Tag Archives: Jake Gyllenhaal

Life (2017)

Wow. I really had no idea what to expect from Life, which I knew virtually nothing about other than that it was a horror sci-fi starring Ryan Reynolds and Jake Gyllenhaal (I didn’t even watch a single trailer). Such movies are usually a disappointment, so I am glad to report that I was thrilled with Life, a strong contender for biggest pleasant surprise of the year.

I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone, so I will simply say that the film takes place in the International Space Station following the return of a soil-collecting mission to Mars. I guess the title of the film explains the rest.

There are no big surprises in terms of the basic plot and its progression—you can more or less guess what happens on a general overall level. However, its the way director Daniel Espinosa deals with the story, characters and tension that makes Life one of the better if not best “man should not mess with nature” sci-fi horrors. It’s way better than the most recent one in the genre I watched, Morgan (from last year), and a notch above other ones I remember such as Splice (2009) and The Last Days on Mars (2013).

After an initial set-up introducing us to the premise and the characters, Life buckles down and becomes a terrifying and gripping horror movie that makes great use of man’s fear of the unknown and the claustrophobia provided by the interior of the space station. Some sci-fi movies are good at delivering an interesting idea but not at horror, while some horror movies are good at deliver the horror but not interesting ideas. Life is a rare film that manages to do both really well, and more than once I found myself either gripping the seat rest or reaching for my wife’s hand.

The film would not have been as effective but for the strong performances of the star cast, which apart from Gyllenhaal and Reynolds also includes Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation‘s Rebecca Ferguson, The Last Samurai‘s Hiroyuki Sanada, British actor Ariyon Bakare (most recently seen in Rogue One), and Belarusian actress Olga Dihovichnaya. One of the weaknesses of the film is that there’s not a whole lot of character development (they’re too busy being terrified), and the dialogue designed to promote character development was often clunky, but the performances are good enough that you still end up thinking of them as real people and caring about their fate.

Additionally, the special effects are excellent, not just with the creature designs but also the space station itself as well as the outer space sequences. It’s great that CGI is so good these days that you don’t even think about it and simply accept it as real. You can also tell proper research was undertaken to make the science in the film feel legitimate.

I don’t want to create unrealistic expectations because there are limits to what a film like Life can achieve. Within those limits, however, it mostly ticks all the right boxes and hits the right notes to give us a genuinely terrifying, thoughtful, well-scripted and well-acted horror sci-fi. It may fall short of becoming a classic, but it’s certainly worth watching if you are a fan of the genre.

4 stars out of 5

Nocturnal Animals (2016)

I thought Tom Ford only made suits? Well, it seems the fashion icon can make a wicked movie too. Nocturnal Animals, Ford’s second film after 2009’s A Single Man, is a damn masterpiece of a thriller.

With an intriguing storytelling structure that features a story within a story and well-timed flashbacks, Nocturnal Animals revolves around the character Susan Morrow (played by Amy Adams), an art gallery owner who receives a novel manuscript dedicated to her entitled “Nocturnal Animals” from her ex-husband, Edward Sheffield (Jake Gyllenhaal). Susan seemingly has the perfect life, living in a luxury mansion in LA, mixing with the sophisticated crowd and married to the dashing Hutton (Armie Hammer), and yet she feels rather empty. When she reads the manuscript, we are transported into the world of the novel, in which Tony Hastings (also played by Gyllenhaal) and his wife (Aussie Isla Fisher) and teenage daughter (Ellie Bamber) are on a road trip through Texas when they encounter a group of troublemakers led by Ray Marcus (played by an unrecognisable Aaron Taylor-Johnson).

The film thus jumps back and forth between the real world and the fictional world, and as Susan begins to ponder the imagery and parallels in the manuscript — as well as Edward’s intentions in sending the novel to her — she also begins to have flashbacks that reveal why their marriage collapsed in the first place. It’s a rather complex narrative structure that somehow works thanks to Ford’s brilliant script and storytelling. What I found most amazing about it is that the impact of the story in the fictional world was never muted or lessened by the fact that we know it’s just a novel. To the contrary, it almost felt more real than the real world, which had a hollow, surreal edge to it.

In any case, Nocturnal Animals is a fantastically controlled piece of cinema. You could tell Ford knew exactly what he wanted and what he was doing, from the portrayal of the characters to the costumes to the beautiful cinematography of the Texan landscape and the parallel images in the two worlds. The tension in the fictional world is incredibly crafted and is one of the most harrowing and devastating cinematic ordeals I’ve ever sat through. It was an absolute gut punch that had me wondering what I would do in the same situation and has been haunting me even days after watching the movie.

Much of the credit should go to Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s performance as Ray Marcus. To be honest, I couldn’t even tell it was him until nearly the very end of the film. From Kick-Ass to Savages to Godzilla to Avengers: Age of Ultron to now, he has proven himself to be one of the best chameleons of this generation, and it’s a travesty he was overlooked for Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination (though he did win a Golden Globe). Instead, the only Academy Award nomination Nocturnal Animals garnered was for Michael Shannon, who plays a detective in the fictional world. Yes, he’s very good in it, but I don’t think Shannon was any more deserving of a nomination than Adams or Gyllenhaal, both of whom delivered excellent and nuanced performances.

Kick-Ass (2010)
Savages (2012)
Godzilla (2014)
Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
Nocturnal Animals

There are 9 films nominated for Best Picture this year (out of a possible 10), and I think it’s a shame Nocturnal Animals isn’t part of that list. Apart from a narrative that expertly weaves multilayered stories together, edge-of-your-seat tension, and having a distinct visual flair and powerful performances, I also love how the film leaves a lot of room for interpretation all the way through to the end, which really makes you think about everything you’ve watched and what it could mean. It could have been so easy for Nocturnal Animals to fall into pretentious arty-farty territory, but what we ended up with instead was undoubtedly  one of the best films of the year.

5 stars out of 5

Everest (2015)

everest_ver2

I never got into mountain-climbing and I have never really got why people would be so into it. That has definitely not changed after Everest, the true story of the 1996 commercial expedition to climb the world’s highest mountain.

It’s a well-knowing incident, but as this is Spoiler-free Reviews, I’m going to assume nothing. That said, the fact that a movie was made about it means everything obviously wasn’t smooth sailing.

The biggest draw card of Everest is the star-studded ensemble cast, one of the most impressive of the year. There’s Aussie Jason Clarke, who doesn’t put much effort into his Kiwi accent as New Zealand guide Rob Hall, and Kiera Knightley, who plays his pregnant wife. There’s Josh Brolin, who plays American climber Beck Weathers, with an almost unrecognisable (especially if you have been watching House of Cards) Robin Wright as his wife.

I would say those two are the primary focus, with supporting roles filled out by Jake Gyllenhaal, John Hawkes, Sam Worthington, Michael Kelly, Emily Watson, Martin Henderson and Elizabeth Debicki. It’s an impressive list, but it doesn’t feel like a film merely trying to attract audiences with big names.

The start of the film plays out like you would expect, educating us about Everest while introducing to us all the various characters. The problems with the film, however, emerge quickly after that.

The feeling I got was that Icelandic director Baltasar Kormákur tried too hard to make a film that is not only realistic but more importantly remains respectful to the real-life people involved in the incident. People often complain when a movie “based on a true story” deviates too far from what really happened, and Everest probably suffers from the reverse of that because it just feels like nothing particularly exciting actually happens. The decision to take very few liberties (at least this was the feeling I got from watching it) and sticking to facts inevitably takes a lot away from the movie experience. It actually made me wonder whether they should have just made a documentary with some dramatic re-enactments instead.

To be fair, it’s not an action movie and the film is much more about the dramatic elements and the psychological anguish than anything else. However, Everest doesn’t quite get that right either, as I felt it lacked the emotional punch I had been hoping for. It stems from the plodding narrative and the simple fact that there are too many characters to keep track of, thereby diluting the connection to each individual character and their respective predicaments.

And I don’t know if this only applied to me, but there were also times when I struggled to tell who was who because everyone was dressed in full snow gear with their faces covered and ice pelting down on them.

The result is a film that never comes close to heart-pounding suspense and moving drama it was marketed as having. Despite the great cast and solid performances all round, Everest ends up being a well-made and respectable true-story film but also ultimately a hollow affair.

3 stars out of 5

Southpaw (2015)

Southpaw-Teaser-Poster

I still remember when I saw the first promo pic of Jake Gyllenhaal’s bloodied, ripped body for Southpaw, and turning gay for a second or two. Gyllenhaal had been in pretty good shape for Prince of Persia and Love and Other Drugs, though the intense boxing training he underwent for Southpaw took his physique to a level that even earned praise from the world’s most renowned bodybuilder, The Terminator himself (during a joint appearance on the Graham Norton Show).

What excited me more than Gyllenhaal’s physique was the promise of a genuinely good boxing movie. As an avid fan of the sweet science, I know just how rare boxing movies are, and how virtually non-existent good boxing movies are. But Fuqua has proven himself to be a skilled director through stellar efforts such as Training Day, Shooter, Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer, and the Oscar-nominated Gyllenhaal was coming off a downright phenomenal performance in Nightcrawler. Surely the two of them together could produce some magic.

Or so I thought.

And so it pains me to say that Southpaw was a huge disappointment, probably my biggest disappointment of the year so far. Despite packing so much promise, the film turned out to be a two-hour cliche fest filled with predictable plot points, stereotypes and unrealistic depictions of the boxing world. Not even Fuqua’s solid direction or Gyllenhaal’s abs could save it.

The story revolves around Billy Hope (Gyllenhaal), a hard-nosed, temperamental world champion light-heavyweight boxer raised through Brooklyn’s tough orphanage system with his beautiful wife (Rachel McAdams). All boxing movies are ultimately underdog stories, and Southpaw is no different, regardless of whether the protagonist starts from the bottom or from the top.

I don’t want to divulge much more about the plot than that, though if you’ve seen a single trailer or read any reviews with spoilers (most of them have) you’ll pretty much be able to guess all the main plot points from start to finish. Actually, you might be able to do that even if you haven’t.

There were multiple times during the film when I thought, I hope cliche X doesn’t happen next because it sure looks like it’s gonna happen! And then of course, BOOM, it happens exactly the way I feared. You may not be able to pinpoint exactly where you’ve seen specific plot points or scenes before, but it will all certainly feel very familiar. For some audiences, that safe feeling of predictability is welcome, but for me it was a low blow.

My problems with the movie really begin with the title, Southpaw. As a natural left-hander myself, I was hoping to see a southpaw protagonist as the title suggests. But guess what? The title is misleading! It’s not completely irrelevant to the story, but it’s almost as though they thought, hey, Southpaw would be a nice name for a boxing movie, nearly finish filming it, and then suddenly realise, Oh shit, we need to do something about that title! (The real reason is because the film was originally written for Eminem, a lefty in real life).

Next, I found the world in the movie to be lacking in authenticity. It’s hard for me to get into details without giving away spoilers, but essentially the boxing world that is depicted in the film is not how things work in real life. Not for big time boxing stars in the modern era (and that’s what Hope is — white, undefeated, exciting style, good-looking, etc). Everything from the promotional aspects to the financial aspects is manipulated to suit the narrative, and it sticks out like dogs balls for people who know a thing or two about how the frustratingly rigid fight game works these days.

These are just some general comments and not spoilers, but basically top-tier pay-per-view events need at least several months to promote. Even the Mayweather-Pacquiao fight, the biggest fight in boxing history, had about three months, and that was regarded as the absolute minimum even taking into account that the fight didn’t need a typical promotional tour because it would sell itself. Top-tier PPV draws and their promoters — on both sides — would not take on megafights at short notice (you need at least an eight-week training camp). Popular former champions — especially those still in their physical prime — wield considerable clout in the sport and will have no problem finding a manager or setting up a fight people will pay to see. And the amount of money PPV stars make these days is easily in the millions per fight, and if you’ve had a long and successful career you’ll be set for life many times over. We’re not even talking about the generational stars like Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao, who have in excess of US$400 million each in career ring earnings. Even second-tier or third-tier guys a lot of casual fans might not have heard of, like Paulie Malignaggi from Brooklyn, who boasts a modest career record of 33-7 (with 7 KOs) and generally fights on the undercards of big bouts, has an estimated net worth of about US$8 million. I’m not saying that the film ignores all these things completely, but just that it glosses over them with convenient cliches.

And for all the talk about brutally realistic boxing sequences and really getting punched, I actually didn’t find them that authentic. Kudos for getting real HBO commentators Jim Lampley and Roy Jones Jr and ring announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr and using the same cameras as the PPV telecasts, but if you watch a lot of real boxing you might think some of the fight scenes in Southpaw look quite choreographed. Not all of them, but the close ups in particular look very methodical. It might be the slightly exaggerated reactions to the punches or the studio-made sound effects, or perhaps it’s the stark contrast between the unorthodox brawling style of Hope and real world-class boxers. Granted, we’re a long way away from the arcade-game boxing of the early Rocky movies, though in terms of authenticity, Southpaw‘s fight scenes are still a notch or two below Ali and The Fighter (which have the advantage of real footage to emulate) and probably fall on the same level as Rocky Balboa. Watch them on YouTube and see if you agree. In fact, the most naturalistic boxing scenes in the entire film were from a short sparring session featuring real professional fighter Victor Ortiz.

The biggest problem with the movie is the lazy script. I mean, come on, naming the central character “Hope” so you can toss in a bunch of puns isn’t exactly subtle. Apart from the boxing issues I noted above, there are a lot of little nagging things. If you break down the major themes and plot points in the story — I’m not going to spell them out — you’ll see that they’ve pretty much all been recycled from the Rocky franchise. There are also unresolved issues that shouldn’t be unresolved, like a major incident early in the film (given away in the trailers) that is kind of forgotten until it is disposed of at the end with a throwaway line. And the fact that it was unresolved in the first place lacks logic and common sense.

Some of the errors are littered throughout the dialogue and can be glaring. I’m going to break a rule here and divulge a couple of mini-spoilers, so skip to the next paragraph if you don’t want to know. Otherwise, highlight the white text below to read me rant. 

At the start of the film, a reporter asks Hope whether there is anyone left for him to fight. Seconds later, Hope’s arch nemesis, a top up-and-coming fighter he has never faced, appears and challenges him to a bout. Why would the reporter ask such a stupid question when the answer is so obviously standing right there? The commentary written for the HBO commentators also has these problems, such as moronically declaring that a previously undefeated fighter’s career is over after one loss.

I feel bad for Jake Gyllenhaal because it’s obvious he put a lot of work and effort into this role. But surely a guy who has been in so many fantastic movies can tell Southpaw isn’t very good. It would have been interesting had Eminem gotten the role instead, but clearly Gyllenhaal is the better actor and stronger screen presence. Oh well, at least he got really ripped and learned how to box. And Eminem still got to a write a song for the movie.

As for the rest of the cast, Forest Whitaker does his usual shtick as an old trainer with serious skills and a heart of gold. It’s the type of role the Oscar-winner can sleepwalk through, and probably did. I like the guy who plays Hope’s nemesis, Miguel Gomez, who might not be a great actor but at least looks like a boxer. The problem for me is that he keeps reminding me of his character in TV’s campy zombie show The Strain. Rachel McAdams doesn’t get to do much, and the young girl who plays their daughter, Oona Laurence, doesn’t particularly stand out, though I blame some of that on the dialogue given to her. No such excuse for Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, who plays Hope’s manager. He’s flat-out horrible.

A lot of my harshness in this review stems from expectations and my fondness for the sport. Casual viewers who don’t think as much about the intricacies and are simply looking for an uplifting sports movie might find it a lot more enjoyable than I did. I wish I felt differently about the movie because I can see what they were trying to do with it — an underdog story of redemption that’s character-focused and fuelled by a moving father-daughter relationship — but ultimately the script and execution is so heavy-handed that I couldn’t see past all the flaws.

If I have to end this review with a boxing analogy I would say this: They say the  most devastating knockout punches in boxing are the ones you don’t see coming. Southpaw may hit very hard, but it’s nowhere near as effective as it should be because you can see all the punches coming from a mile away.

2 stars out of 5

2013 Movie Blitz: Part VI

I think this will be my final 2013 movie blitz. There may be more films to see, but if I don’t stop now I’ll never get to my best of and worst of lists for 2013. So here goes. It’s a good one.

Oculus (2013)

oculus-poster

I heard some good things about this horror flick, starring Dr Who’s Karen Gillan, about a pair of siblings who had their lives apparently destroyed by a cursed/haunted antique mirror. Years later, with the pair grown up, they try and fulfill their childhood promise — destroy the mirror, or die trying!

It sounds like a bit of a trite plot, I know, but Oculus deserves credit for a couple of things. First of all, it’s different to most of the haunted house movies out there in that it puts a creative twist on things with the mirror. Secondly, it cleverly tracks two parallel storylines, one from the siblings’ childhood and one from the present, providing an unusual but surprisingly effective contrast that adds suspense and ties the narrative together with a single thread. Thirdly, it makes good use of modern technology — ie, security cameras, etc — to help “capture” the ghosts and its bizarre powers, but without taking a “found footage” approach that could have ruined the entire thing.

I hadn’t seen Karen Gillan in anything before but she’s excellent here as the sister who is convinced she’s doing the right thing. Brenton Thwaites plays her brother, who just got out of a mental institution, and he’s pretty good too because I had no idea he’s an Aussie and Home & Away alumnus! Rory Chochrane, who I’ve seen in a bunch of things including Argo, plays the dad, and Katee Sachhoff, who’s been in 24 and Riddick (but best known for Battlestar Galactica) plays the mother.

There are some things in the film that don’t work quite as well and may come across as silly or just the usual stupid things characters in horror movies do, and the ending was extremely predictable (I guessed it as soon as I saw something about 20 minutes in), but on the whole Oculus is one of the better supernatural horror flicks in recent years. Made on a relatively shoestring $5 million budget, the film is smart and original, and it has a genuinely creepy atmosphere with some solid scares without being completely dependent on “boo!” moments. Excellent sequel potential as well. It may not be quite as good as I had expected after hearing the rave reviews, but at the very least it will make an excellent DVD or on-demand choice for a rainy night in.

3.5 stars out of 5

Enemy (2013)

enemy-poster

Jake Gyllenhaal has been in some movies that can challenge the brain a little bit, like Source Code and of course his breakthrough film Donnie Darko. Well, Enemy, based on José Saramago’s 2002 novel The Double, is way more insane than all of his other films put together. In fact, I still have no idea what I just watched. There are plenty of theories out there, but I’m in the camp of people who think it’s pretty much all BS. It’s the most mind-boggling movie I’ve seen since Mulholland Drive.

The premise is not hard to follow. Gyllenhaal plays Adam, a lonely history professor, rents a movie one night and sees an actor who looks exactly like him. And so he seeks out his doppelganger and finds Anthony, a bit actor who has a much more aggressive personality. The rest of the film is about them being spooked out by it and then trying to figure out how to handle the situation, or even take advantage of it.

In some ways, Enemy can be categorized as an erotic thriller because both Adam and Anthony have partners (girlfriend and pregnant wife) and it is for some reason quite sexually charged. But there is something about the film that is just “off.” There is a surreal feel to the experience, which is slow and contemplative but also magnetically compelling. The people don’t act and react like normal people, and some of the decisions they make and things they say are downright baffling. It comes across as a twisted parable of some kind as opposed to any attempt at a “realistic” film.

And the ending, of course, is the big WTF moment. Some will say it’s brilliant, others will say it’s the stupidest thing they’ve ever seen — but I think most will agree that it is indeed shocking.

This is a difficult film to rate because while I admit it was tense while I watched it and admired the performance from Gyllenhaal, I am also annoyed that I had to effectively sit through something I’ll probably never understand. And the thing is, that’s likely the way it was intended.

2.5 stars out of 5

August: Osage County (2013)

august_osage_county_ver2_xlg

Based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning play of the same name, August: Osage County is more or less an acting exhibition from a superstar cast including Meryl Streep, Julia Roberts (both nominated for Oscars in their respective roles), Chris Cooper, Ewan McGregor, Benedict Cumberbatch, Dermot Mulroney, Sam Shepard, Juliette Lewis (remember her?!) and Abigail Breslin.

But is it any good? Well, yes and no. I kind of understand why the film was awarded the dubious honour of “Not-So-Obviously Worst Film” by the Oklahoma Film Critics Circle, because without all the great performances it is just an average, albeit hysterical family drama sprinkled with a dash of occasional black humour.

The plot centers around Meryl Streep’s cancer-ridden, snarky matriarch of the family, Violet, who also has an addiction to narcotics. Her husband, Beverly (Sam Shepard) disappears, then turns up dead, and the rest of her family shows up for the funeral, including her eldest daughter Barbara (Julia Roberts), her estranged husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) and their teenage daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin); her sister and her sister’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their loser son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch); her middle daughter Ivy (Julianne Nicholson); and her youngest daughter Karen (Juliette Lewis) and her sleazy fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney).

From there, it’s just a whole lotta acting from one of the greatest ensemble casts ever assembled. It’s intense and it’s heavy, with a lot of shouting and swearing matches, arguments and people flipping out. Some of it is funny — it is, after all, a dark comedy of sorts — but there’s nothing about August: Osage County that made me forget I was watching great actors as opposed to great characters. I enjoyed watching Hollywood heavyweights go at it and I was impressed with how it was put together, but ultimately it was a hollow experience lacking in that resonating quality of top dramas.

3 stars out of 5

Mud (2012)

mud

Technically, Mud is a 2012 film, but I’m adding it here because it didn’t get a wide release until May 2013. It’s marketed as a Matthew McConaughey vehicle and is one of the first films in his amazing run from Magic Mike to his Oscar-winning performance in Dallas Buyers Club and the acclaimed True Detective — but this is really a coming-of-age story about a teenager living off the banks of the Arkansas River.

That teenager, Ellis, is played by Tye Sheridan, a rising star who has been in Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and will soon be seen in the adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. His strong portrayal of a likable protagonist fuels Mud, one of those throwback films that captures the innocence, hope and heartbreak of adolescence. Instead of loitering the streets, Ellis and his friend Neckbone (Jacob Lofland) invent their own adventures by climbing trees and scavenging the woods. They are wary of strangers but more curious rather than afraid of them. And even when they do teenager things (like say vulgar things and punch people) there’s a childlike naivete to them that’s endearing. It’s not clear what time period the film is set in (it could be the present), but the rural backdrop away from the modern vices of smartphones and the internet definitely goes a long way to achieving the nuances writer and director Jeff Nichols was aiming for.

One day Ellis, whose parents are struggling both financially and in their marriage, comes across a tree with an abandoned boat stuck on it. The boat is occupied by the titular Mud (McConaughey), an enigmatic squatter with a mysterious background that involves a pretty but damaged blonde called Juniper (played by Reese Witherspoon). Ellis and Neckbone befriend Mud and become his little helpers, though they don’t realise that their benevolence could end up putting their lives in danger.

McConaughey has gotten a lot of praise for his performance as Mud. In my opinion, after having seen a plethora of interviews around his Oscar win, he only deserves half of the credit because was he simply playing himself. Mud is an eccentric fellow who says weird stuff that sounds profound but is really quite stupid, or pretentious even. That’s McConaughey!

Anyway, despite my prejudices against Mr Alright Alright Alright, I can’t deny Mud is a superior coming-of-age flick that brings back warm memories of classics like Stand By Me and of course Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. It’s a good-looking film with fantastic cinematography, solid performances (with a cast that also includes Michael Shannon, Sam Shepard and Sarah Paulson) and plenty of heart. It’s slightly overlong at 130 minutes given its deliberately managed pace, though having said that I was engaged throughout. A pleasant surprise.

3.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Prisoners (2013)

Prisoners poster

I really wanted to watch this one and I’m glad I got the chance because it’s very very good. It’s the type of film that could have been a B-movie but ended up being a punch-in-the-gut type thriller because of the confident direction of Denis Villeneuve, the terrific ensemble cast and powerful performances by the two leads, Hugh Jackman and Jake Gyllenhaal.

The story starts off simple: Jackman and his wife Maria Bello take their daughter to the home of their friends played by Terrence Howard and Viola Davis, who have a daughter of their own. The two girls go missing, and Jackman, who is a bit of a hotheaded psycho, decides to take matters into his own hands even though the case is being handled by a very capable detective played by Gyllenhaal. That’s a nice little premise summary that doesn’t give too much away, and the only thing I will add is that the film’s title is an apt one.

Prisoners is a dark, disturbing and emotional roller coaster ride that will have you questioning right and wrong and the lengths you would go to if your own child was taken and you feel like the police aren’t doing their job properly. It’s brutally violent but not in a gratuitous way because the psychological impact wouldn’t have been the same without it. There aren’t a lot, but there a few solid twists and turns which I much prefer to a lot of cheap ones, and it keeps up the tension as the characters become more desperate with the clock running out.

A big part of the reason why the film is so compelling is the performances of Jackman and Gyllenhall. These are complex characters with demons lurking behind them in the shadows, without these two Oscar-nominated actors in the roles I’m not sure all the layers could have been brought out as well as they were.

Also fantastic is Paul Dano, who I have always been a big fan of, as a mentally challenged suspect. Melissa Leo is again a chameleon in yet another unrecognisable role, while Terrence Howard, Viola Davis and Mario Bello round out the superb ensemble cast by making the most of their more limited screen time.

While there is nothing jaw-dropping or groundbreaking about the plot and the final revelations don’t quite live up to the rest of the film, Prisoners is still one of the best suspense thrillers of the year, an unsettling, creepy climb into darkness thanks to effective execution and great performances from the all-star cast.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: End of Watch (2012)

I initially wasn’t planning on watching End of Watch even though it was directed and written by David Ayer, the same guy who gave us Training Day (as well as SWAT and Street Kings) — which was fantastic but also emotionally draining and exhausting to get through because it was so heavy duty. The trailer made it look like just another gritty cop drama, which I usually prefer to catch on DVD rather than at the cinemas. But in the end, strong word of mouth won me over.

The film stars Jake Gyllenhaal and Michael Pena as two police officers working in South Central LA, which is one nasty place filled with drug dealers, gangs and drive by shootings. Gyllenhaal’s character is doing a film project for class, which requires him to carry around a camera whilst on duty.

I didn’t like how the film started or where it appeared to be heading. I am sick of these “found footage” or faux documentary films made with shaky cameras that make me want to throw up, and End of Watch initially made me think that the whole film was going to be a frustratingly nauseating ride.

Fortunately, although somewhat strangely, the film more or less reverted back to traditional film-making methods with steady shots, interspersed with these film project cams and other police security cams (such as from their patrol vehicle). On the one hand it was a relief knowing I wouldn’t have to feel like vomiting all throughout the movie, but on the other it begged the question of why those shaky shots were necessary at all, given it wasn’t pretending to be real footage anyway.

Like Training Day, End of Watch is gritty and hardcore, with intense action, edge-of-your-seat suspense and confronting scenes that challenge the audience to not avert their gaze. The key difference between the two films is that End of Watch is driven by the close friendship and brotherhood between the two leads. I like Gyllenhaal and I love Pena (I think he is one of Hollywood’s funniest and most underrated actors), so I guess that helped skew things in the film’s favour for me.

The movie is dedicated to police officers, but it’s not a total suck job like say Act of Valor. The characters are presented as believable people with personality quirks and flaws, real hopes and fears. It’s proof that well fleshed out characters can do wonders in terms of engaging the audience.

The supporting cast is also solid, including the recently omnipresent Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez, who play the partners of the two leads, as well as America Ferrera aka Ugly Betty, a no-nonsense female police officer. Special mention goes to Yahira Garcia, who was frighteningly convincing as gang member Lala (at least for someone who has no idea what gang members act like).

End of Watch is a film that creeps up on you. In the beginning I was thought I was going to hate it because of the camera issues. Then for a while I thought it was repetitive and wasn’t getting anywhere — it felt like a Cops marathon, with the two officers going on episodic missions, one after another, with no real sense of a progressive narrative.

Eventually, as the various strands began to become tied together, I discovered that it was actually a very well-crafted film. The final climax, in particular, was riveting stuff, as suspenseful as anything I’ve seen from an action or thriller this year. It was also good to see the film not bow down to cliches and finish on a strong note that tugs the heartstrings by just the right amount.

On the whole, End of Watch wasn’t quite what I had expected, but it turned out to be a satisfying experience largely thanks to the genuine chemistry between Gyllenhaal and Pena. I did have some issues with the arguably unnecessary shaky camera and an occasionally stagnant narrative during the first half, but all things considered it’s still a superior action thriller.

4 stars out of 5!

PS: It’s actually a good thing if you don’t know what End of Watch means (its a euphemism) because it gives away part of the plot.

10 Movies That Make Men Want to Work Out

I say this with an unblemished record of heterosexuality (not that there’s anything wrong with that).  Have you ever watched a movie that made you want to go work out afterwards?

I have.  Well, I’ve never actually gone out and done it, but real men would have.

What I have noticed is that these films usually feature men who were either previously unknown to mainstream audiences and/or have undergone amazing physical transformations.  For example, Arnie or Stallone films rarely have that ‘Wow’ factor because they’ve always looked that way, and in any case from my research it seems looking ‘cut’ is generally preferred to looking ‘buffed’.  Anyway, it’s no surprise that the Internets is filled with guides on how to transform your body to replicate the following movie stars.

Without further ado, these are what I think are the 10 films that have inspired more meatheads than any other.

(click on ‘more’ to read on)

Continue reading 10 Movies That Make Men Want to Work Out

Movie Review: Source Code (2011)

There’s nothing like a clever, action-packed sci-fi film to get the mind spinning and the blood pumping, and that’s exactly what Source Code is.

Jake Gyllenhaal wakes up on a Chicago-bound train sitting across from Michelle Monaghan, not knowing how he got there and uncertain of who he is.

Without giving away too much, there’s a terrorist threat and he’s the only one that can stop it, thanks to some top secret military experiment that allows him to relive the same eight minutes over and over again.  I’ll stop there, but there’s a lot more to the story than just that.

To be fair, it’s not exactly an original idea, because we’ve seen this type of concept before, perhaps most recently in Tony Scott’s 2006 film Deja Vu, starring Denzel Washington.  But Source Code, directed by David Bowie’s son Duncan Jones, and based on a screenplay written by Ben Ridley, is a much better film that intrigues from start to finish with its compelling mysteries, many twists and turns, and some top notch performances from its stars (in particular Gyllenhaal and Vera Farmiga, though I thought Jeffrey Wright’s performance was a little over the top).

Initially I was concerned because the idea of reliving the same eight minutes over and over for even a 93-minute film seemed kind of tiring to me.  But thankfully, the film was much more than that, creating such different scenarios each time and mixing it up with interesting breaks in between, never making the film repetitive and always making you wonder what will happen next.

What set it apart from others similar films in the genre, however, was the crafty human edge they managed to splice with the techno-thriller plot.  Without being corny or overly melodramatic (always such a fine, difficult line), Source Code featured some unexpected moments of tenderness and packed more heart than films of this type could have hoped for.

Of course, as with most sci-fi movies, logic issues and plot holes are always there if you go looking for them.  But on an overall level, I was satisfied with all the explanations once we got to the end.  In any case, with all the tension and trying to figure out the mystery of the ‘Source Code’, it wasn’t hard to overlook the flaws.

4 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