Movie Review: Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

May 13, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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Alec Baldwin. Harrison Ford. Ben Affleck. And now Chris Pine. With the exception of Baldwin (who’s a bit of an outlier anyway), Jack Ryan is the Benjamin Button of spy characters in that he just keeps getting younger and younger. And less dopey-looking.

All jokes aside, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recuit is yet another rendition of Tom Clancy’s most famous character, and while there are some positives to take out of it I’m still fairly convinced this is again a one-and-done reboot. I enjoyed the concept and some of the action sequences, but it’s one of those films where the more you think about it the more ridiculous and silly it seems. It’s not bad as a standalone espionage flick but not strong enough to lay the foundations of a new series.

This time, we go right back to the beginning, when a young Captain Kirk (Pine) witnesses the horrors of 9/11 while studying in London and decides to become a US marine. It doesn’t go too well for him, but through the disaster he is discovered by a CIA operative, codename Dances With Wolves (just kidding, it’s Mr Kevin Costner). And so begins a new career for our protagonist, whose adventures take him to Russia and a tycoon played by Kenneth Branagh, who also directed the film. There’s a conspiracy and there’s a terror plot brewing, one that could destroy the world as we known it, and Jack Ryan must find a way to stop it in time without pissing off his girlfriend, Kiera Knightley.

From that brief synopsis, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (horrible title, by the way) seems like your typical spy action flick. And while there are elements about it that intrigued me — the terrorist plot, the fact that Ryan was just starting off as an analyst as opposed to a field agent, and the always-welcome presence of Branagh in front of and behind the camera — in the end it really was just your typical spy action flick. That’s a shame, because I think there was potential for more layers and depth, in particular as they had brought in 9/11 and the whole economic terrorism angle, but instead they went traditional and opted for car chases and explosions.

Branagh, who surprised me when he did an excellent job with Thoralso comes out with a commendable effort here in terms of generating tension and at least a semi-realistic feel to the action sequences. His own performance was charismatic, and Chris Pine was rather believable as a brilliant analyst who starts out way out of his depth but eventually embraces his destiny. Kevin Costner is, well, very Kevin Costner, and Kiera Knightley puts on a decent American accent as the damsel in distress masquerading as a strong, independent woman.

So the execution is not bad, but it’s a shame that the script becomes more and more outrageous as it progresses. We are supposed to see what a brilliant mind Jack Ryan is, but if you really think about it he actually does a lot of stupid stuff that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. I can’t discuss these without divulging spoilers, but let’s just say Ryan’s so-called “brilliance” relies upon giving up the easy route for the hard one (maybe so the task seems more difficult) and plenty of dumb luck. It’s not just Ryan either, as plenty of others, including the villain(s), are guilty of head-scratching behaviour. And don’t even get me started on the final climax, which goes from implausible to ridiculous to just plain silly.

At the end of the day, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is what it is: sleek albeit familiar B-grade entertainment featuring a popular character and a stellar cast. It’s serviceable as a DVD rental but it would be unfair to expect too much. There clearly is something about Jack Ryan that makes Hollywood keep wanting to make movies about him, but this one doesn’t exactly show us why.

3 stars out of 5

Game Review: God of War: Ascension (PS3)

July 10, 2013 in Game Reviews, Reviews

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God of War III on the PS3 is, to this day, one of the best video games I’ve ever played. It’s stunning to look at, with innovative controls and gameplay, brutal combat and kill moves, jaw-dropping bosses and boss battles, and a captivating storyline that will have you immersed in the world of Greek mythology. (My full review of that brilliant game can be found here.)

And so it was with great excitement that I purchased a copy of God of War: Ascension during my trip to Japan in March, even though I had about half a dozen games I hadn’t even played. That’s how much I wanted to play it.

It took a few goes, on and off, to get through the game (you know what it’s like when there are more pressing concerns like work and a family), but I finally managed to complete the first run through the other night — a huge accomplishment in itself.

Unfortunately, Ascension could not come close to replicating the wonderful experience I had with GOWIII. Technically, it is as good as the series has ever been, with some astounding backdrops and beautiful scenery. The gameplay is pretty much the same, but with a few nice new additions including the ability to make an object move forward and back in time and create clones of yourself. The boss battles are still epic and the bosses themselves are bigger than ever.

But to be honest it didn’t feel like the game broke any new ground. GOWIII was such a massive step up from GOWII, but Ascension felt like the makers of the game were just trying to cash in on the success of the franchise by adding a bit of spit and polish to GOWIII. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but the lack of ingenuity and innovation did make the game feel a lot more stale and repetitive than its predecessor.

Even mini-boss battles are still epic

Even mini-boss battles are still epic

Ascension is actually a prequel, chronologically the first game in the series. That said, I wouldn’t have known that without reading about the game, because the storytelling this time around is sorely lacking and too convoluted for my liking. I wish I could explain what the plot is about, but I seriously have no idea. I didn’t skip the cut scenes or anything, but all I knew was that there were a bunch of scary-looking ladies I had to fight.

It’s a real shame because Acension, as a standalone game, is still pretty awesome. I still loved the combat gameplay, especially against the epic bosses, which are usually broken down into several phases and require a very long time to conquer. The kill scenes are more gruesome and bloody than ever, and really bring out the power of the PS3 graphics, with the blood specks and splatters clearly visible in the detailed close-ups. The game itself, on the first run through, probably takes about 13-15 hours (which is fairly substantial), and then there are some extras which allow you to restart the game with a different-looking character/outfit but fully-charged weapons.

However, these solid elements don’t quite add up to a memorable game. Part of it is the lack of innovation from GOWIII, but I think it also has something to do with the storytelling and the lack of variety in the game’s progression. In GOWIII it never felt like you were doing the same thing over and over because one minute you might be scaling walls and fighting minions, and the next you could be sliding down a ramp, solving puzzles, then engaging in an epic boss battle. Ascension’s gameplay didn’t feel like it had that variance, and the puzzles also weren’t as creative.

What Ascension does have going for it is the online multiplayer aspect. I haven’t tested it much yet but the ability to play with other people is an excellent addition to the franchise. My main complaints are of course the inability to use Kratos (apparently the developers didn’t want everyone choosing Kratos, as they probably would), and also the inability to play offline with two controllers (or more) on the same system and TV. Not everyone loves online play, you know.

A scene from a multiplayer mission

A scene from a multiplayer mission

On the whole, God of War: Ascension is a sound addition to the GOW franchise, but it’s also one of the more unremarkable ones. Perhaps it’s because I was too spoiled by GOWIII, but despite its strengths there just wasn’t enough freshness or variety to make Ascension a must-have for PS3 gamers.

7.5/10

Movie Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (2012) (2D)

December 17, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews

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The Lord of the Rings is the holy grail of epic fantasy, both in print and on the big screen. When I heard Peter Jackson (originally Guillermo del Toro) was bringing us The Hobbit as a prequel, I was naturally excited. I grew less excited when I heard it was being made into two films, and even less excited again when I heard it was being stretched into a trilogy.

With the exception of greed, the decision didn’t make much sense. The Hobbit is a tiny book compared to any one of the three volumes of Rings, and yet they were going to make three movies out of it? Despite assurances that they were going to expand Middle Earth and add in a bunch of details from Tolkien’s other writings and appendices and so forth, it didn’t strike me as a recipe for success.

As it turned out, the first film of the new trilogy, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey justified both my excitement and my scepticism. On the one hand, the film did bring back some of the best memories from Rings and reminded me why it will likely never be topped as the best fantasy franchise of all time. On the other, at a whopping 2 hours and 49 minutes, it was unnecessarily bloated, occasionally tedious and sometimes, dare I saw, even boring.

Jackson replacing del Toro meant that we were likely to get a continuation of the Middle Earth established in Rings as opposed to a fresh interpretation of Tolkien’s universe. This was the correct assumption, as An Unexpected Journey looked and felt exactly like the world we were still immersed in when Return of the King departed our cinema screens nearly a decade ago.

For those unfamiliar with the story, The Hobbit centers around a young Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman — the old one was played by Ian Holm in Rings, who also has a cameo to kick things off here), who travels with Gandalf (Ian McKellen) and 13 dwarves (led by Thorin Oakenshield — Richard Armitage) to recapture a treasure-filled dwarf kingdom guarded by the dragon Smaug. It happens years before Frodo’s adventures and first introduces us to the powerful ring that would become the centerpiece of the books.

Apart from a whole host of familiar faces (I won’t spoil who they all are for those who like surprises), An Unexpected Journey is full of nostalgia. You can tell Jackson is trying very hard to recapture the magic of Rings, and as a result there’s also a strong sense of deja vu. Everything from the sets to the costumes to the plot progression feels eerily similar (if you want an explanation with minor spoilers see below after the rating).

But The Hobbit is not The Lord of the Rings and it shouldn’t have tried to be. For starters, the difference in length means An Unexpected Journey should never have been 2 hours and 49 minutes, which might have been perfect for fanboys who spray their shorts over the extended DVD cuts but not for casual fans and regular audiences.

In fact, the whole film felt like an extended DVD cut. I think the running time would have been OK if there were only two films rather than three, but there’s no reason why An Unexpected Journey had to be nearly three hours long, especially not when it traverses so little of a story that takes up only 275 pages in a paperback.

The result is a really long and uneventful introduction and significant chunks where uninteresting conversation dominates the action. It’s not that the first couple of hours of An Unexpected Journey is bad — it’s just not that good when compared to the high standards set by Rings.

That said, the final hour of the movie is brilliant and as exciting as the Mines of Moria from Fellowship of the Ring, the battle of Helm’s Deep from The Two Towers and the siege at Minas Tirith from The Return of the King. I don’t want to reveal too much except to say I wished the rest of the movie was just like it.

Martin Freeman, whom Jackson said was the only choice all along, is pretty good as the young Bilbo, while Ian McKellen doesn’t miss a step as a slightly younger and seemingly less mature Gandalf. Richard Armitage is solid as dwarf prince Thorin Oakenshield, but he’s no Viggo Mortensen as Aragorn, though to be fair no one could have been that freaking awesome. The rest of the dwarves are generally quite forgettable, and I still haven’t figured out why only two or three of them look fairly normal while the rest are plastered with prosthesis and look like absolute freaks.

The special effects are of course seamless, though without having seen the original trilogy again I don’t think they are too different to the effects from 10 years ago. A change this time is the decision to create all the orcs and goblins using CGI as opposed to real actors with makeup, but they are all done so well that the difference is negligible.

I was one of those people that made a conscious choice to watch the film in 2D and at 24 frames per second, as opposed to the 3D at 48 frames per second that was on offer. I’m well and truly over 3D now, and I was not curious about 48 frames at all after hearing all the negative comments, from the nausea to how everything look too fast and real and how the props looked fake because of it. Besides, if you really want The Hobbit to be a continuation of The Lord of the Rings wouldn’t you want to experience it the same way?

On the whole, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is a mixed bag. It contains flashes of brilliance and a final hour that rivals the best of The Lord of the Rings, but at the same time there’s also too much unnecessary fluff at the beginning to prevent it from ultimately living up to the hype. As the first entry to a new trilogy, however, I think it holds promise and should hopefully open the door to two sensational sequels.

3.75 stars out of 5

(Minor spoilers) PS: The Hobbit follows the trajectory of The Fellowship of the Ring very closely. It starts off in the Shire as a gentle but reluctant hobbit is dragged onto an adventure after a visit from Gandalf. He is pursued by dangerous enemies throughout his journey, runs into trolls and goes through an underground mine before finishing up in the woods with an epic battle. It’s exactly the same!

Movie Review: Prometheus (2D) (2012)

June 8, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I just watched one of my most anticipated films of the year, Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s is-it-or-isn’t-it prequel to Alien, his 1979 classic. There is an answer to that question but it’s not a particularly important one, because Prometheus stands on it’s own extremely well. It’s not the classic Alien or Aliens is, but hey, few films are. If you measure the film by the impossible standards of those films, of course it is going to fall short. But by ordinary standards this film is freaking awesome. Visually stunning, with excellent performances and plenty of suspense. It’s not groundbreaking by any means but takes the successful Alien/s formula and places it on a much larger and different angled palette.

Set late in this century, it tells the story of a group of private sector space travellers who head to the moon of a distant planet to seek the origins of mankind. What they find, of course, is not quite what they expected.

This is a very different film to those in the Alien franchise (I am going to pretend, by the way, that the Alien vs Predator pieces of crap never existed). This is a ‘big ideas’ movie, or at least it tries to be one, and the scale and grandeur dwarfs anything that has been attempted in those earlier films. The special effects and the sets and make up are simply mind-blowing. The introductory scene sets the tone perfectly and is one of the best I have seen in a very long time.

At it’s heart though, Prometheus is still a sci-fi mystery horror, and in that regard it delivers. Even when you have a fair idea of what is likely to happen it’s still suspenseful — and often, extremely gross. It has scare tactics that will remind viewers of the Alien franchise though I wouldn’t call it ‘recycled.’ There are also one or two memorable scenes that will probably linger in the back of my mind forever.

The screenplay is written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof. Spaihts previously wrote the script for The Darkest Hour, which was a horrible movie but not because of the writing (I thought the idea was decent). Lindelof, on the other hand, is the co-creator of and writer for one of the most fascinating and frustrating TV shows of all time, Lost, and his fingerprints are all over this one.

On the bright side, the plot unravels like a brilliant mystery, akin to slowly peeling off the layers a giant onion. When you’re not terrified you’re fully engaged trying to figure out what the heck is going on. On the other hand, Prometheus is full of plot holes, loose ends and unexplained stuff that will frustrate a lot of viewers to no end. It’s almost as though it was written with a sequel in mind, or perhaps, like Lost, the writers just did what they thought was cool at the time without giving much thought to whether they could make sense of it later, if at all.

Being a film about finding the origins of man, there are of course some philosophical considerations. On this point I felt Prometheus was also very Lost-like; that is, a lot of interesting questions but not a lot of answers, a lot of style but not a whole lot of substance. That said, I didn’t really care. Intellectual stimulation was not high on the list of reasons why I wanted to watch this film.

The cast is super. Noomi Rapace, Michael Fassbender, Idris Elba, Charlize Theron and Guy Pearce. No weak link in that line up. The Assbender, though, is the clear standout as David, a mesmerising guy you quickly find out is not quite the same as the others. It’s not a stretch to say the Assbender carries the bulk of this film. 300, Centurion, Inglourious Basterds, X-Men: First Class, Shame and now Prometheus. The dude has become one of my favourite actors.

Rapace gives a sound effort as scientist Elizabeth Shaw, though it’s rather unfair to compare her to Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) because they are such different personalities. Unfortunately, she doesn’t even channel her inner Lisbeth Salander, which might leave some of her Dragon Tattoo fans disappointed. Despite her name being the first in the credits, Rapace doesn’t stand out throughout the first half of the film, which I’m not sure is by design. However, she does have one ripper of a scene later on, possibly the best sequence in the entire film (and an instant classic), and more or less redeems herself by the end.

So yeah, Prometheus is pretty cool. Flawed but very enjoyable if you can look past its most egregious problems. At the end of the day, I didn’t watch Prometheus expecting it to be as good as Alien/s. I didn’t watch it expecting to gain more insights about where we came from. I watched it expecting to be entertained, awed and terrified for a couple of hours. And I was.

4.25 stars out of 5!

Movie Review: The Thing (2011)

January 17, 2012 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

I haven’t seen John Carpenter’s 1982 original and went into the new version of The Thing believing that it was a remake.  Interestingly, while the premise is somewhat similar, the 2011 version is not a remake and not a sequel, but a prequel.  Apparently those who have seen the 1982 film will understand why some things in the 2011 version turn out the way they do.

Anyway, I digress.  Either as a prequel or a standalone film, The Thing works on some levels as a sci-fi horror but fails to be nearly as effective as it could have been.  It contains a solid performance from Mary Elizabeth Winstead (the object of Michael Cera’s affection in Scott Pilgrim vs the World), who channels her inner Ellen Ripley, some freaky special effects and a whole lotta paranoia, but I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that I had seen it all before (and this is without seeing the original).

The Thing (2011) tells the story of a group of researchers who head to a Norwegian base camp to examine a “discovery” from Antarctica.  As it turns out, the discovery is not quite as dead as they thought it was, and soon the base is turned upside down, with people dying gruesome deaths and the survivors not knowing who they can trust.  There’s tension and there’s paranoia and there’s chills (it is, after all, based in the ice).  As far as freaky scares go, The Thing delivers.  The titular character is a nasty, “WTF is that?” piece of work and kudos must go out to the special effects team that created it.

As I said, I haven’t seen the 1982 film, so I cannot comment on whether the 2011 film compares favourably (though from most accounts it doesn’t).  What I can say is that it is certainly better than the vast majority of films in recent years that have been reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels or spin-offs of other popular/famous horror  films or franchises (eg, those Alien, Predator, Alien vs Predator, Nightmare on Elm Street, Freddie vs Jason, Saw, Final Destination filmsetc).  That said, there wasn’t anything particularly clever or special about this film either, and it’s highly unlikely that it will have the longevity of the original, which is still often brought up as a horror classic.

At the end of the day, The Thing (2011) is what it is — a solid prequel that doesn’t nearly live up to the highly touted original but doesn’t crap all over its legacy either.

3 stars out of 5!

 
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