Movie Review: 3 Days to Kill (2014)

May 21, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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When I first saw the poster for Three Days to Kill, I was pretty certain that it would be a Taken ripoff with Kevin Costner as the Liam Neeson character and Amber Heard as his daughter. She gets kidnapped or something and he has three days to use his considerable abilities — ie, killing people — to get her back. I was wrong, but maybe it would have been better than what it turned out to be.

As it turned out, Three Days to Kill is very different to what I imagined. Kevin Costner is a CIA “lifer” sent into retirement due to dire health reasons and tries to rekindle his broken relationship with his estranged wife (Connie Nielsen) and daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), who are both living in France. So who the heck does Amber Heard play? A CIA assassin who coaxes Costner to complete one final mission in return for an “experimental drug” that could save his life. So the film is essentially a father-daughter bonding movie (they have three days to spend together, hence the title, but it’s also a pun because his mission is to kill someone — get it?). There are action sequences and all, but the heart of it is about a dying man doing his best to make it up to his family.

The screenplay is co-written by French master Luc Besson, and you do get a sense of his influence through the dialogue and the occasional use of humour. The director, on the other hand, is none other than McG, best known for the Charlie’s Angels films and Terminator Salvation, so in that respect you know expectations ought not to be so high. The technical aspects of it, including the action, are well executed, but the film falls way short in its desire to generate any genuine emotion from the family conflicts.

Kevin Costner, who has re-emerged as of late in supporting roles, does his best here as a poor man’s Liam Neeson. You can kind of see him as an ex-CIA killer, and you can definitely see him as an old, dying man whose prime left him a long time ago. Hailee Steinfeld, who was nominated for an Oscar for True Grit, is not bad either as the typical teenage daughter, but there’s not much we haven’t seen before from characters of this type.

The WTF award goes to Amber Heard. Seriously, it’s one of the weirdest roles I have ever seen. She is introduced as a serious CIA assassin in the very first scene, but for the entire movie she does — wait for it — absolutely nothing. She just stands and observes from a distance, showing up every now and then in tight outfits for no apparent reason other than to provide (sometimes unintentional) comic relief. I thought her job was to kill people — but then why is she getting Costner to do her job for her? And why does she have access to a test drug? None of it makes any sense.

In the end, I don’t really know what they were trying to do here. It’s commendable that there is an actual story here rather than just an attempt to rip off Taken, but having said that the father-daughter relationship by itself did not have enough substance or originality to keep the film afloat. The action was adequate but nothing special, and while the black humour and one liners were welcome it was fairly standard stuff from Luc Besson. It’s not terrible, and I did find some moments entertaining and fun, but at best 3 Days to Kill qualifies as no more than a solid DVD rental.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

April 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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It’s not often that a film with mostly western actors gets released in Asia nearly a year before in the US, but that’s the case with Snowpiercer, a wild sci-fi action thriller starring big names such as Chris Evans, John Hurt, Jamie Bell, Tilda Swinton, Ed Harris and Octavia Spencer. The reason why Snowpiercer isn’t released in the US yet (apparently it will get a limited release on June 27, 2014) is because it’s actually a South Korean film directed by Bong Joon-ho (what a great name), best known for the wacky monster movie The Host (not to be confused with the Stephenie Meyer adaptation) from 2006.

Anyway, despite all its flaws, I had a fantastic time with Snowpiercer, which I think is one of the more original sci-fi flicks to hit our screens in some time. It’s actually based on a French graphic novel and is about a post-apocalyptic world where the survivors of a disastrous anti-global warming experiment that has frozen the entire planet live on a never-stopping train that travels in loops around the planet. There is of course a class system on the train, with the elites up the front and the poor stuck in the back in horrific conditions. The film focuses on a man called Curtis (Chris Evans), who is sick of the mistreatment and decides to launch a revolt from the back of the train.

Snowpiercer  is ludicrous in many ways and requires a certain level of belief suspension, but it works in the end because Bong manages to balance a weird, wacky sense of surrealism often seen in Korean films with violent action and gritty drama while not forgetting about the political messages and clever satire. It’s a unique blend that sometimes treads a fine line and occasionally gets a little too surreal for my liking, but on the whole I think it gets the job done. I’m convinced a Hollywood director wouldn’t have been able to create the same type of feel, and I’m glad there won’t be any America remakes because they won’t be necessary with only two key Korean characters (The Host’s Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung, who again play father and daughter).

For me, the greatest strength of the film is the depiction of the idea itself and the world in which they live in. The special effects are not exceptional, but they are good enough for a Hollywood blockbuster. The action also fits in with the rest of the film — it’s brutally violent in some respects but lacks genuine realism — in a good way — so that you never get the urge to turn away or categorize it as gratuitous.

The performances are solid, though not many characters are properly developed given the focus on the action. I had just seen Chris Evans and his blonde locks in Captain America: The Winter Soldier, and he was almost unrecognisable here with the scruffy brown hair and dark stubble. Tilda Swinton is also fantastic and equally unrecognisable with her huge teeth as the nasty Minister Mason, while a special mention goes out to Alison Pill (from The Newsroom) for her small but important role as a creepy school teacher.

Snowpiercer is the type of film that doesn’t hold up to intense scrutiny because of how crazy its premise is, but thanks to the skillful direction of Bong and the fast-paced action it’s an excellent and thought-provoking piece of sci-fi entertainment that would make an awesome DVD rental or on-demand stream if it doesn’t get the recognition it deserves at the cinemas.

4 stars our of 5

Movie Review: Escape Plan (2013)

February 26, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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If you want a lot of shooting, explosions and incoherent mumbling, then Escape Plan is just the film for you.

Sly Stallone is a sly man who is a master at breaking out of high security prisons. He’s like Michael Scofield, except he gets paid for it and doesn’t need to tattoo the prison’s entire floor plan on his body every time (plus he’s really old and ugly and pumped with steroids).

Anyway, he gets a great offer to break out of an insanely secured private prison, but as soon as he gets there he realizes he might have bitten off more than he could chew. Fortunately for Sly, there’s another clever dude in the prison with him played by the Governator, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and together they have to figure a way out of the prison despite the evil warden, Jesus (ie Jim Caviezel), doing everything he can to keep them there.

Look, I was under no illusions Escape Plan was going to be The Shawshank Redemption 2.0. I knew it was going to be silly and cheesy, but I also hoped it would be fun and entertaining. The first half of the film, at least, was exactly that. I had a great time watching Sly figure out ingenious ways to overcome prison security and him slugging it out with Arnie in good natured tussles.

As the film progressed, however, it became clear that the brilliantly concocted “escape plan” was actually just to kill everyone and blow everything up, which when you think about who the lead actors are it suddenly becomes perfectly logical. In that sense I was disappointed because the beginning of the film suggested they would have to come up with something extremely clever, but in the end they just went for the dumbest, and as it turned out, most effective route. That said, Sly strutting around in massive platform boots so that he looks nearly as tall as Arnie made the mission exponentially more difficult.

One major problem I had with the film was trying to decipher what Stallone was trying to say throughout the entire movie. It was already hard enough trying to understand Arnie’s accent, but Stallone was just impossible. All I kept hearing was “ruburuburuburubu” and possibly the occasional “Adriaaaaaaan!” The man needs subtitles, or dubbing, or preferably, both. Accordingly, some of the film’s convoluted plot also went right over my head, though by the end it was easy enough to work backwards and figure it all out.

The verdict? Despite the lack of surprises, Escape Plan delivers in terms of popcorn entertainment, cheesy lines and star power. I just wish the escape plan itself could have been cleverer.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 47 Ronin (2013) (2D)

January 5, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Every Keanu Reeves movie can be summed up with one word: “whoa.” Unfortunately, his latest, 47 Ronin, is not a good “whoa.” It’s not a horrible “whoa” either. On the one hand it wasn’t as rubbish as expected, though on the other it lacked the excitement of the crazy samurai action I had looked forward to.

I’ve been a fan of Keanu since the Paul Abdul Rush, Rush days — actually, even before that, back to the Bill & Ted era (“Socrates!”), but these days all the news we get from him are from people posting videos of him giving up his seat on the subway.

Anyway, while Keanu has been in movies in recent years, none of them high-profile since the 2008 remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still. That alone was reason to get me excited about 47 Ronin, supposedly based on a Japanese legend (one I didn’t know about until the credits rolled). If you’ve seen the trailers, however, you’ll know this film is set firmly in fantasy land, with witchcraft, mystical creatures and demons all part of the norm in its world.

Keanu plays Kai, a mysterious half-breed (half British, half Japanese) who was discovered in the woods and raised by Lord Asano, who has a whole bunch of samurai under his command. While he is a master swordsman who can duel with the best of them, Kai is not officially a samurai and is looked down upon by the samurai in town. One day a powerful Shogun arrives in town with Lord Kira, an evil dude with ambitions of ruling all of Japan. Kira is aided by a witch played by Rinko Kikuchi (last seen in Pacific Rimwho is so obviously a demon because of her different-colored eyes and demonic behaviour.

Anyway, yada yada yada, and Kai and the samurai are left without a master, thus rendering them ronin (ie, samurai without a master). The rest of the story is how they, led by Oishi (played by The Wolverine and The Last Samurai’s Hiroyuki Sanada) set about plotting their revenge. And there is a love story somewhere in there, with Lord Asano’s daughter Mika, who is in love with Kai, betrothed to Lord Kira.

The thing with 47 Ronin is that its silliness is only matched by how seriously it takes itself. There are almost no jokes in this movie, and all the laughs are unintentional, with the biggest ones coming from Rinko Kikuchi’s over-the-top performance as the witch. When there are colourful giant monsters roaming the land for no reason, a whole clan of monks who look like Voldemort living in the woods and massive samurai dudes with no face and act like robots, you would think they might have a bit of fun with it. But no. Instead, 47 Samurai is as straight as they come, which makes a lot of the drama hard to engage and difficult to swallow.

Speaking of drama, there was way too much of it in proportion to the action. I had expected 47 Ronin to about a bunch of badasses who travel the land doing justice against demons or whatever, but there was a lot of poorly executed “character development” which was completely pointless for a film like this. As a result, large portions of the film have little action and are focused on the limp romance and a long arc where the samurai trying to find swords — which is moronic considering Kai had just been to a place where he was shot at by GUNS! Hello? How about getting some of those instead?

Another struggle I had was listening to the Japanese actors trying to speak in English. It’s not that I had problems understanding what they said, but it was so obviously a struggle for some of them that it felt awkward sitting through. I guess at the end of the day it’s easier to make 50 Japanese actors speak English than trying to get Keanu to speak in Japanese. The special effects were also just OK in my opinion, a little fake in some areas though not to the point there it became a distraction.

For all its faults, 47 Ronin is passably entertaining for its 119-minute running time, which is actually more than I anticipated. There are a few solid action and battle scenes (though fewer than I expected) and some cool ideas and creatures that fans of feudal Japan and samurai manga/video games should enjoy. It’s just a shame that the script and direction sapped all the fun or adventure out of it, effectively wasting the interesting premise and potential for genuine excitement and thrills. They may have had the basic concept pointed in the right direction, but in the end, 47 Ronin fell well off the mark.

2.75 stars out of 5

PS: I didn’t even know this was available in 3D.

Movie Review: Elysium (2013) (IMAX)

August 10, 2013 in Movie Reviews

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Elysium is a thrilling sci-fi action blockbuster with a thought-provoking premise, but it also requires you to partly switch of your brain to fully enjoy it.

I was expecting an intelligent thriller as Elysium is director Neill Blomkamp’s highly-anticipated follow-up to the acclaimed District 9, which you might recall was a clever and cheeky 2009 sleeper hit inspired by South Africa’s apartheid era. But if you watch Elysium looking forward to the same sharp wit and veiled political commentary you will probably come away disappointed. On the other hand, if all you want is exciting popcorn entertainment, then Elysium will surely satisfy as a violent, white-knuckle thrill ride with a suped-up Jason Bourne.

Towards the end of the 21st century, Earth is overpopulated, polluted and practically in ruins. The wealthy don’t have anything to worry about, because they live on a luxurious man-made community floating above the planet’s atmosphere called Elysium, where there is no poverty, no disease, and presumably, no need for people to commit any crime.

Matt Damon plays Max, an Earthling who dreamed of one day making it to Elysium as a kid but instead grew up to be a crafty criminal — well, ex-criminal, because he now works at a factory manufacturing the same androids that police their sad, wretched, pathetic lives.

I’ll try to tread around spoilers, but of course, Max needs to make it to Elysium at all costs. Standing in his way is Jodie Foster, the defense minister on Elysium, and the crazy South African mad dog she hired to do her dirty work on Earth, played by Sharlto Copley (the protagonist from District 9).

I was surprised that Elysium turned out to be such a straightforward sci-fi action flick (complete with the typical cliches), which may not have been a bad thing had the premise not held so much potential. Yes, there are obvious moral themes that emerge out of the premise, but most of these are only touched upon on the surface.

There are a lot of things left unexplained: How did the world get like this? How did Elysium get built? What’s the political or legal system there and on Earth and between the two? How is it possible that every house on Elysium has a miraculous machine that can cure all diseases (including cancer), perform instant surgeries and even reconstruct body parts — and Earth not even have a single one? Are there no altruistic rich people anymore? I’m not talking about a comprehensive explanation, just some hints. Oh, and I would have loved to have seen more of what people actually do on Elysium — apart from high society afternoon parties and dips in the pool.

And those are just the questions about the background. Elysium also raises many other in-film questions that, if left unanswered, result in Prometheus-sized plot holes. Perhaps I’m being picky, but I had so many questions about what was happening that it became a distraction at times.

If you can put these issues aside and just go along for the ride, however, then you might find Elysium a highly entertaining film powered by near-seamless special effects and inventive sci-fi creations. Watching Matt Damon run around, getting smashed and smashing people and being Matt Damon is never a bad thing anyway.

Elysium has plenty of graphic violence that could shock viewers unfamiliar with Blomkamp’s style, but personally I don’t have a problem with some visceral stimulation every now and then. What I did have a problem with was some of the intentionally shaky camera movements and quick cuts during some of the action sequences, especially the hand-to-hand combat scenes. I just prefer clarity.

The performances were interesting. Matt Damon was his usual steady self, focused and charming and dedicated to the task. He was believable and probably the only character to experience any development throughout the whole movie. Sharlto Copley got to play the cool villain by being a complete nutjob, albeit an extremely dangerous and lethal one. Strangely, it was the dual Academy Award winner, Jodie Foster, who ended up as the weak link. I think she what she could with her flimsy lines, but she couldn’t help that her character was a cardboard cutout who was never as important as we thought she was.

Final word: Viewers expecting Elysium to be Blomkamp’s allegorical portrayal of the world’s growing wealth gap in the same way he tackled apartheid in District 9 might be disappointed. But who says all of his movies need to have a potent political message? In many ways, I actually enjoyed Elysium more than District 9. With a considerably bigger budget (US$115 million vs US$30 million), enhanced star power and an enlarged scale (seeing it on IMAX was particularly stunning), Elysium is one of the year’s more exciting and aesthetically impressive action blockbusters. It might not tick all the boxes, but the film is never boring and should keep audiences completely engaged for its apt 109-minute running time.

3.5 stars out of 5

 
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