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Movie Review: Unknown (2011) February 18, 2011

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I had been looking forward to seeing Liam Neeson’s latest thriller, Unknown, ever since I saw the trailer a few months ago.  It reminded me of Taken (another Neeson film), one of my surprise favourites from a couple of years back, with an compelling mystery anchoring the plot — a biologist visits Berlin with his wife and has an accident, and when he wakes up from a coma days later, another man has assumed his life.

Is there a conspiracy at play here, or has he lost his mind?  And what lengths will he go to in order to uncover the truth and take back his life?

For the most part, Unknown unfolds as expected.  Nothing appears to make sense, and it keeps you guessing whether what you’re seeing is real, imagined, or perhaps both.  At the same time, there is action, suspense and thrills, and plenty of it.  I can honestly say I was intrigued.

Of course, Liam Neeson is brilliant, but the supporting cast wasn’t too shabby either — Diane Kruger, January Jones, Aidan Quinn, and Frank Langella.  Each actor/actress manages to put their stamp on their characters, even with limited screen time.

Director Jaume Collet-Serra (who directed the underrated Orphan) does a fairly good job here with some pretty farcical material (and I’m not just talking about how improbable it is for someone as attractive as Diane Kruger playing a taxi driver).

In less capable hands, Unknown could have easily spiralled out of control, but despite all the plot holes and unnecessary convolution in the unravelling of the mystery, the film manages to stay afloat and avoid total disaster.

Ordinarily, films with predicaments this bizarre can only end in bitter disappointment.  You’ll tend to be riveted by the mystery until you discover the truth, which is usually outrageous or silly or both, and the film just completely crumbles from that point on.  Surprisingly, Unknown‘s resolution is about as good as you can get for a film of this kind.  It’s not necessarily believable, but considering how far it takes you, it’s at least within the realm of possibility.  Or so I tell myself…

3.5 stars out of 5

End of Year DVD Blitz: Part III December 29, 2010

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Part II of my end of year DVD Blitz was downright awful.  Part III is still a bit of a mixed bag, but there are a few decent ones.  Here’s five more, and there will definitely be a Part IV coming soon.

Legion (2010)

I think this film screened at the cinemas but was gone as quickly as it came.

Starring Mr Jennifer Connelly (Paul Bettany), Lucas Black, Dennis Quaid, Tyrese Gibson and Kate Walsh, Legion is a film of two halves.  The first half was actually sensational — intriguing, exciting, bizarre and downright frightening at times, leading me to start thinking this was going to be one of the best biblical apocalopse movies in recent memory.  Weird mutating demonic people, a bunch of characters stuck in the cafe of a service station in the middle of nowhere, and an enigmatic, sinister looking dude who appears to be an angel — Legion really started off with a bang.

And then, about halfway through…everything just fell apart.  One minute I was on the edge of my seat, and the next, I was struggling to stay awake.  Unfortunately, the rest of film stayed that way until the end, failing to provide a final spark that would have redeemed the film.  Oh well.

It probably doesn’t deserve this high of a rating, but on purely on the strength of the first half of the film I’m going to give it:

3 stars out of 5

Chloe (2009)

This film had gotten plenty of publicity, and not just because it was based on the French film Nathalie, directed by Atom Egoyan, and features an all-star cast.  It was because Amanda Seyfried apparent gets her gear off.

While she does, of course, as does Julianne Moore, Chloe is really quite tame as an erotic psychological thriller (most of it is verbal).  But it’s still a pretty interesting, strangely compelling film about a woman (Julianne Moore), her husband (Niam Leeson), their son (Max Thieriot), and a prostitute (Amanda Seyfried).

Moore gives a knockout performance as always, and while the film was rather slow paced, it was atmospheric and well-made.  A great study into relationships and marriages.  A dud of an ending did put a damper on things though.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed it enough to give it:

3.5 stars out of 5

Mao’s Last Dancer (2009)

I had been meaning to watch this one and read the book on which it was based for quite a while, but somehow had done neither.  I finally got the chance to see this inspirational biographical film about Li Cuxin, a guy from a poor rural family in China who was selected to learn ballet and eventually became an international superstar, though it came at the cost of ‘betraying’ the country he was from.

Very amazed that this was an Australian production (even though it features predominantly international stars) because it was quite well made, if not a little heavy handed at times.  The thing that impressed me the most was that they managed to find two Asian actors who not only resembled Li Cuxin, but could also perform ballet, speaking English and Mandarin, and most of all, act.

This was probably one of those feel-good melodramas that I liked more than I should have because I love the true story so much.  And this is coming from a guy who absolutely does not ‘get’ ballet.

Li Cuxin’s youthful naievete, his courage and his resolve were really brought out in this film, which was at times infuriating but ultimately triumphant and inspiring.  This is one film I would recommend to people who want/need a kick to start pursuing their dreams — only, of course, if you are a hardcore Communist, because this film felt like a propaganda (or should I say anti-propoganda) film far too often.

3.75 stars out of 5


Let Me In (2010)

The Swedish original, Let the Right One In, is right up there as one of the best films I saw last year, and one of the best horror films I had seen in a long time (my review here).

And so it was with some trepidation that I approached the obligatory American remake, directed by Matt Reeves (Cloverfield guy) and starring Kodi Smit-McPhee (The Road) and Chloe Moretz (Kick Ass).

It’s kind of hard to review a remake when you have seen the original, but I did my best to approach Let Me In as a standalone film and judge it on its own merits.  I’m not sure if I succeeded or not, but nevertheless, I still found it to be a superior horror film — perhaps not as good as the original, but good enough to potentially blow away people who haven’t seen the Swedish version.

Set in New Mexico, the plot closely mirrors the original (of course, though Reeves said this was a remake based on the book, not the Swedish film), though it’s not a shot-for-shot remake as some have claimed that it is close to.  Smit-McPhee is Owen, the bullied boy who finds a friend in the strange and mysterious Abby (Moretz), who is not what she seems.  The two strike up an unlikely friendship/romance that will chance both their lives forever.

The two leads do have good chemisty, and as expected, the Hollywood version is slightly quicker in pace and more explicitly viceral in terms of scares.  It’s a fine horror film in its own right (though not a classic like the original), but I was sorely disappointed that they took out the scariest scene in the Swedish film (the ‘cat’ scene).

4 stars out of 5

30 Days of Night: Dark Days (2010)

I thoroughly enjoyed the first 30 Days of Night, the one with Josh Hartnett and Melissa George, about a bunch of people stuck in an Alaskan town for 30 days without sunshine while vampires roamed the streets.

This straight-to-DVD sequel is a much smaller and less ambitious production, using lesser known actors (Kiele Sanchez, Stephen Huszar) to replace the stars in the same roles.  It continues about a year after the first film ended and follows Stella as she tries to overcome the grief from her husband’s death and somehow ends up in LA, where she finds herself fighting off a whole new network of vampires.

There’s a good reason why this one went straight to DVD — it’s your run of the mill, bloody, gory, uninspiring vampire romp with B-grade actors and lots of guns — but not a whole lot of genuine tension or thrills.  It’s adequate for what it is, but best to keep your expectations in check if you were a fan of the first film.

2 stars out of 5

There’s still more movies — Part IV to come shortly!

Movie Review: The A-Team (2010) August 3, 2010

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To be perfectly honest, I didn’t know much about the 80s series The A-Team upon which the new film of the same name was based.  I was familiar with Mr T, and my old boss had once referred to our particular team for a large legal transaction as “the A-Team” (apart from me, there were two other lawyers — one was a sexual deviant and the other was nicknamed “Freakshow” for his horrible BO, saliva spraying, flaky dandruff, and body hairs poking out of missed button holes), but that was the extent of my knowledge.

This new “A-Team” features Liam Neeson (how can you not like a guy who played Oscar Schindler, Qui-Gon Jinn and kicked serious butt in Taken?) as their leader “Hannibal”, rising star Bradley Cooper (The Hangover) as the slick “Face”, Sharlto Copley (District 9) as “Howling Mad” Murdoch, and MMA fighter Quinton “Rampage” Jackson as BA Baracus (the new Mr T).  These four dudes somehow come together and become extremely close (in condensed off-screen time), blowing things up and making wisecracks while they save the world from corrupt government officials and counterfeit money plates.

The A-Team is what it is.  An all-out, over-the-top action movie with a bunch of cool, wacky guys, a few rather tame/lame jokes, a couple of twists and turns in the plot, and lots and lots of explosions.  It starts with a bang and never lets the foot off the pedal.  Fun and exciting?  For the most part.  Engaging and riveting?  Not exactly.  As far as action movies go, I suppose it could have been a lot worse, but this was definitely no classic.  However, if you just want a couple of hours of light entertainment, The A-Team is actually quite up to the task.

Since I don’t know about the original there’s nothing to compare them to, but I think the chemistry is largely there for this crew.  I would say Jackson, not being a career actor and all, was the weakest link of the foursome.  He just looks uncomfortable out there churning out those lines.

To me, it was the villains that stole the show.  Patrick Wilson (super underrated actor) gets a pretty meaty role as a nasty but inept CIA Agent and seems to really enjoy being a douche, whereas Brian Bloom (I’ve seen him in Dollhouse and a bunch of other TV shows) unexpectedly excels as the evil private security dude.

On the other hand, Jessica Biel received a rather thankless role as the helpless agent on the side slash love-interest.  She was looking slim and pretty but that was about it.

Considering the “average” reception of the film at the box office, whether a sequel will be forthcoming remains to be seen.  In some ways The A-Team failed to live up to expectations because of the popularity of the original TV series, but in other ways it exceeded expectations because most people thought it would be complete trash (but it’s not).  Keep your expectations in check and go along for the ride.

3 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Clash of the Titans (3D) (2010) April 4, 2010

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Big action blockbuster and Greek mythology — two of my favourite things.  Put them together, throw in a bit of 3D, and you get Clash of the Titans, the new remake of the 1981 classic.

The story is very loosely based on the Greek myth of Perseus, played by Sam Worthington (Avatar), and has numerous and significant differences from the original film.

There’s not much point in giving away the plot, other than to say that the film takes place in a world where humans have full knowledge of the Gods’ existence, and that bizarre creatures and mythical monsters live among them.  And in this world, Perseus, a demigod (ie half-man, half-god), is fated to go up against the Gods and save humanity.

If that sounds silly and cliched, that’s because it is.  Directed by Louis Leterrier (Transporter 2, The Incredible Hulk), there is no serious attempt to make Clash of the Titans even a remotely believable film.  It feels like the makers decided that this was an impossible task, and instead went down the full-blown, technology-driven action route.

The result is a pretty exciting experience, albeit one you cannot really feel fully engaged in because of the campness, the laughable dialogue, and the lack of character development.  To be fair, they did try to inject a bit more like into the central characters, but the effect was so poor that it became humorous, and only wasted valuable time that could have been spent on more action.  Speaking of action, I would have liked to have seen less quick cuts and more wide shots, but for the most part it passed the grade.

The special effects were great, but not exceptional by today’s high standards, and the 3D added a little extra, but to be honest not a whole lot more.  I don’t think I would have regretted it had I watched it in plain old 2D.

Sam Worthington, Hollywood’s next big thing, seemed like he had plenty of fun.  There are no pretensions in his performance because he knows it’s all about the action.  He still lacks the “superstar aura” that Russell Crowe has, but maybe he’ll get there some day.  It was great to see Liam Neeson playing Zeus, and especially Lord Voldemort himself, Ralph Fiennes, playing the King of the Underworld, Hades.  Both inject star power without diverting attention away from the rest of the cast.  They even got Pete Postlethwaite to play Spyros, Perseus’ adopted father!  My only complaint was probably Gemma Aterton’s Io, who was just plain weird.

So Clash of the Titans is unlikely to be remembered as a classic.  There are plenty of things wrong with it.  It’s silly and cheesy and lacks heart.  But for those who like Greek mythology, monsters, sword-wielding action, and don’t need things to be taken too seriously, Clash of the Titans is a fun, exciting popcorn movie for the majority of its 118-minute running time.

3.5 stars out of 5!

[PS: watching Clash of the Titans gave me a new appreciation for films like The Lord of the Rings, films that actually have heart and make you believe in their world while not compromising the thrilling action.]

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