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After graping the global movie universe's attention with "The host"
(2006), Korean director Bong Joon-ho serves up his first offer in the
English language with "Snowpiercer", a futuristic, sci-fi fable as well
as a hybrid of art house and mainstream thriller.
The micro depiction of the macro human race is through the titular vehicle (literally meant) a train that circles the post-apocalyptic world, a frozen hell resulted from the backfire of an over-executed maneuver in battling global warming. Secluded from the outer world, the survivors are stratified by social class, the highest at the front (a perpetual-motion engine) and the lowest at the back. The linear (in more ways than one) story is quite simple, the underprivileged bunch at the back fighting its way, car after car, all the way to the front to gain control of their own destiny. Through the allegory progression, the audience witnesses a rich pageantry of environments rough workplace, lush greenhouse, giant aquarium, plush lounge, and more.
The impressive cast is well assembled. Chris Evans sheds his "All American" heartthrob image to play this perhaps his first heavy-weight role as an earthy leader of the revolution. John Hurt is the semi-disabled wise old man, a rich reservoir of knowledge. Other key members of the group include Jamie Bell as the young follower, Octavia Spencer as a mother searching for a missing child "drafted" by the ruling class for some obscure purpose, and Song Kang-ho as a Korean security expert. The show-stealing personas, however, are on the opposite side. Most delicious is Tilda Swinton, barely recognizable with ingenious makeup (essentially of a dental nature) playing the spokesperson for the dictator. Allison Pill (so impressive as Zelda Fitzgerald in "Midnight in Paris") is another manifestation of eccentricity, a pregnant kindergarten teacher, all sweetness until she produces a gun and starts shooting. The dictator is competently played by Ed Harris.
The movie is quite long (a little over 2 hours) and does not hurry itself as most blockbuster thrillers would do. Instead, it takes its time with careful, well-crafted character development. But it does hold the audience's attention with excellent acting and artsy photography.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
The plot is simple: a gangster takes his family into refuge in an
obscure village in France from killers hired by a mob king pin put into
jail in the US by evidence he provided. Despite eccentric behavior,
animation-like violence and black humor, this family is the very model
of love and care between its members. Some scenes are so touching that
they give you a lump in the throat!
This fun-filled flick is directed by Luc Besson does not reflect any of the seriousness expected of producer Martin Scorsese. In fact, Luc Besson hadn't intended to direct this script the he penned but changed his mind upon seeing such a delicious cast. In case you are scraping your mental memory bank trying to remember whether Robert Di Nero and Michelle Pfeiffer have corroborated in a movie, the answer is yes. But then, in "Star Dust", their characters never met: immortality-seeking witch Lamia and campy sea captain Shakespeare. Perhaps that left them with an unfulfilled desire to act against each other, hence this movie. And their chemistry is absolutely first cast. Playing the lovely daughter is Dianne Argon who was delightful in "I am Number Four" if you have seen that one. Not a familiar face, John D'Leo matches wit and eccentricity with the other three every step of the way. Not to be forgotten is the legendary deadpan performance Tommy Lee Jones as the cop assigned to protect this family.
This movie is lots of fun.
I trust that in a global context, many of us can still remember exactly
what we were doing when the earth-shattering news of JFK's
assassination came (albeit from half way around the world). Fifty years
have since come and gone but attempts to offer an alternative view of
what happened on November 22, 1963 have not stopped. "Parkland", titled
after the name of the hospital JFK was rushed to after being shot, may
disappoint many viewers who expect perhaps yet another venture into
hitherto unexplored grounds in the realm of conspiracy theory. Instead,
this movie recounts the events of these few fateful days through the
eyes of several secondary characters, which begs the question: what's
the point? A more general view is that it is intended to share
different angles of looking at this historic event.
Yet another angle is to look at this through the actors rather than the characters they portray. The general consensus appears to place veteran and Oscar holder Marcia Gay Harden at the top of the list. While the nurse at the emergency is not much more than a cameo with minimum dialogue, the depth of her portrayal is impressive, as unanimously agreed. In terms of the character in the movie, Robert Oswald, brother of the assassin, is the opposite, i.e. the best known of the lot. James Badge Dale (who has appeared in minor roles in several popular movies in recent years) gave a solid performance of this level-headed, somewhat introvert young man who never doubted his brother's guilt. Quite controversial is Oscar nominee ("Sliver lining playbook") Jacki Weaver's portrayal of their mother Marguerite Oswald, which stands out among the cast of general low-key performances: critics either love or hate that performance. But then, Weaver could not have turned in a low-key performance as Mrs. Osward was not a low-key person, being quite vocal in maintaining that her son was innocent, framed by the authorities. Two other acting Oscar nominees Paul Giamatti and Billy Bob Thornton took up respectively the roles of the amateur photography that by chance captured the assassination on 8MM film and an on-the-scene Secret Service agent. Thornton, incidentally, possesses an Oscar but not in the acting category. Also worth recognizing is the performance of Zac Efron as the young doctor who, dictated by fate, was the one at the emergency ward to receive the dying President.
This movie, while faithfully reflecting some of the emotional devastation in the few fateful days, is more akin to an objective documentary. The scene with highest tension is not in the attempt to save JFK as we all know what happened 50 years ago. It is the scene when the President's aids had to face down in a confrontation with the Texas authorities who insisted that according to Texas State laws, the body of the deceased President must remain on site for their autopsy.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
It would appear that movie critics are split on this movie: some love
it, and others hate it. While there is no scientific statistical
verdict, the general feeling is that the main problem is the script
which even the "A" class cast delivering good performances cannot
salvage. The high expectation of the script is both reasonable and
unreasonable. While Cormac McCarthy's work indeed sourced the widely
acclaimed "No country for old man", "The counselor" is, after all, his
first crack at a screenplay. The bulk of the audience curse in
frustration the jigsaw puzzle of a plot that defies any attempt to put
it together. The artistically bent, however, sees the beauty of doing
away with coherence. Four of the main characters are baddies involved
in cross-border drug deals, and that's that. Specific details hardly
matter. In fact, they would distract from the rather exquisite
dialogue. And here again are polarized reactions. Some consider it
stimulating and philosophical; others detest it as pretentious.
Well, for those who need a plot, there are two couples. Counselor (no name) and Laura is a passionately devoted couple played by Michael Fassbender and Penelope Cruz. Outside the world of their own, she offers no particular interest to the audience while he is an aggressive, self-confident Texas lawyer driven by greed to get involved in the aforementioned drug deal. The other couple is wicked through and through, but then one is wickeder, as you'll find out towards the end. They are Reiner and Malkina, played respectively by Javier Bardem and Cameron Diaz. Purportedly, Angelina Jolie was first choice but turned it down, thereby providing Diaz an opportunity to show stuff that you've never seen in her before, and doing that brilliantly. The fifth is Brad Pitt playing Westray, Counselor's middleman. The relationships between these people, insofar as the criminal business is concerned, is never really clear. One thing, however, is: the drug cartel is after them; bad things are coming.
What you would expect from the violence department are there. While not in proliferation, when they appear they are graphic enough to make you wince. The surprises are in the sex department. It's not that you don't expect them, but there are two scenes that are captivating in a way you've never seen before. The first is a sort of prologue, with Fassbender and Cruz under the bed sheet. The cozy setting enhances the intimacy and the arousing banter heightens the erotic mood. And there is a point to it. This prologue underscores the very being of the titular role: an unprincipled, cool criminal with an Achilles' heel an absolute devotion to a good woman. It lends credibility to some of Fassbender's superbly executed emotional scenes towards the end. Cruz's endearing portrayal of a woman deeply in love also helps.
The other captivating sex scene is somewhat difficult to describe. Roughly, it involves Diaz, legs spread as straight as an arrow, making love to the windshield underneath her while Bardem watches in muddled bewilderment from the driver's seat inside. Some critics use the word masturbation to describe Diaz's endeavor but that take the fun out of the ingenious scene. But make no mistake in picturing Diaz as a purring pussycat in this role. With one look, she can send a chilling shudder down your spine. Bardem and Pitt take their respective roles down the merry lane of caricatures, but by Jove, aren't they good!
Ridley Scott, as diversified a director as you can find anywhere, has come up again with a piece of work well worth watching. Whether you like it or hate it is all a matter of how you tune your expectation.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
For those who have read the book, the movie would have appeal in a way
different from that for the rest of us. Without knowing anything about
the development in novels, "Catching fire" appears initially to be a
repeat of the first, albeit in an even grander scale. The miraculous
surviving protagonists from a game that is supposed to allow only one
survivor become instant celebrities with a larger-than-life romance.
The next challenge makes the first one child's play. In a
once-in-25-yaers "Quarter Quell" they are now going against a field
comprising an assortment of deadly opponents, all of whom are winners
and survivors. It would appear for a moment that we are witnessing the
same sequence of intense preparation, grueling training, publicity
stunts, intrigues of lining up allies, and finally the Hunger Game
itself. How are they going to survive this one? We sit back to enjoy,
perhaps expecting very much of the same pleasure. Then, there comes the
ending twist, revealing that things are not quite as what they appear.
The story has grown, setting the stage for the finale "Mockingjay"
which, following the tradition of rendition of YA novels into movies,
is one book made into two movies.
Also grown in "Catching fire" are the characters. Jennifer Lawrence, with a Best Actress Oscar under her belt, grows into a maturing Katniss Everdeen, with her emotions pulled in each and every direction: traumatic impact from killings, love triangle, seeds of uprising against brutal totalitarianism, protection of family. Of the two male supports, Josh Hutcherson who had first proved himself in "The kids are alright" (2010) has more screen time, as expected of the script, as Katniss's fighting partner Peeta, and competently eases into the development of the relationship. Since "The Hunger Games" Liam Hemsworth had a big role in "Paranior" (2013), a movie that was not exactly a success in itself but gave him a chance to development his acting skills. In "Catching Fire" his role is relatively smaller but takes on a new dimension of the suffering hero. We will undoubtedly see more of him in "Mocking jay". The triangle, against the backdrop of things larger, is more mature than what you would find in your average YA scenarios.
Donald Sutherland is now more than just a cameo as his vicious President Snow plans ruthlessly to eliminate Katniss who has grown dangerously in her popularity as a symbol of hope and freedom. To his aid comes new game designer Heavensbee, plotter, strategist, political adviser, all at the highest notch. The mere mention of the actor's name suffices: Philip Seymour Hoffman. Of the two animated sidekicks, Stanley Tucci carried on in very much the same pleasant way as the show host, while Elizabeth Banks has grown out of the stereotyped PR diva, displaying a tantalizingly blurred line between real emotion and show business. Woody Harrelson continues to be the scene stealer as Haymitch the Hunger Games trainer for our protagonists.
Of the proliferation of newcomers to the Game, three are more noticeable. British actor Sam Claflin as the flamboyant Finnick Odair (District 4, fishery) would likely remind you of Hugh Grant. Jena Malone is eye-catching as young and reckless Johanna (District 7, lumbering). Finally, veteran Jeffrey Wright plays Beetee (District 3, electronics), a unique competitor coming from a victory based on scientific knowledge and crafty plotting rather than combat skills.
"Catching Fire" comes with a solid script and pleasing cinematography (less hand-held shots) with a penchant for still silhouette shots of characters against a brightening sky, which makes aesthetic sense. The passage of the two-and-a-half-hours in the cinema would not be noticed, and will leave you coming out with exciting expectations for "Mockingjay".
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One movie about children at war that immediately comes to mind is
WarGames (1983), though it is not quite the same as Ender's. With Ally
Sheedy and Matthew Broderick still as teenagers, the movie tackled the
hot topic of the second half of the last century threat of global
nuclear war. The iconic idea is: the only way to win is not to play.
Coming from the same decade, the "Ender" series of science fiction is
much more futuristic. This movie, however, is the first time the story
is rendered visual on the silver screen.
In a way, the plot is not unlike that in the war genre of "The dirty dozen", with the first part of the movie devoted to training of the soldiers and the second part depicting the real thing. The difference is that these soldiers are children and the enemy is non-human, insect like aliens.
Additional spoiler warning!
The movie ends with two twists which are not exactly earth-shattering as most in the audience would have seen them coming. The first is that the climatic confrontation ended before it even started the final test of the training was actually the real thing. The second is a humanistic appeal we destroy another species claiming that this is essential to our own survival. How much of this is true?
Regrettably, I did not watch Martin Scorsese's "Hugo", but after watching him in the titular role in "Ender's game", I can believe the praises heaped on him for that movie. Two talented young ladies have lesser roles and can arguably said to be underused. One is Abigail Breslin, so unforgettable from "Little Miss Sunshine", now grown into a very attractive young lady, playing Ender's older sister. Equally unforgettable, from the Coen brothers' "True grit", is Hailee Steinfeld playing Ender's most trusted fighting companion, with just the tiniest trace of romantic inclination.
The set pieces are fantastic and, thank heavens, not in 3D.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda, this movie carries on with
his gentle, easy style of story-telling. I cannot remember the subject
matter being explored by another movie, globally speaking: two boys
born simultaneously in the same hospital switched in a careless
mistake, with the unfortunate incident discovered six years later. The
devastating impact on the two sets of parents is handled in this movie
in a reflective, low key manner. In addition, it also touches on
familiar issues of today that are not unique to Japan but have a global
relevance: "helicopter" parents (i.e. hovering over the heads of the
children incessantly), social class disparity, relationship with the
older generation, just to name a few.
The two sets of parents are in two different social sectors. One comprises a middle-class go-getter corporate achiever father and a mother who came originally from a more humble a rural background but has since turned middle-class. The other set of parents is more grass-root: father a small shop owner, a handyman good at repairing broken things and the mother a fast food server well-equipped with worldly common sense. The switched kids, now 6-years-old, reflect their respective upbringing in their "adopted" (involuntarily) families. The kid brought up in the more affluent family, the only child, is introvert and somewhat timid as the result of a dominating father (and passive mother). The kid at the more grass-root family is cheerful and outgoing, due also to the fact that he has younger siblings (which nobody knew were non-blood-related until the hospital dropped the bombshell, so to speak).
From my brief description of the plot line above, one can imagine how mesmerizing a movie can be crafted. This is indeed what Hirokazu Koreeda did, in his inimitable languid style. He takes his time in developing the characters and it take some time before the audience to falls in love with the grass-rooted couple in their worldly wisdom. My earlier depiction probably painted a misleading visual picture of the grass-root mother, who is actually the prettier and younger-looking of the two. The rapport of the two mothers, mainly at her initiation, providing support to the emotionally weaker one, is quite touching. The grass-root father, who started out not too favorably, develops into quite a darling while it takes some time for the middle-class and somewhat snobbish father to turn around and become likable. The two kids are wonderful, capably projecting their respective persona as described above.
This is a movie not to be missed, particularly for the loyal followers of Hirokazu Koreeda's work, but also for anyone who enjoys the Japanese cinema at large.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
While this is a first class crime thriller, this aspect is only
secondary. Above all the mystery, clues, twists and red herrings, this
movie is anchored in a nerve-wrecking struggle between two
personalities, assiduously drawn out throughout the entire movie. But
let us take a look first at the brilliant cast assembled, the main
attraction drawing me into the cinema in the first place the
magnificent seven. While convention wisdom has it that winning the
Oscar puts ones name in history while mere nominees are all but
forgotten almost immediately, I beg to differ. At times, winning it
does not really prove anything look at John Wayne and I need
elaborate no further (he, incidentally, is among my best-liked stars).
On the other hand, being nominated means more than what people gives it
credit for. I'll review the cast in this context.
Huge Jackman, as lead actor of "Les Miserables", got an Oscar nomination and won a Golden Globe. Forget about all of his previous screen persona, including Logan-Wolverine. In "Prisoners" you see a Jackman you've never seen before, throbbing with urgency that propels his character into a vortex of violence. Jake Gyllenhaal has just one supporting Oscar nomination, for "Brokeback Mountain" (which earned him a BAFTA), and should have got a lot more over the years. But never mind that. In "Prisoners", similarly, you see a very different Gyllenhaal from the handsome young man you are familiar with. With an atrocious hair style that spells "mid-age" all over, he redefines uncharismatic. Everything his character does is measured, controlled, reasoned. He has been quoted to say that in this movie, his character is the brain while Jackman's is the heart.
Viola Davis has two Oscar nominations, for lead in "The help" and support in "Doubt". It verges on being incomprehensible that Maria Bello has to-date not received any Oscar nomination. Her two Golden Globe nominations, similar to Davis's Oscar nominations, were for support and lead respectively, from "The cooler" and "A history of violence". The latter, directed by none other than David Cronenberg, gave her an impressive collection of Best Actress wins in critics' award on various major cities. Terrence Howard was nominated for Best Actor by both Oscar and Golden Globe for "Hustle and flow". It is almost unbelievable that among the seven in this distinguished cast only one has actually won an Oscar, Melissa Leo in "The fighter" which won her the Golden Globe as well. Paul Dano, among today's best choices for nerdy or mentally handicapped roles, was recognized as a promising newcomer in "Little Miss Sunshine" and got a BAFTA support nomination a year later with "There will be blood".
Everybody knows that about a whodunit, the less said about the plot and the developments the better. Suffices to say, therefore, that this one is not exceptionally convoluted, and certainly satisfying. And it is almost motherhood to say that a lot of crimes originate from festering, deep-rooted virulence. The most talked about aspect on this movie is not a spoiler, by the mere fact that it is so much talked-about: the moral issue of whether the objective justifies resorting to violence and torturing a crime suspect. Here, we are not talking about professional secret agents and terrorists suspects. We are talking about an everyday citizen driven to extremes by his perception of the police's incompetence in finding and rescuing his kidnapped daughter, while the clock is ticking. At this movie, many may flinch, or more. But the graphic visual has a purpose: to anchor the aforementioned conflict between the two key protagonists the emotional father and the reasoning cop.
Finally, "Prisoners" is the English language debut of director Denis Villeneuve. For those who have seen is Oscar-nominated "Incendies" (2010), nothing further needs to be said. Those who haven't will not regret going out to but a DVD.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
My summary line is not intended to suggest that "Thor" in any way
belongs to the artsy niche. Still, with Kenneth Branagh at the helm, it
has more than a normal share of plot complication, intriguing subtlety
and character development. In the hand of Emmy-winning TV drama
director Alan Taylor, the sequel "The dark world" is good action-driven
entertainment. For a brief recap of the background (which, as
mentioned, is quite complicated), I can perhaps refer to my review of
"Thor" (2011): http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0800369/reviews-85
The sequel comes with a much simpler plot. The titular reference is significant as the anchor for the main plot villains trying to plunge the universe into perpetual darkness. Another key element is something that you'll find in almost every movie of this genre an iconic object or substance. This time, it's an immensely powerful but rather elusive energy (looks like whiffs of red smoke, if you really have to know) that has found its way into Jane Foster's body. You can probably write the rest of the story just as capably as any screenwriter. Notice that I have not mentioned any names, for villain or substance. This is deliberate: why crowd this brief outline with unnecessary details?
Patience in the anticipation of the loyal audience is rewarded, particularly those frustrated in not seeing Natalie Portman in "The Avengers" (2012). Here, she is all Jane Foster again scientist, sweetheart and, towards the end, not quite damsel-in-distress when she teams up with Stellan Skarsgard (reprising eccentric scientist Erik Selvig), using science to fight the baddies. Most of the other old friends are back. On the human world we have, cute as ever, Kat Dennings bringing back Darcy Lewis, plus a very funny newcomer Jonathan Howard as "the intern's intern".
In the fantasy world, while Anthony Hopkins as King Odin is predictable, Renee Russo as Queen Frigga offers a delightful surprise with a beautiful action sequence wielding a deadly back-handed blade. Those delighted in Jamie Alexander's cool beauty will be happy to see that her Sif has taken on a slightly stronger role, but only in the action department and never a rival love interest. On the other hand, the role of the "Warriors Three" is reduced, with Hogun (Tadanobe Asano) dropped completely from action, reduced to a mere cameo. Idris Elba does his usual thing as Heimdall the guardian of the portal. As to the villain, it is difficult to measure up to Canada's treasure Colm Feore in "Thor" and in that light Christopher Eccleston does turn in a solid performance.
That leaves the two male leads. Between "Thor" and this sequel, Chris Hemsworth has made other credible acting impressions, the best of which is flamboyant British Formula One racer James Hunt in "Rush" (2013). In "The dark world" we see him capably delivering a more matured and humane Thor. Tom Hiddleton as Loki is universally recognized as the brightest star in "Thor". Parallel to a matured Thor, then, is a mellowed and subdued Loki. There is nothing wrong with this direction which is consistent with the shift towards an action-driven movie, as mentioned. The serviceable plot and the satisfying action are well anchors in excellent visuals and impressive GCI. Perhaps not jubilant, they audience should nevertheless be well satisfied after the two-year wait.
One last word: this movie comes with not just one, but two "appendixes". The first, the customary "hook" for what is to come, is shown immediately after the end of the movie, with a cameo of Benicio Del Toro who apparently will have a role in the next one. Then, after waiting patiently through the entire credit roll, the audience is rewarded with something that is really just part of the main body proper of the movie its ending minute that is cut away and placed at end of the credit roll.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
One way to look at this movie is to view it as an intriguing chess game
like what Bobby Fischer and Boris Spassky used to do, calculating and
anticipating each other's moves in trying to outsmart the opponent. I
mean, you could, but this is all but impossible as the emotional
intensity starts by building up slowly but crescendos to an almost
unbearable climax that leaves you completely drained at the end.
Crudely, I can divide the movie into two parts. Part 1: STALLING
cat-and-mouse game on board container-carrying vessel Maersk Alabama in
which Captain Phillips (Tom Hanks) tries to hide his crew from Somalis
pirate leader Muse (Barkhad Abdi), hoping to stall until navy rescue
arrives. Part 2: RESCUE OR OTHERWISE* Captain Phillips as hostage of
Muse and his three accomplices in one of Maersk Alabama's lifeboats
(not one of those tiny inflated rubber things titular to Hitchcock's
1944 classic, but a small sea-worthy vessel in its own right) with the
US Navy on its tail and SEALS air-dropped as things progressed.
It wouldn't serve any useful purpose for me to recount the fact based events depicted in the movie, other than to say that Greengrass did it again as in "United 93", creating a perfect balance between level-headed documentary and entertaining thriller. There is more here though in having a much more focused protagonist. No, two, to be fair.
Hank's portrayal of Captain Phillips is Oscar-worthy, never glamourized heroism, but an ordinary everyday man trying hard to fulfill his duty as captain of a sea vessel under adverse conditions. Just the last few minutes portraying the protagonist after rescue and finally collapsing into shock and fatigue is good enough to earn him another Oscar. Very impressive indeed is Abdi, Somalia native who had adopted the US as his new home and was driving a cab for a living when he answered to the cast call and won the role from a field of 800. His performance did not suffer in any away opposite a veteran heavyweight such as Hanks.
The support cast is equally commendable. On the US side the crew of the hijacked vessel and the US navy personnel character actors gave a solid performance. One the other side the three actors playing the rest of the Somalia hijackers answered to the cast call together with Abdi as a foursome. That they all know each other perhaps contribute to their smooth rapport. These are not stereotyped baddies but real people each with a distinct personality. That is what anchored Greengrass's goal as he intimated in a "Time Out" interview: "We did not want to sketches of people. We wanted real people up there on the screen". In the same interview, he sums up his mission: "This is a story of a man trying to survive against incredible odds .also about globalization. Both (protagonists) are at the mercy of powers much greater than them, and are forced into this situation".
* At a critical moment in the lifeboat, Captain Phillips told Muse in no uncertain terms SEALS's intention, "It's all over. They would rather sink this boat than let you take me into Somalian territory".
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