Category Archives: 2014

Movie Review: Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

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I’ve done a complete 180. With The First Avenger and now The Winter Soldier, Captain America has gone from, in my opinion, the most boring Marvel superhero with his own movie to the most interesting. He has impressive strength, speed and agility, but he’s not “superhuman” or invincible like Thor or the Hulk, nor is he aided by impressive technology like Iron Man. He may be the face of American heroism, but the 70 years he spent in frozen limbo has turned him into a vulnerable young/old man struggling to find his place in the new world order.

I was surprised that 2011’s The First Avenger turned out to be such a good film, one that cleverly made fun of the patriotism Captain America stood for while providing well-executed action sequences. That raised the hype for the sequel, and I’m glad to report that The Winter Soldier does not disappoint. With a few caveats, the film is a success, at least on par with its predecessor and ranks a few steps behind the first Iron Man and The Avengers as the best of the whole Avengers franchise.

The story is a natural progression from the events in The Avengers. Captain America, aka Steve Rogers (Chris Evans), is still working for SHIELD as a loyal soldier following the “incident” in New York (as they keep referring to in each post-Avengers film). Following a rescue mission aboard a SHIELD vessel along with the Black Widow, Natasha Ramanoff (Scarlett Johansson), the Captain begins to question the organization he works for and the motives of its frightening new project. It’s the catalyst that puts Captain America on a dangerous new journey of self-discovery that will force him to confront demons from his past and a battle against a new villain, the mysterious Winter Soldier.

The film plays out like it should, with a few minor but not completely unexpected surprises along the way. It’s biggest strength is its ability to mix things up a little so that the film doesn’t simply feel like its predecessor. The modern setting of course helps, but I enjoyed the insertion of new stakes and ideas, including being out of touch with the modern world, dealing with post-traumatic stress, the problems with unquestioned loyalty and pondering whether increased government surveillance is for the safety of the people or to control them with fear. Unfortunately, none of the ideas come close to being fully explored — this is a superhero action blockbuster, after all — but it’s better than not having anything intelligent to say at all.

It’s also great to see Samuel L Jackson’s Nick Fury FINALLY doing something after doing nothing but talk a big game in every Avengers movie to date. One of the best sequences in the entire movie is when Nick is under siege and must pull out all the stops to try and escape death. I also didn’t realise Scarlett Johansson would play such a big role either — she’s essentially the female lead and has the most screen time outside of the Captain himself. And if you think she’s just there for eye candy you better think again, because she kicks ass with the best of them.

There are plenty of other cool positives, such as the presence of screen legend Robert Redford as a senior SHIELD executive, Anthony Mackie as the new sidekick, and a touching sequence where we find out what has happened to Captain America’s first love, Peggy Carter. I did find the addition of Emily VanCamp as Sharon Carter a little jarring, but that’s because I’ve come to think of her as an annoying psycho in TV’s Revenge.

Fans of the comics and the Avengers universe will also be happy to learn that there are many references and hints to other characters who may or may not appear in the franchise in the future. I won’t spoil them (I actually didn’t know most of them) but there are articles which explain for those who want to find out.

I personally enjoy these nice little Easter Eggs sprinkled throughout the film, including a great Pulp Fiction reference right at the end. By the way, I should mention that there are TWO post-credit sequences and you should stay for both of them (I only stayed for one as I didn’t know about the other). One of them ties into the next Avengers film while the only is an epilogue that will no doubt play a role in the third Captain America movie scheduled for 2016.

On the downside, the movie is a slightly overlong at 136 minutes with a couple of unnecessary slow slabs that could have been easily cut out. And while I enjoyed the action scenes I would have preferred less rapid cuts and shaky camera business so we could actually see what was going on. Lastly, The Winter Soldier receives the dubious honour for having the least amount of humour in the entire Avengers franchise. There were a few effective jokes and one-liners here and there, but for the most part the film is incredibly straight, just like its hero.

Overall, this is a highly enjoyable superhero movie and a solid sequel that will ensure that the Marvel money train continues to steamroll everything in its path.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Legend of Hercules (2014)

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First of all, The Legend of Hercules is the Hercules movie starring Twilight beefcake Kellan Lutz, not the yet-to-be-released one with The Rock. Secondly, despite everything you’ve heard about it, The Legend of Hercules is not THAT bad. Its 3% rating on Rotten Tomatoes is misleading because it means only 3 out of 100 critics thought it was a good movie, not that the average rating of the movie is 3 out of 100 (or 0.15 stars out of 5). In truth, The Legend of Hercules is just terribly average and lacking in originality, and likely inferior to that other Hercules movie. But it’s not THAT bad. Really.

Where do I start? In ancient Greece, of course. King Amphitryon (Scott Adkins from The Expendables 2) is the king of the world, but he’s also a selfish, warmongering dude who’s extremely villainous. His estranged wife prays for guidance and “boom”, she’s doing the naughty with Zeus, who is apparently a wham-bam-thank-you-mam kinda fellow. The result is a baby who would grow up to become Hercules (Kellan Lutz).

I’ll stop there, but essentially Hercules is the story of a prophecised half-man, half-god pretty boy who has to find the strength within himself to take on the evil regime of his adopted father and wimpy half-brother while finding time to woo a pretty blonde lady played by Gaia Weiss. Without giving too much away, the film is part Gladiator, part The Passion of the Christ, part Braveheart and part Thor — in that order.

That’s one of the biggest problems with The Legend of Hercules — it feels derivative and lacking in passion. It borrows liberally and shamelessly without putting its own twist or stamp on things. The pedestrian script doesn’t do the film any favours either, but despite the Herculean efforts of director Renny Harlin (Die Hard 2, Cliffhanger) the film can’t quite shake its “cash-grabbing” vibe.

The film was made for US$70 million, which is a relatively small budget for a “blockbuster” like this. And it shows. From the weak special effects (like the bizarrely fake-looking lion) to the overall look of the sets and its visual texture, The Legend of Hercules is lacklustre all over.

To be fair, however, I did enjoy some of the action sequences in the film, both in and out of the gladiator arena. They were well choreographed and occasionally exciting, and it helps that Scott Adkins is a professional martial artist who knows what he’s doing. The scenes of Kellan Lutz doing his best impersonation of Kratos from God of War were fun too.

Speaking of Kellan Lutz, aka “charisma vortex”, it seems more than plausible that he’s the biggest reason the film has been a worldwide flop. He seems like a nice guy and a fine physical specimen who looks like he just jumped straight out of an Abercrombie & Fitch print ad, but it might come as a shock to many of you that he CAN’T ACT.  He has two facial expressions — blank, for when he doesn’t need to do anything, and an ape-like grimace for every other emotional expression. He’s basically the opposite of Daniel Day-Lewis.

I don’t profess to be an expert at judging male aesthetics, but Lutz is also one weird looking dude. There are some angles where he appears conventionally handsome and others where his face looks like an orangutan stuffed into a glass cube. The orange fake tan doesn’t help either.

Still, he’s an upgrade over Liam Garrigan, who plays Hercules’ half-brother Iphicles. Garrigan, I’m sure, is a good-looking man in real life, but here he sports a haircut that makes Tom Hanks’ rug in The Da Vinci Code look like a masterpiece. With a hairstyle like that you might as well have stuck a sign on his head that says “wimpy, gutless, jealous older brother with inferior complex who will die and no one will care.”

Anyway, as much as I have shit all over it, The Legend of Hercules is not THAT bad. For all its flaws, the fight scenes are solid and it’s only a merciful 99 minutes long. If you treat the bad script, bad dialogue, bad haircuts and Kellan Lutz’s performance as comedy, it’s actually not an unentertaining movie.

2.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

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Hard to believe, but Zack Snyder’s 300 was released in 2006. It came out to mixed reviews, but personally I found it to be a revelation, a campy, delightful bloodbath of stylized action and popcorn fun of the purest kind, the closest thing we have to a direct translation of a graphic novel to the big screen. There is also no other film that makes people want to work out more than this one.

There was talk of a sequel almost immediately after it became a big hit, but it has taken nearly 8 years for 300: Rise of an Empire to be made. Any time it takes that long for a sequel to be made (I even remember seeing posters and trailers as long as two years ago), you have to be concerned — is there a reason? Was it a troubled production? Were there financial difficulties?

I have no idea, frankly, but what I do know is that much of the goodwill leftover from the original had just about dissipated by the time this film came out. They left it too long, and fans of the first film had either forgotten how much they enjoyed it or hyped it up so much that the sequel was doomed to unrealistic expectations.

Directed by Noam Murro, 300: Rise of an Empire is not a direct sequel but rather a companion piece that examines events before, during and after the events in 300. There’s no Gerard Butler screaming “This. Is. Sparta!!!” this time, but his wife, played by Lena Headey, is still around looking like she just stepped off the set of Game of Thrones. The two central characters are General Themistocles, played by Aussie Sullivan Stapleton (who was brilliant in Animal Kingdom), and the ruthless naval commander Artemesia, played by the sultry Eva Green. Rodrigo Santoro returns as the God-King Xerxes (the man who killed Butler in the first film) and David Wenham also makes a cameo as Dilios, a survivor from the 300 (the one with bandages around one eye).

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The story is more convoluted that necessary, but essentially it’s all about Themistocles leading the Greeks against Artemesia’s Persian forces. The action is, like its predecessor, bloody and stylistic, with plenty of flying fluids and severed limbs interspersed with rapid and slow-mo mass battle sequences. The distinctive colour tone is again grey with splashes of red and this time blue, and the special effects, though not noticeably improved since 2008, are as good as any blockbuster made in 2014.

The biggest positive about the film, apart from it being ab absolute visual feast, is that it feels like part of the 300 universe without being exactly the same. The films look similar but there are also plenty of differences, with the most obvious being that most of the battle scenes are on the sea, whereas in 300 they are all on the mountains and in the plains. It doesn’t come close to regenerating that freshness of its predecessor but still stands firm on its own.

The cheesy lines are harder to find this time, which is a shame, because it takes a lot of fun out of the film. As for the performances, Eva Green dominates and shines through the gloomy greys. She takes what is otherwise a fairly pedestrian script with a typical baddie and turns Artemesia into a memorable villain; a wild, vengeful nutjob who makes Stapleton’s Themistocles seem boring by comparison. Not to crap on Stapleton, who has already proven to me he can carry a role, but here his character feels sorely lacking in charisma.

At the end of the day, 300: Rise of an Empire is still a fairly enjoyable romp. It lacks the awe factor from the first film but the action sequences are still impressive and Eva Green is fantastic as the psycho villain. It’s a solid companion piece to the original but will likely be remembered as yet another sequel that didn’t really have to be made. Perhaps when another sequel is made (it’s being planned) to extend the series into a trilogy it will be viewed upon more favorably in hindsight.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Non-Stop (2014)

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It’s kind of crazy that we now automatically associate Liam Neeson with action thrillers, but that’s what he’s been giving us time after time since 2008. His latest, Non-Stop, is another solid entry that is, uh, non-stop entertainment from the get-go, and despite its implausibility and flaws, is arguably his strongest effort since Taken, one of the best in the genre in more than a decade.

When director Jaume Collet-Serra teamed up with Liam Neeson in 2011 they delivered Unknown, a fairly interesting action-mystery that kept audiences guessing until it collapsed under the pressure of being forced to provide answers. Non-Stop has that similar semi-surreal feel to it where the mystery is seemingly too bizarre to be real, but in my opinion it is more thrilling, more riveting and more daring, and even though the explanation is expectedly a letdown, it’s actually not too lame, relatively speaking.

Neeson plays Bill Marks, a US federal air marshal battling some personal demons. He is assigned to a flight from New York to London, and shortly after takeoff, begins receiving strange messages on his secure phone line telling him that passengers will be killed unless a ransom is paid. Without divulging too much more, the mystery begins to get stranger and stranger the more Marks tries to find out who is responsible. It’s a classic “locked room mystery” set on a plane, where any one of the 150 passengers — including the pilots, the crew and the passengers — could be the culprit.

That’s the wonderful thing about Non-Stop, which takes full advantage of the situation to deliver clues, red herrings and misdirection at a frantic pace to keep audiences off edge. The script and Collet-Serra’s direction cleverly bring out suspect after suspect, each of whom seem equally capable of being the villain. I would be very surprised if any audience members managed to solve the mystery in advance.

And the action, considering the confined space, is well executed too, gradually ramping up to a climatic finish. There are no breaks in the pace, an impressive feat given the 106-minute running time. The initial scenes are intentionally blurry and choppy so there is minimal set up, and audiences are soon thrust into a white-knuckle roller coaster ride that never stops twist and turning.

Liam Neeson, even at 61, is perfect as Marks and looks like he can still kick plenty of ass for at least another 5 years. I was also surprised at some of the big names and familiar faces in the supporting cast. There’s the always pleasant Julianne Moore as the mysterious stranger in the seat next to Marks, Downton Abbey star Michelle Dockery as his trusted air hostess, Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as another hostess, model Bar Paly as a skanky seductress in first class, and Scoot McNairy (Argo, Killing Them Softly) and Corey Stoll (House of Cards) as suspicious passengers.

With a film like Non-Stop you obviously can’t take things too seriously or think too much, because the moment you do it all starts to unravel. There are about half a dozen problems with the way the plot progressed and the way the characters reacted, just off the top of my head, but I didn’t let them get to me during the film because I was having too much fun going along for the ride.

The dialogue and character interactions are also cheesy and “scripted” in that they in no way resemble reality, but none of these issues are deal breakers either. They serve their minimum purpose so we can get on with what we want to see, and that’s Liam Neeson being a badass.

Ultimately, I found Non-Stop to be one of the stronger action thrillers I’ve seen in some time. It plays to its strengths, shies away from its weaknesses and milks an intriguing scenario for all it’s worth. The unfortunate reminder of topical events (ie, missing Malaysia Airlines flight 370) is of course pure coincidence, but it does make one ponder how secure commercial flights really are in the post-911 age.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: I, Frankenstein (2014)

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I, Frankenstein, or as I liked to call it, I, Frankly-can’t-believe-Aaron-Eckhart-trained-6-months-for-this-shit, is already looking like a lock on my “worst films” list for 2014.

I knew it was not going to be a graphic-novel-to-film masterpiece, but I also had hopes that it would at least provide some solid popcorn entertainment. After all, Aaron Eckhart’s career trajectory has been on quite the upswing the last few years, and even though he’s made some questionable choices (such as Battle: Los Angeles, The Rum Diary and Olympus Has Fallen) over this period, none of his films have flat out sucked saggy scrotums — until now.

This should hardly come as a surprise. It’s hard enough to make a film about Mary Shelley’s classic novel (and we’ve seen some bad adaptations over the years). A film based on a comic that “re-imagines” that classic novel doesn’t really stand a chance. I, Frankenstein makes Van Helsing look clever.

The premise is this. Imagine if Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein was not a novel but based on real events. Then imagine that Frankenstein’s monster, who is immortal, lives on after the events in the book for a couple of hundred years until the present day, and in the meantime learns to be a super awesome demon-fighting warrior. That’s basically it. Well, there’s actually also this long and convoluted back story about a secret war between gargoyles and demons, who want Frankenstein’s monster to unleash the secret to reanimating an army of corpses. I won’t lie; I was confused.

Anyhoo, the first problem with I, Frankenstein, apart from the silly plot, is that it’s kinda boring. Aaron Eckhart certainly tries, though the characters and the dialogue are so trite that it feels like watching bad cut scenes from a late 90s video game. They could have made light of the whole thing and turned it into a semi-comedy fuelled by sharp, witty comments, but everyone in it, including Eckhart, takes themselves so dead seriously that it saps all the fun out of the movie.

The second problem is that for a movie that depends on action to be watchable, the action sequences in I, Frankenstein are over-the-top (in a bad way) and lacking in creativity. Worst of all it’s all destroyed by extremely fake computer graphics that also remind me of late 90s video games. The gargoyles and demons looked like they were cut straight from an animated film and looked unrealistic even amid all the darkness and chaos.

Thirdly, turning Frankenstein’s monster into a superhero just doesn’t feel right. He’s supposed to be hideous — stitched up crudely from an assortment of corpses — but instead we get the chiselled features of Aaron Eckhart and his incredibly ripped body with a few lame scars across his face and body. It’s almost blasphemous.

Speaking of Aaron Eckhart, I was appalled to learn that he trained 6 months for the role. He worked out daily, trained in Parkour and Kali stick fighting and followed a strict diet, all so he could have a about 2 minutes of extremely average-looking fight sequences plus 3 seconds of a topless shot. You can’t fault the dude for his dedication, but boy, it’s hard to envisage a bigger waste of time than that.

All the other performances from a cast dominated by Aussies were fairly uninspired. Bill Nighy plays the villain, and you can tell he’s happy with the cheque but not having much fun. Yvonne Strahovski from Dexter plays a scientist and love interest, while Jai Courtney, Miranda Otto and Caitlin Stasey (from Tomorrow, When the War Began) play gargoyles. Everyone looks embarrassed to be there.

The only positive I can point out is that the film was made in Melbourne, which I suppose demonstrates that Australia is capable of making a relatively major Hollywood blockbuster. It’s just unfortunate that the film they ended up making was I, Frankenstein.

1.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: RoboCop (2014)

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Paul Verhoeven’s RoboCop, made back in 1987, is widely regarded as one of his best movies alongside 1990’s Total Recall and 1997’s Starship Troopers, all sci-fi action blockbusters featuring amazing special effects (for its time) and boasting a sharp satirical edge that made them unforgettable classics. Last year, Hollywood attempted to remake Total Recall (with Colin Farrell in Arnie’s old role) and it was an epic failure. Apart from improved special effects, every aspect of the new film, from the story to the characters to the action, was inferior. Most of all, the charm and wit of the original was all gone.

This year they’ve decided to remake RoboCop, with Brazilian Jose Padilha directing and largely unknown actor Joel Kinnaman (I only knew him as Oliva Munn’s boyfriend) in the title role and a bunch of big names from Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jackie Earle Haley (Rorschach!), Michael K Williams (Omar from The Wire!), Abbie Cornish and Jay Baruchel in the supporting cast. The result this time is a mixed bag. Some might call it a failure too, but there is no doubt that the remake of RoboCop is much much better than the remake of Total Recall.

This time, the story is set in the not-too-distant future (2028, I believe), when high-powered robots made by the wealthy OmniCorp have replaced soldiers in overseas territories with a US military presence. However, robot cops are still outlawed in the United States, OmniCorp’s largest potential market, thanks to a senator played by Zach Grenier (I know him as annoying partner David Lee on The Good Wife). To get around the legal restrictions, OmniCorp CEO Raymond Sellars (Michael Keaton) comes up with the idea of putting a disabled human in a robot, and that’s where Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman), a good cop on the verge of death after being betrayed by corrupt cops, comes in. This is all pretty obvious stuff.

The good news about this RoboCop reboot is that apart from the title, the name of the protagonist and a few key plot points, the film is very different to the original. After all, why remake a movie if it’s just going to be exactly the same? This RoboCop places more attention on the internal emotional struggles of Murphy than the original and spends a lot of time on the course of his development and the logistics of operation, most probably because a big star like Gary Oldman plays the scientist/doctor in charge of the project. In that sense, this RoboCop is a much more personal and serious film, though it doesn’t forget to pay homage to the original through some references such as suit and robot design.

The special effects are, needless to say, impressive, as you would expect from a 2014 film. The action scenes are also well done, though I had expected a little more innovation and creativity as the choreography was fairly standard and contained no particularly memorable sequences.

Joel Kinnaman is an interesting choice for Murphy (especially given that A-listers such as Tom Cruise, Johnny Depp and Keanu Reeves were considered). He seems tall but not really a leading-man type of guy, but neither was Peter Weller (the original). Like Weller though, Kinnaman does have a prominent jaw/lip area and that’s rather important as RoboCop spends a lot of his time with all but that part of his face covered. He doesn’t exude much charisma but does a solid job of playing both the cop and the RoboCop (ie, one with emotion and the other without). The jury’s still out as to whether he’s going to become a bigger star after this.

As for the supporting cast, Gary Oldman and Michael Keaton have the juiciest roles as the sympathetic doctor and the villainous CEO, while it was interesting to see the man who played Omar (Michael K Williams) play a cop instead of a crook. Aussie Abbie Cornish has a thankless role as the distressed and helpless wife, while Jackie Earle Haley is another interesting choice as the commander of the robots given his diminutive stature, but he more than makes up for it with his disturbing versatility. As for Samuel L Jackson, he was pretty much the same as always.

The main problem with the film is that it couldn’t exactly decide whether it wanted to be a serious film or be laced with satire like the original. I’m not saying that the remake had to take the same angle as Verhoeven’s version, and in fact I tend to prefer something fresh. This reboot starts with and features, sporadically, a series of TV segments hosted by Samuel L Jackson that are clearly intended to satirize America’s manipulative right wing TV shows (like those on Fox News). While these segments are semi-amusing and have strong political undertones (though they are nowhere near as good as those in Starship Troopers), they are also completely at odds with the tone and feel of the rest of the film, which is completely devoid of jokes, tongue-in-cheek one-liners and cheesy dialogue. It’s like they wanted to have fun and play it straight at the same time, and the result is confusing and renders the film frustratingly uneven.

I had high expectations for RoboCop and named it as one of my most anticipated movies of 2014 because I loved the 1987 original so much. It’s one of those movies I’ve seen heaps of times and will always keep watching if I happen to stumble across it on TV. I felt there was a lot they could have done with a remake given the advancements in modern technology and medicine since 1987. And I’m not just talking about special effects and character design either. They could have completely revamped the system, introduced some cool new stuff like innovative gadgets or vehicles which would make way for fresh action sequences that would override anything from the original. Instead, apart from showing us how efficient crime fighting would be with all the entire police database and CCTV camera footage in a cop’s head, the film fails to deliver any of those things. On a deeper level, I didn’t expect the remake to recapture the magic of the original, and I didn’t think it had to have the same satirical edge, but I had hoped that it would at least produce some of the same wit. Sadly, it didn’t do much of that either.

That said, if you take RoboCop 2014 as a standalone popcorn flick, it’s actually not bad — maybe even pretty good. The story is still cool, the cast is fantastic, the effects are great and the action is solid. I wasn’t anywhere near bored but neither was I thoroughly entertained like I hoped I would be. This remake is not a worthless one like Total Recall was, though it still missed an excellent opportunity to deliver something truly special.

3.25 stars out of 5

PS: Apparently a Starship Troopers remake is tentatively in the works. I can’t think of a film that needs a remake less than that one.