Quick Review: Killing Them Softly

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At times, “Killing Them Softly”‘s brutal and stylized action is reminiscent of “Drive,” a modern classic of a similar genre.

The film is a social commentary on the forgotten American middle class through the backdrop of a robbery involving low-life amateurs and the mob.  The result is a bit of a mixed bag, and the filmmakers would have been better off focusing either on the thematic elements and tone down the violence, or go all out on the action and do away with the social commentary.

The filmmakers’ choice to deliver its message through the voices of various political figures heard from the radio or television, rather than through dialogue between characters, feels heavy-handed.  I’m skeptical of the notion that the lower working class / middle class people listen to this much politics on any given day.

While the film boasts a star-studded cast, headed by Brad Pitt, the characters don’t really sync well with the plot to hammer home its message.  The characters themselves are not especially remarkable, either; Brad Pitt is his usual, dreamy self, playing a hit man a little too laid back, like someone who is going through chores instead of pursuing his objectives with intensity.

It’s not a bad film, by any means.  But the hit and misses and tonal inconsistencies held this film back.

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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: Flight

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“Flight” taps into the mind of  William “Whip” Whitaker, a commercial jet pilot who saves almost everyone by expertly landing a plane that was falling apart.  He is also an alcoholic and an occasional user of cocaine, which complicates things in the crash’s subsequent investigations.

Denzel Washington was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards for his role as Whip.  I’ve always been a fan of his; he makes uninteresting characters interesting, and carries on his back what would’ve been very mediocre films.  For an example of that, look no further than “Safe House,” where he turned a film with a predictable and weak script into a box office smash.  I don’t think this was his best performance, and it certainly wasn’t as good as the other best actor nominees, especially Hugh Jackman (“Les Miserables”) and Daniel Day Lewis (“Lincoln”).

I found that the story parallels very closely to the “Five Stages of Loss and Grief.”  Although the “5 Stages” refers mostly to mourning or someone diagnosed with terminal illness, we know early on in the film that Whip has dealt with some problems in the period before the film, namely a nasty divorce with his wife.  Each of the 5 Stages, ‘Denial & Isolation’, ‘Anger’, ‘Bargaining’, ‘Depression’, and ‘Acceptance’, were displayed by Whip, almost in that order.

“Flight” falls short of being great because it wasn’t able to arouse enough emotions from the audience through Whip.  It was especially difficult because Whip was an antihero and while director Zemeckis did create a conflict for the audience to both root for Whip for saving lives and be disgusted as he crumbles under the effects of his alcohol addiction, the intensity was somewhat misplaced.

The supporting cast was effective in making Whip’s story more compelling.  The role that stood out to me was Kelly Reilly’s (middle bottom of the picture) magnetic performance as Nicole, a recovering drug addict who becomes Whip’s love interest.  I was captivated by the clash between her vulnerability and determination (and also her beauty).  Reilly has not been in many Hollywood films, notably appearing as Mary Watson in the new “Sherlock Holmes” films.  After this performance, I will definitely look out for her in future films.

“Flight” is a really solid drama that provide flashes of brilliance and some let-downs, I recommend it for Reilly’s performance and fans of Denzel Washington.

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: Taken 2 gets more ridiculous

“Taken 2” sees Liam Neeson returns as Bryan Mills, the role that propelled Neeson to action superstar.  Its predecessor, “Taken”, was a surprise hit in 2008, making over 200 million dollars in the box office.  “Taken 2” though, is a disappointment compared to the success of its predecessor.

Principally, there are two directions in which a sequel like “Taken 2” can go, the first is try to find what made the first film so successful and try to recreate that experiences without introducing any new concepts or ideas (a rehash, so to speak); the second is to take what made the first film so successful and build upon it, take it to the next level and wow the audience with something even better.  “Taken 2” jumped right on the first option and went “let’s make a lot of money!”

The story is so simple that there’d be nothing left if I give anything away.  Suffice to say that if you’ve seen the trailer, you know exactly what goes on.  The dashing and sexy Maggie Grace returns to play Mills’ daughter, and Famke Janssen joins them as Mills’ ex-wife.

There were no shortages of action in this film.  Neeson runs and guns, displaying movie-hero firearm accuracy and lightening-fast hand to hand combat that was so choppily edited I barely made out what went on.  But it’s not the action that failed “Taken 2”.  It’s fine if the makers of this film set out to reuse the “Taken” formula and create the exact same scenario, but they failed to achieve what made “Taken” so successful, and that was to create a dark atmosphere where the main character is driven by rage and revenge, and an urgency where the audience felt that every second passed diminished the likelihood of Mills rescuing his daughter .  In “Taken 2”, that sense of desperation and urgency is missing, as we never feel that the family is ever in grave danger.  And as the film builds up Mills to be unbeatable, the audience only has to wait for the inevitable to happen.

Despite my criticisms, the third act of the movie, usually the weakest in action thrillers, turned out to be the best portion of the film.  The final few action sequences were better than the earlier ones, but the problem remained where it’s hard to believe that Neeson was in danger at any point because he can’t lose.  The ending made sense, and dutifully leaves potential for another sequel, and another.

If they make a “Taken 3” (and it seems like they are.  I’d go see it, as long as Neeson returns), I really hope the makers take a fresh approach to the material and don’t rehash the rehashed.  As co-writer Robert Mark Kamen says, “we’ve taken everyone we can take – it’s going to go in another direction.  Should be interesting.”

Movie Review: Ted

I like comedies, but for some reason, they are never on the top of my list when I want to see a film.  Having still not seen some of the recent comedy hits such as “The Hangover”, “Bridesmaids”, and “Horrible Bosses”, I went into “Ted” having heard nothing but good things about it.  And it didn’t disappoint.

The plot isn’t anything groundbreaking.  But the jokes are quite funny.  And thanks to writer / director Seth MacFarlane’s brilliant voice work for Ted, the movie by in large moves smoothly without dragging.

All of the acting performances are strong.  I always knew there was a comedic side to Mark Wahlberg, but here he was brilliant starring as John Bennett in a straight up comedy.  Mlia Kunis does a good job of playing Wahlberg’s love interest, and is a likable character even though she supposedly is Ted’s competition for John’s attention and affections. The supporting cast is also funny and lively, notably characters played by Joel McHale and Giovanni Ribisi.  I couldn’t help but wish that it would have been Tom Cruise playing Ribisi’s character instead, a creepy, middle-aged dad who is obsessed with Ted…

My only slight criticism of the film is that a lot of its jokes relies on a large number of cultural and movie references that perhaps only those who are familiar with the American culture, or have seen a lot of movies, would get.  Characters in the film allude to shows and movies such as “Family Guy”, “Flash Gordon,” and “Aliens”, and those who have not seen these will have no idea why some jokes are funny.  I sat in a theatre full of local Hong Kong Chinese and I was the only laughing on some of those jokes.

Most of the jokes were hits, and aren’t too raunchy for those who aren’t into the gross-out type jokes.  And as most comedies go, when it gets to the third act and the drama happens, the film ceases to be funny.  “Ted” does a decent job of keeping things light-hearted and avoids being melodramatic, thanks to a cheerful background score and a brisk pace.

All in all, I’m glad that I finally went to the theater to see a comedy.  “Ted” might not be the funniest movie I’ve ever seen, and the story might not be original, but it has enough laugh out loud moments to garner my recommendation for anyone looking for some laughs at the movies.

Movie Review: The Bourne Legacy – Wait, It’s Over?

As a stand alone film, “The Bourne Legacy” is quite decent.  Unfortunately, people are inevitably going to compare this latest installment of the “Bourne” series with its predecessors, upon which this one is clearly the weakest.

As soon as I walked out of the theater, I started remembering how good the previous films were.

With Paul Greengrass, director of “The Bourne Supremacy” and “Ultimatum”, and Matt Damon, Bourne himself, out of the lineup, Tony Gilroy (who co-wrote the previous films), and Jeremy Renner takes their place for “Legacy”.  Despite the absence of Greengrass, I had high expectations for Gilroy, who directed the much acclaimed “Michael Clayton.”  But this film shows how much Greengrass is missed, as “Legacy” lacks the intensity and emotional force from Greengrass’ films.

The entire film feels like a “Bourne-lite”:  Everything is reminiscent of the previous films, but Bourne is missing, except for a picture appearance; the plot is not as engaging and complex, the action not as thrilling, and, worst of all, the ending was underwhelming, as opposed to the endings of the previous two films, which were very satisfying.

I was shocked at how the movie ended, as certain scenes near the end had me convinced that there was at least another half an hour of movie left, which I would have been fine with.  So when Moby’s recurring theme song played I thought “wait… what?”

The plot for “Legacy” is simple, too simple, in fact.  Its slow pacing and linearity resulted in some boring stretches.  There were no dots to connect, nothing that kept me on the edge of my seat.

Again, it might seem as if I disliked this film.  I don’t.  I’d say this film is a tad better than “Safe House”, the action thriller that was a surprise hit at the box office starring Denzel Washington and Ryan Reynolds.  At least “Legacy” isn’t one of the most predictable films I’ve ever seen.

The stars of “Legacy” are fantastic.  Renner establishes Aaron Cross as someone distinctly different from Damon’s Bourne, and that makes it all the more exciting to see a potential sequel that starts both characters.  Rachel Weisz is brilliant as always.  Even though her character isn’t very dynamic or well-developed, she plays it with conviction and emotion, and I believed in every action she took and every line she delivered.

So, despite the fact that “The Bourne Legacy” doesn’t stack up against the previous Bourne films, fans of the series should go see it, if anything, to keep the series going and see how the overarching story develops.  Those looking for a decent action thriller should check it out too.  While it’s not a great action movie, it’s certainly entertaining.