Movie Review: Snowpiercer (2013)

April 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Snowpiercer poster

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: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

April 7, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

captain-america-2-poster-uk-full

I’ve done a complete 180. With The First Avenger and now The Winter Soldier, Captain America has gone from, in my opinion, the most boring Marvel superhero with his own movie to the most interesting. He has impressive strength, speed and agility, but he’s not “superhuman” or invincible like Thor or the Hulk, nor is he aided by impressive technology like Iron Man. He may be the face of American heroism, but the 70 years he spent in frozen limbo has turned him into a vulnerable young/old man struggling to find his place in the new world order.

I was surprised that 2011′s The First Avenger turned out to be such a good film, one that cleverly made fun of the patriotism Captain America stood for while providing well-executed action sequences. That raised the hype for the sequel, and I’m glad to report that The Winter Soldier does not disappoint. With a few caveats, the film is a success, at least on par with its predecessor and ranks a few steps behind the first Iron Man and The Avengers as the best of the whole Avengers franchise.

The story is a natural progression from the events in The Avengers. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is still working for SHIELD as a loyal soldier following the “incident” in New York (as they keep referring to in each post-Avengers film). Following a rescue mission aboard a SHIELD vessel along with the Black Widow, Natasha Ramanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the Captain begins to question the organization he works for and the motives of its frightening new project. It’s the catalyst that puts Captain America on a dangerous new journey of self-discovery that will force him to confront demons from his past and a battle against a new villain, the mysterious Winter Soldier.

The film plays out like it should, with a few minor but not completely unexpected surprises along the way. It’s biggest strength is its ability to mix things up a little so that the film doesn’t simply feel like its predecessor. The modern setting of course helps, but I enjoyed the insertion of new stakes and ideas, including being out of touch with the modern world, dealing with post-traumatic stress, the problems with unquestioned loyalty and pondering whether increased government surveillance is for the safety of the people or to control them with fear. Unfortunately, none of the ideas come close to being fully explored — this is a superhero action blockbuster, after all — but it’s better than not having anything intelligent to say at all.

It’s also great to see Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury FINALLY doing something after doing nothing but talk a big game in every Avengers movie to date. One of the best sequences in the entire movie is when Nick is under siege and must pull out all the stops to try and escape death. I also didn’t realise Scarlett Johansson would play such a big role either — she’s essentially the female lead and has the most screen time outside of the Captain himself. And if you think she’s just there for eye candy you better think again, because she kicks ass with the best of them.

There are plenty of other cool positives, such as the presence of screen legend Robert Redford as a senior SHIELD executive, Anthony Mackie as the new sidekick, and a touching sequence where we find out what has happened to Captain America’s first love, Peggy Carter. I did find the addition of Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter a little jarring, but that’s because I’ve come to think of her as an annoying psycho in TV’s Revenge.

Fans of the comics and the Avengers universe will also be happy to learn that there are many references and hints to other characters who may or may not appear in the franchise in the future. I won’t spoil them (I actually didn’t know most of them) but there are articles which explain for those who want to find out.

I personally enjoy these nice little Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout the film, including a great Pulp Fiction reference right at the end. By the way, I should mention that there are TWO post-credit sequences and you should stay for both of them (I only stayed for one as I didn’t know about the other). One of them ties into the next Avengers film while the only is an epilogue that will no doubt play a role in the third Captain America movie scheduled for 2016.

On the downside, the movie is a slightly overlong at 136 minutes with a couple of unnecessary slow slabs that could have been easily cut out. And while I enjoyed the action scenes I would have preferred less rapid cuts and shaky camera business so we could actually see what was going on. Lastly, The Winter Soldier receives the dubious honour for having the least amount of humour in the entire Avengers franchise. There were a few effective jokes and one-liners here and there, but for the most part the film is incredibly straight, just like its hero.

Overall, this is a highly enjoyable superhero movie and a solid sequel that will ensure that the Marvel money train continues to steamroll everything in its path.

4 stars out of 5

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 6)

November 15, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

It’s been a while since I did one of these, but it’s not because I haven’t had any lined up. Here goes. I suppose this is the “drama” portion of my catch-up review blitz.

War Horse (2011)

I wasn’t as high on this Steven Spielberg epic as I thought I would be. As the title suggests, it’s about the life of a horse, from its birth in the early 1900s to the end of the First World War, and the lives of all the people it touches along the way. There’s not much to dislike about the film — it features a stellar ensemble cast, looks absolutely amazing, and is designed to tug the heart strings. Ordinarily, that’s more than good enough for me.

But for some strange reason I wasn’t blown away by it. Perhaps it’s because I’m not the biggest horse fan, or perhaps its because the ensemble cast meant there wasn’t a particular human character I could really connect with. Or maybe it’s because it was so serious, lacking in that light touch I had been used to from Spielberg movies. But it is overly long at 146 minutes and my guess is that I found the subject matter a little on the bland side.

Ultimately though, it’s still a fine piece of filmmaking from one of the masters. I just wish I liked it more.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Descendants (2011)

The Descendants is remarkable in that it takes an interesting but unspectacular concept and turns it into a poignant, funny and unexpected gem driven by excellent performances.

Based on the book by Kaui Hart Hemmings, it’s about a Honolulu lawyer (George Clooney) who happens to be the sole trustee of a family trust that owns a lot of very expensive land. He’s filthy rich, but as usual, not content with life. Following a tragic accident to his wife, he is forced to confront his two daughters and the fact that his marriage wasn’t as perfect as he thought it was.

This is the kind of movie critics just love. Well-written and well-directed by Alexander Payne (Sideways, About Schmidt, Election), and with possibly the best performance of Clooney’s career, The Descendants treads a fine line between genuine emotion and melodrama, but manages to come out on the right side. If you’ve seen Payne’s earlier films you’ll have an idea of the kind of dark comedy and tone that he is accustomed to creating.

I wouldn’t say I absolutely loved this movie but I did think it was wonderfully made and produced laughs and stirred up emotions I had not expected. While it probably deserved its Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, I doubt this is a movie we will look back upon in a few years as a classic, or even a particularly memorable film.

4 stars out of 5

Puncture

Captain America as a drug addicted lawyer? And it’s a true story? Yep, that’s what Puncture is all about. Chris Evans is Mike Weiss, who looks like a bum off the street but is actually a very smart guy with a law degree. The problem is, he doesn’t care much about anyone except himself, and is usually either drunk or on drugs.

Weiss and his partner take on a case where the manufacturer of a safety syringe (which would be perfect in hospitals) claims it was shut out of the market by the big bad pharmaceutical companies (sounds like a true story already). As the case progresses and the odds become more and more against him, Weiss starts developing a conscience and begins to genuinely care about the cause — with your typical “flawed protagonist finds redemption” vibe written all over it.

Essentially, Puncture is a darker, grittier version of some of the other little lawyer against big bad corporations kind of film. Matt Damon’s The Rainmaker comes to mind. But unfortunately, Puncture takes far too long to get off the ground that by the time I found myself engaged it was almost over. And no, it’s got nothing to do with Evan’s acting, which was fine, by the way.

I think it had a great story to tell and the final third was executed rather well, but it’s a shame that the film could not have gotten interesting sooner.

3 stars out of 5

The Beaver (2011)

This film had things going for it and against it. On the one hand it is directed by Jodie Foster and is called The Beaver (which is awesome), but on the other it stars megadouche and anti-Semitic psycho Mel Gibson. In the end, I decided to put my biases aside and watch the film, and I still can’t decide in the end whether I made good use of my time.

The Beaver deals with Depression by creating a bizarre scenario. Water Black (Gibson) is a depressed toy company CEO who handles his issues by speaking through a beaver hand puppet (as though it were a different person). And to everyone’s surprise, the beaver makes Black a huge success and enables him to rekindle his relationship with his wife (Foster) and son (Anton Yelchin).

If you can stomach the premise and the actor, The Beaver is a solid drama that tells a serious story in a semi-lighthearted manner. There isn’t as much humour as you would expect, though I suppose it’s hard to be funny when you’re dealing with a mental illness that affects millions of people. I think Foster dealt with it respectfully and she injects the film with warmth and honesty, but I’m not certain that I was sold by it as a whole. In the end of the day, it’s still a family drama starring Mel Gibson, and neither is really my cup of tea.

3 stars out of 5

Mega Catch-up Movie Blitz (Part 4)

June 22, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Puss in Boots (2011)

Like just about everyone else, I laughed at the adorable cat from the Shrek movies the first time I him on screen. He was a fantastic character — so undeniably cute but also extremely self-assured and a bit of a ladies man. The potential for laughs was high.

And so it was not unexpected that the cat, Puss in Boots, got his own spin-off movie given that the Shrek franchise has been beaten to death with repetition. I knew before I watched this film that it was going to have a lot of obstacles to overcome – after all, a little bit of the cat is sweet, but will too much of him be a bore?

Fortunately, while it was nothing special or groundbreaking, Puss in Boots was not a failure. It pulled all the kitty jokes out of the bag in a witty, light-hearted manner that is pleasing to both kids and adults alike, and I found myself laughing out loud to a lot of them. Antonio Banderas, who voices Puss, is charming as the surprisingly kind-hearted hero, and Salma Hayek was also solid as love interest Kitty Softpaws. Very different though to the first time these two were on screen together in Desperado, the film that launched Hayek’s career.

Being a spin-off film, Puss in Boots felt like it was very much part of the Shrek universe, which I guess is both a good and bad thing. There is that sense of familiarity, which is good, but also the tendency to feel a lack of freshness, which is bad. Nonetheless, I enjoyed myself with this one, though I can’t see there being a sequel.

3.25 stars out of 5

Final Destination 5 (2D) (2011)

Hang on a second…didn’t they kill off this franchise already? I could have sworn that the gimmicky and fairly abysmal The Final Destination (3D) was the last one. After all, it was THE final destination.

As it turned out, there was a little life left. The fifth film of the series was essentially more of the same, and of course, it was also in 3D (which I avoided like the plague). If you like watching people die in an assortment of gruesome and creative ways, then you might still find some enjoyment in this one. But otherwise, stay away.

For me, it was a little “meh”, to be honest. The franchise has become a one trick pony in recent years – a bunch of people survive something they should have died in, and death comes back to pick them off, one by one. As usual, the initial “incident” is done quite spectacularly (in this one it’s a bridge collapse…oops, did I spoil anything?), and it then becomes a guessing game of who will go next, and how. I admit, there is some decent tension, and it can be fun guessing the manner in which the person will die while ignoring all the red herrings. But if you’ve seen it once, you’ve seen them all.

Kudos for placing the characters in a work environment this time and finally taking out of high school, and credit to the writers for coming up with a clever ending (I won’t spoil this one, but it’s not bad). Apart from that there’s not much separating this one from the rest.

2 stars out of 5

What’s Your Number (2011)

This movie was kinda gross. A girl (Anna Faris) realizes she has had twice as many sexual partners as the average person and decides to track down her ex-boyfriends with the intention of marrying one of them. Her neighbour (Chris Evans) is a douchebag who is into one night stands and is constantly running away from women he has just slept with. She agrees to help him and he agrees to help her. You can guess the rest.

What’s Your Number does have the tiniest bit of charm because Faris is sharp and witty (as usual, though she seems to have settled into this stereotype where all her performances turn out similar) but the characters are not particularly likable and the jokes are mostly flat and predictable. And you know right from the start how things will end up.

Is it worse than the average rom-com that gets churned out these days? Not really. Despite arising out of a fresh idea, in reality it’s just more of the same. I can’t think of much else to say.

2 stars out of 5

Johnny English Reborn (2011)

I will probably lose all credibility for this, and perhaps rightly so, but I am being dead serious when I say I enjoyed Johnny English Reborn.

Hear me out. When I saw snippets of the original Johnny English film I cringed and switched it off. When I saw the trailer for this film, I told myself it was going to be the worst movie ever.

And yet when I watched it (don’t ask me how or why), I laughed. It’s a guilty pleasure, for sure, and you probably need to be in the right mood for it. But I laughed. I found it funny. Rowan Atkinson was funny. So was Daniel Kaluuya, who plays bumbling junior agent Colin Tucker. And Gillian Anderson is always good to have around.

This is a spy spoof but the obvious spoof parts are not necessarily what generate the laughs. Make no mistake, this was a hit and miss film, and there were plenty of misses, but there were also some good jokes. Simple as that.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Avengers (2D) (2012)

April 28, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Joss Whedon, you glorious bastard. You really did it. Despite near-impossible odds, you somehow managed to make The Avengers work.

Captain America (Chris Evans), Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr), Thor (Chris Hemsworth) and the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), the Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner), led by SHIELD agent Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson) — a cast of characters that will make any fanboy violently spray their pants. It was never in doubt that the idea of putting together this Marvel-lous ensemble, inside and and outside the movie, is ambitious, delicious and simply awesome — but the question was always how on earth the poor screenwriter and/or director were going to pull it off.

The answer? Enter Joss Whedon, the genius behind the TV’s Buffy and Firefly.

Back in September 2010, I attended a chat session with Whedon at the Sydney Opera House, where he talked about a number of his popular projects, including The Avengers, the script for which he was working on at the time. Joss admitted it was bigger than anything he had ever done before and called it an exciting challenge, but said that at the end of the day it was just telling another story.

I remember being sceptical, thinking that there must be an infinite amount of ways this film would suck donkey scrotums. It’s hard enough making a film about one superhero — but to have four? And that doesn’t even include all the minor characters and the supervillain(s). How would he able to balance all of them, give each one enough screen time and development, while at the same time progress the storyline and fill it with spectacular action that is enhanced by, but not overshadowed by, the special effects? And how was he going to massage all the egos of the actors involved? Just the thought of it made my head spin.

And yet, Joss Whedon worked his magic and made The Avengers (arguably) the greatest superhero movie of all-time. Every one of the four main superheroes not only got their own time to shine, they meshed together wonderfully and became greater than the sum of the parts. The action was brilliant, thrilling and plenty, the plot was engaging and the humour was classic Joss Whedon — extremely dry and self-deprecating.

Speaking of plot, I realised I haven’t even mentioned it yet. But does it matter? All you need to know is that there is a common enemy, Thor’s brother Loki (Tim Hiddleston), and Nick Fury has no choice but to activate the Avengers initiative and bring these heroes together to save the world. It helps if you’ve seen the other films in the franchise and know what the little blue cube is, but if you haven’t it barely makes a difference.

Of course, it’s not easy bringing this volatile bunch together. As Whedon said it himself, if everyone was on the same page right from the beginning the film would be over in 15 minutes. So yeah, expect some tense moments at the start as each character is introduced and as they find time gel as a team — but when they finally come together as one, as you knew they would, it’s a goosebump-inducing sight.

Kudos to Whedon for creating characters that balance each other out and eliciting great performances from the entire cast. Robert Downey Jr, as the biggest name of the lot, steals the show a little bit as Iron Man because of his addictive personality but doesn’t dominate the proceedings. Chris Evans’ Captain America is, as you would expect, a straight shooting, no nonsense leader. The other Chris, Aussie beefcake Chris Hemsworth, took a while to make it to earth but his presence is key because of his history with the supervillain — plus he’s arguably the most powerful. And last, but not least, Mark Ruffalo as the Hulk, my personal favourite — surprising because he wasn’t even supposed to be in it.

Ruffalo replaced Edward Norton, who fell out of the film early on, apparently because he was either asking for too much creative control or because he wanted too much money, or both. I’m glad it happened because Ruffalo’s a perfect fit for the role, a better Bruce Banner than both Norton and Eric Bana (from the earlier Ang Lee version).

You might wonder, with these four, why even bother with Johansson’s Black Widow and Renner’s Hawkeye? While they may be two ordinary humans with extraordinary skills, let’s face it, they’re not real superheroes. Nonetheless, Whedon gives both a special purpose and makes them indispensable members of the Avengers. Johansson, in particular, continues Whedon’s tradition of strong female characters — a far cry from her appearance in Iron Man 2 where she was little more than forgettable eye candy.

Speaking of strong female characters, Maria Hill, a SHIELD agent played by Cobie Smulders (from How I Met Your Mother), also has a surprisingly important role. And Gwyneth Paltrow makes a return appearance as Pepper Potts, which I also did not expect as none of the other love interests from the other franchises are in it (save for a photo of Natalie Portman).

Other returnees include Clark Gregg as Agent Coulson, who gets a little more personality this time, as well as Stellan Skarsgard as the scientist from Thor. Considering how many characters there are it’s quite amazing that Whedon managed to get so much out of these two.

Another returnee, Hiddleston’s Loki, was an apt choice for the villain. In the beginning I thought it was a bad idea because Hiddleston wasn’t very villainous in Thor, but he worked out well here because he was an enemy that relied on his brain as opposed to his brawn.

It’s almost not worth mentioning for blockbuster movies these days but the special effects were amazing. The Hulk, in particular, was the best he has ever been — said to be due to the performance capture technology used in Rise of the Planet of the Apes and Tin Tin.

Having said all of this, I do have a couple of nitpicks with the film. The first is that some of the action sequences, especially the hand-t0-hand battles earlier on, could have been slightly clearer by using less quick cuts.

The second is Loki’s alien army. Having put so much effort into the heroes, it just felt like this enemy was kinda lame. They looked menacing enough, but I kept hoping they’d pose a greater threat, a threat based on their abilities and cunning as opposed to their sheer numbers. I guess that leads into my next nitpick — that despite all the turmoil I never got the sense that any of the Avengers were in serious danger.

Lastly, while I love Whedon’s wry humour — lots of laugh out loud moments in this film — there were a couple of occasions where a tiny bit more subtlety should have prevailed, in that the punchline was already achieved but its effectiveness was diminished because it decided to go a little further or add an extra line that wasn’t necessary.

But these are all minor complaints. In the grand scheme of things, The Avengers is everything fans could have hoped for an more, a remarkable achievement considering the impossible expectations heaped onto it since the project was first announced in 2008.

I already can’t wait for the sequel.

4.5 stars out of 5!

(I don’t care for 3D, but I’d be interested to hear what people thought of it.)

 
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