Tag Archives: The Rock

The Fate of the Furious (2017)

Like a sizeable portion of its fans, I didn’t really “get” The Fast and the Furious franchise until about the fourth entry or so, when the films started to embrace the cheese and its own ludicrousness. The crazy action kept ramping up unapologetically as the cast became a likable “family” fans could root for. The fun culminated in a Puthy climax in Furious 7, where we bid a tearful farewell to Paul Walker (“It’s been a long day without you my friend…”)

I thought it was a good place to end the franchise, but of course that was never going to be the case when the Furious 7 made over 1.5 billion dollars at the box office. And thus when Mini-Me on steroids (Vin Diesel) announced that Fate of the Furious would kickstart the “final trilogy” of the franchise (who the hell does that?), no one was surprised. The question was, would they be able to continue upping the action and stakes when things were already cranked up to 11?

The Fate of the Furious is a lame name, but I was still optimistic because they were bringing back Jason Statham and adding Charlize Theron as the villain. If you’ve seen the trailers, you’ll know Dom (Diesel) turns to the dark side this time around for some reason and takes on his old “family” alongside Charlize. You also knew that the reason would be incredibly contrived.

The film starts off in Havana and appears to be paying homage to the franchise’s roots with an exciting drag race featuring Dom, but very soon the film returns to the heist formula that has worked so well for it in recent years. Kurt Russell is back as Mr. Nobody, and Clint Eastwood’s offspring, Scott, is introduced as a new comic relief character to add a bit of freshness to the cast. Familiar faces such as Michelle Rodriguez, Tyrese and Ludacris are also back, as is The Rock and the aforementioned Statham.

There are a lot of things to like about The Fate of the Furious, directed by F. Gary Gray (Straight Outta Compton) which does pare things back a little but manages to add some very creative ideas to make up for the relatively less intensive action of its predecessors. There is one lengthy sequence featuring unmanned vehicles that should end up as one of the best action scenes of the year, albeit with some shaky CGI at times. To satisfy its core audience, there are still sexy girls in skimpy clothes and plenty of cheesy humour, neither of which really worked for me most of the time because it comes across as trying too hard.

My favourite dynamic of the film remains the feud between The Rock’s Luke Hobbs and Statham’s Deckard Shaw, who somehow goes from irredeemable villain (for killing Han) to just another lovable member of the family. The prison sequence in the trailer is as good as advertised, and Statham has a well-choreographed solo sequence later on that stands as probably the most fun part of the film.

My biggest problem with the movie is still the character of Dom and Vin Diesel, whose head just keeps growing bigger and bigger with each installment of the franchise. Diesel can’t seem to stop playing these characters who have no flaws and are supposed to be so righteous, suave, cool and sexy all the time and loved by everyone. When The Rock does it, I can almost let it go because he has the charm to pull it off. When Diesel does it, I just find it cringeworthy. It’s almost embarrassing because we all know he only gets to play such characters because he’s a producer. I had just watched Diesel take his insufferableness to another level in the latest XxX movie, so perhaps that heightened my aversion to Dom even more than usual.

In the end, The Fate of the Furious turned out better than I had expected, largely due to Statham and Theron, but it’s still a step down from both a pure action level as well as an emotional level compared to the last couple of entries in the franchise. I enjoyed it overall, though I’d say it was probably one of the weaker installment in the franchise since Tokyo Drift (which I liked more than most because I’m a fan of drifting and I love Tokyo and Lucas Black).

3.5 stars out of 5

Moana (2016)

Once a man has children, he’s going to start watching more animated movies. And look, there are some animated films that I absolutely adore, but in general, my interest level in them is quite low.

This brings us to Moana, the latest Disney animated feature about a girl in a Polynesian tribe (the eponymous Moana, voiced by Auli’i Cravalho in her debut) who embarks on a mystical sea quest with a demigod voiced by Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson to give back a stolen stone to a goddess. It’s really a lot simpler than that sounds.

I took my five-year-old son to see it today and he thought it was great. I was surprised by how long the movie was — 107 minutes, pretty long for an animation — but he was able to sit through it without a problem. It was me, actually, who needed to go to the toilet and fell asleep for a few minutes toward the end (I was really tired!). But that’s not to say Moana is not a decent movie. As animated films go, it’s actually pretty good, and I think it gives Kubo and the Two Strings (my review here) a run for its money as the favourite for Best Animated Feature at the Oscars next month.

In typical Disney fashion, Moana is spectacular to look at, especially with its abundance of bright colours and beautiful sea views. Kubo is beautiful in its own way because of the stop-motion animation, though for me, Moana is one of the most visually dazzling animations I’ve seen this year or any year. The film also boasts plenty of singing, action, cute characters, comedic moments, and a nice little message about believing in yourself and having the courage to make a change, etc etc. It’s a fun family affair with catchy tunes (“How Far I’ll Go”, in particular, is a winner and a threat to one of the La La Land songs at the Oscars), comedy for all ages, and a dash of heart. You should know the Disney formula by now.

So yeah, it’s another enjoyable, feel-good animated movie that didn’t really blow me away or connect with me on a deeper emotional level (like say Up or Toy Story 3). It was humorous, sure, and of course action packed, though I didn’t feel like the film’s performance in these two departments elevated it above any of the other popular Disney flicks in recent years (Big Hero 6, Wreck-It-Ralph, Frozen and Tangled). That being said, I really don’t have much to complain about the movie other than that it’s a tad on the long side, with a couple of moments that I felt dragged on and could have been trimmed to keep up the pace. Apart from that, all good.

3.5 stars out of 5

San Andreas (2015)

San Andreas

From the introductory scenes of San Andreas I could already tell that it was going to be big and stupid. But I also hoped that it would be big and stupid popcorn excitement and fun. Call it mission half-accomplished.

Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is an LA Fire  Department Air Rescue pilot unstoppable at rescuing people apart from himself, as he’s on the verge of divorce from his wife Emma, played by Carla Gugino. Emma’s moved on already with a mega wealthy property developer played by the original movie Mr Fantastic, Ioan Gruffuld, though fortunately for The Rock he’s still on good terms with his stunning daughter Blake, played by the stunning Alexandra Daddario.

Of course, a major disaster strikes the Bay Area and The Rock must do everything humanly possible (and let’s face it, inhumanly possible too) — including misappropriating government property for personal use at the time of a major disaster — to save his family. Cue epic action music!

The first thing I’ll say is that this movie is painfully predictable. It follows the archetypal disaster blockbuster template to a T. It’s as though director Brad Peyton (best known for, er, Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore) and screenwriter Carlton Cuse (showrunner and writer on the campy sci-fi TV series The Strain) were handed a list of standard disaster plot points and characters and had to tick them off one by one.

Consequently, if you’ve seen any disaster movie before, you’ll likely be able to guess in this movie what will happen next, which characters will live and which will die, and how the character relationships and conflicts will be resolved. It’s actually quite funny.

The second problem is that the film takes itself far too seriously. I was hopeful in the beginning because the introductory sequence had a somewhat tongue-in-cheek tone, though the remainder of the movie suffers from a serious dearth of laughs and had one too many cringeworthy “dramatic” heart-to-heart scenes. Unintentional humour aside, there are really no jokes or gags in the film. Were they trying to balance the tone since millions of people probably died? Whatever the reason, it saps a lot of fun out of the experience. I’ve always stuck with the philosophy that if a film’s going to be cheesy it might as well go all in.

The action sequences are indeed well-executed and occasionally heart-thumping. San Andreas clearly takes a page out of the Fast and Furious franchise in that everyone lives in a world where the laws of physics do not exist and humans are borderline indestructible  — when the plot calls for it. They smash, they crash, they explode and get tossed all over the place, and most of the time they escape with nothing more than a scratch or two.

I later found out that the movie was shot primarily in Queensland, though it really could have been shot anywhere as it’s obvious the vast majority of action scenes were CGI. The effects were decent for a modern blockbuster, though there are times when it’s obvious we’re watching green-screen creations. There’s just something about the textures of the buildings and the landscape that doesn’t look quite realistic. There was also one shot of a photo where it was blatantly obvious that a young Daddario was photoshopped in.

Apart from the core cast, the lead supporting actor would have to be Paul Giamatti, who plays the scientist no one believes when he says the world is going to end. The weird thing is that, if we’re being honest here, he didn’t even have to be in the movie at all. I guess it was on the checklist. Aussie actor Hugo Johnstone-Burt also has a pretty big role as a Brit with a convincing accent, while Kyle Minogue (I was like WTF?! when she appeared) makes a jarring cameo to round out the local contingent cast.

The saving grace of San Andreas is The Rock, who has a magnetic charm and screen presence that instantly makes any movie more watchable. Surprisingly, he doesn’t get to do nearly as much as he has done — from a physical standpoint — in other recent action blockbusters he has been in, though just the fact that he’s on screen makes you feel like you’re in safe hands. Moreover, you’re never going to hear me complain whenever Alexandra Daddario is on screen.

Other positives include a welcome narrow focus — essentially just one family — which reduces the number of pointless characters, a manageable running-time of 114 minutes, and of course the spectacle of the whole thing. The sweeping catastrophe scenes aren’t jaw-dropping anymore because we’ve seen them so many times, but the visuals and execution are at least to be on par with other modern disaster flicks.

On the whole, San Andreas is a fairly typical disaster blockbuster in the vein of 2012, The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Into the Storm and so forth. It’s predictable, corny as hell, ridiculously unrealistic and fuelled by CGI special effects. The presence of The Rock elevates it above average, though it really could have been a lot better had they just lightened up a little and embraced the cheese.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Furious 7 (2015)

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The Fast & Furious franchise has more or less perfected the craft — a team of familiar characters and stars, suped-up cars, scantily clad women, stylised violence, over-the-top action sequences and a truckload of cheesy one-liners. It’s a formula that has worked wonders for the last few entries, and Furious 7 takes it up yet another notch notwithstanding a major director change from Justin Lin to James Wan. Though Wan is known as a master of horror (Saw, Insidious, The Conjuring), the Aussie legend doesn’t miss a beat.

As I’m not a car fanatic and can’t stop thinking of Mini-me on steroids whenever I see Vin Diesel’s face, I’ve always been somewhat “meh” about the Fast & Furious franchise. This time, however, I stopped hoping for something I knew I was never going to get and just went along for the ride. As a result, I had a blast. If you’re after the ultimate popcorn movie, look no further — this is it.

The film takes place after the events of Fast 6 and around the time of Tokyo Drift (the third film in the franchise), which unfortunately means we are missing the cool Asian guy (Han) and is hot Israeli girlfriend (Gisele), with Sung Kang and Gal Gadot relegated to brief flashbacks, though Tokyo’s new drift king, Lucas Black, does make a triumphant return in a cameo, looking about 10 years older for some strange reason (racing with Mini-me must have taken a lot out of him).

On the bright side, the loss of Han and Gisele ensures more time for the other characters and offers enough room for the addition of Game of Thrones’ Nathalie Emmanuel, who plays a hacker Kurt Russell wants Mini-me’s gang to track down so the US government can get their hands back on a super surveillance device called God’s Eye. The trade-off is that if Mini-me can get it for Russell he’ll be able to use it to track down supervillain Jason Statham, who plays the big brother of the baddie from the last movie (Luke Evans).

This premise allows the film to do several things. It still gets to do the whole heist thing that has worked well for the franchise the last few times, while also setting up epic set pieces to showcase the talents of the characters and cast. Apart from crazy car stunts, the film is highlighted by several brutal one-on-one confrontations. The Rock, Mini-me, Paul Walker and Michelle Rodriguez all have their own well-choreographed fight scenes, but the best ones of course involve Statham, who absolutely shines in this role with his slick moves and brooding charisma, and elevates the movie several levels above what it should have been. He’s the perfect addition and the most memorable villain in the franchise — by far.

Two other new characters to steal a couple of scenes are MMA queen Ronda Rousey and Thai martial arts expert Tony Jaa, each of whom get to show off their stuff by squaring off against members of Mini-me’s gang. The only guy who doesn’t get to do much is Djimon Hounsou, a bland secondary villain who pales in comparison to Statham.

So just when you thought the batshit insanity of the last two films the franchise could not be topped, here comes this masterclass in how to depict over-the-top action, car chases and violence on the big screen. Cars and bodies are constantly being tossed, crashed into and mangled throughout, in ways that would be laughable had everyone involved not embraced the absurdity with so much genuine enthusiasm and confidence. Everyone’s pretty much indestructible unless they need to die.

This is the type of movie that The Expendables wants to be and what Michael Bay has been trying to make every time he sits in the director’s chair. What sets Furious 7 apart is the creativity and the overall sense of fun. It’s not just big, loud explosions all the time and obnoxious characters shooting things with massive guns. Furious 7 has likable characters who take on their tasks with just the right amount of cheesiness, and they’re put in situations we might not have necessarily seen before. You can complain about the cliches and the bad dialogue and the stupidity of it all, or you can embrace it like I finally am.

Of course, everyone will remember this one as Paul Walker’s last film after the actor died tragically in a car crash before the film was completed. Furious 7 does a great job of finishing off his scenes with his brothers as stand-ins coupled with CGI effects, and more importantly it provides him with a moving tribute by offering his character a fitting send-off. He’ll be missed, but with The Rock and Jason Statham likely becoming franchise regulars, there should be some life left in this series yet.

4 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Hercules (2014)

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Let’s get something straight. This is Hercules starring The Rock, not The Legend of Hercules, the wannabe effort starring Twilight alumnus Kellan Lutz. The Legend of Hercules, released at the beginning of the year, was an appetizer: the cast was B-grade, the budget was relatively small (US$70 million) for “blockbuster standards,” and the overall effort felt underwhelming. Directed by Renny Harlin (of Die Hard 2 fame), it’s not anywhere near as bad as its Rotten Tomatoes 3% rating suggests, but everyone knew it would pale in comparison to the main course: the Brett Ratner version with The Rock in the titular role.

True to predictions, Hercules is a vastly superior film to The Legend of Hercules. That said, the two are very different movies in that apart from the name of the central protagonist, everything else is completely different.

The Legend of Hercules is a typical origins story that depicts Hercules’ life from conception to birth to rise. It’s a typical Hollywood endeavor that follows a straight, predictable line all the way through just like you’d expect.

Hercules, on the other hand, turned out to be unlike what I anticipated. When I saw the trailer, I had expected the film to follow a similar trajectory to The Legend of Hercules, just with a better lead actor, bigger budget, and skilled execution of both drama and action. When I actually saw the film, I realised how misleading the trailers were. Strangely, the Hercules in this film is much more grounded in reality. He does have amazing strength and skill as a soldier, but it leaves the truth of his legendary feats up in the air. Did they really happen, are they blatant exaggerations, or are they completely made up to fuel his reputation? The film lets us draw our own conclusions on these questions, and even asks whether it really matters.

And the film has a whole lot of fun too. The trailers made the film look like a straight-shooter, but it is actually full of wisecracks and tongue-in-cheek jokes. Everything about it surprised me. It was not what I thought it would be, and yet it was the right way — probably the best way — to go about making a film on the legendary demi-god.

The story, based on Hercules: The Thracian Wars from Radical Comics, begins when Hercules is already a legend leading a band of mercenaries that includes a prophet (Ian McShane), a feral warrior (Askel Hennie), a knife-throwing thief (Rufus Sewell), and Amazonia archer (Nicole Kidman lookalike Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), and his nephew/propaganda chief Iolaus (Reece Ritchie). Legend has it that Hercules, who has already completed the Twelve Labors, is the son of Zeus, and it’s a legend that served the mercenaries well in getting a new job from Lord Cotys (John Hurt), who wants them to train the Thracian armies to defeat the warlord Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann).

I don’t mean to shit on anyone, but The Rock is a much better Hercules than pretty-boy Lutz, who may look more like the traditional Disney version but is so wooden he might as well be portraying Annabelle (the demonic doll). And I like Lutz a lot. I think he’s a humble, hardworking guy doing his best.

The Rock makes Hercules flesh and blood, and uses his charisma to turn the demi-god into a likable protagonist who is more self-aware than he should be. I liked the idea of him having a loyal team to support him so that he has people he cares about and fights for, and luckily for the film, each of the team members are developed sufficiently so we know who they are and how to distinguish them.

The action scenes are done well, with the right amount of special effects, though they do fall short of the epic scales of other battle films in recent years. The Rock’s presence always makes fight scenes more explosive than they otherwise would be, but on the whole the film failed to deliver anything we haven’t already seen on battlefields before.

Hercules falls well short of the classic I had been hoping for because it fails to excel in either the action, drama or plot. That said, it is solid in all those respects and does not take itself too seriously, allowing The Rock to take care the rest by carrying the film on his insanely buffed shoulders. A breezy popcorn movie that’s never as good as it should be, but good enough for a fun time. It’s not a must-see by any means, but it’s the no-brainer pick if you plan on seeing only one Hercules flick this year.

3.25 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Legend of Hercules (2014)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.25 stars out of 5

Recent Movie Reviews: Part VI

I’m back with some more reviews of 2013 films I watched in recent months.

The Grandmasters (2013)

Grandmasters

Hong Kong director Wong Kar-wai is regarded as an artist with classics such as Chunking Express and In the Mood for Love on his impressive resume. So when I heard he was directing The Grandmasters, about the life of Wing Chun grandmaster Ip Man (played by Tony Leung, though Donnie Yen previously played the role in the eponymous Ip Man films), I had reasonable expectations for something with more beauty and depth than some of the manufactured Hollywood wannabes I’ve seen, such as Hero, The Promise and Curse of the Golden Flower, all of which felt like they valued style over substance by a considerable margin.

The film has been selected as Hong Kong’s entry for Best Foreign Film at next year’s Oscars, but I don’t think it is quite good enough to secure a nomination (though what the hell would I know?). The good thing about Grandmasters is that it has some of the most beautiful fight scenes ever filmed. While they have a strange air of authenticity to them due to the genuine Wing Chun moves, they are really more art fantasy than anything else, and I think that’s a good thing. The performances of Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are also strong and you could have fooled me into believing that they both had years of martial arts training.

The bad thing about The Grandmasters is that when the characters aren’t fighting the film crawls along at a snail’s pace with lots of pretty images, which is fine but could put a lot of people to sleep. I was also kind of shocked that the story itself wasn’t more interesting. On a side note, I found the casting of Korean star Song Hye-kyo, who rose to fame in the TV drama Full House with Rain, a complete distraction. I had no idea what she was doing there as Ip Man’s wife, and it seems she didn’t either, as she said in an interview that there was “a bit of friction and misunderstanding” during filming with the director.

Overall, there are positives and negatives to take away from The Grandmasters. I’ve seen parts of the second Ip Man film and that was complete trash. The Grandmasters also wipes the floor with most of the other ambitious and flashy kung fu films I mentioned above. But at an unnecessarily long 130 minutes (I watched the full Chinese version) and with so many flaws, it really a great film? I think it falls short.

3.5 stars out of 5

The Heat (2013)

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I like Melissa McCarthy (photoshopped or not) and I can tolerate Sandra Bullock, but both are actresses I can’t see too much of at once, or else I’d get sick of them. This is why I wasn’t initially enthused about their action comedy buddy movie, The Heat, about a couple of FBI agents trying to take down a mobster.

They basically play versions of characters they have played before. Bullock is the uptight, goofy, ditzy detective who is dorky but adorable. McCarthy is the foul, abrasive loudmouth with the sharp one-liners and insults. Surprisingly, they have fairly good chemistry and as a result the movie was better than I expected.

Still, this is a formula movie that progresses as you would expect – the initial wariness, the bonding, the fallout, and the best buddy reunion just in time for the climatic finish. The Heat has some good laughs, some of which at the expense of an albino and McCarthy’s dysfunctional hillbilly family, but there is nothing gut-bustingly hilarious or memorable about it or even just specific scenes or conversations.

For me, I had a reasonably amusing time with it, but somewhere along the final third the film started to run out of steam and I wanted to more than the same clichés and jokes they were throwing at me.

2.75 stars out of 5

Snitch (2013)

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Snitch is about an “ordinary” father who would do anything to save his son from a lengthy prison sentence and decides to put his life on the line by going undercover to gather evidence on dangerous drug lords to get his son a plea bargain.

The problem is, the dad is played by The Rock, who despite his best efforts to look scared and vulnerable, is still THE ROCK. Apart from this weird casting choice, however, Snitch is a pretty solid crime drama that is heavy on the grit and the atmospheric tension, though at the end of the day it’s not as riveting or exciting as I hoped it would be.

Much of the film centers on The Rock’s efforts to infiltrate the drug world with the help of one of his employees, Jon Bernthal from The Walking Dead, who is alive and well this time. And it’s a scary world with lots of bad people with guns and intimidating faces, though you would have to assume that in real life they would take one look at The Rock and scamper in the opposite direction.

On the side of the “good guys” are Barry Pepper, who plays a bearded agent, and Susan Sarandon, who plays the US attorney who can cut a deal for The Rock’s son. Good actors and good performances, but I thought their characters were poorly written, with Sarandon’s in particular a real cardboard cliché.

I suppose director Ric Roman Waugh went for dark realism in this one, which means you don’t get to see The Rock kicking ass and doing his thing, even though there are shootouts and car chases. You get to see his amazing “acting” muscles in action instead.

It’s a thoughtful film about the way the justice system works but I think it could have been better had the execution been sharper and the direction less muddled. As a result, it kind of works as a crime drama but is not a particularly effective action movie.

3 stars out of 5

Curse of Chucky (2013)

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One of my favourite horror movies growing up was the 1988 classic Child’s Play, which kept me up at night and made me forever fearful of dolls. I was also a fan of the next two sequels which kept the straight-laced horror, but then the franchise took a turn towards comedy with the next two installments, Bride of Chucky and Seed of Chucky (the latter of which I haven’t seen). I think Chucky lost a lot of his cache with those two films (a mixed bag at best), which is why I was happy to see the straight-to-DVD Curse of Chucky, a welcome return to darker tone of the original.

Brad Dourif is back as the voice of Chucky, who for whatever reason is not dead (again) and arrives in the mail for Nica (played by Dourif’s real-life daughter Fiona), a wheelchair-bound girl living with her mother in a giant mansion. Chucky makes real quick work of the mother and Nica is left to grieve with her older sister, the sister’s husband, daughter and live-in nanny – all just more victims for Chucky to have some fun with.

Bearing in mind that this is a straight-to-DVD sequel, Curse of Chucky is not all that bad. It’s got the usual clichés but it does have some surprises, scares and gory moments which bring back memories of Chucky’s glory days. There is also a back story that takes us back to the original and helps us understand some of Chucky’s madness. And if you stick around for the credits there is a cool cameo from Alex Vincent, the kid who played Andy in the 1988 original.

It’s not exactly a great horror flick but unlike most of these relatively low budget sequels Curse of Chucky doesn’t take a dump on the franchise and in the scheme of things is actually not a bad addition that could open the door for a new generation of Chucky films. Just don’t expect too much from it.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Pain & Gain (2013)

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I had no idea Pain & Gain was a Michael Bay film until the credits started rolling at the end. I was surprised, because the film was, for the most part, perfectly adequate. Even fun.

Supposedly based on a true story from the 90s, Pain & Gain follows three dimwitted body builders — Marky Mark Wahlberg, The Rock and Anthony Mackie — who kidnap their dickwad of a wealthy client (Tony Shalhoub from Monk) and try to steal everything he owns. Naturally, being nitwits, their plan goes all kinds of wrong, especially as a private detective (Ed Harris) starts looking into the case. It’s a cautionary tale about how the American Dream can become the American Nightmare — if you are a moron.

It’s one of those “so crazy it’s gotta be true” stories. Being a rather violent kidnapping film, Bay could have tackled Pain & Gain as a really sharp dark comedy in the vein of say Fargo, though he decided to make a straight-up crime goofy comedy. The problem is that in taking this route, Bay had to make our protagonists likable — albeit immensely stupid — dudes, even though from their motivations and actions we can tell they are clearly some nasty people. Misguided and naive, perhaps, but still difficult to root for. Just because you find their stupidity amusing doesn’t mean you have to like them. Sure, their victim is a twat, but there’s only so much a director and good actors can do to make this trio affable. The rest is up to the audience’s disposition and tolerance.

Marky Mark, The Rock and Anthony Mackie are, under ordinary circumstances, a fun trio to be around. The Rock, in particular, stands out as a thick-headed and tick-bodied lost soul trying to balance his violent temper with his desire to please God. Marky Mark, on the other hand, shows a bit more of a mean streak as the ringleader, while Mackie kind of fades to the side a little more, getting overshadowed even by his own love interest, played by the always-brilliant Aussie gem Rebel Wilson. The other female role, a semi-retarded Russian bimbo (played by Bar Paly) is also a hoot, though neither female character does much to improve the perception of how Bay treats women in his movies. (Also gotta mention Ken Jeong, who does his best Ken Jeong impersonation in a small role as a motivation speaker.)

That said, for a Michael Bay film, Pain & Gain is actually pretty good. It’s fairly funny, especially in the first hour or so, and the satirical bite had a surprisingly strong edge to it. The mood was light despite the violence, though the further the film progressed the more serious — and less compelling — it got. At 129 minutes, it was also far too long, and my interest waned dramatically as the film stumbled to a predictable conclusion. However, on the whole, and by Michael Bay standards, I’d still call Pain & Gain a relative success.

3.5 stars out of 5

Recent Movie Reviews: Part II

Fast and Furious 6 (2013)

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It’s rare that a film franchise hitting its sixth entry can still generate so much hype and continue to attract new A-listers to join the cast. I’ve never been a huge fan of the Fast and Furious series (I don’t care much for cars) but I’ve watched most of them and found them to be solid popcorn entertainment.

Fast and Furious 6 is more of the same, but it’s arguably the best of the lot. The Rock and his steroids are back and they need the expertise of the fugitives led my man-sized Mini-me Vin Diesel and Paul Walker to help the feds capture an ex-British special forces dude played by Luke Evans. He’s really mean and nasty, but he has a secret weapon — Vin Diesel’s ex-girlfriend, the believed-to-be-dead Michelle Rodriguez (making this the second time in about a year she’s returned from the grave after the latest Resident Evil instalment — though don’t worry, she’s not a clone this time).

A lot of cheesy jokes, hot women, crazy combat and car chases ensue. I guess you could say it’s a guilty pleasure, but to be honest I think it’s good enough to just be “a pleasure.” Credit to Taiwanese-American director Justin Lin for divvying up the screen time appropriately between the stars and adding a bit of variety to the action so it’s not just the same thing over and over. It’s silly but it knows it and makes the most out of the situations to create unexpectedly effective humour.

The end of the film is even tied up to Fast and Furious: Tokyo Drift, which I think was the fourth film of the franchise but chronologically the final one — until Fast and Furious 7, of course, which has already been green-lit and will be fast tracked to our screens next year with a different director (James Wan from Saw and Insidious). It will also star new addition Jason Statham, who makes a brief cameo in this one. I’m pretty sure I’ll watch it.

3.75 stars out of 5

Parker (2013)

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Speaking of Jason Statham, the next film in this review blitz is Parker, a strange little revenge action film with lots of excessive violent behaviour. Even more strangely, it stars JLo in what must be her first role in some time, and she’s playing an unappealing supporting character I would not have expected her to say yes to at the peak of her fame.

Anyway, Statham is the titula Parker, who is a shady fellow with a lot of principles. He gets involved in a heist but is stabbed in the back by his fellow crims and left for dead. He survives, however, and goes about trying to get his share of the money back and making his former partners in crime pay.

It’s by no means an original movie or a memorable one, but watching Statham in action as a ruthless, vengeful crim has its moments. I don’t know if the film had to be that violent but it works on a visceral level.

I didn’t love it or hate it. It was entertaining for the most part but nothing special. In fact, it felt like a very solid straight-to-DVD flick but not much more than that. Oh, and by the way, the film also co-stars Nick Nolte. I still don’t have a clue what the heck he is mumbling on about.

3 stars out of 5

Hotel Transylvania (2012)

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I’ve come to expect nothing but turds from Adam Sandler these days, but Hotel Transylvania is an animated film, so I thought I would give it a chance.

Well, I shouldn’t have. It sounded like a good idea on paper with many opportunities for great laughs — a hotel getaway for misunderstood monsters like Dracula (Sandler), Frankenstein, the Invisible Man, werewolves, and so forth — but the jokes were so cliched and obvious and lame and nowhere near as cool as it wanted to be. It felt like a film desperate to get laughs but didn’t have a clue how to do it. The whole premise was to make fun of the flipped idea that monsters are really afraid of humans, not the other way around, but the monster stereotypes aren’t enough to keep the film afloat.

The great thing about films like Toy Story and Up is that they appeal to both children and adults alike with a broad spectrum of multi-layered jokes, and they have plenty of heart. The message in Hotel Transylvania is that you need to follow your heart no matter what — a noble message — but one that has been done to death already in much superior films.

This one was a dud, possibly the worst animated feature I’ve seen since the awfully misguided and derivative Shark Tale nearly a decade ago.

1.5 stars out of 5

Stoker (2013)

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Huge anticipation for this bizarre psychological thriller penned by Prison Break star Wentworth Miller (who shopped around the script using a pseudonym).

Stoker is an eerie, sexually charged, almost surreal film dominated by a trio of formidable Aussies. The lead is played by Mia Wasikowska, a young girl mourning the loss of her father when her mysterious and handsome uncle (played by Watchmen‘s Matthew Goode) comes to stay with her and her mother, Nicole Kidman. The third Aussie is Jacki Weaver, who has a small but important role as Mia’s great aunt.

I found myself intoxicated by Stoker because I had little idea where it was heading and whether what I was seeing was real. Korean director Park Chan-wook (in his English-language debut) infuses the film with a dreamy, horror-inspired atmosphere that is effectively gothic in nature (not surprisingly, as the film has allusions to Bram Stoker’s Dracula — though this is a psychological thriller as opposed to a supernatural one). It’s a film where people do strange things and have strange reactions but draws you in and keeps you unsettled so you never quite feel like you know what is going on.

I wouldn’t call it a brilliant thriller but it definitely had me intrigued with its dark atmosphere and demented characters. The plot twists are interesting but not as clever as I had hoped them to be, but overall it is still a finely crafted film I would recommend, especially for those looking for something a little different.

3.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: GI Joe: Retaliation (2013)

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I have pretty much erased 2009’s GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra from my memory. I vaguely recall Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Channing Tatum and Sienna Miller, a couple of ninjas and some crazy hi-tech machinery, but that’s about it.

The sequel, GI Joe: Retaliation, is probably better than its predecessor, but chances are I also won’t remember much of it in a couple of years. It’s a typical popcorn movie with lots of fight scenes and explosions and corny jokes, but for the most part I found it fun while it lasted. 

It makes no difference if you haven’t seen the first film. The GI Joes are some special American soldiers who do the heavy lifting for the US government. Channing Tatum is back as Duke, and this time he has brought along his buddy The Rock, who plays his second in command. Just about everyone else is gone, except for the white and black ninjas (Lee Byung-hun and Ray Park — better known as Darth Maul) and Jonathan Pryce, who plays the US president. Joseph Gordon-Levitt had better things to do but his character, Cobra Commander, returned behind a convenient mask.

The big new addition to the franchise is Bruce Willis, who appears to be going through a Nicholas Cage phase (ie, “I’ll do whatever you pay me to do”). John McClane is just everywhere these days. Here he plays Joe, apparently the original GI, which makes perfect sense given that Demi Moore once played GI Jane.

The story is not important. All you need to know is that the bad guys (Cobra) want to retaliate, and then the GI Joes want to retaliate against the retaliation. There is a big surprise for those who don’t already know it near the beginning, but apart from that the rest of the film sails on predictably.

The highlight of the ensemble cast is Lee Byung-hun, who gets to show off his impressive physique and sword skills as the white ninja. The scenes between him and Ray Park, especially with all the ninjas flying around on the mountains, are clearly the highlight of the film. To be honest I found the other action sequences involving loads and loads of massive guns and tanks to be rather “meh.” I guess I need to be a gun nut (or American, or both) to appreciate it.

The rest of the cast is adequate, save for some sub-par acting by Channing Tatum (even for him). Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has been taking too much steroids lately and he looks like he could explode with one more injection. I don’t get the obsession, but other people clearly do and he is cashing in on it. Adrianne Palicki (Red Dawn) provides the eye candy and girl power as the token female GI, and her male counterpart is DJ Cotrona (no idea where he came from).

What impressed me most about the movie was its nonchalant attitude towards violence and global nuclear destruction. There’s a lot of over-the-top carnage, dialogue and silliness but director Jon M Chu takes it in stride and delivers it in a tongue-in-cheek style. I wouldn’t have expected anything less from the man who directed Justin Bieber: Never Say Never. There is one scene involving the world’s nuclear powers that is just a complete farce, but because Chu just wings it the scene becomes oddly enjoyable. Never mind that a major foreign city is completely obliterated (it’s not American, so who cares, right?).

3.25 stars out of 5