Tag Archives: Idris Elba

Beasts of No Nation (2015)

Okay, so I’m blaming Beasts of No Nation as the reason why my Best Of and Worst Of lists of 2015 has STILL not been published. I held off on doing the lists because, based on the word of mouth and buzz I had been hearing, I thought there was a possibility it might end up on my Best Of list. And then I watched it but never found time to review it properly. And before I knew it, December 31, 2016. So before it’s too late, here goes.

Beasts of No Nation is a harrowing coming-of-age film about a young boy (Abraham Attah, who is going to be in the upcoming Spider-Man: Homecoming) who becomes a child soldier in Africa, fighting under a terrifying warlord played by the brilliant Idris Elba. It’s written, shot, and directed by Cary Joji Fukunaga, the genius behind the first season of True Detective, and you can see shades of his style and flavour all throughout this film.

It’s a traumatic and uncompromising film in many respects, and yet comes across as authentic. Idris Elba, in particular, is spectacular, really lifting the film into another stratosphere. It was a total-package performance, from the look to the voice (including accent) to the subtle expressions and body movements. I knew I was watching Idris Elba on the screen but the character he was playing on the screen genuinely made me uneasy and afraid.

That said, the film does follow quite a predictable progression and lacks the gut-punches that would have made it a much more memorable film. I’m doing this review a few months after I watched it, and yet there aren’t many scenes or moments that stand out. I feel like the first half of it, when the boy is being initiated into the militia, comes across as more gripping. The expected fall from grace in the second half wasn’t quite as convincing.

Beasts of No Nation is a very good film, a hard-hitting, well-shot and well-acted movie. There was talk that the film, or at least Idris Elba of receiving an Oscar nomination, but when it/he didn’t (he did get a Golden Globe nomination), there were suggestions that it was slighted because it was released globally on Netflix. I don’t quite agree with that assessment. As much as I liked the film, it didn’t wow me or floor me like I thought it might, and for me there were easily better films and performances that year.

3.75 stars out of 5

Star Trek Beyond (2016)

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Star Trek Beyond, grammatically confusing title notwithstanding, is the solid albeit less ambitious third entry in the rebooted Star Trek franchise that began with Star Trek in 2009 and Star Trek Into Darkness in 2013, both films I really enjoyed.

This time around, Fast & Furious 3-6 director Justin Lin has replaced Abrams, with Simon Pegg (Scotty) penning the script. Most of the cast is back, with Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, and the late Anton Yelchin, in his final role, as Chekov (a name that, when yelled in an American accent during times of distress, which happens numerous times in this film, sounds a lot like an insult — you figure that one out for yourself). Unfortunately, as Alive Eve had a scheduling conflict, her character Carol Marcus from Into Darkness simply disappeared from the crew USS Enterprise. Joining the cast this time are Sofia Boutella as Jayla, an alien scavenger, and Idris Elba as the unrecognisable alien Krall.

The plot of Star Trek Beyond is very simple: The Enterprise is sent on a rescue mission after receiving a distress call. Stuff happens and basically the entire movie is spent on a barren planet against a powerful alien enemy. Each member of the main cast is dealing with something personal, and there are a few twists and turns along the way, but on the whole, there’s nothing mindblowing about the story.

The same can be said for the action. Justin Lin is essentially the director responsible for turning the Fast & Furious franchise into the juggernaut it is today, so you know he’s got a great feel for action. But the action sequences in Star Trek Beyond, while visually impressive, aren’t at the same level as the Fast & Furious films in terms of innovation and adrenaline-pumping thrills. The special effects are also in the same category — they are good enough to get the job done, though there are no jaw-dropping or memorable images.

These elements combine to make Beyond feel more like a glorified season finale of a TV series than a major cinematic blockbuster. Perhaps that’s downplaying the overall quality of the production, but both of its predecessors felt a lot more like event films, whereas this one came across as more run-of-the-mill and par for the course. And it shouldn’t have been this way considering that its US$185 million budget was equal to that of Into Darkness and US$35 million higher than Star Trek.

That said, despite the seemingly lowered ambitions, I still found Beyond to be a pretty enjoyable popcorn flick. The biggest reason is not the action or the special effects, but the chemistry and interactions between the characters. I’m not a Trekkie and have never been one, but I had a lot of fun watching the back and forth banter and camaraderie between the cast members, especially Spock and Bones, and Scotty and Kirk. By the end of it all, I found myself engrossed in the story and invested in their fate. Pegg deserves a lot of credit for the dialogue and bringing out the essence of so many of these beloved characters.

My biggest disappointment with the film was the character of Jayla, who seemed to have a substantial and pivotal role in the film judging from the trailers and the posters. And while she is important, she doesn’t quite live up to the expectations or the hype of her well-designed physical appearance. On the other hand, the villain Krall turned out to be a pleasant surprise, and that speaks to the imposing screen presence Idris Elba always brings to every one of his roles.

Ultimately, Star Trek Beyond is a well-made and very watchable third entry in a franchise that appears to be heading toward an inevitable decline. It’s not spectacular but it’s also far from weak. If future entries can maintain this standard — and they’ve already said there will be more — I certainly wouldn’t mind going on more of these adventures aboard the Enterprise.

3.5 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

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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

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VIII

Why the heck not?

Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom (2013)

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I admit I didn’t know a whole lot about Nelson Mandela’s life outside of him ending apartheid in South Africa and his long prison term, which is why I was particularly interested drawn to Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, based on his autobiography.

I had previously seen Morgan Freeman (his Hollywood doppelganger) as Mandela in Invictusso I had my doubts when I discovered that in this film he’s portrayed by strapping British actor Idris Elba, best known as crime kingpin Stringer Bell in The Wire and more recently in Pacific Rim.

While I was wrong about the casting of Elba, who turned out to be magnificent in the role despite being four inches taller than the real Mandela at 6’4″, Long Walk to Freedom turned out to be a disappointment, more a telemovie than the definitive adaptation of the great man’s life.

The film essentially begins with a fully-grown Mandela who is already a lawyer in South Africa and beginning to gain a broader interest in fighting for the rights of his people. From there, the film is a fairly straightforward blow-bu-blow account of his life, from organising protests to his imprisonment and eventual release. None of it is poorly executed or lacks subtlety, but at the same time the pulse of the film is so flat that it had trouble sustaining my interest. There, I said it: I was bored.

Thought I haven’t compared Elba and a young Mandela side by side, I believe there is some resemblance, or at least the performance is so good that it made me believe there is one. Far from a glorified hero, Elba portrays Mandela as a complex, flawed man who cheated on his wife and neglected his family for his cause. It’s still a respectful portrayal because you ultimately come to see his growth as a leader and person, and the remarkable change he brought to the world through his inspiring resolve and perseverance.

Another aspect that pleased me was the portrayal of Mandela’s second wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, played by Brit Naomi Harris. We usually only hear about Mandela’s greatness but here we also learn about what an amazing woman Madikizela-Mandela is and her significant contributions to the plight of her people and especially South African women.

Unfortunately, two stellar performances weren’t quite enough to elevate Long Walk to Freedom into a superior biopic. A less conventional approach would have been welcome to give the film more layers and nuance. As it stands,  it’s still a passable Mandela flick, just not a great one.

3 stars out of 5

Wolf Creek 2 (2013)

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Wolf Creek, released in 2005, was Australia capitalising on the torture porn era ushered in by the Saw and Hostel movies. I personally though it was overrated, but it did have a couple of things going for it: a very uniquely Australian villain played by John Jarratt, who is as amusing as he is terrifying, and the “based on a true story” tag thanks to Ivan Milat and the disappearance of British backpacker Peter Falconio — which highlight the dangers of the vast Australian outback.

So eight years later, we have the obligatory low-budget sequel, which brings back Jarratt as maniacal serial killer Mick Taylor and a bunch of poor foreigners waiting to be tortured and slaughtered.

The film starts off as camp as can be, with Mick taking on a couple of cookie-cutter dickhead cops. It doesn’t make much sense but at least it sets the stage for the carnage that is yet to come. A film like this is always bound to contain gratuitous and over-the-top violence. Wolf Creek 2 embraces its destiny and just goes for it.

There’s not much by way of plot or character development. Mick picks up a German couple (one of them’s played by an Aussie) and then a Pom (also played by an Aussie, Ryan Corr of TV’s Packed to the Rafters fame). Be prepared for a lot of screaming, a lot of stupidity, and loads of visceral, extreme acts of violence.

Surprisingly, it’s quite effective as a torture porn horror, with moments that will make you cringe and others that challenge you not to look away. The tension is there, even though it doesn’t feel real and some suspension of disbelief is mandatory.

The original actually had plenty of what I call “filler” moments, which made it a bore to sit through. But Wolf Creek 2 disposes all the formalities to give viewers what they want almost straight away. As a motion picture it’s much rougher around the edges, but in terms of pure entertainment value it arguably trumps its predecessor.

Wolf Creek 2 is B-grade rubbish, all the way down to its laughable and cliched ending, but it knows what it is and at least tries to have a good time on its way to the dumpster.

2.5 stars out of 5

Thanks for Sharing (2013)

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Thanks for Sharing is a comedy about three very different men with sex addiction. There’s Adam (Mark Ruffalo), a spunky single guy who has no problem attracting the ladies but wants to start dating again after five very difficult years of self-restraint. There’s Mike (a silver-haired Tim Robbins), a veteran who believes he has turned the corner and acts as a big brother-type to the others at their support group, but doesn’t give much support at home to his drug-addict son. And thirdly, there’s Neil (Josh Gad), a tubby, sweaty sexual deviant who has banned himself from the subway so he’ll stop rubbing himself up against random women.

This is more or less what I expect from a comedy-drama about sex addiction. There are amusing observations and situations the protagonists have to deal with, but also a much darker side to their impulses which inevitably become more serious as the film progresses. It’s not exactly lighthearted but it’s not depressing either. Shame this is not.

The tone of the film actually reminds me of another Mark Ruffalo film I saw last year, The Kids Are All Right, about same sex parenting. As a comedy, however, Thank for Sharing is not in the same class. The majority of the laughs come from the awkwardness of Josh Gad’s character, who shoulders the load in that department, while the arcs of Ruffalo and in particular Tim Robbins are more heavy duty.

In addition to the solid performances of the three male leads, the film also boasts an excellent supporting cast, with the standouts being Gwyneth Paltrow as Ruffalo’s love interest and Pink (as Alecia Moore, her real name) as a female sex addict who befriends Gad’s character. Patrick Fugit, who plays Tim Robbin’s son, is also fantastic, as their explosive relationship is perhaps the most emotional and compelling in the entire movie.

Thanks for Sharing is an interesting take on sex addiction as it offers three perspectives from three very different characters. It’s lightly amusing and the drama is well-executed, but perhaps because the focus is split in so many directions it lacks the depth required to be an exceptional film on the subject. I enjoyed it as much as a film like this can be enjoyed — that is, a solid DVD rental, but not much more than that.

3.25 stars out of 5

Out of the Furnace (2013)

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If gritty, brooding crime dramas is your thing, then Out of the Furnace is just the film for you.

Produced by Ridley Scott and Leo DiCaprio and directed by Scott Cooper (Crazy Heart), the film stars chameleon Christian Bale as Russell Baze, a likable guy who seems to be on a friendly basis with everyone on both sides of the law. Like his dying father before him, Russell works at a steel mill in a small town and enjoys a steady relationship with his girlfriend, played by Zoe Saldana. Life for him would be stable if it weren’t for his brother Rodney (Casey Affleck), an Iraq war veteran who has trouble coping with an uncertain future.

A tragic accident strikes, and Russell ends up incarcerated. In the meantime, Rodney becomes involved in the shady world of underground bare-knuckle fighting under the management of Willem Dafoe. Once Russell gets out (of the furnace, so to speak), he is immediately thrown into the proverbial fire when Rodney is linked up with violent hillbilly Harlan DeGroat (Woody Harrelson) and bites off more than he can chew.

At its heart, this is a film about family, regret and living with the consequences of one’s decisions. Some critics have been scathing about its masculinity and testosterone-filled violence, though personally I found it to be an intense, entertaining experience. The pace is a little too contemplative for my liking, but I liked the old-fashioned themes of redemption and thought the action was well-executed.

The biggest strength of the film still has to be the performances, which are sensational all round. Woody Harrelson, in particular, once again shows us what an underrated actor he is with a terrifying portrayal of a brutal redneck. The script does have a few holes in it, but I was hooked on the bleak tones, which reminded me a little of one of my favourite movies of 2011 (directed by Casey Affleck’s big brother), The Town. And like that film, this one turns a fairly run-of-the-mill plot into an engaging, engrossing drama with explosive sequences.

The result is a raw, in-your-face, uncompromising film that will probably divide viewers. It becomes more conventional as it progresses towards a painful, semi-ambiguous ending, and it does have the occasional clunky scene, though overall I thought it was awesome.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Pacific Rim (2013) (2D)

Gotta give the Aussie robot a plug!
Gotta give the Aussie robot a plug!

Ever wondered what Transformers vs Godzilla would be like if it was directed by Guillermo del Toro? Well, Pacific Rim might give you some idea.

Del Toro, the visionary master who gave us Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone (as well as Hellboy and Blade II), apparently gave up on directing The Hobbit so he could work on projects such as Pacific Rim, his personal version of a light summer blockbuster focused on spectacular visuals and popcorn entertainment as opposed to the recent trend of dark, brooding movies such as The Dark Knight Rises and Man of Steel.

The result? A mixed bag, I’m afraid. Del Toro succeeds in making Pacific Rim a visual feast that pays homage to the Japanese monster movies and robot anime I loved so much as a kid, but on the other hand the script (which he co-write with Travis Beacham) is so pedestrian (to put it nicely) that it prevents the film from achieving what could have been all-round brilliance. That’s disappointing because we all know from his past films that del Toro is a brilliant storyteller when he sets out to be one.

Pacific Rim starts off by placing us right in the middle of the story, with a lengthy explanation about how gigantic monsters, known as “Kaiju” (from the Japanese word for “monster”), began emerging from the depths of our oceans some time in 2013, wreaking havoc on cities all around the world. While it makes zero sense, the world’s governments decide to join forces to create “Jaegers” (German for “hunter”), which are essentially massive robots, to fight the Kaiju. That’s about it.

(Personally, I thought it would have been a good idea to start right from the beginning, because seeing the Kaiju rise from the depths up close and in detail for the first time would have been a jaw-dropping sight. But the movie is already 132-minutes long, so maybe not.)

At its core, Pacific Rim is just enormous robots and gigantic monsters beating the crap out of each other. And that’s awesome. Del Toro infuses the action sequences with his marvellous visual flair, supersized to an awe-inspiring scale. His attention to detail in the movements of the Kaijus and Jaegers and their interactions with their environment puts Transformers to shame. As great as the visual effects were in Transformers, there was always something fake and cartoonish about the robots, but in Pacific Rim the effects are so seamless that such thoughts never crossed my mind.

The look of the Jaegers and Kaijus are also amazing and emphasize del Toro’s genius when it comes to creature design. Each monster has different attributes and characteristics, as do the Jaeger, which reflect their country of origin (such as the US, China, Russia and Australia). Watching a showdown between such wonderful creations — with remarkable clarity, by the way — was truly an exhilarating ride.

Unfortunately, it’s the humans who bring Pacific Rim down. The film is at its best when there is no talking or attempted character development, because as soon as the humans interacting the film nosedives into mediocrity. I don’t think the acting is horrible but it feels horrible because of the atrocious dialogue. It’s as though the screenwriters thought no one would care about the characters or the dialogue so they just came up with the quickest way to progress the story by summarizing all human interactions into cringeworthy cliches — and yet it felt like there were far too many attempts to make us care about them. The end result is a lot of unsatisfactory, disjointed and embarrassing “human drama” fillers in between the action scenes.

The formulaic storyline also appears to tick every plot-point box of Hollywood blockbusters these days from The Dark Knight Rises to The Avengers to Skyfall (not sure if this qualifies as a spoiler, but if you don’t wanna know, skip this paragraph now) — an early catastrophic incident for the protagonist(s), forcing them to start over from the bottom; a deceptively clever antagonist(s) who plans a trap for our hero(es); and a moment of despair that seems impossible to overcome, just before the final heroic climax.

I know all of this sounds harsh. After all, isn’t Pacific Rim supposed to be a summer popcorn movie? Yes, it is, but I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a little more in the other departments, especially considering this is del Toro and not Michael Bay we’re dealing with.

The cast is headed by Charlie Hunnam, best known from the TV series Sons of Anarchy. He’s really just an older poor man’s Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy, The Road) who takes his short off more often than Taylor Lautner (though to be fair, I would too if I was that ripped). He’s OK — physically suitable but lacking the requisite charm to carry a film like this.

Playing his Jaeger partner/love interest is Japan’s Rinko Kikuchi, a fine actress I remember from 2006’s Babel. She’s actually pretty good, as is Idris Elba as a drug kingpin…oh hang on, that’s The Wire. Actually, here he’s just the boss of the Jaeger pilots. He’s Idris Elba, so you know he’s awesome, even though he does deliver a hilarious Braveheart speech (compulsory for all movies with a final battle) in his original British accent (which actually felt kinda weird).

For comic relief, we have two scientists and Kaiju experts. The first is Charlie Day, who is nearly as loud and abrasive (and occasionally adorable) as he is in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. The second is Burn Gorman, who plays a rip-off of Tucker from There’s Something About Mary, complete with the whiny voice and dodgy limp.

Tucker, is that you?
Tucker, is that you?

Rounding out the main cast are Max Martini (American) and Robert Kazinsky (Brit) as two fake Aussies with really exaggerated accents. Seriously, why not get some real Aussies? oh well, at least it was good to see one of them playing a semi-villain.

The actor who steals the show is del Toro favourite Ron Perlman (aka Hellboy), who plays a black marketeer who harvests the organs and body parts of dead Kaijus. It’s an outlandish and campy performance that Perlman absolutely nails, and the few short scenes with him and Day are the “human” highlights of the entire film.

Pacific Rim got a lot of very positive reviews, which surprised me in some ways given how critics are always so quick to savage poor dialogue and characterization. I have a feeling much of the warm response stems from their respect for del Toro as a visionary filmmaker. I really wanted to like Pacific Rim a lot more than I did because the last two Transformers movies just about destroyed my faith in humanity. The creature designs and action sequences fulfilled if not exceeded my expectations, but those things alone were not enough to reach the bar I had set for the movie.

3.25 stars out of 5

PS: No matter what you thought of Pacific Rim, the groundwork has been laid for what could potentially be a blistering sequel, apparently already in the works.