mess.
In conclusion, there is no shame in liking a film others hate, or vice versa. But don't assume all critics are out for blood. For the ones who are forced to sit through this to fulfill their editor's assignment and get paid, the frustration is understandable. It's their job. It's dirty, but someone's gotta do it.
The Infiltrator (2016)
Bryan Cranston is not your typical movie star, although he seems like it. Underneath the cool-high-school-dad exterior, there's an actor of great depth and unexpected power. You'll know it when you see a scene involving his character, said character's wife, and a restaurant on their anniversary dinner. Cranston seems to have benefited during his years as Walter 'Heisenberg' White on TV's Breaking Bad. And it has contributed greatly in this biographical crime thriller, about as straightforward and predictable as a stab in the gut.
Yes, Brad Furman's (The Lincoln Lawyer, Runner Runner) directorial efforts here will not be known for their signature riffs, as there is none to speak of. It's standard thriller fare, the kind that would do well had it been released between the late 1980s and early 1990s; pure genre fare that caters to mostly adult film-goers that aren't interested in seeing computer-generated superpowers or rubble. In other words, unoriginal yet mature, grown-up stuff.
The Infiltrator, however, is textbook example of how great casting can elevate shopworn genre material into solid entertainment, as the always-reliable Cranston has proved here. Sure, he is strongly supported by a bevy of intriguing cast members including Benjamin Bratt, John Leguizamo and the lovely Diane Kruger; but in portraying real-life undercover agent Robert Mazur shimmying his way up through Pablo Escobar's criminal empire, Cranston's understated but strong everyman presence confidently carries the movie solely. That quality alone replaces the tediousness often found in similar true-crime movies with an intense amount of uneasy suspense and grounded credibility, providing lots of fun for Cranston fans as long as they do not expect anything groundbreaking.
Breaking Good, indeed.
Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
Citizens on Patrol
On any other day, a British espionage thriller would make for a good change of pace from the summer blockbuster season. Based off a John le Carré novel, and it makes it even more intriguing, seeing that the master of spy fiction that brought us "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "The Spy that Came In from the Cold" is still up and sprightly, churning out novel after novel like it was nothing. I guess the secret to longevity is indeed to keep on working on your passion.
Now comes another film adaptation of his work – this time with actors of caliber (Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard, among others) and double the predictability. I have not read Le Carré's original source material, but my guess is it will be far more intriguing than what was presented here.
The film, telling the tale of how two ordinary British citizens (McGregor and Naomie Harris) naively help out a turncoat Russian mob enforcer (Skarsgard) and getting in the crosshairs of a ruthless MI6 agent (Damien Lewis) in the process, ticks the right boxes, and nothing more. It becomes an engrossing watch throughout, where characters scheme and plot while other innocents are naively caught in the crossfire.
Everything is fine and dandy – technically well-made and paced, the performances are spot-on and the story is a good tried-and-tested formula, though post-Brexit it seems unfortunately dated already, and the dialogue relies too much on the four-letter word, a jarring contrast a from Le Carré's usual classiness. The key word here is 'perfunctory'. It functions, and nothing more. Might be good with a cup of hot afternoon tea.
Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)
You're gonna need a bigger movie
I recently re-watched the first film and was surprised at how robust its shelf life is. Again, it is undeniably cheesy and jingoistic, but done suitably well, I can have a ball with any material. In "Independence Day: Resurgence", set and finally released 20 years after the events of the first film, the aliens get medieval on us with an even bigger mothership.
There's a lot of heroics here by many a character who do their equal part to stop this new alien menace, having already made a stuffed calzone of the Earth's crust comprising from London all the way to Singapore. There's also a refreshingly silly undertone which sets it apart from the grim and serious blockbusters of today, and with added Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch who return as the Levinsons, and "Star Trek" alumnus Brent Spiner as the eccentric Dr. Okun, Emmerich and his co-writers, including returning scribe Dean Devlin, certainly did not skimp out on the comic silliness.
Unfortunately, that is where the similarities end. The sins of sequelitis has been bestowed upon this sequel to his 1996 smash hit, and Emmerich is to blame, either for his laziness to phone it in out of frustration to fulfill the fans; or bucking in to studio demand to condense the film into a mere 2 hours. Sure, lots of things happen in the film, including stuff and cities going kablooey in high style, and high-tech aerial dogfights to give "Star Wars" a run for its money. Even Liam Hemsworth as the new hero Jake Morrison did not annoy me as much as I expected, though Hemsworth is still a far cry from Will Smith's "Elvis has left the building!" persona.
However, as slick as the modern CGI is, giving a sleeker look to the tech shown in the original film, it never quite gels together as a cohesive film - no momentum, no suspense, no catharsis when it does end. Bill Pullman's returning ex-President Thomas Whitmore is utterly wasted, as per his daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe, not doing her rep from "It Follows" any favours). It is not their fault; I feel that there is a lot of footage Emmerich was forced to excise by the Fox bigwigs to get more butts into cinema seats. Perhaps an extra half- hour of more cataclysmic destruction and character motives, but I may be asking for a bit too much at this point.
Things are very rushed indeed, with no payoff even when there's lots of characters doing their fair share to save the day. Goldblum and Hirsch, however, are still naturals, and they steal every scene they're in, and lift the movie up from near tediousness. Nevertheless, the special effects are fantastic, and are most certainly worth the price of admission alone.
It's kind of sad. This new one promotes global equality, with a female U.S. President (Sela Ward) celebrating world peace, and with everyone from across the globe giving it their all to kick E.T.'s ass. The action is fine and dandy without any of those annoying shaky-cam and quick-cut edits. And yet, the film suffers from awkward pacing, rushed dynamics, and especially a lack of cities exploding into fireballs. It even has sequel-teasing in the laziest manner possible in its final moments.
To quote Marvin the Martian, "Where's the kaboom? There's supposed to be an Earth-Shattering Kaboom!"
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
A better and scarier film than the first
The 1977 British haunting known as the Enfield Poltergeist has sparked controversy and has been accused of being complete hogwash. The famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) have now got their work cut out for them with this one. But director/co-writer James Wan is not concerned about busting myths. The guy wants us to be scared silly and have a ball. He has succeeded. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
That's the modus operandi of Wan's latest scare-a-thon, the sequel to the 2013 summer blockbuster. This is better than the first – bigger, scarier and much more intense. The first film was fun, but it relied too heavily on nostalgic and retro traits, having aped/paid homage to 1979's "The Amityville Horror". This new one is no different – it acts as a "greatest hits" album of classic horror movie moments – specifically, those of "Poltergeist" and "The Exorcist".
Wan's passion for the genre shines through in every scene. His unnerving atmosphere soaks the film in a shroud of doom and gloom, relentlessly unleashing his old- school house of horrors until the curtain call. It creaks, it moans, it shrieks when need be, never short-changing the character development and audience in the process.
This is not the horror film of the year so far (that honour belongs to the haunting indie film "The Witch"), but as far as popcorn horror films go, this one's really good - and a good stepping stone to introduce newcomers to "Exorcist"-style classics, a trait which I suspect was Wan's true intention all along, having already establishing himself as today's go-to filmmaker for spooky films.
X-Men: Apocalypse (2016)
X6: Judgment Day
"Days of Future Past", the previous X-Men entry, had visions of a stark post- apocalyptic future ala Terminator, and now comes "Apocalypse", taking cues from eschatological lore with its titular megavillain threatening to destroy all to achieve his own vision of grandeur, forcing the X-Men to unite as one to stop this fallen god. It's pretty darn good.
Do not be fooled by its comic-book brand; this is a biblical quasi-disaster film disguised as a superhero film, chock full of thrilling action and urgent, no- nonsense heroics, something that is sorely lacking in most superhero films today (I'm looking at you, BvS and Civil War). Both movies lack the human touch that Singer has given ever-so generously in his films, making the X-Men grounded and human while blossoming with their gifts. The stark difference between this film and Civil War/the DCU shows during one particularly harrowing scene involving Fassbender's Magneto in a Polish forest, which elevates this into a real film with real characters. The humor seems natural, too, save for another scene of fine trolling involving audience favorite Quicksilver that is all too similar to his scene in the previous film.
Still, despite a script that offers nothing new to the table, hats off to director Bryan Singer, proving himself yet again as the golden goose of the franchise, for delivering the superhero goods with balanced, kinda old-fashioned storytelling and a plethora of fine performances from all cast members, especially Oscar Isaac as its titular villainous anti-Messiah. It's very operatic, overtly theatrical without being hammy, and it contrasts nicely with the rest of the grounded characters, truly fitting for a villain named "Apocalypse."
Mr. Right (2015)
Right Stars, Wrong Director, Bizarre Script
For Pitch Perfect's fans who think the infinitely cute Anna Kendrick could do no wrong, well, there's a first time for everything. Here's a film that feels like a Monday morning at work: a film with the right stars who are fully game for the lunacy promised by its strange and risky "look-at-me-I'm-so-smart" script, but is betrayed by poor, tone-deaf direction.
I will admit, I am not particularly fond of the romantic comedy genre, although there have been occasional stand- outs. This one is woeful because the script tries its darndest to make the bizarre material work, which involves clueless young lady Martha (Kendrick) falling head- over-heels with charming 'nice' guy (Sam Rockwell, Moon) who is actually a deranged assassin offing his contractors. Kendrick and Rockwell are very likable here, showing great chemistry between snapping some truly funny puns and dodging bullets.
But oh, how the filmmakers have let them down. A half-witty, half-annoying and fully self-aware script by Max Landis (Chronicle and son of Blues Brothers' John Landis) would make for a decent watch if handled by a director who understood the transition of tones - Kick-Ass' and Kingsman's Matthew Vaughn comes into mind. Not so for misguided director Paco Cabezas (the poor Nicolas Cage thriller Rage), who shifts from breezy rom-com satire to brutally violent action thriller with jarring violence worthy of a Jason Statham vehicle. It is about as awkward and subtle as a brick to the face and it threw me off the film completely.
2010's Wild Target did this similar material better.
I would not like another person's memory in my head. It wouldn't be too pleasant. You'd remember connections with complete strangers, have knee-jerk reactions to different fears, be familiar with behaviors and even languages you thought you never knew. You might even be pursued by the wrong kind of people and won't even know it, and that is what happens to hard- ass, deranged criminal Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner) when he gets the memories of a dead CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds), wanted by both his CIA handlers and a fanatic terrorist.
Criminal is a mid-budget, high-concept and brutally violent B-movie, handsomely crafted for the guy crowd. It stars A- listers both present (Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot) and past (Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman) bringing their game faces and having fun - none more so than Costner, here trolling more than ever with a gruff, can't-give-a-damn attitude that combines Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Keith Richards all in one ultra-badass, ultra-insane swoop.
The film was produced by Millennium Films of Expendables and Olympus/London Has Fallen fame, and I'm digging their old- school action offerings. They never aspire to be high-brow entertainment, but given the right script – and this one is from the same scribes as The Rock (1996) – they can make fun movies with a rough-and-tough edge. This has added midnight movie strangeness to its concept, and to Vromen's credit, no action beat is missed.
For reasons I'll never know, this film is being savaged by Western critics for being too 'dull' and 'dumb'. Perhaps I saw a different movie. It may be dumb, but it sure as hell isn't dull.
Deo Pon (2015)
Suspense Phones In
The Hitchcockian thriller, having being ditched by Hollywood in favour of comic- book blockbusters, is alive and well in South Korean cinema. This incredibly suspenseful film by first- time filmmaker Kim Bong-Joo continues in the tradition of frustrating audiences with cracker-jack suspense, as he skillfully unveils the tale of how a politician (Son Hyun-Joo, very nuanced here), haunted by the loss of his wife (Uhm Ji-Won), gets a mysterious call from her a year to the date she passed. Without haste, he immediately tries to avert her death by informing her of future events, but both find out something's amiss when a particularly nasty villain comes into play. It's neo- noir by way of the Twilight Zone.
If you think this admittedly ludicrous plot sounds familiar, it does: it's similar to 2000's "Frequency" starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel, with a father-son focus, and an old radio instead of a husband-wife focus and phone, respectively. That American film had a much stronger dramatic dynamic that allowed the audience to invest better in the characters' plights, making their conflicts all the more intense. This film falters on that front, ironically succumbing to Hollywood's popcorn-minded temptations without rising above the genre, especially in the final third. There is a strong sense of urgency, yes, but the film needed a bit more fleshed-out characters for us to make us truly feel for every character's predicament.
No matter, Hollywood can rest easy knowing the genre is in capable hands. Better to play it safe than having it sink further below.
Before I Wake (2016)
A Human Heart to Go with the Scares
It is infinitely better to center horror films around flawed, adult human beings, rather than seeing another vapid pretty face slashed by a faceless mook. Filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone) and William Friedkin (The Exorcist) understood that notion, where human flaws and regrets coil up subconscious fears into horrifying supernatural manifestations. Greenhorn filmmaker Mike Flanagan, who scared audiences with his surprisingly clever Oculus years ago, returns to follow these veterans' footsteps with his flawed but nonetheless human sophomore effort.
Here, Flanagan whips up another spooky tale that effectively doubles as a drama about loss and coping, centering around troubled adult couple Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) coping with the loss of their child Sean. They adopt gifted kid Cody (Jacob Tremblay) whose dreams - and nightmares - come physically alive. Jessie sees this as an opportunity to relive her memories of her dead child, while Mark becomes rightfully concerned. Bosworth and Jane play their roles straight without the slightest hint of genre awareness, instantly grounding the film in tragic plausibility throughout.
Despite some shortcomings - including a half-baked coda that feels like a blatant Nikon ad, Flanagan's clever and wisely understated direction - including a refreshing lack of jumpy moments and music in the favor of slow burn chills - overcomes them and brings out the best in atmosphere and performances – specifically that of young Jacob Tremblay, who subverts the evil kid trope by convincingly looking remorseful about his 'gifts', unfortunately to little avail.
Eye in the Sky (2015)
What is the value of a single human life? That's the question rattling in the mind of American USAF drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), who defies direct orders from British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) and Lt. General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman) into blowing up a terror stronghold in the middle of a crowded Kenyan neighbourhood, as an innocent civilian walks right into the kill zone. They are racing against time; the terrorists are readying up for a much deadlier attack. The harrowing decision, and the dispute that surrounds it, is the heart of this exciting and frustratingly compelling thriller, down to its haunting closing scenes.
A dilemma like this, government politicians love to play the 'blame game'. Powell is ready to strike without compromise, but she and Benson can only wait for the greenlight by hesitant superiors. Guy Hibbert's script explores whether the politicians react as such to avoid the burden for approving such a strike, or to pat themselves on the back for averting loss of face. The subsequent moral, ethical and legal dilemmas slowly rile up all major characters like a boiling kettle.
Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ender's Game) confidently crafts a gripping tale across continents where morality is given one hell of an endurance test, and invites the audience to debate with him. The work he has achieved with gifted thespians Mirren and Rickman (in one of his final roles) has resulted in a rock-solid morality play, and in a testament to his talent, Rickman's final scene powerfully sums up everything Hood and Hibbert have to say on the matter.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Marvel's "Captain America: Civil War" is a film so sincere in its aspirations, so determined to stand out from the superhero crowd, that to see it collapse under the strain of its ambition is quite underwhelming. The film pits Avengers Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) against each other in a clash of ideologies, and to see them fairly debate in lieu of individuality and regulation, respectively, is nothing short of compelling and thought-provoking, especially since both sides have their own set of consequences.
The action sequences and fight choreography are top-notch, probably the best in the Marvel crop, with the Russo brothers proving themselves the studio's golden goose. They (with mightily impressive stunt choreography from the John Wick directors) direct with a slick, brutal efficiency and perfect comic timing that can make action junkies sigh with relief, which aides greatly in that big, highly-hyped superhero throwdown.
But the villainous cog behind the conflict nearly collapses the entire film. It becomes increasingly preposterous the more I think about it. To pit Cap'n and Iron Man against each other, there has to be a plausible catalyst towards their tension to bring any real emotional weight to the film. This villain, all by his lonesome, uses preparations and tactics that would make Bane and MacGuyver blush in comparison, resulting in plot/continuity holes so big a dozen helicarriers combined can fly through them. However, and this doesn't spoil the plot, what he does at the end of the film ditches the core of the film and resembles a Saturday morning cartoon.
It's still a better film than Batman vs. Superman.
The Fox and the Hare
Once upon a time, predatory animals were either the sinister villains or the square-jawed heroes of Disney Animated films, with the cuddly animals ("prey" if I'd go further) being either comic relief or the central protagonist. With "Zootopia", where anthropomorphic mammals live and breathe in a bustling metropolis ala humans (with nary a homo sapien in sight), the tables have turned - cuddly animals such as our heroine, a rabbit cop named Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin) has shifted into figures of empowerment and inspiration, while big predatory animals have become either the cute ones - as seen in an overweight man-child cheetah cop who obsesses over a famous pop star while on desk duty - or a mischievous comic relief as per con-artist fox Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman).
Wilde is the archetypal wily fox – there's not a word that he says that isn't cynical or sarcastic. Although the character is animated, this is essentially Bateman being his laid-back self, which strongly anchors this film down to earth. Wilde provides a pleasant foil against Goodwin's Hopps, who is eager to do good (not unlike co- director Rich Moore's "Wreck-It Ralph") and make Zootopia a better place, but constantly finds her naiveté not only challenged by Wilde's put- downs, but also by her own parents' over-protectiveness and even the Zootopia police chief, a bison (voiced by Idris Elba) and caricature of the stereotypical cop-movie chief, who bluntly tells Hopps that being a cop "isn't some fairy tale with songs and dance. Let it go."
Indeed, "Zootopia" is not the usual Disney fare – the similarity ends with the talking animals, extremely likable characters and rapid- fire humor – I lost it in numerous scenes, particularly an adorable riff on "The Godfather" – that will entertain kids and adults alike. What we have here is essentially a buddy cop movie (think "48 Hrs", "Rush Hour", "Lethal Weapon") that skirts into noir territory at times - where one's a do-gooder cop and the other's a rebel, and they both team up to stop a bigger threat towards the city, bonding in the process. The Disney version, at least. Spoilers ahead.
How this leads into a political conspiracy involving a plot to segregate the prey from predators, I will not reveal. Here Disney makes a bold move, not only subverting their decades-old predator/prey animal tropes, but not-so-subtly confronting the media blitz against race-induced crimes. I am instantly reminded of the American media who gobble up any news involving multi-racial crimes and subsequent controversies with law enforcement, with no qualms given to either side of the fence to express their proper opinion. Howard and Moore, along with their writers, remarkably handle their material sensibly and level-headedness – and with Disney's lesson of the movie – about acceptance and unity, delivered with care.
This could be one of the year's best films.
Gods of Egypt (2016)
Gods Gone Wild
Alex Proyas' "Gods of Egypt" is a film that is boldly and unabashedly silly and preposterous. Few other words can describe it. It has the pratfalls that beset typical Hollywood fare. It is already the subject of controversy due to its preeminently Caucasian cast. It has both critics and audiences sharpening their knives, a film supposedly destined for failure.
Oh, but it works because the film truly bonkers. Truly insane. Truly out of its mind.
Proyas, a gifted and visionary filmmaker, is renowned for having thought-provoking and striking imagery in all of his films, and this film is without exception. Where in any other film do you get to see goddesses horse-riding giant fire-breathing serpents? Or wagons carrying infinite amounts of gold dumping their load in a funnel-like tube ala dump trucks? Or for that matter, gods bleeding gold? Or Gerard butler riding gold- chromed giant beetles into battle? Or gods that have body parts that, when disfigured, instantly become detachable jewelry? Or...
Admittedlly the plot is indeed silly even by blockbuster Hollywood standards, however a lesser Proyas film is still more visually inventive than the usual Hollywood movie factory output, and that is always a plus. Whereas a film like "Pan" bludgeons us over the head with its disgusting cynicism and disrespect for the source material by portraying its titular hero as a clichéd messiah figure, Proyas directs with the exuberance of a kid in Disneyland - with Disneyland replaced with an Egyptian museum exhibit – eager at the chance to create his own action packed tale while still respecting the gods as, well, gods.
What is there to say about the plot, except that it has gods and it has Egypt? You get exactly what's on the tin. You get a chiseled hero in the form of Horus (Nikolaj Coaster-Waldau), his athletic and quippy comic sidekick (Brenton Thwaites) and beautiful love (Courtney Eaton), who set out to defeat Horus' evil uncle Set (Gerard Butler, simultaneously parodying his "300" persona while being supremely sinister).
The whole thing sounds very Greek. But rather than eschewing the silly tone and making it "Gladiator"-style dark and dreary ala the recent "Clash of the Titans" movies, Proyas and the actors let loose and have a ball with the material, never being too self aware while being silly enough to make for compelling viewing. Even rising star Chadwick Boseman (terrific in both "42" and "Get on Up"), as Thoth the god of knowledge, relishes in chewing the scenery with every moment, never afraid of being campy. Not bad.
Look, it's clear that the film is a B-grade Saturday night matinée film straight from the 1950s. Ever heard your grandparents told you about those? The ones where there's usually a double feature showcasing silly low budget sci-fi/horror/fantasy plots with handsome men and gorgeous gals, supremely cheesy one liners and having no purpose other than to put a goofy smile on your face from start to finish, almost guaranteeing a good time out? Well, this is one such movie, but with a blockbuster budget and the added pleasure of having Proyas wrapping the fun around with his wonderful thought-provoking visuals and production design, and going wild with this thing. Two set pieces involving a gigantic worm-like demon and the Egyptian afterlife are visual marvels, triumphs of set design and visual effects, evoking senses of awe and wonder like films from yesteryear and other gifted visionaries. For mainstream filmmakers, CGI is the cheat sheet. For Proyas, it's his toy box. This is eye candy on a spectacular scale, and audiences won't get short-changed.
Bear with me here, but if you were to replace the cast with genuine Egyptian actors, I think the film would be mired in even bigger controversies because it will definitely look more inaccurate and seemingly insulting than it supposedly already is. It's stupid, yes, but it's gloriously stupid and never succumbs to taking itself ever so seriously. Proyas sort of knew what he was doing here, and he didn't give a damn about what others thought. And that's the kind of filmmaker I admire the most.
Ola Bola (2016)
Pride & Glory
I want you readers to pay attention to the plot outline describing this film: 'A team of Malaysian footballers struggle and rise through all odds to qualify for the 1980 Moscow Olympics.' The keyword here is struggle. Readers and audiences who know their history will realize that Malaysia boycotted the Moscow Olympics following the Soviet Invasion of Afghanistan. Although that knowledge looms with dread over the suspecting audience member throughout the film, I had not imagined what actual feelings went through the minds of the football team the moment they realize they were competing for a Pyrrhic victory. This film, and the obligatory "inspirational speech" that comes with all sports movies, captures that moment quite beautifully.
Chiu Keng Guan's "Ola Bola" is a film that won't just be described as very good solely in Malaysian cinema terms, but also very good, period. This pleasantly surprising underdog soccer/football story by born filmmaker Chiu is blockbuster filmmaking of superlative calibre; about as viable and inspiring as other major Hollywood sports films such as "Hoosiers" and "Rudy", and even better than some entries. This perhaps is the first mainstream local film of our generation to be proud of, proudly showcasing just what our country has to offer alongside the big boys in the global cinema arena.
Yes, it does tick off the sports genre tropes; that speech at the end is a must; but dial it back a notch and think for a while. Those American sports films focused on ragtag underdogs defying all odds and ultimately winning the grand championship. That qualifying match between us and South Korea was the only chance we got in entering a major football/soccer arena, and was sadly blown to hell due to a political boycott. A quick glance at Wikipedia shows that the Malaysian football team had not once qualify for the FIFA World Cup. So the odds are pretty much stacked against us there.
For Malaysian cinema, this is an important film – it comes at a time when there is clear political strife within the country (and it would be a bald-faced lie to ever think otherwise), and racial tensions feared simmering to a boil. It would not be a mistake for the cynical and jaded to proclaim this film a callback to the "good- ol-days", a nostalgia for the days of old where racial unity was prevalent but never paraded. But it is also false not to call this a rally cry for hope – for us to come together as a nation again; it is an unabashedly patriotic film – that wonderfully – does not condescend its audience with saccharine overtones. When things get tough – they really get tough. But the rally cry in the film stands tall and true – "we win together, or we lose together".
Truly - without the slightest ounce of sarcasm and cynicism - Malaysia Boleh.
Lost in the Pacific (2016)
Lost in Translation
Well people, another day, another crappy movie hitting our shores. Actually, this was filmed on our shores – Pinewood Iskandar Studios in Johor, to be exact, so I guess that's something. That's about it for the praises.
If writer-director Vincent Zhou intended for this to show the world what Chinese cinema is made of, he has failed. The People's Republic has been kind to cineastes and mainstream movie-goers alike in the past decade, ranging from the beautifully thought-provoking (Jia Zhangke's "A Touch of Sin"), to the big and bombastic (John Woo's mega-blockbuster "Red Cliff"), even veering off into the hysterical (Stephen Chow's recent "The Mermaid"). They do not need to cater to Western audiences at all – rather, it is the Western bigwigs that need to learn how to market these films properly. After all, if Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon" can gross over US$100 million in the United States alone, why can't others, right?
Alas, my plea falls on deaf ears, and here we are, relegated to a C- movie starring struggling actors and made by a filmmaker who apparently conceded to the "everyone-watches-only-English-movies" mentality. Imagine a Muppet Babies version of "Snakes on a Plane" and TV's "Lost" meshed together in an unholy mess; sprinkle some stilted English dialogue ("She died so horribLE. .. so tragicALLY") and some truly bad and overdone VFX, the kind that's as half-assed as those in "A Sound of Thunder" if not worse. In this day and age, are mutant cats scary at all, especially if they look like an evil version of Jiji from "Kiki's Delivery Service"?
Hell, the film even goes so far as to hiring attractive Chinese stars like Zhang YuQi to dress up the nonexistent plot (she tries, dammit), but I must confess, dear reader, to feeling a little sad for still-hunky ex-Superman Brandon Routh, who's film career is relegated to thankless roles such as this - a nonsensical riff on Steven Seagal's "Under Siege" character. Was "Superman Returns" really that toxic?
Sci-Fi Channel this ain't.
The Expendables 3 (2014)
Old dogs learn new tricks
Patrick Hughes' "The Expendables 3" is an odd action film. Starring nearly the entire roster of '80s to '90s action heroes, coupled with a few unknown young faces desperate to be the next big action star, it bears the mark of a bloated mess. That its PG-13 restrictions not only abandons its core fanbase but also leads to rushed editing at times that leave slightly sour aftertastes after each kill, only adds to the negatives, apart from some truly dreadful CG effects. That it all boils down to another Stallone film, as he uses said action icons merely as back-up fodder to appease his egotistical lead character.
And yet, despite all of that, I enjoyed it as much as the first two. How on Earth did that happen?
Firstly, "The Expendables" franchises are what I like to describe as "fanboy" movies. There is no need for a plot, as long as it appeases the core fanbase, with every one liner, every weapon of choice, down to the costumes they wear. One might argue that the vastly overrated "The Avengers" as well as other Marvel films fall under that same category - it appeals to the fanbase.
"The Expendables 3" is an attempt to bridge the gap between the old and young generation of action, but Stallone and the "Olympus Has Fallen" co-writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt swerves back the direction back to "you know what, we need the old band after all". This isn't merely in the film's story, it's also outside - the blending of styles are uneven at first, but somehow come together well in the preposterously over-the-top stunt-filled finale, with both young and old getting caught into the frenzily-edited chaos. The absence of the old guards in the film's second third merely underlines the fact that we need these icons more than ever, because none of these modern day "stars" can carry a movie by themselves because their combined charisma is miles away compared to icons like Schwarzenegger, Gibson or Snipes alone. I don't mean this as an insult, I was amused that I managed to see what Stallone was trying to do (or perhaps I've seen way too many movies).
I would strongly agree however that this film was not meant for PG-13, in many parts due to the annoying editing. No one can ever disguise R- rated tendencies as PG-13. Yes, there are a couple of sensational action sequences (particularly in the climax), but the level of violence is so clearly neutered down that one would just go "If only". Well, we'd have the Unrated blu-ray for that. Disappointing, because these action sequences truly have the potential to be among the best in the franchise, courtesy of Hughes and stunt coordinator Dan Bradley of the Bourne series. Ah well, Blu Ray shall await. I'm not going to mention the dreadful CGI (that thankfully weren't that abundant), but I've seen people complain of a lot of shaky-cam in the film. I didn't notice many, so kudos to that for making most of the action well-shot and framed.
And yet, why did I still enjoy the film? It's because of Patrick Hughes. Only his second film (following the solid Aussie western "Red Hill"), Hughes approaches the story with a dead-on seriousness that makes the action sequences more fun when they do come, and takes his time to invest in Barney's plight into replacing his old team with new ones, following the near-loss of one of his own, and in the hopes that the new team will subdue the villain Stonebanks with less complications. All of this is essentially a build up to a stunt-filled, sensational climax involving an abandoned hotel and an entire army against The Expendables. And also some shoddy CG helicopters.
The 2nd act is a pale imitation of Kurosawa's "Seven Samurai", though Kelsey Grammar is surprisingly good in the role he's given. In fact, most of the actors seem to have a grand time in the film, especially Gibson and Banderas, the former delightfully and menacingly ravishing each second he's on the screen like a King Cobra, and the latter akin to a screw-loose monkey that borders on being the Jar-Jar Binks of the franchise (but not quite). Ford and Schwarzenegger seem to be game in the film, but the old gang comprised of Statham, Lundgren, Couture, and Crews look tired. Again, it's great to see Wesley Snipes back in action and having some funny moments on his own, but Jet Li is again underutilized, this time more so than the previous one (though it can't be helped that his disease is worsening at this stage).
"The Expendables" franchise is one which never quite satisfies its core audience and never reaches its full potential - it's too ironic for older fans to appreciate yet it's too old-school for the new generation to "get it". This presumably final one ambitiously attempts to fill the gap, and although it doesn't quite succeed, when all is said and done it does get the job done very well when all one is looking for is some good old-fashioned action and mayhem. Don't be surprised though when the extended cut does in fact arrive. It should be even more polished than it is now.
Ebbs and flows
The key factor in Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" is that it relies on life as its main plot point, not just the characters and their motivations. Like life, they change as the years go by – in spirit and in goals. For young children coming of age, their youth is a turbulent time – full of raging hormones and confused emotions, questioning themselves about their place in this life – you only live once, so they say.
Life never favors other people. There are others who seem to have it all and there are others who are always struggling. Mason's parents are the perfect example – they separate on amicable terms, and one seems to be more successful than the other, but then it shifts so gradually that their fates balance each other's out, making it unavoidably fair. Unpredictable, that life.
So it goes with little Mason's youth. We first see him as a kid, gazing into the sky, wondering about life at an age where he is supposedly carefree. His sister with an attitude constantly teases him in a realistically annoying manner, and their single mother is struggling to find a better life for them all. Man men enter their lives, most unfortunately alcoholic and troubled. Mason, like most boys in that situation, logically seeks out advice from his father from time to time. He never really says it, but he's feeling confused and needs proper guidance.
We've all been in his shoes. We were (some still are) all confused, lonely, trying to comprehend this thing call life. We were all spoilt brats with attitudes that would make our parents tear their hair off their heads. We were all their bundles of joy whenever we succeeded in something. Yet they are still human like us, and at their age are still trying to find out where life is taking them, for better or for worse. Linklater perfectly captures that essence, and spreads it out perfectly across nearly three hours of condensed life. He does the rarity - create an experimental film that sounds well enough to perform well with indie audiences, yet retain the emotional energy of classic Hollywood melodramas down to its barest, realistic form and lays it all out in front of the audience to see.
That's the beauty of his film, it isn't one-sided. It ebbs and flows with the current, and surrounds the audience with its unforced, genuine emotions. I did not feel much empathy for Mason as much as I did feeling LIKE Mason as he went through this crazy, subtle adventure. I felt moved and touched with every poignant scene Mason has to go through, enlightened whenever his father gives him some advice, as bewildered as he is at life.
We don't have many movies like this anymore nowadays. Few movies are willing to evoke the senses purely, both independent and mainstream – one either cops out and goes for audience sentimentality (and Oscar votes) while the other becomes pretentious fluff that thinks its art but it isn't, just an artist on a stage full of sound and fury. "Boyhood" is that rare gem that isn't – an incredibly beautiful film with many layers that provoke the mind and emotions, and left me feeling bittersweet with a tidal wave of nostalgia and poignancy, but ultimately left me feeling optimistic about the future.
Mason's journey has been quite the ride, indeed. That this was filmed in 12 years is no easy task by itself - this is a film that speaks of our time perfectly, defining the current generation with aplomb where so many other modern filmmakers grasped. If you are, or are parents with kids who were, born within the 1990s and early 2000s, you owe it to yourself to see this film.
The Grifters (1990)
One mean neo-noir (2 minute review)
This is one mean movie. It seduces, wraps your arms around you, and they guts you and leaves you stunned. Directed with striking precision and focus by Stephen Frears ("Philomena", "The Queen"), and written by Donald E. Westlake, one of the literary princes of crime fiction, and based off pulp author Jim Thompson's pulpy novel, in a manner so intricate with detail, so hardboiled that it cracks under the weight of each step it takes, one twist of the knife after another.
It's all too good to be true for this neo-noir, even when Martin Scorsese's producing it. Then comes the actors – and my word, are they fantastic in their roles – John Cusack is sly yet undeterred in a role that is a slightly more edgier variation on Humphrey Bogart, with a cross of Lee Marvin, to boot; Annette Bening is simply drop-dead sexy as the woman who thinks she knows it all, yet is a timebomb waiting to explode. The real star of the show is Angelica Huston in a well-deserved Oscar nominated performance, perfectly balancing the ruthless, desperate act with a honest, focused, motherly concern that doesn't feel cliché at all.
Who knew modern day, sunny Los Angeles and Phoenix can be the backdrop of so seedy a neo-noir, perhaps the best since Chinatown? Frears, Huston, Cusack, Bening, Westlake, cinematographer Oliver Stapleton and composer Elmer Bernstein deserve all the praise they can get for creating something so seedy yet starkly beautiful in retrospect.
The Terminator (1984)
Relevant more than ever
30 years down the road, James Cameron's "The Terminator" remains an enthralling science fiction thriller, perhaps now more relevant than ever. By now nearly everyone would have heard about how Cameron miraculously made such an excellent film on a miniscule US$6 million budget or so, or perhaps how the eponymous character turned bodybuilder- cum-actor Arnold Schwarzenegger into literally Hollywood's next big thing. It is a testament to Cameron's genius into crafting his unique vision despite and because of his budget limitations, and perfectly casting his stars to suit said vision.
We all know the drill by now, so let's talk quality. Linda Hamilton portrays Sarah so well as a normal young woman, confused by this sudden chain of events, that she has logically no choice but to buy into Reese's story. Michael Biehn fits Reese to a T with a gruff yet youthful look, a perfect look for a determined soldier fighting a war he wants to end badly, despite his limitations. Though it's under a relatively short amount of time, Cameron takes his time for the audience to really get to understand both Sarah and Reese's predicaments – to have characters to root and care for, to see them find a way out despite the odds. And a romantic twist is added by Cameron that surprisingly doesn't feel forced, yet somehow perfectly (and ironically) completes the time travel loop that secures John's existence. We're dealing with a romance that transcends both time and space, and Cameron handles it so well, he would revisit these romantic traits with greater detail in his future megalith "Titanic".
What makes the film work more than it should is Cameron's genius in casting Schwarzenegger as The Terminator. A former Mr. Olympian, Schwarzenegger is renowned for his sculpted body – straight out of a Greek stone garden – more than his acting prowess. No matter, his manner of speaking less, and frighteningly intimidating stare clearly unnerve the hell out of audiences, and they still do today. Say what you will about Schwarzenegger's career as an action icon/live-action meme, the man still has a stare that can kill. His strong, iconic Austrian accent works wonders with the machine-like delivery that Cameron was intending. With Schwarzenegger's casting, the stakes are higher for both Sarah and Reese to escape this monstrosity.
Because time-travel is involved and explained in an easily digestible way (physics be damned), and because Cameron directs with such efficiency and confidence it might as well be made today, the film has aged exceptionally well despite some cornball stop-motion effects that show off its low budget – all due praise to the late Stan Winston though for his remarkable, if not grotesque, make-up effects and design that add to the sheer horror aspect of the film. It is a testament to Cameron's genius that he has managed to combine great talent both in front of and behind the camera, into creating one of the seminal and memorable films of the '80s decade, and one that will spawn a successful sci-fi franchise with a dedicated fanbase. Make no mistake that the basic framework of "The Terminator" essentially represents a B-movie at its surface (Cameron did tutor under B-legend Roger Corman, after all), but Cameron pulls off more tricks up his sleeve. There is a lean, mean atmosphere that permeates each scene throughout, making 1984 Los Angeles seem like a lurid fever nightmare, but that's secondary compared to the hellish, poverty-stricken future he has envisioned for us humans. Brad Fiedel's metallic, iconic score seeps through every alley and night- painted street with a sense of dread and gloom, the synthesized, electronic score complementing Adam Greenberg's cyan-tinted, industrial cinematography to make it feel all the more nightmarish.
Most people back than would have balked or be amazed at a wireless internet connection for everyday use, as if we are surrendering our will to technology for it to take over our lives. And I'm seeing it being endorsed in many a commercial or article. Is the development of technology a bad thing? Not at all. But a good servant can be a bad master, especially if left out of control. Cameron had a fear of that, saw the vision, and ran with it all the way. If we were to leave our household chores to artificial intelligence, or the military leaving unmanned drones to scour the battlefield, what's there to say that eventually artificial intelligence would be used to secure nuclear weapons? Or that they might even become sentient - Cleverbot and Siri may be precursors to Skynet, and Japanese technology is developing robotic humanoids that can deduce for themselves in the near future. The war shown in the film may take place in 2029, but Judgment Day can still happen. Better never than late, I say.
"The Terminator" may be surpassed by its immediate successor in terms of scale and action sequences, but this is a leaner, meaner film, and its initial allegory remains superior and more clear-cut; in the realms of science fiction it remains unmatched, as a bleak reminder of the future and technology gone wrong, perfectly represented by its unstoppable, merciless eponymous monster of a character, but also that of humanity's undying spirit to create their own fates. Cameron might have come a long way since then, having helmed two of the most expensive and highest- grossing films in history back-to-back with some truly groundbreaking visual effects technology implemented in both, but this only highlights his original, cautionary vision for the future, one that we are all far too willing to embrace wholeheartedly.
Return of the King
There is a scene in Gareth Edwards' "Godzilla" that made my skin crawl. It is the HALO jump sequence, promoted heavily in the teaser trailer, accompanied by György Ligeti's hair-curling orchestral piece "Requiem", made famous in Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey" when Dave Bowman entered that portal. The sight of minuscule soldiers falling down into apocalyptic clouds as they see destruction all around them with gigantic, moving shadows is a work of terrifying, spectacular beauty; one of the best recent film sequences I've seen and heard. To experience it in IMAX 3D adds to the nightmare fuel.
Some other startling bits involve numerous disaster sequences that so closely echoes various natural disasters of the past decade. Viewers may be reminded of terrible events like the tsunamis and earthquakes of 2004 and 2011 and the Fukushima nuclear disaster. Scenes like these will definitely strike a chord in those who fear mother nature's wrath, but of course they play second fiddle to the real star of the show, who like Colonel Kurtz in "Apocalypse Now", doesn't show up until the latter half of the film, but one can definitely sense its brooding, commanding presence.
Yes, 60 Years since it laid waste to Tokyo, the King of the Monsters triumphantly returns to the big screen after a 10-year sabbatical in this mammoth-sized entertainment that shifts the Big G into summer blockbuster territory, obliterating Roland Emmerich's turkey into smithereens.
Like last summer's "Pacific Rim", "Godzilla" features gigantic-scale action set-pieces and crowd-pleasing moments, though in large part due to Edwards' skillful and intelligent direction, it entirely eclipses the latter film. Edwards (in only his second directorial feature following the 2010 microbudget "Monster") probably felt the same thing a lot of people did in "Pacific Rim" - too much action sequences that were dragged out for the purpose of pleasing its core audience. He is wise to limit Godzilla's appearance until the second half of the film, and even so limit his presence until the explosively entertaining climax, taking a page or two from Hitchcock and Spielberg's "Jaws" about restraint. The film was made with a "spectator" point of view - the audience sees Godzilla as if they were really seeing him, be it the TV screen or while avoiding the unrelenting chaos around them. Edwards didn't just learn from Spielberg as much as he pays a glowing tribute ala J.J. Abrams' "Super 8". See if you can spot the references to "Jaws" and "Close Encounters" in this review. There's even references to "War of the Worlds" and "Saving Private Ryan", among other movies.
Not that it isn't a real film. Whilst "Pacific Rim" is a film tailor-made for fans of the kaiju/mecha genre, in the same mold that most Marvel superhero films and 'Expendables' films cater to their target audiences, "Godzilla" is made like an old-fashioned blockbuster, down from its gripping, foreboding opening to its doom-shrouded action-packed climax that provides a well-earned catharsis to the ominous buildup from the previous 90-minutes. The action sequences are a combination of the classic kaiju franchise with the ominous Biblical paintings of Gustave Doré, especially in the final 30 minutes. Seamus McGarvey's tactful cinematography and Alexandre Desplat's brooding, wildly unleashing orchestral score complement some truly awesome visual effects perfectly to make for the most visually stunning outing of the King yet.
Not that there isn't a plot. Max Borenstein's screenplay details something too spoiler that even the mere mention of the basic plot will give away too much, so I won't But the trailers do a damn good job about hiding the true plot of the film, which I must say is formulaic on the human characters' side, but pretty well-written and frenetic for the most part.
Oh right, there are other cast members in the film too, all A-listers, ranging from a brief Bryan Cranston giving a combination of Roy Neary and Walter White, Ken Watanabe looking as wise and mournful as the great Takashi Shimura in the original, and a military David Strathairn giving heavy-duty exposition as usual. Add Juliette Binoche, Sally Hawkins and Elizabeth Olsen as obligatory female characters and we have ourselves a heck of a cast that is severely underused. But we didn't come to see a Godzilla movie for a cast surely deserving of an Oscar Bait film. Pretty much the only human who takes center stage is tough, stoic military vet Ford Brody (Aaron Taylor-Johnson of "Kick-Ass" fame), who defiantly holds his own against all odds and comes off as a character who demands attention as to what his next plan of action is as chaos rumbles all around him.
Bottom line is, I liked what I saw, and Edwards has done a truly bang-up job resurrecting the King of the Monsters from cult fascination. If possible, watch it in IMAX 3D to savor the visual effects and sheer scale, and to hear that famous, mighty roar in terrifying rumbles. It's been a long time coming, but the King is back, and the monster movie is replenished with a vengeance. Would Toho/Legendary mind if I request a future outing?
Back to nature
Nicolas Roeg's "Walkabout" seems like an extraordinarily raw survival adventure at first glance, what with the tale of two youngsters duking it out in the Australian outback with only an Aborigine lad separated by his tribe as their only hope. What it fully explores, what resolutions it conjures up – I can only explain briefly here as I am still pondering myself. Had Hollywood made this film they would have transformed it into an overly simplistic and pretentious tale that ends with both sides learning from one another – the children learning about nature and its 'holiness', and the indigenous lad picking up a few modern skills or two, and of course he and the girl get together. This is not that movie.
I've been away from home for about two years now, studying abroad. I wouldn't consider myself an actively social person – not in the slightest. During my time abroad I have met countless people – all of them interesting, some of them I have trouble communicating at first. It isn't just that I find most of these situations awkward – there are some beliefs and ways of people that I simply cannot comprehend about them – and for that matter, I wouldn't blame them for feeling the same way towards me and others too. We all have our own opinions, thoughts, beliefs, dreams, hopes – we all pick different variations towards those. If we were to meet a person who is willing enough to understand us without compromising their own beliefs, then we are blessed. "Walkabout" is about the failure of this communication system. None of these characters are able to fully understand one another, even though two of them are brother and sister. At the end of the movie all three are ultimately lost, one way or another, and will never return to the way things were.
How they get lost is presented in a series of thought-provoking thematic explorations Roeg and his writer Edward Bond concocted (in a mere 14 pages reportedly), basing off a novel by James Vance Marshall. The two children are abandoned in the Outback by their suicidal father, having been corrupted by and finally given up on modern civilization. Now as nature seeks to claim these unprepared youths, a lone Aborigine male who happens to be wandering the wilderness stumbles upon them.
This boy sees them and is intrigued, and they as well. The little boy imitates the young man in certain survival skills – the girl does not communicate and is aloof with her own thoughts, naively unaware of her blooming sexuality that is now captivating the young man, and perhaps her father too, in the wrong way. The failure of communication becomes complete when the girl rejects the boy flatly as he performs a mating ritual in front of her, in a desperate act to charm her.
A quick internet search also reveals the meaning of the title 'walkabout' – a rite of passage where adolescent Aborigines go on a journey into the wild for about half a year in order to attain a certain level of spirituality. The film examines this by asking whether such enlightenment can be destroyed by the presence of a toxic communication. The boy and girl were raised by civilization, the young man by nature. Both clash, both fail to understand each other, and ultimately both end up getting more lost than before, because once they were lost in a sea of ignorance and presumptions, now they are forever lost in uncertainty and wonder, permanently changed, never being able to return to the way things were – haunted by the very idea that will haunt them for the rest of their lives.
In between the main plot we have side-views of how mankind has completely lost their touch with nature – one shows a research team who loses a weather balloon, another shows a plantation. Roeg's cinema- verite camera makes these scenes and people in it feel pessimistic and unwholesome – I believe that was on purpose and helped prove the point that the future has overwhelmed the past and left their people confused and lost. One of the plantation workers even sees the young indigenous man, but he does not respond. The film wisely refuses to answer the question 'why did he do that?'
Roeg was a cinematographer before he made this film, and his unique cinema-verite style gives the wilderness scenes a raw edge that shows off the Outback as a place of unforced beauty. There are random shots of animals in the outback, none of them taken in a cutesy-manner, and shows them as graphically nature would – survival of the fittest. There are some brilliant sequences where Roeg and his editor Antony Gibbs juxtapose the hunting and slaughter sequences with random shots of a butcher simultaneously chopping meat. Times have changed but some things stay the same, even if the tools are different.
Roeg's film is profoundly beautiful, unmatched by many, but also deeply pessimistic. It is a tale of losing yourself into nature, but not one where the outcome is positive. The stakes are much higher than a matter of life and death. It's about living and wondering, whether we can truly understand what it feels to live in an environment where nothing makes sense to us, and can transform us in ways that makes us fail to appreciate what we have left. A brilliant thought, yes, but very, very depressing for the lonely and misunderstood.
And then there was Arnold
One of Arnold's darkest performances highlights nihilistic, gruesome, occasionally incoherent who-dun-it.
If there is any indication that present era needs an aging, post- gubernatorial and post-scandal Arnold Schwarzenegger, David Ayer's "Sabotage" is the real deal - a no-holds-barred return to form for the Austrian Oak as a ruthless, dangerous being. If that doesn't convince you, then a shot showing a brooding, hooded Arnie will.
This isn't an all-out action bonanza, it's a riveting crime thriller with book-ending action sequences that aim to shock rather than awe. Watching an Ayer film otherwise would be missing the point. Like the superior "End of Watch", "Sabotage" has flawed human beings as the protagonists - trying to survive in a world where they think they understand.
Ayer uses the admittedly repetitive Agatha Christie-inspired whodunit plot as a background to explore the character of the protagonist John Wharton ("Breacher" to his comrades). He is regarded as some sort of legend in the DEA and a father figure among his dysfunctional team (a strong ensemble cast made up of Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Terrence Howard, Max Martini, Josh Holloway and Mireille Enos), albeit with a reputation as notorious as his conquests. The opening shot sees the hulking figure stare ominously towards the laptop screen as the video of his wife getting brutalized and eventually murdered by a drug cartel plays in front of him. Stealing 10 million dollars from a cartel bust months later, the team gets picked off one by one. They succumb to their vices and let the paranoia and money go in over their head; this suspicion of each other effectively destroys the brotherhood. Wharton, already walking down a lonely path refusing to let the killings of his family go, is made subsequently worse with the offing of his team members.
Already with this shot the film's nihilistic message about the futility of the war on drugs is already established. There will be no winners or losers, just evil acts and their survivors. When he unsuccessfully tries to track down his family's killers, it haunts him to the point where it corrupts his soul, making him less gung-ho and more of a suicidal man on a mission. The suicidal factor becomes complete when he discovers that his actions may have led to the subsequent killings of his own team members in increasingly ghastly ways, pushing him even further down the brink as he tries to grasp that he's failing to protect the next thing that matters to him the most – his brotherhood.
Ayer and his team have crafted a dark, nightmarish and cynical world to the point of borderline nihilism. The few women shown in this film are either brutalized, objectified or corrupted – with the exception of two very interesting characters: the character of Lizzy with her coked-out bravado in a scene-stealing performance by Enos (TV's "The Killing"); and Investigator Brentwood (Olivia Williams with an over-the-top Southern accent more ludicrous than Schwarzenegger's) as a tough-as-nails detective that brings a strong foil to Arnold's character - the two make for an unusual but effective action duo near the end.
All of these themes were explored in various movies before, for better or worse. This concept was concocted by Skip Woods, whom you may remember butchered the last "Die Hard" film. Of course one can see the flaws of Woods' story through some inane plot plodding, but Ayer's drastic rewriting of Woods' script fleshes out these themes as an examination of machismo to go along with the beefcake story. Adding more muscle to the film is Ayer's handsome direction that strongly echoes Walter Hill and Sam Peckinpah in terms of rough-tough violence, which keeps the film feel like a strong sense of realism even as the deaths become increasingly graphic and macabre. With a frantic eye from cinematographer Bruce McCleery displaying the raw gritty look; and a mean, equally moody score by David Sardy, the film looks and feels so modern it *almost* makes you forget you're watching a Schwarzenegger film – because as few as the action sequences come, Ayer delivers on the thrills and doesn't relent on them once they start. This is the most violent Schwarzenegger film I've ever seen. I'm not talking about the body count - the extremely graphic and methodical ways the team members get offed take center stage in the violent department - even involving some completely innocent blood. Trust me when I say that this is not a film to bring your kids into - some of the gory content reach "Saw" levels. The film also has the most gruesome and horrific end to any car chase I've seen.
"Sabotage" ends up slightly weaker than "End of Watch" due to some plot issues and some really hackneyed writing, and not because of Arnold Schwarzenegger, who I honestly think is a strength for the movie: in a subtle, subdued performance, he nails the role for the most part – he looks like a guy who's been through hell and seen it all, and has more or less succumbed to the dreary lifestyle accustomed with his job. A lot of people are quick to write off his acting due to his thick, iconic Austrian accent and inability to act in something serious.
Arnie proves that he can act well if he wanted to, providing that audiences are willing to see that. Not an easy task when the heavy accent proves hard to take him seriously, but pleasantly, gone are the gung-ho self-awareness and ridiculous one-liners; here he becomes a ruthless, desperate character that creates unease rather than pleasing the crowd. For him, this could be the start for more challenging, dramatic roles - accent be damned. It could be the perfect coda to Arnold's action career, like an Austrian cowboy riding off into the sunset - providing that he doesn't do any more franchise or action work later.
Enemies Closer (2013)
"Organic. You're a good man..."
Peter Hyams' "Enemies Closer" begins with a crash and ends with a bang, and nothing more or less. The crash belongs to a plane flying below the radar between the US-Canadian border, conforming my belief that Hyams hates aircraft following the odd destruction of helicopters in "Narrow Margin" and "Sudden Death" (I jest), but also setting off a chain of events at the nearby national park involving two war veterans at odds with each other and a deranged vegan-eco lunatic mercenary hell bent on killing anyone who gets in his way and eating wild fruit from the forest.
It's the simplicity of Eric's and James Bromberg's cornball script that caught my attention - most big budget films today tend to be somewhat pretentious in their depiction of certain themes. "Enemies Closer", made with a budget of only US$ 5 million but looks and feels about 4x as much, is about as straightforward as a bullet to the head, without a hint of self-awareness or pretentiousness. It takes itself so seriously, you'll swear you're back in time between the late 80s and early 90s.
Hyams may never be considered an auteur filmmaker in his lifetime, but he is undeniably a skilled craftsman - able to make films of various genres with considerable flair despite not having his own artistic trademark, save for his lush and underrated cinematography (a skill that he is supremely better at than directing) which works wonders for this film as it makes the film look more expensive than it is. Lovely stable shots of dark shadows and silhouetted fight scenes illuminate throughout the last two thirds of the film, stitched together nicely by Hyams' son John (director of the last two "Universal Soldier" films, both equally directed with considerable skill and crisp timing). Special mention goes to Hyams regular production designer Philip Harrison for making the Bulgarian local look and feel like a genuine Canadian-US woodland.
Tom Everett Scott and Orlando Jones are the protagonists in this one. Scott portrays an everyman park ranger who is an ex-soldier haunted by his past (as always), and Jones is the vengeful brother of a soldier who was killed under the ranger's past command. While they will never be considered as real action stars, both Scott and Jones do a believable job with the material they are given, and best of all, NOT annoying.
Both lock horns and one is about to kill the other when a group of French Canadian mercenaries led by the psychopathic Xander crash the party to steal a stash of heroin from the downed plane. This Xander, he is a real piece of work. He is played by Jean-Claude Van Damme, and boy is he having fun with this role.Borrowing bits and pieces from Silva from "Skyfall" and Heath Ledger's Joker, complete with an outrageous hairdo, bizarre mannerisms, and a penchant for badmouthing everything that isn't "green", Van Damme steals every scene he's in with his oddball yet energetic performance. Ever since "The Expendables 2", he looked as if he could have a second life playing great villains. With this movie, it probably could reboot his career if others are willing to see it. His exit from the movie alone deserves a perfect 10/10.
Look, this is not a great movie, not by a long shot. It's corny, it's cheesy and it sounds cheap (the music is pretty bad). However to quote Van Damme, "let's not think about the negatives". The strengths outweigh the flaws, and somehow Hyams, Van Damme and the rest of the cast and crew manage to make this movie work. An efficiently made, straightforward action thriller that pulls no punches, and does what it sets out to do. Now if only the producers at EON could see this and consider JCVD as a Bond villain...
The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)
Cash, debauchery and the pursuit of narcissism
A third into the film, Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) walks and talks to the camera as it tracks along the Stratton Oakmont office floor showing the exaggerated and frantic goings-on in just another day's work. Belfort tells to the audience that the office is about to release an initial public offering stock (IPOs) and proceeds to smugly lecture them about the term, but halfway through he cynically asks that we probably "didn't understand what he said", smiles, and disappears within the rabid office crowd.
It's this stone-cold cynicism that defines Martin Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street", and it permeates throughout nearly the whole movie up until the final 15 minutes. We watch and wince in parts awestruck, in shock and in double takes (sometimes all three at once) as we witness the rise and fall of Belfort as he confidently narrates and provides commentary on the current situation being shown. Like two of Martin Scorsese's more popular films, "GoodFellas" and "Casino", "Wolf" relies on a cynical narrator who comments dryly on interesting situations. Like both movies, it has the protagonist working his way to the top for the first half of the movie - "Wolf" chronicles his beginnings by being advised by his boss (a brief but hilarious Matthew McConaughey) on his first day of work on the benefits of drugs and sex on the job; selling penny stocks for thousands after said job didn't turn out well; opening a firm with his ragtag pals and new partner Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill); and dumping his caring first wife (Cristin Miloti) and goes after a gorgeous fashionista (Margot Robbie). Once Belfort hits the top with the release of an IPO, in typical Scorsese fashion, it all goes downhill from there. The feds start paying attention, with one no-nonsense agent (Kyle Chandler) hot on his tail. Cracks are shown in the organization, especially Belfort and Azoff. Suddenly the hedonism inconspicuously transforms into the critical, and the actions of Belfort and his crew are then placed upon the judgment of the Feds and us, the audience.
All of these sequences are directed, written, shot and edited with a hedonistic glee and critical eye, never bucking down to genre conventions and techniques, always on the move. Scorsese hasn't been this lively since "Casino" and it shows with the terrific and brisk direction, extreme content and perfectly-timed and well-chosen music to go along with the madness that is Stratton Oakfort. To be able to contain such an impressive cast without them outweighing the real center of the film - DiCaprio - as well as juggling acts of debauchery with a critical eye on the desires of human beings - that is the feat of a great filmmaker. To be able to do so with such gusto and energy with a boldness not seen since the '70s, that is a remarkable part on Scorsese to not buck under the political correctness of today. If it happened like that, then it happened like that, why the need to neuter? This is not just on the part of Scorsese, but the very well-written screenplay by Terence Winter which crackles with whip-smart and sharp dialogue throughout; and Rodrigo Prieto's camera-work which bursts out a wide array of colors in every scene, going against the current norm of bleached, gritty looks in films and concerns itself for making the film look as vivid and lurid as Belfort's mind.
"Wolf" doesn't slow down the moment the film starts. What follows for a whopping three hours are one cynical and narcissistic act of debauchery after another. Not that the film uses its suggestive content (sexuality, nudity, drug use and language combined border on the hard R side) to wildly bombard the audience with excess, but a key role in ensuring the film is never boring is the editing by Scorsese's editing muse, the great Thelma Schoonmaker, who paces these acts so accordingly they seem like circus troupes of insanity lining up one after another for a performance.
The center of the whole film, not just the editing, nor the writing, nor even the direction or the amazing ensemble supporting cast (which includes Rob Reiner, Jon Favreau, Jon Bernthal and Jean Dujardin among others already mentioned), but the absolutely brilliant performance of DiCaprio as Belfort. Like Scorsese here, DiCaprio goes completely for broke in this performance, playing a despicable man so self-obsessed that both his best friend and worst enemy is himself. DiCaprio makes it a miracle to actually make us laugh at this character with his insane Nicolas-Cage-like performance (there is a 15-minute sequence involving DiCaprio and Hill, both coked out and arguing, that had the entire audience rolling with laughter throughout). He drinks, he parties hard, he snorts cocaine, he has wild sex, he gets a drug-induced trip, even in one scene he gets a candle put in an, err, interesting place. And the next day he's off to work in a suit after a snort of cocaine, as if nothing happened the previous day.
Like all great actor-director collaborations, they always work off each other's strengths to create something exceptional, and DiCaprio's and Scorsese's tandems bounce off each other perfectly, creating exceptional entertainment and an in-your-face look at how depraved the human obsession can really get. This is the kind of lifestyle that the brilliant documentary "Inside Man" told us about, but were afraid to show us. Now I know how it feels like, and although it is hilarious, it is also very, very startling.