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Gore Verbinski's "The Lone Ranger" is a pure summer blockbuster, head
to toe, filled with sensational action sequences and oddly hilarious
and zany moments, though sufficient enough for character development.
And yet, it feels like an old-fashioned campfire tale, told by an
(unreliable) narrator as shown in the opening scene, setting things up
for the main plot to come. It doesn't feel overbearing and rushed,
takes its time with the pacing and characters, building momentum and
excitement for the grand finale, but more on that later.
Verbinski is no doubt a fan of Western films (check out his animated "Rango") and how he manages to take a $250 million budget and turn it into a personal love letter for the Western genre is that one-in-a- million Hollywood tale where a director uses a large amount of the studio's money to make a movie that he or she wants. Verbinski, reuniting with most of his "Pirates of the Caribbean" writers and crew, just puts his whole into entertaining the audience as much as he can whilst not insulting them.
Verbinski sure knows how and where to place the camera. The great cinematography which shows off the vistas of the American West while combined with Hans Zimmer's throbbing score which echoes that of the great Ennio Morricone's effort, makes for an odd but arresting visual and aural experience, and certainly shows Verbinski has made his film self-aware that it is made in a different time than those classic Westerns of yesteryear. The film owes more to Leone for its villains and the clean cut Golden years for its hero, obviously. In fact, the villains are pretty much the most depraved and violent in a Disney- certified film thus far.
Armie Hammer, in his first lead role, provides enough charm to go along with his character's earnestness and steadfastness, but he thankfully doesn't mug for the camera as most young stars nowadays. He looks, sounds, and acts about right for the part of the Lone Ranger, and his naivety is matched only by the kookiness of his trusty companion Tonto (Johnny Depp who is top-billed). To be honest, Tonto is basically Jack Sparrow 2.0, what with Depp's usual buffoonery and oddball antics throughout, but where Sparrow doesn't seem to care about his predicament and relies on dumb luck, Tonto shows concern and purpose in his actions. I would say the chemistry between the two is good, and far from being mechanical as I expected. And the horse is always fun to watch. I would also like to point out William Fichtner for portraying such a slimy, reprehensible and yet ultimately old-fashioned-at-heart villain very well.
Verbinski was wise enough to make the film stretch out to be a whopping 149 minutes, but I feel that it was sufficient for establishing the supporting characters. Lest we remind ourselves of "A Good Day to Die Hard" with all those character moments cut short in favor of action. Oh dear.
So far, so good. Within the first 2 hours it became clear to me, that Verbinski, Hammer, Depp and co. were having a blast making this movie, and that they didn't really think of the box-office or studio gossip that might hurt the movie. Or maybe, they were, and decided to use every penny of the budget as heartily as they can.
Then came the climactic action sequence. I cheered.
Not just because I was rooting for the Ranger and Tonto to save the day, but also because of how extremely thrilling yet entertaining the sequence was. It involves two trains, on parallel tracks, chasing each other. Any big budget studio would normally film it on a green screen, but Verbinski thought otherwise. Most of the scenes were shot for real with CGI only touching up certain scenes. The mere sight of seeing real train stunts and practical effects on the big screen again was something I thought I would never see. Verbinski's direction in this scene has a certain Spielbergian/Indy zeal to it that makes it all the more enjoyable to watch, and he takes pride in it.
And all of this accompanied by a terrifically rousing extended arrangement of the William Tell Overture, giving an old-school heroic vibe, but never overwhelming the action, rather complementing it perfectly. This finale is worth the price of admission alone, although there are plenty other action sequences before this one, and lots of them involving real stuntmen rather than CGI-ed ones. These are throwbacks to those silent-era Westerns, probably "The Great Train Robbery" and more obviously, Buster Keaton's "The General", in which the train stunts have to be seen to be believed. This one, too, showing perfectly how stunts and CGI can co-exist in harmony.
Bottom line, this is an exhilarating and really fun joy to watch, perfect old-fashioned escapist entertainment, lovingly crafted by a director who has an eye for camera work and thrills. This might be the first and last big-budget western you'll see in cinemas (judging from the poor box-office, unfortunately), it's a pity as Verbinski, Hammer, Depp and co. show you, in this film, how the Western was won.
Zack Snyder's "Man of Steel" opens with a stunning sequence set on the
dying planet Krypton involving Jor-El (Russell Crowe), trying to
preserve the Kryptonian race via his newborn son, Kal-El. I put
emphasis on Snyder because this film has his stamp clearly all over it,
try as the marketing department might to fit in Christopher Nolan's
producing credit in every trailer they can get. But no matter.
If there was one thing I could pin Nolan on for this film, I would say, the mood of the film. This is definitely not your daddy's and grandaddy's Superman, or for that matter not your older brother's. Like "Batman Begins", emphasis is put on mood and atmosphere, with the lighthearted and campy factors virtually scrubbed out for a slicker, more down-to-earth feel. Unlike Nolan's reboot, though, "Man of Steel" opts to take a more action-oriented approach for its hero. And boy, do I mean action.
Once the action lands on Earth, the audience is immediately whisked off alongside the now adult Kal-El, or Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), as he ventures alone on his quest to eventually find a certain (not-so) solitude location, while intrepid reporter Lois Lane (Amy Adams) investigates that very same one. Along the way well-timed flashbacks offer glimpses into Clark's youth and inspirations, most notably his loving Earth parents Jonathan and Martha Kent (Kevin Costner and Diane Lane), who sufficiently provides as much inspiration as they can to properly shape up Clark as he nears his destiny.
I say sufficient, because "Man of Steel" paces itself thunderously with gigantic and spectacular action sequences from start to finish, giving little time for the audience to breathe. The admittedly bare-bones plot is made way for some truly awesome sights to behold, showing quite possibly the most honest depiction of how powerful Kryptonians can really be if they really, really want to.
I deplore "Transformers" for the very same reason I recommend "Man of Steel" - that is, non-stop action. This is because the former repeats an outdated formula that is aggressively forced onto the audience, while "Man of Steel" embraces its action sequences with style and technique. I usually deplore the excess of CGI in action sequences, but here I'm making an exception because this movie really shows that CGI can be used positively to create sights previously unknown to man, (a feat not seen since "Avatar", perhaps?). Buildings fall, planets explode, large objects are flying in the air, all done before, yes, but Snyder and his talented crew are probably influenced by Biblical catastrophes for their sensational action sequences. Imagine that.
Snyder has a firm grip on action sequences, and injects them with such energy that one would think he drank a gallon of adrenaline and decided to show it through this film, but again, his crew is key. The marvelous production design by Alex McDowell, which includes the planet Krypton is given a major rehaul and now resembles something Lovecraftian, made me grin at the details and atmosphere created. Amir Mokri's framing of the action compiled with moody, muted colors makes it hard to not awe at the sheer spectacle unfolding while gasping at sights at the same time, and Hans Zimmer's rousing score keeps the film moving at a high tempo while pausing occasionally to take a breather.
And what of our film's star? Cavill fits Superman to a T, he looks and sounds exactly what Supes would, but given the emotional mood of the whole movie, he manages to act convincingly in those emotional scenes. He looks like he has a bright future ahead. Michael Shannon, a character actor who is rising rapidly in his field, is intimidating as General Zod the villain, but most good actors can play the role well. As for the rest of the cast, they all deliver solid if unspectacular performances, though it was nice to see Costner on the big screen again.
This is what I wanted to see in a comic book adaptation. Retaining the essence of the Superman character while wrapping sensational action sequences around a moody and Gothic atmosphere. It's no "Dark Knight" in terms of depth and character, but it doesn't even try to be, and it still works. Of course there will be a sequel. There will be a Justice League movie while they're at it. Hell, I'll be there if they can make it as rollicking as this.
If I were to pick between this and "The Avengers", there is no question. I'm sorry, Marvel fans. Just my honest opinion.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Mira Nair's remarkable "The Reluctant Fundamentalist" opens with the
swift kidnapping of an American professor at a university in Lahore,
Pakistan, then shifts its attention to another professor, American-
educated Changez Khan (Riz Ahmed), who proceeds to tell his life story
to American journalist Bobby Lincoln (Liev Schreiber). Khan's ordeal is
the basis for Nair's intelligent and intriguing thriller, which poses
many questions that easily pop up but are difficult to answer.
What is fascinating about the movie is how Nair makes the audience involved and invested in the main character Changez. The first half of the film depicts him as a striving youth who wants to make it in the big leagues of 2001 Wall Street financing, complete with a boss to impress and a love interest. Changez is a likable fellow in the first half - earnest, do-gooder and all-in-all an average Joe trying to make it like the rest of us. Then came that unfortunate day. He is transformed into a brooding, contemplating young adult, questioning where he stands and what he represents. He then returns to Lahore as a university professor, where he uses his lectures to condemn the American policies. A radical, albeit a subtle and rational one - he becomes very popular and respected at the university to the point where students are willing to put themselves before him.
It is quite the challenge for lead Riz Ahmed, yet he remarkably carries the whole movie on his shoulders without diminishing its core virtues. Ahmed has a certain charisma in his speech and mannerisms that makes it difficult for anyone to dislike him disagree with him. He is wise to perform Changez as a outwardly humble person, but with raging flames in his eyes. If the powers that be are right, he has high potential to become a leading man in the near future.
That's not to say almost everyone else in the film are saints or sinners as well. There are no heroes and villains in the movie, just normal, sometimes misguided people shaped by some very unfortunate circumstances. Take Changez's artist love interest Erica (kate Hudson) for example. In one scene she expresses conflicts with her relationship to Changez, but reveals surprising depths rather than being predictable given the film's topic. Even the reporter interviewing him has his fair share of problems. They're only human after all.
I am admittedly not familiar with Mira Nair's filmography, the only film of hers that I have seen prior to this was "The Namesake" a great film about the son of Indian immigrants who has a culture clash between his family's culture and that of the land he was born in. Nair sort of revisits this theme for this movie, but this time she makes it darker, and throws in American prejudice and hostility post-9/11 into the mix to complicate things further. This is not a film where matters are solved easily and wounds heal fast. It also ends as it should, should the audience choose their perspective of what Nair shot.
Nair, along with her screenwriters (including the original novelist on whose book this was based on), her cinematographer, and her composer Michael Andrews, all not only provides an emotional yet unglamorous depth to Changez but also that of his environments as he progresses year by year - director and crew have transformed the locations into more than just a backdrop, they are characters by themselves, they live and breathe among the troublesome paths that lay ahead.
A key theme for the movie is exploring the fundamentals. Changez's boss (Kiefer Sutherland) believes in those financial principles to make money. A suspected terrorist leader later mentions to Changez somewhere along the lines of "to live based on the fundamentals" of their religion. Changez is visibly upset by both men's statements and his stance is never resolved. Perhaps that is why he is "The Reluctant Fundamentalist". A movie's title has rarely been more apt than this.
This topical and important film shows that there is no good nor bad side. People just do bad things when they get caught up in unfortunate events. Nair shows the film from one perspective that the major audience is not used to, but doesn't overtly forsake the other side. Nair, an Indian-born filmmaker, is to be commended for showing a respectful yet somewhat honest portrayal of Pakistan during these times of real-life conflict between the two. It's clear that she crafts the film with care for both content and characters.
Halfway through the movie, Changez tells Lincoln "You picked your side, mine was chosen for me." People either have a firm stand, buckle under the pressure of authority and emotion, or is forced to take it without options. Where do we stand on this issue as a whole?
Michael Bay's "Pain and Gain" is a very bleak, very dark comedy about
three knucklehead bodybuilders in pursuit of their own American dream,
even if the road there is paved with sex, drugs, torture, humiliation,
and even murder.
Bay is shamelessly reputed for huge explosions, choppy editing, excessively flashy/glitzy cinematography, sexy women, fancy cars and (recently) giant robots. With "Pain and Gain" he returns to low-budget territory since his debut "Bad Boys" in 1995. The result - the film is a debauchery in style - it's all over the film. Although Bay cuts back on the explosions and robots (mercifully), everything else has Bay written all over it, and considering how morbidly ridiculous the film's subject matter is, Bay tackles it in such a head-on and energetic manner that the audience is whisked off for the insane ride ahead.
For this movie, he has assembled together Mark Wahlberg, Dwayne Johnson and Anthony Mackie as the three bumble-heads who have their hearts set in the right goal but clearly lack the intellect to do so. All three men look jacked up, and play their parts as ridiculous as the part goes for it, especially Johnson, who clearly is having a blast showing off a completely different side of him as opposed to what we've been seeing him of late. Wahlberg plays a character so dangerously goofy and dumb one will wonder whether such a person exists in real life. Tony Shalhoub's unfortunate but still jerk-ish character sets the tone for most of the movie as his predicament grows from one spectrum of ridiculousness to another. By the time we've reached sexy Bar Paly's and hilarious Rebel Wilson's love interest characters, the audience have probably seen enough.
Then in comes Ed Harris as Detective Du Bois. Just when I thought the film was about to careen off the rails into insanity. He's the only sane person in the whole movie, and his presence helps bring balance and clarity to what was a ludicrous first half.
Comic relief is key in Bay's action films, but here he's going all out at comedy, and he sure does pull of the stops. The film is simply put, hysterical. The fact that it was indeed a true story makes it all the more hilarious to watch, who honestly can think of some story like this and pull if off straight?
I am aware that since this is a film, some liberties had to be made to the story and characters. Some scenes were undoubtedly exaggerated, but which one? Every scene looked and felt so surreal, every major character ridiculous, every line of dialogue inducing a chortle from the audience. But it was a dementedly fun ride, and Bay, after making two bloated sequels about giant robots, finally returns to his stride.
No sooner pass the one-hour mark, does Joseph Kosinski's "Oblivion"
turns from an intriguing sci-fi premise into a "guess the other sci-fi
movie winks" game. It was a bit of a letdown, having so much potential
and then letting the screenplay take the easy way out, by catering to
the audience. A superior screenwriter would have explored some of the
interesting idea to its extent. Here we are treated to a slick, slam-
bang futuristic actionier that treads on familiar territory but looks
and sounds fantastic.
If you got something, go for broke. This is only Kosinski's second feature film after the equally visually spectacular "TRON: Legacy", and he goes for broke with the visual effects and design of the movie. There is an awesome sense of scale and sights of breathtaking spectacle throughout the movie, and I'm not just talking about the action sequences - most of the film's establishing shots will make some hairs stand in awe. And unlike today's CGI-laden films from MTV directors, with choppy editing and all; Kosinski wants his audience to appreciate and savor the effects, so we get them in long, wide shots with a patient duration.
If there ever was a director as visually creative and epic in his use of effects, Kosinski may be the go-to guy for such a movie, seeing that James Cameron or George Lucas may be busy with other projects. Hell, it's clear Kosinski cares about how his movie looks, and basically you get more than the price of the IMAX admission. Yes, the IMAX version is the way to go for this one. I simply cannot imagine seeing this movie again on a smaller screen. The visually stunning world Kosinski has created is worth more than the price of the IMAX edition alone.
Alas, if only the script were as daring as its visual scale. It's based on Kosinski's own graphic novel, and I've counted major influences from "Total Recall", Tarkovsky's "Solaris" and Kubrick's "2001: A Space Odyssey", among a few others. Yes, the ending is simplified Hollywood pap, but the visual journey to there has been nothing short of amazing. Hell, at least Kosinski has the gall to put in references to Kubrick and Tarkovsky, so it's all good. And Tom Cruise as the engineer Jack Harper, reminds me of those good-looking, manly heroes from the golden years of science fiction - handsome, intelligent, and ready to act when necessary, with Olga Kurylenko supplying enough weight for her obligatory love interest role. Even Morgan Freeman shows up to prove he ain't just wise, he can kick ass too.
It appears the trailers have revealed far too much of the visuals. I simply do not understand the marketing for films today. Do they want to market the movie, or show you most of it just so you can pay 11 bucks to see the ending? I wisely avoided watching the trailer (although I heard them) and it allowed me to imagine what kind of visuals that may come up on the screen. Needless to say, I was not disappointed with what I saw.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
An extended one-take tracking shot of local daredevil Luke Glanton
(Ryan Gosling) heading towards and performing one of his motorcycle
stunts opens the film. The camera then frames Glanton and two other
bikers spinning around in a metal globe dangerously - perhaps
recklessly and unpredictably - a prophetic symbol of things to come.
Derek Cianfrance's "The Place Beyond the Pines" then throws the audience in for an unpredictable journey between the lives of four characters. This is not a movie which will fulfill your guesses if you think you've seen them all. A wide range of strong character and plot development pulls the film together when it looked like the film could burst apart at the seams. Great cinematography by Sean Bobbitt and an ambitious music score by Mike Patton (with a shade of Morricone, I think?) compliment the film's uneasiness and unpredictability perfectly.
In three acts encompassing a time period of 15 years, the audience follows the lives of Glanton, police officer Avery Cross (Bradley Cooper), and their respective sons Jason (Dane DeHaan) and A.J. (Emory Cohen). Gosling continues his strong streak of portraying violent, moody and solemnly stoic lead heroes as the loner Luke, who reawakens his paternal instinct after he discovers he has a kid with an old flame, Romina (a very good Eva Mendes). His decision to rob banks to support them quickly collides with the life of Officer Cross, who is having his own problems with police corruption (you gotta love Ray Liotta as the sneaky corrupt cop). Cooper surprises with a solid, no-nonsense performance displaying a wide range of emotions, evolving from naive to guilt-ridden - proving he could do much more than comedy or romance. It is a good enough performance for the second act of the film to live on. The third act, and this is where the film falters a bit - takes place 15 years after Gosling's and Cooper's segments, and focuses on their character's sons in high school who happen to meet by chance. Both young actors seem natural in their roles, especially DeHaan, fresh off of "Chronicle", and again portraying the lonely, painful soul very well.
A lot of "blue collar dramas" (as some call it) seem to focus on the tough life aspects and "struggling to make it out of here" kind of story lines. Some are great, some are good, but make them once, and you've probably make most of them. This film, although you can call it a "blue collar epic", doesn't really focus on the "tough life" aspect as it does with it's characters. Rather, it focuses on the more philosophical and poetic aspects of storytelling - the circle of of fate and destiny, karma, retribution; all the while balancing it out with other dramatic aspects such as police corruption, crime as a ways of finance and teenage father-son angst, among others. It's a massive juggling act, and Cianfrance and his writers are superb in fleshing these characters within a running time of 140 minutes, and not one character feels like they have worn out their welcome. Cianfrance's ambitious direction perhaps makes the film feel as whole as possible, with the three acts flowing steadily and the switch from the current act to the next feels operatic instead of sudden and rushed. I am reminded of certain mob classics like "GoodFellas" and "The Godfather" when it comes to this flow, and even though this film by no means is as brilliant as both, it certainly is refreshing and delightful to see a new generation filmmaker be this ambitious and taking risks with his audience.
Is this film great? It could be. Just because the plot is something we've seen before, it certainly does not mean the filmmaker cannot do something different with it. Cianfrance and his talented cast and crew certainly have made something different with familiar plot material. It is strongly plotted and acted, and it feels like an opera unfolding itself toward the audience. The film is worth watching, perhaps more than once. I truly haven't seen an American director this hugely ambitious since Darren Aronofsky. One thing is for sure: Cianfrance will be a name to look out for.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
Funny, I was the only one in the theater hall watching this. There were
two people who entered late, but they left after about 10 minutes
through. They were probably offended by what they saw, and I cannot
blame them for that: Even the film's opening scene involves gratuitous
shots of the female flesh for a lingering amount of time, dragging on
until the scene transforms from glamorously into disgustingly
If the film does indeed make you offended and shocked, then Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers" has succeeded. Right after the opening scene we are introduced to four college girls desperate to have the ultimate Spring Break. One of them is devoutly religious and even thinks about the break as a lifelong goal and nirvana to attain. Two of them are downright sociopathic, and (in a beautifully shot scene) rob a diner to get the money needed for their trip. Beneath those gorgeous faces and bodies lie twisted, dark depths, but Korine shoots straight for the bottom, nearing depravity.
After a series of lurid mishaps, the girls find themselves in the presence of rapper and criminal 'Alien', who takes over the scene once he enters it. This Alien, he's something. Making a name all by himself, living "The American Dream" his way ("Scarface" is referenced to), trying to get his music career of the ground, getting at odds with his enemy, and enchanting most of the girls to his charm.
I assure you, I found most of "Spring Breakers" to be disgusting, perverted, and gratuitous in its portrayal of women and the criminal lifestyle. The lurid cinematography, hyper editing, and music by both Cliff Martinez and Skrillex seem to make the experience feel like a psychotic party-goer's acid trip. Hell, the use of a Britney Spears song has a John Woo-like contrast to it.
However, I'm not condemning the movie for it. This was what Korine intended, and he succeeded thoroughly. The film is a scathing attack on the American youth culture today. Korine's cohesive yet high-energy direction depicts an exaggerated "American dream" for the new generation, where their ultimate goal amounts to nothing more than endless nights of fun, partying, getting rich and getting made. More like the American nightmare. I can sense most older audience members hating this movie to shreds.
The four girls and Alien showcase these through there Malick-like monologues interspersed between the mayhem. Call it pretentious, but I find it much better than leaving them as two-dimensional youths. In those aspects, James Franco and Selena Gomez are very good in their performances, and Vanessa Hudgens and Ashley Benson completely shed their teeny-bop images to portray some of the most depraved youths I've seen in the movies in a while. Rachel Korine is alright but I sense it is just a chance for her husband the director to showcase his wife in a bout of nepotism. Still, her presence doesn't detract from the film.
The film's ending, which seemed to good to be true, also brings up a similar discussion to the classic "Taxi Driver" - is it all real? Did everything happen in the movie, or is it one giant acid trip for one (or all) of the characters? Where does reality stop and (nightmarish) fantasy begin? I leave you to answer that.
This film will probably be one of the most controversial and provocative films of the year. It's high and glamorized sexual and criminal content, coupled with hyper-kinetic camera-work, music, editing, and directing - will definitely turn some heads in the audience. But this film does indeed have something to say - about the American youth, about the American dream. And for some strange reason, the film may stay with you for a while. I know it has with me.
P.S. Parents, no matter how big of a fan your child/teen is of Gomez, Hudgens, Benson and even Franco, DO NOT under any circumstances let them see this movie unless you feel that they are ready and prepared to handle this kind of content. You have been warned.
I find it ironic that Gerard Butler, a Scotsman, as disgraced Secret
Agent Mike Banning, embodies the spirit of John McClane much more than
Bruce Willis did in that last dreadful outing. If anything, Butler has
done nothing more than to cement his reputation as a bankable and
likable action hero for the new generation in this old-school action
movie. He has a commanding presence on-screen, quips wisecracks, bleeds
when it's crucial, and dispatches the bad guys in a methodical cross
between Jason Bourne and John Rambo. Not even the fine supporting cast
(Morgan Freeman, Aaron Eckhart, Angela Bassett, Robert Forster, Melissa
Leo, Dylan McDermott) can take away Butler's limelight.
Indeed, Antoine Fuqua's "Olympus Has Fallen" is not only terrific entertainment but a terrific throwback to the pivotal 90's action movie, the Die Hard clone - and this film ("Die Hard" in the White House) is another reminder of why the trusted formula works, even if it has been dormant for nearly two decades (the last good big one being Peter Hyams' "Sudden Death").
From the moment the film's main action start, the film doesn't stop running. The bad guys, hoo boy do they mean business. Rarely, if at all, have I seen this much brutal collateral damage in an American action film. Americans citizens get mowed down by bullets from ground and air forces. The all-American (Scottish) hero represents freedom and justice, and the bad guys represent every American's worst nightmare. I haven't seen this much political incorrectness since "The Delta Force". Having said that, Rick Yune surprisingly makes for an effective and nasty villain, who is relentlessly cold, smug and procedural in his mission, following the formula perfectly. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
It's fast, it's loud, it's preposterous, and yet I enjoyed every minute of it. The film is chock-full of sensational and well-shot action sequences/special effects, but its biggest strength is its cohesion. From start to finish the plot moves smoothly, and you can tell who the good guys and the bad guys are. The characters are established, their motives clear, and that's that. The action sequences do not simply skip to each other, they flow perfectly like a stream, thanks to crisp editing. Simplicity is key here, and convoluted plots do not fit in the formula (hear that, "Die Hard 5"?)
Fuqua is no stranger to action, having helmed the solid "Shooter" six years ago. Here he ratchets up the action up to a 10 (CGI is present but used reasonably), and he remarkably doesn't hold back on the tension. It's no "Training Day", but it more or less hearkens back to an Antoine Fuqua who made "The Replacement Killers". Just thrilling fun.
Of course the plot isn't original. It's a genre picture, and what I pay to see in a genre picture is its skillful craft and cohesive plot. This film has both, and resurrects the Die Hard clone from the grave. Here I thought I was getting bored of action movies. The genre is dying, you say? Here's a solid kicker.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
He looks out the window in the night sky after a long day's work,
thinking of what has become of himself. Across his apartment balcony,
in the window of the building opposite his, stares a woman, solemn,
pained. Their eyes meet, and, slowly, they wave at each other. Not a
word was spoken.
Subtle scenes like these evoke memories of the raw power of film - it is emotion, not words or sometimes action - that drive a motion picture. Thing is, Vic is a thug working for a ruthless mobster; and Beatrice is a traumatized victim of a car accident. The subtlety will not last long, but it does make healthy re-appearances.
Niels Arden Oplev's "Dead Man Down" is the English-language debut (third this year overall following two Korean efforts) of the Swedish filmmaker famous for the original "Girl with the Dragon Tattoo" film. He even brought along his star Noomi Rapace for the ride. It is a joy to see a modern filmmaker who cares for and loves his characters as much as the audience expects themselves to, that we are invested in them strongly and want to see them succeed. He crafts the film with love, as the cinematography gracefully dances around the characters, as if it was a complex ballet intrigue and hidden motives. Do we really want to right that wrong? Will it be worth it in the end? For us and for our loved ones?
The movie is, first and foremost, a revenge thriller. But surprisingly, it is also a compelling love story. From the moment the film opens we are thrust into the urban jungle of New York City (accentuated with a moody and atmospheric score by Jacob Groth, composer of the original "Millennium" trilogy), but with a poignant yet meaningful statement by Vic's friend Darcy (Cooper). Writer J.H. Wyman uses strands of earlier revenge films, twisty film-noirs and the classic melodramatic romance of earlier Hollywood films and incorporated them into his screenplay. Oplev transforms the screenplay, with such passionate energy and inventiveness, that the whole film somehow resembles a classic romantic European fable - sort of like this big tough warrior who falls in love with a wounded soul in a far-away and dangerous land, and both become kindred spirits. It is engrossing and captivating to watch the characters actually become real human beings, instead of being caricatures. This is a film where the characters' decisions affects what happens next.
The film would not succeed had it not been for the two leads, Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace, followed by a strong and diverse supporting cast. Farrell is strong as Vic, big, tough but withdrawn and solemn, slowly hiding away his anguish and rage towards his real enemy. Rapace, an actress whom I'm starting to grow fond of, is quite wonderful as Beatrice, who is traumatized but is still capable of captivating the lonely Vic. She walks and talks with unease, but there are times where she switches gears and becomes intensely aggressive in her true goal, where it will reveal is eating her up slowly but surely. The strong chemistry between the duo make the movie much, much better than it was intended.
The rest of the cast consists of Terrence Howard as a deliciously ruthless and intimidating as the villain Alphonse (watch the scene where he confronts Vic in a dark apartment room, with backlighting in Paul Cameron's cinematography brilliantly capturing the essence of noir), Dominic Cooper giving Darcy a human and realistic portrayal of a stock crime film character, and brief but warmly welcome appearances of F. Murray Abraham and Isabelle Huppert.
This is a movie which has something for both guys and gals. Guys will go for the gritty story and the obligatory "Colin Farrell kicks ass" scenes, especially the violent climax. Women would go just to see Farrell the romantic, and the compelling chemistry between the two leads are enough to make them swoon over. But the film is so well made, the characters and story strongly developed and very compelling enough to hold my attention for two hours, that really, you couldn't ask for a more well rounded revenge thriller of late. This is a movie which actually is a real movie, instead of feeling like a movie or being a commercial/stunt/SFX reel. Kudos to especially Oplev, Farrell and Rapace for making a strong, real film about lovable characters.
No doubt the marketing for the film is way off (as an action thriller, as usual) and reveals quite too much. Doesn't matter. "Dead Man Down" is the finest and most meaningful revenge film in years.
Weeks ago we saw the release of two movies: the Arnold Schwarzenegger
actionier "The Last Stand" and the Steven Soderbergh-directed "Side
Effects", which were hugely entertaining by their own rights. The
former was the English-language debut of South Korean filmmaker Kim
Ji-Woon, and the latter was a faithful homage to Alfred Hitchcock and
his techniques for suspense.
Now comes Park Chan-Wook's "Stoker", the second South Korean director this year to make his English-language debut, and a delicious tribute to Hitchcock. Using Hitchcock's "Shadow of a Doubt" as a blueprint, Park and writer Wentworth Miller (yes, that very one) weaves their way through many suspense pastiches, and yet, it is a stunningly effective watch.
Miller's characters are, from the moment we first see them, are not what they seem. Tensions are boiling under the surface. India (Mia Wasikowska) looks completely pale, stares into space chillingly, and is so withdrawn towards certain people after her father dies, that you wish she has a pet.. oh wait, no. Her mother (Nicole Kidman) wonders about her predicament as to why her daughter, close to her father but not her, is so distant away from her that she seeks affection for herself to ease her grief, subtly, desperately. Then into the mix comes India's long lost uncle, Charlie (Matthew Goode) who charms his way into both women's hearts, and his smile and chilling eyes have quite some stories to tell.
The audience today is used to thriller pastiches. They think they know what's going to happen, and they play a guessing game with each other. Park and Miller knows that they think they know, and they turn the tables on the audience, forcing them to think and guess for themselves what exactly will the outcome be. We think we know the characters, but something else is missing. Just when you think you know the shortcut, a detour appears from nowhere. Like a spider weaving a web around its prey, Park and Miller go for the kill.
Wasikowska is good in a departure from her previous roles, as a silent, distant, mysteriously creepy, and yet sombre girl who drifts around looking aimlessly for people to trust, and looking cold while distrusting others. Nicole Kidman is also good as the grieving, desperate mother who looks like she is simmering to a boil. The show belongs to Matthew Goode. His charisma and deliciously creepy performance nails the role. As his "Uncle" Charlie character seduces his way around both mom and daughter, twists and dark plots began to unravel between the trio.
Miller's screenplay is good but not great. It is written well enough, has affection for his characters, and plays a good guessing game with the audience. The film's best aspect is the brilliant direction by Park Chan-Wook, famous for his "Vengeance" trilogy. Park complements the twists and deceit with strikingly beautiful, haunting camera-work and visuals. He even brought his usual cinematographer, Chung Chung-Hoon on this film, and it works wonders. Every frame is beautifully and lovingly crafted, from blood splatter onto white flowes, to flickering lights in the basement, to the meticulous editing by Nicolas De Toth that brings the film to an aesthetic, more sensual level. Complementing these is the music. Oh the music. Clint Mansell, always an interesting composer, again works his way with Miller's material and Park's style and blends the two together with his ominous, brooding and atmospheric score. Credit should also go to the great Philip Glass for composing that beautiful piano solo. Vintage Park Chan-Wook, turning moments of horror and violence into images of stark beauty. On a technical level, the film is brilliant, and gives the film much credit then it initially has.
This is a film that makes you guess what's gonna happen. However, it gives you more than the satisfaction by actually making you think harder. It isn't mind-blowing, but it is supreme, intelligent entertainment, to make your brain do some work. All due praise to Park Chan-Wook for a stunning Hollywood debut and a promise for better things to come.
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