Movie Review: Focus (2015)

April 13, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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If it feels like it’s been ages since Will Smith has been in a movie, it’s probably because it has been. The Fresh Prince’s last genuine feature film (if you discount basically cameos in Winter’s Tale and Anchorman 2) is the abysmal After Earth, which practically destroyed his son Jaden’s acting future and put a severe dent in his own.

And so I found it interesting that Smith went for a project like Focus, which is a departure from his typical sci-fi blockbusters (Independence Day, MIB, Hancock, I Robot, I am Legend) and melodramatic “acting” efforts (Six Degrees of Separation, The Pursuit of Happyness, Seven Pounds). The closest things on his resume is probably Hitch, made 10 years ago, which has a consistent vibe and has him playing a similar sort of character.

In Focus, Smith plays Nicky Spurgeon, a con man who takes a beautiful young woman (Margot Robbie) under his wing to learn the tricks of the trade. They scam people, they make money, they have fun. Naturally, there is an attraction between the two, which is a no-no for their line of work. It’s one of those films where you’re supposed to be constantly unsure of the characters’ motivations and just who is playing whom.

Focus relies on the chemistry between the two leads, which is apparently so good that the gossip mags had a field day with all the affair rumors when the film was being made. Smith and Robbie are nice to look at and do make a good team, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like Smith’s character, who came across as too familiar to distinguish from his other roles. It’s always the same  — the “I’m so cool and suave and deadpan” and “I’m always in perfect control and never get rattled by anything” demeanour Smith has been crafting since his Fresh Prince days and perfected through Bay Boys, Independence Day, MIB, Wild Wild West and so forth. The act can be funny and all, but I found myself getting tired of it in this film.

There’s not a lot of depth in Focus, though I admit it had some fun and exciting moments as the stakes kept being raised higher and higher.  Fans of plot twists will also probably get a kick out of the movie because there are plenty of twists and turns all the way through. The problem I had with it was that rather than being shocked again and again, I became prepared for every twist that came my way and grew suspicious each time the plot took another turn. Most of all, underneath all of that, I carried the feeling that everything was going to be just fine in the end, so it kind of rendered all the twists superfluous anyway.

In the end, I found Focus to be forgettable experience. It may be slick and stylish but it wasn’t particularly funny and was only sporadically entertaining. The ending was also predictable and not as clever as it should have been. Chalk this one up as a DVD rental.

2.25 stars out of 5

2014 Movie Blitz: Part II

September 4, 2014 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

The movies just keep coming, I can’t stop them. Here’s another batch of films I saw recently.

The Calling (2014)

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This was supposed to be good. Susan Sarandon plays a police detective living in a small Canadian town trying to track down a serial killer with illusions of religious grandeur. The supporting cast isn’t too shabby either, with the likes of Gil Bellows, Ellen Burstyn, Topher Grace and Donald Sutherland. Unfortunately, while it’s not as horrible as some critics have made it out to be, The Calling lacked real suspense, emotion and surprise, and will likely become one of those movies no one remembers in a couple of years.

I initially thought The Calling was going to be a horror in the vein of Seven, but that was expecting way too much. The film started off well, building up Sarandon’s alcoholic character as a troubled but capable detective. Gil Bellows made a good right-hand man, and Topher Grace gave the police station a much-needed spark with his presence, though both of those guys were somewhat under-utilised.

The murders were interesting for a while, but after a while you begin to realise that the story’s not nearly as clever as it wants or needs to be. After a lot of build up in the first half there was a distinct lack of tension or intrigue in the second, as the perpetrator is revealed with very little mystery or conflict. I didn’t have a problem with the story veering towards the supernatural (which most critics tend to hate), but in the end the outcome was predictable and disappointing.

Though it’s one of those films that could have been a lot better, I’m also glad that it wasn’t a lot worse, which it very well could have been.

2.75 stars out of 5

Rage (2014)

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Seriously, trust those American movie producers to change what was an original and intriguing title like Tokarev to a lame and generic one like Rage. But it is what it is, and it’s still a semi-passable Taken-style movie about a former mobster who will do all that he can to find his abducted daughter — a considerable feat considering it stars none other than Nicholas “I’ll do anything” Cage.

Rage was savaged by the critics as an overly-violent, dull action thriller that belongs in Cage’s movie basement, but I personally thought it was OK. Cage has already been in one Taken rip-off, the blatantly titled Stolen, but this one’s a little different for several reasons I can’t reveal. And Cage, despite the tragic hair, is actually pretty good in it too.

The premise is intriguing — Cage, a former criminal gone straight, goes out for the evening with his lady friend (Rachel Nichols) while his teenage daughter (Aubrey Peeples) hangs out at home with her (boy)friends. A bunch of masked men come in and abduct her, setting Cage off on a rampage to track her down through his old contacts, one of whom he believes has betrayed him to his enemies. The journey takes Cage onto a path he can’t return from as we learn more about his dark past.

Rage is indeed ultra-violent, but it doesn’t have the oomph of Taken because it’s mostly just a lot of loud shooting and meanness. Rather than being a skilled badass like Liam Neeson, Cage is an angry badass, which isn’t nearly as exciting. At just 98 minutes, however, the short length does mitigate some of the dullness. The film loses steam towards the end, but I quite liked the ending because there is a tinge of morality among all the carnage.

3 stars out of 5

Sabotage (2014)

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This was supposed to be one of the big movies of the year. A post-politics Arnie back in full swing with Aussie star Sam Worthington by his side, along with a whole host of big names such as Olivia Williams, Terrence Howard, True Blood‘s Joe Manganiello, Lost‘s Harold Perrineau and Josh Holloway, Martin Donovan and Mireille Enos. It’s co-written and directed by David Ayer, best known for penning Training Day and writing and directing End of Watch.

The premise is a good one too — a bunch of corrupt DEA agents, led by Arnie, decide to skim a little off the top of their latest drug bust. But when the money they are supposed to share goes missing and team members start getting killed off one by one in increasingly gruesome ways, it turns the survivors of the once close-knit team on each other.

I knew it was going to be gritty, violent and explosive. And it was. But it also wasn’t anywhere as good as either Training Day or End of Watch. There are plenty of problems to point to, starting from the unnecessary gruesomeness of the whole thing. Sometimes the violence works, sometimes it’s it doesn’t — here it’s just kind of pointless. The other issue I had was with all the characters, none of whom are even remotely likable. It’s hard to watch a movie like this when you think all of them are basically brutish animals and a-holes you won’t mind seeing get whacked.

I wanted to like Sabotage, but there was way too much testosterone to be shared between all the stars, leading to a lot over-the-top swearing, sexism and fake macho stuff that just turned me off the story, which didn’t turn out to be nearly as clever as you initially thought it would be. And it even has this lengthy epilogue that was completely unneeded. Good performances, especially by Arnie, I suppose, but on the whole this is a misstep for Ayer and everyone else involved.

2 stars out of 5

Winter’s Tale (2014)

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What the hell is this? I don’t mind the occasional fable, but Winter’s Tale was way too unconvincing and sappy for my liking. It’s based on the 1983 novel of the same name by Mark Helprin, and tells the story of guy (Colin Farrell) who is raised by a demon (Russell Crowe) and later falls in love with a sick girl (Jessica Brown Findlay) while riding around on a flying white horse/guardian angel. So…yeah.

I kind of get that Winter’s Tale wants to be this epic, sweeping love story that transcends time and space and all that, but I found the package difficult to swallow, starting from Russell Crowe’s bizarre, indecipherable accent to the contrived love story between Farrell and Findlay, and the fact that Will Smith plays the Devil. Fantasy or not, it’s just not sensible stuff.

A film like this needed to give audiences strong, likable characters we can root for, but despite the significant 118-minute running time it felt as though not enough time was dedicated to developing them. The story has a lot of on-screen magic in it but you don’t feel any magic while watching it. The action is also stale, and the romance — though I’ve seen much worse — comes across as forced. And my god, what the heck is Russell Crowe saying?

In the end, I have no idea what this fable is trying to say. Like most flicks of this type, there’s beauty, love, the magic and there’s miracles, but none of it helped to make Winter’s Tale a fantasy I could enjoy, let alone immerse myself in. It might have worked for the book, but it didn’t come close to working for the film.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: After Earth (2013)

September 26, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

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I am…well, was…one of the staunchest M Night Shyamalan defenders out there. I loved The Village and thought The Happening was, er, good (up until the ending) and didn’t think The Last Airbender was as awful as advertised, though Lady In the Water pushed me about as far as my limit would go. And so when I discovered that he was directing Will Smith’s latest sci-fi adventure After Earth (the same Will Smith who does not choose to make bad movies, apparently), I did not run off screaming like most other people.

I probably should have.

After Earth is, plain and simple, a bore, which is an incredible feat considering the semi-interesting premise and how much “action” there is. Basically, humans are forced to abandon Earth at some time in the future after making the place inhabitable, and the new place they decided to settle down has these alien creatures who are blind but can sense fear. Will Smith is some legendary commander who can suppress his fear (and hence practically invincible), and Jaden Smith (his real life son), is constantly living in his shadow. On a final trip to an abandoned Earth, their spaceship crashes and Will is hurt, and the only person who can save them (by trekking through dangerous terrain with evolved/mutated monsters) is Jaden.

So yeah, After Earth is basically a Jaden Smith star-making vehicle produced by his family. Will Smith, who came up with the idea for the movie, is more or less there for the star power and barely moves for the entire film. Jaden’s name even comes up first in the credits (this is living proof of fatherly love).

Apparently the original premise was not sci-fi and was about a father and son duo who are trapped after their car breaks down in the wilderness. That idea might have made a better motion picture, because the sci-fi elements in After Earth don’t really work. Maybe it’s the effects of a hangover from The Last Airbender, but After Earth has a childish feel to it, as though it was made with a Nickelodeon-esque audience in mind. It’s a morality tale and a coming of age story, but there is no nuance or subtlety. Everything is so painfully obvious and predictable. Bland and uninteresting, even when the characters are supposedly in danger. It’s not often that a 100-minute film feels too long. I’m not kidding here, but I think perhaps the film would have been better as an animation.

It’s pointless dissecting Will Smith’s performance because he has so little do to. As for Jaden Smith, I think his acting abilities have regressed from The Pursuit of Happyness (made 7 years ago) and The Karate Kid remake (3 years ago). Maybe it’s the script’s fault, or simply a lack of charisma, because I could not connect with his character at all. The most emotional parts of the film, including a (remote) tearful exchange with his father, felt strangely empty and cliched.

That said, the film is not quite as bad as it has been made out to be. Though clunky, the film tells its story adequately, and the special effects and scale are quite impressive. It’s not the worst of the movie of the year and 11% on Rotten Tomatoes is a brutal overreaction. However, After Earth is still ultimately a huge disappointment and a failed experiment. Maybe it’s time for M Night to retreat into the shadows and get back to the smaller, more intimate projects that made him a respected filmmaker in the first place.

1.75 stars out of 5

2012 Movie Blitz: Part 8

August 22, 2013 in Movie Reviews, Reviews

Men in Black 3 (2012)

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I still remember the hype surrounding the original Men In Black in 1997, which officially catapulted Will Smith into big screen superstardom. I also vividly remember watching Men In Black II in 2002, and falling asleep during it. So when Men In Black III, which comes 10 years after the sequel, hit our cinemas, I didn’t have much interest, though I did eventually catch it on DVD.

This time, with Tommy Lee Jones quite literally “too old for this shit,” they got Josh Brolin to play a younger version of Agent K to team up with Will Smith’s Agent J in a plot commonly seen for third movies in a franchise — time travel, in the vein of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III: Turtles in Time (classic film and arcade game).

As expected, MIB III was a tired old affair trying to milk the dollars. It wasn’t horrible, and it was an undoubted upgrade over its immediate predecessor, but there just wasn’t anything that could get me excited. I love aliens as much as the next X-File fan, though in this case they weren’t enough. Josh Brolin was surprisingly good and convincing as the younger Tommy Lee, who still got top billing despite the very limited screen time, though there were just too many Will Smith-esque dry jokes for my liking.

I know some critics found the film unassuming and fun, but I just couldn’t bring myself to like it. And I can’t believe they have confirmed another one.

2 stars out of 5

Ted (2012)

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I keep reminding myself to watch more of Seth MacFarlane’s stuff, especially the sharp and cutting Family Guy, but for whatever reason I just haven’t found the time. I was fortunate enough to watch Ted on a long-haul flight last year, and notwithstanding the effects of my soothing in-flight Xanax, I found the film to be a cracking good time. Not perfect by any means, but different enough and funny enough to make it one of the standout comedies of the year.

Marky Mark Wahlberg plays John, a kid whose wish that his teddy bear — Ted (voiced by MacFarlane) — would come to life. Sure, they are celebrities for a while, but eventually they grow up and have the face the realities of life, including John’s girlfriend, played by Mila Kunis.

At its core, Ted is a buddy movie where one is a screw-up (in this case the teddy) who holds the other guy back from realizing his full potential, but in all honesty the film is all about the laughs and the crude jokes. The script is somewhat inconsistent, but when it comes to generating laughs, Ted delivers. There are times when MacFarlane tiptoes around the edges of good taste (and in some cases steps over the bounds), but it really depends on what your personal limits are. For me, the vast majority of it was fine, and even the ones that were dangerous elicited a guilty chuckle.

MacFarlane does a wicked Ted, with a low, alcoholic voice laced with a thick Boston accent. Marky Mark is also perfect playing his typical dropkick-with-a-heart-of-gold character, and Mila Kunis shines as his sassy girlfriend. Special mention goes out to Giovanni Ribisi, who delivers a hilarious performance as a psycho obsessed with Ted.

In all, Ted is an acquired taste that may leave a bad taste in your mouth, but as warped as it is the film is also undoubtedly funny.

4 stars out of 5

Flight (2012)

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Denzel being Denzel is pretty much how I would sum up Flight, Robert Zemeckis’s (trying saying that quickly three times) first live action film since the awesome What Lies Beneath from 2000.

Denzel plays Whip, a skilled airline pilot who dabbles in women, alcohol and drugs. But when he miraculously lands a crashing plane and saves nearly everyone on board, he is hailed a hero — until the authorities start looking into his toxicology reports. Should the pilot’s state of mind and body be relevant if it wasn’t his fault that the plane was crashing in the first place? Shouldn’t all that matter be the fact that he saved people’s lives? And just how far would you go to protect your reputation even if it isn’t real? Those are the type of questions Flight asks its viewers.

It’s a fascinating story about truth and addiction and one man’s battle against demons that threaten to consume his life. Denzel is of course brilliant as the complex Whip, which is why he got another Oscar nomination, but the one who stole the show for me was Brit Kelly Reilly (I last saw her in the 2008 horror Eden Lake with Michael Fassbender), who plays a recovering drug addict with demons of her own.

Flight is a heavy drama tackling depressing issues, so there was a sense of gloom throughout the whole film, but you know the emotional lift will come eventually after Whip hits rock bottom. In that sense I found the whole thing a little predictable, though I can’t deny the effectiveness of the dramatic sequences and the performances. It’s one of those films you can appreciate but won’t be much more than a fuzzy memory in a few years.

3.75 stars out of 5

Smiley (2012)

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I was surfing YouTube for film trailers one day at work and I kept seeing ads on the right hand column for this slasher flick called Smiley, featuring a killer with — you guessed it — a mutilated smiley face. The trailer looked generic and horrible but I watched it anyway, and it is a decision I will have to live with for the rest of my life.

In short, Smiley is one of the worst movies of the year. Pathetic and derivative plot, laughable acting and zero scares, not even visceral ones. The idea  is a mish mash rip off of Candyman and Scream — that if you type a silly phrase into a webchat three times, Smiley will show up and kill the person on the other side. Of course, some moronic girl, played by Caitlin Gerard, decides to do it, and watching Smiley kill someone traumatizes her. The bodies then start piling up, and surprise surprise, no one believes her and thinks she’s going crazy. This was about the same point I wondered whether I was going crazy because surely the film could not be this abhorrent. But it was.

Caitlin Gerard is pretty to look at but all that crying and screaming and acting scared convinced no one. Even at 95 minutes I wondered regularly if the film was ever going to end. The end.

0.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Karate Kid (2010)

July 26, 2010 in Movie Reviews

The biggest problem with the 2010 “remake” The Karate Kid is that it’s called “The Karate Kid.”

It so shouldn’t be, and it’s the sole reason that I didn’t watch the film any earlier.  (Okay, that’s a lie.  I also thought the film was a shameless “star” vehicle for Jaden Smith, Will Smith’s kid, as adorable as he was in The Pursuit of Happyness.)

Calling The Karate Kid “The Karate Kid” is misleading because the 2010 film has nothing to do with the classic franchise with Ralph Macchio as Daniel-san and Pat Morita as Mr Miyagi.  It’s not a real remake.  For starters, it’s not even karate (it’s Kung Fu!).  It also happens to be set in China.  Sure, it borrows from the goodwill of the 1984 original and allows them to throw in a few homages to some of the more memorable scenes between Daniel-san and Mr Miyagi, but I think it does a disservice to both the original and the new film to use the same name.  They should have gone with “The Kung Fu Kid” or something like that.

Anyway, as surprised as I am to say it, the 2010 “remake” is actually pretty decent.

Jaden Smith is Dre Parker, as 12 year old kid who moves with his mother (Taraji P Henson) to Beijing, China for some reason.  And of course, he’s not liked by the local kids who all turn out to be little kung fu warriors.  But fear not — enter Jackie Chan as the building maintenance man, Mr Han, who also happens to be a master of kung fu.  So begins little Dre’s transformation from bullied foreigner to kung fu hero.

If the plot sounds formulaic, that’s because it is.  But having said that, The Karate Kid still has a fair bit of heart.  It’s targeted at a younger audience and I think they’ve hit the mark — it has an underdog story, it’s fairly entertaining, lightly amusing, and there’s a good message hidden in there somewhere.  It’s way too long at around 140 minutes, but to be honest I didn’t find it boring.  The kiddy fight scenes were done very well, and most of it looks pretty legit.

Little Jaden is growing up quickly and he’s adequate as Dre.  I heard some bad reviews about his acting but he’s not that bad.  The cute kid routine no longer works but you can tell he works hard, just like his old man.  (He also looks a lot like him from the nose up, as evidenced from an early scene where you only get to see half his face in a van.)

The thing with Jackie Chan is that you always know what you’re going to get.  Charismatic, good jokes, nicely choreographed fight scenes, and the ability to pull the heart strings when necessary.  He’s clearly getting on in age but can still kick some butt when he has to.

The Karate Kid should never be considered a replacement for the original for the new generation of kids who like to pretend they know how to fight.  But still, it’s not a bad film, especially for younger kids.  Maybe they’ll find it easier to relate to a genuine 12-year-old in Jaden Smith rather than a 30-year-old Ralph Macchio playing a 16-year-old (okay, he wasn’t that old…maybe like 23).

3 stars out of 5

[PS: apparently in China it’s called The Kung Fu Dream and several minutes of the film that makes China “look bad” has been cut!]