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Saturday, 31 January 2015

REVIEW - TED (2012)

Directed by: Seth MacFarlane
Written by: Seth McFarlane, Alec Sulkin, Wellesley Wild
Starring: Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Seth MacFarlane
Music by: Walter Murphy
Release date: June 29, 2012


When Ted was released in mid 2012, it proved to be one of the biggest comedy hits of recent times. It become the highest-grossing R-rated film in its genre, raking in an impressive box office gross of $549 million with its modest $50 million budget, and spawning a sequel set to release later this year. It's not really any surprise that it ended up being a hit: it has an appealing and fairly creative central premise, and is the feature directorial debut of Family Guy creator Seth MacFarlane, who also co-wrote the script and voices the titular character. Ted clearly rode the waves of MacFarlane's popularity in the world of animation, ensuring that it would be very hard for it to fail. But the question is, was Ted's success actually warranted?

John Bennett is a lonely eight-year-old boy, shunned by everyone who isn't related to him by blood. When his parents buy him a new teddy bear for Christmas, he makes a very special wish: that his bear could actually talk to him, so they could be best friends forever. John gets his wish, and by means of a "Christmas miracle", Ted magically comes to life, with the abilities to talk, think and feel. Twenty-seven years later and Ted has become a phenomenon. People love him. John on the other hand (Mark Wahlberg), looks physically different, but inside he is essentially still a child, and is still just as attached to Ted as he was all those years ago. If John has any intention on moving ahead with his life, he'll have to save his talking teddy bear from the clutches of an obsessive super-fan who wants to buy Ted for his son, and simultaneously find a way to move forward with his girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis), which he may not be able to do as long as Ted remains.


Even if you aren't overly familiar with MacFarlane's work, it's very clear to see that his fingerprints are all over this film. A few actors from his shows make appearances, and his distinctive brand of humour is utilised here (except without the rigid, repetitive animation and constant cutaway gags, for the most part). It's no secret that Family Guy and American Dad have proven to be controversial in the past, and in a few instances MacFarlane's content has veered dangerously close to crossing the line, but there's nothing outrageously offensive in Ted. With that being said, it does of course contain jokes centred on race, rape and misogyny, and it's unabashedly idiotic, crude and politically incorrect. Some of it is actually pretty hilarious - a particular cameo comes to mind, among other things - and there's definitely no shortage of quotable lines or memorable moments, but then some are in slightly bad taste, and other jokes misfire (the incessant pop culture references are also driven into the ground a tad). If you've had issues with this kind of risque subject matter in the past, Ted isn't going to do anything to change your mind, but you would have to have no pulse to not at least get a few chuckles out of it.

Performances are serviceable across the board, but Ted is (predictably) the best character of the lot. It's never dull watching him interact with anyone or anything - whether he's going for a job interview or even just doing everyday human-y things like driving a car. He's also extremely convincing as a CG creation, and while the cuddly demeanour may have something to do with it, Ted actually comes off as an endearing and fairly reasonable guy/bear, even if he does have a tendency to get high while watching SpongeBob and has a near-identical voice to Peter Griffin (although that aspect of the character comes off as more curious than bothersome). He's also the one unique thing that makes sure the film isn't merely a formulaic exercise in narrative cliches, and by the end you might start feeling for him more than you probably should.


Ted's plot is not interesting, its third act feels like disjointed padding, and there isn't much to say about the rest of the characters themselves. Its character relationships are a bit more effective: John and Lori are a believable couple who, chances are, you'll find yourself rooting for. Even if it's not by particularly much, you should find yourself actually giving a damn, and coming from someone who normally couldn't care less about these things, that's saying something. MacFarlane's motion capture work as Ted has also proven to be a great asset, ensuring that the relationship between John and his teddy bear comes off as effortlessly natural, and you actually feel it when these childhood friends break apart and eventually get into fisticuffs, which surprisingly (and thankfully) don't last as long as any of the giant chicken fights from Family Guy.

Ted seems to have something to say through its thematic elements regarding friendship, growing up and letting go. These aspects do give the film a fair amount of heart that somewhat balances out the vulgarity, but they're also quite thin, so you're not going to be thinking about any of that by the time you get to the credits. There is nothing profound or particularly imaginative about Ted. But then again, if you're interested in this film, you're probably not looking for anything like that.


You are watching Ted to see Ted. He's the selling point here, and you shouldn't be interested in this film for any other reason than to see a teddy bear do amusing things that it normally wouldn't. At the end of the day, you could easily just sit down and watch a few episodes of Family Guy and laugh just as much - if not more - if you're a fan of the show, that is. Because really, this is little more than an excuse for MacFarlane to deliver his wise-ass remarks on a larger scale. But if that sounds appealing to you, then you're in luck. I'm weary of the sequel due to the fact that this film sometimes struggled to make use of its feature-length runtime (which shows that Ted probably would've worked better as an animated series with a 23-ish minute episodic format like it was originally supposed to be), but nevertheless, it certainly offers a solid amount of laughs, which is all it aims to do, really. Plus it's the only live-action movie out there that has a rebellious anthropomorphic teddy bear as its titular character, so there's that.




Friday, 16 January 2015

REVIEW - OCULUS (2013)

Directed by: Mike Flanagan
Written by: Mike Flanagan, Jeff Howard
Starring: Karen Gillan's American accent, Brenton Thwaites, Rory Cochrane
Music by: The Newton Brothers
Release date: April 11, 2014 (United States)


No, it's not a virtual reality gaming headset that will probably fall by the wayside after a few months: it's something a bit better. Oculus is bizarrely produced by WWE Studios (I didn't even know that was a thing) and directed by Mike Flanagan. Based on his acclaimed short film released in 2005, it's a low-budget $5 million effort that - thank God - isn't a found footage movie - but a psychological horror/thriller film that debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2013, and was released to general audiences throughout early-to-mid 2014.

Oculus tells the story of two siblings - Kaylie (Karen Gillan) and Tim (Brenton Thwaites), who have reunited after a long absence apart due to a family tragedy. After just being released from a psychiatric hospital, Tim is ready to start a new life, but Kaylie has other plans. She believes that the tragedy they had experienced was due to supernatural causes and holds a reluctant Tim to a pact that they made years ago as children, so that they can destroy the antique mirror in their family home that might just be responsible for their suffering.


Karen Gillan is certainly making a name for herself rather quickly. The young Scottish actress has gone from damn near nothing but Doctor Who to psychological horrors, blockbuster juggernauts like Guardians of the Galaxy, and an upcoming Western thriller where she'll star alongside big names such as Ethan Hawke and John Travolta. If you're used to watching her as Amelia Pond then you might find her American accent a bit droll here, but her character is somewhat unique as far as horror heroines go. She's exceptionally determined and on the edge of sanity, yet more headstrong than her brother and Gillan gives an impressive performance, so much so that she somewhat overshadows Thwaites. Although that's not to say he isn't capable. In fact, the cast is great across the board (even the child actors).

Good thing too, because Oculus is largely a departure from the tired jump scares and poorly-written gorefests that pass for horror movies today, and that a fair amount of audiences seem to crave. 

This may be the umpteenth horror film about mirrors, but Oculus avoids predictable tropes. Absolutely nobody in this film goes to the bathroom, washes their face and finds a nice surprise when they look up at their reflection. Instead it holds itself in higher esteem focusing on very well-executed scenes of tension, characters that you actually care about, and fairly creative storytelling. And while it might not be outright terrifying, it does have some inspired moments, dark imagery, and the ability to be very creepy. It's essentially one big mind game that, at first, seems like it's graduated from the Batman Begins school of storytelling by peppering itself with flashbacks here and there that give you vital information when needed, and then as the film goes on (the climax is where things really start happening), they start to blend with each other and it frequently alternates between two timelines: Keylie and Tim during their current time as adults, and when they were children. These moments put you in the characters' shoes and twist your perceptions of what is and isn't real. But while they interlink seamlessly, Oculus demands more of its audience than most horror movies do and things can get quite confusing, so don't expect to be spoonfed.


Oculus also benefits from a relatively inexperienced yet proficient director/writer with a clear love and understanding for the horror genre. Mike Flanagan's filmography is quite bare when it comes to actual theatrical releases, but his 2011 indie horror "Absentia" was generally acclaimed (unless you're one of those strange people who counts IMDb as an accurate ratings source) and won a sizeable amount of Film Festival awards. His script (thankfully) takes advantage of the fear of the unknown and leaves certain elements ambiguous to the audience that become increasingly morbid the more you think about them, and a lot of elements are very rooted in human nature and what it's capable of when pushed to the brink. Oculus' menace generally comes from the thick atmosphere and suspense that Flanagan has created, and as far as the few jump scares in the movie actually go, they don't feel cheap because the reasons they're effective are due to clever camerawork and the lack of a typical shrieking musical cue. 

But that's not to say Oculus is perfect. As great as she is, we can only watch Karen Gillan rapidly feed us information through monologues for so long, and while it is good that the fear of the unknown is utilised here, there's a slight lack of inconsistency regarding what the mirror can actually do and sometimes its power seems just a tad overblown. And the ending is brilliant, but it raises one or two issues that are very hard for me to even hint at without giving anything away.


The horror genre hasn't given us many "classics" in recent years. Oculus isn't exactly the gamechanger fans were and are still waiting for, and I sincerely hope it doesn't become a franchise (because we all know how horror movie sequels turn out), but if you count it as a 2014 release, it's one of the few entries into the horror genre during that year that hasn't completely crashed and burned. It's defiant, intelligent, and simple yet rooted in eerie complexity. Just stay away from the trailer. It gives away what is arguably the best scene in the entire film.




Wednesday, 14 January 2015

REVIEW - RESIDENT EVIL (2002)

Directed by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Written by: Paul W.S. Anderson
Starring: Milla Jovovich, Michelle Rodriguez, Eric Mabius
Music by: Marco Beltrami, Marilyn Manson
Release date: March 15, 2002


It's pretty safe to say that video game movies are cursed. Despite the fact that there are oceans of franchises out there with unique cinematic potential, an above-average video game movie has still never seen the light of day (sorry nostalgics, but there is no way you can say with a straight face that the first Mortal Kombat movie is actually good). Resident Evil is a genre-creating legend in the world of video games, and its first live-action adaptation has spawned an absurd number of still-ongoing sequels and has gained something of a cult following. But in terms of its actual quality as a movie, how does it hold up?

A deadly virus has permeated a secret facility called "The Hive", transforming its staff into flesh-eating zombies. An elite military unite is sent in, and they meet the Alice (Milla Jovovich), who is suffering from amnesia due to exposure to nerve gas. The military and Alice embark on a mission to stop the virus from escaping its confinement and spreading across the entire world, but to do so they'll have to fight their way through hordes of zombies and stop the out-of-control supercomputer, The Red Queen.


Despite its theatrical release at the turn of the new millennia, Resident Evil is very much a product of the 90s. It's full of annoying ineffective jump scares, and it's loud and violent, attempting to pacify its adolescent target audience with an emphasis on the "cool" and "edgy". All while accompanied by an intrusive and sometimes out-of-place soundtrack partly composed by Marilyn Manson, and a nice angsty Slipknot song playing through the credits that ensures the nu-metallers have their fill.

When you look past the legions of flesh-eaters this isn't a zombie movie, but a more of what a heartless 90s remake of Aliens would look like. Except the title would supposedly be "Zombies". Or maybe not, because they never actually refer to them as such.

There's a scene featuring Alice fighting off a number of infected dogs, yet all you see is one or two quick flashes of the bullet hitting its target, and the rest is just made up of shots of her firing her gun at something that we can't see. Another scene - which is one of the very few entertaining parts of the movie - features a fairly creative character death, in which one of the military team is sliced into cubes by a laser net. Yet, for some reason, the bloodier moments appear out of focus. For an R-rated movie trying its hardest to appeal to the lowest common denominator, Resident Evil is surprisingly and unnecessarily shy when it comes to showing the gore. Certain scenes of zombie mayhem are also ripped practically shot-for-shot from Day of the Dead (1985), and the zombies themselves are never used effectively, making the whole thing feel mundane and uninspired.


Alice is our protagonist, but only because the movie says so. While Milla Jovovich isn't quite as bland as most of the cast and Michelle Rodriguez is still a cooler action star than most of her male peers, Alice doesn't do a lot other than walk around in little-to-no clothing and occasionally shoot things. I'm also 98 percent that certain her name is never uttered once throughout the entire movie, and even though she has amnesia, she's still apparently capable of remembering how to jump off a wall to kick a zombie dog in the face in slow motion. Amnesia should only be used as a plot device if we're actually going to discover more interesting things about the character as he or she does herself, but by the end of the movie, the payoff is nonexistent. She remembers a few things here and there due to pure coincidence, but you still don't really know her when all is said and done.

While Resident Evil does sport a fairly slick look with some polished-looking sets, I'm going to give that credit to the production design team rather than director Paul W.S. Anderson, who should quite honestly be in some other section of filmmaking, if at all. His chaotic direction is thoroughly flawed - offering nothing more than some passable action sequences - and his filmography is sizeable yet the best thing he's churned out is probably the Mortal Kombat movie - which is nothing more than cheesy, dumb fun (emphasis on "dumb" here) - and the rest consists of first-class duds such as Alien vs. Predator, and an abundance of terrible video game adaptations including this movie, its five sequels, and DOA: Dead or Alive. Nevertheless, quite a few of his movies have developed cult followings, so he must be doing something right... I suppose.


But Resident Evil is not one of them. I like to think of this movie and those of its ilk as necessary evils before video game adaptations actually prove that they can be something of worth, but nevertheless the characters are wooden, the plot is wafer-thin, the dialogue is awkward, it bares very little resemblance to its source material and it is irksomely self-assured. This is nothing more than mindless fodder for bloodthirsty teens, who would be better off playing the games if they want relentless zombie action. At least there you can do the shooting yourself.





Tuesday, 13 January 2015

REVIEW - WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT KEVIN (2011)

Directed by: Lynne Ramsay
Written by: Lynne Ramsay, Rory Stewart Kinnear
Starring: Tilda Swinton, Ezra Miller, John C. Reilly
Music by: Jonny Greenwood
Release date: 12 October 2011 (United Kingdom)


If you're a mother unsure about whether or not you want to have children, then congratulations. This movie is your outright worst nightmare. Based on a 2003 novel by Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin is simultaneously a psychological thriller and a horror story, that explores the less glamorous side of motherhood.

Eva Khatchadourian (played magnificently by Tilda Swinton) is a haggard zombie desperately trying to prevent her life from falling apart. She has become a meek and fearful woman, forced to take whatever lackluster job she can get as she's ignored and hated by almost everyone around her. Prior to all of this, her life was exactly how she wanted it to be, but a horrifying incident changed her life forever. The catalyst: her son, Kevin (Ezra Miller).


This is a complex piece heavy on symbolism - some of which is pretty excessive and in-your-face - but most of Lynne Ramsay's direction is subtle, and she demonstrates a penchant for incorporating strong motifs and foreshadowing while strictly following the rule of "show, not tell". From the very beginning there's a never-ending abundance of red symbolising Eva's unwavering guilt, and the audience is left to connect the dots themselves, as the whole movie is played in a non-linear order, like fractured segments of Eva's tormented mind. There's the life she wants, and then there's the life she has.

Kevin is played primarily by Ezra Miller, who is mesmerising in the role. While you might slightly hate yourself for taking a bit of a liking to Kevin due to his somewhat charismatic qualities and snarky remarks, he's a diabolical, sadistic, practically Satanic - albeit intelligent - little monster, but his dark side is only visible to Eva. Kevin's father, Franklin (John C. Reilly), thinks he's a little angel. At a younger age Kevin deliberately soils himself to watch his mother squirm, and shows signs of sociopathic behaviour. Throughout his entire life he devotes himself to making his mother's life as hellish and unbearable as he possibly can. But the character portrayals here are not as black-and-white as they seem.


She tries to be loving, but it is evident from the very beginning of her pregnancy that Eva is heavily unconnected to her child. She sits in a apathetic trance while every other woman proudly displays and raves about their new tots, and - free-spirited as ever - she tells a young Kevin that she was happy before he came along, and that instead of changing his diaper, she would much rather be living it up in France. While it's entirely possible that there is no reason why Kevin does what he does, Eva's troubles with Kevin could quite possibly be the result of her unwillingness to accept the responsibilities of maternity and her incompetence as a mother. She absorbs society's feelings towards her, and in her mind, she's more of a villain than Kevin is.

But that's not to say she's a straight-up felon. Far from it. She may not have any particularly desirable qualities, but you feel for her. She's restricted by the necessities of life, just the wrong person with the wrong child at the wrong time. Kevin on the other hand, is completely helpless. From birth he's had defective morals and, since his father sees him as heaven-sent and he has his mother wrapped around his little finger, he's never had any discipline. One of your biggest lingering questions while watching this movie may be why Kevin is how he is. That question is barely ever addressed until the very end. This movie treats its audience with just a bit more respect than most of its ilk, that would most likely incorporate a scene or two with a GP or a school therapist. But even when the source of his malfunction is addressed, it isn't in the conventional way. This movie explores the worst-case scenario of motherhood, a central theme that parenting can quite possibly be a one-way path to destruction. To be honest, when you really get into the meat of it, it's kind of depressing. One viewing could permanently wipe the smile off of a nine-year-old on Christmas morning (not that you should be letting any nine-year-olds watch this on Christmas in the first place). But the issues it addresses are real. It boldly tackles the uglier side of parenting, and the hidden horrors that it could potentially bear. It's bitter food for thought.


We Need to Talk About Kevin is not for the mainstream viewer, and I'm sure there are some out there who will find its audacious content offensive or distasteful. But this is a movie strictly for those who seek more from their moviegoing experiences than simple entertainment. It's not without its somewhat minor imperfections, but it's beautifully made: drenched in foreboding, impeccably paced, driven by two spellbinding central performances, and quite literally gripping from beginning to end. Just don't watch it with your kids. 





Thursday, 8 January 2015

REVIEW - THOR (2011)

Directed by: Kenneth Branagh
Written by: Ashley Edward Miller, Zack Stentz, Don Payne
Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Natalie Portman
Music by: Patrick Doyle
Release date: May 6, 2011


Thor was an important step in Marvel Studios' quest to world domination. Iron Man had already won his way into moviegoers' hearts and set the stage for a shared universe, and the God of Thunder was Marvel's first venture into the unknown with a built-in fanbase. With an inspired choice for director in one of the Bard's best buddies, Kenneth Branagh, and considering moviegoers' current appetites for superhero movies, Thor seemed set for victory. But is it a thundering success, or does it deserve to be smitten?

Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is arrogant, irresponsible and impatient. In wanting to ascend to the throne of Asgard, his reckless actions of disobeying his father (Anthony Hopkins as Odin)'s wishes and causing strife between Asgard and their enemies the Frost Giants, causes him to be banished to Earth and stripped of his power. In Thor's absence, his silver-tongued brother Loki (Tom Hiddleston) usurps the throne and sends dark forces to Earth, with further plans to overtake Asgard.


Thor is arguably at its best during its first thirty minutes. Almost everything in the first act is stellar. Once the obligatory introductory voiceover is out of the way, we're introduced to a shiny, regal new world, great production values and art design, and a strong and appropriately majestic score from Patrick Doyle, all while the seeds are planted for rich Shakespearean-esque elements such as sibling rivalry, family betrayal and a plot to overthrow the King to unfold. And who knew Kenneth Brannagh could do action? The fight scene with Thor, Sif (Jaimie Alexander) and the Warriors Three (Joshua Dallas, Ray Stevenson and Tadanobu Asano) against the Frost Giants probably could've benefited from some better lighting, but it's exciting to watch and fairly creative, plus it's the only time you really get to see Thor let loose with his hammer. And while most of the following action scenes are solid, they never really live up to this one. 

Thor is banished to Earth around the half-an-hour mark (convenient how he ended up on our planet out of all the possible choices), and it leads to mixed results. The majority of the movie is spent here, and we're introduced to scientist/Thor's love interest, Jane Foster (Natalie Portman), her father figure Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Darcy Lewis (Kat Dennings), whose character is unnecessary, as she's only really there to occasionally be funny in a movie that's already quite funny to begin with. Thankfully Dennings is a lot more bearable here than she is in the sitcom Two Broke Girls which she's most well-known for, although that series' failure is more attributed to its dull and painfully hackneyed writing more than anything else. Selvig isn't particularly interesting - although there is an amusing scene featuring him and Thor boozing it up at their local bar - and while Portman's performance is as good as you would expect, don't expect any Black Swan-esque drama here. The relationship between Thor and Jane is as token as they come and the only apparent reasons she falls in love with Thor are because he displays his Asgardian Abs™ to her shortly after they meet, and he's hot 'n' stuff.


The Earth setting also makes way for quite a few jokes that give Thor its sense of fun and lets you know that it doesn't take itself too seriously. A lot of them are hilarious: "this mortal form has grown weak... I need sustenance" is the only way you should announce your thirst after watching this movie, and Thor being unable to grasp Earth customs and tossing a bunch of hospital nurses around the room for daring to attack the son of Odin is just great stuff. Some of the gags are also more than just a bit of comic relief, as they simultaneously serve to tell the audience more about Thor as a character. But with that being said, some of the comedic elements slightly overstay their welcome at times. The Earth setting is also arguably unneeded, at least at this level of prominence. Its implementation and the incorporation of more relatable elements are understandable as the source material is quite "out there", but at the same time, some of the sets look tacky, and what we saw of Asgard at the beginning seemed much more interesting. You don't have to play it so safe to be successful anymore. The highest-grossing movie of all time was almost entirely set on an alien planet where everyone was blue.

Nevertheless, the Earthbound elements do benefit Thor in some respects, namely in how its main narrative focus is Thor having to overcome the more undesirable aspects of his personality, learn humility and become a hero. Its framework ensures that the movie is able to run along smoothly and allows it to cut down on the exposition, which is always a plus. It's also enjoyable to see Thor's character grow and evolve throughout his journey from a bratty, hotheaded jock - albeit a fairly likeable jock - who lets his emotions get the better of him, to a more humble and honourable person (even if his arc is decidedly basic and he only undergoes any sort of change because he spent a long weekend with Natalie Portman).


The strongest aspects of this movie are the characters of Thor and Loki. Both of them battle for the approval of their father, but Loki has felt unappreciated and overshadowed by his brother his entire life. While watching movies like The Avengers, it's easy to forget just how much of a complex and believable character Loki can be. Maybe he could've been given just a bit more screentime, but Hiddleston absolutely smashes every scene he gets, and goes a long way towards making Loki a real character and not just a villain for the hero to scuffle about with. Chris Hemsworth also fits the role of the God of Thunder like a glove, and nails every aspect of his character, particularly the dramatic moments. It's great to see from someone who was previously unproven as a leading man.

The Asgardian elements and sibling rivalry also shows just how perfect Kenneth Branagh is for this kind of material. His input here is essential, as his knowledge and experience when it comes to the tradition of ancient pantheons comes across well, and the very human motivations of Thor's godly characters gives Branagh some strong and familiar material for him to sink his teeth into. 

However, the inhabitants of Asgard are a mixed bag. The aforementioned Warriors Three are all very underdeveloped and don't do much. Idris Elba doesn't get a lot of screentime as Heimdall, the Gatekeeper of Asgard, but he does make every scene count, and is not only an intense and imposing presence with his booming (yet... strangely soothing) voice, but there are surprising flashes of hidden layers to the character that will hopefully be explored a bit in future. Anthony Hopkins is a brilliant choice for the Allfather Odin, even if he does tend to chew up the scenery a tad, but there is one massive flaw concerning his character, and that is the concept of the "Odinsleep". Odin is little more than a walking plot device, who spends most of the movie's runtime in a coma so that things can go wrong. If you're familiar with the lore, you'll know that in the comics the Odinsleep is necessary so that Odin can regenerate and renew his powers (although it's still a plot device). But if you're not, then good luck figuring this stuff out, because the movie never explains it to you. The guy literally keels over out of nowhere and gets up just before the finale is over to save the day, and the movie expects you to just roll with it. The general audience - who are the vast majority of the people that will be seeing this movie - will never know why.


At the end of the day, Thor only really exists to set up The Avengers and isn't going to blow you away, but make no mistake, it's definitely an enjoyable romp. It is quite flawed: it suffers from variably successful character relationships, there never seems to be much at stake and overall it's just too unexceptional to warrant any particularly strong opinions on either side of the spectrum, but its strong central characters and entertainment factor ensure that it can still be worth your time. If a fun little medieval-styled coming-of-age story sounds like your cup of tea, then look no further than Thor.




Tuesday, 6 January 2015

REVIEW - WAY OF THE DRAGON (1972)

Directed by: Bruce Lee
Written by: Bruce Lee
Starring: Bruce Lee, Nora Miao, Chuck Norris
Music by: Joseph Koo
Release date: 30 December 1972


Way of the Dragon (or Return of the Dragon, if you're one of those 'Muricans) is probably one of my favourite martial arts movies of all time. Is a fairly sizeable part of that due to this being the movie in which Bruce Lee fights and kills indestructible meme godfather Chuck Norris? Possibly, but nevertheless this culture clash action-comedy is a special entry into Lee's unjustly short filmography, as this is the only one that he starred in, singlehandedly wrote and directed, not including from his unfinished final work, Game of Death.

Chen Ching-hua (Nora Miao) and her family members are being harassed by an unnamed local mafia boss (John T. Benn) who wants their restaurant property in Rome. Chen refuses to sell, and the boss sends a group of gangsters to discourage customers from visiting the restaurant and ruin their business. Chen receives help in the form of Tang Lung (Lee), a martial artist. When Lung proves to be a huge threat to the gang, a feud erupts between the two sides and reinforcements are sent in to dispose of him.


Way of the Dragon was never intended to be distributed internationally (that worked out well). This is definitely the most light-hearted in Lee's filmography: between the slightly exaggerated performances and Lung constantly asking where he can find the "shitter", it's full of strange and sometimes childish humour. Most of it works, although at certain times you might be laughing at how unusual the jokes are, as opposed their actual comedic effectiveness (Lee had no plans to release this movie to the West as he believed that they would miss some of the jokes specifically targeted to Asian audiences. Admittedly, some do make more sense after a bit of research). Nevertheless there's some amusing dialogue - although I'm sure that different subtitle tracks vary as to what the Asian cast is actually saying - and Paul Wei is hilarious as Ho, an outrageously gay interpreter for the gang. The action scenes in Way of the Dragon are actually quite few and far between, but every one of them is remarkable and the wait makes not only the fights, but also the entire movie all the more satisfying. Plus, during the period in which this movie was released, martial arts outings were largely stern and straight-faced, so it's refreshing to see something that actually wants you to crack a smile every now and then. Jackie Chan, eat your heart out.

While the quality of the cast's performances vary - John T. Benn is asleep through the whole thing but Miao and Wei, both usual stars in Lee's films, are solid - everyone unsurprisingly pales in comparison to the main attraction. Bruce Lee is an absolutely magnetic screen presence when he gets the fists flying and the chicken noises going, knocking down every line of opponents like dominos. He's so commanding and intense that there may as well be nobody else onscreen, and he also displays some great comedic timing along with some competent directorial skills, which undoubtedly would've grown even stronger overtime if not given the obvious circumstances. His character Lung is an unusual fella, a manchild from Hong Kong with a love for his native land and a serious lack of knowledge regarding basic human psyche. But never mind his various quirks and abnormal toilet habits, the guy can kick some serious ass.


When it comes to Way of the Dragon nobody ever seems to mention Joseph Koo's score. Perhaps understandably, as it is somewhat typical of your average 70s martial arts movie, but certain pieces are just pleasant to listen to, especially one slightly overused yet amusingly juvenile-sounding track with its vintage and sometimes jazzy qualities. Lee himself also collaborated by playing percussion on certain tracks.

Despite a surprising yet unnecessary twist towards the end that doesn't really amount to anything, the plot is very simple and barely ever progresses throughout its 99 minute runtime. Regardless, its relative playfulness and accessibility ensure that it remains enjoyable throughout. Besides, if you're here for filmmaking prowess instead of Bruce Lee laying down the hurt, you're clearly in the wrong place. Speaking of which...


Chuck Norris (in his feature-film debut, save one very minor uncredited role) only actually comes in during the last 25-or-so minutes of the movie, when he, along with a Japanese martial artist, is brought in by the mob to take down Lung. I'm not sure why the guy's so incredibly hairy - maybe it was fashionable at the time - but the fight between him and Lee has to be one of the greatest, and certainly today, one of the most iconic fights in martial arts history. Aided by a brief yet entertaining warm-up sequence, where Lee gets to show off his astounding ability to transform his scapula bones into something resembling camel humps, the fight is incredibly tense and sophisticated with an enormous amount of energy emitted from the two fighters, and some inspired choreography, particularly on Lee's side. It may not be as stylish as many fights showcased today, but this showdown is the culmination of Lee's extensive martial arts wisdom and unparalleled dedication that made him a legend, and there are no wires or artificial acrobatics. This is the real deal.

Way of the Dragon is a simple and entertaining ride sprinkled with displays of extreme fighting virtuosity throughout. It's one of Lee's finest works and is worth a watch just for his immeasurable charisma and the final battle. One could only imagine where he would be now. Whether he'd still be displaying his practically superhuman abilities by performing moves too fast to be caught on camera or taking a more restrained position in a director's chair, it's very clear that we lost someone special. Such an assertion is somewhat eerily acknowledged in Way of the Dragon's coincidentally fitting final line: "wherever he goes in this dog-eat-dog world... he will be admired by all".



Thursday, 1 January 2015

REVIEW - TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES (2014)

Directed by: Jonathan Liebesman
Written by: Josh Appelbaum, André Nemec, Evan Daugherty
Starring: Megan Fox, Will Arnett, William Fichtner
Music by: Brian Tyler
Release date: August 8, 2014


This movie was never exactly met with great anticipation pre-release. There were so many things against it: Michael Bay and his remake-happy and ingenuity-mining Platinum Dunes buddies were serving as producers, the early leaked scripts depicted the turtles as aliens which enraged fans and contributed to the numerous amounts of rewrites, the new designs were divisive, and Megan Fox - who is so devoid of theatrical talent that even she knows she's never been given a part for her actual acting ability - was in the starring human role. The turtles' cinematic track record is also rocky at best, and with everything else stacked up against it, I would've bet vital parts of my anatomy that this movie would've turned out to be bad. But could there be a chance it defies its low expectations?

The Foot Clan - presented here as a terrorist cult of sorts as opposed to the usual stealthy ninjas - are on an upward rise. Led by the iron-clad Shredder (Tohoro Masamune), they have a tight grip on the city of New York. While trying to find a big scoop in order to be taken seriously in media journalism, intrepid reporter April O'Neil (Megan Fox) stumbles across four mutated turtles - Leonardo (mo-capped by Pete Ploszek, voiced by Johnny Knoxville), Raphael (Alan Ritchson), Michelangelo (Noel Fisher) and Donatello (Jeremy Howard) - and their sensei, a humanoid rat with a Fu Manchu mustache named Splinter. And then there's some convoluted backstory involving the turtles having magic plot device blood and April's father making them what they are today, all of which is a complete waste of time and frankly doesn't make a lick of sense.


When the oodles of poorly-written exposition aren't being shoved in your face, TMNT struggles to stand on the quivering legs of a paper-thin plot that oddly has nothing to say regarding themes or characters. This may be an outing for the young'uns, but in an age where we have kids movies with real brains from the likes of the Toy Story franchise and The LEGO Movie, such minimal effort is inexcusable. The script is lackluster and relies heavily on coincidences, and what little plot we have here is thrown away in favour of stakes and long action scenes in the second act. A lot of it feels like a mish-mash of various standard superhero movie tropes, and the turtles themselves are hardly integral at all. The movie's fast pacing also never really allows the story to breathe.

An interesting point to make is that if you've seen The Amazing Spider-Man (2012), you've seen about half of TMNT. This movie has some uncanny similarities to Sony's premature reboot of the wallcrawler: it's got a conspiracy about a main character's father, a hidden box full of plot information, and a plan to unleash a harmful toxin from a doomsday device at the top of a New York skyscraper taking place in the climax. Sure, The Amazing Spider-Man was a solid movie, but there are better. Out of all the superhero flicks you could've ripped off, why that one?


Even if Whoopi Goldberg is mildly entertaining, the human characters in TMNT are insipid. Megan Fox may as well be reading out the script in front of her and is predictably dull as April O'Neil, with a complete lack of range and enthusiasm for the project. This version of April is also only out to get the best news story instead of trying to expose corruption, which makes her unlikeable and a hell of a lot less interesting. Considering Fox's past squabbles with Bay that resulted in her leaving the Transformers franchise and ridiculing him in a series of hilarious quotes - including one where she compared him to Hitler - it's nothing short of bizarre that they seemed to have kissed and made up for this movie. Despite his attempts to come off as some kind of wise-cracking ladies man, Will Arnett has no presence as Vern Ferwick and is so void of charisma that Michelangelo acknowledges it, and there's an extremely forced romantic angle between him and April that comes out of nowhere at the end of the movie. Arnett also delivers some particularly drab and unoriginal jokes, which is an accomplishment as a lot of the jokes here fall flat on their faces, although there is one scene that takes place in an elevator which is pretty great. Oh, and April's father is evidently a braindead moron, because anybody who sets his lab on fire with both him and his young daughter still inside of it needs to take some lessons on parenting, or at least basic survival skills.

TMNT went through a series of reshoots due to fan backlash that mostly spawned from the turtles' arch-enemy, the Shredder, being made into a Caucasian male whereas he's usually depicted as Japanese. As a result, the character suffers severely. This Shredder is just a big thing for the turtles to beat up during the climax. Played by Tohoru Masamune, while out of costume the character is a nameless Japanese man who spends all of his limited screentime in the shadows and has practically no background and very flimsy motivations. While in the suit he's a shiny robot-ninja-thing with retractable blades as far as the eye can see. Originally, the Shredder was to be played by William Fitchner, who now plays the uninteresting billionaire Eric Sacks. The changes implemented late in production are glaringly obvious, as despite his supposed status as a secondary villain, Sacks certainly has much more screentime than who we're supposed to believe is the main nemesis here. There's also an attempted "I killed your father" twist which is hilariously ineffective.


For all its sins, there are some areas in which TMNT (mostly) succeeds. Character-wise, this movie's greatest strengths are, quite fittingly, the ones that aren't really there. The relationships between them are unexplored, but the four main turtles are all energetically voice-acted and brought to life with some great CGI and motion-capture performances. They're also more visually distinguishable than before, and while Michelangelo can be just a tad annoying with his constant advances towards April and Donatello is a bit too much of a stereotypical nerd, they're all quite entertaining and fun to watch. Surprisingly, Raphael is the only one who goes through some form of an arc, and is strangely presented as more of a leader than the usual captain Leonardo is. Everyone else's arcs apparently occur off-screen, so Raph will probably end up with the most fans. Michelangelo does look slightly creepy with his big human lips, and while you could probably get away with making Raphael the big guy, the decision to make them all six-foot-tall makes them come off as slightly more imposing than they need to be. Splinter isn't really anything more than the obligatory mentor figure and spends most of his time out of action, but he's performed and voiced impeccably by Danny Woodburn. Also, when he does put up a fight he's notably spry - perhaps even more so than the character is usually depicted - and the filmmakers have come up with some creative and entertaining ways for him to use his tail.

In fact, this movie actually boasts some brilliant action sequences. Despite a few quick flashes of unoriginality, the climax is easily the best part of the movie with its fast-paced snowy mountain chase, and boasts some top-notch sound design. The slo-mo is thankfully used sparingly and compliments the action nicely, long-takes and 360 shots are favoured over quick cuts, and the choreography is fairly inventive. It all looks great and as far as TMNT action scenes go, it's something that's never been seen before.


Brian Tyler's score for TMNT is an unusually mixed bag. Technically it's great and the compositions are impressive on their own, but sometimes it can come across as too dramatic and overly-theatrical, with a bunch of guys urgently chanting in some ominous foreign language. It's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, not Lord of the Rings.

TMNT only exists to pacify nine-year-olds and is not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination, but its fantastic action scenes and entertaining main quartet just about save it from being a true travesty. If you're not a forgiving viewer or a Turtles fan, give this one a miss, but as far as the ridiculous amount of reboots/remakes that come out of Hollywood today go, it's surprisingly not awful, just middle-of-the-road. There's little innovation here, but as a shallow popcorn flick it's fairly enjoyable, and despite this movie not being directed by Michael Bay yet having his fingerprints all over it, it's better than most of his movies. I'm pretty sure there was only one unnecessary explosion in here.