Sunday, 17 May 2015

"Mad Max Fury Road" Review: best action film of the last 25 years

"Mad Max Fury Road" had the same impact to me that "The raid" did back in 2012. It is not that it has a striking story line or presents itself as a masterclass of acting and good taste. It simply offers the thrills that films of this genre do in the most effective way.
If you villain looks like that, do you expect subtlety?
Story: All the previous MM films had a very basic plot. Lone hero goes (unwillingly) against a gang of rapists, scumbags and killers in the post apocalyptic desert wasteland of Australia while half way through makes a pact with other survivors. Max, a man of few words, at the beginning is a human being investing only to himself but at the end superior motives and a good heart leads him to the path of the hero. Here, we have the same story with a bit of extension. A dictator - Immortan Joe - presenting himself as a god on earth controls that last few remaining resources - water, plants - and brainwashes people to commit sacrifice for him if necessary. However, he wants an heir for this massive "city" and hence the plot begins. See the women who are supposed to give him an heir are being smuggled out by one of his accomplishes named Furiosa. While escaping they encounter Max and their sole purpose is to avoid the claws of Joe and his massive gang (army). Plot is in a few words, simple and effective without deviating from its main characters and theme of survival. Like "Dredd" and "The raid" not all films have to shoehorn thousands of subplots and complex ideas in order to satisfy the now have seen pretty much everything audience ("Age of Ultron" and "Prometheus" are the most recent disappointing examples).
Mad Max and Furiosa - one of the best duos on screen that get the job done with a love story. Thank god.
Characters: The most surprising aspect in the now classic survival and car-chase franchise are the characters. Yes, you heard me right. What could have been easily the single element that would have MMFR being slaughtered by the critics is actually the most enduring part. Besides MM, we have Immortan Joe, our villain and although he is roughly one dimensional, his scenes have enough characterization. Sure he is a bad guy, but considering his rich backstory - ill in need of an heir and a god among his (brainwashed) people - even when he has the chance to kill his women, he (reluctantly) hesitates because he considers them sacred. It is a bizarre twist in the typical vile villain. Then we get one of the toughest female characters ever in the face of Charlise Theron as Furiosa (excellent performance). As her name suggests, this is not the typical man-needy damsel in distress. Despite having one arm - the other is bionic - not only she holds up her own against much more intimidating foes but she also has a nicely incorporated emotional arc and she is not defined by her sex. Rest assured despite this being a film aimed at guys (like "Aliens"), it is very surprising that there is no context for gender based jokes or action. And instead of following the traditional route of tough female characters - hateful and resentful towards me because they feel scared or were abused by them and even when a man saves them they still despises until the plot requires them to do an 180 turn and trust the hero - here instead they act as genuine INDIVIDUALS. Furiosa does not have to prove to Max that she is tough. She is tough and we know it. Period. She works with Max and does not try to screw him over in the first chance she gets (despite Max doing that initially). The fact is that women are trying to save the world from the mad men unlike other cinematic depictions as weak and fragile minded caricatures. Besides Furiosa, there are the five wives of Joe, all of them gorgeous (since the plot requires them so). Still, there is not a single shot that pervs over them. None of them act and feel forced nor require saving every five minutes and they actually feel an important part of the simple plot. What they lack in deep development, they make up for sharp characterization and they all work towards the final goal - to escape Joe. No one is going on their own somewhere so they can be kidnapped or last (action) minute freak out and start crying while the villain is up close and personal in order to provide the hero the necessary and cathartic cliffhanger. Well done screenwriters, well done.

Mainstream: which brings me to the selling point of the film. MMFR is not following the mainstream rules at anything that Hollywood has produced in the last couple of years. Not. At. All. No love story, no bullshit like that. George Miller (the director) treats his characters as actual humans which sole purpose is to survive in this insane post-apocalyptic world, not to make out (or chase doggies). Therefore, I must express my happiness when I discovered that not only I cared about every single one of the few individuals on screen but this greatly increased the dramatic tension in the practical made chase sequences. There are things here that will surprise you, especially for a film of that marketing hype that usually aims to please the 13-year olds and the overall unfamiliar with it audience. No scrap that, MM aims for your head. You either like it or leave it.
That's a mad max vehicle. Seriously.
Action: And now the second selling point of MM. What made the first trilogy instantly famous was the car sequences and crashes, particularly the car themselves. The filmmakers opted out to create the cars from scratch - especially in that cinematic era where GGI was not available - see the disastrous "2 Fast 2 Furious" stunts. Now, we are 2015 and Miller chose to create the most insane vehicles ever  (there is a vehicle that looks like a rock stage!)being put up on screen for road mayhem in the dessert of South Africa. And oh boy not only he delivers the goods, he manages to make the entire "Fast and the Furious" franchise for pussies. Sure it can be described as excessive but when all the crashes, explosions and road fights are real with real people performing insane stunts in spectacular fashion, it is truly a sight to behold. People jumping left and right on moving vehicles and catapult themselves in over the top fashion without the slightest usage or help of CGI while at the same time vehicles are crashing and exploding at 100mpr in a gorgeous setting. And everything is presented in a wide and crystal clear frame. MMFR has pwned any single action film of the last 25 years and like the "Raid", sets the bar high now for future vehicular mayhem productions. FF8 has to really prove itself and now that I am thinking about it pales in comparison.

Direction: George Miller now at his 70's(!) directs with such panache and finesse with exhilarating rhythm. The film never (or rarely drugs) and it can be described as a two hour car chase (no really) with loud industrial music - provided by Junkie XL - that grabs you by the throat and never lets it go. I have not felt like that since "Gravity". Added by gorgeous cinematography, he stages his vehicular mayhem in such good taste (assisted by top notch editing too) that makes you wonder what a bad job filmmakers are currently doing now in action movies. This is a man who has not visited the world of MM since 1985 and in the meantime he performed director duties in family friendly flicks such as "Babe" and "Happy feet". Holy cow, try to top that.
The world of Mad Max. Amazing.
Mad Max: Played by Tom Hardy, Max is not a disappointment as douchebags have proclaimed him to be (because he assists Theron's character). He has his own moments to shine and at the end of the day he is the main hero. But his arc is not the film's emotional core (wise decision). Max is a character that has revealed all his cards in the previous movies. Having again to go through the same process will be a boring thing to do. Miller and co have thought it carefully and allowed this character to come and go as he should do. An enigmatic stranger, a man with a name but of few words, decides what to do when the right time comes. He is not the full blown hero but rather he follows the footsteps of Clint Eastwood's character in the Leone trilogy.

Anything I did not like? The film is an action masterpiece. Nothing annoyed me and everything has suggested a world that requires expanding (everyone is ready for a sequel). If I have to nitpick, it could be the relentless pace - combined this with the loud industrial music and the immersive car chases for 2 hours could be a bit tiresome for those who seek dialogue (very few bits). Also the insanity of the film might turn few people off so if you are not willing to experience this for 2 hours, I suggest do not bother to go. For those who seek high speed thrills and the BEST action thrills of the last 25 years, this is your chance.

+ action, THE ACTION
+ world building
+ cinematography
+ characters
+ no one does something stupid
+ brilliant music
+ Tom Hardy
+ strong but not in your face female characters for the sake of it
+ glorious direction
+ simple story, effectively executed


Saturday, 9 May 2015

"Avengers: Age of Ultron" review: A disappointing overblown sequel

Finally the over hyped and much anticipated sequel to the third biggest film of all time is here. Joss Whedon retains the reigns of being the main creative force behind Marvel and returns for the second entry in the massively popular now cinematic universe of superheroes. Did it work this time around?
The design and effects of Ultron are flawless and the casting of Spader spot on
Direction: One thing is for sure. Whedon looks way more comfortable behind the camera that in the first "Avengers". When initially his name was attached to bring the (unnecessary) complex world of superheroes on the big screen, geeks did parades all around the world while the more sceptics raised their eyebrow since he has mainly credits as a screenwriter (of very good scripts) and nicely integrated TV series ideas. As a full blown director he still had not displayed  any cinematic awesomeness despite having "Serenity" under his belt. So how was the first avenging chapter? A critical acclaimed piece of celebrating comic pop culture that many enjoyed for its over the top action, witty one liners and nice interplay between its characters. With "Ultron", Whedon has to actually top himself and despite giving contradictory comments of making it smaller and more personal, he unleashes a destruction film of "Man of steel" proportions. He more confidently stages the chaotic action and fully embraces the breathless nature of superhero clashes. But in this CGI mayhem, there is no room to develop your character roster, especially one that has become so big...which brings me to the main problem of "Ultron".

Script: After the (huge) success of Tom Hiddleston's Loki both in terms of acting and character appeal, Ultron seemed an appropriate foe that steps up in the villain pantheon to kick some avenger butt. However, the character number is so vastly great that there is not enough space for development and any possible interaction is surpassed with the speed of Quicksilver to experience the next visual thrill. Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver get a few lines regarding their (dramatic) backstory and there are mostly action material rather than real life threats for the avengers. But the biggest problem of the second outing is that characters come and go as the plot commands. Ultron appears and disappears whenever an explosion is required whereas some of the main heroes vanish for good - Thor - that get a line of explanation for their absence. Since the original cut of the film was 3 and a half hours, it kinda makes sense and an extended edition might vastly improved the pace and script. But currently it feels like a connection of action sequences with little characterization. The similarity to other Marvel's movies does not help either: the whole plan of Ultron is almost the same to Loki's: destroy the team from the inside. But when in the first film, the avengers were against one foe (played in flesh rather than mo-cap), the whole story felt more organic and vital. Here even after the encounters with Scarlet Witch who messes with their minds, the consequences are not that dire or devastating as the trailers suggest and are faced like a simple headache. Lame. In the writer's opinion, the first one worked so well because Whedon used many of his trademarks - witty one liners, pop culture references, out of the blue awkward situations ("This usually works", "make your move reindeer gamers", "Puny god"). Here there is nothing memorable besides a joke or two and feels like Joss has lost a bit of his appetite. Instead he feels more focused to set up future films in a similar way that "Amazing spiderman 2" did. 
Intriguing new characters but they do not have enough shining moments or interaction to the main plot
Forced love story?: A romance between Bruce Banner and Black Widow is coming out of nowhere. We are meant to believe that after a great number of team efforts, these two have come close but the mistreatment of Black Widow chasing Banner romantically constantly for two and a half hours is a massive mistep for the strong-female-role screenwriter Whedon. Not only this is not a characteristic of the Black Widow but it is utterly unconvincing cinematically and feels rushed. 

Action: For those who loved the action in the first one, there is literally nothing different. Anyone who has seen all the Marvel films, should expect each sequence to be more bombastic than the previous one. Despite some really nicely done bits - one 360 shot of all heroes fighting Ultron's minions and an opening shot that follows each avenger through a snowy forest - the action has been infused with so much CGI that at one point it is either very difficult to follow the proceedings or you just go for the videogame vibe. When the original Marvel flicks were released, there were some serious restraints regarding special effects namely because they cost a lot and the films have already enough visual flair to back up their fictional backgrounds and stories. Here though, the CGI is unnecessary - particularly in a car chase in the streets of Seoul - that makes you wonder how much compromise did Whedon commit with "Age of Ultron". Therefore when we reach the climatic final battle, our heroes - much like "Guardians of the galaxy", "Thor 2", "Iron man 3", "Avengers" - face against who-cares goons augmented by CGI just like the battle of New York and the whole process is starting to wearing thin and display a label that reads boring. And this is coming from a massive comic geek. Marvel needs to re-consider the climax of their movies. 

Cast: One of the positives of "Ultron" is the cast. Get load of this: Chris Hemsworth, Chris Evans, Samuel Jackson, James Spader, Robert Downey Jr, Elizabeth Olsen, Aaron Taylor Johnson, Scarlett Johansson, Jeremy Renner, Don Cheadle, Andy Serkins, Paul Bettany! Everyone is spot on in their roles and it is unfortunate that they do not have a particular scene in which they stand out (unlike in the first film). Still the best thing in the movie is when the entire team interacts with each other, especially when they have heated debates that lead to catastrophic results! Wish we could see more on that, but Whedon is placing carefully the seeds for the upcoming Captain America Civil War story line.
Superhero films go the destruction genre route
Ultron: James Spader is an incredible actor. Not only he has an awesome voice but is a talented performer as well - checkout the TV Series Blacklist where he wipes out the floor with any person that happens to share the screen with him. So when he was announced that he will play Ultron, I was ecstatic and when the first design was shown Hallelujah! While his silky threat proves to be quite the antagonist we might expect and the delivery of his lines is juicy, he fails to make an impression due to the snappy script. His motivations are not entirely clear and the characteristic of having a part of Stark's personality does not get the necessary manipulation. There is no scene such as Loki's interrogation or his assault on the German party to showcase Ultron's extent of personality or power. Instead he aimlessly moves from one place to another claiming how much humans need to be removed from the equation. Maybe the much discussed extended version could shed some further light into his robo-synthesis.

So this was the "Avengers: age of Ultron". While not a bad movie, it still holds up tremendous entertaining value. Problem is that it is following one of the biggest films of all time that was justifiably so. It does have its moments (Hulkbuster fight), "Ultron" starts trembling under the weight of its characters and the overabundance of its action. With so much plot, it could have been "Empire strikes back" for superheroes but it is time to give the reigns of the universe to other filmmakers.

+ cast
+ James Spader's line delivery
+ some jokes bare the Whedon mark ("Sorry")
+ set up for future Marvel films
- too obvisouly
- romance between Black Widow and Bruce Banner
- Ultron does not shine
- too much CGI
- similar climax to now four in a row!
- characters come and go
- not enough development about newcomers - Vision, Scarlett Witch, Quicksilver


Saturday, 11 April 2015

"John Wick" review: excellent action revenge movie

"John Wick" brings back to us Keanu Reeves in a modern ballistic and frenetic action revenge movie. Make no mistake as the trailer is misleading. This one man vs hundreds of noobs vehicle is far more clever and thoughtful than the promotional materials would have you think.
Adrianne Palicki makes a great second antagonist
Direction: Chad Stahelski has worked with Keanu before in the Matrix trilogy as his stunt double. What is quite exhilarating here is the fact that he confidently displays skills not only into staging the raging hand to hand combat sequences but into delivering lots of modern neo-noir atmosphere. 

Keanu Reeves: It is great to see Keanu back. I am always a fan of his work and I think roles like these suit him best. By far his finet work to date, "John Wick" provides Keanu Reeves an emotional platform to base his character. Unlike most action era films, we can related to John's psychological status as a raging pitbull that since it lost its handler-owner (see his dead wife), it does not know what to do with all that rage. There is particularly a great scene that showcases quite rarely if I might add the acting skills of Reeves when he reads the letter from his recently deceased other half. Perhaps, this role brings back something closer to his unfortunately real life (he lost his wife instantly in a car accident) and he sells it REALLY WELL. Besides this, the role of Wick requires a certain finesse and panache and at the age of 48 (when it was filmed) Reeves shines quite a physical proneness with excellent and convincing Jiujitsu throws and grabs that would make any 20 year old to cry (see also the excellent "Man of Tai Chi"). With the grace and the skill of a martial artist, Reeves throws himself from one set piece to another and carries the entire film on his shoulders despite solid support from everything else. Welcome back Neo. We missed you.
I want that poster
Cast: The rest of the cast are good with small yet intriguing roles that have sharp characterization instead of being mono-dimensional filler for the screentime. In particular, Michael Nyqvist is a joy with his deadpan mannerisms and lack of despair who happens to deliver one of the greatest "ohs" in the history of cinema. Ian McShane seems to be having a blast as the owner of the continental (more on that later) and Adrianne Palicki makes quite a solid impression as the lethal assassin-antagonist. William Dafoe, John Leguizamo and Alfie Allen are all solid support to small but key roles that advance the plot.

Story: At the surface, "John Wick" seems to the typical average ageing action vehicle. Total retired badass kills everyone in not necessarily convincing ways for both his age or movie proceedings and lack of creativity - thank you trailer. A closer look though can reveal much much more. "John Wick" has a heart and it is quite surprising that stunt people are behind this production rather than full known talents or even action filmmakers. The enganging touching story of a man losing his wife and getting connected emotionally through her parting gift - a puppy - only to lose it at the hands of Russian gangsters, makes for a compelling take to the much tired revenge thriller. John Wick requires emotional closure and grief and the way the director is handling these scenes is quite remarkable for his first time. With a rich variety of supporting characters and antagonists surrounding our anti-hero, "John Wick" emerges triumphant in the movie scene with a intriguing story.

Mythology: Not only the story does not lose any pace but it manages to establish an interesting mythology around a hidden world in a similar fashion to "Kill Bill" through an applied neo-neoir filter. Hotel like services -continental- for assassins worldwide to check in and out when travelling for "business", "cleaning" services for the reward of shiny golden coins and ambiguous moral codes - you never strike a fellow assassin in neutral ground much like "Highlander" - insert a rather curiosity attracting aspect to the chaotic proceedings and grab the attention of the viewer via clever world building.
The action is ballistic and Reeves sells its fantastially
Cinematography: As his most impressive work to date, the cinematography of Jonathan Sela is among this year's best. A wonderful dark blue, grey and black palette embraces the world of John Wick with sharp chromatic antithesis when it comes to nightclubs and indoor settings. The meticulous camera work and various angles only enhance the neo-noir effect in a similar fashion to that one of "Drive" although without the pretentiousness. Each environment oozes with character and the slick costume design simply compliments that further.

Action: The major selling point of "John Wick" are the staggering amounts of action. While starting as a slow burning movie, once the events occur that will spiral Wick out of his norn, the film never drops the bar. Plenty of fights infused with precise gunshots of a top form Keanu reveal a nasty and beautifully stage ballet of violence and blood. Less noisy than the gun-fu of John Woo and more accurate than Neeson's rampage, Wick begins his vengeance as a dog that shows no mercy, an unstoppable juggernaut that will use every breath of his body to annihilate his opponents till he is the only standing through a careful selection of movements, grabs and shots, lots of headshots. The nightclub sequence with the eclectic soundtrack from Le Castle Vania is sure to be remembered for the years to come as the body count is increasing at each heart beat.

Anything bad: Not really, but if I had to nitpick, I would have chosen the slightly downplayed finale and the rather short screentime of McShane and Dafoe. But I guess anything that follows that onslaught could be a bit underwhelming.

"John Wick" will be remembered as a great action revenge movie that never goes over the top with CGI bullshit or over-acting. A good script, a fast pace with great hand to hand combat sequences infused with thrilling cinematography, direction and the best performance in years from Reeves make "John Wick" a modern action masterpiece.

+ great performance from Keanu Reeves
+ fantastic action set pieces
+ that club scene.....
+ brilliant soundtrack
+ solid supporting cast
+ story is quite engaging
+ world building
+ mesmerizing cinematography
- a bit underwhelming finale
- not enough Dafoe and McShane


Sunday, 5 April 2015

"Furious 7" review: best entry in the franchise

It will be entirely pointless to try to justify the existence of the now seventh film in the fast and the furious franchise. Seriously, if you have not seen any of the previous six, there is no reason to read what I have to say about this entry. It is more of the same and actually a whole lotta more with a new twist. 
Our gang
Direction: Justin Lin, the helmer of the previous two hugely successful installments - "fast five" and "fast & furious 6" - could not return due to scheduling conflicts and passed the torch to horror maestro James Wann. Wann known as the mastermind behind the first "Saw", the creepy "insidious" franchise and one of the scariest films in recent memory "The conjuring" was hired to do the job. Now how can a man who has been used to work with small budgets and a rather decent cast of actors and actresses could pull off such a heavy stunt and action oriented monster? Rest assured he gets the job done and although sometimes he might be using some obvious CGI, he storms through the action test with flying colours. Surprisingly, he even stages good hand to hand combat scenes suggesting that this is filmmaker that could potentially tackle various genres in the future if he wants to effortlessly. Horror geeks will recognise some nice stylistic flourishes towards the fight sequences already present in the "conjuring" and "insidious" giving an extra bit of visual flare that usually is lacking from films of such ...magnitude.

Story: Potentially the most important bit in the sixth sequel now, is the story no matter how silly that sounds. Despite some gigantic plot holes, the screenwriter is trying his best to infuse his now well known characters with a bit more depth and the whole puzzle of plots and subplots is being held up together with a very common and overly used cinematic glue: the theme of family. Toretto and his gang are being hunted by Deckard Shaw, brother of Sebastian Shaw (who somehow survived in a surprising twist). See Toretto tries to protect those whom he considers family whereas Shaw wants revenge from what they did to his little sibling, get it? It is an interesting dynamic that puts Shaw mostly into a anti-hero type rather than in the category of full-blown villain for the sake of it. However, the film does not involve the hunting of the Toretto crew by Shaw and this is where it feels two separate ideas have been pasted together with a thrown in heist that could be a means to an end to the cat and mouse game with their nemesis. After this takes a good chunk of one hour, we are back in game with the final confrontation that frankly at this point it might be a bit tiresome with even more chases and explosions.
Statham having a great fight with the Rock
Action: which brings me to the main point. The car chases and the now worldwide known over the top stunts that the franchise has been well aware that it should deliver. Each film particularly after the fourth segment, has delivered plenty of eye catching death defying stunts. "Fast Five" especially displayed a taste for vehicular carnage at the streets of Rio that so far has been only matched with a tank sequence in the highways of Spain. Here we have cars been thrown off a plane, jumping from one skyscaper to another(!) and been faster than drones and helicopters! Sure, it is so absurdly over the top, that you cannot help but to have a massive grin in your face with the sheer unbelievability of the proceedings. In addition, to the insane car chases, explosions, car flippings, there is a surprising amount of hand to hand combat, more than before. Ronda Rousey gets a glorifying cameo and a nice cat fight with Michelle Rodriguez, Tony Jaa pops in to show off his talented body skills whereas the first fight between the Rock and Statham should go down as one of the best (unrealistically of course) fights in film history. 

The villain: In perhaps cranking up to 11 villain mode, screenwriter Chris Morgan has now created quite the hype after the "Fast & furious 6" post credits sequence. The moment Jason Statham appears as a total badass threatening our heroes, oh no you did not! Statham, in perhaps his most enjoyable role in years, dominates the screen and gets a big chunk of awesome one liners and it is by a mile the best antagonist in the entire series. Unstoppable, determined (with a solid reason) and fierce with a chaotic introduction that brings back memories from Ledger's Joker exit from Gotham Memorial, he is never been reduced as usually these type of films do a punchbag for the good guys at the end. Instead he has been used as a deus-ex-machine type of script device that when things go wrong, they can get a whole lotta worse with him popping in every fifteen minutes like a vicious pitbull that never stops. Nitpick: I must say that I feel his character feels a bit side tracked during the middle segment of the movie - heist et al - when Djimon Hounsou's warlord comes to play only to re-appear energised towards the end.

Characters: Their interactions with each other are still the best bit of the film - and the laugh generator - and despite sorely missing Han and Gisele (:(), the new addition of the hacker Ramsey is quite cool. Diesel stills looks frowned no matter what - seriously when was the last time he smiled? Other newcomers include Kurt Russell's fun to watch "Mr Nobody" who is having the time of his life, Tony Jaa as an expert kick ass one dimensional henchman and Djimon Hounsou in the wasted role of the bad warlord. The only down bit of these characters are their unstoppability because basically they kick all types of ass, surviving impossible odds, beating the crap out of anyone with no military training - a man of Toretto's traits would not even last a battle with Statham's special forces guy - and even enduring horrific injuries without the tiny medical inconvenience being shown off on the screen. But it would be pointless to argue that now in the seventh film. The filmmakers do not ask you if you like this. If you didn't you would not say anything after 14 years! and they are right. Either go for it or don't.

Paul Walker: After Paul Walker died during the shooting of the film, there was word that the movie will not continue. However, through digital face substitution and the usage of body doubles (his brothers), the film was completed with some re-writes. I mentioned above that there is a strong presence of the family theme. Although used previously, here it makes bittersweet sense since Walker was a very close friend to Diesel and the film nicely wraps a farewell goodbye to the actor both in film and real time. 

Conclusion: I guess the "fast and the furious" franchise has evolved into a cultural phenomenon. Like Arnie's adventures in the 80's, you know what you are going to see and since each film brings back more and more money, there is no need to stop. Brainless and harmless entertainment never bothered anyone. In a few years, people will look FF for what it is - an insane rollercoaster although an unbelievable one - that offers plenty of eye candy and car carnage with fun to watch characters. And sometimes that is enough. "Furious 7" achieves the unbelievable - being perhaps the best entry in a franchise that now has seven films.

+ character dynamics
+ Statham as the villain
+ vehicular mayhem at its finest
+ surprisingly good fight sequence
+ main theme of family gets strong focus here
+ hugely entertaining set pieces
+ James Wann's directio
- too long
- feels like two films combined into one
- Main villain gets sidetracked towards the middle
- survival of the most impossible odds and injuries


Monday, 30 March 2015

"Seventh son" review: an average fantasy epic

I am starting to notice a trend in Hollywood. When you have massive films with a dodgy script and yet attached to them a reliable cast with the premise of bringing gravitas to your mediocre cinematic vehicle, producers select directors that have no credible history of being able to manipulate such epic proportions well. Take for example "Snow-white and the Huntsman", "Maleficent", "Expendables 3", "47 Ronin", the upcoming "Jurassic World" (which I hope it is going to turn out ok) and now the "Seventh son". So what went wrong? 

Good costumes and that's it
Story: To continue my last sentence above, nothing. It is just so unbelievable average that you would think the script was generated through a random text algorithm that picked the most common concepts observed in the genre and added them in such ease that it is impossible not to look with confusion. Particularly, when other fine examples in the same pattern have showcased much more charisma, authenticity and frankly a bigger entertaining value ("Solomon Kane" and the elephant in the room, "Lord of the rings"). Hell, even the franchise of Narnia had a more compelling story than this. Yes there is the reluctant apprentice, the tough with a gold heart master, the evil villain with no regrets, the unwilling villain's servant, the over protective mother, the arrogant henchmen. Did I miss something? They should have included the wise old king or the tyrannic young monarch for a good measure. Despite a rather solid pace, the movie progress from point A to point B with no surprises and a predictable and frankly disappointing climax that does not even deliver in terms of excitement. The shoehorned love story - taking place in less than a week - is so utterly ridiculous and just a plot turn for the heroes to lose ground that insults my brain cells.

Mythology: Is this the fault of the book that the movie is based on? Probably not. There are quite a few nodes to the world that the book is representing but here we get glimpses of creatures and informative exposition that we do not actually see anything more than the main characters. If you take a closer look to "Hellboy II: the golden army", you can see how the love of a director can transform the entire movie into a massive cinematic box, enriched with such vivid detail and wonderful creature design that even one liners have meaning in the world build up. On the other hand, "Seventh son" is trying too hard to become something it should not - a fantasy friendly flick with not enough witty humour to keep the kids entertained and not enough action chops to attract the adults.
Bridges is having a ball with his role but the script does not give him much
PG-13: The death of films like these is that despite the horrific acts of violence - stabbings, decapitations, burnings, crushings - there is not a single drop of drop. And since the bodies disappear afterwards through-an-innovative-then-due-to-"Blade"-but-now-cliche-visual, there is no real connection or dramatic tension as to what the characters have endured. Sure they may kill hundreds of minions but at the end, they will be standing in an empty field, stripped away from the visual outcomes of their actions.

Action: and speaking of action, is it any good? It is not bad, but it is not good either. There is nothing memorable here - from the early skirmishes to the final "battle", it is by the numbers spectacle that does not thrill nor bore. It just happens. You can have all the four armed men, witches and trolls as you want, but if you do not know how to make the fight interesting, then interestingly you either doing something wrong or you have no idea about how to do something (see for example "Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters" as a guide to the ultimate guilty pleasure flick of similar genre). 
He is there for like a minute
Cast: I have left for last the cast. A rather big ensemble of actors and actresses comprised by names such as Bridges, Moore, Hounsou, Barnes, Traue, Harington is TOTALLY wasted. Like the films I mentioned in the first paragraph, there is no reason to hire them if they are not going to do something with the material they have to work with. With the exception of Jeff Bridges who tries desperately to infuse some personalized elements into his persona with a bizarre accent, everyone else is in auto-pilot. What could have been an excellent opportunity of Julian Moore to portray an evil and dark witch is a shameful attempt to capitalise on her name with dreadful dialogue and not a single scene that emerges with ... acting. More wasted is Traue - yes that is FAORA! from "Man of Steel" - in a terribly underwritten role and Djimon Hounsou almost a decade after his incredible turn in "Blood diamond" struggles to get good rules. Ben Barnes is just Ben Barnes like he was on "Narnia". Yep same thing.

Is actually something that you liked? The bombastic score by Marco Beltrami is decent and the special effects well made. Costumes and sets are quite impressive but again the familiar look they reveal removes any extra points of awe.

"Seventh son" is not an abomination. But a completely boring, average with lack of inspiration flick that offers nothing new and not even minimum entertaining value. Despite the efforts of Bridges, the wasted cast, the predictably laughable plot and the hideous dialogue make this "son" the last.

+ good and detailed sets
+ nice costumes
+ good special effects
+ Cast...
- ...totally wasted
- laughable plot
- unbelievably predictable
- PG-13 rating
- ludicrous love story
- nothing memorable or entertaining


Saturday, 28 March 2015

Review "Chappie": disappointing sci-fi

Neil Blomkamp - a name that is synonymous to good if not excellent R rated sci-fi infused with clever social commentary. After the interesting and promising debut of "District 9", "Elisium" followed with somewhat disappointing results but the element of intrigue was there. With "Chappie", it seems that Blomkamp was back into the game. "Chappie" contains a mix bag of ideas that at the end of the day, it does not know how to present them and what to do with them. From the heavy theme of self-aware A.I, to the definition of consciousnesses, "Chappie" moves unfortunately left and right without cohesion or dramatic purpose along with a sluggish pace. 

Chappie: The main hero of the film unfortunately comes off as unlikable and annoying with no signs of actual intelligence. For a superior artificial intelligence creation, he sure feels like a failure. The fact that he is committing various illegal acts due to the influence of his "parents" (Die Antwoord) is not surprising but makes us care less about him per minute. When the final climax erupts, I actually forgot that I was watching a film about Chappie and more about the gangsters who are trying to put a big final score. 
Cool design - does not say much
Cast: The cast is solid with Die Antwoord dominating the majority of the screentime even more than the "hero" and the whole film feels like an advertisement for the hip hop band. In a bizarre move, Die Antwoord portray futuristic gangster versions of themselves with lots of promotional material - music, clothes, etc - surrounding them. Usually music artists are kinda terrible in their film debuts but here I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised with their performance. They actually manage to have more characterization than "Chappie" himself. Hugh Jackman is clearly having a blast with his role as a jealous electrical engineer and it is such a shame that he does not get enough characterization as his motives are kinda understandable but when he goes full blown villain for the final act, it feels forced and bloated. Finally Sigourney Weaver is it in for like 2 minutes in a similar move of Jodie Foster's in Elisium. Word to the wise: Blomkamp there is not point of hiring these famous actresses if they have no material to work with or any dramatic substance to support.

Themes: "Chappie" tries to too hard too many complex issues - from the socioeconomic situation of South Africa to computer scientific dilemmas and unfortunately it fails dramatically. Unlike "District 9" where the "prawns" were a metaphor for discrimination and racism and the journey of a miserable man into a "prawn" hero showcased real emotions and drama, here the movie is all over the place. We start with socio-political elements and proceed to witness how "Chappie" can paint, steal and move like a cool person whereas every other more interesting character gets catapulted into cinematic oblivion until the inevitable final act that brings everyone together. The always difficult to answer and even to some extent to discuss subject of self-aware artificial intelligence, gets serious mistreatment without any focus to the consequences or ethics behind it.

Serious flaw: The computer science behind the film is ridiculous at certain points and the whole movie feels like an exercise for Sony product placement - laptops, phones, PS4s used for neurological procedures!? Unlike a movie like "Blade Runner" where AI has been established as a crucial and important element of that world, Blomkamp desperately tries to make everything scientifically fancy with words like "terrabytes" and "programming" used as magic concepts: the premise that a 25 year old or something with only coding experience can actually be an electrical engineer, programmer, software developper, psychologist, neuro-scientist in his free time and he managed to program the human brain and to understand consciousness sure he should be able to reach the level of god, no?...............Right....

Anything good: The presentation of Johannesburg is always excellent under Blomkamp's lens and he seems quite familiar now with cinema in his third film. Also, the action is nicely done, a bit up than the chaotic style of "Elisium" and it feels more organic this time around, bringing some hope for "Alien 5". The acting is good enough to elevate at certain levels the whole ludicrous story and certain ideas can and could be raised if only someone might invest in the bizarre and somewhat predicable storyline.

Although not a terrible film, this is one of the very average ones and considering the talent behind it-cast and crew, "Chappie" could have been so much more and a novel approach for AI for the 21st century. Unfortunately, it will be soon forgotten if this has not happened already.

+ cast
+ especially Jackman
+ good action
+ interesting themes....
- terribly executed
- too many ideas
- predictable plot
- Chappie is not that interesting
- the computer science is just ridiculous here
- gauge your eyes Sony product placement


Sunday, 1 March 2015

"It follows" review: interesting concept, sloppy execution

"It follows" has an incredible fascinating premise. A girl has an apparently innocent sexual encounter only to be discovered that something/someone is following slowly and if it reaches her, she will die. 
Great atmosphere
1. Concept: "It follows" is packed with atmosphere and that is good. Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell, the concept of sexual encounter that leads to travesty can be misinterpreted as a STD. The naive? girl  who after her first? sexual encounter feels threatened and constantly tries in vain to avoid something that keeps following in undeniably creepy.

2. Scare factor: Since "it follows" is primarly a horror movie, we should talk about how much of a punch it has. Well, here things are a bit confusing. Although the film is pacted with atmosphere that bring lots of vibes of the early Carpenter flicks ("Halloween", "Escape from NY", "The thing"), the jump scares despite being old-fashioned and strip from any CGI bullshit they are surprisingly not scary. A reason could be that I have a bunch of losers who did not stop talking well for the entire film. But I reckon watching during the night could be more scary than most of the horror films today.

3. Direction: which brings me to the direction. Mitchell has done a wonderful job of creating atmosphere even in the smallest of room or in a large open area like a lake house. His slow methodological approach for "it follows" manages to create a large amount of tension and suspense with "it" being basically always present and unstoppable. DRM seems to have been taken early notes from Carpenter himself as the jump scares, 360 virtuoso panoramic shots, unnerving creepy figures and synthesized music all point out an evolving filmmakers that really stands out in the horror field.
Maika Monroe is a likable heroine
4. Cast: and this is where things get out of my taste. The cast seems to be simply ok but sometimes they strike as real amateurs trying to act. Although the main characters manages to convey enough emotional to follow her towards her hell journey, sometimes her actions are so off key that you cannot relate with her.

5. Story: how can a film has a story that something is following you and if it catches you die? Well, Mitchell, manages to make the "it" slow but steady so you can escape for a bit but then again in a few hours of days you have to run again. So the entire film become a bit like a chase thriller with some solid scares left and right focusing primarily on the emotions of the protagonist. Having said that, there are some plot holes around that really stand out. Why no one is talking to the police? Or to a therapist? Or to an adult? And towards the end, the film really start to lose focus as more and more characters are involved whereas the story does not get the explanation it deserve or even a bit of mythology to establish its monster as if the writer was rushing to finish his idea or running out of ideas for his... idea. Therefore the last 3rd of the film undermines the entire effort.

Who knows though? Maybe with the next flick, DRM could give some pretty neat horror but for now "It follows" is good enough for a nice night with red wine and pizza. Do not expect it though to be a masterpiece as everyone is claiming it to be.

+ excellent atmosphere
+ intriguing concept
+ great music
+ solid direction
+ no CGI bullshit
- a bit amateurish acting
- plotholes
- sudden ending