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Entries in Action (11)

Tuesday
Mar052019

CAPTAIN MARVEL

Stars: Brie Larsen, Jude Law, Samuel L. Jackson, Ben Mendelsohn, Lee Pace, Gemma Chan, Mckenna Grace, Djimon Hounsou, Clark Gregg, Lashana Lynch and Annette Bening.
Writers: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck and Geneva Robertson-Dworet.
Directors: Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck.

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★

Despite a slightly-too-convoluted origin narrative that will mean more to the comic-book devotee than the audience member for whom a single yearly dose of MCU is sufficient, Captain Marvel overcomes some wobbly first half pacing to deliver all that is really required of the modern heroic-crusader blockbuster. That is, a protagonist, unsure of their true identity, is set on a course of self-discovery during which they reconcile with their past, learn the good truth about their destiny and max out the potential of their superpower while saving a city/planet/galaxy. What separates the best from the worst in the MCU is that which is mined beyond of the studio's rigid template and, as the first female lead character in the franchise, writer/directors Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck identify plenty of fresh thematic angles to explore. 

Coming from a background of gritty, uplifting character pieces (Half Nelson, 2006; Sugar, 2008; Mississippi Grind, 2015), the pair's deployment by Marvel Studios was to serviceably craft a solid, ‘real’ hero in Carol Danvers/Captain Marvel. In Oscar-winner Brie Larson, they achieve that, even if at times her stoicism feels a bit stodgy. While everyone around her is getting the great one-liners and soaking up the spare-no-expense extravagance of their time-shifting/interplanetary setting, Larson hunkers down to provide the film’s emotional as well as heroic core; it’s a task that plays somewhat thankless at times. That said, when called upon to don the superheroine duds, smash villains and integrate with the green screen techies and stunt unit, she comes alive.

The opening act barrels through the world building with a "Hey, pay attention!” urgency that threatens to leave distracted patrons lost.  We meet our heroine (‘Vers’, as she’s known to her special-op combat team) as she stirs from a restless sleep; her head is full of fragmented images, all that is left of what seems like several past lives. On her home planet of Hala, she is one of the Kree, a race beholden to the ‘Supreme Intelligence’ and fighting the shape-shifting Skrull hordes (phew). When her unit, led by the never-not-evil Jude Law, is ambushed, she is flung across time and space, landing in a Blockbuster video store in downtown LA in the mid 1990s.

With young S.H.I.E.L.D. grunt Nick Fury (a digitally smoothed-over Samuel L Jackson) quickly settling into her sidekick role, Vers starts to piece together her own timeline while fighting off Skrull leader Talos (an unrecognisable and terrific Ben Mendelsohn) and his henchmen. A mid-section trip to Louisiana to rekindle a friendship with ex-pilot buddy Rambeau (Lashana Lynch) is a bit talky and the forward momentum sags. But as Danvers’ journey towards an understanding of her past and the inevitable emergence of the titular heroine progresses, the third act builds convincingly towards the stirring effects spectacle finale associated with the franchise.

The pre-release web-posturing of some sectors of the community looks even more churlish and pathetic upon the film’s release. While Larson’s portrayal is one of chiselled moral and physical sturdiness (as have been those of the men in the MCU since Day 1), Boden and Fleck do not hammer home a politicised perspective. Instead, they provide contemporary commentary with some crackling social satire (“Tell the Supreme Intelligence that this time of wars and lies will soon be over”) and draw upon the femme-skewed cast to refreshingly explore character and drama in a manner respectful and honest to the gender. Captain Marvel is not the blunt-force challenge to the accepted norms that Ryan Coogler's Black Panther came to represent, but it's a potent statement of intent. The challenge will be incorporating her into the male-centric Avengers films, where laddish oafs with waning appeal like Tony Stark and Peter Quill still occupy centre stage.

The 90s setting provides for some sweet nostalgia, including a soundtrack of skilfully appropriated tunes (No Doubt’s I’m Just a Girl, the pick of them) and pop culture riffs sure to further transition away from the now-distant 80s as The Retro Decade of Choice. In the standard MCU 'Ageing Icon' role previously filled by the likes of Robert Redford, Jeff Bridges, Ben Kingsley, Michael Douglas, Michelle Pfeiffer and Nick Nolte is the stunning Annette Bening, ideally cast as 'Supreme Intelligence' (even if some of her dialogue seems reluctant to leave her mouth at times).

Fittingly, the passing of Marvel creator Stan Lee was acknowledged with a sweet, simple message in the film’s opening frames, which was greeted with instantaneous applause by the audience.

Sunday
Sep232018

ALPHA

Stars: Kodi Smit-McPhee, Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson, Marcin Kowalczyk, Jens Hultén, Natassia Malthe, Spencer Bogaert, Mercedes de la Zerda and Leonor Varela.
Writers: Daniele Sebastian Wiedenhaupt (screenplay) and Albert Hughes (story).
Director: Albert Hughes

RATING: ★
★
★
★

In this modern movie-going age, where origin stories clutter up our multiplexes with tiresome monotony, it seems fitting that a film that ponders on the starting point of the age-old ‘a boy and his dog’ narrative should take place around the dawn of prehistory. Deceptively simple in its construction yet sweepingly epic, exciting and genuinely moving in its execution, Albert Hughes’ Alpha spins a potentially academic ‘domestication of the dog’ story into a coming-of-age fable that adventure hounds and dog lovers will drool over.

Set 20,000 years ago against a European landscape of shifting geography and harsh climate, Sebastian Wiedenhaupt’s screenplay introduces us to protagonist Keda (Kodi Smit-McPhee) at a pivotal moment in the young man’s passage towards alpha-manhood. He is being led into a buffalo hunt by his father, tribal elder Tau (appropriately sturdy Icelandic actor Jóhannes Haukur Jóhannesson), yet fails to be the man his tribe and his dad needs him to be.

Flashbacks reveal Keda is the sensitive type, unable to slay an animal for food and not the natural woodsman or warrior that is expected of someone with his heritage. Smit-McPhee’s casting proves a deft masterstroke despite at first appearing misjudged. Very much not the hulking caveman type, the Australian actor’s lean physique, doleful eyes and initial timidity does not disappear over the course of his personal growth, but rather takes on an androgynous muscularity that is central and crucial to the film’s subtext.

Separated and left for dead, Keda is adrift and alone on the prehistoric tundra, his injuries making him seemingly easy pickings for scavengers. Prime amongst them is a wolf pack, which fails in their bid to drag Keda from a tree and nearly lose one of their own in the attack. The entire second-act of Alpha is largely the young tribesman regaining his strength while tending to the wolf’s wounds; the co-dependency they develop takes a few real-world liberties (surely a starving wolf would turn on his protein-rich human companion at some point?), but dramatically the friendship is a potent and believable match-up.

As Keda and his newly bonded wolf companion (part real animal, part mostly convincing CGI) set out for his tribal home, they must overcome physically challenging and breathtakingly photographed obstacles, including an unforgettable encounter on and underneath an ice-lake, an omnipresent hyena pack, the first snow of the season and, in one terrifying sequence, the lair of a true alpha predator. Director Albert Hughes, making his solo directorial debut after doing double-duty for two decades with his brother Allen on such films as Menace II Society (1993), Dead Presidents (1995), From Hell (2001) and The Book of Eli (2001) enlivens a rather perfunctory ‘journey home’ plot with thrilling, vast and complex staging of the pair’s trek. He also forges a believably emotional bond between man and beast that is driven home in both personal and sociological terms in the film’s final frames.

Narratively, Alpha is a lean, small-scale friendship drama, of outcasts from their clans bonding across an interspecies divide. Cinematically and thematically, however, Hughes’ film is a grand, bold vision of the development of humankind, one that transcends its millennia-old setting and makes an entirely and passionately contemporary statement.

Thursday
Aug092018

THE MEG

Stars: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Shuya Sophia and Masi Oka.
Writers: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber.
Director: Jon Turteltaub.

Rating: 2/5

For a movie so cynically calculated to hit all-important commercial KPIs, so much feels miscalculated about The Meg. The cheapest looking US$125million film ever made, joyless journeyman Jon Turteltaub’s big-shark movie drags the anchor for most of its interminable 113 minutes.  From the bored action lead routinely grimacing, to the beast itself, blessed with the natural skill to change size at will, The Meg seems destined to only find favour with snarky podcasters seeking schlocky targets for ridicule. 

The central ‘plot’ concerns a boozy ex-diver called Jonas (think about it…actually, don’t), drinking his life away in Thailand having lost two colleagues in the film’s lackluster prologue. Jason Statham plays ‘PTSD grief’ as script directions to be ignored; when called upon to return to the ocean depths to save a stranded submersible that contains his ex-wife (Jessica McNamee), he monologues with a grin about why he won’t do it, then jumps on board a helicopter to do it.

The clincher is that his ex may have just seen the same prehistoric beast that Jonas claimed was responsible for his crew’s death. Soon, he is on board the Mana One, an underwater research facility overseen by scumbag entrepreneur Rainn Wilson and peopled by Cliff Curtis’ boss-man, Ruby Rose’ feisty operations manager, Page Kennedy’s shrill nuisance DJ (the film’s most thankless part) and Li Bingbings’ single mother scientist (asked to pull off some excrutiating sentimentality with her on-screen daughter, Sophia Cai, and some chemistry-free romantic sparks with her leading man).

It takes Turteltaub and his trio(!) of writers 40-odd  minutes to shoehorn their moneymaker into the action, the Megalodon’s first appearance recalling the T-Rex reveal in Jurassic Park (the first and last time the movies will be compared, rest assured). The special effects that bring the Meg to life run the gamut from state-of-the-art (a midpoint sequence in which the shark closes in on Statham and Bingbing as they are being reeled in is the film’s best action) to Jaws-3 clunky. The PG-13 framework means kills are meagre by any horror buff’s measure; barring one legitimately hilarious sight gag involving a helicopter pilot, humour is barren (note to the producers – you owe the Sharknado franchise an acknowledgement for stealing their closing shot gag).

Everything about the movie – the cool posters, the fun trailer, the decade-long development history, the mystery behind what horror auteur Eli Roth once might have seen in the insipid material  – is infinitely more interesting than anything that made it into the movie. The Meg is so bound to the ‘studio blockbuster’ template, it never breathes; that’s perhaps appropriate, given its waterlogged staidness, but it leaves this hulking behemoth dead in the water.

Saturday
May122018

BRAVEN

Stars: Jason Momoa, Stephen Lang, Jill Wagner, Garrett Dillahunt, Sasha Rossof, Brendan Fletcher, Zahn McClarnon, Sala Baker, Teach Grant, Fraser Aitcheson, James Harvey Ward and Steve O’Connell.
Writers: Michael Nilon and Thomas Pa'a Sibbett.
Director: Lin Oeding.

Rating: 3.5/5

Stuntman-turned-director Lin Oeding skilfully conjures A-grade thrills out of B-movie beats in Braven, an alpha-male actioner that melds drug-deal-gone-bad tropes with wilderness survival struggles. Another satisfying step on the road to Rock-like crossover acceptance for leading he-man Jason Momoa (pictured, above), this Canadian production stays entirely within its genre parameters but does so wholeheartedly, delivering a lean, mean dose of tension, violence and sentimentality.

Biding time until his star soars post-Aquaman, Momoa plays logging company boss Joe Braven, a hardy working class type, loving husband to Stephanie (Jill Wagner, reteaming with Momoa after 2014’s Road to Paloma) and best-friend/dad to pre-teen Charlotte (Sasha Rossof). The one strain on their otherwise lovely domesticity is Joe’s ageing father Linden (Stephen Lang, God’s gift to movies like Braven; pictured, below), whose wandering memory and cantankerous moods are proving troublesome; Joe is called out late at night when his father starts a bar brawl, convinced his long-dead wife is talking to other men.

Meanwhile, one of Joe’s employees, young trucker Weston (Brendan Fletcher) has compromised himself and his boss by taking on board seething baddie Hallett (Zahn McClarnon, giving an in-for-a-penny-in-for-a-pound performance) and a hollowed log filled with lots of drugs. When the truck crashes, the pair stash the contraband in Joe’s remote cabin, forcing trafficker Kassan (Garrett Dillahunt, his demeanour as icy as the mountainous locale) and his personality-free henchmen to go bush and reclaim it. Thing is, Joe, Linden and Charlotte are already on-site…

One of Hollywood’s most respected fall guys (his credits as stunt co-ordinator include Olympus Has Fallen, Oblivion and The Equalizer), Oeding delivers action with a choreographer’s eye for fluidity and detail. Gun battles, fist fights and, most importantly, the unpleasant consequences associated with same are nailed with convincing realism within a geography that is well established. First-time scripters Michael Nilon and Thomas Pa'a Sibbett allow the occasional incongruity to seep into their structure, but never so that the tense momentum derails.

No specifics are offered as to Joe Braven’s back story; when he starts to ‘Home Alone’ the bad guys, using whatever he can find in his cabin to keep the fight going, one has to assume he’s had some survival and/or combat training, so dexterous is he at hurling a hatchet or manufacturing a bow-and-arrow. Momoa’s take on the heart-of-gold everyman with a killer’s instinct is so engaging, however, such details seem perfunctory.

Braven is as solid a throwback to the ‘80s action movie template as we’ve seen in some time, pleasingly free of the irony that would have spun the film off into wink-wink self-awareness. Its belief in itself inspires the audience to place a similar faith in its characters and narrative; like its star, it is characterised by its broad-shoulders and unshakeable integrity.

 

Friday
Jan052018

BLEEDING STEEL

Stars: Jackie Chan, Show Lo, Ouyang Nana, Callan Mulvey, Tess Haubrich and Xiahou Yunshan.
Writers: Leo Zhang, Cui Siwei and Xiaohou Yunshan
Director: Leo Zhang.

Rating: 2/5

There is a special place in movie heaven for acts of such logic- and physics-defying cinematic lunacy as Leo Zhang’s Bleeding Steel, a momentously staged absurdity that almost endears itself through sheer relentless bombast. Largely shot in Sydney (or, more precisely, a graffiti-stained future version of the harbour city populated by basketball-playing American street teens, for some reason), this preposterous romp plays like a greatest hits version of star Jackie Chan’s most recognizable on-screen characterisations, but with dumbed-down dialogue, a garish colour palette and an audio track cranked to 11.  

Ripping huge chunks of inspiration from the likes of Luc Besson’s sci-fi spectacle Lucy, Chan’s own kiddie romp The Spy Next Door and…oh, let’s go with Roland Emmerich’s Universal Soldier, Zhang’s hyper-charged, hardly-coherent head-spinner is a star-vehicle concoction for both old and new generations of Asia’s favourite film stars. The ageing action legend plays special operative Lin, who has dedicated the latter part of his career to covertly protecting his daughter, Nancy (Taiwanese cellist starlet Ouyang Nana), while never being able to reveal his true self to her. Also in a mix to ensure broad regional and demographic acceptance is The Mermaid star Show Lo, the Taiwanese idol ok as the handsome but bumbling offsider Leeson, and Erica Xia-Hou as Lin’s strong-willed career cop 2IC.  

When a book is published revealing Nancy to be the missing link in a clandestine synthetic human initiative led Dr James (Kym Gyngell), the teen-queen Wolverine becomes the target of Andre (Callan Mulvey), a rotting Frankenstein-type behemoth who needs Nancy’s blood to regenerate. Despite barely being held together by his pale grey skin, Andre has amassed an army of black-helmeted alien types led by a leather-clad warrior-woman (Tess Haubrich, channelling Cate Blanchett’s Thor villainess; pictured, below), whose job it is to slay anyone stalling her quest to bring Nancy to Andre. That’ll do plotwise, suffice to say it spins in increasingly convoluted and largely indecipherable directions, with little regard for even the most basic action-movie realism.

Now well into his 60s and unable to dazzle with the same physical prowess he displayed as a younger action hero, Chan is nevertheless called upon to up the adrenalin for cast and audience (often with CGI enhancement); he occasionally appears somewhat bewildered by all that is unfolding around him. He has played this father/fighter/fumbler archetype before, most notably in his last three films (The Foreigner; Railroad Tigers; Kung Fu Yoga), all of which were far better suited to his age and talent. Chan’s signature large-scale stunt, the fight atop and spectacular descent from a big-city landmark (see his antics on Rotterdam’s Willemswerf Tower in 1998’s Who Am I? or the Hong Kong Convention Centre in 2004’s New Police Story) is dragged out again, this time perching him on the Sydney Opera House sails for some silly but spectacular fight scenes.

The most remarkable thing about Bleeding Steel (that awful title aside) is the tonal shifts employed almost frame-to-frame by director Zhang (who worked with the Chan clan on 2012’s Chrysanthemum of The Beast). Featuring broad slapstick humour, Bond-like gadgetry, Mission Impossible-type set-pieces, teen romance beats, some loopy science fiction tropes, schmaltz-rich sentimentality and, finally, knife-to-the-neck/chest-bursting ultra-violence, it is impossible to gauge what type of audience, other than the die-hard Chan completists, will feel wholly satisfied by this schizophrenic genre hodgepodge.

That Zhang and his cast play it with such straight-faced conviction at such a high pitch for all of the 110 minute running time does inspire in the viewer a ‘Stockholm Syndrome’-kind of respect for all involved, but that’s probably not what the producers (of which there are about four million) were aiming for.

Thursday
Aug172017

ONCE UPON A TIME IN VENICE

Stars: Bruce Willis, John Goodman, Thomas Middleditch, Jason Momoa, Famke Janssen, Emily Robinson, Jessica Gomes, Kaleti Williams and Adam Goldberg.
Writers: Mark Cullen, Robb Cullen.
Director: Mark Cullen.

Rating: 3/5

As the afternoon orange bathes California’s Venice Beach neighbourhood, imagine Hudson Hawk barrelling along Abbot Kinney Boulevard, collecting John Wick as he enters from Brooks Avenue, before both are rammed by the Inherent Vice bus on Main. The resulting tangled mass in the middle of the intersection would be Mark and Robb Cullen’s Once Upon a Time in Venice.

Conjured as a free-spirited vehicle for the charms of their leading man in his wisecracking heyday, the brothers Cullen reteam with Bruce Willis to try to right the wrong that was 2010’s Cop Out, the Kevin Smith-directed travesty that put a handbrake on Tracy Morgan’s film momentum. Mark’s directing debut is equal parts crime thriller, family drama and Cal-noir detective story, complete with some tone-deaf stereotyping and cute dog moments. The goofy, off-kilter riff on LA sleaze fits within a genre highlighted by better films like Paul Thomas Anderson’s Thomas Pinchon adaptation, The Coen’s The Big Lebowski or Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye (Renny Harlin’s The Adventures of Ford Fairlane, too, but whether that was superior is a maybe).

Like the traditional fairy tales from which the film takes its title, Once Upon a Time in Venice has a storyteller, in the form of John (Thomas Middleditch), a nerdy intern/protégé for ex-LAPD cop Steve Ford (Willis), a not-very-successful private-eye sliding further into the underworld morass he mostly frequents. The film opens with a patently ridiculous sequence in which Ford, having bedded his client’s daughter Nola (Australian supermodel Jessica Gomes), escapes her family thugs by fleeing naked into the night on a skateboard. The entire gag takes a long while to play out (the money shot - close-up on a set of buttocks most definitely not those of the 62 year-old Willis), though it is infused with the kind of nutty energy that Willis last exhibited in his 1991 megaflop, Hudson Hawk (a film that has since acquired an army of ‘guilty pleasure’ defenders, including yours truly).

Things get personal for our hero after heavies working for local drug kingpin Spyder (a very funny Jason Momoa), rough up the family home of Ford’s sister, Katey (Famke Janssen, deserving of better) and niece, Taylor (Emily Robinson). When they dog-nap the beloved pet, Buddy, the PI undertakes a series of schemes and capers that land him deeper in the mess he has created. All the while, a frantic Ford is working a case involving land developer ‘Lew the Jew’ (Adam Goldberg), whose deal is being scuppered by a mysterious graffiti artist painting X-rated murals of the real estate tycoon (a subplot as puerile as it sounds, though undeniably funny in parts).    

Filling out the ‘old chum’ role here that Danny Aiello played in …Hawk is John Goodman, bringing some welcome comedic skill as Dave, an ageing holdover from 70’s Venice hippy/surfie culture on the verge of losing everything (including his mind) in a messy divorce. He is one of several known names who front up for bit parts, probably because they all live within blocks of the production’s West coast locations; among them are Elisabeth Rohm, Kal Penn, Adrian Martinez, Christopher McDonald and, for a few utterly bizarre seconds, David Arquette.

Only occasionally exhibiting the advance of time, Bruce Willis clearly enjoys an all-too-rare opportunity to flex his brand of on-screen comedic skill. One can see the smooth charm of Moonlighting’s ‘David Addison’, the slapstick energy of Blind Date’s Walter Davis and the scummy antihero of Bonfire of The Vanities ‘Peter Fallow’ in Ford. You may find yourself muttering, “He’s still got it,” if only because, not for the first time in his career, he elevates what could have been misguided chaos into something entirely watchable, even likable.

Thursday
Mar022017

KONG: SKULL ISLAND

Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Brie Larson, John Goodman, Samuel L Jackson, Corey Hawkins, John Ortiz, Tian Jing, Toby Kebbell, Shea Wigham, Thomas Mann and John C Reilly.
Writers: Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly.
Director: Jordan Vogt-Roberts.

Rating: 3.5/5

The latest incarnation of moviedom’s iconic great ape is the sole convincingly emotional character in Kong: Skull Island, a decibel-defying mash-up of grand-scale monster movie, grunt-level military fantasy and state of the art effects showcase. Director Jordan Vogt-Roberts has the good sense to leave his human stars alone to earn their paycheques, instead ensuring the big, beautiful visual thrills of Hollywood’s umpteenth monster-monkey movie are delivered in spades.

As the Vietnam War effort winds down, crypto-zoologist Bill Randa (John Goodman) grasps his last opportunity to oversee a military-led exploration of Skull Island, an uncharted South Pacific jungle paradise. Soon, he and offsider Houston Brooks (Corey Hawkins) are on the high seas, under the slightly-too-twitchy eye of career soldier Colonel Preston Packard (Samuel L Jackson, bringing his unhinged A-game) and the heavily armed troop of future dead people. Along for the ride are Tom Hiddleston as dreamboat tracker James Conrad (who, oddly, does little tracking) and Brie Larson as tough gal photojournalist Mason Weaver.

Braving a massive storm front and emerging over the spectacular environment (mostly Australia and Vietnam), Vogt-Robert’s indulges in what amounts to helicopter porn, his whirring camera putting you in the cabins of the aircraft, capturing both the scale of the expedition’s journey of discovery and the terror as the angry ape brings the squadron mercilessly back to earth. A wondrous CGI creation that conveys both body (muscle and hair convinces) and soul (yes, they get the eyes right), the majestic monkey doesn’t take kindly to being flushed out by Randa’s dirty-bombs. Desperate to regroup, the survivors make their way through jungles filled with all manner of fantasy-sized beasts, most worryingly the breed of subterranean screeching lizard-things who share some personal history with the tall, dark leading man.

The production’s website boasts that the narrative is “an original new adventure”, and that is true; there is little of significance that ties Kong 2017 to past versions of the classic adventure story. The ‘Beauty and The Beast’ heart of Kong mythology, embodied by Fay Wray in ’33, Jessica Lange in ’76 and Naomi Watts in ’05, is hinted at but never fully developed. Turning Oscar’s cache into cash, Larson only has two key scenes with Kong. She does all she can with her feisty photog, which mostly means reinforcing the feisty and straining to find chemistry in the couple of meaningful scenes she has with her other leading man. Hiddleston conveys Conrad’s alpha male qualities via a series of square-jawed, chest-out moments, as if he is posing for his action figure mould, which is actually all that is required in the context of what is going on around him.

Film and audience alike are grateful for the arrival of John C Reilly as the WWII pilot Hank Marlow, who has survived on the island since his plane was downed there in 1943. The actor provides great comic relief just as the film needs it, but also highlights (via an admittedly exciting prologue) one of the many illogical developments in the script written by the trio of Dan Gilroy, Max Borenstein and Derek Connolly; what strategic military value would an air battle have over an island so remote as to remain undiscovered for another 30-odd years?

Less artful but more fun than the producer’s last monster reboot, 2014’s Godzilla, Kong: Skull Island neither demands nor encourages intellectual engagement. What it strives to be is a big, loud, bloody action-adventure, the kind of mid-March blockbuster that signifies the awards season is over and the heady days of summer movie going are nigh. One of Jordan Vogt-Robert’s directing strengths is that he has the chutzpah to forego otherwise crucial film staples as character dimensionality and subtext, but confidently delivering chest-thumping mass entertainment. 

Wednesday
Oct052016

NILALANG

Stars: Cesar Montano, Maria Ozawa, Meg Imperial, Yam Concepcion, Cholo Barretto, Dido De La Paz, Kiko Matos, Sonny Sison, Alexandre Charlet and Aubrey Miles.
Writers: Pedring Lopez and Dennis Empalmado.
Director: Pedring Lopez.

Rating: 3.5/5

Pedring Lopez’s blood-soaked romp Nilalang is a wildly enjoyable exercise in mash-up expertise. In equal measure a pulpy Pinoy crime meller and spooky Japanese samurai lark, the Filipino auteur brushes aside some illogical plotting with stunning action set pieces, grim bloodletting and gorgeous animation. Throw in the entirely appropriate casting of a J-porn actress and span 400 years from the pre-credit sequence to end scroll…well, let’s say Lopez leaves nothing on the table in crafting his cult hit in-the-making.

With co-scripter Dennis Empalmado, Lopez uses a dazzling animated sequence that posits his backstory in feudal Japan, 1602. Samurai warriors must protect The Book of Darkness, a tome of Ishi scriptures that capture and carry the slain demon spirits, written in the blood of the legendary ‘Ronin’ soldiers. When the demon Zahagur escapes, leaving a trail of tortured and dismembered victims in its wake, centuries of bloodshed lay before him (the credit sequence, which montages 400 years of man’s inhumanity to man set to a thrash-metal track, coolly suggests Zahagur has chartered the course of mankind’s uglier moments).   

The action transplants first to the port district of Manila, circa 2013, and the take-down of a possessed Japanese criminal Nakazumi (Art Acuna), before settling into the murky, crime-ridden milieu of the present day Filipino capital. A crime scene recalls the brutal methods of the deceased Nakazumi, a coincidence that baffles the NBI Special Crimes Division and its tough-guy anti-hero, Tony (Cesar Montano), who pulled the trigger on the bad guy back in ‘13. With spunky, tough-girl offsider Jane (a terrific Meg Imperial) up for anything, Tony begins to believe that spirits once held captive by The Book of Darkness are out for vengeance and soon those associated with the cop are dropping like flies (or, more accurately, beheaded, disembowelled and face-scalped flies).

Veteran leading man Montano carries himself with a square-jawed, action hero machismo; barring one explosion of emotion in a driving rainstorm, his stoicism in the face of brutal crime scenes, reanimated bad guys and hot women wanting to bed him recalls a granite-like Jean-Claude van Damme in his prime. Said ‘hot woman’ is Maria Ozawa, the former Japanese X-rated star (she retired her AV persona in 2010) making a play at legit drama in the role of Miyuki, an S&M nightclub hostess and descendant of those who wronged Zahagur, who must face-off against the supernatural forces gaining strength.

Or something like that. The convoluted plotting gets a little blurry at times, opening up holes that are never fully closed. The evil spirit is able to possess at will (not unlike the villain in the 1998 Denzel Washington vehicle, Fallen); its vaporous form commands such bit players as an old lady housekeeper, a grave digger and several well-armed bodyguards. Why it doesn’t just take command of Jane or Tony or Miyuki is not clearly addressed.

Not that it really matters, frankly. Lopez is a thrilling visual stylist, filling every corner of his widescreen frame with lush colours and rich detail; DOP Pao Orendain's lensing is world class. Some brutal deaths are etched in the graphic-novel style animation, which proves no less stomach churning; scenes of bare skin torture and gruesome blade work will sate horror buffs (the fate of Yam Concepcion’s pretty young thing Akane is not easily forgotten). Some dialogue is ripe, though it plays well within the 80’s era construct with which Lopez is clearly enamoured. Positively pulsating with ballsy energy, Nilalang carries off a posturing swagger rarely glimpsed in the anaemic mainstream action cinema of today.

Thursday
Sep042014

KITE

Stars: India Eisley, Samuel L Jackson, Callan McAuliffe, Zane Meas, Carl Beukes, Lionel Newton and Deon Lotz.
Writer: Brian Cox; based upon the film by Yasuomi Umetsu.
Director: Ralph Ziman.

Rating: 2.5/5

Dabbling in the same fetish-feminism and coldly-served revenge fantasies that made Zack Snyder’s Sucker Punch such a wildly divisive work, artist and occasional director Ralph Ziman brings an appropriately seedy but miserably downbeat aesthetic to this long-in-development adaptation of Yasuomi Umetsu’s R-rated anime.

The blood-soaked, soft-core original drew conservative ire and censorship board wrath for its depiction of schoolgirl skin-flick anti-heroine, Sawa. In Brian Cox’s script, the random fornication so prevalent in the cartoon is gone, replaced by a greater focus on Sawa’s troubled psyche and fitful recollection of her past (the skimpy costuming, of course, remains). Fuelled by an addiction to the street drug Amp and hell bent upon avenging the slaying of her crusader cop dad, she delves deep into the sordid world of child prostitution where she ekes out and exterminates any evildoer that crosses her.

Live-action reimagining of the original’s key visual cues and memorable moments will register with the fan base. Relevance is attempted by positing the action in a post-GFC dystopia, riddled with the kind of social decay that budget restraints demand is conveyed by lots of peeling paint and smoke machines. The expansion of the plot from 50 minutes to a laborious 90 yields no discernible thematic gain; additional elements such as parkour street gang rivalries and Sawa’s softening when faced with an orphaned teen bolster the running time but not audience involvement.

Ziman’s flesh-and-blood embodiment of Sawa is American actress India Eisley, registering strongly when called upon to humanize the cold-blooded assassin but unable to cut it when the going gets physical; best amongst the cast is Australian Callan McAuliffe as Sawa’s street-urchin guardian, Oburi. Prime villainy is provided in the form of ‘The Emir’, played in a brief, charismatic turn by local character actor Zane Meas, and his OTT pommie offsider, Vic (some ol’ school scenery-chewing by Carl Beukes); all other bad guy parts are of the ‘arms folded and wait to die horribly’ variety. Gorehounds will find some glee in an opening sequence that features an exploding head seen through a gaping hole in one baddie’s hand and a henchman’s death by dum-dum dildo.

The property fell into Ziman’s hands when Snakes on a Plane director David R Ellis passed away unexpectedly during pre-production. Cast as the Sawa’s protector and loner cop Karl, a clearly disinterested Samuel L Jackson was locked in and hung around when the shoot went ahead, but there is a tangible sense that not everybody was particularly enthused about continuing. Shot in South Africa, the narrative occasionally recalls Luc Besson’s Leon and Tarantino’s Kill Bill double feature, but ultimately feels more akin to such weekly rental VHS staples as Avenging Angel and I Spit on Your Grave than anything worthwhile in its own right.

Friday
Jul252014

GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY

Stars: Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Lee Pace, Michael Rooker, Karen Gillan, Djimon Hounsou, John C Reilly, Glenn Close, Benicio Del Toro and Laura Haddock; featuring the voices of Vin Diesel and Bradley Cooper.
Writers: James Gunn and Nicole Perlman; based on the comic book by Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning.
Director: James Gunn. 

Rating: 4/5 

It never soars to the wildly subversive comic-book craziness that he conjured in 2010’s cult gem Super, but director James Gunn’s vividly idiosyncratic spin on Marvel’s renegade misfits, Guardians of the Galaxy, certainly represents a bracingly fizzy cinematic blast to the increasingly formulaic 'summer superhero' format.

Given the entire budgets of his past efforts amount to a week of craft services on a tentpole franchise starter of this scale, Gunn doesn’t forego his trademark eccentricity and engagingly off-kilter grasp of character to over-indulge his expanded canvas. Instead, he backs his established strengths while also revealing an artist's eye for colour and scale, ensuring his first mega-budgeted work is a beautiful looking film. The space-scapes and interplanetary worlds he creates and the menagerie of alien types that people them are truly wondrous at times.

In sublime creative synch with fellow scripter Nicole Perlman, Gunn bravely kicks off his blockbuster debut with a surprisingly downbeat prologue, introducing our hero, Peter Quill, as a boy experiencing the death of his cancer-riddled mother in the early 1980s. As he runs crying into the foggy night, an alien spacecraft nabs him, setting in motion a life spent drifting amongst the stars, forging a meagre living as a collector of tradable junk.

This adult Quill, aka self-proclaimed ‘Starlord’, is played with raffish charm by Chris Pratt, perfectly embodying the archetypal ‘reluctant hero’. Caring for very little except the mix-tape of classic rock tunes his mother made for him (in what is surely the best use of ‘classic rock’ oldies since The Big Chill), Quill is suddenly thrust into importance when he finds an elaborate orb that contains an ‘Infinity Stone’, an all-powerful energy source that can lay waste entire planets and that every villainous dictator in the galaxy wants.

Gunn’s first act deftly establishes the galactic landscape and the character conflict, although there were some mutterings at the screening attended by Screen-Space that this early section was too convoluted, the political evil-doings that define the conflict dragged down the first half. Not so for this reviewer, as the detail pays off in character empathy and tangible tension as the film progresses.

The Guardians coalesce organically, their individual agendas and dark personalities entirely believable. It is to script’s credit that such empathy is found in this ragtag bunch of losers, given they include an entirely CGI-crafted giant tree/biped hybrid called Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel); a fiery-tempered Raccoon-like experiment gone wrong named Rocket (Bradley Cooper, in a great voice-over performance); Drax, a mountain of man-muscle out for vengeance (MMA legend Dave Bautista); and, the green-skinned warrior-woman Gamora (the supremely physical and superbly photogenic Zoe Saldana). Their nemesis are just as richly observed, key amongst them Michael Rooker’s Yondu (one of the original Guardians in the early print editions, though no such reference is made here), Lee Pace’s Ronan the Accuser and Karen Gillan’s Nebula, whose lithe figure and striking blue skin tone is set to dominate the cosplay universe in the years ahead.  

Lumbering this jaunty, funny, irreverent work with the Marvel label should ensure a solid opening weekend, but truth be told the film’s weakest elements are those that bind it to the template the comic giant demands of its adaptations. Gunn works wonders with a thrilling effects-heavy finale, but the carnage too closely resembles the final frames of The Avengers, Captain America: Winter Soldier and some parts of the Thor movies; it is one of the few moments in Gunn’s otherwise wonderfully original vision when audiences may utter, “Yeah, seen that before.” The studio’s demands that franchise starters have sequel-ready plot devices also dictate that characters are established here (amongst them, Benicio Del Toro’s The Collector and Josh Brolin’s barely glimpsed Thanos) to clearly serve and only fully develop in later instalments.

The counter to such claims is that those concessions are a small price to pay to allow James Gunn and his creative team access to Guardians of the Galaxy lore. It seems an ideal melding of filmmaker and material, with low-budget genre graduate Gunn (watch for a cameo by mentor and Troma Studios founder, Lloyd Kaufman) bringing all his cool-kid confidence, pop-culture savvy and fan-boy enthusiasm to his debut in the big league.