Tag Archives: Ben Kingsley

The Walk (2015)

the walk

To be honest, I’m a little surprised at the overwhelmingly positive reviews received by The Walk, the true-story retelling of Frenchman Philippe Petit’s daring wire walk between New York’s Twin Towers back in 1974. It’s not that the film is bad — it’s just that it had so much going against it.

For starters, Petit’s story was already told in the 2008 Oscar-winning documentary, Man on Wire. Usually when there’s a brilliant documentary on a subject already, especially one mingled with well-received re-enactments, the dramatisation is inevitably compared, and usually unfavourably.

Secondly, Petit is played by American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt. I love the guy and think he’s a great actor, but the self-confessed Francophile is still not French. He apparently speaks fluent French and got the seal of approval from his French co-stars, but of course there will still be those who say his accent (either in French or his French-accented English) isn’t genuine enough.

Thirdly, despite it being the story of a Frenchman, the movie is still made for English-speaking audiences, meaning the majority of the movie will still have to be in English. This means they had to find ways to make the French characters speak a lot more English than they otherwise would, and to some that could come across as forced.

Notwithstanding these disadvantages, The Walk received a scores of 85% on Rotten Tomatoes and 78% on Metacritic, with many praising the performances and director Robert Zemeckis’s ability to create and build tension when the majority of audiences already know the outcome.

I agree that Zemeckis and Gordon-Levitt both did a fantastic job of dramatising the true story. Petit is a likable protagonist, a dreamer with dreams of grandeur, and his journey is craftily developed, with energy and thrills, to make us care about him and his plight. I was worried that the film could be boring given that it is largely focused on the Twin Tower walk, but it does a good job of not making it feel like the process — of scouting the premises, finding the right people and equipment, evading authorities and ensuring safety — was merely time filler before the climax.

And yes, the climax is an impressive piece of modern-day movie wizardry, much longer than one would expect and filled with more tension than I had imagined. There is of course ample CGI in all their aerial scenes,  and fortunately the special effects are realistic enough — for the most part — to not take you out of the moment.

Having said that, I personally felt the disadvantages I listed above did take away something from the overall experience. I haven’t seen Man on Wire, so I can’t compare, so my main qualm about the movie is the fact that they are forced to speak so much English. The idea is that Petit is trying to learn English for his Twin Tower walk, so he says it as often as he can, but I can’t help but think of it as a little contrived. I understand the delicate balance between appealing to English-speaking audiences and authenticity, though in this case I feel authenticity took a big hit.

The other problem is of course the sense of inevitability that comes with a true story. You know he’s going to end up walking on the wire, so everything that happens beforehand, as well done as it is, doesn’t quite have the same intensity. And I’m also terrified of heights, but the scenes of Petit walking the wire didn’t scare me as much as I thought they would. I don’t know if it’s because of some minor, almost unnoticeable flaws in the CGI or because I know the outcome — either way, it just didn’t quite get there for me.

So ultimately, The Walk wasn’t quite the captivating and eye-popping experience I had hoped it would be. Despite strong performances from a great cast that also includes French actress Charlotte Le Bon (from The Hundred-Foot Journey), Ben Kingsley and James Badge Dale and the usual impressive direction from Zemeckis, I felt the movie just had too many inherent obstacles to overcome. Perhaps I would have had a different impression had I seen the movie on the big screen and especially in IMAX, which by all accounts is spectacular stuff.

3 stars out of 5

The Jungle Book (2016)

Finally! I got to see The Jungle Book!

The film had been high on my anticipation list ever since I heard about how footage screened at Disney’s D23 celebration blew everyone away, even more so than the Star Wars and Captain America: Civil War sneak peeks.

I actually don’t remember much about Rudyard Kipling’s original story or the 1967 animated version, and to be honest, it didn’t seem like something I’d be particularly interested in anyway. A “man-cub” named Mowgli raised by wolves and living with a bunch of talking animals? Not exactly my cup of tea.

Nonetheless, I was still itching to see a film being lauded as the most technically advanced ever made, given that everything — apart from kid actor Neel Sethi (and a couple of extras) — was computer generated. In fact, the whole film was shot on an LA sound stage.

And watching the film, you’d never be able to tell. The visuals in The Jungle Book are as spectacular as advertised — the sharpness of the jungle and vibrant colours of the scenery, the lush greens and fluid waters, the hyper-realistic animals. And yet, as real as they look, there’s also a surrealism to the animals because they talk and have other human traits. It’s a strange blend but one that works to perfection. Your eyes will not be disappointed.

That said, no matter how good the special effects are, The Jungle Book wouldn’t be anything without solid characters and a compelling story. In this regard I must admit I was not confident before I watched the movie, though these fears turned out to be unfounded. It’s a simple coming-of-age story of self-discovery and redemption, but Favreau manages to keep it compelling through a fantastic mix of thrilling action, intense drama, light comedy, and a sense of adventure. I was very sleepy before the movie began (it was early in the afternoon and I just had a big lunch), but minutes into the film I was wide awake and stayed that way until the end.

Apart from Favreau’s deft storytelling, the cast also does a great job of selling us this unique world. Young Neel Sethi, who is 12 now and probably a couple of years younger when he performed, has received mixed reviews as Mowgli. I think he did pretty well, considering he had no prior acting training and had to carry the entire film from start to finish with no one else but him and a green screen. There were a few moments where he comes off a little rough around the edges, but you have to balance that with the naivete and innocence he brings to the performance. On the whole, I lean towards the positive.

I remember back in the old days,  voice actors were just voice actors. Now, they’re getting all these massive stars to fill such roles, and I’m starting to think that it’s more than just for marketing purposes, because the voice cast in The Jungle Book is absolutely wonderful. Apart from being distinctive voices, they each bring surprising depth. Huge props for getting Idris Elba to play ferocious tiger villain Shere Khan, who oozes menace with every word. Bill Murray as sloth bear Baloo provides almost all of the timely humour, while Ben Kingsley voices the austere black panther Bagheera. Christopher Walken also does a great Chistopher Walker as King Louie. On top of that there’s Lupita Nyong’o, Giancarlo Esposito, the late Garry Shandling, Russell Peters, and Favreau himself. The only voice talent that was a little wasted was Scarlett Johansson, who plays Kaa the Burmese Python. Her voice is great, but she’s in it so little that there’s not much of a point other than to throw her name (and photo) on the posters.

As I said before, I don’t remember the beloved animated version and I doubt I’ve read the source material, but by all accounts this version pays respect to both without being slavish to either. I could have done without the couple of song numbers from the animated film that have been thrown in, but to Favreau’s credit at least they don’t come across as jarring.

In short, The Jungle Book met my very high expectations. The visuals are worth the price of admission alone (I went 2D, but apparently this is one of those instances where 3D IMAX is commendable), and the handling of the story, action, drama and tension once again demonstrates that this man

eric_the_clown

is one of the best blockbuster directors around today. There have been rumblings that Disney is looking to get him on board with Star Wars, possibly with the Han Solo or Obi Wan standalone movies, and if that’s true, fans have every reason to be excited. In fact, The Jungle Book is so well put together that I think that Jungle Book — the Warner Brothers version of the live-action adaptation to be directed by motion capture king Andy Serkis and set for release in 2018 — should probably be scrapped completely. Yes, the film will star Serkis himself (as Baloo) alongside Christian Bale, Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett, but it’s hard to imagine that topping Disney’s version either in box office or critical success. This may be as good as Rudyard Kipling’s story can be adapted to the big screen.

4.25 stars out of 5

Self/less (2015)

selfless-movie-poster

Self/less is a frustrating movie for several reasons.

First of all, the title sucks. I’m not going to spell it out for you, but let’s just say it goes against the philosophy of this blog.

Secondly, it wastes a very intriguing sci-fi premise. Without giving away too much, the story revolves around a billionaire with a terminal illness (played by Ben Kingsley) who opts for a controversial procedure that essentially turns him into Ryan Reynolds. Nothing is that simple, of course, and when the first side effect hits it becomes pretty obvious where the film is heading.

Instead of dissecting this interesting premise with a thought-provoking filmic analysis of the complex moral and ethical issues at hand, Self/less ends up becoming a typical action flick. That choice of genre is not the problem per se; the problem is that the film’s action is really quite bland. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before in the most average of action flicks. The plot also grows more conventional and preposterous as it nears its predictable climax and conclusion.

It’s a shame, because I expected more from a talented cast that includes Reynolds, Kingsley, Matthew Goode, Victor Garber and Derek Luke. The main and pretty much only female character, played by the lovely Natalie Martinez, also turned out to be quite a thankless archetypal role.

Director Tarsem Singh, who has some visually impressive titles on his CV such as The Cell, Immortals and Mirror Mirror, doesn’t have as many chances to showcase his flashy visual style in this one, though he also doesn’t take advantage of the opportunity to focus on bringing us a more compelling narrative or innovative action sequences.

The result is a sci-fi action film that isn’t bad — I think it’s adequate and the cast alone elevates it above straight-to-DVD quality. It’s just annoyingly pedestrian.

2.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014)

exodus

Seriously, I don’t understand why Exodus: Gods and Kings only has a 28% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. OK, so it’s not Gladiator, but is Ridley Scott’s Bible epic still entertaining? Yes. Is it still engaging? At least half of it is. And is it epic? Absolutely.

For starters, you don’t need to know anything about the Bible to enjoy the film, though some knowledge won’t preclude you from having a good time either. I’ve heard the story of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt heaps of times and vaguely remember that Disney moviethough most of what’s remaining in my memory is in bits and pieces. In short, Moses (Christian Bale) is an Egyptian prince from 1300 BCE who “discovers” that he is actually Hebrew and, after an encounter with the famous burning bush, decides to call upon his “brother” Ramesses II (Joel Edgerton) to “let my people go” (he doesn’t say this in the movie, but it’s the only line I remember from The Prince of Egypt).

Ridley Scott does a solid job of keeping the movie as grounded as possible given the subject matter, reminding audiences of the superstitions of the time. The problem, of course, is that it’s only possible to keep a Bible story grounded to a certain extent. While Scott leaves open the door for the theory that Moses is just imagining all his encounters with God (Bale actually said he believes Moses was schizophrenic), there are aspects of the story that cannot work without the presence of a supernatural power. He finds semi-rational reasons for the plagues and a certain Red Sea incident, but those familiar with Exodus will know that God’s fingerprints can’t be erased from the tale.

The other enviable thing Scott does is that he — along with Bale and Edgerton — makes both Moses and Ramesses very human characters. Both actors are terrific. Moses rails against God throughout the film for his barbarism and cruelty, and his faith is anything but unshakable. Ramesses, on the other hand, is not a typical villain — he grows into one almost out of necessity, but you can see that he has a softer side, and that his refusal to let the Hebrew slaves go stems from economic concerns as much as ego. The title Gods and Kings is an apt one.

The film does have its weaknesses. First of all, at 150 minutes, it is far too long and didn’t need to be. There is a lengthy chunk in the middle of the film that sags, so much so I’d probably go as far as to call it dull. People who know the story well might find it disappointing that there aren’t more surprises, as the film appears to be going through the motions at times and does little to halt the plodding. It’s not until the final hour that the pace begins to pick up with the arrival of the plagues and the actual exodus, both of which are executed very well with eye-popping special effects. The spectacle of the final hour alone makes the film worth watching.

If you ask me why the film has done so poorly with critics, my guess is that it doesn’t follow the Bible close enough for the uber-religious folk, and yet it’s also not rational enough for non-religious people looking for a “realistic” depiction of the story. As a result, the movie straddles both markets and finds itself stuck in a no-win situation. Bale’s comments about Moses being one of the “most barbaric” people he’s ever read about sure didn’t help, and neither did criticisms of the all-white casting of the main cast (which was, let’s face it, necessary for the film to be financed in the first place).

Personally, I don’t really care one way or the other. I’m just glad this is a Bible film that delivers on the spectacular visuals and doesn’t ram its self-righteous message down throats without giving audiences an opportunity to think for themselves.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Iron Man 3 (2013) (3D)

iron_man_3_poster_final

The first Iron Man was an instant classic and one of the best superhero movies of all time. The sequel, Iron Man 2, bombed because it thought it could just take the successful template of the first film and make it bigger and louder (like what Michael Bay did for the Transformers franchise). So it’s great to see that the producers learned their lesson and turned Iron Man 3 into a home run. It’s everything fans could have asked for in a third installment – sufficient familiarity but also enough creativity and innovation to make it a completely different experience.

Iron Man 3 takes place after the events depicted in The Avengers (for those living under a rock, that’s the one with Iron Man, Captain America, Thor and the Hulk) and has Iron Man’s alter ego, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr), battling demons from that bizarre alien experience. Mysterious terrorist attacks are happening in the US thanks to the Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a new villain who may or may not be linked to someone from Stark’s past.

It seemed like a cookie-cutter premise from the start, and indeed, Iron Man 3 does take a little bit of time to take off. But once it does, director Shane Black (who also directed Downey Jr in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) takes the audience on a brand new adventure that has plenty of surprises and fresh thrills.

For starters, Iron Man is forced this time to spend a lot of screen time out of his suit, or in only parts of his suit, and must rely on his wit to get him out of dangerous situations. There are also several clever new inventions and ideas that show that the evolution of Iron Man is not just different looking suits, but actual functional improvements.

It’s also fantastic to see Gwyneth Paltrow, who has essentially played the damsel in distress in the first two films as love interest Pepper Pots, get to do some heavy lifting for once. Also taking on a physical, but different kind of role, was Don Cheadle, who provides the biggest laughs as sidekick War Machine, rebranded as the Iron Patriot. Unfortunately, every time I saw Cheadle’s face I was reminded of his dark turn as Captain Planet. Not his fault though.

Rounding out the stellar core cast are three excellent actors – the aforementioned Ben Kinsley, in a role I could imagine few others pulling off; Guy Pearce, also in a role few others could pull off (he plays a total freak geek who turns into a handsome devil; the last three films I saw him in were Lawless, where he plays a menacing eyebrow-less menace; Prometheus, where he plays a shriveled old man; and Lockout, where he plays a suave ex-con-turned-buffed-hero); and Rebecca Hall, in a role many others probably could have played (resurfaced ex-lover) but she excels here because she is so damn lovely.

The action in Iron Man 3 is also different and varied, so you don’t have to worry about seeing the same kind of sequences over and over. I can’t say much more without giving stuff away, but as usual, I urge those who want to see it to stay away from the trailers and gossipers because it will be a real shame to have some of the twists spoiled.

This is not a complaint, but I found it strange that after all that press about the film being co-produced by a Chinese company and that it will contain “Chinese elements”, there ended up being virtually no Chinese references. No scenes set in China. Maybe a Chinese actor in a cameo (can’t remember), but that’s it. Perhaps the “special” version released for Chinese audiences with bonus footage has something arbitrary thrown in for the sake of it.

Anyway, considering how difficult it is to inject freshness into a highly successful franchise, Iron Man 3 really is a very impressive effort all round.

4.25 out of 5

PS: Yes, there is a post-credits scene, though there is no reference to any of the other upcoming Marvel adaptations such as Thor: The Dark World and Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

PPS: I really didn’t want to see this film in 3D, but difficulties in acquiring a non-3D ticket on opening weekend forced me to fork out the extra dollars for the discomfort and added vision-obscuring tint. If I haven’t made myself clear, AVOID the 3D version at all costs! It adds absolutely nothing.

Movie Review: Hugo (3D) (2011)

To 3D or not 3D, that is the question.

If you know me or have read some of my reviews, you’ll know I hate 3D films with a passion usually reserved for botched haircuts and cakes with hairs on them.  But I heard there were rumours on the internets that Hugo is the first ever film worth watching in 3D.  The Martin Scorsese directed family film (which is weird enough in itself) apparently utilises the technology wonderfully, so well, in fact, that it actually enhances the film rather than distracts it.

Is it true?  Mmm…that’s a hard one.  I haven’t actually seen the 2D version so it’s hard to make a comparison, but I can’t imagine liking the film any less just because it doesn’t have 3D effects.  To Scorsese’s credit, this is one of the rare 3D films that doesn’t make me squint because the screen gets too dark, since he always ensures that visuals are bright enough, even with the dimming glasses on.  The film also employs some neat tricks with the camera which makes great use of depth, but perhaps the biggest compliment I can pay is that the 3D does not feel like a gimmick.

Anyway, all this discussion about 2D and 3D is ultimately kind of irrelevant because no matter how many Ds Hugo has, it’s still one of the best movies of 2011.  It’s so clever, so magical and has so much heart that I’m struggling to think of another family film that even comes close.

Set in the 1930s, Hugo tells the story of the titular character (played by Asa Butterfield), a lonely 12-year-old boy who lives behind the walls of the Paris train station.  Hugo has a secret project he needs to complete which requires him to steal spare parts from the station’s toy store.  The store’s enigmatic owner is played by a marvellous Ben Kingsley, and Isabelle, his goddaughter, is played by Chloe Grace Moretz. And Sacha Baron Cohen is the crippled station inspector who seems to like nothing more than sending little children to orphanages. I won’t reveal much more than that, and I hope if you haven’t seen it you’ll try to go into the film knowing as little about the plot as possible.

If you love film, chances are you’ll love Hugo.  It’s really a love letter to the origin of motion pictures and the art of filmmaking that ingeniously blends genuine film history with a fictional story that is both beautiful and incredibly moving.  I really enjoyed the feeling of not knowing where the film was heading and not caring — I completely surrendered myself to Scorsese’s masterful storytelling and just let Hugo take me along for the ride.  Sure it was a little long at 128 minutes, and the film takes a while to hit its stride, but eventually I was immersed in Hugo’s world and  I actually found myself wanting more by the end of it.  Simply put, the film was exciting, mysterious, heartfelt, magical and absolutely stunning to look at.

The performances played a big part too.  The kid, Butterfield, was pretty good, as were Moretz and, surprisingly, Cohen (not a hint of Borat). Butterfield’s innocence and romantic ideals made Hugo a very likeable protagonist, and Moretz, after playing a kid assassin (in Kick-Ass) and a vampire (in Let Me In), demonstrated her versatility once again as the lovely Isabelle.  Even Jude Law was excellent in a small but important role.  But the movie truly belonged to Sir Ben Kingsley, who was utterly mesmerising as the heartbroken toymaker — you’d probably have to go as far back as his Oscar winning role as Gandhi to find a performance that rivals this one.  I know Hugo swept the technical awards this year at this Oscars but it’s hard to believe none of the actors even got nominations at any of the major awards.

That’s enough rambling from me. All I can say is that Hugo is not only one of my favourite films of 2011 (I am hoping to be able to get to that list I’ve promised to do…eventually), it is the kind of film that made me fall in love with movies in the first place.

5 stars out of 5!

 

Movie Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (2010)

I’ve been a fan of Prince of Persia as a video game since the 2003 version on the PS2, The Sands of Time.  However, given the track record of game-to-movie adaptations, I wasn’t expecting a whole lot from the Disney spin-off film, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton and Ben Kingsley, and directed by Mike Newell (Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire).

Well, I didn’t hate it, but it didn’t do a whole lot for me in the end either.

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time (let’s just call it PoP from now on) is first and foremost of popcorn movie, and as such, it isn’t too bad.  The action and the feel of the film, for the most part, is exciting.  As there is a lot of running around, being chased and fending off enemies, the film has this kind of Arabian Nights/Aladdin feel to it, which I thought was pretty cool.  You know, lots of sand, people dressed in cloaks, a tightly built city, arrows and daggers, that sort of thing.  I can honestly say that the film captured, to the extent it could have, the essence of the original video game on which it was based.

Before I forget, yes, PoP does have a plot.  The plot revolves around a King, a few Princes, a Princess, a poorly concealed villain, and a magical weapon that can turn back time.  It’s an adventure film that takes the central characters on a journey, and on their way to solving a mystery they find out a few things about the world and about each other.  Not exactly groundbreaking stuff but it could have been a lot worse.

Jake Gyllenhaal, looking all buffed and tanned, makes a fine Prince Dastan, capturing the spirit of the video game character by climbing off walls, jumping from building to building, swinging off beams, poles and so forth.  It was probably all stunt doubles, but nevertheless…whoever it was, it looked like fun.  He’s a good, but not very memorable character because he lacks the charm of, say, a Captain Jack Sparrow.

Gemma Arterton has been in a lot of big movies lately (I last saw her in Clash of the Titans), but I don’t quite understand why she is so popular yet.  She’s not a bad actress and she’s certainly not unattractive, but there’s something about her character, Princess Tamina, that got me irritated whenever she was on screen.  Perhaps it was because she tried too hard to be a “feisty” heroine.  Or maybe it was just the whiny voice.

Ben Kingsley doesn’t get to do a whole lot here, so it was up to Alfred Molina to save the minor characters with his Sheik Amar, who provided most of the comic relief.  Steve Toussaint, who plays his knife-throwing sidekick, was probably the coolest character of the entire film, and he has a climatic battle that tops the action sequences.

My problem with PoP was that the pieces didn’t all fit together.  Most aspects of the film were adequate, but nothing was particularly outstanding.  In terms of excitement, action, comedy, drama and special effects, the film was above average in all departments, but the sum of the parts didn’t elevate it to another level.  I want my big budget blockbusters to be great, not just good.  And if there is one major gripe, it’s the ending.  I absolutely hated it.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Shutter Island (2010)

I've already used the poster with Leo's mug in another post, so I decided to go with this one, which I actually like a lot more

[Note: I was supposed to read the book first, but I couldn’t wait.  Reading the book now.]

Shutter Island.  Based on the book by Dennis Lehane, award-winning author of Mystic River.  Directed by Martin Scorsese, Academy Award winner for The Departed (and director of such classics as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Goodfellas). Cast includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, Max von Sydow, and one of my favourites, Jackie Earle Haley.  Been looking forward to seeing it since I first heard about the production in 2008. Expectations: sky high.

So how was it?

Very good, but ultimately not the masterpiece I had been waiting for.

The story follows DiCaprio’s Teddy Daniels, a US Marshall summoned to Shutter Island in 1954 to investigate the disappearance of a patient at Ashcliffe, a mental hospital for the criminally insane.  A ripper of a premise, and you don’t even have to wait to see the island to know you’re in for a eerie, frighteningly atmospheric time.

Shutter Island is a wild, fantastic ride.  It’s one of those mysteries where you have to question everything that happens.  Naturally, in a mental hospital, you’d have to.  Why are people acting so strangely?  What secrets are being kept at Shutter Island?  Who can be trusted?  Just what the crap is going on?

You get that a lot when watching Shutter Island.  Scorsese has intentionally created a very disjointed, fragmented film that keeps the audience as confused as Teddy Daniels.  Flashbacks, dreams and visions come and go.  Words and actions consistently don’t make much sense.  Clues and red herrings are mixed in everywhere.  It was weird.  I even started questioning my own sanity by the end of the movie!

So no doubt, it’s a good film, but it was a bit too over the place for my liking.  I was intrigued but also increasingly frustrated as the movie progressed, and I never got into it emotionally like I thought I would.  And the ending, while well-executed, was not totally unexpected.  That said, I did like the last scene, especially the haunting final words.

Can’t complain about the performances though.  Leo is still awesome, Ruffalo is great, Gandhi is solid, and Rorshach (the new Freddy Krueger!) is still terrific as always.

3.5 stars out of 5!