Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Raven

For F*** Magazine


Movie Review                                                                                                                   16/4/12
THE RAVEN
(2012 Release)

Starring: John Cusack, Luke Evans, Alice Eve
Directed by: James McTeigue

            In National Treasure, America’s founding fathers were the guardians of a secret treasure stash. In the Men In Black films, Elvis, Steven Spielberg and Sylvester Stallone (who is coincidentally planning his own Poe biopic) are aliens. The Brothers Grimm fought mythical monsters. Here, Edgar Allan Poe is roped in by Baltimore’s finest to solve a series of murders based on his stories. This may not seem as impressive, but taking into account the legendary author’s dark imagination and famously macabre stories, the crimes are pretty gruesome. This is the guy credited with the creation of the modern horror and detective stories, after all.

            There is tremendous potential in the idea of Poe pitted against a killer who takes direct inspiration from his tales. Unfortunately, most of it is squandered in favour of unsophisticated slasher movie fare. “People love blood and murder”, Reynolds (Kevin R McNally) the newspaper editor tells Poe. And in that respect, the movie delivers – the most gruesome murder happens relatively early on in the movie, where the victim is cut in half by a lowering bladed pendulum, something out of a Saw film – though Poe did it first in The Pit and the Pendulum.
Problem is, more people are likely to have a Saw film than read Poe’s story.

            John Cusack’s Poe is quite a disappointment. He’s portrayed as the typical eccentric artist, and there’s no mystique or danger, especially given the enigma the real Poe was. Cusack also doesn’t fit into the period surroundings at all; one would half expect him to lift a ghetto blaster over his head. At its worst, it brings to mind Nicolas Cage – not a good thing.

            Inspector Fields, as played by Luke Evans, is earnest, hardworking, dedicated – and absolutely one-note and boring. The interesting dynamic that might have existed between the author and the policeman is all but absent. The inclusion of Alice Eve as Emily Hamilton, a love interest for Poe, is done rather lazily, considering that he had a wife but was famously asexual and apparently only loved her platonically. But that would have been too difficult to portray and would have gotten in the way of the pulpy thrills now, wouldn’t it? And so, she’s quickly put in jeopardy as a motivator for Poe, and to force Poe and her disapproving father (Brendan Gleeson) to work together.   

            When the identity of the killer is revealed, it is more likely to induce an indifferent “meh” as opposed to the desired “gasp!” And that’s the cardinal sin when it comes to whodunits. Director James McTeigue also delights in heavy-handed faux-symbolism – just because the title of the movie is “The Raven” doesn’t mean one or more of the birds have to flutter into frame in every other scene. However, the art direction and the re-creation of 19th Century Baltimore are generally pretty good.
So, this is pretty much average Poe.

PS: I take offense to the newspaper editor dismissing criticism (i.e. reviews) as “the easy stuff”.

SUMMARY: I’m no Poe, so the best I can come with is “you won’t be ravin’ about The Raven”. Hey, give me points for trying.

RATING: 2/5 STARS

Jedd Jong


Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Battleship

Movie Review                                                                                                                   17/4/12
BATTLESHIP
(2012 Release)

Starring: Taylor Kitsch, Alexander Skarsgard, Rihanna, Liam Neeson
Directed by: Peter Berg
 
            After the 3-D re-release of Titanic comes more giant ships and another ‘berg (director Peter). I fondly remember playing the board game with my brother on boring Chinese New Year afternoons visiting my grandmother’s house. I also remember attempting to play the game on a plane and losing some pegs. I don’t it ever crossed my mind that the game would make a good movie, and as far as I remember, aliens weren't involved.

            Alex Hopper (Kitsch), a 20-something ne'er do well, is forced to join the Navy by his older brother Stone (Skarsgard), after the former pulls a crazy stunt to win over the attractive Sam (Brooklyn Decker). Sam also happens to be the daughter of Admiral Shane (Neeson), Stone’s superior. Several years later, Alex has become a lieutenant aboard the USS John Paul Jones, and is about to seek permission from the Admiral for his daughter’s hand in marriage.

            While Alex and Stone, serving on different ships, participate in the RIMPAC naval exercise alongside the navies of countries across the world, alien ships land in the waters near Hawaii, as one crashes into Hong Kong. Having lost their communication equipment onboard the crashed ship, the aliens plan to hijack a NASA satellite array to call their home planet for reinforcements. Alex and co, including weapons specialist Petty Officer Raikes (Rihanna) and Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) attempt to repel the invaders.

            To draw another connection to Titanic, James Cameron has famously lambasted the film while it was in production stages, saying “we have a story crisis. Now they want to make the Battleship game into a film. This is pure desperation...Battleship. This degrades the cinema.” Many cynical moviegoers echoed this sentiment when the project was announced, but in the end, Battleship really isn’t all that bad compared to the mass-produced action movie garbage we get fed every summer. It isn’t all that good either, though.

            Sure, it’s loud, silly and pretty generic, but Battleship isn’t all flotsam. For one, the film displays a hint of winking self-awareness, as if the screenwriters knew they were recruited to craft an audience-pleasing blockbuster and nothing more. There are attempts to reference the gameplay of the original board game, and the aliens use projectiles shaped like the pegs used in game. Apparently, Admiral Shane was supposed to say “you sunk my battleship”, but it was (wisely) left out of the final cut.

            The visual effects are of high quality and fairly photo-realistic, but the alien invaders and their arsenal immediately bring to mind another Hasbro-product-based movie, and it’s not G.I. JOE. Bits and pieces seem like leftover animation from those films, but thankfully Peter Berg is much less of a hack than Michael Bay. The aliens themselves are amphibian-esque humanoids in Iron Man-style exo-suits, and employ “shredders”, circular saws on steroids, to rip through ships, highways and military bases. The main flaw in the design of the aliens is that they are far too humanoid and visually not very interesting. It would have more interesting if the movie revolved around naval strategy and pitted two rival fleets against each other rather than resorting to the extraterrestrial threat plot device.

            As for the movie’s human cast, Taylor Kitsch is able to muster more charisma here than he did in John Carter, and is far better as a modern military man than a Civil War-era one. Alexander Skarsgard, best-known for TV’s True Blood and for being the son of Swedish actor Stellan, is also not bad as the serious, responsible big brother.

Liam Neeson has no problem furrowing his brow and barking commands, and Brooklyn Decker as his daughter delivers the performance one might expect from a swimsuit model, though slightly better than that of her peer Rosie Huntington-Whitely in last year’s ghastly Transformers: Dark of the Moon. There’s a nice subplot involving Sam stuck on Oahu with army combat veteran and double-amputee Mick Canales (Gregory D Gadson) and Cal (Hamish Linklater), the stock nerdy comic relief scientist.

Rihanna’s appearance is the product of nothing less than stunt casting. What, was Michelle Rodriguez otherwise occupied? The Barbadian singer seems incapable of pulling of the tough chick shtick, and it doesn’t get more unbelievable than the “Umbrella” singer playing a gun-toting weapons specialist. At least she doesn’t single-handedly ruin the movie, as she well could have.

            The best thing that I can say about Battleship is that it is nowhere as bad as it could have been, and when it comes to big-budget alien invasion military recruitment poster flicks, you could do worse.
             
          The worst thing that I can say about Battleship is that Rihanna is a weapons specialist.

SUMMARY: This dreadnought is not completely dreadful, but its hull isn’t watertight either – but it does have big guns and fires them often.

RATING: 2.5/5 STARS 

Jedd Jong

Lockout

For F*** Magazine Singapore.




Movie Review                                                                                                             16/4/12
LOCKOUT
(2012 Release)

Starring: Guy Pearce, Maggie Grace, Peter Stormare
Directed by: James Mather and Stephen St. Leger
         

            Looking at today’s crop of action movies, it’s easy to become sentimental and nostalgic about the good old days of macho one-man-army action heroes with bulging biceps and even bigger guns, delivering headshots one second and corny, quotable one-liners the next. For fans of the era, especially those who grew up on such movies, Lockout is one such wonderful blast to the past.

            Sure, this sci-fi actioner is set in 2097, but boy does it feel old school. Just look at the plot: ex-CIA agent Snow (Pearce) has been framed for the murder of a former colleague. Secret Service chief Scott Langral (Stormare) gives him one chance at redemption: rescue Emilie Warnock (Grace), daughter of the President of the United States (Peter Hudson). She just happens to be stuck on MS-One, a super maximum security prison complex in orbit around the earth – and the 500 psychopaths once peacefully stored in stasis have taken over.

            Are you having flashbacks of Escape from New York and (perhaps even more so) its sequel Escape from L.A.? Lockout brings to mind a whole bunch of other sci-fi/action/both cult classics too, with its future-Chinatown right out of Blade Runner, Battlestar Galactica-style space fighter planes, Die Hard-esque scenario and “gyrocycles” that look suspiciously like Tron’s lightcycles. It’s okay if you aren’t original, as long as you make something out of all the borrowed parts that is entertaining – and boy, if this isn’t entertaining, I don’t know what is.

            From start to finish, this is a breathlessly rollicking ride. The action is wham-bam, non-stop and unrelenting, yet somehow coherent and enjoyable. Guy Pearce’s Snow is as old-fashioned as action heroes get. He displays the right mix of cocky self-assurance, badass physicality and comic timing to pull off what is essentially a homage to the days of Schwarzenegger and Van Damme, albeit with better English, and acting. His every other line is a witticism of some kind, and some are pretty good - turning a good portion of the film into a genuine laugh-riot.

            Maggie Grace, known for her appearance in the earlier Luc Besson-produced Taken is at first glance your typical First Daughter, but successfully toes the line between damsel-in-distress and Ripley-style action heroine (her prowess with a gun leads Snow to quip “and I thought you were a Democrat!”) and has a nice back-and-forth banter with her leading man, and the film doesn’t resort to a romantic plot tumour.

The films lead villains, a pair of Scottish thug brothers, don’t actually do a lot during the film, but are plenty scary as is – especially Joseph Gilgun as the chaotically-deranged Hydell. Peter Stormare is one of those actors who can lend gravitas to proceedings just by standing around and is content with appearing in B-grade-or-lower genre pictures, which helps.

A large part of the movie’s success has to do with MS-One being a convincing location, and the audience is effectively sucked in and feels trapped on the space prison with Snow and Emilie. The movie is heavily reliant on CGI and yes, the visuals aren’t as convincing as we’re used to and sometimes the reliance on the technology borders on egregious, but then again we’ve been spoilt by the likes of Avatar (this movie somehow works in the line “I see you”) and Transformers, and this film was made for a fraction of the budget of either.

Ultimately, that’s the core strength of this flick – it makes no bones about being a B-movie, and it’s refreshing to see a quality action film that isn’t overly processed and packaged. In not taking itself too seriously, it is strangely honest despite “stealing” from many other films. There’s an unpolished rough-around-the-edges charm, and once this is understood it is very easy to totally go along for the ride.

SUMMARY:  (Lock)out with the new, and back in with the old – relive the heyday of the mid-budget sci-fi actioner, complete with space fighter planes.

RATING: 3.5/5 STARS

Jedd Jong

Sunday, April 1, 2012