Movie Review: Spy (2015)

July 10, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

spy-poster

I won’t lie. I initially had zero interest in Spy, the new comedy directed by Paul Feig (Bridesmaids, The Heat) and starring his favourite collaborator Melissa McCarthy. The poster just made it look generic and lame, and I always thought Feig’s earlier films were overrated.

Just shows we shouldn’t judge a movie by its poster or preconceived notions based on the past. Because Spy is really funny. Hilarious stuff. Laugh-out-loud gags with a progressive slant. In my opinion it’s easily the best film either Feig or McCarthy have been involved in.

It doesn’t have a mindblowing plot — McCarthy plays a former teacher-turned-CIA-agent who acts as the eyes and ears of the agency’s top spy, played by Jude Law. She’s meek and awkward and disappointed with how her career change has turned out.

Naturally, an opportunity arises in which she is thrust into dangerous undercover field work, and this brings out the hidden beast in her as she tries to track down a lethal nuclear weapon.

All the kudos in the world for having McCarthy as the undisputed female lead and a kickass spy, an absolute rarity in sexist, beauty- and weight-obsessed Hollywood, but none of that would have mattered if Spy turned out to be a stinker.

Fortunately, Spy smashes the six-laugh quota for a decent comedy with ease thanks to a variety of factors. First and foremost, McCarthy, who gets the opportunity to show her range by playing essentially two personalities — the meek, and the snarky one we’re used to seeing from Bridesmaids and The Heat. 

In the former, she’s funny in the hesitant, awkward manner she’s very capable of pulling off. However, she’s at her ripping best in the latter, firing off quick-witted, sharp, acidic one-liners and well-placed profanity to elicit the chuckles. I always found this crude version of McCarthy funny, but too much of it felt grating and exhausting. Feig’s decision to give us half a film of it ended up being perfect; just the right amount of familiar McCarthy.

Rose Byrne, who seems to be in absolutely everything these days, once again displays her  ample comedic chops as the stuck-up villain with the posh accent. She’s not afraid to make fun of herself and go head-to-head wih McCarthy in the profanity stakes; I believe this could be as funny as she has ever been.

Jude Law, who has been out of the limelight in recent years, returns as a James Bond spoof of sorts, probably a nod to the fact that he was almost picked to be the iconic spy years ago. He’s clearly aged and appears to have gotten some plugs, though the charisma is still there. He gets to joke around the least as the tongue-in-cheek straight-man of the comedy but takes the role in stride.

Up to this point, Spy is already a fairly decent comedy. What takes it to the next level, however, is the presence of Jason Statham. As the most bankable martial arts action star of today, Statham has only been on the fringes of comedy, and by that I mean wisecracks and one-liners in between beating people up on screen. He finally gets to show off his incredible self-awareness and untapped comedic timing in Spy as a disgruntled rogue agent who steals just about every scene he’s in.

Statham’s character is British, but he’s also crass, profane, arrogant, mysognistic and hyperbolic. He reminds of a hardened version of Kurt Russell from Big Trouble in Little China. His hilarity is undeniable, and it adds an edge to the film I doubt anyone else could have offered.

I thought after Kingsman: The Secret Service the year’s best action-comedy had been set in stone, but now I’m not so sure. Spy isn’t nearly as stylish or visually impressive, but it’s much more of a pure comedy in that it generates bigger and more frequent belly laughs. I had an unexpectedly good time.

4.25 stars out of 5

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

Movie Review: Wild Card (2015)

March 31, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Wild-Card

Wild Card is a really unusual film starring action superstar Jason Statham, undoubtedly one of the busiest men in Hollywood. Directed by Simon West, who has some notable credits on his resume including Con Air and The Expendables 2, it’s actually a remake of the 1986 adaptation of the same name starring Burt Reynolds and based on the novel Heat by William Goldman.

Statham plays Nick Wild, a super lethal dude who earns money by doing odd jobs around Las Vegas. We learn early on that he’s a reasonable guy who doesn’t like to rip off his clients and likes to help people out in a no-nonsense way. When a good friend of his (Dominik Garcia-Lorido, Andy Garcia’s real-life daughter) is brutalized by three thugs — led by Milo Ventimiglia (remember him from the TV series Heroes?) — Nick reluctantly agrees to help seek revenge.

So far so good, except that the film then goes off on a completely unexpected tangent, where we discover that Nick is also a gambling addict who has serious trouble knowing when to call it quits. From here, Wild Card turns into a weird gambling movie for a while , which is OK, but then his actions against the thugs come back to haunt him and the film flips into something else again. In some ways, Wild Card is a — pardon the pun — a wild collection of set pieces, each of which works effectively on its own but doesn’t quite come together as a complete motion picture.

The action sequences are very good, with an impressive visual flair that utilizes slow motion and bone-crunching sound effects that almost make you feel the pain. Here is where Statham is at his absolute best, and to his credit he absolutely milks his charisma and knowledge of on-screen fighting to their fullest.

His acting is obviously not as good, which is probably why West decided to pair him with some outstanding performers. Ventimiglia, who has faded since Heroes turned to shit (though I hear it’s coming back without him), is actually excellent as a buffed up, narcissistic douche. The great Stanley Tucci makes an appearance as a crime lord of sorts, while other big names landing extended cameos include Jason “Costanza” Alexander, Hope Davis, Anne Heche and Sofia Vergara.

Wild Card is not great — it’s too all over the place to be anything close to that — but there are aspects of it I enjoyed, such as the action and some of the dialogue. I was quite stunned to discover that it was made for a budget of US$30 million, which feels excessive considering what I saw on screen, though I was even more astonished to learn that it made just US$1.6 million at the box office, which is far too low for what it deserves. While you won’t miss much by skipping this at the cinema, catching it on DVD won’t be the worst decision you could make.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Expendables 3 (2014)

October 29, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I remember when I thought the idea of The Expendables, which grouped together a huge handful of old action stars, would be a good premise — if the film was made 10-15 years ago. That was back in 2010, when they made the first film. Now, with the stars another 4 years older, slower and more mutated by HGH, we have been bestowed a third installment in the franchise, and the results are more ghastly than the cracks on Mel Gibson’s face.

The first Expendables was not very good, but at least it was fresh. The second film was more of the same, except less fresh, and now the third film is simply stale. The Expendables do a dangerous job, a villain appears, hurts or kills one of their own, and revenge is ultimately accomplished following a lot of gunfire, explosions, poor attempts at “character development,” and Sly Stallone running around in platform boots yelling incoherently. It’s a proven formula for box office success.

In fact, you’re not likely to remember what the film is even about the next day, and memories of all three films will probably blend into one giant I-don’t-give-a-shit. For the loyal fans, it doesn’t really matter.

My memory of the film is already starting to fade. I am fairly certain that Mel Gibson is the villain because this is the only role in Hollywood he can get these days. I know Harrison Ford is in it because I remember thinking that he is doing a horrible job of convincing people that he has not turned completely senile. Wesley Snipes is the new addition to the oldies, but he doesn’t offer much apart from a “they went there” joke about his well-publicized problems. Arnie is back, but Bruce Willis is out (complete with a cheesy joke to go along with it). Jet Li makes his usual contract-obligated cameo, and Antonio Banderas is in it for some reason. As you can see, The Expendables franchise has more or less become a charity for old actors who want to keep gettin’ ’em checks. But hey, why blame them for exploiting the market? As long as there is demand there will be supply, no matter how many wrinkles there are. I fully expect Nicholas Cage to be in the next one.

To be fair, Stallone does try to infuse new blood into the series by hiring a bunch of potential box office draws, such as MMA badass Ronda Rousey, Twilight alumnus Kellan Lutz and former welterweight boxing champion Victor Ortiz. They each get to show off a little bit, but with so many people sharing the same pie it’s not really worth your time if you just want to see the film because of one or two people.

Now that the novelty of star power has worn off for good, The Expendables franchise must turn to action and cheesy humor to make up for it. The action, to be honest, felt like more of the same. I suppose the guns, knives and explosions are arguably bigger, but for me it was a case of different shit, same smell. I do, however, give kudos for the tongue-in-cheek cheesy humour. One of the franchise’s greatest strengths is understanding what a big joke everything is and its stars’ ability to make fun of themselves, and The Expendables 3 is no different.

I understand the appeal of the Expendables concept and why people (including myself) have flocked to it time and time again. The undeniable reality, however, is that the films have never lived up to the concept, and I doubt they ever can. I can see how there are those who still enjoy it, but I’ve become numb and indifferent after three mediocre efforts. I think my wife summed up my sentiments best with her one-word review when I asked her what she thought of it: “Whatever.”

2 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part IX

July 10, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

This is the last one. Seriously. The best and worst of 2013 coming right up after this!

The Family (2013)

the family

Robert De Niro may be a legend, but his career choices are inching closer and closer to Nicholas Cage territory with every mediocre film he decides to star in. The Family, on its face, should not have fallen into that category, as it’s directed by legendary Frenchman Luc Besson and features an all-star cast including Michelle Pfeiffer, Tommy Lee Jones and Glee‘s Dianna Agron. But somehow, this uneven, largely unfunny black comedy manages to turn itself into a mess that De Niro will likely want to pretend never existed.

De Niro plays Giovanni Manzoni, Mafia boss who turns to snitching after an attempt on his life. So together with his wife (Pfeiffer) and two kids (Agron and John D’Leo), they relocate to France under a witness protection program under the supervision of FBI agent Stansfield (Jones).

It’s an interesting premise brimming with potential. The central joke is that, as a Mafia family, they can’t be normal even if they tried. They’re scheming sociopaths and borderline psychopaths who just can’t play along and pretend to be a normal family. De Niro can’t stop killing people who offend him; Pfeiffer loves burning stuff down; Agron has a violent streak in her; and D’Leo is a scheming weasel who is the ultimate reconnaissance expert.

There are several key problems with The Family. The first is that Besson never gets the tone quite right. It’s a very dark comedy accompanied by over-the-top violence, but the violence itself is not funny like it is for a film like say Pulp Fiction or Fargo. It felt like the violence never found its role properly.

Secondly, all the central characters are just a little off, and as a result they don’t come across as likable. And it’s hard to root for them when you don’t like them very much. But you can tell Besson is trying to make them likable, which is why it was so strange watching them on screen.

And thirdly, and very strangely, Besson makes French people look like complete a-holes. I understand it was necessary to some extent so that the family can rain their vengeance upon them, but in my opinion it felt obligatory and unnecessary. I know the French are supposed to dislike Americans and vice versa, but this was too much. And they all spoke surprisingly good English too.

In the end I just couldn’t bring myself to like this one. Despite the strong cast, legendary director and best of intentions, The Family is a top-grade disappointment.

2 stars out of 5

Welcome to the Punch (2013)

welcome to the punch

First of all, Welcome to the Punch is a really horrible title for this movie. It makes it sound like an action comedy, when in fact it is a gritty action thriller. But apart from that, it’s actually not a bad British cops and robbers flick with some solid performances, stylish action sequences and a few interesting twists and turns.

James McAvoy is Max Lewinsky, a headstrong London cop determined to catch Icelandic criminal Jacob Sternwood (Mark Strong), who has surfaced after his son was involved in a heist gone wrong. It’s a complicated case that has been a major headache for the police, and so Lewinsky and his partner Sarah Hawks (Andrea Riseborough) are frequently met with internal opposition — opposition that might be intended to impede their progress, and the only person they appear to have in their corner is their superior, Thomas Geiger (The Walking Dead‘s David Morrisey).

What follows is an intriguing game of cat and mouse that features a lot of well executed gunfights. The plot is a little convoluted for my liking, and I admit McAvoy’s protagonist is somewhat douchey, but on the whole I enjoyed the friend-or-foe dynamic between him and the intense and charismatic Strong, whom I believe has a dominating’s screen presence that is second to none.

Welcome to the Punch is not a superior thriller, but it’s a damn serviceable one that can be quite enjoyable if you go in with moderate expectations. Recommended DVD rental.

3.5 stars 

Devil’s Knot (2013)

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I’m always intrigued by Canadian director Atom Egoyan’s take on grief and loss, and so I was somewhat disappointed to hear lukewarm reviews for Devil’s Knot, a dramatization of the true story of the notorious West Memphis Three. Well guess what, I ended up being riveted by the movie from start to finish, so much so that I went on to devour all four documentaries made on the subject — Paradise Lost and its two sequels, and last year’s West of Memphis, made by Lord of the Rings maestro Peter Jackson and wife Fran Walsh.

The true story, for those unfamiliar, takes place in 1993 and begins when three young boys in West Memphis disappear one afternoon and are later found dead, naked, tied up and mutilated. Given that hysteria surrounding Satanic worship was at a peak, it came as no surprise that police targeted local “white trash” teenage outcast Damien Echols and his two friends, Jason Baldwin and Jesse Misskelley — the trio that would later be known as the West Memphis Three.

The evidence against them is supposedly strong (Misskelley, who is borderline retarded, confesses), and the penalty is potentially death. This leads anti-capital punishment advocate and private investigator Ron Lax (Colin Firth) to lend his services to the overwhelmed defense team. Lax starts out only wanting to prevent the boys from being executed, but the more he digs, the more he becomes convinced that the teens are innocent. On the other hand, Pamela Hobbs (a frumpy Reese Witherspoon, who was pregnant at time of filming), the mother of one of the victims, struggles to deal with her son’s death and the subsequent media circus.

Putting aside the merits of the film, Devil’s Knot is one of those films that’s inherently compulsive to watch simply because of the subject matter. It’s a true story that’s stranger than fiction, complete with a long list of potential suspects, intriguing characters, bizarre pieces of evidence and mass hysteria. The police witch hunt and incompetence is undeniable. And yet, at the end of the day, there are no definitive answers, only suspicions.

I suppose that is why critics were harsh on the film, with many calling it a “frustrating” experience because of the lack of a genuine resolution. I do agree with that to some point, but at the same time it does point us in a certain direction and asks us to draw our own conclusions as to the guilt of the West Memphis Three and the “alternate” suspects. Maybe that was the point Egoyan was trying to get across — that is, this is perhaps a mystery we’ll never truly get to the bottom of, and many true crime stories of immense loss fall in the same category.

For me, this was fantastic filmmaking, backed up by excellent performances. The initial pain and devastating felt real. The subsequent anger and thirst for revenge felt real. And that feeling when everything you thought to be true is turned upside down was expertly delivered. My main complaint about it is how abruptly it ends and how it required a long slab of writing onscreen to explain an aftermath that would extend for another 18 years.

Now having seen all the documentaries, I sort of understand why critics say Devil’s Knot did not provide any new insight and really had nothing to add. I don’t agree. While the film only captures a fraction of all there is to tell, and dramatizes scenes that are already captured in the documentaries, I still think there is something to be gained from the viewing experience. It’s a different medium with a different style, and as a result the emotional impact is also completely different. Perhaps my opinion would be different had I watched the documentaries first, but since I did not, and did not know how things turned out in the end, I found Devil’s Knot to be one of the most haunting and engrossing films of the year. I’d definitely recommend it for people who haven’t seen the documentaries and know little of the true story.

4 stars out of 5

Homefront (2013)

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Feels like we’ve seen it all before, but what the heck. A bit more ass-kicking from  Jason Statham is rarely ever a bad thing.

In Homefront, Statham plays an undercover DEA agent who relocates to a country town with his young daughter after his cover is blown. And guess what? the place is running amok with the rednecks and hillbillies, who present themselves as perfect fodder for Statham to beat the crap out of them.

But wait, there’s more. After a run in with a hillbilly woman played by Kate Bosworth and her fat bully son, Statham becomes embroiled in an increasingly dangerous dispute with her brother and local meth kingpin, James Franco. Yes, James Franco!

From there it’s all very predictable. A lot of danger and a lot of ass kicking. It’s a fairly run-of-the-mill action thriller that reminds me of those low-budget 80s classics, though I must say I enjoyed it somewhat on a pure entertainment level. If you want to see Franco get the shit kicked out of him then this is the movie for you. The story is actually based on a book that has been adapted into a screenplay by none other than Sylvester Stallone, so you know it’s overcharged with masculinity and macho dialogue. And of course, realism is not a priority.

I was also surprised by the cast. Apart from Statham, Bosworth and Franco, there was also Winona Ryder in a strange role as Franco’s ex-girlfriend, and everybody’s favourite prison guard from Shawshank, Clancy Brown, playing the local sheriff.

The trailers made Homefront look much more A-grade and intriguing than it really is. I’m not saying it’s bad — as I said I rather enjoyed it — though ultimately it is one of those forgettable films that don’t really matter, and without its all-star cast, it’s hard to see how this film could have gotten a cinematic release.

3 stars out of 5