Posts Tagged ‘action film’

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EASTERN PROMISES (2007)

December 16, 2007

Eastern Promises review
Eastern Promises

Matt: Four and a half

Length: 100min

Tagline:

Every sin leaves a mark.

Précis: Graphic but intelligent gangster drama spotlights humans in an abnormal world.

Review by Matt:

Canadian auteur David Cronenberg has always brought an air of intelligence to his films, even when he’s ostensibly playing in the gross entrails of the horror genre. Throughout his career Cronenberg has consistently probed under the skin. His early films did this literally. Look through Cronenberg’s oeuvre and you’ll see all kinds of visceral invasions of bodily sanctity: venereal slugs, blood-sucking body augmentations, telepathic mind-fusing, human/insect hybrids, a disturbing sexual encounter with a television, and an even more disturbing sexual encounter with a leg wound (if you want to see these images then watch in order: They Came From Within, Rabid, Scanners, The Fly, Videodrome and Crash). In his recent films, Cronenberg has mostly eschewed the literal de-fleshing and instead figuratively probed under the skin, examining the shadowy side of society and human behaviour (and his departure from the horror genre has left it sadly drowning in unintelligent and brutal films). The well-received A History of Violence (2005) for example, ruminated on the capacity for violence in human nature. In his latest film, Eastern Promises, Cronenberg has teamed up again with actor Viggo Mortensen to make a powerful and draining film about Russian crime gangs lurking in darker parts of London. At this surface level, Eastern Promises is an enjoyable and thrilling film. But it is deceptively generic. Below the surface, Cronenberg has expertly constructed a philosophically savvy picture of the strengths and iniquities that lurk in the human character.

Eastern Promises wastes no time setting its fierce tone; the bloody opening scenes warn you of the dangerous world it is about to explore. Shortly after, we watch as nurse Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts) starts venturing into the fringe of that dangerous world as she investigates the diary of a young Russian woman who died at her hospital leaving behind an orphan baby. With the grizzly opening still in our minds, the atmosphere is heavy as we watch Anna inquire at the restaurant of Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl), ostensibly a friendly grandfather, but in reality the fearsome godfather of the Russian Vory V Zakone criminal syndicate. It isn’t long before Anna senses the menace too. But the diary is in Russian and Semyon is able to read it and see that it contains incriminating material. Worlds are colliding. Backing away for Anna suddenly might not be so easy.

That is, if she even wanted to back away. Cronenberg has given normalcy his typical twist and infused Anna with an unhealthy tenacity stemming from her own pain at losing a child. So she keeps battering at the perilous gate. The gatekeeper, and Anna’s primary contact point, is Nikolai (Mortensen), an aloof Ukranian working as the chauffeur for the gang. Nikolai is imperturbably calm and – seemingly at least – more trustworthy than his fellow crooks. Certainly he is more upright than Semyon’s wayward and wanton son Kirill (Vincent Cassel). Or is Nikolai the most dangerous of all of them? Just as Mortensen’s character was inscrutable in History of Violence, Nikolai is a well of mystery, morally ambiguous and frightening. Just like Anna, the audience can’t get a grip on Nikolai. Is he flirting or threatening? Mortensen’s stellar performance doesn’t just feed the mystery, it is the foundation. Aragorn and Middle Earth are light years away; it is as if Mortensen is channeling the sinister air straight out of Moscow’s dark alleys. The potent drama of Eastern Promises would certainly be diluted without the subtlety of Mortensen’s performance.

The film’s high point comes as the oppressive sense of threat (and the growing homoerotic sub-theme) cracks open in an incredible and raw fight scene in a London bath house. Cronenberg is forever punishing us with reminders of our human frailty – we’re so soft and easily pierced – and Eastern Promises assaults us again with a fight scene which so palpably generated a sense of vulnerability that I almost crawled off my seat to protect myself. You don’t need guns to inspire terror – the seedy world of assassins is sometimes content to get up close and dirty with box cutters (Cronenberg has said the choice of weaponry was at least partly inspired by the weapons used by the 9/11 hijackers). And as a twisted bonus – do you want to see Viggo Mortensen naked? Here’s your chance. You might just want to look through your hands though.

Where does it all end, this swirling cloud of wickedness, mystery and corporeal peril? Cronenberg stamps a clear moral denouement on Eastern Promises. Perhaps he does this a little too neatly though; the moralizing seems a bit unfulfilling after a ride through society’s dirty complexities. It’s maybe not for everyone – especially the squeamish – but Eastern Promises is infused with David Cronenberg’s original, mature, and slightly macabre style and, as always, he’s provided much to glue an audience to their seats, and much for them to ponder when it’s over.

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BEOWULF 3D (2007)

December 7, 2007

Beowulf review
Beowulf

Matt: Two stars
Tracy: Two and a half stars

Length: 113min

Taglines:

Pride is the curse.
Survival is ruthless.
Evil breeds pain.

Précis: Rare chance to see something sucking in spectacular 3D!

Review by Matt:

Originally a pre-10th century poem on a parchment, the classic tale of ‘Beowulf’ has been transported into the 21st century as a spectacular 3D film. Spectacular looking only though. Sadly, Beowulf the film is just gloss, gore and paper-thin drama, inflated into a cinematic spectacle. If this film was retranslated back into poetry, it would be doggerel for some student revue rather than an epic worthy of its home in the London museum.

Cinematically at least though, Beowulf is a rare experience. The use of ‘performance capture’ technology means a cast of famous and recognisable actors appear on screen as their digitised doppelgangers. Unfortunately the zombifying effect of this process sucks some of the emotion out of their faces, which could have been useful for, say, emoting. Ray Winstone supplies the frame and voice for Beowulf the great Danish warrior. The computers have shaved him down, sucked his fat and beefed him up, but they don’t hide his rough cockney voice – “cor blimey, I’ll have that bleedin’ monster’s loaf, eh guvners?” (those might not have been the exact words he used). Angelina Jolie appears as a seductive water demon. She didn’t require quite the extreme CGI makeover that Winstone needed, but it’s still been used to sexualise her – Jolie’s demon gets around in a naked, neutered body with built-in high-heeled feet (how inconvenient – she can never stop and kick them off to run like most Hollywood heroines would). She ices it with an out-of-place Russian accent and a lot of pouting. Anthony Hopkins is a tired-looking King Hrothgar and Jon Malkovich is instantly recognisable as a pathetic courtier, whose voice somehow seems even more Malkovichy than ever.

Don your 3D glasses and these characters are suddenly thrusting all kinds of phallic objects out of the screen and into the theatre. Yet, despite our hero’s novel decision to battle monsters in the nude (please see Eastern Promises for what really happens when you fight in the nude), none of these items is an actual phallus (leading to Tracy’s disdainful summary of the film: “Bah, my $17.50 might have been worth it if they’d shown a giant 3D penis!”). In fact the film is weirdly timid. It goes to lengths to conceal Beowulf’s bits – so much so that it looks like a Simpsons-style visual joke. As is often the case in these Hollywood movies, this coyness is ironic considering there are no qualms about splashing blood and gore all about the screen. These blood splattered action sequences are pretty stunning though. Flying dragons crash along cliff faces, the enormous, gruesome Grendl throws body parts around and roars in the flickering darkness – it’s all absorbing stuff.

But, ultimately we have to put the visuals aside and say: what the hell was going on in this film? I don’t mean the plot; there’s no mystery there. No, I mean the utterly wayward tone. In one sense Beowulf is a film that moralises about lust and greed. On the other hand it is obviously making the audience into voyeurs and trying to titillate. One minute it presents dialogue that needs a serious atmosphere otherwise it will appear risible; yet the next minute a naked man is literally bursting his body out of the eye of a giant monster and bellowing “I am ripper, tearer, slasher, gouger… I AM BEOWULF!”

I get that writers Neil Gaiman (who wrote one my favourite series of graphic novels – Sandman) and Roger Avary (co-writer of Pulp Fiction) have tried to modernise the story. They’ve made Beowulf a fallible anti-hero. They’ve made Grendl a pitiable monster who’s only disembowelling the Kingdom’s revellers so they’ll stop inflaming his nasty headache (if only he’d thought of earplugs). They’ve twisted the plot to squeeze out some themes about human weaknesses. But could these themes have been more sophisticated than “moral men are corrupted by women’s sexuality”? The women’s roles are terrible! Perhaps the Queen’s most of all, who is ‘inherited’ into a servile marriage and proves her worth by dutiful acceptance. That’s regression, not modernisation. Beowulf 2007 has just ended up as a post-modern melange that is all froth. You’re not going to be deeply touched. It’s like medieval MTV.

If they were going to ‘modernise’ Beowulf by making it a show about buff and semi‑nude dimwits strutting along the coast in ancient Denmark, maybe they could have called it Beowatch.  It is not quite as empty as Baywatch. but Beowulf does seem to have taken large dollops of Baywatch’s macho posturing and exploitive perving, transported them to ancient Denmark, and transformed them into amazing 3D.  Maybe we should at least be grateful it doesn’t feature a big 3D David Hasselhoff as well.

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DEJA VU (2006)

August 4, 2007

Deja vu review

Deja vu

Matt: Three stars
Tracy:Three and a half Stars

Length: 128min

Tagline:

If you thought it was just a trick of the mind, prepare yourself for the truth.

Review by Matt:

Ahh, the old messing-with-timelines-by-travelling-through-time film. Nothing beats it. Unless you can’t get the timelines to make sense. Then, if you’re like me, instead of enjoying the sci-fi carnival, you stare off to the side thinking about how it could all possibly work. Déjà vu’s clumsy time-travel plot only makes sense if the audience dreams up some creative sub-plots to plug the holes. If you’re going to be satisfied by this film then, I think you’ll have to put the swiss-cheese plot to the side and just sink guiltily into the heady nonsense of a Hollywood thriller for two hours. Fortunately, that’s still a pretty enjoyable experience.

Messy timelines aside, the story is fairly straightforward. Denzel Washington trots out his familiar tenacious cop persona to portray Doug Carlin, a detective investigating a terrible terrorist attack on a New Orleans ferry. Some sharp detecting brings Carlin to the attention of a special FBI team (headed by Val Kilmer), who recruit him to work on the case using the FBI’s new, mind-blowing “God’s eye” technology. The technology somehow harnesses the power of worm-holes to give the detectives the power to look directly into the past with privacy-destroying omniscience. At Carlin’s word the detectives use “God’s eye” primarily to intrude into the past life of a beautiful female victim (Paula Patton), who Carlin had seen at the morgue and – weirdly – fallen in love with. It seems that in Hollywood, it’s always love-at-first-sight, even when one of the lovers is staring with dead eyes from the autopsy table.

The time-bending investigations result in some intense dimension-spanning action. These sequences fully exploit the best parts of the classical Hollywood style. It simplifies potentially complex sequences so that the excitement is maximised. I did feel some amusement at the poor romance plot, and by the film’s indulgences – brought into sharper focus by having recently watched Hot Fuzz parody this kind of excess. The opening ferry-bomb sequence, for example, is constructed with slow-motion visuals and portentous musical cues (and I’m sure I heard the same ominous strings in the recent James Bond film) which manipulate our tensions until the surprising BOOM of the ferry.

But there’s no doubting this style generally works for this film. And there’s also some joy in seeing the disaster in the opening scene. The time-travel plot allows us to revisit the same scene later. This time we’re fully aware of the imminent bomb, so we’re trapped in the fretful “audience knows there’s a bomb” sequence that Hitchcock described as the epitome of suspense. It is quite exciting. As with Breach, Déjà vu passed the “suspenseful enough to make Tracy pace and moan at the edge of the room” test.

It’s when Tracy is at the edge of the room that Déjà vu is at its best. When it’s at its worst, I think, are the moments it flirts too hard with scientific or philosophical concepts. It’s not sharp enough to inject anything insightful into these themes. Keep control of the corners of your mouth when the line arrives “But what if there is more than physics?” and it is punctuated by a soft dramatic sting. The wishy-washy attempt at philosophising also reveals a lurking little goblin: although it embraces hard physics, the film still messily implies that an almighty God decides how the technology works or doesn’t. It’s a bit frustrating; like US politicians, it seems that films want mass appeal so they don’t want to risk seeming too aetheistic. I’d be more forgiving if Déjà vu‘s omniscient being had at least popped in for a moment and explained how the film’s confusing timelines make sense.

So, like its time travel physics, the film has some weaknesses. But there’s not much to hate. Just try to hurdle the slight obstacles, or let the fast-paced action plough through them. Then you’re free to enjoy what is a fairly spiffy sci-fi action flick.

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TRANSFORMERS (2007)

July 16, 2007

Transformers review

Transformers

Adam: Two and a half stars

Length: 144min

Taglines:

Their war. Our world.
Destroy.
Protect.
More than meets the eye.

Review by Adam:

The first time I went to see this movie it had sold out and I saw Shrek the Third. Talk about a crapfest. Anyway it was my brother Luke and his partner Laura’s “awesome” comments that got Lara and I into the movies to see this.

The basic plot is that a loser kid happens to hold a seemingly inconspicuous object that is actually the key to saving the world from bad robots (Decepticons) that can transform. Oh and then there’s the “hot” girl at school that he is trying to impress who gets tangled up in it all.

For the next two hours you watch as the US military tries to work out what’s going on and the Autobots (goodies) make good with the transforming. Highlights include the robots transforming. Lowlights include everything else.

Of particular low-light fame is the sexist portrayals of women, loser kid getting all self-righteous because he’s never been to Juvy for boosting cars like the “hot” girl, and the black guy always dying. Seriously, the only Autobot who dies is the one who is stereotypically African American. What’s with that!?!

There’s little character development in the humans but some in the robots. (Kinda says something about it eh?). Optimus Prime’s speeches are totally lame and make you want to see the Decepticons win. They don’t.

Bad reviews aside, I loved watching the special effects and the robots getting all robo-erotic in the fight scenes. Everything that can blow up does. Of particular liking to me is the final battle that takes place in a city – nothing spells fun like giant anythings smashing up a city. These things satisfied the eleven dollars I spent.

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SHOOTER (2007)

July 7, 2007

Shooter review

Shooter

Matt: Two and a half stars

Film length: 124min

Tagline:

Yesterday was about honor. Today is about justice.

Review by Matt:

This action film stars Mark Wahlberg as John Lee Swagger, an elite marksman abandoned by his country. After a disastrous mission in Ethiopia which saw his best friend killed, Swagger retires from snipering to an isolated mountain cabin. He spends his time reading the 9/11 Commission Report, surfing the splendid social change website “Znet“, and nurturing a growing mistrust of the government. Opportunity to manifest this mistrust comes his way when a mysterious Colonel (Danny Glover) arrives and asks Swagger to help defend the President from an expected assassination plot. Swagger’s lingering sense of honour convinces him to assist and, of course, he is framed for murder. Now he’s really mad.

At the visual level, the film is pretty good. It’s big, explosive, and fast paced. Mark Wahlberg acts well as the angry and focussed Swagger. He even kisses his mountain-dog with the passion that only a wounded and withdrawn sniper could. Danny Glover appears to have developed emphysema and can only whisper his lines hoarsely. The others are bearable, apart from the comically sneering assistant-villains. No-one is helped by the structure of the film, which is a bit floppy. In particular, the subplots flap around, loose and underdeveloped. Key parts of the film – particularly the assassination – are also put together poorly so that they are unnecessarily confusing.

It wasn’t these things that troubled me though. I had high hopes for Shooter. At a basic level I’m still pleased that it shows us a reflection of immoral power with a level of cynicism that we don’t often see in this type of film. The amoral conspiracies of the powerful are given to mainstream moviegoers as the reality. Blood for oil, profits over people, malign foreign policy- it’s there on the screen and it signals that these concepts are creeping into the zeitgeist. And there are other enjoyable aspects. The vibes of anti-government sentiment are enticing and encouraging. There’s also some good action, some good intrigue, and some good twists. Our antihero holds a gratifying mistrust and derision for authority.

Tragically though, Shooter is a disappointing film because it deals with these important issues in an offensive way. It ends up asking us to identify with destructive feelings – violence, revenge, thoughtlessness. It may fool you for a while, but overall the film lacks intelligence and subtlety; it becomes more and more Ramboesque-ridiculous as it progresses. I don’t want to spoil the plot by going into detail, but if you watch until the end – and particularly at the end – you’ll see the narrowness with which it approached this interesting topic. Swagger sees and understands the corruption, but he tackles it violently, carelessly, vengefully, and alone. It seems he didn’t really read that Znet site carefully at all.

It could have been so much better. It’s as if The Constant Gardener was poisoned by Rambo so that, by the end, it could only limp along sickly, confused and talking silly.

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SNAKES ON A PLANE (2006)

July 7, 2007

Snakes on a Plane review

Snakes

Matt: One and a half stars
Tracy:One and a half stars

Film length: 105min

Taglines:

Sit back. Relax. Enjoy the fright.
At 30,000 feet, snakes aren’t the deadliest thing on this plane.
Airline food ain’t what you gotta worry about.

Review by Matt:

Really, this is a poor movie. There’s pretty much nothing to enjoy here. I would have much preferred to see “Snakes on a Train” where, after 20 minutes, the passengers realise there are snakes aboard so they stop the train and all jump out. And we go home and watch something else. [edit – have just realised that “Snakes on a Train” is actually a real movie. In fact, by the looks of it, I probably would not prefer to see it instead of Snakes on a Plane.]

Good news is I can describe the plot in a sentence without leaving anything out: A man witnesses a crime committed by a notorious gangster and while he’s on a plane to Los Angeles to testify, the gangster opens a can of worms by unleashing a crate of snakes. Beyond that there is literally nothing except people being chomped by snakes. I can’t even recommend this to action-movie fans – the extent to which the audience needs to suspend disbelief will surely be too much for them as well. There are too many key moments that lack verisimilitude. You always want to jump up and say “But how could that happen?!” Check out the awesome landing of the plane at the end for example. Actually, don’t – it’ll just make you scoff.

Snakes is a fine study in one-dimensional characters. And that’s just the leads. Most others are just meaty sacks of snake food. It makes it impossible for the film to evoke any pathos for its endangered characters – and the silly thing is that the film obviously wants us to connect with them at times. You can’t care that the characters are in peril, or that they’re brutalised by snakes, except to the extent that you would care for any random person in that situation. To top it off, the computer-generated snakes look unrealistic, and are nothing but aggressive. Badly characterised snakes as well.

There’s also something a little distasteful to this film’s morality as it chooses who lives or dies in its fictional world. The handsome surfer will survive. The fat lady will die pathetically. The promiscuous woman will die by having snakes chomp her naked breasts – a sex object to the end. We know the short tempered man will die horribly as soon as we see him mistreat the pretty girl. There’s something sinister at work that we are supposed to unthinkingly identify with it. It’s like that hidden arbiter that pulls the strings in horror films, to punish the lustful and spare the chaste. It’s primitive and unpleasant.

If you’ve seen any publicity about this film you’ll know that Samuel L Jackson is at the centre of the reptile riot, playing the cop escorting the witness to the trial. I originally held a cynical view that this film was only made because Hollywood had snared Samuel L to star in it, and they paid him to forget about artistic merit for a few months. I was ready to use this review to rail at Hollywood’s marketing machine millions, paying to fool us into watching their trash. But, although it is true that the film was made only because of Samuel L, it wasn’t driven by Hollywood at all. It was Samuel L’s project, and he insisted it remain uncorrupted by interfering Hollywood editors. More interestingly, the basic plot for Snakes (ie the title) leaked onto the internet before the film had been made. Many of the scenes and ideas that appeared in the final film are apparently those thought up by the fans chatting about it in anticipation – “Wouldn’t it be cool if a guy’s bald head was sucked inside of a boa constrictor? LOL” etc. So, in fact I appreciate the unique way the film was made and its willingness to absorb the ideas of the people. Just a real shame the result was a jumbo full of nonsense.

On the plus side however, we do have Snakes on a Plane to thank for that handy and adaptable complaint: I’ve had it with these motherfucking [blanks] on this motherfucking [blank]!  For Samuel L the complaint was obviously about the snakes on the plane.  But people can put on their best exasperated voice and adapt the phrase to any vexatious situation.  Domestically (I’ve had it with this motherfucking dust on this motherfucking bookshelf!), politically (I’ve had it with these motherfucking subsidies for these motherfucking polluters!), or even gastronomically (I’ve had it with these motherfucking pickles on this motherfucking burger!).  Obviously the options are endless.

This doesn’t redeem the movie of course. Ultimately, I can see Snakes being one of those films screened on TV in a few years time at 11.30 on a Saturday night for people who are too tired or lazy to move from the couch for a couple of hours (I’ve had it with the motherfucking drivel on this motherfucking station!). Perhaps only then you should stay there and watch it – but only if you really can’t reach the remote.