Monday, 31 March 2014

Homefront

Lowdown: A former DEA agent seeks peace and quiet in a quiet little town, but finds more trouble instead.
Review:
One of my least favourite activities while flying is watching a movie. Not that there are better things to do on board a flying bus, but rather because the presentation an airline can offer cannot do justice to the movie. Exceptions are possible, though: this flight around I had my Shure headphones with me, and they could do some justice to the movie's sound. Thai Airlines, on their side, offer a bigger, higher resolution screen than the average airline. I therefore decided to go with a light film, something there is not much risk of me watching otherwise. I went with Homefront.
Homefront is your average Jason Statham movie. Statham plays Phil, a long haired undercover DEA agent who betrays his "fellow" meth lab colleagues. The police bust doesn't go as smoothly as possible, and eventually the drug baron's son is shot dead by police. The baron promises Phil to avenge his son's death.
Fast forward a few years, and our Phil is now living in a quiet little American town with his daughter, doing his best to get away from his previous life. He even cuts his hair short. Alas, trouble has a way of coming back at him, and things start to go wrong when his daughter beats the school bully picking up on her using Phil grade techniques. The bully's parents aren't happy; they call upon the help of a relative, who happens to be the local meth kingpin (James Franco in a role that totally wastes his talents). Thus our Phil is required to once again show his true grit. What follows is a sort of a shallow version of Breaking Bad.
Homefront's script is so weak and unnecessarily convoluted, it's quite amazing. Characters, such as the one portrayed by Winona Ryder, are introduced for no particular reason; this movie could have managed with half the cast. Everything tends to come down to Statham having to Use the Force to get his way, the right way. However, as nice as the action scenes are, there is never any tension because Statham always wins. He even wins when his hands are tied!
The prevailing state of mind is that of lack of trust. In this town, we are told, people will not accept you for who you are. What an awful message to convey! Homefront is truly going out of its way to give the USA and its inhabitants a bad name. Perhaps it should not come as a surprise to note Homefront's script was written by one Sylvester Stallone.
On the positive side, Stallone left the direction with Gary Fleder, whom I like since the days of Things to Do in Denver When You're Dead. Fleder does not shy from obscuring the action, the way too many directors like to do nowadays, but at least he delivers a flowing film.
Overall: Homefront misses on too many fronts to be worthy of its viewer's time. 2 out of 5 crabs.

Sunday, 30 March 2014

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Lowdown: The little kids from the fairytale grow to become witch hunters.
Review:
There are certain things Hollywood has an abundance of. Budgets and stars are some of those. What it seems to lack is a good idea to base a film on, which is why we often see it lurking around the sewers. Hansel & Gretel represents all of the above; this, however, does not mean it is a bad movie.
The exposition tells us of the story we probably all heard before. The parents of two kids, a boy (Hansel) and a girl (Gretel) have them taken to the forest due to some elusive danger. In their desperation our kids stumble upon a witch who force feeds them with candies, but the kids overcome her and kill her. And now for the twist: years later, our kids are now young adults ( Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton, both blog favourites) whose speciality is hunting down witches for money, tag team style.
Which is where our film actually starts. A small medieval town is haunted by witches (led by another blog favourite, Famke Janssen). The witches steal most of the town's kids for their sinister plot. In desperation the mayor calls Hansel & Gretel, despite the advice of his sherif. The pair is up to the challenges, both those imposed by the witches and the sheriff, but they will also learn a thing or two about who they really are in the process. And in order to make sure us viewers do not entertain the thought of incest between our two sexy leads, Renner is even awkwardly arranged with a romantic interest of his own (adding a bit of sex to the movie's overall coolness).
Story is but a side dish in Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters. It's all about witch hunting done cool, and it is in this department that the film excels. Do not expect much logic here; our heroes will find a gatling gun and even some holly hand grenades if that's what it takes to kill a witch or a flock of them. Thus we are open to pretty cool action of the type that made me fall in love with From Dusk Till Dawn several decades ago. Things don't make sense, but things are fun. If you're up to some entertaining entertainment, look up to Hansel & Gretel.
Overall: Silly, but I loved almost every minute of Hansel & Gretel. I suspect the people making this movie thought the same. 3.5 out of 5 crabs.

Monday, 24 March 2014

R.I.P.D.

Lowdown: A policeman killed in the line of duty gets a second chance at restoring law and order.
Review:
When we hear of comics based movies we automatically think superheroes. It's a knee jerk reaction type thing caused by years of film studio based training. However, there is more to comics than superheroes, and some times one of those gets its break to the big screen. R.I.P.D., or Rest in Peace Department, is one such case, based on a Dark Horse comic.
We follow Nick (Ryan Reynolds), a police detective, as he is betrayed by his partner (Kevin Bacon) during a police raid and shot dead. Only that he doesn't: he gets to go to a sort of a heavenly limbo, the Rest in Peace police department, that's in charge of ridding our earth from the dead creatures coming back to haunt it. There he is partnered with a western era law enforcer, Roy (Jeff Bridges). However, while the relationship between Nick and Roy develops along lines well established since Lethal Weapon, Nick is more interested in providing closure to his mourning girlfriend. As it turns out, his interest in his girlfriend, his treacherous ex partner and his current line of duty all line up. Now it's up to our dead detective to save the living.
The last thing one can say about R.I.P.D. is that it's a serious film. R.I.P.D. is fun from start to finish, a movie that clearly goes for the bizarre humour at every opportunity (check out the way our two dead detectives appear to the living to see what I'm talking about). It is also clear the actors had much fun with this one, specifically Bridges. To him R.I.P.D. must have represented an opportunity to divulge into his country music hobby and murmur unclearly for the duration of an entire movie.
Short and sweet, R.I.P.D. is an imaginative take on a familiar formula. It is not the most exceptional movie ever, but it definitely is fun.
Overall: I'd love to see more comics like this brought over to the big screen. 3 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Olympus Has Fallen

Lowdown: A former Secret Service agent is the only thing that can save the White House and America entire when the North Koreans take over the president's home.
Review:
Die Hard imitations come a dime a dozen nowadays. Olympus Has Fallen is another Die Hard wannabe, and yet another one of the breed that takes itself far too seriously in the process.
The exposition has the USA president's (Aaron Eckhart) most loyal Secret Service agent, Mike (Gerard Butler), failing his boss. Not in the boxing ring, where he lets the master use him for target practice, but rather when the president's car slips over an icy road and he rescues the man instead of the First Lady (Ashley Judd, whom I haven't seen for a long while, making a very short comeback). Mike moves on to leave the president's service.
Not if North Korea can help it, though. On the day the leader of South Korean comes to meet our manly president at the White House, the northerly neighbours manage to sneak into Washington a Hercules gunship packed with guns and ammunition. All the defences, from ground to air missiles to the latest fighter jets, won't do before Washington is devastated. And while everyone is distracted by the aerial assault, a group of northern commandos invades the White House to take control of its bunker and assets, president and bunker included. The only one who notices this taking place is our Mike, and rest assured - he will not rest until he creatively kills every last invader to restore former glory to his former place of work.
Couple the above with a Morgan Freeman portraying the Speaker of the House that takes the keys of the USA when Numbers One and Two are taken captive, as well as a Cerberus secret system designed to prevent the false detonation of American nuclear weapons but having a major weakness that no one other than the North Koreans managed to figure out, and what you have at hand is not only an overlong sentence but also a grotesquely overcomplicated movie with far too much bullshit for an aware viewer to accept without ridicule. You will probably be entertained as you go along, with Butler moving from one crisis to another, killing one baddie after the other as he progresses through the White House in that now familiar Die Hard fashion towards the bigger boss fights; but between the unashamedly unlikely premises, the Cerberus bullshit and the amount of cliches that Olympus Has Fallen packs up, no sane person can sustain this one without a good laugh. Not a laugh with the film, but a laugh at the film.
Seriously, isn't there a limit to the number of times we can watch the American flag waving around, either being tattered by baddies or being restored to its former glory by our glorious heroes? It seems like Americans, for whom this crap is undoubtedly aimed, have a problem figuring out that it is not this piece of sheet that matters but rather the values it is supposed to stand for. But when these values narrow down to feelings of supremacy and xenophobia, the result is bad. Very bad.
I guess what I'm trying to say here is that Olympus Has Fallen is just another movie from director Antoine Fuqua (Shooter).
Overall: Entertaining yet totally pathetic. 1.5 sarcastic crabs out of 5.

Monday, 17 March 2014

Dirty Wars

Lowdown: The USA is fighting a war that's kept deliberately hidden from the public.
Review:
Dirty Wars is a documentary that made enough headlines to both win an Academy Award nomination and get me to watch it. Its premises are simple: the USA is fighting a war that the public does not know about. The story is told from the mouth of the investigative reporter narrating this documentary, Jeremy Scahill.
Indeed, even though the filmmakers know exactly what they want to tell us, we follow Scahill's chronological journey and learn things as this investigative journalist exposes them. Essentially, starting off from some mysterious shooting incidents in Afghanistan we sale through what turns out to be a war fought out of the public's view by an American military organisation reporting directly to President Obama. The key point? By waging war out of the public's sight, the public loses its ability for oversight. Thereby we are unable to determine whether this is a war that can be won, or whether fighting this war is beneficial to the public in the first place. Scahill is raising the same argument raised with regards to the Israeli Shin Bet and its war against Palestinians, as discussed in the documentary The Gatekeepers: that by continuing to wage this war, we are only making it harder for us to resolve the actual conflict; yet by keeping the conflict out of the social debate, we are not allowing any option other than the ongoing fighting to have its go.
Clearly, Dirty Wars' message is important. We should not find ourselves surprised about us fighting a war; going to war is one of the most important decisions to be made, and therefore it should be debated and brought to the public's attention. Yet I have to say that as important as the message is, I did not particularly like Dirty Wars; I think it fails some basic documentary rules.
First there is the matter of accuracy, or at least perceived accuracy. One needs to trust a documentary with the facts if one is to accept its messages, yet Dirty Wars seems to deliberately confuse things and argue that the USA got itself embroiled in Iraq before it did in Afghanistan. Wrong; Afghanistan came shortly after September 11, with Iraq joining in later.
Then there is this whole style of storytelling, where we learn things slowly instead of being told what's going on much faster and discussing what we learned the rest of the time. Thus Dirty Wars can be annoyingly slow, delving into the sleep inducing/boring realm way too much as it "discovers". Coupled with an annoying music soundtrack, this is not a pleasure to watch masterpiece.
Overall: Should I score Dirty Wars by the importance of its scoop or by its cinematic failings? I'll go half way. I'm giving it 3 out of 5 crabs.

Tuesday, 4 March 2014

Home Alone

Lowdown: A boy is challenged by being left alone at home during Christmas.
Review:
I have a bit of a loaded history with 1990's Home Alone. Way back in the early nineties there was a movie that got me hooked on being able to watch at properly at my home with all the glories of its glorious sound design. That movie was Terminator 2 (aka T2), and the perspective of time makes the lengths I went through in order to achieve that goal seem insane. I bought myself an entire laserdisc based home theatre system out of my then meagre salary just so I could watch one movie "the right way".
Anyway, as the story goes, I got my laserdisc player together with a copy of T2. Alas, that player turned out to be faulty; it scratched all the discs it was playing. By "all" I mean the T2 laser I kept watching again and again. Thus, after a three day weekend, I had to return the player and the now damaged disc to the shop. Given that those were the days when putting one's hands on a copy of a movie was a pretty tough call, the shop did not have another copy of Terminator 2; as far as I know, no one had one in the whole area. The only other laserdisc they did have in stock was Home Alone.
And thus I ended up with Home Alone along with a new laserdisc player. Since Home Alone is nothing like Terminator 2 I couldn't really stand watching it; it did not take long before I exchanged it with another laserdisc (Alien 3, I believe; it took several months before fresh copies of T2 became available).
I got to become a much mellower person through the years, learning to be able to appreciate movies even if they do not feature a Harley chasing down a semitrailer that's chasing down an off-road motorcycle down a canal. This past Christmas we saw a clip from Home Alone on TV; my son loved it, so we gave the movie a go. Hell, back in the nineties I had no idea what Christmas was all about; at least now I know what they mean when they say that "Home Alone is a Christmas movie".
The premises are famous by now (hence the numerous sequels): a naughty boy (Macaulay Culkin) is accidentally left alone at his home while his family goes to a French vacation. The family is unable to quickly rectify its mistake, so the boy gets stuck at home, alone, for Christmas. During those holy days the boy learns to appreciate his family, now that they're gone, while the family learns to appreciate how much it loves its boy, as naughty as he is. The catch? Our boy has to defend his house from a couple of burglars (Jo Pesci and Daniel Stern) who seek to take advantage of a neighbourhood emptied for the holidays to make their killing.
Home Alone develops slowly along familiar Christmas and family themes. I will grant it: it is a very effective family Christmas film that can be enjoyed even by the likes of yours truly, a fellow who could not care less about Christmas traditions given him growing up with none and his general views on matters of religion.
When all is said and done, though, Home Alone is remembered for two things: Culkin's groundbreaking performance, a child proving able to carry an entire film upon his shoulders (a feat subsequent movies by director Chris Columbus in the Harry Potter series failed to achieve). The second is, of course, the collection of hilarious action scenes that conclude the movie as the boy defeats the thieves in various ingenious ways. Let's be honest: Christmas movie or not, these are the scenes everybody remembers Home Alone for.
Overall: A nice film for the right family holiday mood that's made even better by the action at its end. It's a pity that action takes its time to materialise and that it doesn't last half as long as it should, though. 3 out of 5 crabs; I like it, but I still think T2 is leagues apart.

Monday, 3 March 2014

Gravity

Lowdown: An astronaut trapped in the depth of space fights to return back to earth.
Review:
There's a special corner in my home theatre for director Alfonso Cuarón. Not because of I think his Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban was the best movie of that series, but rather because his Children of Men is the movie I generally consider the best I movie I got to watch for the first time during the life of this blog. He sure took his time before making his next movie with Gravity, though! I guess there is a limit to how much one can sustain oneself out of Centrelink allowance.
Jokes aside, with all of its success you could say I was eager to watch Gravity; on the other hand, several sources I hold in high regard condemned the movie due to its lacklustre physics. The question, therefore, is which way Gravity gravitates to: is it the wow film some people say it is, or is it the scientific atrocity others claim it to be?
What Gravity most definitely is is some sort of a science fictional take on authentic, contemporary, space escapades. The story revolves around three characters only, all of which are astronauts brought to orbit with a space shuttle (aren't these out of service?) in order to fix the Hubble telescope. Amongst these three we have mission commander Matt Kowalski (George Clooney) and a specialist that's generally out of her waters in space, Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock). As it happens, the Russians decide to knock off a satellite of theirs, triggering an explosion that kills most of the space shuttle crew and leaves Matt and Ryan at wits to come up with a way to return back to planet earth, home, alive.
Several elements are immediately obvious with Gravity. If Children of Men captured me with its sophisticated, complicated and lengthy shots, then Gravity takes things up a notch. Every shot is a work of art, and even the gravity-less environment of space will not stop Cuarón from curating his complicated visuals. To those visuals we need to add sound, which - against the well established trends since the original Star Wars - actually do pay homage to the silence of space. This does not mean, however, that Gravity is a silent movie; there is plenty of room for sound effect still, and well coordinated music fills up any residual gaps.
The next element worth mentioning is the acting. Gravity is a relatively short film, at about an hour and a half; the bulk of this hour and a half is filled by Bullock's presence and mostly Bullock alone, a rare treat for a female character. Not only does Bullock step up to the challenge, she absolutely flourishes; if you ask me, her performance is vastly more captivating than Cate Blanchett's in Blue Jasmine. Not that I think too highly of the Academy Awards in the first place (and not that I do not think highly of Blanchett's performance).
The next, and probably last thing I would like to discuss, is the symbolic nature of Gravity. Sure, this is a movie set in space. However, between Ryan's fish out of water behaviour and her gradually revealed back story, one can clearly identify Gravity as the story of a person coming to terms with harsh reality to stand up and face it head on. Space, in this case, is just a sophisticated metaphor. And what a sophisticated metaphor it is!
When examined from the metaphor's point of view, the whole inaccurate physics affair does not matter much. Or rather, it matters just as much as the scientific accuracy of a children's bedtime story matters: sure, it can teach us a thing or two, but fidelity is not the key point.
With that in mind, can I claim to be entirely awe struck by the visuals, the story and the acting, to the point of forgetting the physics? No. I was distracted and I kept getting distracted. For a start, this whole "explosion in space that knocks another orbital craft off" thing is more than a bit sus; add to that the "explosion circles the earth to hit us back every 90 minutes" and you move from the very unlikely to the total bullshit department. Put on enough incidents that made me think along the lines of "oh, I don't think things would really work this way in space, but then again what do I know" and I found myself dedicating too many thoughts to the realism or lack of it to be distracted.
I can conclude by observing two problems with the realism department. The first is that one can only figure out the symbolic nature of Gravity at the movie's very end, long after the distractions took place. And second, these distractions do stand up for themselves given the movie's significant efforts for realism in other departments (such as the previously mentioned sound design).
But perhaps I'm making too much of a fuss here. When all is said and done, Gravity is a masterpiece. It's one of those rare but important science fiction movies that penetrate far beyond the borders of the genre. In other words, this is the type of movie I like the most.
Best Scene: The scene where Ryan tells Matt how she lost her child is not only a key scene to the understanding of Gravity's symbolic nature, it is also a wonderful piece of direction and acting. This must have been a tough shoot!
Overall: Alfonso Cuarón, you did it again - scientific distractions or not. 4.5 out of 5 stars.