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Blue Lagoon: The Awakening (2012)
Prepare to be reawakened
The remake or re-"awakening" of the Blue Lagoon is basically based on a gimmick: waiting for Indiana Evans (playing Emma) and Breton Thwaites (playing Dean) to take their clothes off and have sex on a tropical island.
The movie begins plausibly with Indiana getting knocked off a yacht into the water, with Breton coming to her rescue with a lifeboat. Then the couple drift towards a desert island complete with palm trees and travel log beaches. After that, the plausibility ends. For starters, the only way the search party armed with helicopters could not find the couple is if they are incredibly incompetent at doing their job. After all, if the couple drifted to a tropical paradise by boat, then surely it is not too hard to find the desert island. Yet the search party fails completely in its mission and announces over the airwaves that its search mission has become a recovery mission, which has the effect of making Denise Richards cry. Meanwhile, other implausible things happen on the island. The couple is apparently subject to wild mood swings, since they are happy at one point and then become completely manic the next without any explanation being given.
Yet despite all of the implausible plot lines, the movie is not a complete disaster. I liked the fact that Indiana Evans and Breton Thwaites were older than 18, because it is always unwholesome to watch a couple who is clearly underage and having sex. More importantly, the two actors seem more mature and smarter than the movie that they are in -- and certainly they are not immature like Christopher Atkins and Brooke Shields were. Yet none of these reasons are enough for me to recommend the movie. The movie unfortunately fails at the screenplay stage, because it is all about the sex scenes (which are too brief) and it does not give the characters anything interesting to say or do.
Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016)
Rent the Original Kickboxer
When I was watching Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016), a strange thing happened to me. I started to miss the original Kickboxer (1989) with Jean-Claude Van Damme as Kurt Sloan. The original Kickboxer was pelted with rancid tomatoes for its Asian stereotypes, JCVD's performance, and the formula plot. But you know what? After seeing Kickboxer: Vengeance, I started to appreciate the level of achievement of the original Kickboxer a helluva lot more.
Kickboxer: Vengeance (2016) remains more faithful to the original Rocky IV movie, but it lacks and fails to improve upon the strength of the original. JCVD is back this time as Master Durant, but he plays the role with a straight face throughout and seems incapable of lightening up. Maybe he is getting the wrong kind of advice from his agent, but the fact is that one of the reasons why JCVD was so popular in the late 1980s and 1990s was because he smiled a lot more, told a lot of jokes, and did not take himself so seriously. Now he seems to think that the only way to give a good performance is by being sombre for the duration of the film and the problem with that approach to acting is that it is drab and boring.
But let's be clear. It's not JCVD's job to carry the film, because Alain Moussi is the one playing Kurt Sloane. Unfortunately, Moussi cannot even raise a candle to JCVD's performance as Sloan and, what is worse, he goes through the training sequences without the benefit of a great soundtrack crossing rock n' roll with Asiatic tunes and gorgeous Thai ruins in the background. Maybe I am complaining too much that this latest instalment is not like the original, but one of the chief reasons for my complaints is that "Kickboxer: Vengeance" never attempted to do anything fresh or original with its material. It just decided to be a pale and inferior copy of the original, which is why it inevitably gets compared with the original Kickboxer.
The other big problem with "Kickboxer: Vengeance" is that it seems in some respects to be hopelessly old fashioned. I am not a politically correct person, but this film's tendency of giving all the important roles to male actors and leave the unimportant roles to females seems like a throw away to the 1980s. This film does have a love interest -- a police offer named Liu played by the attractive Thai model Sara Malakul Lane. Unfortunately, she is given nothing to do in this movie except show up for the sex scenes (which, I admit, are pretty sexy) and distract Sloane from his quest to seek vengeance against Tong Po for killing his brother. Moreover, the film does not even have the decency to be honest about how little it thinks of its female character. Lui is apparently the head of an investigation into Tong Po's nefarious activities. But this plot device is just a loose end, because it is mentioned once in the movie and then forgotten about entirely. Maybe I am being fussy here, but I think actresses like Sara Malakul Lane deserve to be treated much better than the protagonist's brief case.
So if you see Kickboxer: Vengeance in your town, my advice to you is to rent the original Kickboxer (1989) instead. You will be saving your money and you will have a much better time.
A disappointing Indiana Jones
I was hoping to see an aged Indiana Jones go on some of the most extraordinary adventures searching for ruins and crystal skulls in the Amazon. But what I got instead was an overload of special effects and very little story. Steven Spielberg's latest Indiana Jones movie poses at least two major problems. First, it's so obvious that the special effects were done on a computer that they don't seem real. As a result, we do not feel that the characters are in any danger from army ants or indeed an alien civilization with crystal skulls. Second, the plot is not particularly interesting. When the first and third Indiana Jones came out, at least the stakes seemed real to us. The first film was about uncovering the legendary Ark of the Covenant from ancient times and the third was the search for the exciting holy grail. But crystal skulls? Why would anyone want to search for those? Lastly, the villains in the story do not seem very interesting. I actually like Cate Blanchet as a person, which is why it is so hard to imagine her as a credible villain. They should have put someone else less likable in that role, like Natalie Portman. So overall, the "Kingdom of the Crystal Skull" was a disappointing experience.
The Breakfast Club (1985)
"The Breakfast Club" is simply a story about a few teenagers who spend a whole day in detention and talk to each other. The beginning of the movie struck me as a bit ordinary, because I felt that these students embodied caricatures of the prom queen, the jock, the nerd, the goth girl, and the rebel without a cause rather than three dimensional human beings. At the early stages of the film, only Judd Nelson was able to inject new life with a fresh performance as a troubled, aggressive young man with so much anger building up inside him and occasionally rising to this surface.
Yet as the film entered its second act, a strange thing happened to me. I found myself becoming absorbed in the lives of all its young characters. These students, away from the teacher's glare, were sharing their deep personal pain and this was fascinating to watch. Lastly the final act was really a metaphor for healing as these young people consoled and healed each other with love. This psychological portrait not only makes for very good entertainment, but is quite touching. So while "The Breakfast Club" is not without its weaknesses, I recommend this film particularly for its second and third acts.
Why even make the Hunger Games?
I am not bashing the Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 because I feel that it is a cynical cash grab, which it is. My issue with it does not necessarily have anything to do with how I feel about the actors. Jennifer Lawrence is a very gifted actor who can take on demanding parts.
My problem with the finale of this series is that it fails at the script level. It retains all the flaws of the Hunger Games series and then adds several more, resulting in a form of entertainment with a lot of sound of fury and special effects but very little underlying substance. The Hunger games series should have played itself out like a Marxist dialectic: the young hero Kantniss Everdeen discovering that she is part of an oppressed proletariat, incorporating communist teachings, gaining consciousness as a member of the working class, and finally leading a communist revolution to topple the capitalist elites and install a social utopia and workers' paradise. This series should have been about the intellectual evolution of Everdeen into a revolutionary leader, determined to reshape the world in accordance with a communist ideology.
Yet the first Hunger Games, despite being OK as entertainment, lacked none of these characteristics. Instead, this first Hunger games played like a re-run of survivor - except that people were killing each other this time. The second instalment was a step down after that. It regurgitated all of the predictable survivor program material, but then added that scene in the end when Everdeen realizes that the enemy is the capitalist elite without fleshing anything out. The third instalment takes another few steps down: Katniss is not playing even second fiddle to Plutarch and President Alma Coin. She is just used for propaganda purposes. I don't know about you, but I think Jennifer Lawrence deserves much better than being put into multiple tiresome propaganda reels in order to shore up the morale of the troops. I thought we got over using actresses to cheer up U.S. soldiers back in the First World War. Well clearly we have not, with the result that Jennifer Lawrence who is supposed to be a champion of feminism is being saddled with a part that is anything but feminist.
Then came the finale, with incorporates all the flaws of the previous programs and adds fresh ones. Once again, the makers of this series denigrate Katniss. Now she is put as head of a small uncover team going deep inside the capital in order to assassinate the villain, President Snow. Big deal! To add salt to her wounds, Katniss is expected to give up power voluntarily first to President Coin (played horribly by the always boring Julianne Moore) and then Plutarch (played by Seymour Philip Hoffman) who is really put on screen as a thoughtful elder statesman than anything else. The other major problem of the series is that it is not really about anything in particular, except a group of young people strategizing about how to penetrate the capital and then going through the motions of dodging one special effect after the other. There is really no new material presented here and the worst part of it is that all of the trials and tribulations befalling these heroes are boring and predictable. The palace square is flooded with oil at one point, which would be exciting except we know from medieval history that spilling boiling oil over an army is one of the methods employed to protect a castle. Then come the attack of the ogres -- again not that exciting, because we have seen the same material in previous Hunger game movies and even King Kong for that matter. Admittedly watching Katniss brutally murder President Coin did bring me some joy, since Julianne Moore is such a disappointment as an actor, but that's hardly enough for me to recommend the movie. Ultimately, the finale of the Hunger Games is ineptly made, morally and intellectually bankrupt, and uninspired. I suppose it is fitting for the finale to get the lion share of the blame. I have gotten into the habit of assuming that the flaws in the first, second, and third episodes would somehow be resolved in a later episode. Then when the finale comes and fails to address these flaws, the result is a massive disappointment.
Pawn Sacrifice (2014)
Pawn Sacrifice -- A Review
The best movies are those where the filmmakers have taken the time to research the subject which they are making a film about. Director Cronenberg and Christopher Hampton clearly care enough about the psychiatric practice in order to study it carefully and skillfully weave theory with the inner lives of the characters in the movie, "A Dangerous Mind." What was so great about "A Dangerous Mind" was that we learned about the theories of Carl Jung, Sigmund Freud, and Sabina Spielrein so that we could appreciate why the practice of psychiatry mattered so much to these three individuals. Darren Aronofsky, likewise, clearly did his research into the inner world of professional wrestling in order to make his film, "The Wrestler." As a result, "The Wrestler" not only had compelling human stories, but we also got to understand what the lives of some wrestlers were really like with their drug use, the use of nails, the male camaraderie, and the physical stamina involved in one bruising fight after the fight.
Yet with "Pawn Sacrifice," we get the sense that that Director Edward Zwick, the three screenwriters, and the producers understand very little about chess and really do not care to learn anything about it despite the fact that this movie was about the only American to become World Chess Champion, Bobby Fischer. Instead, "Pawn Sacrifice" is solely a character study on Bobby Fischer (played quite well by Tobey Maguire) with his personality quirks and bad temper, but divorced from his chess. For instance, there are a few scenes where Bobby Fischer defeated Soviet grandmaster Ivanov. Ivanov then withdraws from the tournament by claiming that he came down with influenza. Fair enough, but how was Fischer able to defeat Ivanov? And what made Fischer's chess victory any different from the victories which other grandmasters had over Ivanov? The film does not answer these questions, because it does not even bother to take the time to explain the chess game to us. I also have the same complaint about Fischer's victory over Victor Korchnoi. Korchnoi was a master at defence and counterattack and one of the strongest grandmasters in the world by the late 1960s. So how was Fischer able to defeat him? Again, this question goes unanswered, probably because the filmmakers and producers assumed that the game of chess was too boring to be worth explaining to anyone or they were not particularly interested in the games themselves or in Fischer's unique chess genius, which inspired a future generation of Soviet chess players like Garry Kasparov. Yet if they really did feel like this, why make a movie about Fischer at all? The reason why neglecting to explain Fischer's chess games is such a big flaw is two-fold. To begin with, Fischer's brand of chess is what made him so unique. Yet judging from the film, I do not yet see how Fischer's chess was any different from Soviet grandmaster Ivanov's. Second, Fischer sacrificed everything, including his sanity, to achieve a mastery over his unique craft which no one else had. So shouldn't we get a clear idea of how challenging professional chess is? Should we not be given a clear idea of the hurdles Fischer had to overcome in order to become world champion? And also why achieving this level of mastery over chess was so important that Fischer was willing to sacrifice as much as he did? These are also questions that this film has not addressed.
"Pawn Sacrifice" does have its strengths. All the performances are pretty solid, especially Tobey Maguire's as Bobby Fischer. We get to understand this man's inner demons, his intense sensitivity to noises and lights, his paranoia and anti-Semitism, and his eccentricities. These aspects of Fischer are of some interest to us, since they foreshadow his eventual and tragic psychological breakdown. Yet "Pawn Sacrifice" can hardly be considered a great film, largely because the filmmakers seem as clueless about Fischer's chess genius (which I assume is a hugely important component of the film) as the young woman who took away his virginity in California.
Taken 3 (2014)
No More Taken Movies Please!!
I readily admit that the first two Taken movies were entertaining not because their plots were original or good, but because Liam Neeson is such a brilliant actor that he can make even a formulaic film about human trafficking seem compelling. What impressed me the most, in fact, about the first and second Taken films was something that is not even written in the script and comes from Liam Neeson alone: the ability to project unrestrained ruthlessness and aggression in pursuit of an objective.
In Taken 3, Liam Neeson reprises his role again as the special ops agent Bryan Mills who can annihilate almost anyone while making himself impossible to kill. But this time the plot is so bad and the supporting past so dismally boring that even Liam Neeson's performance cannot save Taken 3 from the trash bin. My first problem with the plot is that Neeson's ex-wife Lanke (played by Dutch actress Famke Janssen) is still with Stuart, even though it was clearly apparent in the second movie that she was tired of her current husband and wanted to get back together with her first husband. So the fact that Lenore and Stuart were still together was one of the most ridiculous parts of this movie. What made the movie so much worse was when they decided to kill off Lenore right in the beginning of the film. Famke Janssen deserved so much better than that. And of course Byran Mills gets blamed for Lenore's murder because, if we did not have that overly predictable plot twist, we wouldn't have a film. Then Taken 3 went downhill from there with boring chase scenes, shoot em' ups, and blowing things up real good. There have been revenge films made well, when the film conveys how important it is for the main character to take revenge. But Taken 3 is not one of them.
My other objection are the unoriginal supporting actors. The villain, for example, is a Russian mob boss borrowed from a dozen or so formula Hollywood pictures. I have seen this type of character before in Maximum Risk (1996), Eastern Promises (2007), and Icarus (2010). Given how many movies have used Russian mobsters in the past, filmmakers really need to raise their game if they are serious about competing in this genre. The makers of Taken 3, however, do not even try to compete, but instead settle for a villain who devotes all of his screen time to sounding tough even in his last moments and firing a big gun. Then we come to Stuart (Dougray St. John) who delivers a one-note performance throughout as a greedy scumbag, who has his wife killed in order to collect on the life insurance. Does this millionaire who owns a mansion really need the money that badly and does he really have to take risks like these in order to add to his massive fortune and continue spoiling his step daughter rotten? Not really, this is the lowest common denominator that we arrive at when supporting characters are painted as overgrown children rather than complicated adults. Indeed, the only actor to show any class in relation to Taken 3 is Xander Berkeley who played Stuart in the first Taken and wisely chose not to reprise the role for this film. Unfortunately, Maggie Grace decided not to follow Xander's advice because she did reprise her role as Kim, who gets impregnated by her boyfriend and kidnapped by Stuart in that order. Then we have Forrest Whitaker who plays a cop who begins to question whether Bryan Mills killed his wife. My objection to this character is that we have seen cops like these in lots of Hollywood films (Tommy Lee Jones plays such a cop in the Fugitive), and the makers of Taken 3 do absolutely nothing to make Whitaker's character more interesting than the formula character of the cop who guesses that the fugitive is not the killer. The only person out of the supporting cast who delivers a good performance is Famke Janssen, but unfortunately she gets knocked off at the beginning of this movie -- which is really irritating.
Now I gave this film two out of ten, because there is one thrilling scene where Bryan Mills unbelievably uses his Porsche in order to prevent a private jet from taking off. This scene has to be seen to be believed. But aside from that implausible sequence, Taken 3 is one Taken too many.
Le capital (2012)
Le Capital - A Review
Renowned film director Constantin Costa-Gavras has attempted to make a film about the cut-throat world of international banking, with Marc Tourneuil (Gad Elmaleh) as his main anti-hero. Tourneuil is unexpectedly catapulted into the job of CEO of Phenix Bank after its previous CEO succumbs to an advanced stage of testicular cancer. After a few jokes about testicles, Tourneuil must head off political intrigues in order to stay at the helm of the firm.
A movie like this works when there is lots of sly wit and plot developments to hold our interest and compensate for the absence of sympathetic characters. The problem with "Le Capital" is that it is somewhat deficient in these two areas, though not to the extent that I would not recommend the picture. To begin with, Costa-Gavras clearly wants to show that multinational banking is destructive to the economy and to people's lives, but he does not expand on these themes in any meaningful way. Tourneuil's comment about being ignorant of the financial instruments which Phenix Bank sells remains a loose end. Likewise, Tourneuil's significant remark that bankers are akin to children who play with other people's money until the financial system blows up remains an enigmatic portend. A great film would attempt to explore these themes more fully through the life of Tourneuil. We do not get any insight into the shortcomings of securitized assets, or the pressures that bankers come under to sell these combustible assets to capital markets, or even Phenix Bank's lobbying of governments in order to change the financial regulations in its favour. This film cannot be faulted for not having a message. Constantin Costa-Gavras is too much of the intellectual to make a film without a point, but he doesn't explain why his core message is important and he doesn't try to present that message in an original way.
The plot developments about the vicious intrigues in international banking are entertaining, but we have seen this story being told before in much more exciting ways. Normally a film about the global financial system would have bankers coming up with flashes of sly wit. There is occasionally some sly wit in this picture, particularly in the last scene ("I am the modern Robin Hood. We will continue taking money from the poor to give to the rich"), but not nearly enough in order to underscore how shrewd and unscrupulous Tourneuil and the other bankers are. This is a pity, because the cast is clearly talented. Lastly, Dittmar's attempt to screw over Phenix Bank is so transparent that it is strange that Tourneuil, being as brilliant as he is, took so long to figure out what Dittmar was up to.
Another major weakness of this film is the super model/prostitute, Nassim. Nassim seduces Tourneuil, plays with his credit card, plays an international game of tag with him, and implies that she will give into his sexual pleasures. I have no problem with Liya Kebede's performance as Nassim, but I feel that she is an unnecessary character who slows down the film whenever she is on screen. If this film focused more on international banking instead of Tourneuil attempts to have sex with Nassim, it would have been a better movie.
"Le Capital" has good performances and is somewhat entertaining, but it is often lacking in interesting dialogue and plot development and gives us little perspective into the Machiavellian, egotistical world of international banking and the financial geniuses who were so sure of their gifts that they almost sent the entire global financial system crashing down.
Exposed (1983) - A Review
"Exposed" has to be one of the most unusual, different, and unpredictable films I have ever seen. Many of the reviews on IMDb fault this film for having an incoherent plot. I actually believe that this criticism is unjustified, since writer-director James Toback is really trying to make a very ambitious film on the theme of the western world "breaking down" morally, politically, economically, and every other way. Toback, playing a professor in this picture, even makes this point rather banally to a classroom filled with indifferent students. The film then pursues this theme in a very fresh and original way by exploring the turbulent life of Elizabeth Carlson, who is played brilliantly here by the German actress Nastassja Kinski. The beginning of the film shows a terrorist attack and Elizabeth looking indifferently at her literature professor in that order, begging the question of how these two scenes are related. Then over the course of a series of extraordinary (but nonetheless plausible) plot twists, we learn the answer to this question. The end of the film shows Elizabeth gazing over her dying lover in the streets of Paris as the western world, in a metaphorical sense, collapses all around her.
Aside from the mostly interestingly plot, the strength of the film lies in Natassija Kinski's performance as Elizabeth. She plays this character so brilliantly that we can almost overlook those moments in the film where she delivers poor lines. Rudolf Nureyev's performance as the enigmatic violinist David Jelline is not as good, but he is still very interesting to watch all the same. Now the film is not without its weaknesses. I found the acting of most of the supporting cast to be amateurish and dull, including Toback's brief performance as the literature professor. Moreover, "Exposed" starts out a bit too slowly in the beginning before picking up tempo and becoming more interesting. Yet there were enough unexpected plot developments (including a "violin seduction" that has to be seen to be believed), classical music, and interesting characters to keep me interested right up to the end.
Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller - A Review
While in his club house, a young boy named Ralph (Lucas Evans) and his sister discover a secret letter written by Charles Merriweather which claims that a stamp album with some of the most valuable stamps in the world is hidden somewhere in Australia. Then Ralph embarks on a fantastical treasure hunt that takes him to China and then Australia. He not only encounters some very colourful characters along the way particularly in mainland China but he comes up against a master con artist (who tricked him out of a rare blue nose stamp) aptly named Tommy Tricker (Anthony Rogers).
This movie is made primarily for kids, which is why some of the dialogue may come across as too puerile for adults to take seriously. Yet one has to admire the imagination that went into creating this intricate plot which defies all movie formulas. For instance, there is an incredible scene where Ralph shrinks to a midget and ends up on stamp after his sister and friend perform a strange chant. But after that magic trick takes place, only the people who do not perform this ritual can put the letter into a mail box to be sent halfway across the world to Australia. Crazier still, after the letter arrives at its destination and is opened, Ralph blows up to his regular size and lands in the most inconvenient places. To craft a scene like that takes a lot more imagination than is put in most movie scripts. Director-writer Michael Rubbo also has a great eye for locations, with the result that we are treated to China's roadways clogged with cyclists, a gorgeous Chinese garden, a dragon, Tai-Chi, and Australia's cricket match.