3/22/17

JOHN WICK: CHAPTER 2 - REVIEW


It's a fine line between a good thriller and a silly one but the first John Wick movie walked that line effortlessly delivering a tongue-in-cheek action flick with the perfect balance of cool and goofy. The film gave Keanu Reeves the comeback he deserved and a sequel soon followed.

John Wick: Chapter 2 picks up roughly where the last film left off with John Wick facing the Russian mob in order to retrieve his beloved black Mustang. Of course, this leads to a big fight scene where John Wick goes around punching, kicking and shooting anything that moves in a parking garage before calling it even with Peter Stormare's mob boss. There's a short cameo from John Leguizamo, who played Wick's mechanic friend in the first movie, and the plot finally kicks in. This time, John Wick is forced to pay back his debt to an ex-assassin colleague when the latter blows up his entire house after Wick initially refuses to help. Pissed off but looking to quickly end this, Wick promptly travels to Rome where he finds yet another assassin-friendly hotel and he sets out to kill the sister of crime lord Santino D'Antonio (Riccardo Scamarcio) who hired him for the job.

John Wick is predictably betrayed and he finds himself on the run from every single assassin in the world after D'Antonio offers a hefty reward for anyone who successfully takes him out. Wick gets some help from Laurence Fishburne's underground criminal and everything after that is more kicking, punching and shooting. The fight sequences are just as entertaining and stylish as they were the first time around, with some great choreography throughout, and Keanu Reeves makes a convincing professional badass once again. Having Fishburne there for a kind of mini Matrix reunion is a nice bonus and the plot gets more and more interesting as it develops. The film has its slower moments so it doesn't flow quite as well as its predecessor but it's never boring and it sets itself up for a cool third chapter masterfully. This sequel is slightly more absurd but it still works somehow.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is maybe not the most memorable thriller out there but it builds on the first film cleverly, expanding its unlikely but fun assassins universe and giving John Wick more impossible tasks to accomplish so you'll definitely have a good time watching it, especially if you loved the original.

Solid sequel.

3/20/17

BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (2017) - REVIEW


Another year, another Disney live-action adaptation of one of their most beloved animated classics. This time, it's Beauty And The Beast's turn with Emma Watson taking on the role of Belle and Dan Stevens as the Beast.

It's been a hit-and-miss road for Disney with even its best remakes being just about average and still very much inferior to the originals. The Jungle Book may have killed at the box-office but it failed to capture the charm of the old film so this new outing, with the tons of CGI the trailers promised, looked like more of the same. The film opens with a ball taking place in the Prince's castle when an Enchantress in disguise shows up and puts a spell on him and everyone there. The expanded yet well-handled sequence leads us to more familiar territory as Belle is introduced and a big musical number follows. These first few minutes set the tone for things to come: some parts of the story are stretched longer, other parts are pretty much shot-for-shot exactly like they were in the original and, miraculously, it all works rather well together. Emma Watson may not have been the obvious choice to play Belle but she handles the role gracefully and even does a good job with the songs.

This live-action Beauty And The Beast is basically what Cinderella tried to be except this particular film succeeds: a charming, old-fashioned musical fairy-tale with some slight updates and plenty of respect for the original animation. The cast is pretty spot-on with Luke Evans and Josh Gad proving to be inspired choices to play Gaston and Le Fou while the likes of Emma Thompson, Kevin Kline, Ewan McGregor, Ian McKellen and Stanley Tucci all offer excellent support. The beautiful score is perfectly recreated, as are the musical numbers, something that Jungle Book simply couldn't get right. This is a very faithful adaptation of the animated classic as it recreates every memorable moment from that film to the letter without, and this is the key, messing it up. We go slightly deeper into Belle's pre-"Provincial Life" and there a couple of new songs added to the mix but those additions are never distracting and blend in surprisingly well.

Overall, this could have easily been yet another bland cash-in for Disney but real effort was put into retelling a tale as old as time with all the heart and fun the original had to offer. There's certainly an overuse of CGI here and there are a couple of odd character design choices but those are nitpicks as this remake somehow achieved the impossible (a good Disney remake) and that's no easy feat.

Well played, Disney.

3/17/17

KONG: SKULL ISLAND - REVIEW


With cinematic superhero crossover universes currently competing, so too it looks like monster universes are about to fight it out with The Mummy possibly being the first of a modern Universal Monsters reboot franchise and Godzilla facing Kong in an upcoming sequel.

Kong: Skull Island introduces us to the mighty King Kong in a prequel of sorts where a group approved by the US government travels to the evasive Skull Island with a military escort in the 1970's. Don't expect Kong to get chained up and brought back to New York City where he climbs up the Empire State Building etc. in this one. There are some clever nods to these familiar events throughout the film but it's mercifully not just a straight-up retread and, stylistically, it is very different than Peter Jackson's King Kong from 2005. Kong: Skull Island owes a lot more to the likes of Apocalypse Now, Predators and the more over-the-top classic Kong sequels than the 1933 original or any remake. The early trailers for Skull Island made it feel very much in the same vein as the recent Godzilla reboot, that is to say moody, epic and very serious. The actual film is frankly more of a B-movie and its tone is far sillier than you'd expect. 

Packed with every horror and Vietnam War cliché you could think of, one-dimensional characters and hilarious death scenes à la Jurassic Park, this is a proudly hammy monster movie with far more action and carnage than Godzilla but zero realism. And although one wonders how both films will come together in a single crossover, there's something to be said about each film in a shared universe being radically different and not simply copy-pasting whatever template was set early on. Kong: Skull Island has a solid cast that includes John Goodman, Tom Hiddleston, Samuel L. Jackson, Brie Larson and John C. Reilly. The latter effortlessly steals the show as the eccentric Lieutenant who spent too long living on the island but who is, ironically, the sanest of the lot. Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman are both reliably good but the rest of the cast is unfortunately wooden, mostly due to their characters being underwritten. The film's monster is also its hero yet Kong arguably looks more intimidating than we've seen him look thusfar, which is a valid depiction.

Story-wise, Kong: Skull Island is simple enough yet it does get side-tracked often and, as a result, the film feels a bit longer than its 2 hour running time. Once the crew lands on Skull Island, the action starts right away, which is cool, but the build-up before that is borderline dull. By the time Samuel L. Jackson's war-hungry Colonel decides to take the group on a side-quest, you'll be wishing for the third act. That said, there are plenty of impressive action sequences to keep you entertained as Kong battles various larger-than-life creatures plus the military in full attack mode while the humans get killed off one after the other in increasingly entertaining (and brutal) ways. Whether it's a giant spider literally stepping inside someone's throat or flying creatures picking off a dude and cutting him to pieces Jurassic World-style, this movie is so cruel to its characters that it makes it consistently impossible to predict who will go next and in what ridiculous fashion.

This is by no means a perfect film and some, no doubt, won't be able to look past its flaws but this is a good old fashioned shut-your-brain-off kind of blockbuster: very dumb, yes, but in a good way. Visually it's a treat and it delivers a lot more spectacle than Godzilla so monster movie fans should leave the theatre satisfied.

Fun.

3/16/17

THE THIRD MAN - REVIEW


Written by Graham Greene, The Third Man was a 1949 film noir starring Joseph Cotten as a writer arriving in post-WWII Vienna only to find that his friend was killed in a car accident. After some inconsistencies with that story come to light, he starts to look deeper into the case.

A British production, Carol Reed's film is not your typical film noir with its unusually upbeat yet genuinely inspired zither-led score and the rarely seen broken Vienna setting offering a particularly atmospheric backdrop for the mystery to unfold. Joseph Cotten's Holly Martin is a likeable makeshift detective who wants to know the truth about what happened to his friend Harry Lime yet the closer he gets to figuring it all out, the darker his path becomes. Italian actress Alida Valli is very good as Lime's actress girlfriend Anna Schmidt who assists Holly on his search and Orson Welles almost steals the show when he shows up randomly near the end of the second act. The Third Man has some clever surprises, plenty of off-beat and dodgy side characters and it's never dull.

Robert Krasker's cinematography is one of the highlights of the film with the harsh lighting giving the bombed, empty streets of Vienna and the city's cavernous sewers a sinister, almost gothic feel. Every shot is beautifully crafted (yes, even the Dutch angles) and some key scenes are hard to forget from the tense final chase in the sewers to the big reveals the plot builds up to. Like Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca, we keep hearing the name "Harry Lime" over and over throughout, so much so that we start to feel like we know the man but, in a bold move, the film then pulls the rug from under us and becomes something else entirely. This is a dark but also playful movie that purposely sets itself apart from your typical private detective, US-set film noir fare through its style and tone but works just as well, if not better than most other movies in that genre.

The Third Man is something of a must-see if you're a fan of film noir or cinema in general: the film looks fantastic and it tries some new things with a then over-familiar genre. The cast is flawless, the music is wacky (in a good way) and the story is masterfully told.

Classic.

LOGAN - REVIEW


After two disappointing and critically panned Wolverine movies, Hugh Jackman returns to conclude his X-Men spin-off trilogy on a high note with Logan, the film that, he claimed, would be his last time ever playing the role.

We meet Logan much later in the timeline: he is older, weaker, he's an alcoholic limo driver whose days are spent picking up meds to appease a sick Professor Xavier's (Patrick Stewart) deadly seizures. His eyesight is failing, he isn't healing as fast as he used to, even his claws get stuck when they come out so this is a post-Wolverine Logan at his absolute worst on his most physically draining mission yet. Because he is more vulnerable, you feel every punch, every stab and it's genuinely heartbreaking to see such a tough, once unbreakable superhero on auto-pilot, even considering suicide as an option. This is a dark, gritty and mercifully R-rated take on the character FOX studios were reluctant to jump into for so long and yet it's apparent from the very first scene that this should have been the template for every Wolverine solo movie from the beginning.

The cartoonish Wolverine: Origins was too silly to make any sort of impact and The Wolverine just felt like a bland, irrelevant side mission whereas Logan not only moves the iconic character's story forward but shows us a deeper side to him and, for the first time, makes us care for Wolverine who was, let's be honest, mostly one-dimensional up to this point. It's also a very effective X-Men movie despite the lack of other main heroes with the exception of Professor X in that its setting feels way more post-apocalyptic, ironically, than X-Men: Apocalypse with all the mutants having been essentially eradicated and the bad guys pursuing Wolverine looking like a bunch of twisted, half-robot Mad Max villains. The plot sees Logan take little mutant girl Laura (Dafne Keen) under his wing after her mother is killed by the aforementioned baddies and they set off, along with an ageing Xavier, to a safe place called Eden where her mutant friends are meant to be waiting for her.

Logan is an often downbeat, largely contemplative road movie that works both as a moody comic-book actioner and a low-key drama. The fight scenes are the most brutal we've seen in the entire X-Men franchise and, refreshingly, there aren't any bombastic, over-the-top action sequences save for a couple of car chases and the climax yet they are so well paced and put together that you don't miss the bigger scale of the other movies. A real effort is made to focus on the characters, their relationships with each other and how these seemingly defeated victims of their past and an unkind society get back up and fight on. The emotional scenes are genuinely powerful but there are also lighter moments and the film never gets too depressing or too goofy, keeping a solid balance tonally throughout. Both Hugh Jackman and Patrick Stewart are excellent, newcomer Dafne Keen does a good job but, to nitpick slightly, while Stephen Merchant and Richard E. Grant are good in the roles they've been given, their characters never feel entirely necessary.

With Marvel Studios' Disney output getting larger and larger in scale, it's comforting to see a more human comic-book movie with characters you can actually relate to. This is easily the most realistic Marvel superhero movie ever made and, while it's not quite The Dark Knight, it's certainly right up there with the best of the best.

A must, bub.

3/15/17

BEE MOVIE - REVIEW


Nearly 10 years after their last insect-themed movie Antz, Dreamworks released Bee Movie, an animated feature in which Jerry Seinfeld, of all people, voices a bee who discovers the ugly truth about how humans gather their honey and sell it without the bees' permission.

There's something inherently wacky about this whole movie, from the look of the characters to the plot itself which is really over-the-top. In Antz, everything happened in the ant colony below Manhattan so you could easily suspend disbelief whereas Bee Movie goes all out and giddily breaks, if not a fourth wall, a third wall as the bees start interacting with the human characters directly and even sue humanity in a court of law over honey. As silly as this all sounds, Bee Movie knows exactly how goofy it is and it enjoys every minute of it. Co-written by Jerry Seinfeld himself, this film plays out both like a straight-up kids' movie but also a pastiche of animated films like Toy Story or other Disney movies where inanimate objects or animals interact with humans like it's a totally normal thing. This is a much more clever animated film than it seems from just looking at the poster or even watching the trailer and this is mostly due to a pretty sharp script.

The bee world the film creates is colourful and fun, sort of like a cross between the off-beat society of Monsters Inc. and the isolated yet rich working world of Antz, so that alone should entertain younger viewers. The film is also very funny throughout, there's always something entertaining going on and it's surprisingly unpredictable. The voice cast, which includes Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Matthew Broderick, Renée Zellweger, John Goodman and others is very good and, as ludicrous as it is, the plot is a lot of fun to sit through as you keep expecting the film to write itself into a corner but it never happens. The movie admittedly takes some huge leaps of logic but every time it does that, there's usually a joke about how silly it all is following soon after. There is plenty for adult viewers to enjoy in Bee Movie, believe it or not, from the scene where Barry (Seinfeld) debates Bee Larry King on television to random cameos by the likes of Sting and Ray Liotta and the spoof elements.

On the surface, Bee Movie really looks like just another ridiculous, half-assed cash-in but this is actually a genuinely enjoyable little animated comedy kids and their parents (Seinfeld fans or not) alike should have a great time watching.

Underrated.

3/14/17

A CURE FOR WELLNESS - VLOG 14/03/17


I talk about Gore Verbinski's latest horror thriller A Cure For Wellness.

BURN AFTER READING - REVIEW


Back in 2008, the Coen Brothers delivered Burn After Reading, an off-beat comedy about a group of idiotic nobodies who find themselves entangled in a ridiculous plot involving an ex-CIA operative and his leaked memoirs.

On paper, this is very much the template for most Coen Brothers comedies with a clueless ensemble having to run around a nonsensical maze of misunderstandings. And yet, Burn After Reading is very different than the filmmakers' earlier works in the same genre like The Big Lebowski or even Raising Arizona. The main difference here is that there essentially isn't a plot in this film with characters all working towards their own individual goals without there being one overarching storyline to link it all together. If anything, the CIA is the only common element throughout but with the exception of John Malkovitch's character, who gets fired from the organisation early on, no-one else is directly linked to the CIA and the latter doesn't interfere with what's going on since they can't even figure it out themselves. This makes Burn After Reading a bit of a frustrating watch since it's all about dumb people doing dumb things but it's written and performed so well that it somehow works.

The point of the film being that sometimes there's just no accounting for how random people's actions are and crazy s**t just... happens. The firing of Osborne Cox (Malkovitch) may be a mostly insignificant act but its impact has a domino effect that the flawed characters in this story are not capable of handling. The whole cast from George Clooney's goofy serial-dater to Brad Pitt's mindless gym instructor is flawless and has a hell of a great time delivering all the sharp, funny lines they've been given. Visually, this is one of the Coens' least flashy films but this one really doesn't need anything too fancy in terms of cinematography and art direction so it looks good enough. The lack of a conventional plot might alienate some viewers expecting a clear narrative or a third act that truly ties the room together (Lebowski pun intended) but this is a movie that benefits from repeat viewings as the clever little touches become more apparent once the initial mess is cleared up.

While unlikely to become everyone's favourite Coen Brothers movie, Burn After Reading is an underrated screwball comedy with a hilarious script and an excellent cast. The random nature of the film may be initially distracting but, ultimately, it's a smart and refreshing alternative to dumb mainstream Hollywood comedies.

Funny, goofy stuff.

WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE? - REVIEW


The famously confrontational Joan Crawford and Bette Davis duo finally shared the screen in What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?, a 1962 horror thriller directed by Robert Aldrich. The making of the film is the subject of new FX series Feud starring Jessica Lange and Susan Sarandon.

Like a cross between Sunset Boulevard and Psycho, What Ever Happened To Baby Jane? explores themes like madness, jealousy and guilt in a Hollywood setting as Bette Davis' ex child star "Baby" Jane Hudson keeps her disabled sister Blanche (Joan Crawford) imprisoned in their house feeding her rats and scaring the crap out of her. The film first gives us some background on the sisters as we see Baby Jane singing to a crowd of fans very much in her element: she is talented but also a spoiled brat. Blanche, on the other hand, is cast aside by her father who is too busy pushing Jane down the path of stardom. Skip to a few years later and the tables have turned with Blanche being a respected Hollywood star and Jane struggling to find roles due to her alcoholism and bad attitude. This culminates in an unfortunate event that denies Blanche the use of her legs and we finally flash forward to present day.

Blanche is stuck in her bedroom on the first floor of a big, fancy house where she watches her own movies, missing the old days. Meanwhile, a visibly bitter and unhinged Jane occasionally brings her food but eavesdrops on her constantly and doesn't let her leave the house. It's a crazy set-up but it's realistic enough that you instantly feel bad for Blanche and try to figure out ways that she could escape. Bette Davis gives her most stand-out performance as "Baby" Jane, a moody has-been with the worst case of denial you've ever seen: she is tragic yet chilling and very manipulative so you never know which Jane you'll get from one scene to the next. Both actresses deliver powerful performances playing two characters who are broken and, as you later find out, beyond saving. Packed with memorably creepy and bizarre scenes, the film is hypnotic and tense throughout. Add a Davis and Crawford at their best and most daring and you've got yourself a must-see.

Like Psycho, this is a psychological thriller that was way ahead of its time, boldly turning two ex-starlets into morally questionable biddies playing out a thoroughly sinister scenario that will make neither of them look all that good.

Masterpiece.

3/13/17

THE LAST SAMURAI - REVIEW


Back in 2003, Tom Cruise starred in Edward Zwick's The Last Samurai, a film chronicling the fall of the samurai at the hands of a tactical collaboration between an increasingly modern Japanese government, its Emperor and the US.

If you can get past the idea of Tom Cruise as a samurai and the fact that this is basically Dances With Wolves in a different setting, then The Last Samurai is actually a very good film. Cruise plays disillusioned, alcoholic former US Army Captain Nathan Algren, who is haunted by the memories of massacres involving Native American civilians, as he is hired to help train the Japanese army. He reluctantly agrees to travel to Japan and teach the Japanese soldiers how to use modern weaponry but he is captured after an impromptu battle against the samurai and is brought back to a village where he gets to know Ken Watanabe's Lord Mastumoto, the leader of the samurai rebellion, and learns the ways of the samurai. Realising how much of an underdog the samurai really are having been betrayed by their new Emperor and essentially wiped out, Algren starts training on their side and eventually joins them in their fight against the Japanese army and the Americans.

As derivative and predictable as it is, The Last Samurai remains a compelling, really well made historical epic with a solid cast that includes Hiroyuki Sanada, Timothy Spall and Billy Connolly plus beautiful cinematography and exciting fight scenes. It's quickly apparent that this was very much a story worth telling even if you have a pretty good idea of how it ends from the get-go. Captain Algren's journey from a down-and-out sharp shooter haunted by his past to an unlikely hero is completely believable. This is a bittersweet story looking at the end of the old world and the birth of a new one from the point of view of the underdogs and although this is likely to be a much more romanticized version of the real events, the film's heart is certainly in the right place. Cruise does a great job both with the action scenes and the more emotional moments. The film itself looks beautiful and is appropriately epic yet also human despite a couple of clichéd lines near the end.

If not one of the most original and memorable war movies out there, The Last Samurai remains a worthwhile film with some excellent cinematography, perfectly choreographed battle scenes and sword fights not to mention strong performances throughout.

Recommended.

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