Director – Steven Soderbergh
Cast – Gina Carano, Michael Fassbender, Ewan McGregor, Bill Paxton, Channing Tatum, Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas
Steven Soderbergh is known for his “one for you, one for me” approach to film making. He’ll do the pop-oriented Ocean movies, but then turn around and do a movie like The Girlfriend Experience or Solaris, which can’t possibly be expected to be blockbusters. I like that approach. It gives him an opportunity to use some top-grade talent and production values in movies that might not otherwise have gotten them.
This one was definitely a “one for me” movie, at least in terms of box office returns, and partly in style. I wonder if the studio thought it would be one for them… It is a flat-out action movie that doesn’t stop for breath, and it has an all-star cast full of upcoming and established stars. So why wasn’t this a blockbuster? Why did it just appear for two seconds on our radar, and then disappear?
Well it’s a bit of a mess. The story is told in a series of flashbacks within flashbacks, and it just confuses the hell out of us. The minimal dialogue doesn’t help either. Perhaps the intent with the flashbacks was to add something to keep us interested, in a movie that is distinctly single-minded. Not a bad idea, I suppose. But what we want to see from this movie is a) Gina Carano kicking ass, and b) all the other awesome actors getting their asses kicked. That would satisfy us, especially coupled with a smart script (which this is, no doubt) and a stylish director such as Soderbergh. But the convoluted flashbacks often leave us wondering who is who and where we are.
Soderbergh is a cold director, or seems to be from the movies I have seen, and a lot of his artsy choices here don’t really mesh with the material. This is a stylish B-movie at heart, and it shouldn’t really be spiced up too much. It loses its edge, and more importantly it loses its focus. This a cup of strong black coffee, but it’s been served to us in a tea-cup. Something is off.
Thankfully the casting director was on her toes for this one, though! Fassbender, McGregor, Tatum, Banderas, Douglas, Paxton. Already I want to see this movie. They are all great, with Ewan McGregor being a stand out as Carano’s slimy boss. I love this guy. I love that he will take on smaller roles, and deliver strong performances in everything he’s in. Perhaps the smaller roles are because he is not as much of a box office draw as he once was, but I’ll see this guy in almost anything.
Haywire is a bit of a missed opportunity. It’s skeleton is a perfectly stylish B-movie, but confusing plot elements and Soderbergh’s impersonal direction threaten to topple the whole house of cards. If there’s anything we need in an action movie its clarity, and we just don’t have it here. We end up with a movie that feels too pulp to be artsy, yet too artsy to be pulp.
Having said that, I am curious to see what this movie would feel like on a second viewing. If we have a grasp on the plot would we be able to appreciate it more? I would argue so. The cast is enjoyable, and Carano certainly impress us with her fight scenes (which are excellently choreographed). I might end up giving this movie a second shot, but I doubt most people would want to. I can give a cautious recommendation as a curiosity, but not much else.
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Agree? Disagree? Feel free to leave your comments below!
Review # 150
Director – Kenneth Branagh
Cast – Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins, Tom Hiddleston, Stellan Skarsgard
– followed by The Avengers
Thor continues Marvel’s journey to the intensely awaited The Avengers. Directed by Kenneth Branaugh (of all people), the movie follows the titular arrogant supernatural being/god as he finds himself banished on Earth after a brash attack on a similarly supernatural group of beings called Jötunn (or “Frost Giants”). To regain his superhuman abilities and the respect of his father, Odin, Thor must find humility and lose his arrogance. Or something like that.
Anthony Hopkins appears as Odin, Colm Feore plays the Frost Giant King, and Stellan Skarsgard mentors Natalie Portman’s young and ambitious scientist. I get the feeling that a cast like this would not have been possible without Kenneth Branaugh’s involvement as director. And seriously, how the hell did they get Mr. Shakespeare to do a superhero movie? In interviews Hopkins and Branaugh constantly mention the “Shakespearean themes” in the story. Well, there is a squabbling royal family, I guess that counts.
Released just months before Captain America, there was a lot riding on the success of the two films. Imagine if they both tanked and hadn’t found an audience, especially as The Avengers had already been started. Hundreds of millions of dollars would have been lost. But it wasn’t that likely, was it. The question remains though, could they find a way to make the films work?
They did, for the most part. Thor finds himself mingling with already introduced characters such as Agent Coulson, numerous references are made to Iron Man and other future Avengers, and the tone (on Earth anyway) is kept as realistic as we have come to expect. There may not be a huge amount of chemistry between Hemsworth and Portman, and the script gives them even less to work with, but it does get by, and in a fairly pleasant fashion.
Thor is best looked at as a part of a whole, that whole being the Avengers franchise. It serves to introduce both the character of Thor and his villainous brother Loki, and also the concept of supernatural beings as superheroes. Up to this point in the Marvel-verse superheroes are the result of serums (The Incredible Hulk and then Captain America), or super-suits (Iron Man), so to introduce gods into the equation seems a little off. All in all the movie meshes itself in well to the established continuity, and that is really all it wants to do. A more unique story would have been welcome, but what we have here is done well.
Thor is fairly unremarkable, though the special effects and most of the visual design is great. The script holds back the movie, which, while solid and workmanlike, likes to dips its toes in the pool of cliché once or twice too often. It is best seen as a build up to The Avengers, and as such it does what it is expected to.
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Director – Neil Marshall
Cast – Michael Fassbender, Dominic West, Olga Kurylenko, Riz Ahmed, Noel Clarke, Imogen Poots, Liam Cunningham, JJ Feild, David Morrissey
Gory, brutal, and bleak, you could say that Neil Marshall’s Centurion is a low-budget Gladiator. It’s nowhere as good as that excellent (no matter what Roger Ebert says) Ridley Scott movie but, frustratingly, it could have been, with a better script. A looser shooting style would have helped as well I think.
The story follows Fassbender as Quintus Dias, a Roman soldier whose group (the legendary lost Ninth Legion) is wiped out in Scotland by the Picts. Well, they asked for it, being part of an invading force after all. Strangely, the movie doesn’t really go into that issue, but just focuses on Quintus and a couple comrades as they try to fight their way to the nearest Roman outpost.
Tracking them is a group of Picts led by Etain, played by Olga Kurylenko (perhaps best known as a “Bond girl” from Quantum of Solace). Etain is a warrior out for revenge, after being raped and forced to watch her family being killed, as a young child. She is a mute, and this seems to have enhanced her other abilities, as her skills stop only just short of a ninja. She is one lethal, ass-kicking babe.
Quintus is not sketched out very well, character-wise, and frankly no one in this movie is. This really affects the movie in a bad way, and is the most obvious problem here. The only reason we are given to care for these folks is to hope that we don’t have to see their heads split open by an axe, or their eyes speared through with arrows. Fassbender is fairly charismatic, to be sure, but I would have loved to have seen more. Some subtle delving into these characters pasts perhaps, (other than sitting around a fire and asking “Where are you from” a couple of times), before the next fight/chase scene. The unsure and clumsy climax doesn’t help much either, though where we end up is interesting.
Not to bash the action sequences, which are generally quite good. Neil Marshall does know how to ratchet up tension, and some sequences are quite tense. One scene in particular had me really paying attention, a scene toward the beginning where Quintus’ fellow soldiers are all massacred. The editing is quick and rhythmic; we are shown quick successions of shots where one impact (usually a killing blow) is delivered. We hear and see one death after another, THWACK, TWACK, SLICE, THWAK. It was unnerving, and very effective.
Centurion has a strange contradiction in style. It has a gritty and brutal production design, with harsh landscapes and tense set pieces; yet the camera work is restrained, even sedentary, with a colour design that can be beautiful, yes, but with an almost shiny sheen, that works to counteract the production design.I would have loved to see this movie shot in the style of films like Children of Men. Less shine, more grime. Less restrained camera work, more “documentary style”. I think that would have helped immerse us in the movie a bit more. Add a stronger script and we’re all set.
Centurion never realizes the potential of its premise, as the script reads like a plot summary, rather than a finished project. The action sequences are entertaining though, and Fassbender makes for a good leading man. Some interesting things happen, but could have been done better. With all things considered Centurion is a missed opportunity, but yet is not quite an awful experience. Recommended only if you are into medieval action flicks. Or Fassbender’s abs… there’s a LOT of those on display!
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The Adventures of Tintin REVIEW
Director – Steven Spielberg
Cast – Jamie Bell, Andy Serkis, Daniel Craig, Simon Pegg, Nik Frost, Tony Jones
I have to admit I was with the movie right up until the half way mark. It was witty, fast paced, and fun. The animation is great, and the style is perfect. We follow Tintin, the intrepid and iconic young reporter, as he races the evil Sakharin to find the lost treasure of the Haddock family. Accompanying him as they battle the baddies is the inebriated Captain Haddock, heir to the lost treasure.
The story of Tintin is both too simple, and too complicated. At heart this is really a chase movie, and should have been left that way; but it is constantly muddled up by scenes which desperately try to catch us up to the story. There’s too much action and very little story, and the details of the story don’t actually make any sense, which doesn’t help. So by the half way point… well, I just didn’t give a damn. Sure it’s pretty. But it loses steam majorly.
On the plus side, (and this will sound strange), it was good to see a kid being shot at. Tintin is quite young, and I was thinking the action and violence would be tamed down, but it wasn’t. He draws a pistol himself very early on in the movie, and I did a fist pump when he did. No kiddy pandering here! Also worthy of special mention is the wonderful team of Nick Frost and Simon Pegg. They have bit parts as a pair of bumbling police, and even reference their Hot Fuzz roles with a line or two.
The very character of Tintin presents a problem… he’s such a friggin boy scout. Jamie Bell plays him with an overbearing innocence and bravery that becomes cloying. He’s a cardboard cutout, with no humor or pathos. Now this isn’t as much of a problem as it could have been, as Andy Serkis more than delivers on the comedy front, and the energy of the action sequences carry Tintin along very quickly. But a bit more personality would have been nice, even if just in the performance.
If Peter Jackson does take up directing duties for the sequel, he would be wise to get a good script beforehand…
The Adventures of Tinin has a good first half, but a repetitive second half that doesn’t clear up some questions I would have liked answered. Frankly, I was bored by the end; an ending which feels very anti-climactic, by the way. The visuals are fantastic, but a better script was needed. It is passable, but nothing more.
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The Green Hornet REVIEW
Director – Michel Gondry
Cast – Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Christopher Waltz, Cameron Diaz, Edward James Olmos, Tom Wilkinson, David Harbour
Acclaimed French director Michel Gondry, whose work spans from the ethereal Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to the decidedly more mainstream Be Kind Rewind, once again has tried his hand at pop filmmaking. The director, known for his stylish visuals, may seem at first glance to be a good match for a fun superhero flick. What we get is actually more in common with Rogen’s movies and sense of humor. What is perhaps more surprising is that these elements are the strongest part of the movie. In an interview Gondry said he approached The Green Hornet as an action film with comedic elements, not as a comedy. Unfortunately the action and most of the superhero elements, when played straight, are quite weak. It’s a shame, too, because Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, and especially Christopher Waltz are very funny.
In general this movie doesn’t try hard enough to be different from the myriad of superhero movies and even basic action movies, that surround it. It never tries to be a parody, and for that I applaud it, but by the last third the movie it forgets its comedic roots (I maintain the movie is a comedy at heart, despite what Gondry says) and gives us one long, generic action scene that at the end is shown to have no plot value whatsoever, as the Macguffin of the scene turns out to be worthless. Pointless…
Christopher Waltz as the villian is excellent here, and does more to “de-construct” the superhero genre than Kick-Ass ever will. His remarks about “branding” himself and becoming more scary were bang on the money, and funny as well.
I guess all in all The Green Hornet could have used a sense of what it was. Is it a comedy based around an action movie or an action movie with some funny bits? Personally I think the former is where it succeeds best, but a bit more focus would have been nice. That, or at least make the action interesting…
The Green Hornet certainly gets an A for effort, but it loses grasp of what could have made it a good movie in the first place. Gondry shows surprisingly little directorial flair here, and phones int he action sequences. It’s a pity, cuz we could have had an excellent little movie here, instead of just a passable one.
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Director – Pierre Morel
Cast – Liam Neesom, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Xander Berkeley, Holly Valance, Katie Cassidy
Taken is a film by French action director Pierre Morel, and starring Liam Neesom as Bryan Mills. The plot is set in motion when Mills’ daughter is kidnapped in Paris. He is told that he has approximately 96 hours to find her before she will vanish into the world of international sex trafficking. Mills, an ex-spy (or ex-CIA/Special Forces, whatever, it’s never explicitly stated) goes on the hunt in a variety chase sequences and martial arts scraps that would almost look at home in a Bourne or Lethal Weapon movie.
This movie has an air of grim determination about it that serves the movie well, and can (at last while watching the movie) help to cover up the huge coincidences and somewhat ridiculous plot points that the movie covers. Afterwards, you may find yourself wondering how some of the events that happened were plausible, or even possible. If the movie had presented itself as a fun action movie with no real purpose it would have been different, but because Taken takes itself so seriously it is a bit harder to look past all the little clichés and coincidences.
However what Taken lacks in originality and realty, it certainly makes up for just by having Liam Neesom in the lead role. Neesom’s seriousness, his slight stoop (which certainly does not suggest an action star), and even his body of work all add up to the impression of a solid main character around which Morel can use all the usual action movie tropes. Unfortunately Neesom had to bring almost all of that to the table himself, because the script really has little characterization beyond “grieving kick-ass father”. Now, having said all this I must admit that there are a couple neat little touches in the beginning of the movie that I quite liked. Neesom is ex-(fill-in-the-blank) and we see him gathering with his friends at a BBQ, and then accepting a little job as security for a pop star at a concert. This makes sense, I thought. What else would retired(whatever-they-were) do for a part-time job?
Taken is quite a cookie-cutter of a movie, but it must be said that it does what it does fairly well. Liam Neesom is largely responsible for the better parts of the film, but the action scenes are executed decently and Bryan Mills’ hunt for his daughter can even be quite thrilling. If you are a fan of action movies you will like this. If you aren’t, well, there are worse ways to spend an hour and a half, but you may want to look elsewhere.
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Rescue Dawn REVIEW
Director – Werner Herzog
Cast – Christian Bale, Steve Zahn, Jeremy Davies, Teerawat Mulvilai, Kriangsak Ming-olo
Rescue Dawn is a fairly decent little survival story from director Werner Herzog. It is based on the true story of Dieter Dengler, a US Navy pilot who crash-lands on his first mission in Laos (as a part of the Vietnam War) and is captured and put in a POW camp. The bulk of the film concerns his plans and finally an attempt to escape. Christian Bale stars as Dengler, and, despite Herzog’s best efforts, the movie comes dangerously close to becoming just another movie where Bale adopts an American accent and drops a lot of weight. The story,while told with sincerity and even some humour, frankly isn’t that different from most POW movies (The Great Escape, etc).
The character of Dengler is optimistic and quite a bit cheerful, even in the worst of circumstances. He firmly believes that he will be able to escape the POW camp and make his way through the jungle. The problem is that we believe him, and thus we feel no real sense of danger when he is in the wilderness fighting to survive or even when sneaking up on his guards after stealing their guns. For example, when Dengler and his friend are escaping on a raft they hear a waterfall. They get quite close to it, finally decide to jump off the raft, and they swim to shore. Cut to the waterfall thundering away as the camera pans down its full length. “Look what could have happened!” Yes, it could have. But we should have been saying “O my God, just think of what could happen!” before we are shown the falls. Instead we just see them doggy-paddling to the shore and congratulating themselves. The escape sequence is essentially just many little vignettes of such scenes.
What Rescue Dawn may lack in urgency and uniqueness it picks up in terms of its visual style and in its depiction of general minutiae of camp life and living in the jungle. We do believe that the characters are going through what they are depicting, mainly because in general they are. The leads all lost between 55 and 35 pounds each, and Christian Bale infamously eats live maggots in one scene.
It is good that the actors had such dedication to the story, but it is unfortunate that the story lets them down considerably. Everything seems taken from the Director’s Guidebook to POW Movies, from the plans to escape and the tension among the prisoners, to the brutal POW guard and the eventual rescue. Herzog really doesn’t do enough to spice these aspects up either, and his earnest depiction of the story can sometimes come across as pandering. Thankfully his long time cinematographer, Peter Zeitlenger, gives us a wonderful view of the jungle, and the realistic camera style helps keep the appropriate tone.
Rescue Dawn gets past its rather average story by the strong dedication of the cast to their characters. All the characters are fully formed (except of course, the “bad guys”, the POW guards), and the cinematography is quite pretty. However the movie feels like it could have been directed by anyone and written by anyone. Werner Herzog’s involvement seems strange, as he is known for rather personal and ambitious movies. This is neither, and with almost no tension created, it is noticeably dry. It is worth a watch for the cast, but not too much else unfortunately.
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The Karate Kid REVIEW
Director – Harald Zwart
Cast – Jaden Smith, Jackie Chan, Taraji P. Hansen, Zhenwei Wang
The 1984 movie The Karate Kid gets an update with 2010’s The Karate Kid. The name stays the same, despite the fact that the actual martial art portrayed here is kung-fu. Jaden Smith, son (and, I suspect, clone) of Will Smith replaces Ralph Macchio as the young student, and Jackie Chan replaces Pat Morita as the patient yet troubled teacher.
The plot deals with Smith who moves to China (due to his mother being transferred), and finds himself being bullied by a kung-fu student in his class. After Chan tries to intervene with the boys teacher, Smith is entered in an open kung-fu tournament as a way to reclaim his honour (or something). Chan takes the boy on and trains him for the tournament.
I must admit to being a little surprised by the movie. It was better than I was expecting. Jackie Chan is very good, every time he is onscreen we watch him. He is a wonderful actor. Jaden Smith is also good, though he does come across as strikingly similar to his father, down to the smallest of mannerisms. However he knows how to create an interesting, grounded character. The opening of the movie is measured and deliberate, paced wonderfully. No shot is wasted, but it doesn’t whip by too quick either. The setup is clean and efficient, as is quite entertaining.
The training sequences of the movie are also quite good. Jaden Smith’s character is a bit of an arrogant prick, and we enjoy watching Jackie Chan take him down a notch or two. The device that replaces the famous “wax on, wax off” is very interesting. We almost believe that this little kid would truly be able to learn what Chan is teaching him.
We do, that is, until the tournament itself . This is unfortunately one of the worst failings of the movie. We have seen what Jaden has been taught, and yet the things we see him do are absolutely unbelievable. The move which replaces the fabled (and made up) “crane kick” of the first film is just laughable in its complexity. It was straight out of The Matrix, and of course, was out of tone with the rest of the movie.
The other huge flaw with the movie is its pace. After the first 45 minutes it starts to drag, and drag hard. I think the movie could have easily lost half an hour without a sweat. The Karate Kid was co-financed by the China Film Group, and as such we are “treated” to lengthy sequences showcasing Chinese monastic culture, the Great Wall, etc. These definitely could have been cut, as with a scene where Chan takes Smith to a monastery which features a spiritual healing well (or something).
The Karate Kid is a movie with its heart in the right place, but unfortunately it is hampered by its extremely slow pace and a couple unbelievable kung-fu sequences. The actors are quite good, but in the end the movie doesn’t quite live up to its premise’s possibilities.
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Robin Hood REVIEW
Director – Ridley Scott
Cast – Russel Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Max Von Sydow, William Hurt, Mark Strong, Danny Huston, Oscar Isaac
Robin Hood is a traditional Hollywood figure, whose story is regularly adapted into feature films, from Errol Flynn’s classic The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) to Kevin Costner’s The Prince of Thieves (1991). Most versions tend to keep to the same rough story, but Ridley Scott wanted to, as the buzzword goes, reboot the story, and take it a different route. When the movie was first announced, rumors said that the story would feature Russel Crowe as both Robin Hood and the antagonist, the Sheriff of Nottingham. Apparently this was changed, as the story now is about Robin Hood (or Robin Longstride as he’s known here) before he is outlawed. Essentially this movie is Robin Hood, Batman Begins style.
Now many people had a problem with this revisionist style. I personally did not, and I actually really liked it. In fact the beginning sequence, with Robin and the English army (led by Richard the Lionheart) attacking a French castle, was quite exhilarating in a messy, grimy sort of way. What got me about the movie was its draggy, dreary, and unfocused feeling. As the movie progresses many plot points of the movie are not presented clearly, and motivations for some characters are muddy. In other words, we see people doing things, then doing other things, without a clear explanation for why they changed their mind or even their allegiance.
The movie does start off well, very well in fact. Russel Crowe looks perfectly at home in a medieval time period, and the supporting cast is decent to very good. William Hurt has always been a capable actor, and Oscar Isaacs as an oily but still surprisingly sympathetic Prince John performs very well also. Cate Blanchett is tough and hardened as Marion, and Mark Strong is a perfect villain. The problem is that most of these characters aren’t utilized very well. This could be because of the size of the supporting cast and the attention each character receives. The characters are stretched too thin, as each fights for more screen time. This merely results in everyone receiving less screen time, and thus, less development.
The second half of the movie features Robin Hood presenting to King John a charter which would guarantee every Englishman rights and freedoms (an obvious nod to the Magna Carta, which the actual King John was forced to sign by his knights years later.) Personally I found this a bit ridiculous, especially as right after this Robin apparently coins the phrase “An Englishmen’s home is his castle.” Why didn’t they have him inventing tea and crumpets and whistling ‘Rule Britannia” while looking over the plans for London Bridge while they’re at it? It felt like Scott was pandering to his audience here, as he was with the final battle also. Rarely have I seen a more clichéd collection of stereotypical battle sequences.
What I truly don’t understand is how Ridley Scott, the director of such good (even great) and unique films as Alien, Blade Runner, Matchstick Men, even Gladiator, can turn out a purely mediocre, and in some ways formulaic, film like this. Has he lost his touch? Does he rely on Russel Crowe too much? This is their 5th movie together, after all…
Robin Hood is a capable enough medieval movie, and starts of well, but soon loses points with its lack of clarity and its dreariness. The cast performs admirably, but cannot fight the directors seeming tiredness. This could have been quite good, but unfortunately barely rises above an average action flick. Then again, it’s better than Prince of Thieves.
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