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Our Kind of Traitor (2016)
Citizens on Patrol
On any other day, a British espionage thriller would make for a good change of pace from the summer blockbuster season. Based off a John le Carré novel, and it makes it even more intriguing, seeing that the master of spy fiction that brought us "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "The Spy that Came In from the Cold" is still up and sprightly, churning out novel after novel like it was nothing. I guess the secret to longevity is indeed to keep on working on your passion.
Now comes another film adaptation of his work this time with actors of caliber (Ewan McGregor and Stellan Skarsgard, among others) and double the predictability. I have not read Le Carré's original source material, but my guess is it will be far more intriguing than what was presented here.
The film, telling the tale of how two ordinary British citizens (McGregor and Naomie Harris) naively help out a turncoat Russian mob enforcer (Skarsgard) and getting in the crosshairs of a ruthless MI6 agent (Damien Lewis) in the process, ticks the right boxes, and nothing more. It becomes an engrossing watch throughout, where characters scheme and plot while other innocents are naively caught in the crossfire.
Everything is fine and dandy technically well-made and paced, the performances are spot-on and the story is a good tried-and-tested formula, though post-Brexit it seems unfortunately dated already, and the dialogue relies too much on the four-letter word, a jarring contrast a from Le Carré's usual classiness. The key word here is 'perfunctory'. It functions, and nothing more. Might be good with a cup of hot afternoon tea.
The Infiltrator (2016)
Bryan Cranston is not your typical movie star, although he seems like it. Underneath the cool-high-school-dad exterior, there's an actor of great depth and unexpected power. You'll know it when you see a scene involving his character, said character's wife, and a restaurant on their anniversary dinner. Cranston seems to have benefited during his years as Walter 'Heisenberg' White on TV's Breaking Bad. And it has contributed greatly in this biographical crime thriller, about as straightforward and predictable as a stab in the gut.
Yes, Brad Furman's (The Lincoln Lawyer, Runner Runner) directorial efforts here will not be known for their signature riffs, as there is none to speak of. It's standard thriller fare, the kind that would do well had it been released between the late 1980s and early 1990s; pure genre fare that caters to mostly adult film-goers that aren't interested in seeing computer-generated superpowers or rubble. In other words, unoriginal yet mature, grown-up stuff.
The Infiltrator, however, is textbook example of how great casting can elevate shopworn genre material into solid entertainment, as the always-reliable Cranston has proved here. Sure, he is strongly supported by a bevy of intriguing cast members including Benjamin Bratt, John Leguizamo and the lovely Diane Kruger; but in portraying real-life undercover agent Robert Mazur shimmying his way up through Pablo Escobar's criminal empire, Cranston's understated but strong everyman presence confidently carries the movie solely. That quality alone replaces the tediousness often found in similar true-crime movies with an intense amount of uneasy suspense and grounded credibility, providing lots of fun for Cranston fans as long as they do not expect anything groundbreaking.
Breaking Good, indeed.
Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)
You're gonna need a bigger movie
I recently re-watched the first film and was surprised at how robust its shelf life is. Again, it is undeniably cheesy and jingoistic, but done suitably well, I can have a ball with any material. In "Independence Day: Resurgence", set and finally released 20 years after the events of the first film, the aliens get medieval on us with an even bigger mothership.
There's a lot of heroics here by many a character who do their equal part to stop this new alien menace, having already made a stuffed calzone of the Earth's crust comprising from London all the way to Singapore. There's also a refreshingly silly undertone which sets it apart from the grim and serious blockbusters of today, and with added Jeff Goldblum and Judd Hirsch who return as the Levinsons, and "Star Trek" alumnus Brent Spiner as the eccentric Dr. Okun, Emmerich and his co-writers, including returning scribe Dean Devlin, certainly did not skimp out on the comic silliness.
Unfortunately, that is where the similarities end. The sins of sequelitis has been bestowed upon this sequel to his 1996 smash hit, and Emmerich is to blame, either for his laziness to phone it in out of frustration to fulfill the fans; or bucking in to studio demand to condense the film into a mere 2 hours. Sure, lots of things happen in the film, including stuff and cities going kablooey in high style, and high-tech aerial dogfights to give "Star Wars" a run for its money. Even Liam Hemsworth as the new hero Jake Morrison did not annoy me as much as I expected, though Hemsworth is still a far cry from Will Smith's "Elvis has left the building!" persona.
However, as slick as the modern CGI is, giving a sleeker look to the tech shown in the original film, it never quite gels together as a cohesive film - no momentum, no suspense, no catharsis when it does end. Bill Pullman's returning ex-President Thomas Whitmore is utterly wasted, as per his daughter Patricia (Maika Monroe, not doing her rep from "It Follows" any favours). It is not their fault; I feel that there is a lot of footage Emmerich was forced to excise by the Fox bigwigs to get more butts into cinema seats. Perhaps an extra half- hour of more cataclysmic destruction and character motives, but I may be asking for a bit too much at this point.
Things are very rushed indeed, with no payoff even when there's lots of characters doing their fair share to save the day. Goldblum and Hirsch, however, are still naturals, and they steal every scene they're in, and lift the movie up from near tediousness. Nevertheless, the special effects are fantastic, and are most certainly worth the price of admission alone.
It's kind of sad. This new one promotes global equality, with a female U.S. President (Sela Ward) celebrating world peace, and with everyone from across the globe giving it their all to kick E.T.'s ass. The action is fine and dandy without any of those annoying shaky-cam and quick-cut edits. And yet, the film suffers from awkward pacing, rushed dynamics, and especially a lack of cities exploding into fireballs. It even has sequel-teasing in the laziest manner possible in its final moments.
To quote Marvin the Martian, "Where's the kaboom? There's supposed to be an Earth-Shattering Kaboom!"
The Conjuring 2 (2016)
A better and scarier film than the first
The 1977 British haunting known as the Enfield Poltergeist has sparked controversy and has been accused of being complete hogwash. The famed paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren (Patrick Wilson and Vera Farmiga) have now got their work cut out for them with this one. But director/co-writer James Wan is not concerned about busting myths. The guy wants us to be scared silly and have a ball. He has succeeded. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
That's the modus operandi of Wan's latest scare-a-thon, the sequel to the 2013 summer blockbuster. This is better than the first bigger, scarier and much more intense. The first film was fun, but it relied too heavily on nostalgic and retro traits, having aped/paid homage to 1979's "The Amityville Horror". This new one is no different it acts as a "greatest hits" album of classic horror movie moments specifically, those of "Poltergeist" and "The Exorcist".
Wan's passion for the genre shines through in every scene. His unnerving atmosphere soaks the film in a shroud of doom and gloom, relentlessly unleashing his old- school house of horrors until the curtain call. It creaks, it moans, it shrieks when need be, never short-changing the character development and audience in the process.
This is not the horror film of the year so far (that honour belongs to the haunting indie film "The Witch"), but as far as popcorn horror films go, this one's really good - and a good stepping stone to introduce newcomers to "Exorcist"-style classics, a trait which I suspect was Wan's true intention all along, having already establishing himself as today's go-to filmmaker for spooky films.
Before I Wake (2016)
A Human Heart to Go with the Scares
It is infinitely better to center horror films around flawed, adult human beings, rather than seeing another vapid pretty face slashed by a faceless mook. Filmmakers like Guillermo del Toro (The Devil's Backbone) and William Friedkin (The Exorcist) understood that notion, where human flaws and regrets coil up subconscious fears into horrifying supernatural manifestations. Greenhorn filmmaker Mike Flanagan, who scared audiences with his surprisingly clever Oculus years ago, returns to follow these veterans' footsteps with his flawed but nonetheless human sophomore effort.
Here, Flanagan whips up another spooky tale that effectively doubles as a drama about loss and coping, centering around troubled adult couple Jessie (Kate Bosworth) and Mark (Thomas Jane) coping with the loss of their child Sean. They adopt gifted kid Cody (Jacob Tremblay) whose dreams - and nightmares - come physically alive. Jessie sees this as an opportunity to relive her memories of her dead child, while Mark becomes rightfully concerned. Bosworth and Jane play their roles straight without the slightest hint of genre awareness, instantly grounding the film in tragic plausibility throughout.
Despite some shortcomings - including a half-baked coda that feels like a blatant Nikon ad, Flanagan's clever and wisely understated direction - including a refreshing lack of jumpy moments and music in the favor of slow burn chills - overcomes them and brings out the best in atmosphere and performances specifically that of young Jacob Tremblay, who subverts the evil kid trope by convincingly looking remorseful about his 'gifts', unfortunately to little avail.
Mr. Right (2015)
Right Stars, Wrong Director, Bizarre Script
For Pitch Perfect's fans who think the infinitely cute Anna Kendrick could do no wrong, well, there's a first time for everything. Here's a film that feels like a Monday morning at work: a film with the right stars who are fully game for the lunacy promised by its strange and risky "look-at-me-I'm-so-smart" script, but is betrayed by poor, tone-deaf direction.
I will admit, I am not particularly fond of the romantic comedy genre, although there have been occasional stand- outs. This one is woeful because the script tries its darndest to make the bizarre material work, which involves clueless young lady Martha (Kendrick) falling head- over-heels with charming 'nice' guy (Sam Rockwell, Moon) who is actually a deranged assassin offing his contractors. Kendrick and Rockwell are very likable here, showing great chemistry between snapping some truly funny puns and dodging bullets.
But oh, how the filmmakers have let them down. A half-witty, half-annoying and fully self-aware script by Max Landis (Chronicle and son of Blues Brothers' John Landis) would make for a decent watch if handled by a director who understood the transition of tones - Kick-Ass' and Kingsman's Matthew Vaughn comes into mind. Not so for misguided director Paco Cabezas (the poor Nicolas Cage thriller Rage), who shifts from breezy rom-com satire to brutally violent action thriller with jarring violence worthy of a Jason Statham vehicle. It is about as awkward and subtle as a brick to the face and it threw me off the film completely.
2010's Wild Target did this similar material better.
Eye in the Sky (2015)
What is the value of a single human life? That's the question rattling in the mind of American USAF drone pilot Steve Watts (Aaron Paul), who defies direct orders from British Colonel Katherine Powell (Helen Mirren) and Lt. General Frank Benson (the late Alan Rickman) into blowing up a terror stronghold in the middle of a crowded Kenyan neighbourhood, as an innocent civilian walks right into the kill zone. They are racing against time; the terrorists are readying up for a much deadlier attack. The harrowing decision, and the dispute that surrounds it, is the heart of this exciting and frustratingly compelling thriller, down to its haunting closing scenes.
A dilemma like this, government politicians love to play the 'blame game'. Powell is ready to strike without compromise, but she and Benson can only wait for the greenlight by hesitant superiors. Guy Hibbert's script explores whether the politicians react as such to avoid the burden for approving such a strike, or to pat themselves on the back for averting loss of face. The subsequent moral, ethical and legal dilemmas slowly rile up all major characters like a boiling kettle.
Director Gavin Hood (X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Ender's Game) confidently crafts a gripping tale across continents where morality is given one hell of an endurance test, and invites the audience to debate with him. The work he has achieved with gifted thespians Mirren and Rickman (in one of his final roles) has resulted in a rock-solid morality play, and in a testament to his talent, Rickman's final scene powerfully sums up everything Hood and Hibbert have to say on the matter.
I would not like another person's memory in my head. It wouldn't be too pleasant. You'd remember connections with complete strangers, have knee-jerk reactions to different fears, be familiar with behaviors and even languages you thought you never knew. You might even be pursued by the wrong kind of people and won't even know it, and that is what happens to hard- ass, deranged criminal Jerico Stewart (Kevin Costner) when he gets the memories of a dead CIA agent (Ryan Reynolds), wanted by both his CIA handlers and a fanatic terrorist.
Criminal is a mid-budget, high-concept and brutally violent B-movie, handsomely crafted for the guy crowd. It stars A- listers both present (Ryan Reynolds, Gal Gadot) and past (Tommy Lee Jones, Gary Oldman) bringing their game faces and having fun - none more so than Costner, here trolling more than ever with a gruff, can't-give-a-damn attitude that combines Tom Hardy, Nick Nolte and Keith Richards all in one ultra-badass, ultra-insane swoop.
The film was produced by Millennium Films of Expendables and Olympus/London Has Fallen fame, and I'm digging their old- school action offerings. They never aspire to be high-brow entertainment, but given the right script and this one is from the same scribes as The Rock (1996) they can make fun movies with a rough-and-tough edge. This has added midnight movie strangeness to its concept, and to Vromen's credit, no action beat is missed.
For reasons I'll never know, this film is being savaged by Western critics for being too 'dull' and 'dumb'. Perhaps I saw a different movie. It may be dumb, but it sure as hell isn't dull.
Deo Pon (2015)
Suspense Phones In
The Hitchcockian thriller, having being ditched by Hollywood in favour of comic- book blockbusters, is alive and well in South Korean cinema. This incredibly suspenseful film by first- time filmmaker Kim Bong-Joo continues in the tradition of frustrating audiences with cracker-jack suspense, as he skillfully unveils the tale of how a politician (Son Hyun-Joo, very nuanced here), haunted by the loss of his wife (Uhm Ji-Won), gets a mysterious call from her a year to the date she passed. Without haste, he immediately tries to avert her death by informing her of future events, but both find out something's amiss when a particularly nasty villain comes into play. It's neo- noir by way of the Twilight Zone.
If you think this admittedly ludicrous plot sounds familiar, it does: it's similar to 2000's "Frequency" starring Dennis Quaid and Jim Caviezel, with a father-son focus, and an old radio instead of a husband-wife focus and phone, respectively. That American film had a much stronger dramatic dynamic that allowed the audience to invest better in the characters' plights, making their conflicts all the more intense. This film falters on that front, ironically succumbing to Hollywood's popcorn-minded temptations without rising above the genre, especially in the final third. There is a strong sense of urgency, yes, but the film needed a bit more fleshed-out characters for us to make us truly feel for every character's predicament.
No matter, Hollywood can rest easy knowing the genre is in capable hands. Better to play it safe than having it sink further below.
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Marvel's "Captain America: Civil War" is a film so sincere in its aspirations, so determined to stand out from the superhero crowd, that to see it collapse under the strain of its ambition is quite underwhelming. The film pits Avengers Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) against each other in a clash of ideologies, and to see them fairly debate in lieu of individuality and regulation, respectively, is nothing short of compelling and thought-provoking, especially since both sides have their own set of consequences.
The action sequences and fight choreography are top-notch, probably the best in the Marvel crop, with the Russo brothers proving themselves the studio's golden goose. They (with mightily impressive stunt choreography from the John Wick directors) direct with a slick, brutal efficiency and perfect comic timing that can make action junkies sigh with relief, which aides greatly in that big, highly-hyped superhero throwdown.
But the villainous cog behind the conflict nearly collapses the entire film. It becomes increasingly preposterous the more I think about it. To pit Cap'n and Iron Man against each other, there has to be a plausible catalyst towards their tension to bring any real emotional weight to the film. This villain, all by his lonesome, uses preparations and tactics that would make Bane and MacGuyver blush in comparison, resulting in plot/continuity holes so big a dozen helicarriers combined can fly through them. However, and this doesn't spoil the plot, what he does at the end of the film ditches the core of the film and resembles a Saturday morning cartoon.
It's still a better film than Batman vs. Superman.