Tag Archives: Chiwetel Ejiofor

Doctor Strange (2016)

Not quite sure how it is possible that I watched Doctor Strange when it first came out but have been too busy to get around to the review until now. Luckily, I have a good memory when it comes to movies (terrible memory for everything else).

The latest entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe was considered a risky one because of the relatively unknown character and all the mystical mumbo jumbo the studio feared could turn people off. Further, it’s directed by Scott Derrickson, whose most notable films up to that point were Sinister, The Day the Earth Stood Still and Deliver Us from Evil. And on top of that, some people lost their PC minds and accused Marvel/Disney of whitewashing when Tilda Swinton was cast as the Ancient One.

Of course, all fears were unfounded. This is the Marvel juggernaut we’re talking about! After so many incredibly successful films, Marvel has figured out the winning formula that continues to elude DC. It’s all about fun, excitement, spectacle and giving audiences a great time at the cinema. Doctor Strange is no different.

Benedict Cumberbatch is perfectly cast as Dr Stephen Strange, a brilliant neurosurgeon who is, frankly, a bit of a dick at the start of the movie, especially to his colleague and ex, Christine Palmer (Rachel McAdams). Following a devastating accident, Strange embarks on a journey of healing and character development through learning the mystic arts in a place called Kamar-Taj from the Ancient One, a beautifully bald Tilda Swinton. It’s very important, because a traitor by the name of Kaecilius (Mads Mikkelsen) is hell bent on at wreaking havoc on the world.

Doctor Strange is a great example of how to execute a superhero origins story. You get a clear idea of who the character is at the start of the film and follow them on their journey to becoming who they are destined to be. The technical stuff is explained in a simple and understandable way that doesn’t get bogged down in the details. The training sequences are interesting and packed with out action so as to not be too boring, and our hero isn’t too powerful right out of the gate because he needs room to grow. There are good laughs along the way and the action is creative, inventive and spectacularly choreographed.

What sets Doctor Strange apart from the previous Marvel films is the psychedelic, mesmerising visuals and special effects. If you’ve seen the trailers you’ll know there’s all that world-folding and morphing stuff that feels like Inception on steroids. And it’s not merely eye-candy either, as the ever-shifting worlds and parallel universes blend in seamlessly with the action and the storyline.

The cast is easily one of the best in the Marvel franchise, with established names and Oscar nominees galore. As I said already, Benedict Cumberbatch was perfectly cast, exuding the initial arrogance and the later shift in his character wonderfully, without taking himself too seriously or coming across as too goofy. Rachel McAdams redeems herself from Southpaw and really adds to her character, while you can never go wrong with Mads Mikkelsen in any role. His villain is admittedly a little weak, as are most Marvel villains, though he does the best he could with the material he’s been given. Stealing the show are Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One (laying to rest some of the whitewashing complaints) and Benedict Wong as…Wong, a master of the mystic arts who protects their secret books and relics. On the other hand, I personally thought Oscar-nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor overcooked his performance as fellow mystic warrior Karl Mordo. It’s good to show some emotion, but there wasn’t any need for 12 Years a Slave emotion in a Marvel movie.

On the whole, I really enjoyed Doctor Strange, though I certainly wouldn’t put it near the top of the Marvel films to date. Great cast, solid execution, nice action, and a visual feast at times, but nothing really extraordinary to elevate it to the level of the top solo films of the main Avengers (I’m talking Iron Man, Winter Soldier, Civil War, etc). The final confrontation was also somewhat anti-climatic. I’d put Doctor Strange at around the same level as Ant-Man — ie, a second-tier Marvel film but great popcorn fun nonetheless.

3.75 stars out of 5

PS: Apparently, Doctor Strange will make an appearance in the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

Triple 9 (2016)

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Every now and then you get a movie with a cast that’s out of this world, and yet the movie itself doesn’t get much buzz. This raises two questions: one, why did so many big stars attach themselves to this project, and two, why didn’t the movie get more buzz? Triple 9 is one such movie.

The answer to the first question is probably director John Hillcoat, the master Aussie filmmaker who gave us The Proposition, The Road, and most recently Lawless. Although a bunch of actors such as Shia La Beouf, Charlie Hunnam, Cate Blanchett and Christoph Waltz dropped out due to scheduling conflicts, Triple 9 still ended up with a ridiculous ensemble cast featuring Chiwetel Ejiofor, Casey Affleck, Kate Winslet, Anthony Mackie, Woody Harrelslon, Aaron Paul, Gal Gadot, Norman Reedus and Teresa Palmer.

The answer to the second question is that the film, while finely made, doesn’t quite live up to the cast. It’s barely made back its US$20 million budget on paper (which means a loss in real terms), and that’s because it got neither much advertising nor hype through word of mouth.

Set in the summer heat of Atlanta, Georgia, Triple 9 is a fairly standard crime thriller/drama about a bunch of crooks and corrupt police officers who pull off a heist. Things start to unravel when the crime boss they work for, played by Kate Winslet in an uneven Russian accent, forces them into one final job, while a newly transferred police officer (Casey Affleck) starts to suspect there might be more to things than meets the eye.

In typical Hillcoat style, Triple 9 is bleak, uncompromising and gritty. There’s brutal violence and scary depictions of gang life and police corruption. It’s intense stuff, but really, it’s also nothing we haven’t seen before — and arguably done better — in films like The Town, End of Watch, Training Day and so forth.

I don’t think it’s really Hillcoat’s fault — the issue is the unspectacular script by Matt Cook, which offers nothing truly fresh or intriguing. There aren’t many twists and turns, and the only surprises are from seeing all these big-name actors dying one by one in matter-of-fact fashion. But on the other hand, all these deaths mean there’s no real central protagonist. We know who the good guys and bad guys are, but we don’t really get a chance to genuinely care about any of them. Casey Affleck is supposed to be that guy, but he splits so much screen time with the rest of the cast that you never get the sense that he’s the lead.

On the whole, Triple 9 is a solid crime film due to Hillcoat’s skills and bolstered by a brilliant cast and strong performances all round. However, the boilerplate storyline — that does nothing to differentiate itself from other thrillers in the genre –severely limits how good the movie can be. It’s more of a good rental than a film you feel like you need to see at the cinema.

3 stars out of 5

Secret in Their Eyes (2015)

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Hollywood remakes seldom live up to the originals, especially if the original as an Academy Award winner for Best Foreign Film. That’s unfortunately also the case for Secret in Their Eyes, a remake of the 2009 Argentine film El secreto de sus ojos (review here) that took home the gong in 2010, even though the Hollywood version features heavyweights such as Chiwetel Ejiofor, Nicole Kidman and Julia Roberts, as well as Alfred Molina and familiar TV faces such as Dean Norris (Breaking Bad) and Michael Kelly (House of Cards).

I remember hearing about the remake years ago and was surprised that it took them this long to finally release it. Most of the elements of the original are there, but the setting is of course changed to the United States and the time period updated to the post-911 world. The story is essentially the same in that it revolves around a tragic incident that forever changes the lives of three people in different ways. Thirteen years later, the ghost of the past resurfaces, and the narrative switches back and forth between the two periods as we gradually piece together the shocking mystery.

Like the original, Secret in Their Eyes is a slow burn of a film with some intense moments, brutal violence and heavy drama. It is a tribute to the Argentine film that when I watched the remake I was able to recall the exact same scenes I saw more than five years ago. The execution by writer and director Billy Ray (best known for directing Shattered Glass and penning the scripts for The Hunger Games and Captain Phillips) is solid, though for some reason the film never managed to fully grip me like the original. Part of it is that it was sometimes difficult to tell which time period we were in (they all aged well), and another part is that the atmosphere wasn’t as well-crafted. Maybe if I hadn’t seen the original I would have thought differently, but now I’ll never know,

The performances from the two Oscar winners and one Oscar nominee are, needless to say, splendid. Ejiofor, who plays an obsessive FBI agent in the counter-terrorism unit, carries the film pretty much from start to finish with his usual intensity and emotion, while Nicole Kidman, a district attorney, fulfills her role with grace and underlying fierceness. That said, the chemistry between the two could have been stronger, making the relationship less involving than it otherwise should have been. Julia Roberts is the standout of the trio. It’s an extremely difficult role to portray, but she does it without underselling or overcooking her performance.

I’m somewhat surprised by the film’s low 39% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and score of 45 on Metacritic. It’s perhaps a little disappointing given how remarkable the original film was and the incredible cast, but in my mind it’s certainly a much better movie than the reviews suggest. My wife, who has not seen the original, didn’t think it was great but thought it was quite a compelling and gut-wrenching story, and I can’t disagree with her assessment. Flaws notwithstanding, this is a very solid film that probably should have been more, though certainly not a failure by any means.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Martian (2015)

The Martian Launch One Sheet

After a long and agonising delay brought on by unforeseen circumstances (sick kid), I finally got to see Ridley Scott’s The Martian, one of my most anticipated movies of the year. And it was well worth the wait.

I had been hoping to see the film before all the positive buzz hit (93% Rottan Tomatoes, 81% Metacritic) hit the web so I wouldn’t develop unrealistic expectations. That didn’t happen, and yet the film somehow managed to live up to the hype for me.

If you’ve heard anything about this movie at all, you’ll know it’s about an astronaut named Mark Watney (Matt Damon) who finds himself stranded on Mars. The premise can’t be a spoiler. I knew a little more than that before going in, but for the most part I was prepared for anything.

There have been a lot of comparisons thrown around. Most would have heard of the inevitable comments regarding Interstellar because — spoiler-alert for those who haven’t seen it yet — both films star Matt Damon and Jessica Chastain. And in both films Damon happens to be an astronaut stuck on a distant planet.

There are also many who have called it “Castaway on Mars” or “Life of Pi in Space” and so forth. It is true that The Martian has elements of all these movies, but it is also vastly different and stands very well on its own.

Personally, I would say that the film is like the perfect love child of Interstellar, Gravity and Apollo 13. It has the big ideas and spectacle of Interstellar without all the fantastical/theoretical mumble jumbo that turned a lot of people off. It has the beauty, tension and thrills of Gravity without the eerie silence and lack of character interaction and development. And the Apollo 13-esque tactic of cutting back and forth with ground control on Earth makes the story about more than just one person and breaks up the monotony of space travel and a life of solitude on a barren planet.

There are so many things to like about this movie. For starters, The Martian is ingenious. It’s one of the smartest films I’ve seen in recent years. I’m not sure how legit the science is (and there’s a lot of it), but all of it feels credible. I would imagine you’d need to be at least a semi-expert or very knowledgeable in certain fields to be able to poke holes in the story; for most general audiences it wouldn’t matter. And as a member of the uneducated general audience I found it all absolutely fascinating. I was engrossed.

I know the book on which the film is based, written and originally self-published by Andy Weir, has been panned by many for alleged “bad writing.” Be that as it may, the thought that Weir has built into the story and the science behind it is remarkable. It’s at least as impressive as say the work Dan Brown (a fellow oft-criticised writer) puts into blending history, religion and architecture into his novels. I can’t help but be happy for his success.

Secondly, the “action” sequences — if you can call them that — are well-executed. When you feel the tension and the adrenaline even when you know what is going to happen, and when you don’t notice the CGI even though you know most of it probably is, you know they’re doing a good job.

The other thing that stands out about The Martian is that it is surprisingly funny. That is not to say that the film is a comedy by any stretch, though it is without a doubt filled with more laughs than Interstellar, Gravity and Apollo 13 — combined.

The main reason is because of Watney’s personality, which is, for the most part, optimistic and stoic despite the odds against him. He’s a guy who tries to see the lighter side of things and can find humour in the most dire of predicaments. Because sometimes, that’s all you can do. It fits in well with the uplifting and occasionally fun tone the film tries to convey. Some might complain that it glosses over the darker aspects of the tale — the isolation, the stress, the fragile emotional state — but ultimately this is not that kind of movie, and I am glad it didn’t go down that path.

As clever and funny The Martian is, I also found myself unexpectedly moved by the drama. At its heart, it’s a simple story about one man’s unrelenting will to survive. It’s about finding solutions to problems as they arise, one at a time. It’s about human kinship and international solidarity. Ridley Scott does a great job of developing the characters into likable people we care about, not just Watney but the entire extended cast. There’s no real villain in the story, just a bunch of people doing what they think is best in a very difficult situation. The relationships and dynamics are set up early and skilfully so the emotional payoffs work when they eventually have to.

Kudos of course to the spectacular cast. Apart from Damon and Chastain there’s also Jeff Daniels as the head of NASA, Chiwetel Ejiofor as NASA’s Mars mission director, Sean Bean as the spacecrafts’s crew commander and Kristen Wiig as NASA spokesperson, plus Michael Pena, Kate Mara and Sebastian Stan as crew members. Everyone’s fantastic, and I also enjoyed the witty references to films that some of the actors have been in it are affiliated with.

At 2 hours and 22 minutes, the length is perfect. It never feels too long; there is always something going on, and I was always either being amused or thrilled or educated. I was certainly always entertained.

While The Martian doesn’t necessarily have the feel of a masterpiece — it’s not as epic as say Interstellar or as majestic or awe-inspiring as Gravity — it delivers as good of a time as I’ve had at the cinemas this year or any year.

5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: 12 Years a Slave (2013)

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Of all the 2013 films I have watched and will watch, I doubt there is one that will leave a greater lasting impression than 12 Years a Slave, the remarkable, and apparently very accurate true story of a free black man kidnapped into slavery (no prizes for guessing how long). It’s one of the most brutal and uncomfortable movies I’ve ever had to sit through, but thanks to the brilliant direction of Steve McQueen (Shame), I don’t feel as though I’ve been manipulated at all. 12 Years a Slave is simply an unflinchingly honest, harrowing, raw and emotional motion picture about one of the darkest eras of American history — and it’s interesting that it took a British director to make a defining film about it.

Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor) was a free black man during the 1840s making a living as a musician with his wife and two children. Following a horrible stroke of misfortune he ends up being renamed to Platt and is shipped off to New Orleans where he sold by a slave trader to a plantation owner. There is a lot more to the story, but I will just keep it at that to prevent divulging any potential spoilers.

This is a confronting film, a grotesquely violent film; a film that tears at your heart. The excellent adapted screenplay by John Ridley (Three Kings) does not hold back in showing us what slavery was like back in those days, and neither does the direction of McQueen. The cruelty, the frightening beatings, the habitual physical and mental abuse, and the helplessness and depression — it’s all inescapably there. And according to scholars and experts who have seen the film, it is the most accurate on-screen depiction of slavery they’ve ever seen.

The thing that impressed me most about 12 Years a Slave, however, is how McQueen just tells Northup’s story the way it is. This is not some Hollywood story of triumph or some warm fluff touting the beauty of the human spirit. It’s just a man who loses everything trying to survive under extremely trying circumstances. It could have been so easy for this film to spiral into an exploitative, manipulative, melodramatic mess, but the approach is subtle yet direct, presenting audiences the story as is, and giving us the room to interpret the hints and emotions for ourselves. I felt the injustice and outrage as designed by McQueen, but I didn’t feel like any of it was being shoved in my face, even when I was watching the torture taking place right in front of me. That’s what I call masterful filmmaking.

Chiwetel Ejiofor deserves an Oscar for the defining performance of his career as the stoic Northup. It’s such a difficult role, not just because of the physical aspects of it, but because of the layers required to play an educated man pretending to be an uneducated slave. He is no saint. He didn’t care about the plight of the slaves before he became one, and once he did, he did what he could to survive, putting himself first as most people would. Ejiofor’s ability to capture every side of his character is what allows us to feel his fear, his desperation, his pain. And it’s not like he’s running around gunning people down like Jamie Foxx in Django Unchained or giving out motivational speeches like Daniel Day Lewis in Lincoln — everything we get from the character comes from Ejiofor’s understated expressions, the restraint in his voice, the sorrow in his eyes.

The supporting cast features a list of well known names, from Paul Giamatti as a slave trader to Paul Dano’s racist carpenter and Benedict Cumberbatch and Michael Fassbender (third collaboration with McQueen after Hunger and Shame) as Northup’s two very different masters. Fassbender, in particular, steals the show somewhat as a religious nut and the primary antagonist in the film, though Cumberbatch’s more reserved performance as a fairly decent but complicated man provides a nice contrast while also reminding us that not all slave owners were sadistic.

I thought the appearance of Brad Pitt towards the end of the film was a little jarring, but apart from that I though they all made their characters three-dimensional and memorable in their own way. However, the lesser-known supporting cast also deserve a lot of praise, in particular Lupita Nyong’o, which has been nominated for best supporting actress as a tormented slave lusted after by Fassbender, and American Horror Story’s Sarah Paulson as Fassbender’s icy psycho wife.

There are other aspects of the film which I usually don’t talk about but feel like I should point out here. I really liked the visual style McQueen employed for the movie, with a gritty documentary-esque look and a colour scheme that accentuated the realism and brought out the heat down in New Orleans. The music score by Hans Zimmer was also fitting for the period and helped add another dimension to the on screen drama.

12 Years a Slave is not easy viewing, nor is it intended to be. But it is a rare motion picture, the kind that doesn’t come around very often, where the story is compelling and the direction, script and acting are all top notch. And when all is said and done, it could end up being the movie that resonates more than any other released in 2013. Having said all that, it’s hard to give 5 stars to a film that’s almost impossible to enjoy.

4.5 stars out of 5.

PS: 12 Years a Slave is not without critics. There are some who say the film was made just to make white people feel bad about what happened. There are others who criticised the decision to focus on an educated man, someone who wasn’t a real slave, rather than one of the millions born into slavery and never knew any better, just so audiences can connect with the protagonist. None of these are valid criticisms. First of all, everyone, regardless of who you are, should feel bad watching human beings abusing other human beings. Secondly, no one makes a movie just to make people feel bad about themselves. Thirdly, why not pick a protagonist who can connect with audiences? This is a great story, a true story that deserves to be told — why shouldn’t it be?

Movie Review: 2012 (2009)

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2012 (the movie not the year) is pretty much what you would expect from a US$200 million blockbuster about the end of the world directed by Roland Emmerich (Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow).  Eye-popping special effects, an epic storyline, a multitude of characters, cliched dialogue, bad jokes, cringe-worthy moments and cheesy one-liners.

And yet, for all its flaws, 2012 is surprisingly absorbing.  It is somewhat overlong at a whopping 158 minutes, but it’s never easy for such films to be short these days.

The plot – well, pretty self-explanatory.  Do I really need to say anything?  I am glad to say that they didn’t try to milk the whole Mayan calendar thing.  It was not much more than a passing reference in the end.

The science of it all was sketchy in my opinion, but I’m not sure they really cared.  As the film rolled along, it became clear that suspension of disbelief was imperative to an enjoyable experience.  Too many things were either implausible or impossible or simply didn’t make sense.  The sooner you realised that this was going to be the norm the better.

Of course, epic movies like 2012 require a lot of characters.  Sure, most of them were cliched and cardboard stereotypes (especially the minor ones), but what I liked about it was that they were all linked in one way or another.  It wasn’t just a random bunch of people who had nothing to do with each other.

The characters were portrayed by a great ensemble cast led by Chiwetel Ejiofor and John Cusack, together with Amanda Peet, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, and a bizarre appearance by Woody Harrelson.  The only notable weakness was Danny Glover as the President of the United States.  It was just a laughable performance.  Think of an old and tired Barack Obama who has lost his voice and charm after being disillusioned with being in office for 30 years straight.

Although entirely predictable, sentimental and silly, 2012 still managed to eke out some thrills and excitement.  As I said before, if you can suspend disbelief and just go along for the ride, the film is pure pop-corn fun.  Even if you can’t, there’s at least the special effects to enjoy.  More impressive than Independence Day, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Armageddon, The War of the Worlds and The Day the Earth Stood Still, the visuals in 2012 are the most spectacular I’ve ever seen.  If 2012 (the movie) turns out to be prophetic, none of us will have the time or mood to witness the destruction of the earth, so this film is the best opportunity we have.

3.5 stars out of 5!