Monday, 18 November 2019

Ford v Ferrari (Movie Review)


While I've never had any kind of affinity towards sports in general, I've always had a soft spot for sports dramas. This is mainly due to how they (read: the good ones) are anchored upon larger-than-life personalities, which helps them go beyond the viewer's enjoyment of the particular sport in question. Ford v Ferrari is no different, except it also boasts some truly exhilarating race sequences and several laugh-out-loud moments that had me on the edge of my seat for the better part of its lengthy runtime.

Set in the mid 1960s, the film depicts the rivalry between the two car manufacturers, Ford and Ferrari. The rivalry is sparked into being after the former attempts to buy the latter but the deal falls through due to their inability to reach an agreement on which of the two companies would have final say in matters concerning their racing division. This prompts Ford to build a race car within 90 days that would be fast enough to compete in the Ferrari-dominated Le Mans, a grueling 24-hour race in France.

To accomplish this feat, they hire the former racecar driver and engineer, Carroll Shelby (Matt Damon), who in turn must put together a dream team of drivers and engineers that would make this happen. Except things don't sit well between Shelby and Ford after he hires the hot-headed and very eccentric British driver, Ken Miles (Christian Bale). But Shelby is convinced that Ken is one of the only men skilled enough to handle whatever contraption they manage to build before the race, so much so that he is willing to stake everything he has worked for to prove it.

Ford v Ferrari is one of those rare movies that manages to tick all the required boxes without feeling over-produced or soulless. It is beautifully shot and tightly edited to the point where you can actually feel every lurch of the cars on the race track, as though you were sitting there in the cockpit. It is also beautifully acted, with both Matt Damon and Christian Bale giving Oscar-worthy performances.

But I think the highest praise should be reserved for director James Mangold, who somehow manages to keep the two-and-a-half movie moving at a good and steady pace, doling out the laughs and thrills without glossing over any of the human drama at its center.

Friday, 15 November 2019

Charlie's Angels (Movie Review)


The fall movie season is already proving to be almost as packed with blockbusters as summer, with what seems to be big release after big release enticing moviegoers to visit the multiplexes. I am of course referring to the likes of Joker and It Chapter Two, even though we've also had a few misses amongst the bunch, with Maleficent: Mistress of Evil, Gemini Man and Terminator: Dark Fate all failing to find an audience. Charlie's Angels is primed to take a stab at the box office this weekend, but of all the aforementioned films, it is the one that has surprised me the most.

Rather than make this iteration of the classic franchise a reboot or reimagining, the filmmakers have opted to make it a continuation. The basic premise is that the classic trio of angels has grown to include multiple teams of women from all walks of like, each one being directed by a handler holding the rank of Bosley, all of whom report to the eponymous disembodied voice of Charlie. These angels have been trained in the art of espionage, and they put those skills to good use working for the Townsend Agency.

When the oldest of the Bosleys (Patrick Stewark) retires, one of the older angels (Elizabeth Banks) is promoted to take his place. But her leadership abilities are immediately put to the test after she and the angels are drawn into a conspiracy involving an energy company with a revolutionary technology that could be weaponized if it falls into the wrong hands. The cast includes Kristen Stewart and Naomi Scott, as well as newcomer Ella Balinska, and Mrs. Banks pulls double duty as star and director.

I'll admit, I wasn't particular keen on seeing this movie. Sure it looked like it could offer a fun night at the movies, but all its preceding trailers and promotional material had felt shallow, making the movie itself feel like another unnecessary cash grab. Well, not only was I wrong about this but I was also pleasantly surprised. The film is helped by the great chemistry between its three leads. It also boasts some fun action, smart stroytelling and a collection of catchy tunes on its original soundtrack.

I felt it took a while for things to click, but by the halfway mark, I was invested enough in its storyline to be genuinely engaged by its twists and turns. Ultimately, I feel it is another fun addition to the franchise, even though it lacks a lot of the over-the-top action and overall campiness that made the last two movies memorable. Still, it is a hopeful indicator of what can be done with the franchise going forward, should the movie prove successful enough to warrant a sequel.

Friday, 1 November 2019

Terminator: Dark Fate (Movie Review)


Remember all those times Arnold Schwarzenegger had told us "I'll back back?" Well, the aging action star was not kidding as he returns yet again as one of the titular terminators in Terminator: Dark Fate. Directed by Tim Miller (Deadpool), the films serves as a direct sequel to Terminator 2: Judgement Day, ignoring all of the events that took place in Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, Terminator: Salvation and Terminator: Genisys, for better or worse.

Not long after Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) had managed to prevent Judgement Day, a T-800 (Arnold Schwarzenegger) from the future manages to carry out Skynet's mission to kill the human resistance leader, John Conner. And right off the bat, the film showcases some incredible use of CGI to recreate the likenesses of the three actors from 1991's Terminator 2: Judgement Day. But the focus quickly shifts after a time jump to 2020, when much like the previous films, two time travellers arrive from the future.

The first one is a woman named Grace (Mackenzie Davis), a cybernetically-enhanced soldier from 2042 who has been sent to protect Dani (Natalie Reyes), a girl being hunted by the second time traveller, a Rev-9 terminator (Gabriel Luna) with the ability to split itself into two. The basic premise here is that a new AI called Legion had risen after Skynet's defeat, so while Sarah had prevented Judgement Day, she still couldn't alter humanity's fate. Now she must help Grace and Dani while joining forces with an unlikely ally as they try to prevent the end of humanity once again.

The best thing about Terminator: Dark Fate is the return of the franchise's two leads, Linda Hamilton and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Both actors bring a certain level of charm and chemistry that was sorely missing in the other sequels. The film also boasts some truly "special" special effects as previously mentioned. But it never quite manages to shake that "been there, done that" feeling it leaves you with by retreading much of same story beats from the first two movies.

That said, Terminator: Dark Fate can still be considered a success as it succeeds at bringing the story arch from the first two movies to a somewhat satisfying close, while also leaving the door open to a new chapter in the franchise. Let's just wait and see if it succeeds where it truly counts, at the box office.

Friday, 11 October 2019

Gemini Man (Movie Review)


Not many films end up spending 20 years in development hell. But that is precisely what had happened with Gemini Man, a technothriller that was originally conceptualized way back in 1997. The main reason for this delay was the fact that it has taken that long for the technology required to bring the story to life to come into its own. I am of course referring to the film's main elevator pitch of an actor being pitted against a younger version of himself, a feat only made possible through recent advancements in CGI rendering. So how does the finished product stack up you ask? Well, not so good, but definitely not as bad as I had feared.

Directed by Ang Lee (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), the film stars Will Smith as an aging assassin called Henry Brogan. After barely managing to kill his latest mark without incurring some collateral damage, Henry decides to retire from life as a marksman for a government agency. His decision is met with some aversion from his superiors though, which prompts them to send one of their agents, Danny (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), undercover in order to keep an eye on him. But after Henry learns that his last target had been an innocent man, they decide to take more drastic measures to contain the situation.

This culminates in the villanious Clayton Varis (Clive Owen), director of the eponymous GEMINI, sending in his ultimate weapon, a cloned version of Henry dubbed Junior (also played by Will Smith). Having raised and trained Junior as his adopted son, Clayton tasks him with killing Henry. But when both assassins butt heads, it quickly becomes apparent that they were equally matched. And after Henry learns the true nature of his latest foe, he takes it upon himself to set things right as he tries to save his younger self from following in his footsteps.

Much of the hype surrounding the release of Gemini Man is about its use of 3D and a high-frame rate, neither of which I was able to experience as I'd seen the film on a regular 2D screen. But even in that standard format, it was still possible to tell just how ambitious Ang Lee's vision was. The action scenes were impeccably shot and choreographed, giving it a lifelike quality that was nothing short of captivating. It is just a shame that those setpieces felt like they deserved to be in a better movie, one with a less generic plot and a villain that wasn't so laughably bad.

The CGI used to create the character of Junior also needs to be commended, even though it did start to create an uncanny valley effect by the end of the movie, especially in those scenes where both characters were shown side-by-side under direct sunlight. Movies like Rogue One have already shown us what is possible with fully CGI characters, but Gemini Man somehow manages to move the needle even closer towards photorealism, thanks to some great performance capture from Will Smith in conjunction with the magic of the visual effects team.

Overall, the movie is not the unwatchable mess I'd feared it would be when I'd first caught wind of its impending release, even though its story does fall short of the high standards of its director's previous efforts.

Thursday, 3 October 2019

Joker (Movie Review)


I can still remember my initial skepticism when I'd learnt that Joaquin Phoenix would be playing the title role in a standalone Joker movie. And I guess you could say that this was understandable; after all, the late Heath Ledger had already given us a nigh-on-perfect performance as the Clown Prince of Crime in Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight. But in retrospect, I was mainly concerned that the movie would be nothing more than a villain-centric cash grab in the same vein as last year's Venom. Well, it turns out I was wrong, and I couldn't be happier as a result.

What sets Joker apart then? Is it the film's mature take on a character whose origin is often glossed over or left to mystery in other film adaptations? Or Joaquin Phoenix's nuanced portrayal of that character in what is sure to get him a Best Actor nod at next year's Academy Awards at the very least? Or perhaps it is the fact that director Todd Phillips attempts to take comic book adaptations into previously unexplored territory and succeeds? I think it is a mix of all three factors, and much more.

Set in 1981, the film depicts a version of Gotham City on the verge of collapse. The people are increasingly unhappy with an ineffective government. An ongoing worker's union strikes means that the city streets are practically overflowing with garbage. And in the midst of all that filth and unrest lives Arthur Fleck (Joaquin Phoenix), an aspiring stand-up comedian who just can't seem to catch a break. He is routinely bullied and made fun of for a medical condition that sends him into uncontrollable bouts of laughter.

He is forced to work as a clown-for-hire just to make barely enough money to continue caring for his ailing mother (Frances Conroy). But in spite of all that, he still dreams of one day appearing on a late night talk show hosted by Murray Franklin (Robert De Niro), an aging comedian he views as a father figure and the pinnacle of his aspirations. But when Arthur is attacked by a group of drunk businessmen one night after losing his job, he finally reaches breaking point and decides to fight back, an action that sets in motion a chain of events that would shake the entire city to its very core.

There is quite a lot to unpack in Joker, from its cautionary tale of how society is oftentimes responsible for giving birth to our most fearsome villains, to the way it manages to make the viewer feel actual empathy towards such people. I won't even attempt to get into such discussions here though. I would instead just state how utterly mind blowing the experience of seeing the events of this movie play out was.

Joker is another shining example of what can be done with comic book material when placed in capable hands. It is a character study that is not only thought-provoking, but also beautiful to look at. Every single scene is meticulously shot and scored to mirror the emotional rollercoaster its title character is on. And what a wild ride it was as well. Unburdened from all the overarching world-building that the typical connected universe movie has to do, Todd Phillips has crafted an origin story that would go down in history as one of the very best in filmmaking.

Saturday, 21 September 2019

Rambo: Last Blood (Movie Review)


The 80s were ripe with several genre-defining movies, but as far as B-grade action movies were concerned, First Blood was easily one of the most memorable. Released in 1982, the film introduced moviegoers to the character of John Rambo, a veteran from the Vietnam War struggling with PTSD who is forced to put his wartime skills to use when he is caught in a fight for survival against the police in a small town. The film was so successful that it spawned an entire franchise. Rambo: Last Blood is the fifth and potentially final installment in the series.

In Rambo: Last Blood, John Rambo (Sylvester Stallone) has since left his days of bloodshed behind, and taken up residence in an old family horse ranch he'd inherited from his late father. He lives there with an old friend called Maria (Adriana Barraza), who helps him care for the aging property. They also care for Maria's granddaughter, Gabrielle (Yvette Monreal), whose mother had died while she was very young. With the help of her friend, Jezel (Fenessa Pineda), Gabrielle is able to track down her estranged father, Miguel (Marco de la O), who now lives in Mexico.

Gabrielle expresses her desire to visit and reconnect with her father, a desire that both John and Maria warn her against. She proceeds to do so anyway, but while in Mexico, she is abducted by members of a Mexican cartel, who run a sex trafficking ring that is led by the two Martinez brothers, Hugo (Sergio Peris-Menchata) and Victor (Óscar Jaenada). John learns about her disappearance and goes to Mexico to find her. Except what he finds there instead is enough to make him become unhinged once again, and he finds himself in the middle of a full-on war with the Mexican cartel.

There is very little to love about Rambo: Last Blood, from its cookie-cutter, revenge-driven storyline, to its over reliance on excessive, gratuitous amounts of blood and gore. The fact that the whole film takes a fair amount of time to kick into gear, despite its relatively short runtime, doesn't exactly help matters. You get the sense that somewhere between the jumbled mess of an uneven pacing and over-the-top violence the filmmakers were actually trying to make something thought provoking, which only serves to highlight the movie's shortcomings even more.

The best thing about Rambo: Last Blood was the montage of past films that plays over the end credits, a section that effectively charts the title character's journey from lonely Vietnam War veteran to full-blown, B-grade action hero. And that says a lot about the overall quality of a movie, when the best part is watching the end credits roll. Still, if you happen to like B-movies or like me, you grew up watching the series, then this latest (and as the title suggests, final) installment is worth checking out on the strength of its nostalgia alone.

Wednesday, 11 September 2019

Parasite (Movie Review)


Anyone who's been following my annual Year in Review series of posts long enough might remember that I had named Snowpiercer my favorite movie for 2014. There was just so much to love about that movie, from its mind-bending tale of the last surviving remnants of the human race being confined to an unstoppable train encircling the globe, to the way the inhabitants of the titular train were segregated according to class. It was a visually-striking action movie that proved that South Korean director Bong Joon-ho was nothing short of a visionary. And that vision is once again on full display in Parasite, a dark comedy he'd also co-written.

The film explores classism, a recurring theme in several of his works. But this time around, he does so through the lenses of two families living on opposite sides of the great economic divide in South Korea: the first are the Kims, a family of four living in a basement apartment in a rundown neighborhood, and the second are the Parks, another family of four living in a lavish mansion. The lives of both families intersect when the Kims' son, Ki-woo, gets a job as an English tutor for the Parks' daughter, Da-hye, after he is recommended by his good friend and former tutor, Min-hyuk.

Discovering that the Parks were also in search of an art tutor for their son, Da-song, Ki-woo manages to convince (read: con) the extremely gullible Mrs. Park into hiring his sister, Ki-jeong. And using similar underhanded tactics, the Kim children also secure jobs for both their parents with the wealthy family, to the detriment of the people formerly holding those jobs (like the titular Parasite). While the Parks are on a camping trip with their son, the Kims use the opportunity to take up full residence in their house. But things change one rainy night when they receive an unexpected guest who reveals a very dark secret about the Parks' luxury home.

Parasite is currently my favorite film for 2019. I know it might be too early to call it, with movies like Ad Astra, Joker and The Rise of Skywalker still on the horizon. But it is hard to imagine any of the aforementioned films managing to outshine this one. At the very least it is the current movie to beat. The movie grips you from the very beginning, with its quirky sense of humor, before taking you on a full-blown journey into the dark recesses of the director's mind. And all the while, it treats you to some truly breathtaking cinematography that effectively captures the plights of the two families at its core.

I don't think I can recommend watching Parasite highly enough. It is every bit as mind-bending as Snowpiercer, despite being anchored in a contemporary setting while exploring identical themes. It is definitely a shoe-in for Best Foreign Language Film at next year's Academy Awards, and depending on how well it performs at the US box office when it releases next month, might even score Best Picture and Best Director nods. It truly deserves the highest honors it can get, and should stand as a masterclass of film-making for many years to come.