Movie Review: Furious 7 (2015)

April 20, 2015 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Fast & Furious franchise has more or less perfected the craft — a team of familiar characters and stars, suped-up cars, scantily clad women, stylised violence, over-the-top action sequences and a truckload of cheesy one-liners. It’s a formula that has worked wonders for the last few entries, and Furious 7 takes it up yet another notch notwithstanding a major director change from Justin Lin to James Wan. Though Wan is known as a master of horror (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), the Aussie legend doesn’t miss a beat.

As I’m not a car fanatic and can’t stop thinking of Mini-me on steroids whenever I see Vin Diesel’s face, I’ve always been somewhat “meh” about the Fast & Furious franchise. This time, however, I stopped hoping for something I knew I was never going to get and just went along for the ride. As a result, I had a blast. If you’re after the ultimate popcorn movie, look no further — this is it.

The film takes place after the events of Fast 6 and around the time of Tokyo Drift (the third film in the franchise), which unfortunately means we are missing the cool Asian guy (Han) and is hot Israeli girlfriend (Gisele), with Sung Kang and Gal Gadot relegated to brief flashbacks, though Tokyo’s new drift king, Lucas Black, does make a triumphant return in a cameo, looking about 10 years older for some strange reason (racing with Mini-me must have taken a lot out of him).

On the bright side, the loss of Han and Gisele ensures more time for the other characters and offers enough room for the addition of Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays a hacker Kurt Russell wants Mini-me’s gang to track down so the US government can get their hands back on a super surveillance device called God’s Eye. The trade-off is that if Mini-me can get it for Russell he’ll be able to use it to track down supervillain Jason Statham, who plays the big brother of the baddie from the last movie (Luke Evans).

This premise allows the film to do several things. It still gets to do the whole heist thing that has worked well for the franchise the last few times, while also setting up epic set pieces to showcase the talents of the characters and cast. Apart from crazy car stunts, the film is highlighted by several brutal one-on-one confrontations. The Rock, Mini-me, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez all have their own well-choreographed fight scenes, but the best ones of course involve Statham, who absolutely shines in this role with his slick moves and brooding charisma, and elevates the movie several levels above what it should have been. He’s the perfect addition and the most memorable villain in the franchise — by far.

Two other new characters to steal a couple of scenes are MMA queen Ronda Rousey and Thai martial arts expert Tony Jaa, each of whom get to show off their stuff by squaring off against members of Mini-me’s gang. The only guy who doesn’t get to do much is Djimon Hounsou, a bland secondary villain who pales in comparison to Statham.

So just when you thought the batshit insanity of the last two films the franchise could not be topped, here comes this masterclass in how to depict over-the-top action, car chases and violence on the big screen. Cars and bodies are constantly being tossed, crashed into and mangled throughout, in ways that would be laughable had everyone involved not embraced the absurdity with so much genuine enthusiasm and confidence. Everyone’s pretty much indestructible unless they need to die.

This is the type of movie that The Expendables wants to be and what Michael Bay has been trying to make every time he sits in the director’s chair. What sets Furious 7 apart is the creativity and the overall sense of fun. It’s not just big, loud explosions all the time and obnoxious characters shooting things with massive guns. Furious 7 has likable characters who take on their tasks with just the right amount of cheesiness, and they’re put in situations we might not have necessarily seen before. You can complain about the cliches and the bad dialogue and the stupidity of it all, or you can embrace it like I finally am.

Of course, everyone will remember this one as Paul Walker’s last film after the actor died tragically in a car crash before the film was completed. Furious 7 does a great job of finishing off his scenes with his brothers as stand-ins coupled with CGI effects, and more importantly it provides him with a moving tribute by offering his character a fitting send-off. He’ll be missed, but with The Rock and Jason Statham likely becoming franchise regulars, there should be some life left in this series yet.

4 stars out of 5

Book Review: ‘The Fault in Our Stars’ by John Green

August 14, 2014 in Book Reviews, Reviews

The-Fault-In-Our-Stars

It’s almost always a dilemma for me when a film adaptation of a popular novel is released. Do I read the book first or watch the movie first? I’m pretty sure this is something I have posted about on this blog many moons ago, and I still don’t know the answer.

This time, when faced with the agonizing decision between movie or novel version of The Fault in Our Stars by award-winning young adult writer John Green, I went with the novel first, partly out of necessity because I didn’t have enough time to watch movies not named Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (I’m serious).

I’m not much of a romance reader and I’m rarely emotionally gripped by a novel, but I admit The Fault in Our Stars got to me. Not right away, but slowly and gradually, and by the end of it all I was a bit of a mess. I can usually see through when I’m being manipulated by the author, so I thought I would be able to handle the book’s cancer-ridden themes, though in this case Green’s writing was so crafty that by the time I realized what was happening it was already too late.

The story itself is not groundbreaking in any way. Sixteen-year-old Hazel Grace Lancaster is a thyroid cancer patient who is already living on borrowed time after being miraculously but temporarily spared from death. She begrudgingly attends support group, where she meets young amputee Augustus Waters. And so begins a courtship of two teenagers, one that’s strangely normal, typically awkward, but also incredibly sweet. A notable aspect of the tale is their shared love for a (fictional) novel called An Imperial Affliction, which sparks a search for the book’s reclusive writer halfway around the world.

So what is it that makes the fault in our stars a good read? Well, for starters, Hazel and Augustus are really likable people. They’re smart, they’re genuine and they have a great sense of humor. There are other — arguably more important — reasons too: Hazel supposedly looks like a young Natalie Portman, while Augustus is a former basketball star who happens to have an Indiana Pacers Rik Smits jersey. And if you have any idea how I feel about Natalie, Rik and the Pacers, you’ll understand why I enjoyed their company so much, and why I was perhaps a little biased.

The legend himself

The legend himself

Far from the beautiful, flawless protagonists from Twilight, Hazel carries around an oxygen tank with her at all times and is rarely seen without a tube under her nose, and Augustus of course has a prosthetic leg. They make a great couple.

And it’s not just them either. The minor characters, while generally in the background, are also well developed, especially the parents and the fellow cancer patients down at the support group. My favourite has to be Augustus’s best friend, Isaac, who is about to lose his eyesight and has the same wry humour as our star-crossed lovers.

What really surprised me about The Fault in Our Stars is that, as a book about cancer and death, it has a distinct lack of sappy melodrama. The way Green goes about the story is candid, realistic, with no trite sense of self pity (though even the most stoic of cancer sufferers have their moments). His prose is full of wit, just like his main characters, who, despite being teenagers, are incredibly level-headed and self-aware.

This is not to say Green makes light of cancer or cancer sufferers. But here, they are not heroes or warriors, nor are they weaklings — they are just ordinary people cursed with something they can’t control, doing whatever they can to cope. As a result, there is a subtle charm about this book that creeps up on you. I didn’t start off thinking, “Wow, what a great book, what great writing!” I actually recall early on thinking that it was pretty good, though I didn’t get what the fuss was all about. But at some stage I began to realize that I was emotionally involved in these characters’ lives, and I badly wanted them to make it against the odds.

I thought this was going to be quite a simple love story. On some levels, it is, but there are also many thought-provoking themes that will make you question what life is all about, what it means to be alive, and the legacies — whether big or small — that each of us leave behind when we die.

I was deeply touched by The Fault in Our Stars. I laughed, I (nearly) cried, and I thought about it a lot, even long after turning the last page. It’s a book I would recommend not only to young adults, but all readers.

4.5/5

PS: Can’t wait to see the movie.

Movie Review: The Book Thief (2013)

April 30, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I consider myself a fan of Markus Zusak’s The Boof Thief, one of the most acclaimed novels to come from an Australian author in recent years. I only gave it 3.5/5 in my review, but I was impressed with the idea of a Holocaust story narrated by Death and centering on a young German girl rather than a Jew. And perhaps more pertinent is the fact that I became enamored with Zusak’s writing style and his journey towards success, an inspiring story for all aspiring writers about the necessity of hard work and dedication.

When the book started making every best-seller and critics list I knew a movie adaptation would be forthcoming, but I knew whoever made it would have their work cut out for them. Would they make Death the narrator in the film version as well? Who would do the voice? Was it going to be in English, like the novel, or in more realistic German? And when you strip the book down, not a lot of exciting incidents happen throughout — so how were they going to make it more exciting for a screen audience?

As it turned out, my fears were more or less realized in the film version of The Book Thief, directed by Downton Abbey’s Brian Percival. In an attempt to capture the essence and the quirks of the book, the film was trapped by a number of obstacles and failed to deliver the same emotional punch as its source material. It wasn’t terrible by any means — there were poignant moments and some strong performances — but it bordered on dull at times and missed out on an opportunity to create the resonating experience that the book was.

The story, which begins in 1938, is simple. Young Liesel Meminger (Canadian teen actress Sophie Nelisse) is entrusted to lovely foster parents Hans (Geoffrey Rush) and Rosa (Emily Watson) following the death of her brother. The narrative then follows young Liesel as she lives through the Holocaust, making friends, hiding Jews and stealing, of course, books. It’s a relatively small-scale movie in that it focuses on only a few characters, but the larger events of that time are not ignored.

The most positive elements of the film come straight from the book, being the humanity it depicts in one of the darkest times in human history. The suffering and brutality is there, but it’s not an in-your-face kind of story that tries to shock you with the visceral horrors of war. The focus is more on the Liesel and the children, the good Germans, and the little decisions they had to make to deal with the atrocities happening around them every day. The whole feel of the film is different to most WWII films I’ve seen in the past. I wouldn’t call it “sanitized”, but it is the kind of Holocaust film that can be watched by the whole family.

Geoffrey Rush, who is magnificent as always, provides warmth and humour as a wonderful man who needs to balance what he believes in against the safety of his family. Emily Watson is also very good — though not exactly who I pictured from reading the books — as the foster mother who has a heart of gold behind her snarky exterior.

On the other hand, the things that didn’t work also didn’t work because they were taken straight from the book. The idea of having Death narrate the story is a clever literary device that has become one of the defining characteristics of the novel, but it hasn’t translated well to the screen and comes across as gimmicky without really adding much to the film. Death is voiced by British stage actor Roger Allam, who doesn’t a fine job, though it’s not the type of voice I imagined when I was reading the book (this is subjective, of course). But he doesn’t really do anything except pop up on rare occasions to sneak in a word or two, and it’s jarring because it’s easy to forget that he’s even part of the story. I had the same problem when I read the book, but it wasn’t anywhere near as uncomfortable as it was in the film.

The other problem is that, when you start stripping away Zusack’s beautifully storytelling, you realise that not a whole lot of stuff really happens in terms of physical action. Not to say that nothing happens, but it becomes more difficult to generate excitement when this kind of story is translated to the screen. Coupled with its overlong 131-minute running time, there are times when The Book Thief feels plodding. The ending, in particular, comes on a strange note and somewhat abruptly. It worked well in the book, but not so much in the film.

I sound a little harsher than I mean to be because there are some well-executed elements and a warmth and humanity in The Book Thief that make it a worthwhile movie to watch. Perhaps my expectations were too high and the things about the adaptation that didn’t work clouded my overall judgment of the film. Maybe they needed to deviate from the source material to make the film a more memorable experience, but as it stands I think it was merely a passable adaptation of a beloved novel.

3 stars out of 5

Tribute: My favourite Philip Seymour Hoffman scenes

February 6, 2014 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

Death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman

I’m still reeling from the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of my top five actors of all time and hands down one of the greatest thespians of his generation. Think of a non-heartthrob actor who can boast the same CV as Hoffman. Think of any actor who has anything close to Hoffman’s range. Think of any actor who can be as memorable in a cameo as in a lead role. You can’t. (OK, maybe you can, but there aren’t many, certainly not more than fingers on a Simpons’ character’s hand)

As a tribute to this great man, here are a baker’s dozen of my favourite PSH scenes of all time. Unfortunately, there are some great films from his body of work I either haven’t seen or can’t remember, like Scent of a Woman, Almost Famous, Charlie Wilson’s War, The Savages and Synedoche, New York, so these are simply based on what I have seen.

I think this small sample will show off just what a phenomenal actor he is. From serious leaders to manipulative bastards to poor saps to demented psychos to creepy perverts to insufferable douchebags, PSH can do it all, and he does it with the remarkable reliability and brilliant consistency we have come to expect from him…well, expected from him.The last time we will likely see him on screen is The Hunger Games: Mockingjay: Part II, scheduled for 2015, though apparently some of that appearance will be CGI (but not much, as most of the shooting had been completed). Until then, just keep watching these videos below.

13.  Mission Impossible III (2006) — Prologue

The only time I’ve seen PSF tackle the main antagonist in a movie, and he does so with a terrifyingly nutty coolness that makes even Tom Cruise seem sane by comparison. It was interesting to see him tackle such a villainous role (and in an action flick, no less) immediately after displaying his effeminate side in Capote. And the voice — you can’t top the voice!

12. Magnolia (1999) — Seduce and Destroy Hotline

Another Tom Cruise collaboration, this time in the brilliant ensemble film Magnolia. In this scene PSH is a nurse trying to track down the son (Cruise) of his dying elderly patient. It’s such a pivotal scene in the film, and such a difficult scene because it’s all done on the phone, and PSH does it in a way that is completely believable and captivating. The nervousness and desperation in his voice as he tries to get his point across without seeming like a lunatic is brilliant.

11. The Big Lebowski (1998) — The Butler

A small but memorable performance as the butler of the titular Mr Lebowski in this cult classic. His interactions with The Dude (Jeff Bridges) — seeing him try to inform, show off about his boss and withhold his disdain for his guest, is absolutely gold.

10. Patch Adams (1998) — The Prick

PSH is fantastic at playing douchebags, and in Patch Adams (where Robin WIlliams pretends to be a doctor) he is the ultimate douchebag — but a douchebag with a very good point. I don’t remember much about the movie itself but I have always remembered this scene, and the little bit after the rant where he pretends to return to his book is priceless.

9. The Talented Mr Ripley (1999) — Freddie’s Suspicions

One thing I have never forgotten about The Talented Mr Ripley is that tiny snippet of the annoying little laugh PSH does in the trailer. I said he was the ultimate douchebag in Patch Adams, but he’s probably an even bigger one here, and it’s great when he eventually gets his. But first, this wonderful scene in which he starts making Matt Damon (and the audience) very nervous.

8. The Ides of March (2011) — Blackmail’s Better

I loved The Ides of March, and one of my favourite scenes is where PSH gives Ryan Gosling a lesson on what it takes to make it in the political game. The composed fury, the ego, the coldness — it’s all masterfully portrayed here. Gosling’s not bad here either.

7. Capote (2005) — What’s the Name of Your Book?

One of the key scenes of PSH’s Oscar-winning performance in Capote, where death row inmate Perry discovers the name of Capote’s landmark book. The manipulation here is chilling, and there are few actors I can think of that could have delivered the same effect.

A bonus clip from the same movie is from the end, when Capote sees his “friends” off before they head to their deaths. It moves and angers at the same time. Amazing.

6. The Master (2012) — Confrontation

I wasn’t as high on The Master as a lot of other people, but no one can deny that Hoffman was brilliant as the manipulative and charismatic L Ron Hubbard clone. And he was arguably never better in this scene, when he confronts one of his naysayers and launches into a stoic yet unhinged defensive tirade. Loved the can’t-control-it profanity at the very end.

5. Doubt (2008) — Gossip Sermon

One of the most powerful scenes in a most powerful movie. PSH plays a priest accused of molesting a child and he cleverly uses his sermon as an opportunity to deliver a message to the two women (played by Meryl Streep and Amy Adams) who have been propagating the rumors. Enjoy this one because it’s a doozy.

4. Boogie Nights (1997) — I’m An Idiot

PSH can play gay too. This awkward yet heartbreaking scene from Boogie Nights is PSH at his absolute best.

 3. Punch-Drunk Love (2002) – Shut Up!

Such a random yet unforgettable conversation between PSH and Adam Sandler. This, ladies and gentlemen, is what happens when you place well-timed profanity in the hands of a genius (and of course by that I mean PSH, not Sandler). I can never stop laughing at this.

2. Along Came Polly (2004) — Let It Rain!

Just to remind us how funny he can be again, here’s PSH in one of my favourite sports scenes of all time, the basketball game in Along Came Polly with Ben Stiller. It’s an average film at best, but this is one extraordinary scene.

 1. Happiness (1998) — Phone Scene(s) (but also just about everything else)

Todd Solondz’s Happiness is perhaps the most shocking uncomfortable black comedies I have ever seen, and much of that is thanks to the jaw dropping performance of PSH as the depraved sexual deviant Allen. There is no one I can think of that could possibly pull off this role (pun intended) other than him, and the courage for him to take on such a character without thinking it could destroy his career is impressive.

There are many hilarious PSH scenes littered throughout the film and these are some of my favourites. This first one is him making a prank call to Lara Flynn Boyle, the object of his lust and source of his self-hate.

This next scene is the introduction to the film, where he describes to his therapist what he would like to do to Ms Boyle. Be warned. It’s disturbing.

This third scene is the uncomfortable aftermath of the first scene posted above.

And lastly, perhaps the most controversial scene, in which he makes another prank call, this time to Ms Boyle’s sister, played by Jane Adams. I haven’t embedded the video but have set the clip to start where the call starts, but you can actually watch the entire movie if you so desire. It’s sick and twisted but also very funny if you can stomach it.

 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q7plOP4qlIo&t=29m34s

 Thank you PSH for the memories.

Movie Review: Hereafter (2010)

February 14, 2011 in Movie Reviews, Paranormal, Reviews

Sure, Invictus was just okay, but it seems to me old Clint Eastwood can do no wrong these days.  There is a quiet confidence in his approach, a lovely subtlety in his pacing and pauses.  And no matter what, he manages to evoke powerful, genuine emotional responses from his audiences (I mean, come on — Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino…).

Eastwood’s latest effort, Hereafter, is no different.  It’s a dangerous project because, as the title suggests, the film is about death and what comes after, which makes it prone to soppy melodrama and manipulation.  And of course, the afterlife is a topic often subject to ridicule and parody, so there’s the additional hurdle of keeping the film serious without tipping it over the edge.

Somehow, some way, Eastwood delivers.  Pound-for-pound, Hereafter is perhaps not one of Eastwood’s greatest films, but it’s certainly one of his better ones — and it holds great potential to be one of his most popular films.

It tells three separate stories about three different characters — Marie (Cecile de France), a well-known French television journalist; George (Matt Damon), an American factory worker who just gave up on his old job; and Marcus (Frankie McLaren), a British boy with an older twin brother and a crackhead mother.  I won’t say much more than that except that each of their lives is touched by death and what lies beyond.

Perhaps it’s just my fascination with the film’s themes and/or my appreciation for Eastwood’s direction, but I was totally engrossed by Hereafter from start to finish.  Sceptics might have a natural bias against the film because it lays quite a lot out on the table (similar to say atheists towards The Passion of the Christ or fundamentalist Christians towards The Da Vinci Code — even though it’s fiction), but those who keep an open mind will find it hard not to be moved by at least one of the three stories in the film.  It’s a shame that many people will simply scoff at this film because of its subject matter and try to discredit it on other grounds.  I’m just glad religion played an almost non-existent role in all of this.

Anyway, I loved it.  Eastwood butchered the ending in my opinion with a pointless sequence but apart from that I found it beautiful, absorbing, poignant, and ultimately very satisfying.

4.5 stars out of 5