Recent Movie Reviews: Part VIII

December 18, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Movies reviewed: 2 Guns, Red 2, Paranoia, The Last Days on Mars

2 Guns (2013)

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It really does help improve a movie experience when you know absolutely nothing about it when you step inside the cinema. Such was the case when I saw 2 Guns, which on its face looked like just another guns-blazing crime/buddy action comedy starring Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg, with Paula Patton as the obligatory eye candy. Maybe it’s because of this, I found 2 Guns to be surprisingly entertaining and likable, though at the end of the day my assumptions about it proved to be largely correct and I doubt I’ll remember much about it in a couple of years.

Denzel and Marky Mark play two criminals involved in the drug trade with more to them than meets the eye. It has a twisting and turning plot complete with crooked cops, backstabbing and double-crossing, but it’s executed well and in a light and humorous tone. The action itself is nothing special, and the jokes are passable, but the film stays afloat thanks to the banter between the two charismatic leads, who provide different styles that somehow mesh together rather effectively.

Paula Patton made headlines when she apparently demanded nude scenes with Denzel, but apart from that she doesn’t get to do a whole lot. She should not be confused with Bill Paxton, who plays the nasty villain with some personality but ultimately not enough to make him a memorable one.

In the end, 2 Guns is adequately good; a fun time with two bankable stars who appeared to be enjoying themselves, but no effort was made to go that extra mile to elevate itself from the other movies of this type you see every year.

3.25 stars out of 5

Red 2 (2013)

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The 2010 predecessor, Red, was a rollicking ride with cool old people. I wasn’t as high on it as some others, but it was fresh, funny, and different. As expected, the success of that film led to Red 2, which is essentially more of the same — except this time the act gets, pardon the pun, a little old.

Inspired by the comic book series of the same name, Red 2 is about a bunch of ex-CIA operatives who are “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”, and for some reason people want to kill them. The all-star cast is again headed by Bruce Willis (with Mary-Louis Parker as his girlfriend), John Malkovich, Helen Mirren and Brian Cox, and this time they’ve added Catherine Zeta-Jones, Anthony Hopkins and Korean star Byung-hun Lee (from GI Joe).

Red 2 is still loud, explosive, crazy, and routinely tongue-in-cheek, but this time around it lacked the charm of the original. The idea was good, but evidently only for one film, and rehashing the same formula failed to deliver the same result. I didn’t really care much about where the plot was heading and the narrative felt like it was all over the place, and the character quirks evolved from affable and sweet to mildly irritating. The occasional amusing one-liner would pop up every now and then, but for most of its excessive 116-minute running time Red 2 was just going through the motions.

A mixed bag, I’m afraid, with probably more bad than good. And of course, a third film is already in the works.

2.5 stars out of 5

Paranoia (2013)

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Every year there is a star vehicle film that appears to have some strong elements but ends up being a real turd. This year’s leading candidate is Paranoia, which could actually end up having the opposite of the intended effect on the career of Liam Hemsworth, brother of Thor and ex of Miley Cyrus. It’s not that horrible, in all fairness, but in context, considering the director (Aussie Robert Luketic, whose credits include Legally Blonde and 21) and the cast (Gary Oldman, Harrison Ford, Amber Heard, Richard Dreyfuss, Embeth Davidtz, Julian McMahon and Josh Holloway — Sawyer from Lost), Paranoia is an awfully unconvincingly, bland and actually rather boring film about corporate espionage.

Hemsworth works as a low-level employee for a giant corporation run by Oldman. One day, he pisses off his boss and instead of destroying his career is given an opportunity to infiltrate the company of Oldman’s competitor and former mentor (Ford). He accepts, of course, and is seduced by the perks of being a well-paid executive, but as you guessed the rosiness doesn’t last very long. By the way, Dreyfuss is Hemsworth’s dad, Heard is the love interest, and Sawyer is an investigator.

One of the biggest problems with Paranoia is that Hemsworth, as big and hunky as he is, has very little charisma. I don’t put all the blame on him, however, as the pedestrian script probably sapped whatever charisma he had anyway. The other problem is that the plot itself offers no excitement or thrills, and you can basically see all the plot points being ticked off, one by one, as it progresses towards a painfully predictable and cliched ending where the absence of an obligatory twist would have been more of a surprise.

In other words, Paranoia is this year’s Abduction, the Taylor Lautner star vehicle from 2011. That was laughably bad as well, but at least it had some guilty pleasures as we watched Lautner run from place to place while kicking ass. Paranoia, on the other hand, was just stuck in the same place for nearly 2 hours.

1.5 stars out of 5

The Last Days on Mars (2013)

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I love me some Liev Schreiber, the man with the best narration voice in Hollywood (sorry, Morgan Freeman). And even though I couldn’t get into Ray Donovan, I can’t deny that Liev infuses the screen with his icy masculine presence whenever he is around.

All of that has little to do with The Last Days or Mars, essentially a zombie movie set on the red planet. The trailer looked pretty promising so I decided to check it out, but unfortunately, after a strong, atmospheric start, the film fizzles out in the second half and ends up wasting what was a great idea.

Liev leads a crew of astronauts who are about to leave Mars after a half-year post. Less than a day before they are scheduled to depart, one of the crew members discovers potential evidence of life and decides to check it out. Big mistake. That’s right, you guessed it. The discovery unleashes a virus that turns humans into ultra-aggressive zombies!

You can see that it’s an intriguing premise and offers a lot of potential for either fun or serious scares. Sadly, The Last Days on Mars delivers neither. Irish director Ruairí Robinson opted for the straightforward horror route, which is how I preferred it, but fails to deliver freshness or the abundance of thrills that a film like this required. There was too much seriousness and long slabs of lame dialogue, too much contemplation and not enough hardcore zombie interaction. A considered zombie film is not a bad thing, but only if all the drama can add to the effectiveness of the horror or bring out something in the characters for us to root for. In this case, all it does is slow things down. Even the likes of Liev, Romala Garai, Olivia Williams and Elias Koteas could not salvage their respective characters.

That said, I did enjoy the early moments of the film, which I found to be quite creepy. But once the zombies appeared, the film went straight for the contrived plot devices we see too often in such films, including a sudden and complete deprivation of common sense. Considering that it doesn’t ever turn farcical and that it’s running time is a suitable 98 minutes, I wouldn’t go as far as to say that The Last Days on Mars sucked, only that it’s weak and disappointing.

2 stars out of 5

Movie Review: GI Joe: Retaliation (2013)

April 28, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I have pretty much erased 2009′s GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra from my memory. I vaguely recall Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Channing Tatum and Sienna Miller, a couple of ninjas and some crazy hi-tech machinery, but that’s about it.

The sequel, GI Joe: Retaliation, is probably better than its predecessor, but chances are I also won’t remember much of it in a couple of years. It’s a typical popcorn movie with lots of fight scenes and explosions and corny jokes, but for the most part I found it fun while it lasted. 

It makes no difference if you haven’t seen the first film. The GI Joes are some special American soldiers who do the heavy lifting for the US government. Channing Tatum is back as Duke, and this time he has brought along his buddy The Rock, who plays his second in command. Just about everyone else is gone, except for the white and black ninjas (Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park — better known as Darth Maul) and Jonathan Pryce, who plays the US president. Joseph Gordon-Levitt had better things to do but his character, Cobra Commander, returned behind a convenient mask.

The big new addition to the franchise is Bruce Willis, who appears to be going through a Nicholas Cage phase (ie, “I’ll do whatever you pay me to do”). John McClane is just everywhere these days. Here he plays Joe, apparently the original GI, which makes perfect sense given that Demi Moore once played GI Jane.

The story is not important. All you need to know is that the bad guys (Cobra) want to retaliate, and then the GI Joes want to retaliate against the retaliation. There is a big surprise for those who don’t already know it near the beginning, but apart from that the rest of the film sails on predictably.

The highlight of the ensemble cast is Lee Byung-hun, who gets to show off his impressive physique and sword skills as the white ninja. The scenes between him and Ray Park, especially with all the ninjas flying around on the mountains, are clearly the highlight of the film. To be honest I found the other action sequences involving loads and loads of massive guns and tanks to be rather “meh.” I guess I need to be a gun nut (or American, or both) to appreciate it.

The rest of the cast is adequate, save for some sub-par acting by Channing Tatum (even for him). Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been taking too much steroids lately and he looks like he could explode with one more injection. I don’t get the obsession, but other people clearly do and he is cashing in on it. Adrianne Palicki (Red Dawn) provides the eye candy and girl power as the token female GI, and her male counterpart is DJ Cotrona (no idea where he came from).

What impressed me most about the movie was its nonchalant attitude towards violence and global nuclear destruction. There’s a lot of over-the-top carnage, dialogue and silliness but director Jon M Chu takes it in stride and delivers it in a tongue-in-cheek style. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from the man who directed Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. There is one scene involving the world’s nuclear powers that is just a complete farce, but because Chu just wings it the scene becomes oddly enjoyable. Never mind that a major foreign city is completely obliterated (it’s not American, so who cares, right?).

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: A Good Day to Die Hard (2013)

February 20, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Die Hard franchise has been on progressive decline since the 1988 original, which I still believe to this day is the best action movie of all time. The 1990 sequel, Die Hard 2: Die Harder, is a surprisingly excellent action flick in its own right, while the 1995  Die Hard With a Vengeance is a prime example of a fantastic franchise reboot. All three can be considered action classics. The series took a bigger step back with 2007′s Die Hard 4.0 (or Live Free or Die Hard), where the 12-year gap had an unwelcome effect on the now-iconic John McClane, though it was still a relatively good movie. And now, the fifth and newest addition, A Good Day to Die Hard (let’s call it DH5 for simplicity sake), has fallen off the wagon and taken this great franchise down into the pits.

DH5 is not horrible by typical modern action movie standards, but it is a smear on the Die Hard franchise whichever way you look at it. In this one, John McClane (Bruce Willis) heads to Russia to “rescue” his son Jack (played by Aussie Jai Courtney), who has been arrested for a murder linked to  an imprisoned political prisoner. Mayhem ensues, and this time the McClane father and son duo team up to annihilate the bad guys.

I’m not sure what they were trying to achieve with this plodding effort, which has a lot of guns and explosions and cars flying all over the place, but not much real tension, humour or genuine excitement. Perhaps they were trying to emulate the awesomeness of Taken or the Bourne series (ie, an unstoppable good guy beats up a lot of bad guys), which I believe is a huge mistake.

The earlier Die Hard films featured a reluctant, vulnerable McClane caught in situations he didn’t want to be in, which is why they were so full of tension and nervous energy. In the last two of the series, however, John McClane has ceased to be the old John McClane we know and love. He has become the “new” John McClane, some kind of hardened superhero who never gets rattled or hurt no matter how many times he is tossed around in moving metal, beaten up or dropped from ridiculously high places. He has too much cache from past experiences to be vulnerable. He’s like Bruce Willis in Unbreakable without the fear of water.

As a result, the DH5 is generally predictable (even with the twists) and frequently lame. Even though there’s all this stuff happening on the screen, there’s just no excitement because you know he’s John McClane and John McClane can never be beaten. Worst still, this new McClane has no special hand-to-hand combat skills like say a Jason Bourne or Bryan Mills — he’s just a guy who likes to fire a lot of guns and doesn’t get hit himself.

Part of the problem is the direction of John Moore, who was previously at the helm of Max Payne and the remake of The Omen in 2006. We also had the “new” John McClane in DH4 (directed by Len Wiseman from the Underworld series), but that film was still pretty good, so some of the blame has to go to Moore, who let his foot off the gas pedal too often and relied far too much on obvious digital effects in many of the action sequences.

The biggest culprit is likely the script by Skip Woods (Swordfish, Hitman, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and The A-Team), which is not very good at all. The dialogue is horrendous in both English and Russian and the attempts at creating some sort of father-son dynamic between the McClanes come off as clunky and out of place, largely because it feels so obligatory. McClane’s wry humour and one-liners, one of the defining traits of his character, is almost non-existent as well. Don’t get me wrong, there are efforts to lighten the mood, but they rarely felt like they meshed with the flow of the film.

The Die Hard franchise has always stretched the bounds of craziness, but a lot of what happens in DH5 is just plain lazy. Why don’t people bleed to death from untreated gun shots and puncture wounds? Why do Russian people who generally speak Russian to each other feel the need to squeeze in a sentence of English every now and then? Why do they suddenly start speaking completely in English  towards the end? Why do some of their Russian accents even start disappearing? Why does Jack McClane have to say his dad’s name, “John”, at least once every sentence? We know his name is John; we’ve known that for the last four films! Who the heck talks like that?

Bruce Willis is still good enough to pull off John McClane, but I can’t help get the feeling that he’s growing a little weary and is ready to pass the baton to Jai Courtney, who is physically imposing but looks more like a bad guy than a good one (he was the bad guy in Jack Reacher and felt much more convincing). The rest of the cast is predominantly Russian and none are memorable. None even come close to possessing the charisma of a Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman from the original) or even a Simon Peter Gruber (Jeremy Irons from the third film), let’s just put it that way. That’s another problem to add to the list — lame antagonists.

When all is said and done, DH5 is actually a passable action film by ordinary standards, but a criminally bad one when measured against the lofty bar set by the earlier entries in the same franchise. It’s a real shame because I think they could have done much much better, especially if they are considering bringing together John McClane and both of his kids (that’s Jai Courtney and Mary Elizabeth Winstead, the latter of whom has a cameo in this one after appearing in DH4) in a sixth and potentially final Die Hard film.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Looper (2012)

December 6, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I love time travel films, and one of my favourites of all-time also had Bruce Willis in it (Twelve Monkeys, of course). Given that I have also recently developed a man-crush on Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Looper appeared to be a tailor-made film for me.

The movie is set in the year 2044 and the future of that future is 2074, a time when time travel has finally been invented (I still have a chance to live to that day, so fingers crossed that this is based on a true story). Unfortunately, time travel is outlawed then but is still being used by criminal organizations, which need a “looper” to help them in the past when they transport things back over from the future. Gordon-Levitt is a young looper. Bruce Willis is him in 30 years. I can’t say why, but they don’t like each other.

It may sound complicated but I actually found Looper to be a really straightforward time-travel movie. The mechanics and laws of time travel in the film’s universe are sufficiently described in the beginning and there’s not much to be confused about, which is why I was really confused by all these reviewers saying that the film was confusing. Some even compared it to Christopher Nolan’s Inception, which I found strange because they are nothing alike apart from the fact that both star Gordon-Levitt.

Looper is an unusual and unusually clever time-travel film in the sense that it’s more of a character movie about how people deal with the effects of time travel rather than the time travel itself. From that perspective it means less trying to figure out what’s going on/pointing out gaps in logic and more just enjoying the movie for its action and freaky futuristic stuff.

It’s always hard to review a movie like this without slipping in unnecessary spoilers, so all I will say is that it also stars Emily Blunt and is in part related to genetic mutations which occur naturally in the human body at some point in the future (I am begging for this to be based on a true story).

Some people have criticized the decision to use prosthetics and make-up on Gordon-Levitt to make him look like a young Bruce Willis. I thought it was awesome. I have to admit, the thin-framed Gordon Levitt is one of the last actors I would have pictured playing John “Yippee-ki-yay” McClane, but the prosthetics made me believe he could have eventually grown to look like him. He still looks like Gordon-Levitt but it also reminds you a little of Bruce Willis – I don’t get what the big deal is.

Despite my praises, I think there is something missing from Looper that prevents it from being a time-travel classic like Twelve Monkeys, Back to the Future, Terminator 2, and so forth. The film has a great premise, interesting characters, solid action and enough twists and turns to make it a highly enjoyable experience, but perhaps it lacked the grand vision and scale that would have pushed it to that next level.

4 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Expendables 2 (2012)

September 9, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

So I keep hearing that The Expendables 2 is what the first film should have been.

My expectations for the first film were, unfortunately, slightly higher. That said, Expendables 2 is a vast improvement on its predecessor because it decided to have do more with fact that it features a whole bunch of high-profile action stars who aren’t afraid to poke fun at themselves. It’s has more characters, longer cameos, bigger explosions, upgraded fight scenes and a lot of great one liners. I wish it could have been a little more, but perhaps I’m asking for too much.

The story picks up not too long after the first one ended. Sty Stallone and Jason Statham are still leading their team of mercenaries, which includes other action heroes such as martial arts expert Jet Li, MMA fighter Randy Couture (Mr “You got a door? You got a gym!”), Ivan Drago aka Dolph Lundgren , and the guy I will always associate with White Chicks, Terry Crews. Of the original team, only Mickey Rourke dropped out.

This time, the team has two strange new additions: Liam Hemsworth (who is not an action star — yet — though his brother Chris is) as a sniper, and Chinese actress Yu Nan (selected probably because of her proficiency in English), who keeps up the Asian quotient on the squad after Jet Li jets off minutes into the film (he hadn’t planned on being in it but Stallone insisted).

I think the plot had something to do with baddies forcing poor villagers in Eastern Europe to help them mine plutonium, but no one really cares about plot in a film like this.

The Expendables 2 still contains “serious” scenes and “character development” scenes, but on the whole the film was more lighthearted than the first. The jokes are frequent, and unlike in the first film, much funnier, and the fight scenes are better choreographed. There are plenty of blown off limbs and exploding bodies but it’s all so intentionally over-the-top that no one would call it realistic violence.

There are three major positives worth mentioning about this film.

The first is the new villain, Jean-Claude Van Damme, who plays a guy creatively named…er, Vilain. Van Damme does a delicious villain and actually gets to perform some of his trademark Kickboxer movers, such as that flying roundhouse he loves so much. Van Damme is backed up by the familiar face of Scott Adkins, who has been in a bunch of supporting roles and B-grade action films over the years.

The second is the extended cameos of Willis and Arnie. The biggest disappointment of the first film was that they appeared for about 5 seconds together and did nothing. This time, the trio finally get together and get their hands dirty. Even though it’s not for very long, it’s still better than nothing, and they even get to shoot witty remarks at each other. It was fun.

The third is the much-talked about appearance of Chuck Norris, who has somehow grown to legendary status thanks to those never-ending internet jokes. Chuck lives up to those jokes and even tells a few of his own. His presence is the brightest highlight of the entire film, and it’s a shame he couldn’t have gotten more screen time. I would pay to watch a Chuck Norris spin-off where all he does is live up to his legend.

What you should have noticed by now is that none of the three positives involve Stallone’s team of mercenaries. That’s because they still kind of sucked. The biggest culprit is still Stallone himself, who must be the lamest of them all by keeping a “straight face”  (okay, I see that’s a term grossly inappropriate for him) throughout the entire film. He remains jacked up on steroids, human growth hormones or whatever Lance Armstrong has been taking, but he exhibits no charm and no skill other than growling incoherently (I think he’s still saying “Adriannnnn!”), running in over-sized platform boots and squinting through those two pellets he calls eyes. But hey, it’s his movie and his idea, so he still has to be “the man” by default. I wanted more Rambo and Rocky, less whatever his name is in the film.

Statham has two good scenes where he gets to strut his stuff, but Crews, Lundgren and Couture fade into the background and practically do nothing. Hemsworth and Yu Nan don’t do a whole lot other actors couldn’t have done either. It’s disappointing and a waste of an opportunity.

I also didn’t get all the pointless talking that was supposedly aimed at character development. They were boring, and no one can tell what Stallone is trying to say anyway.

Ultimately, the film was still a solid piece of entertainment and plenty of popcorn fun. Kudos for improving on the first one and providing a blueprint for that inevitable third movie. It’s possible they may have already exhausted all they can do with this franchise but I suppose as long as there are new action stars to add people will still flock to watch it — me included.

3.5 stars out of 5

 

 
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