Quick Review: Taken 3

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The trailer looked good.  It seemed like a return to the roots of the original Taken, after the disaster that was Taken 2.  But seeing as it was Taken 2’s director (Olivier Megaton) at the helm and not the director of the first one (Pierre Morel), I did not have my hopes up.

I wanted to like it, but I just couldn’t find much to hold my attention.  The editing during the action sequences were so fast and choppy I could barely see what was going on.  The plot was unnecessarily convoluted; what made the original Taken special was that the plot was straightforward and we felt drawn into Bryan Mills’ world.  With Taken 3, the plot lacked focus, and the reduced violence to get a PG-13 rating definitely hurt the film rather than help it, as it took away the impact of the violence.

It’s a bit better than the second Taken.  And I still believe there is a chance for this franchise to come back if they reboot it by changing the writer and director.  But unless that happens, Taken as a franchise has run its course.

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Movie Review: Dawn Of the Planet of the Apes

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Dear Michael Bay: this is how you make a CGI-heavy action film where the human characters actually matter.  “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” continues the story from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” a tale that has grown into an epic saga in which layers upon layers of story are added with each passing scene.

You find yourself immersed this post-apocalyptic world (supposedly San Francisco but looks more like Vancouver, neighbour to its North), and more importantly, caring about the human characters.  They play an integral part of the battle against the Apes, and the allegories towards our society are frequent but not overwhelming.

The special effects were top-notch; the apes look as real as ever.  And huge props again to Andy Serkis, who portrays Caesar, the leader of the Apes.  His abilities to bring CGI characters to life through his motion censor suit (as he’s done as Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” films and “King Kong”) is absolutely amazing.

Twice now I have been surprised at how good the new saga of “Apes” films are, since the bombastic and confusing Tim Burton / Mark Walhberg version.  I am definitely looking forward to heading to the theatres for the next instalment.

Movie Review: Transformers: Age of Extinction

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Hearing nothing but bad things about the newest instalment (a so-called reboot) of the Transformers franchise from my friends and critics alike, I went to see the film anyway, for reasons that aren’t quiet enough to justify my trip to the theatre:

1. I wanted to see just how bad it was, and whether I can still derive some enjoyment out of it, and;

2. It was late on a Thursday night and my choices were limited.

In lieu of the fact that everyone I know trashed the film, my bar was set so low that it was almost impossible for me to hate it. And I can’t say I did, because at this point, I have lost faith in Michael Bay; to me, he will always be the guy who uses the same technique (that signature low-angle slo-mo shot of a dude stepping out of a car looking like he’s badass? check) and whose movies are always at least 20 minutes too long.

Recently, I have funnelled my hatred towards Michael Bay films into laughter as I was once again in awe of how bad his latest work is.  This film is another instance where Michael Bay and the people who produces these Transformers movies know that people will go to these films no matter how garbage they are.

However, I can’t say I hate this film, per se, because it features my home city of Hong Kong getting destroyed (you see it in the trailer so no spoilers), especially two of the city’s architectural monstrosities.  That, at a personal level, at least, makes this film not a complete waste of money to go to.

If you are ambivalent to seeing Hong Kong get demolished (It was enjoyable for me also because now I can say I’ve walked the same street as Bumblebee and Optimus Prime!), then don’t watch it.

As a side note: some local Hong Kong people are enraged over a line said in the film that promotes mainland Chinese propaganda, in selling its affections towards the city of Hong Kong.  But when you put that in a Michael Bay movie, who cares?

Movie Review: Olympus Has Fallen (Another Straw Drawn for Director Fuqua)

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“Olympus Has Fallen” feels like an episode of “24” meets “Air Force One.”  The film looks decent, is well-acted, but lacks the intensity and emotional force brought about by modern action films.  When the bar has been set so high in recent years by films such as the “Bourne” trilogy and “Inception,”  “Olympus Has Fallen” is weighed down by predictable writing and contrived plot points.  More importantly, for me, this represents another straw drawn by director Antoine Fuqua, as he was unable to take this huge budget and strong cast and turn it into a stand out film.

Since making “Training Day,” Fuqua’s films have been treading the line just above mediocrity.  “Training Day” was followed by “Tears of the Sun,” which was pretty good, but largely carried by one of Bruce Willis’ better performances.  “King Arthur” and “Shooter” were ‘okay’ at best.  Fuqua made “Brooklyn’s Finest” after “Shooter,” which I view as his best film since “Training Day.”  But that film’s ending was disappointing compared to the rest.  Similarly, “Shooter,”  which starred Mark Wahlberg, was not bad until the last fifteen minutes, which made no sense compared to the rest of the movie.

The lack of a payoff from the build up in “Shooter” was unfortunately also the case in “Olympus Has Fallen,” where Fuqua establishes a strong antagonism between Gerard Butler’s character and the main villain.  There was even a scene involving Butler practicing boxing with Aaron Eckhart, who plays the President of the United States, that could have been used as a foreshadow into the film’s climax in the final act.  But nope, the final act was as formulaic as it gets.

The film also feels slightly out of date.  The days of  ‘stop the bomb from blowing up’ story lines are passed, and I even felt slightly nostalgic when I saw that a bomb device in this film has a digital ticker that sets the bomb off when it reaches zero.  But I don’t think nostalgia is the feeling the film wants the audience to have, it being a modern action picture.

“Olympus Has Fallen” isn’t bad at all; in fact, I’d recommend it for people who are just looking for a simple story with some well-staged action sequences.  The performances by Butler and Eckhart were as good as the script allowed.  Morgan Freeman cashes in another good pay check doing what he does best.  But when a director has made so many films after “Training Day” and the posters for “Olympus Has Fallen” still tags the line “From the director of Training Day,” I for one am out of patience in hoping to see Fuqua return to his “Training Day”… days.

Movie Review: Lincoln (The One Movie that brought Tears to my Eyes)

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I don’t cry in movies.  The only time I had to fight back tears during a movie was “The Last Samurai.”  There have been a few others where I’ve gotten close, most recently during “Les Miserables”; unless your heart is made of cold hard steel, you’re bound to get emotional during Anne Hathaway’s rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.”

I didn’t know what to expect when I walked into “Lincoln”, Steven Spielberg’s latest film depicting President Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to pass the 13th Amendment towards the end of the American Civil War.  The Amendment effectively abolishes slavery for all of the United States.

Little did I know, this would be the film that would bring a tear to my eye.

I will spare you the plot summary, and just say that it’s typical Spielberg:  crisp dialogue, smooth writing, flawless tone and atmosphere, and a fantastic huge ensemble cast (I kept on trying to tell my friend “hey this is the guy from “Mad Men” (Jared Harris) / “24” (Gregory Itzin)  / “Watchmen” (Jackie Earle Haley) / “Boardwalk Empire” (Michael Stuhlberg) !)  headed by the amazing Daniel Day Lewis.  I rooted for Hugh Jackman to win the best actor Oscar for his role in “Les Miserables” before watching “Lincoln”.  Sorry, Hugh.  This was Daniel’s year (again).  His portrayal of someone who is burdened by war, politics, family, and his vision of a country freed of slavery, is uncanny.  In the midst of so much adversity, we can see past his wearied aging figure and find undying optimism.

I want to label this film as ‘selectively brilliant’.  I have encountered a few people who said that they found the film boring, and didn’t know what went on.  But when I asked, they knew very little about American politics and the legacy of Lincoln.  Personally, I love history, but more importantly, I am fascinated by American politics.  So for me, having a little bit of knowledge of how American politics works today, the film connected with me on an emotional level.

The way in which the Republican party had to procure enough votes to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, plus the implications of its passage, was highlighted in a variety of ways.  We see the opposing parties yell at each other in Congress; we see the President’s African-American helper plead with him; we see turmoil within the President’s own party.  All of it built up to immerse the audience into feeling just how important it was, for Lincoln and for America, to pass that Amendment.  That is why, when the climax of the film concluded, I cheered with the Republican congressmen, and I cried with them.

I definitely believe that “Lincoln” should have won Best Picture (I’ve seen all of the nominees except “Life of Pi” and “Beasts of the Southern Wild”).  I loved “Argo”, but it didn’t make me cry!  But like I said, I especially love this film because of my passion for history and American politics, and I fear that many do not share the same sentiment.

Movie Review: Skyfall – And Explosive Return from Solace

“Skyfall” marks a return to form for the 007 franchise after its disappointing  predecessor, “Quantum of Solace”.  Unlike “Quantum”, which barely had enough plot to sustain the constant barrage of action sequences, “Skyfall” is story and character-driven, at the same time retaining the riveting action scenes that Bond fans love.  And in light of the recent slew of mediocre action thriller films such as “The Bourne Legacy,” and “Taken 2”, “Skyfall” breathes life back into the genre and takes the audience on a thrilling ride.

This time around, Bond falls into serious predicaments in the signature pre-credit opening action scene (not much of a spoiler as to what happens as it is shown in the trailer) and spirals down to mid-agent crisis.  In his absence, the office of MI6 gets blown up, and an ex-agent named Silva, played by Jarvier Bardem, is bent on destroying the British Secret Service and its head, M.

Bardem is most famous for playing the twisted hit man Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men.”  In “Skyfall”, Bardem channels the horror of Chigurh as Silva, the difference being Silva is a character driven by revenge, and the madness coming from a fractured and traumatized psyche as the result of past events.  Silva is the best Bond villain in recent memory; at his best,  he showed flashes of chilling menace reminiscent of Heath Ledger’s Joker in “The Dark Knight.”

Daniel Craig also gives another terrific performance as Bond.  Having established himself as a capable action star, Craig takes Bond to the next stage, as someone who needed a break from all the killing and do some soul-searching.  This proves to be an integral part of the story as he needed to be mentally rejuvenated in order to face off against the mastermind Silva.  The film also explores Bond’s undying patriotism and a vague but persistent sense of personal justice that compelled him get back into the game despite having the option to ‘stay dead’.

Directed by Sam Mendes of “American Beauty” and “Revolutionary Road” fame, this film is a masterpiece in cinematography.  The subtle maneuvers in camerawork make scenes that much more enticing, and further immerses the audience into Bond’s world.  The action scenes are cleanly-edited and never confusing.

The ending of the film is satisfying and put a smile on my face.  Its sense of liberation and continuation is what the franchise needs to keep viewers coming back to find out what will happen to Bond next.  Whether you are a fan of the franchise or someone who even remotely likes action thrillers, “Skyfall” is a film that cannot be missed.

Society’s ‘Elites’ and My Inner Bane

Those of you who have read my review on “The Dark Knight Rises” will know that I am not the biggest fan of the film.  Having said that, I have, not entirely on my on will, gone to see it a second time at the theater.  Proving the fact that when I saw the film the first time it was a 12:30 pm show had no effect on my view on it (as that’s quite early in the day for me), I felt the same after the second viewing.  The film still felt clunky, uneven, and tainted with illogicalities in the plot. I did, however, gain some new perspective, not about the messages and themes that the film expressed, but on a rather personal basis.  It has to do with the allure, desire, insanity, and chaos, that money, and the idea of money, brings to society.

This train of thought spawned from a conversation in the film between John Daggett and Bane.  Daggett is a billionaire investor who financially backed Bane’s operations and sought to take over Wayne Enterprises.  After (small spoilers) Daggett realized that he failed to become head of the Wayne board, he confronted Bane, yelling at him to the point where it was obvious that he had forgotten his place.  When Bane revealed a glimpse of his madness on Daggett, the conversation went as follows:

Daggett:  “I gave you a lot of money.”

Bane: “And that gives you power over me?”

What happened next isn’t really relevant to the discussion at hand.  This little verbal exchange, and the subsequent chaos that Bane laid upon Gotham and its privileged class, provided me with a fresh basket of food for thought.

Coincidentally, recently, I have been presented with the opportunity to become a part of this elite class of society, where money is in the blood and veins of its very own infrastructure.  I found myself indulging in the same things that the privileged folks in Gotham indulged in.  Luxury. Whenever I am at a place of glorious opulence I found myself feeling like I’m in a different world, somehow establishing the dynamic of ‘us’ and ‘them’, because of where I was and what that meant.

We are in a society where money rules.  Like it or not, capitalism is the way of the world right now, and as long as it remains so, society will always be driven by the accumulation of wealth.  Now, there are arguments both ways on whether if it’s a good or a bad thing.  Some might even argue that it’s neither good nor bad, that it’s just the way of the world and doesn’t affect people on a personal basis (who they ‘are’, their morals, etc).  I happen to believe that personal wealth and the accumulation of wealth significantly influences a person’s character, demeanor, and morals beliefs.

Some people are born into well-off families and thus might have an easier path towards accumulating wealth, others might have to fight a lot harder to gain the same amount of wealth.  Everyone in society today have to make decisions involving money, whether if it’s spending it, betting it, investing it, burning it… and seeing Bane utter those words reminded me that we should be the ones in control of money, not vice versa.

It is perhaps unclear though, Bane’s specific targeting of society’s affluent.  Was he waging war against Gotham because of the class inequality? Is this what he and the League of Shadows fought for, albeit through extremist means?

I might not be the excommunicated leader of the League of Shadows who is looking to terrorize a city, send it into anarchy, and tear down the upper class.  The method with which I strive to combat the corruption of money is much more introspective.  When I am faced with thematic decisions in life where money might be a factor, everything from work, education, even relationships… I need to conjure up my inner Bane: Stay true to myself, and don’t let money control me.