Inferno (2016)


Let’s be honest: No one was really looking forward to Inferno, the latest adaptation of Dan Brown’s “Robert Langdon” adventure series starring Tom Hanks and directed by Ron Howard. Well, maybe except me.

For whatever reason, the Langdon books have not translated well to the big screen. The Da Vinci Code was a relative disappointment given the hype, though I thought—if you could take the preposterousness seriously—Angels and Demons was an improvement and even occasionally exciting. But I knew Inferno was facing an uphill battle because any remaining Da Vinci Code hype had likely evaporated, and the book, which came out 3 years ago (review here), was not as good as its predecessors.

That said, I really wanted to like Inferno. I am still a sucker for adventure thrillers that wove in real history and puzzle-solving, shady government organisations and operatives, and plots that feature intriguing twists and turns.

And Inferno certainly had potential, starting off with a bang by getting right into the heart of the film’s core issue—the overpopulation of the Earth—with snippets of a presentation from Bertrand Zobrist (Best Foster), an extremist billionaire who believes the human race is heading to extinction because population growth is spiralling out of control. Before long, we’re getting horrific images of hell as described by Dante’s epic poem, Inferno, and a Tom Hanks—with normal hair too—who appears to be in the most pain he’s been in since he had urinary tract infection in The Green Mile.

So far so good. In terms of basic elements, Inferno has it all: An attractive woman who decides to help Langdon out (this time it’s the lovely Felicity Jones), a dangerous assassin (Ana Ularu), government operatives you don’t know if you can trust (Omar Sy and Sidse Babett Knudsen), and a shady underground organisation (headed by Irrfan Khan).

As you would expect, Tom Hanks spends much of the movie running around Europe with Felicity Jones, solving riddles and piecing together puzzles while dodging bullets and trying to shake their pursuers. Having learned from the mistakes of Da Vinci Code, much of the exposition (the historical facts and stuff about Dante, in particular) is summarised and explained on the go, so that the momentum isn’t slowed.

And yet, it still feels like there’s a whole lot of expository dialogue all throughout the film. It’s one of those situations where you have two leading experts on Dante who keep telling each other facts they already know about Dante. It’s for the benefit of the audience, of course, but it feels awfully clumsy and trite. Perhaps that’s the fatal problem in adapting all of these Langdon movies—there’s just no way of explaining the most interesting parts of the books in a way that’s doesn’t come across as either boring or stupid in the films.

Furthermore, while some elements from the book have already been streamlined for the film (including the ending), the story is still so outrageously preposterous and filled with plot holes that it becomes hard to take seriously. I was more forgiving in The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons about these sorts of things, but in this film it got to the extent where I couldn’t simply ignore it. The plot was far too silly for the film to take itself so seriously, and that’s why I’ve tended to enjoy the National Treasure films more.

Look, the cast is good, the performances are decent, the production values are solid, and you’ll always get a certain level of quality whenever Hanks and Howard are involved. Unfortunately, I just couldn’t bring myself to like Inferno. While I didn’t dislike the film, it just felt like they were just going through the motions because they were contracted to do the movie. Having been intrigued by The Da Vinci Code and surprisingly thrilled by Angels and DemonsInferno came out as easily the tamest and least inspiring of the trilogy.

2.75 stars out of 5

Sully (2016)


Clint Eastwood. Tom Hanks. Nothing could possibly go wrong.

And seriously, nothing did in Sully, the true story of the US Airways Flight 1549 “crash” in 2009. I’m assuming there are people out there who might not know what happened (you never know), so I’ll just leave it at that.

As the title suggests, the film revolves around the flight’s captain, Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, played by reliable Tom Hanks.  The film is not just a CGI-filled re-enactment of a famous event, but also looks into who Sully is as a person, how he became that person, and the fall out from the incident that changed his life and that of 154 others on board the fateful plane.

Other notable members of the cast include Aaron Eckhart as Jeff Skiles, Sully’s co-pilot, Laura Linney as Sully’s wife, and Anna Gunn (from Breaking Bad) as a member of the crash investigation team. Special mention also goes to Holt McCallany as Mike Cleary, a particularly antagonistic member of the crash investigators who stands out, not as a “bad guy” but as someone who adds a lot of the tension to the drama.

I knew, in the safe hands of Eastwood and Hanks, that Sully was likely going to be a very good movie. Not surprisingly, it absolutely is, with fantastic performances, visually thrilling sequences, and heartfelt drama, but without going overboard in terms of painting Sully as some kind of saintly hero. I was surprised, however, by the structure, progression, and focus of the film—in a good way.

While the incident indeed lies at its heart, the film does not simply set it up chronologically as you would expect, filling up time and dragging it out before a climatic finish. Instead, it cleverly utilises a series of flashbacks and other cinematic devices to gradually build things up a very gratifying conclusion. It was a little slower than I would have liked at the beginning, but Eastwood’s steady-paced storytelling soon began to take effect, and by about the midway mark I was fully engrossed in the story.

The crash itself was portrayed splendidly. I’ll admit that the CGI was not perfect, but even though everyone knew what would happen, Eastwood still managed to create a gripping sequence that had me at the edge of my seat. That’s masterful filmmaking.

The emotional impact of Sully might not be as intense as some of my favourite Eastwood films such as Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Hereafter, and Letters from Iwo Jima, but keep in mind this is also not the same kind of movie. Sully is about a great man and the hope and inspiration he represents, and in my view it’s better and more effective in generating these feelings than Invictus. Not sure if the movie is going to get much love from Oscar voters this year, but I think it could very well be Eastwood’s best film since 2008’s Gran Torino.

4 stars out of 5

Snowden (2016)


I was really looking forward to Snowden for a couple of reasons. First, because it’s directed by Oliver Stone. Secondly, because I’m fascinated by Edward Snowden’s story and feel like I already know a lot about it, and was interested to see what kind of take Stone would have on the man and his story.

Oliver Stone doesn’t always make great movies, but he’s a director who I will always watch because of his track record. And for the record, I quite liked his last movie, Savages. When it comes to grit and drama, there are few American directors in his class.

The verdict? Snowden is a very solid movie, but sadly it’s nowhere near a great one. I might even call it a little disappointing, if only because I was expecting a lot more.

For those who have been living under a rock for the last three years, Snowden is a biographical film about former CIA and NSA contractor Edward Snowden (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), who shocked the world in 2013 when he stole and gave to the media classified documents exposing that the US government is conducting illegal mass surveillance on not just foreign countries but their own people.

The film doesn’t tell us much about Snowden’s birth or family, instead choosing to follow him starting from his early years in the military. I don’t know how accurate the film is when it comes to certain details about Snowden’s character and history, though I wouldn’t be surprised if Stone had made up a lot of stuff (his track record is a little iffy).

In this film, Snowden is portrayed as a surprisingly normal guy (I was thinking socially awkward, reclusive, arrogant). Well, apart from the fact he’s a tech genius. He starts off as a patriot with relatively conservative political leanings, and ends up as a liberal hero some call a traitor to his own country. And make no mistake, Snowden is presented as a hero in the film. I would have preferred some ambiguity because these are clearly some very complex issues here, but it’s obvious which side Stone stands on. That said, I do appreciate that Snowden’s heroic image isn’t stuffed down our throats all the way (at least not until the end).

For what is supposedly a “political thriller”, Snowden is relatively tame in terms of action, and there’s also a lot less suspense than I had anticipated. The film is never boring, but I expected the film to spend more time on how he stole the classified information and how he escaped from Hong Kong to Russia. The latter, in particular, was dealt with rather quickly and without any drama, which I felt was a missed opportunity.

What the film does well is in portraying the relationship between Snowden and his long-term girlfriend, Lindsay Mills, played by Shailene Woodley. It’s a central part of his life and the source of most of the film’s drama. The two of them have surprisingly good chemistry and their performances are elevated as a result.

Speaking of performances, Gordon-Levitt is phenomenal as Snowden. I was one of the many who raised an eyebrow when I heard he was cast, given the seeming lack of physical resemblance. Seriously, I don’t know how they did it, but he is totally Snowden in the film. Apart from getting the voice right, he gets the look right too. There were a few shots, especially in the Hong Kong hotel, where the similarities were stunning. Not sure if Gordon-Levitt will get an Oscar nomination for the performance because the film hasn’t been received that well, though I would certainly not be annoyed if he received the honour.

Apart from Gordon-Levitt and Woodley, the rest of the cast is solid too. Chameleon Melissa Leo plays documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras, while Zachary Quinto and Tom Wilkinson play the journalists who break Snowden’s story. Timothy Oliphant plays a CIA agent, Scott Eastwood is an NSA supervisor, and Ben Schnetzer, the apprentice wizard in Warcraft, portrays a tech wizard this time. The one casting choice I didn’t like was Nicholas Cage, in a small role as a teacher in the CIA, because he’s Nicholas Cage, and it’s hard for me to take anything seriously when I see his face these days. I was also not a fan of Snowden’s CIA mentor, played by Rhys Ifans. The performance itself was fine, but the character was too much of a caricature.

And I don’t know if this counts as a spoiler—it’s not a plot spoiler—but skip this paragraph if you don’t want to find out. Anyway, I don’t like how the real Edward Snowden makes an appearance at the end of the film. Throughout the entire movie he is Joseph Gordon Levitt, but this changes in the final minutes, first with protesters holding photos of the real Snowden, and then the appearance of Snowden himself. It takes you out of the reality the film had built over the last two hours. More importantly, it also reminds you that Gordon-Levitt doesn’t actually look or sound as much like Snowden as you thought he did during the film.

In sum, Snowden gets just a moderately above-average grade from me. I had expected an intelligent, exciting thriller (think Argo) that tackles Snowden’s actions and the consequences of his actions—from the both sides of the debate. Instead, I got a milder, one-sided version that failed to make the most of its opportunities.

3.25 stars out of 5

The Girl on the Train (2016)


There is a girl—and a missing girl at that—but Gone Girl this is not.

I was so looking forward to The Girl on the Train, the film adaptation of the bestselling novel by Paula Hawkins. I heard about the book a while ago and even read the first chapter or two, but my Kindle’s battery died and I forgot all about it until I realised the film was just around the corner. So as I usually do, I decided to just watch the movie version instead.

It starts off intriguing enough: A woman (Emily Blunt) who rides a train into New York for work likes to watch a seemingly happy couple as she passes their house every day. Then of course, something shocking happens, and she finds herself drawn into a missing person / murder mystery that is somehow intertwined with her own history. Like Gone Girl, it has damaged characters, utilises the narrative device of a potentially unreliable narrator, and cuts back and forth in time and through different points of view, gradually piecing together the clues to the mystery like pieces of a puzzle.

Sadly, I would have to call Girl on the Train an average disappointment. I thought I would like it a little more, considering that I had seen some of the lukewarm reviews (just the ratings, without reading anything) and thought low expectations might be beneficial in this case. But even leaving plot holes aside, I found the story—and especially the mystery at the heart of it—very predictable (more on this later), and most importantly, lacking in genuine suspense. This film tried to be this year’s Gone Girl, a deserved smash hit, but was really just a B-grade thriller more in the vein of 2014’s Before I Go to Sleep. That was based on a bestselling book too and starred Nicole Kidman, but it came and went, doing poorly both with critics and at the box office.

As such, The Girl on the Train is a waste of a talented cast that also includes Rebecca Ferguson (the standout from Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation), Justin Theroux, Haley Bennett, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Lisa Kudrow, and the always wonderful Allison Janney, who all deliver quite solid performances.

However, there are just some very fundamental problems with the movie. First of all, the whole “girl on the train” thing is a bit of a gimmick. It sounds intriguing, but is really not much more than a hook lead into the story. It doesn’t take long before the whole train thing becomes an irrelevant part of the story. Moreover, as I understand it, the book was based in London, whereas for the film they switched the setting to New York. And yet they got Emily Blunt to keep her accent and play a British woman. It doesn’t hurt the movie much, though I think a London setting would have suited the overall vibe better.

Secondly, there is a point of view problem with this movie. I’m sure it works better on the pages of a book, because on the screen it struggles to build a proper narrative thread. The story is told from at least three points of view because there are parts of it that Emily Blunt’s character could not have possibly known. Also, it jumps back in time quite often, from several years to a few months to a few days, breaking any momentum in the suspense the film manages to build. So the structure really takes the film away from Blunt’s protagonist, and as a result it doesn’t feel like we are in this mystery with her, trying to figure everything out alongside her. Instead, we’re simply watching from afar as the story feeds us bits and pieces of information in an arbitrary way, making it feel more manipulative. It doesn’t help that there aren’t any particularly sympathetic or at least interesting characters.

Thirdly, the answer to the central mystery is not very hard to guess. I would be very surprised if more than half of the people who watched it didn’t figure it out at least an hour away from the ending. A lot of it has to do with the script, but some blame also needs to go director Tate Taylor (The Help), who doesn’t offer enough red herrings and suspects to mislead the audience. There just aren’t many alternate possibilities to explain what happened, especially because you know the most obvious answer in such movies are almost always wrong.

Nonetheless, I wouldn’t called The Girl on the Train a terrible film. It’s not poorly made and the cast and performances are pretty good. But it’s just an uninspiring adaptation that fails to bring out whatever it is that made the source material “the novel that shocked the world”.

2.5 stars out of 5

Don’t Breathe (2016)


Man, it’s been way too long since I’ve posted a review, so I’m going to try pump some out before the backlog gets even more out of hand (it currently stands at 51). Fortunately, I’ve got a good one to kick things off: Don’t Breathe, an original, terrifying thriller/horror by Fede Alvarez, the dude who did the Evil Dead remake in 2013. It may be one  of the tensest experiences I’ve had in a cinema in years.

The premise is so simple: Three youths living in Detroit like to make money from breaking into people’s houses and stealing their stuff. They hear about an easy score — a blind old man (Stephen Lang) living alone in a deserted neighbourhood who supposedly has a large amount of money stashed away. But of course, the kids get a lot more than they bargained for because this old man is not as weak and vulnerable as they think he is.

Let’s get right down to it: Don’t Breathe is INTENSE. The title is apt because you (almost) find yourself holding your breath along with the protagonists. Fede does a fantastic job of mixing it up — you get well-executed jump scares, of course, but there’s also a lot of incredibly nerve-wracking moments where you can see everything that is going on, plus a nice sense of claustrophobia and terrific use of silence. I was on the edge of my seat pretty much from the moment the kids enter the house until the end of the movie.

Surprisingly, there is not a lot of blood or gore in the film. I had been expecting torture porn to some extent, but for the most part, the film doesn’t try to gross you out. Instead of revulsion, it gets to you through primal fear. And personally, I prefer this method a lot more.

What is interesting about the film is that it turns the typical home invasion premise on its head. You’re usually supposed to sympathise with the people whose home has been broken into, and you cheer on the homeowner(s) when they finally give the invaders a taste of their own medicine at the end. Don’t Breathe somehow makes you sympathise (well, at least empathise) with these kids while making you afraid of the homeowner. And that’s not an easy thing to do. Fede gives us a few small scenes and interactions at the start of the film to help us become acquainted with the kids and their personalities, and it’s done well enough that we actually hope nothing horrible happens to them.

I was also worried about struggling with my suspension of disbelief (I mean, how hard is it really for three people to steal from a blind old man?) but such concerns were unfounded. Fede throws a lot of subtle little things into the movie to make the story believable, making things that are supposed to work to the kids’ advantage work against them instead. It helps that the kids are portrayed as rather scrawny, inexperienced and nervous, while the blind man is freaking Stephen Lang!

Kudos to all the performers too. Lang, of course, is fabulous. The dude not only looks like a tank but also exudes loads of screen presence, which particular helps in this film because he barely has any dialogue. You’d be scared of him too. As for the kids, the only one I recognised was Dylan Minnette (from the Goosebumps movie), who plays the wimpiest one of the lot. The girl is played by Jane Levy, who was actually also in the Evil Dead remake. She’s basically discount Kirsten Stewart, with a little more white-trashiness (if that’s possible). And rounding off the cast is Daniel Zovatto, who I probably saw on TV in Revenge. He adds a nice edge to the dynamic of the trio.

Don’t Breathe does spiral out of control a little in its third act, venturing down a path I didn’t really think was necessary. Even though it’s only 88 minutes, the film actually felt slightly long towards the end because of this, but it’s also because it’s not easy to remain in a state of high tension for so long. I had a really fabulous time with this movie. It’s brutal, relentless and atmospheric, but it doesn’t rely on cheap gimmicks or gratuitous blood and gore to get the job done. It’s rare to see a horror film without supernatural elements that is so simple yet effective. Definitely check it out if you like getting scared.

4.5 stars out of 5

Careful What You Wish For (2015)


I was a little concerned I didn’t have enough material for my list of worst movies of the year, and so I decided to watch Careful What You Wish For, an “erotic thriller” about a teenager (Nick Jonas — apparently he was in some boy band with his brothers) who gets more than he bargained for during his summer vacation when he enters into an affair with the trophy wife (Australia’s very own Isabel Lucas) of a grumpy middle-aged douchebag (Dermot Mulroney). Sounds like Oscar material, right?

Sadly, despite seemingly possessed with all the elements of a terrible movie, Careful What You Wish For won’t be featured on my 10 worst movies list for 2015. I know, I’m as stunned as you are.

The movie starts off pretty much as you would expect. The teenager and his family head to their vacation home and he sees a beautiful woman moving in next door. Some casual flirting ensues and for contrived situations are created to give them opportunities to spend more time together and, most importantly, for the teen to take off his shirt, revealing a buffed bod at odds with his book-loving, virginal persona.

Up to this point, the film is as bad as any B-grade movie you might catch on late night television. It’s an erotic thriller that’s neither erotic nor thrilling. The performances are mediocre even though you can tell Jonas is really trying — Mulroney is clearly in it for the cheque, while it’s kind of sad watching Isabel Lucas relegated to these kind of roles (I think the last two films I saw her in were The Loft and Red Dawn). Perhaps its the Transformers curse. I mean, how many good roles have Megan Fox, Rachael Taylor and Rosie Huntington Whiteley had since?

Somehow, however, Careful What You Wish For redeems itself a little after a major turn in the story that’s not unpredictable but at least better than what I had been expecting. From there, the plot has a bit more intrigue and stops merely going through the motions. In the end, the film turned out to be a cautionary tale for me — don’t watch a movie expecting it to be one of the worst of the year. Instead, it wasn’t bad enough to be on the list, nor was it bad enough to be in the “so bad it’s good” category. Unfortunately, it was just another typical bad film.

2 stars out of 5

Dope (2015)


I’m certain I’m the first person in the world to come up with this original line: Dope is a dope movie.

Written and directed by Rick Famuyiwa (Talk to Me, Brown Sugar) and starring up-and-comers Shameik Moore, Kiersey Clemons and Zoe Kravitz, Dope is a fresh, smart and energetic coming-of-age comedy about a clever high school senior named Malcolm (Moore) who lives in a run-down part of Los Angeles. While attending a party, Malcolm and his friends somehow get mixed up shootout involving drugs, kicking off a wild adventure full of laughs, wackiness and insights into modern black culture and racial and social politics.

I had a blast with Dope despite going into it thinking that it wasn’t going to be my kind of movie. Famuyiwa does a fantastic job of creating characters we can root for and infusing the narrative with a sense of originality mixed with a retro feel.  The beginning scenes of the film made me think that it was set in the 80s — Malcolm has a retro haircut and listens to retro music and wears retro clothing — but soon you realise that he’s just a geek who appreciates the good stuff.

There’s a sense of craziness  and mayhem to everything that happens in the film, though Famuyiwa never loses control of the material as the story shifts seamlessly between comedy to drama to crime to action to romance. There’s just never a dull moment in this entertaining movie. There are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments and twists and turns in the plot so you never know what is coming next, though things can get a little complicated towards the end if you don’t pay attention to what’s going on.

The soundtrack and the performances are kick-ass. Moore delivers a star-turning performance as the likable protagonist, while Kiersey Clemons is also a standout as his tomboyish friend. She’s set to be in the Flatliners remake next year and DC’s The Flash the year after.

All in all, Dope is intelligent, fun and refreshing. While it’s not without problems, I applaud its ambition, confidence and cheerful, optimistic vibe. I wouldn’t go as far as calling it one of my favourite movies of the year, but it absolutely is one of my biggest pleasant surprises.

4 stars out of 5

PS: I didn’t know this before, but the film is produced by Forest Whitaker and executive produced by Pharrell and Diddy.

The Taking of Deborah Logan (2015)


I’ve got way too many movies to review, so I thought I’d start with the remaining 2015 films first so I can at least fulfill my promise of punching out my Best Of and Worst Of lists.

Kicking off the home stretch is The Taking of Deborah Logan, a recommendation from my sister. It’s a found-footage horror movie that has received surprisingly positive reviews from critics (83% on Rotten Tomatoes, though only from a sample size of 6) but also one few people have even heard of.

The premise is interesting at least — a PhD student (played by the familiar face of Michelle Ang — I had to look her up to realise that she was Cho Chang in the Harry Potter movies!) decides to record the everyday life of an Alzheimer’s patient (Jill Larson). Things start off innocently enough until strange shit starts to go down, and it seems Alzheimer’s might not be the correct diagnosis after all.

The Taking of Deborah Logan is not bad as far as found-footage horror flicks go. There are moments of genuine horror, and the special effects are done well enough (despite the low budget that they don’t stick out like a sore thumb). There’s one image near the end that The performances, especially from Larson, are also unexpectedly decent.

That said, it’s still a found-footage horror movie, and at the end of the day, it’s just a variation of the same old crap. There’s the slow build up, the filler moments, the little scares here and there in the beginning that rely on well-trodden horror tropes, etc etc. And of course, there’s some unnecessary and convoluted explanation for everything and you have an “all hell breaks loose” climax at the end.

While the film is definitely not as infuriating as other found-footage horrors in recent years, The Taking of Deborah Logan still doesn’t do enough to fully separate itself from the pack. A nice premise, a couple of decent shocks and scary images don’t make up for the shittiness of the gimmick.

2.5 stars out of 5

Ben-Hur (2016)


I must begin this review with a caveat: I have not seen the 1959 version of Ben-Hur, which won a record 11 Academy Awards (tied with Titanic and Return of the King for the all-time record), and so I have the luxury of not having to compare this ill-fated remake/reimagining to that film. And what an ill-fated effort this is, earning measly US$23.7 million at the international box office (to date) against a US$100 million budget. It has become the unfortunate poster child of a disappointing summer of blockbuster flops.

In my humble opinion, however, this new version of Ben-Hur is, for the most part, not bad. I was rooting for it to be good while expecting it to be horrible, but for the majority of the 123-minute running time, I found myself pleasantly surprised. Problems aside, this was a very watchable movie fuelled by excellent performances and a couple of spectacular sequences. Sadly — and I’ll get to this later — the ending was one of the worst of any movie I’ve seen in a very long time, and still leaves a very bad taste in my mouth.

Directed by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian auteur who gave us Wanted and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (one of those films everyone hated but I loved), Ben-Hur retells the classic Biblical story of adoptive brothers Judah (Jack Huston) and Messala (Toby Kebbell), who go from best friends to mortal enemies against the backdrop of the Roman control of Jerusalem during the time of Jesus Christ (Rodrigo Santoro). It’s an epic tale of brotherhood, betrayal and revenge, and of course — as it also stars Morgan Freeman — redemption.

As sceptical as I was, Ben-Hur managed to suck me in right from the get-go. Part of it is simply that it’s a great story, though much of the credit has to go to the two super-talented leads, Jack Huston and Tony Kebbell (who will always be Koba to me), who act the shit out of their roles to elevate the film above the quality of the writing. Their chemistry made their brotherhood and friendship believable, and I could see the torment in their eyes when fate tore them apart.

Then there’s the action, which was generally very exciting and well-executed. The highlights are a gut-wrenching sequence on the high seas, and of course the chariot race. Some may accuse those scenes of being too reliant on CGI, but I honestly thought they looked realistic enough to get a pass. Special mention goes to the long shots of landscapes and especially the chariot racing stadium, which have a tendency to look fake in other films but were close to perfect here. If there is a complaint, it’s that the editing was too choppy due to the need to maintain the PG-13 rating. It got so bad that a key moment in the race was lost amid the confusion (I know I wasn’t the only one because I heard two separate groups of people talking about the same thing immediately after the film). I hate it when films undercut themselves in this way.

Nonetheless, the core of Ben-Hur is solid, and if it weren’t for a bunch of nagging problems, the film could have been a contender for most underrated movie of the year. First off, the look of most of the characters don’t feel quite right. There’s just too much of a modern vibe, from their hairstyles to the costumes. And don’t even get me started on Morgan Freeman’s dreadlocks. It was the most visually jarring hairdo in cinema since Tom Hank’s abomination in The Da Vinci Code.

On top of that, the film has a few pacing issues. While it does not feel like a long movie, there are moments where the film sags because it wastes too much time on things that are unimportant. I can’t go into specifics without spoilers, so I’ll just leave it at that.

Finally, there’s that ending. Had the film ended 5 minutes earlier, I would have liked it a lot more. But they had to go and ruin it with a cop-out ending that totally undermined the emotional payoff the film had been building up to for 2 hours. I understand, with the heavy religious undertones (which I didn’t mind), that it was an attempt to deliver a final message. As well-intentioned as it may be, the ending came across as forced and unnecessary. Honestly, it would have been preferable had they just pretended the entire movie was just a dream. It wasn’t just the decision to end the movie in this way either. Even the final scene and song they chose to accompany it irked me — as Donald Trump would say — “bigly.”

On the whole, however, I would still say Ben-Hur is a better movie than I had anticipated. It’s hard to get the bad ending out of my head, but there are enough positives to this remake to render it not a complete waste of time. I’m glad I saw it despite the negative reviews.

3 stars out of 5

Jason Bourne (2016)


He’s back!

No, not poor Jeremy Renner, but the original and still the best: Matt Damon. And of course, nearly just as important, director Paul Greengrass (who helmed the second and third films in the franchise, The Bourne Supremacy and The Bourne Ultimatum). The dynamic duo said they probably weren’t going to make it and they didn’t need to make it, but they made it anyway ($$$). And so we have Jason Bourne.

This time, the eponymous protagonist (Damon) stumbles onto a secret about his forgotten past thanks to former CIA agent Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles), and is forced back into the game he tried to leave behind. Pursuing him this time is new agency hotshot Heather Lee (Alicia Vikander) and head honcho Robert Dewey (Tommy Lee Jones), with a super assassin (Vincent Cassel) thrown in for the fun of it. It’s more or less the same type of film as its predecessors, with tense spy sequences, loads of destructive action, chase scenes, and gritty, brutal close-rang combat. Everyone’s get a secret agenda and it’s up to Bourne to find out what the heck is going on, or at least beat the crap out of everyone trying to do it.

To be honest, I’ve never been a super big fan of the Bourne series. I’ve watched all of them and enjoyed them to varying degrees, but this is not a franchise that gets me particularly excited, and I tend to forget about them pretty quickly after I walk out of the cinema. I only had a vague recollection of the history of the character and this latest entry didn’t do a whole lot to jog my memory. That said, Jason Bourne is solid entertainment. Damon and Greengrass are just too good for this cash grab film to suck.

For starters, there’s the action. There are some really fantastic set pieces throughout the film, including a chaotic, super-intense riot sequence at the beginning that hooks you right into Jason Bourne’s world. There’s also a wild car sequence at the end and some bone-crunching hand-to-hand fight scenes that kept me at the edge of my seat . Greengrass shows that great action isn’t simply about loud noises and blowing things up, but through use of smart camera angles, timely cuts and measured pacing.

Then there’s Matt Damon, who is, as usual, wonderful. It has been said that he has something like 20-30 lines throughout the entire movie, though I wouldn’t have noticed had you not told me. He simply embodies the character of Jason Bourne through his demeanour and mannerisms. His resting badass face, his strut — everything he does in this film tells you he knows exactly who the character is.

The rest of the cast is solid too. Vikander, despite a shaky attempt at an American accent, delivers a multi-faceted character who can seem vulnerable one second and frightening the next. Tommy Lee Jones, whose face resembles a rubbery Halloween mask of Tommy Lee Jones’ old face at this stage, lends his gravitas to the role of nasty government official, while Vincent Cassel offers a nice contrast to Bourne by being a different kind of assassin — slick, sinewy and calculated — but just as deadly. Special shout out to Riz Ahmed as a tech billionaire with a pivotal role in the film. There’s not a whole lot of screen time, but Ahmed nails every scene he’s in. Seeing how different he is in this film compared to his role in the HBO series The Night Of (a must-watch, by the way) tells me he’s bound for bigger and greater things in his future (he already has Rogue One coming up at the end of the year).

Having said all those good things, I don’t think Jason Bourne is by any means a modern action masterpiece or anything like that. When you break it down, there’s not much of a plot, and no one will be surprised when the central mystery of the film is finally revealed. Ultimately, it’s nothing we haven’t really seen before, and Greengrass seems to be content sticking with what has worked in the past. As a result, Jason Bourne does come across as just another typical entry in the series as opposed to a standout, and as I said earlier in this review, I’ve never been a massive fan of the franchise. However, even an average Bourne film is better than the majority of other action flicks out there, and I appreciate how well it is acted and executed. It didn’t blow me away, but I enjoyed it for what it was.

3.5 stars out of 5